Mila’s mother had wondered at first when Mila came home every other day with small gifts that she said the foreigners had given her. Why were they giving so many gifts to the children? Mila reported that the American lady sometimes joined their games in the playground; their apartment was right across from it.
She had begun to feel less anxious once she met the American couple at Shamima bhabi’s dinner. She had been dying of curiosity about them like most of her neighbours – their first Americans outside of television! It had been a large group that Shamima bhabi had invited to her welcome dinner for the foreigners, and she had stuck mostly with her neighbours. The man had said hello to them when Shamima bhabi introduced them, and then disappeared into the living room where the men had congregated.
A few days later, on her way back from sewing club, she had run into the American man near the Biology Building bus stop. He returned her awkward smile, and matched his long strides to hers with a casually thrown, ‘Mind if I join you?’
Despite that dinner, she hadn’t really spoken to him that evening. Now she racked her brains trying to conjure what to say to him. The foreigners shouldn’t leave with the idea that Bangladeshis didn’t know how to be social.
‘Mila is learning good English,’ she said. ‘Thank you for that.’
‘Well, she’s taught us quite a bit of Bangla. You have a lovely daughter, Mrs Ahmed.’
She had smiled, unsure how to respond, but happy at the praise. ’How is Linda?’ she asked. Linda, the woman had arrived at Shamima bhabi’s dinner in an embroidered shalwar-kameez that Mila’s mother had quite liked, but she had wrapped the orna around herself as if she was bandaging her torso.
‘Oh, she’s doing well. It’s harder for her – not being able to work, traveling all this way.’
Would it be impolite to ask what work Linda used to do? She tried to remember his name. It had been the name of an angel. That’s how she had tried to remember it. Jibrael? No. Mikhail fereshta. Michael. Before she could formulate the question, however, Michael added hurriedly, ‘But you’ve all been so kind. She’s making friends so easily – that always helps in making one feel at home, don’t you think?’
She nodded and they walked in silence for a while. The sunlight had dulled making their shadows longer, although darkness remained hours away.
He said, ‘I’m still surprised by this campus, it’s so beautiful.’
What did he mean? Was it supposed to be not beautiful? ‘All places are beautiful,’ she said. She had wanted to ask him why he had thought the campus would be ugly, but couldn’t find the right words.
‘Yeah, sure, I guess.’ He stopped and burrowed the tip of his shoe in the earth. ‘The earth’s different here,’ he said. She had never noticed it before; he was right. The earth turned greyish-brown just where the grass led into the trees. Did it occur naturally? Had the earth been brought here for some reason? Perhaps when the dam was being built. Why didn’t she know?
The security guard in the sentry box at the gate of the Vice Chancellor’s residence raised his hand in salaam as they passed. Hours in the summer sun had faded his dark blue uniform, and the yellow patches on his shoulder emblazoned with the monogram of the university stood out garishly. As they walked past the house, she hesitated. She usually bypassed the road and took the shortcut by the tiny pond; it saved her a few minutes and she liked walking through the little copse of acacia.
‘See, over there?’ He pointed. ‘Such a beautiful place, and then they have to do something like that to mess it up.’
On the other side of the pond stood a young girl tipping the contents of a blue bucket into the water. Michael gestured with his hands. ‘I guess, that’s the sort of thing I meant; I’ve seen this in other places. I’m sure this was a pretty little pond before people like that started dumping garbage, and now look at it.’
The girl, Madina, belonged to the Bashir household. She had been with the family for about three years and Mrs Bashir was now worrying about finding another domestic because it was time this one was married. The girl’s parents were already seeking a husband for her; Madina wasn’t much to look at and it might take a while. Hopefully, the Bashirs would provide her with a good dowry.
She looked at Michael’s wrinkled nose and looked back at the fine scum floating near the shore. It glistened in the late afternoon sun, the green somehow harbouring tinges of red.
