“One, two, three … uff cut it out! Can’t you see I’m busy? I’m counting!”
“But you must see! Turn around already!”
“See what? Oh … there it is. Look!”
On top of a long bamboo pole, neck deep in water, sat a blue-green kingfisher. K-i-n-g-f-i-s-h-e-r said Baba and b-a-m-b-o-o said Maa, and we didn’t forget how to spell them. It was a pretty bird but not a scared bird because it hadn’t seen us yet. It was looking straight into the water, near the goalpost that had no net in it. Suddenly, and we were not ready for it, mind you, the kingfisher did a swoosh-swoosh and picked a silver fish right out of the silver water. It then sat on the goalpost, and looked really pleased with itself. We wanted to clap and cheer for it, but Pinky said we are on a raft and we have to keep very still.
“But it was such a lovely dive! Like those girls on TV, in the Olympic Games!” Jojo looked like he wanted to dive himself. Our raft wouldn’t keep still because of him.
“We can’t watch it anymore, remember? The TV won’t work because of the water,” said Pinky. She really wanted to see the skating and the long jump and the pole vault.
“So what? We can listen to the radio when Baba is done, right?” said Potla, and turned around really fast. The raft was wibbly-wobbly again.
Like the kingfisher, we also have a long bamboo pole. Selim Chacha said that you need a boitha to row-row-row your boat gently down the stream, because we can’t go on a speedboat like the Chief. A speedboat can make vroom-vroom like a fast car and splash a lot of water around. When we were little, Baba-Maa took us to Kaptai, where we also went on a speedboat. But we really like this raft that we have. We can move slowly and see what went underwater[l1].
To move the raft, one of us has to stand up and push the pole to the ground. Pinky was being a scaredy cat, but she got the hang of it too. Potla was just being lazy and wouldn’t touch the boitha (we don’t know how to say that in English). When we came near the schoolhouse, Jojo moved the water hyacinth away with both his hands as we row-row-rowed.
Till we came here and met the Blob.
School’s out. The benches are wet, the chalk got washed away, the Apa went away too. We were really sad for Apa because the school is her home, where is she living now? All the other teachers also went away because the water came to visit and started climbing the school. We already had a pond behind the schoolhouse where a lot of water hyacinth grows. Now they have purple flowers and green dragonflies (“Isn’t that how you say ‘foring’?” asked Potla) and blue-green kingfishers. And a lot of silver water.
“Hey, do you think kingfishers have teeth?”
“I don’t know, we have teeth, it should have teeth also. It took the fish in its mouth, how will it eat without teeth?”
“What do you think Blob, do kingfishers have teeth?”
One, two, three, four … and uff, too many teeth! Really big-big teeth and a pink tongue and a big “haa”. When you open your mouth and Maa tries to feed you, you have to do a “haa” so that the planes can land on your tongue. The relief planes also landed, but we don’t know where.
We think that, if the Blob kept doing a “haa”, the planes would fit in its mouth very nicely.
Before we tell you how we got to the school, we need to tell you how the water came in.
The day before it happened, everyone in Ibrahimpur wanted to watch the Olympic Games. The news was showing photos of the Olympic Games from before. Baba told us about some events like discus throw and long jump, but we think we like the swimming games best. There is water polo and diving and synchronized swimming. We don’t have a color TV, but we like to guess colors for fun: like this girl’s dress is like spinach or that boy’s swimming cap is like a ripe tomato. Shanta di would sometimes come to our house and watch the news with us. She likes to write down ‘facts’ in her copybook that says ‘BCS Current Affairs 1988’. She tells us that it’s very important to know things. So we can tell you about how the water came to Ibrahimpur, because we know it.
The day before it happened, we were playing borof-pani on the street with the other kids. It was so hot that even the made-up borof in our game was melting. Bony bhai was the ‘chor’ and he was having trouble keeping up with us. We are all little, so we can dive right under his arm when he comes to catch us. We made Bony bhai huff-huff because we run like little mice. Maybe that’s why he saw the ice candy man first, because he didn’t want to be the ‘chor’ anymore.
