Mala woke up as the sun peeked out from between two hills. It had rained all morning, and though still overcast, the sky was non-committal in its promises of more. They had travelled overnight from Dhaka on a bus, and then gotten on a vehicle called a chander gari, which was something between a jeep, a bus, and a pick-up truck with a tarpaulin roof. Progress had been slow.
Now when she was younger, Mala had not been shy about asking questions. She would follow either of her parents around, and ask them the meaning of every new word she came across, the reason behind every change in weather she noticed. But outside her home, she was quickly made to realise that this was not a particularly endearing trait. Teachers felt like she was pestering them on purpose, or were perhaps embarrassed when they could not answer a question. Other students laughed, even when Mala was certain they did not know the answer either. To ask a question is to admit ignorance, which is evidently worse than actually being ignorant, Mala learnt. Even her parents had begun to get impatient lately, much to her disappointment.
As her parents talked excitedly about the six-hour long trek they were about to go on the next morning, Mala thought about why she suddenly wanted to make the trek herself
Which is why she had not asked why the chander gari, which translates to moon car, was named as such when she was first told of its existence. But deep down, she understood that the recent impatience of her parents had more to do with the nature of her questions than the mere act of asking them. Her parents would be happy to let her in on the etymology of the moon car. But she had still decided to remain silent.
The vehicle came to a halt.
“Are we there?” Mala asked.
“No. We’ll get on a boat now to cross the river, and get on another one of these on the other side.”
Her parents had not taken long to plan the trip. A week before, Mala’s mother expressed frustration with Dhaka’s traffic and pollution, and her own lack of physical activity. Moments later, she and Mala’s father had made arrangements for the trip, to make the trip up the hills and do some trekking. Trekking was a novel concept to Mala, but she had not been particularly excited to pursue it. What was its purpose? What would walking through the wilderness achieve? Seemingly answering her prayers, her father had said she would not be trekking with them, but staying back in their room near the bottom of the trail.
“It’ll be too hard for you. You can’t.”
Mala and her parents, along with their co-passengers got on another chander gari after the boat ride. Two hours later, they reached the village near the beginning of the trekking trail. They were to stay here overnight as it was too late for the day to start the trek. Mala’s parents and the rest of the group would start early next morning, while Mala and a few others, mostly children, would stay back.
Mala followed her parents to a small room with two beds. She went straight to one of the beds, put her earphones on, and closed her eyes. Her parents shrugged to each other. She had been sulky as of late, mostly when they said no to anything, or occasionally, as it appeared to them like now, for no reason. They attributed it to her being a teenager, and just tried to be patient. As parents, they had to be careful not to give in to all her whims. They could not, for instance, allow her to be exposed to, or be influenced by pernicious elements so easy to encounter in today’s environment of free-flowing information and online access.
As her parents talked excitedly about the six-hour long trek they were about to go on the next morning, Mala thought about why she suddenly wanted to make the trek herself. She couldn’t, they had said. She thought of all the reasons she couldn’t do things. Because it was too hard, as in this case. Because she was not capable. Because it was not proper. Because it was not proper for a girl. Because she was a girl. Because it was forbidden in her religion. Because she could not question what was written in religion. Because they said so. She would be making the trek, she decided, but on her own and without telling them.
Mala woke up with her parents, and said goodbye as they left. She had pulled up information on the trail the night before. It was known as the jhiri poth, a trail through the hill forests. She gave her parents a head start of fifteen minutes, and followed. When stopped at the beginning of the trail, just as she had planned, she explained that she was going to join her parents’ group who had just passed. She told them that she had been feeling sick, but was much better now.
“I just talked to them on the phone. They said it’s okay for me to join them. They’re waiting just a little bit ahead.”
But Mala would not be joining any group. She was apprehensive about going on her own, but she had made up her mind. She had talked to some locals, and the path was supposedly well-marked and easy to follow.
Her parents’ insistence on highlighting every threat and magnifying every piece of bad news was more toxic than Dhaka’s environment, she felt. She understood and resented the fact that she was sheltered and chaperoned to a greater extent than her friends
At fifteen, Mala had enough self-awareness to be amused by her own actions. A few days ago, she had questioned the very purpose of this activity. To be honest, she still felt the same. Couldn’t her mother just join a gym? Mala also did not understand the need to get away from Dhaka. She had not learnt to hate the crowds and the traffic. They were mildly inconvenient, but still a necessary part of her reality. She understood why there had to be so many people, and actually found the city’s pace and activity enlivening. Her parents’ insistence on highlighting every threat and magnifying every piece of bad news was more toxic than Dhaka’s environment, she felt. She understood and resented the fact that she was sheltered and chaperoned to a greater extent than her friends. The other motivation for this trip – scenic beauty – had never appealed to her either. But she understood why people sought out beautiful things, through experience, participation, or the act of creation. She had her own set of sources for this need.
Nothing ever compared to what went through her mind when she listened to her favourite music; images she was not old enough to put into words: The lush, symmetrical, and alternatingly green, violet, and orange landscapes of Kanika’s Tagore; the shimmering but desolate shores, at once smooth and undulating, of Satinath; the interplay of light and dark in Shyamal Mitra’s moody vignettes; the palpable pagan frenzy of Sandhya’s pyrotechnic dances; the whirling, kaleidoscopic skies of Manabendra; and much more. Mala used to dream of painting her own soundscapes; that she would learn to paint by listening to her idols, and then lay down unique, intricate brushstrokes from her personal palette. She even felt that she had been on the right path towards fulfilment of this dream. She had been studying under a guru for six years but her parents suddenly decided that it was time to stop. Why? Because she couldn’t.
The recent rain had made the path very slippery. Mala fell several times before she picked up a large branch and started using it for traction. She panicked a little the first few times the path turned steep, but soon grew in confidence. Within an hour, she was completely exhausted, and had already finished half of the water she had brought. She sat down for a while, and started again. She did not know how she would ever finish the trail.
Mala’s mind drifted back to the fights she had had with her parents a few weeks ago over their sudden music ban. She ultimately gave in, but her lack of agency in such an important decision continued to sting.
“It was fine until you were a certain age.”
“You’ll understand when you’re older. It’s forbidden.”
“It draws unwanted attention.”
“It is considered indecent.”
Her parents’ beliefs seemed to imply a purpose for existence. But their definition of a purpose had increasingly begun to look like a list of things that had to be done because they said so. Mala knew she was right. If she had not been created to sing, she had been created for nothing. None of the reasons she had been given truly convinced her. Society’s chain of unquestioned authority felt like an encroachment limiting the range of her experiences. Who had decided centuries earlier that she, Mala, could not sing? Who really knew? But admitting ignorance was worse than being ignorant, she had already learnt.
Five hours had now passed since Mala started. She ate the biscuits and bread she had bought from a tea-stall in the village. She was now subsisting on drops of water from her almost-finished water bottle. She could barely move her feet, and felt like she would faint any moment. Her phone had died, and she had no idea how much longer this would take. She thought again of the apparent pointlessness of the activity. Maybe her parents were right. How would she ever finish this stupid trail?
Mala smiled as she stood up straight and held these thoughts back. She stood even straighter and continued the trek. Because she could.
Ornob Alam is a fiction writer.