Concealed Behind The Henna Patterns

It was but a weird feeling.

It was not because I am a male and she was a female; or because I felt attracted to her; neither was it because of the charismatic manner in which she spoke but refused to look at me in the eye.

But talking to Rina Afsara was a very weird feeling indeed. I was floundered by her beauty and the youthful maturity in her speech. And as she lifted up her dupatta from her kameez to modestly cover up her hair when we conversed, I imagined the terrible realities that awaited her.

Rina’s immediate maternal aunt was my mom’s best friend, and together with the lady, my mom had set up a good marriage for the 13 year old girl. The girl’s age was questioned by the bride’s family; but as soon as the 30 year old man had had a look at the girl and spoken to her, he had acceded to the marriage. And besides, child marriages are nothing new in this part of the world. The girl’s family, who lived in a remote village in a small district of northern Bangladesh, had stopped her schooling recently after the local goons started following her to school. In short, everyone was happy; the bridegroom’s family was happy to have found a young, charismatic, conservative bride; while the bride and her family were happy to have thrown off the goons from their trail. My mom on the other hand was happy to have arranged a marriage for a damsel in distress.

But there was something in all this happiness that I could not concur with. True the girl was in danger. Village goons are a particularly problematic part of the sub-continental society, and especially so for families in the remote areas with unmarried, young and beautiful females. And I also acknowledged that those who understood the ground realities in this situation, despite the pompous speeches given by our politicians and feminists about how Bangladesh has successfully eliminated a lot of gaps between males and females through free education for girls, economic empowerment etc, would have proposed an immediate action to save the girl’s life from destruction. But was it okay to marry off such a young girl, who had yet to see the world around her apart from her childhood fantasies and television channels? Was it okay to allow Rina to be in the hands of a man more than twice her senior, at a time when she had yet to cross her teenage whims, in a city where she did not have the comfort of her community and the entourage of her family and friends?

But I also considered my mom’s stance on the issue. “She needs to save her life and honor for heaven’s sake,” she had told me when I asked her how she would have felt if either she or the daughter she had never given birth to were in Rina’s position. “But she is just a child!” I protested to her. “Rina agreed to it. She knows this would save her life,” my protests were numbed by her bland logic.

In fact, I am sure that anyone from South Asia who knows the terrible realities and limitations of the society here would have said the same thing. But what my mom and Rina’s family were doing was definitely going to rob Rina of both her childhood and her future life. Her dreams, perhaps of becoming a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer or even a woman’s rights activist would forever go unfulfilled. Instead she will have to lead a life of dependence and ignorance, and will have to occupy a place in this universe in which she will eventually be left with counting the days to her demise only.
At a family dinner the night before the wedding, I told my mom what I had in my mind.

“I am going to call the police. What you are doing is illegal,” I told her.

According to Bangladeshi law, no girl or boy can be married before they reach the age of 18. Cases of the police and district courts handing out jail and monetary sentences to the organizers and families of such illegal marriages have been frequent.

My mom scowled at me. My father stopped mixing his rice abruptly.

“WHAT?” It was my younger brother who asked.

“This is wrong,” I pointed out to my mom. “You can’t do something illegal and so immoral and get away with it. You are going to destroy the promising life the girl deserves to have.”

“So now you are going to teach ME morality? Oho no,” my mother broke into a sardonic smile. “It’s actually the air of Dhaka that has destroyed your perspectives. You see freely-roaming women wearing the shortest skirts and high heels in this city and you think that’s all about this country?”

“You can’t do this. The police will make a scene and the newspapers will report the incident.” I have done something like this before already and wasn’t afraid of repeating it. When an officer at a government ministry asked me for bribe for the release of a document, I called up newspaper reporters I was in contact with who then arrived and made a scene that culminated in the corrupt officer’s eventual dismissal from office. In this occasion I was hopeful that my mom would realize that the event would tarnish the reputation of her friend’s husband, i.e. Rina’s uncle, who was a prominent politician in the city.

“Okay let’s see you do this. Rina Afsara will be lifted from oil and thrown into the fire. If you achieve what you want to do, due to her broken marriage she will never be able to find a suitor again, and will probably commit suicide if not kidnapped by her many admirers.” With that my mom decided to end the discourse. She went back to her olive-dal and mixed them up with her rice.

The stillness of the pre-winter season permeated through our open dining room. In a way the silence seemed to underscore my helplessness.

The next day, I witnessed Rina Afsara escorted into the marriage stage by her female cousins. She sat with her bridegroom and when the mullah asked for her consent in the marriage, she loudly articulated ‘kobul’ in the traditional style. After the people around her had left, I went to her. I noticed a happy tear glisten down her beautiful, childish cheeks as she looked sideways at me and smiled. I opened her fists to see the henna patterns on her palm.

Through the intricately woven designs, the henna foreshadowed Rina Afsara’s upcoming life of illiteracy and inferiority. Soon the concreteness of urban Dhaka would engulf her sorrows and broken dreams, and none of the occupants of the city except me would play witness to the well-deserved life she had let gone because of her social constraints.

I will be able to go forward to touch my dreams, get an excellent education and eventually accomplish my lofty ambitions of touching the sky. But what will Rina Afsara, who deserved nothing less than me, be able to achieve?

That night I realized how privileged I was; and how important it was to dismantle unjust social norms.

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