“Aiiiiissssssssss kreaaaaaaaaam! Aiiiiissssssssss kreaaaaaammmmm!”
Ting-ting-ting went his little bell and swish-swish the flag on his cart. “Hooorraaaayyy” said everyone and ran up to him. We had the money for some lolly also.
Pinky likes to carry a bag, so we keep our pocket money together in her bag like all triplets should. We are a little not-sure if that’s right. We don’t know any other triplets, so we don’t really know what all triplets should do.
“Eije, aren’t you Salam shaheb’s kids? Which ones do you want? Kulfi ache, lolly ache, choc-bar ache, ki lagbe?”
“It’s so hot, ice-cream wallah chacha. We want some strawberry, mango and orange lolly from you.” Jojo is always the sweetest with the big-people, so he does the talking.
“Oh, it won’t be very hot anymore when it rains. It’s raining a lot outside Dhaka, you know?” said the ice candy man, putting some paan in his mouth.
“Really?” asked Tunti, she lives across the street from us. “It’s not raining here at all, not in Dhaka, not in our Ibrahimpur. I think if we really want it, we should sing for it:
Ay brishti jhepe
Dhaan dibo mepe”
“Or maybe we should get some frogs married. I saw some village kids do it,” said Montu. He has five brothers, they all go to their village for Eid every year. Twice.
“Oh no no no kids, you might wake the flood-monster up if you ask for too much!” The ice candy man looked at all of us, one by one. “In our village, we say that whenever the flood comes, a huge flood-monster comes swimming with it. It’s a really big, fat monster that will eat anything and everything. If you are really lucky, you can see it float. Only if you’re really, really lucky.”
“Oh, I know!” piped in Mishti, the tiniest of us all. “Doesn’t it steal babies away too? I think we should stay away from it.”
“Oh please, we’re not babies anymore!” we said. We are big kids and we always stick together. No flood-monster is coming to take us away. We are Maa’s brave children.
We are making Shanta di read our story. She says that we need to “stick to what we want to say” so we are now going to tell you exactly what happened.
That day, we woke up to the sound of a lot of splashing and a lot of loud voices. The people sounded really busy and their shouts went hoi-hoi-hoi all over the place. It was very early in the morning, we thought everyone was angry at us because we weren’t waking up for school.
Actually, they were all angry at the water. It didn’t rain at all, they said, but the water just came rushing in. There’s no “dam” around Dhaka. Shanta di says it’s something that keeps water out.
“What’s splashing so much though?”
“It’s like being on a boat, splash-splash-splashing”
“You need to come see this,” Potla was already at the window and standing on the chouki. We can all stand on it together so we don’t fight over it, and we can all see what’s outside very nicely.
There were no streets in front of our house, or anywhere in Ibrahimpur, or anywhere in the cantonment either. Actually, there were two of everything. Two “Bismillah Grocery Store”s, one above water and one below, just really hazy and wibbly-wobbly. Two “Ma Image Studio”s, the real one and its image in the water. When we went downstairs, Baba, Maa, Rahim chacha, Doctor kaka, Saleha khala and everyone else was working. Maa gave us some of Baba’s important papers, so we had to go upstairs again to keep them safe. Everyone else was going up and down with things: Baba’s study table, the TV, the sofa set, some sacks full of rice, a medicine box, and Maa’s sewing machine.
Maa also said that we can’t go out to play kumir kumir, even when we have actual water to play it in. So we were really sad and went to the rooftop instead. We saw something else there.
“Pipeep pipeep! Out of the way out of the way out of the way!” Some army men, who looked like toy soldiers from the rooftop, made everyone move out of the way. Just then, in came a speedboat that whizzed and splashed water all over. It was the Army Chief, said Rahim chacha when we asked later. He is a very important man and he has a speedboat, so he can go out whenever he wants.