He bent to pick up a small pebble and lobbed it into the dark water. The pebble made a sound – doob – and transformed into rippling circles. ‘Oh, this, you mean,’ she said. ‘Not garbage. Food garbage, from kitchen, for the catfish.’ Bashir shaheb, who taught zoology, had leased the pond with another professor. It was their pet project, trying to breed a new hybrid of low-maintenance catfish, and their wives and their neighbours’ wives made sure to pick through the kitchen waste to contribute to the feeding. The servants kept certain wastes in a separate bucket, chopped it up finely, and dumped it in the water after fixing its weight at prescheduled times. The water on the other side was speckling around the vegetable stems floating in the water; the fish had begun to arrive. Soon it would look like a boiling cauldron.
‘Oh,’ Michael seemed taken aback. ‘I thought…’ She kept her eyes fixed ahead of her just as she kept a careful smile fixed on her face. ‘Well,’ he said after a few moments, ‘I’m glad I have you to correct me.’
She had felt uncomfortable suddenly, angry at him for not knowing – but why? How could he? – and ashamed of her anger. ‘Would you like to have afternoon tea with us?’ she asked on an impulse, adding quickly, ‘Mila’s father is home. I’m sure he would like to have you for a small chat.’
Michael hadn’t accepted, though, and as he said goodbye and walked off toward the Teachers’ Club, she had felt relieved and annoyed. At least now she wouldn’t have to worry about what to serve and whether the drawing room was tidy – Mila’s father was particular about appearances – but why hadn’t he come with her? She had had more to say. She felt inadequate; had he understood what she had explained? Had he understood that the first catch was scheduled in a few weeks and that half the neighbourhood was making plans for a picnic featuring catfish? Had he understood that Shamima bhabi was trying out traditional recipes to adapt to the new fish – a kopta for the dense flesh and skin, a manner of cooking it in a mustard sauce usually meant for hilsa? Did he care that Mila was excited when she ran into Bashir chacha by the pond? She would walk home shiny-eyed with news: loricarridae was another name for catfish; the Bangladeshi magur was called ‘the walking catfish’ and had made its way to Florida in America; if the catfish in the pool were not roughly the same size, they cannibalised each other.
There was no way for her to tell. He had disappeared. And now, with the seething noises from the water, with the wind encouraging plastic bags to twirl and stop like Manipuri dancers, stylish and strange and exotic and familiar at the same time, there was no way for her to not see. There was no way for her to miss the bright green potato chip packets overshadowing the green of the untamed grass, the piles of peanut shells speckling the red clay, the clumps of newspaper pulp sodden and trodden into the ground. There was no way for her to unsee all of this, or, deeper in the trees, the dried out condoms, the cigarette butts next to piles of drab yellow tobacco shreds which (she shouldn’t know but did) were the residue of ganja-meets. It seemed all his fault. She walked this path almost every day, but in the past such fouling had escaped her. How could she have taken this pathway day into month and all of it fine, and now, from today, she would see the golden leaves but not without all this detritus? If it wasn’t his fault, upon whom could she place the burden of the maculation of her campus?
The water on this side of the pond was calm. She hunted until she found a handful of perfect flat pebbles, and although the first two banked and sank, some of her childhood dexterity returned and the next few skimmed the water touching down six or seven times before finally slicing into the water. She had once been an ace at frog-leaping stones. She looked around for more. She was going to be late returning home today. Perhaps she could bring Mila here and teach her how, even with stones, the water buoyed and dragged at the same time, but if you could get the right spin you could just about reach the other side.
A Bangladeshi writer and translator, Shabnam Nadiya graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2012. Currently she is working on her collection titled Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories, as well as translating Shaheen Akhtar’s novel Beloved Rongomala. Her translation of Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel The Mercenary is forthcoming from Bengal Lights Books in November 2016. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction International, WW Norton; Law and Disorder, Main Street Rag Publishing; One World, New Internationalist and journals such as Amazon's Day One, Wasafiri, Words Without Borders, and Gulf Coast. Her work can be found at www.shabnamnadiya.com.