“Why does he need to go out? Big-people don’t need to play kumir kumir, do they?”
“I wish we had a speedboat to ourselves”
“That would be very nice. We could splash water and get people out of the way.”
“Why should we just play Naam-Desh-Ful-Fol? That’s boring!”
“Can’t we add more stuff here? Like ‘Jontu’…”
Asif bhai and Baby apa had come to play with us. Those two are very smart, they know that it’s watery outside and we can’t go out for games. So they brought the games to us, even though they are paper-games. They think about us a lot.
In Naam-Desh-Ful-Fol, we have to make five columns: Name, Country, Flower, Fruit and Score. It was Pinky’s idea to add “Animal” and “Object” to the game, actually it was our idea, together. We really were bored at home.
“Well, yes, why not! At school, we even add ‘City’ and ‘Film Star’ columns and nobody says anything,” said Baby apa. Asif bhai looked at us and nodded, “Alright, two more columns then. I want to give the first letter, how about ... erm … H?”
H-a-r-u-n H-o-l-l-a-n-d H-i-b-i-s-c-u-s (we don’t know any “h” fruits) H-a-m-m-e-r H-i-p-o-
Just when we were about to start “Animal”, there was a loud “wham” sound from downstairs. Asif bhai went down the stairs like a storm and came back up with Jhontu da. He is a really thin and quiet boy, we were all surprised that he could make such a noise downstairs. He was climbing up while rubbing his back “I’m alright, I’m alright! The floor is just slippery.”
“Dada, what do you have there? It looks like a paper tower!”
“So many red cards! Are these for a football match?”
“Who’s gonna play football with so much water around?”
Jhontu da was huff-huffing, he almost dropped his cards again when he tried to fix his glasses. “No sillies, these are wedding cards! When the water goes down and we can do normal things again, then this biye will happen. Didi is being weird about it, but you must get married if you’re a girl, right?” Baby apa got very excited, “Yes yes, if you’re a girl it just has to happen. It’s so much fun! You just sit around all day in a bright red saree and look pretty.” “And there’s food!” said Jhontu da, smacking his lips.
If we find something icky, we sometimes pretend to do bomi when we don’t actually want to do bomi. “Must suck to be a girl then.” said Asif bhai, pretending to do bomi. V-o-m-i-t.
Jojo’s jaw became very hard, he was huff-huffing too, “It can’t be, why do girls have to marry? They just have to stay home and cook after that. If she gets married, who will give the BCS exam? Who will become an officer?” We like us very much because we are always angry, about the right things. “She has to go to another house too right? We don’t want her to go, please!” Potla became a little sniffy.
“Who teaches you all this stuff? Silly kids, go back to your game now. You don’t have to worry about my sister.”
We tried to play, but we couldn’t. We were really sad, so we forgot how to spell. It was as if we were being filled with water. As if someone had put a large green garden-pipe in our mouth, and forgot to turn the tap off, trying to make our bellies burst. We are so small, all three of us, how to keep all this sad water in? When the water came to the city and started to climb buildings, is this how Dhaka might have felt?
Jhontu da’s sister, the girl they want to send away, is our Shanta di.
Baba told us to “keep track” of the days.
We took a marker from his drawer, a nice red one, and drew a circle around the date on the calendar every day. When we did what we did, we were on day eight. Everyone was asleep in the afternoon, Baba had no office, Maa was done cooking for everyone who came to stay with us. It was all very quiet, so we made very light pitter-patter as we went down the stairs, out into the yard with our trousers rolled all the way up.
From day four, we were noticing, what Selim chacha said was a “raft”. Some other children had made it, some really poor ones who are good at everything but studying. With no school anymore, we were also like them then. The raft floated nearer to our house every day, sometimes it hit Doctor Chacha’s chamber door, sometimes it floated near the photo studio.
On day eight though, it was right in front of our house.
We had nothing to do all day. The TV would not work, because there was no “current” to keep it running. The fans and the lights didn’t work, so Baba lit a candle every night and we would gather around it. Like good children, we even tried to do homework, but it was all done by day three. It made us very restless and very bored. The radio had the children’s program on, but that was only for half an hour. Sometimes we made paper boats and watched them meet the raft. Shanta di gave us a word for it. It’s “stranded”, s-t-r-a-n-d-e-d. It means that you’re stuck somewhere. Can people be stranded at home, or just stuck? Is there a difference?
When the raft came to see us, plonk-plonk-plonked on our door, we had to go and meet it. So we took a long bamboo pole from the house, one that the workmen had left behind, and sat on it.
“This is a bad idea,” said Pinky.
“This is awesome!” said Jojo.
“What’s that over there?” said Potla, when we were finally at the schoolhouse.
Something else was coming to meet us at the football field. It was round, shiny and much bigger than our raft. When it got closer, we saw a pair of eyes that looked like cow-eyes. It looked at us.
We don’t know why we did it, but we thought that it might like eating some water hyacinth. It was a kind of water-cow, so it should like green things to eat. So Pinky, with shaky hands and a white face, gave the thing some leaf to eat.
“Gwaaaanhhhh” it said, and chewed on the leaf. Then another, then another. Jojo was very brave and gave it a little rub on its big head. It made that “gwanh” sound again, maybe it wanted some more. “I want to count your teeth, do you have any?” asked Potla.
We think we saw the biggest “haa” of our lives that day.
“It has been ten days! We need to make space for our stuff, can’t we keep them somewhere else?”
“Mashima, my father will be very angry if you throw these away. It cost us a lot of money to print them you know … ”
“Jhontu baba, we understand that, but you know, the water has to go down first and then we can think about weddings!”
Our house is nice and roomy, there are some nice stairs that take us up-up-up to our rooms, and more stairs that go to the rooftop. When the water came to visit, even our roomy house wasn’t enough to keep everyone’s things safe. On the first day, when we woke up to everyone’s noise, there was water downstairs at the “sitting room” too. We don’t know why, but we didn’t like it when we wrote “sitting room” instead of “boshar ghor”. So we are going to stick to boshar ghor now. The water is gone from there, but there are a lot of things from other people’s houses. On our roof, we have Selim Chacha’s goat, and some chickens. It was really funny when the animals came to our house. The poor goat was confused to be on our rooftop all of a sudden, it usually likes to eat grass and do baa-baa at the school field. Kashem Chacha from next door brought his TV in, Selina Khala wanted us to keep all the nokshi kathas, dolls and wooden horses from her home-business, and Jhontu da brought all the red wedding cards.
Like Maa was saying, we don’t have much space. We also don’t have a lot of money.
Before the flood, there was a birthday party. Little Mishti had turned three years old and everyone was taking gifts for her. Because we had a little less money, Maa asked Rahim Mia from Bismillah Store to get us a box of candy in “baki”. We can help you to understand what that means. It means that you can get something from a shop and pay them later, when you have some money. Buying things on credit, said Shanta di.
When it was six o’ clock, everyone was rushing to meet Mishti at her party. Maa helped us get dressed – a nice white frock for Pinky, a yellow shirt for Potla and a green one for Jojo. While doing a “jhuti” on Pinky’s hair, she was also talking to the three of us, “Look kids, we shouldn’t be naughty children at other people’s homes. Yes, you can play with your friends, but always remember that you are good children, okay?”
“Okay Maa!” we said.
“Also, very important: don’t say anything that you shouldn’t say.”
“What does that mean Maa?” asked Jojo, but it was already time, so she kissed each of our foreheads and made us hurry down the street.
“Oh children you’re here! Please come in, come in! Mishti is waiting for you over there, we have lemon cake and biscuits and samosas and polao!” Saleha Khala is a really nice auntie, she is Mishti’s mother and makes really nice food. Shanta di says that she is an “independent woman” because she has a home business, she can make really pretty quilts too. We really like someone who is an independent woman.
Our brother Jojo did something a little silly that day.
“Jojo bhaiya, Potla bhaiya, Pinky apu, what have you brought for me?” asked little Mishti, she looked really pleased to see us and her gift in blue wrapping paper.
Before we could stop him, Jojo said, “We have a candy box for you. Maa said that we don’t have money, so we … ” Pinky quickly held his mouth shut. Thank goodness, Mishti went to see some of her other friends before he could finish talking.
“Hey! What’d you do that for!” cried Jojo, his face red from Pinky’s grip. (Thank you for the word Baba.)
“Bhalo koreche! Why were you talking about the ‘baki’ thing?” whispered Potla.
“Why? What’s wrong with that? Maa says that we should always speak the truth, right?”
“No, wrong! You can’t just say whatever you like in front of other people. It’s not nice to be poor, okay? We shouldn’t tell anyone that we don’t have money.”
“Why? Why is it wrong to be poor?”
“I don’t know, but keep quiet, okay?”
After a few days, we realized that everyone is a little poor in Ibrahimpur.
Lots of people took things in ‘baki’ from Bismillah Store. Lots of people ate only two times a day. Lots of people had only three dresses to wear—one for every day, the other to wear while the first one got washed and dried, and the best one for a good place, say, a dawat or something. We had to say sorry to each other, because in a way, all of us were right. There is nothing wrong in being “financially less solvent” said Baba, but it’s also not nice to “discuss it in public so explicitly”. Baba has helped us spell these words today, because he too has nothing to do. He is sitting at home because of the flood, no office for him.
This is going to make us much poorer.
Hello, whoever you are, I hope you are still reading. We would like to tell you that our Shanta di got married today.
The water stopped climbing buildings, it decided to get back down before it climbed all the way up, like we do. The mango tree near our school is really high, so we just climb back down when we feel that our heads are spinning. There is something called a synonym, we found out a few days ago and for head-spinning, we also like to say “dizzy”.
We felt dizzy when we heard about the groom coming.
Shanta di and Jhontu da and Doctor Kaka and Doctor Kakima’s house was at a low lying place, so they decided to have the wedding at our boshar ghor. Baby apa was wrong, weddings don’t always look so happy and big. (“Can we say ‘grand’ instead of big over here?” asked Jojo.) Some strong looking chachas and mamas came from Ghosh Catering with really big pots and pans, with yummy mutton biriyani, egg and kebab inside. They also brought mishti doi in tiny clay pots, along with banana leaves. Maa says that Kaku-Kakima like to use “kolapata”, which are banana leaves, instead of lots and lots of plates.
“Why is that, Maa?” we asked.
“Well, it’s because plates can be a lot of work to wash. With banana leaves, you can just throw them away in a pit, and cover them with earth.”
“And why is it mutton biriyani?” we also asked.
“Because, children, not everyone likes to eat beef. And listen, there is no ‘why’ here, okay? Some people just don’t like the taste of beef.”
“Just the way I don’t like korola?”
“Or maybe like how I really don’t like fish?”
“Urgh I hate milk, but I can’t really say why!”
Maa smiled at all three of us and went back into the kitchen, telling the strong uncles to help her with the arrangements. When Jhontu da and Asif bhai came in, she gave them some banana leaves to carry. “Can we help too?” we asked, and Maa let us help.
Doctor Kaka said that they are going to have a big ceremony later when the water is completely gone. We really like to see everyone we know at ceremonies, not strangers, so we don’t want to be in that big one when that happens. When Dadu comes to visit us from the village, she tells us about how you have to sing songs at weddings. So it was Pinky’s idea to start singing a song—
Dao gaaye holud, paaye alta, haate mehendi
Biyar shaaje konnare shajao joldi!
Soon, all of our aunties, khalas and mashimas began to sing with her, and we sang a little too. Some of the ladies were crying a little, especially Kakima. Maa hugged her tight and started dancing with her a little. It was really nice to watch, both bitter like korola, and sweet like little Mishti. We checked the dictionary, bittersweet is actually a word.
“Eije look over here!”
Shanta di sat on our bed, there were all of her friends from her university and from around here. There was Hena bu and Rahma bu and Khadija apa all looking lovely, they were helping her to look very pretty in red.
“Didimoni, what will you do after you get married?”
For some reason, the other girls thought we had said something funny, they all started laughing quiet little laughs.
“I don’t know kids, I really don’t know.”
Shanta di is our favourite. She knows that we are going to miss her, so she was trying really hard not to cry. “There’s something nice though, they said they’ll let me do whatever I want. Includes sitting for the BCS, includes becoming an officer if I can, includes studying a little more. Let’s see now!” We are pretty sure that she didn’t say that to any of us. She was looking somewhere else.
After everyone was gone, after all the decorator chachas and caterer chachas had also left, our house seemed really empty. We did not stay when everyone was saying goodbye to Shanta di. A car came to take her to her new house, there were silly flowers on it. Everyone was saying that she didn’t cry like other brides, but we know that she was much sadder than a lot other brides.
Our big sister likes to dream.
All the red cards were scattered on the stairs. Potla picked some of them up, and then Jojo followed. “Pinky! Come over here!” we whispered, but we didn’t have to. Our sister was already doing what we were doing, maybe all triplets know what to do, without being told.
Our raft, still near the schoolhouse, waited for us like an old friend. We hurried along the muddy, no-water path straight to the still-watery football field. We were very happy to see our raft, still floating very happily, the water was still enough to have it floating like that. When we got on, Jojo pushed the pole with a loud “heiyyo!”
We rowed and rowed, but there was nobody to meet us, we looked and looked, but no pair of eyes came out of the silver water. Pinky, in her purse, had the stuff that we needed. Our friend, our other friend wasn’t here yet. Suddenly—
“Look! Everyone look over there!”
“Where? Point properly Potla!”
“Oh there, he’s right, there it is!”
With the cards, we had made little red boats.
In front of us, under the water hyacinth, Mr. Blob was looking at us with wide eyes and a large mouth.
We took our boats out of Pinky’s purse, all of them, patted Blobbity-Babbity on his head, and let them go.
One, two, three, four … uff we lost count. So many, so many little red boats, all of them, floating away.
Blob met them, sniffed them, followed them wherever it is that they were going.
“Maa Maa you won’t believe it! We saw the flood-monster at the football field!”
“Look children, I know it’s hard for you to stay home, but you can’t just go off like that!” Maa was not happy that we saw the flood-monster. In fact (Shanta di, thank you for this “in fact”. We didn’t know how to use it) she wasn’t listening to us when we told her. In fact, she will have “none of it”, she said.
“But Maa! We saw it! It had really big teeth and a huge head and a g-i-a-n-t ‘haa’. It’s mouth was really really pink.” We still think it’s funny when Pinky talks about pink things.
“Yes yes. And mind you, not very sharp tiger-teeth. The teeth were nice and flat, they looked like they can’t cut you. So we made friends with it and call him Blob now.”
“You’re not making any sense. All of you, go upstairs and wash up! Ek ek joner chehara dekho!”
Baba was fiddling with the radio, turning this knob and that knob. Suddenly, the news station came through: “An adult female hippo has escaped from the Mirpur Zoo, the zoo authorities say. Due to the ongoing catastrophic flood, the hippo enclosure filled up with water over the last week. The hippo might have floated off to the nearby areas of Mipur, and could go as far as the Cantonment as well, as they are strong swimmers. The locals are advised not to ... ”
Maa’s face became very white, and her eyes became really big also.
“Oh my goodness! Ogo shuncho? ... What are the children saying? What are they saying? … ”
Qazi Mustabeen Noor works with Arts & Letters. Send her emails at [email protected]