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Flying through the tornado

  • Published at 05:14 pm March 14th, 2020
Illustration: Jahid Jamil
Illustration: Jahid Jamil

Fiction

“Call your loved ones; WiFi is open for all!” The words did not make sense at first. Then someone howled at the front and a woman screamed, “No!”

Shumeli stared at the blank screen in front of her. “Loved ones?” What should she say to Ornob and Oishee? “The plane is flying through a tornado! I won’t get to see you again!” How do people talk when they are facing certain death?

“I think I’m having a heart attack!” the elderly man across Shumeli’s aisle groaned as he clutched the left side of his chest with his right hand.

“Paramedic, here, help! He’s having a heart attack!” A sharp voice yelped. The aircraft lurched. It had been shaking and trembling for about half an hour now. Shumeli hated air turbulence. She was not a frequent flyer and this was one reason why she did not like traveling by air. The aisle was by now literally littered with different objects—paper cups, jelly beans, a walking stick, someone’s glasses. Nobody seemed particularly concerned about them at the moment. A steward and a stewardess ran around in vain to calm people down. 

Shumeli could not think of a moment when she had faced such a  weird situation. Their flight had taken off from St. Louis Airport about two hours earlier. Initially, everything was fine. Yes, at the airport there were frowns on some foreheads,  whispers that the weather was awful and the flight might be canceled. But Shumeli just wanted to go home and hence kept on praying that the plane would take off. Canceling the flight would mean she would have to spend the night at some nearby motel or worse, at the airport. Firoz hated it when she went to conferences. It was not that he could not prepare his meals for a few days. But like most Bangladeshi married men he was pampered first by his mother, then by his sisters, and finally, by Shumeli. 

They had boarded the plane and for the first 30-35 minutes, things were fine. Then Shumeli thought she could see a few lightning bolts and the aircraft shook vehemently. “Fasten your seatbelt” sign was already on. But the trembling became more and more terrible. The pilot’s voice sounded worried as he announced that the aircraft was caught up in a tornado. Shumeli could not make head or tail of what he said. She had had little experience of tornadoes as she had lived in the east coast all her life in the US. Tornadoes are a phenomenon of the mid-west. She looked to her right and left, fearing that she would see a hole in the middle of the aircraft. 

But slowly, as the pilot’s words sank in, Shumeli took out her phone. She pressed a button and the faces of her two children smiled up at her. Her son Ornob was 22 years old, and had just completed his bachelors from MIT.  Her sixteen-year old daughter Oishee was waiting at home with all her stories from school. Shumeli wondered how they would fare without her. They were smart and strong children, but they had never lived without their mother. But then, did she not love her father too? And yet, she had been living without him for the past sixteen years. Nobody had even informed her that her father had died because she was in the labor room. Didn’t Shumeli cling to her child because she embodied her father? But why? Suddenly, Shumeli wondered why she loved her father so much. He was the one who had caused her the deepest sorrow in her life. Shumeli shook her head to dispel the memories and sought out the numbers of her children. But she could not call them. She typed, “I love you.” She gazed at the typed letters. “I love you, my darlings,” she whispered. And pressed the send button. 

She looked out through the window in the darkening stillness. As she tried to move to another seat, the plane rocked again and Shumeli’s forehead hit the glass of the window. She shook her head and looked out through tearful eyes. Then she blinked because she thought she saw something perched on the wings of the aircraft. A bird? But it looked like a human figure. Shumeli blinked and looked again. It was a boy. What was going on? Was she hallucinating? Shumeli shook her head and peered through the window carefully. Yes, there was someone sitting there and he was waving at Shumeli. And she could actually hear him. “Shumeli, it’s me! Don’t you remember me?”

“Tu… Turag?” Shumeli spluttered. That cannot be true! Shumeli’s father had forbidden them from seeing each other. Turag used to wait opposite their house to have just one glimpse of Shumeli. Then he died on a stormy evening when a branch of a tree fell on him while he was standing there. Shumeli was eighteen years old then, waiting for her HSC results to be published. She fell ill when she had learnt of the tragic accident. She developed a severe brain fever. When she finally got better, weeks had passed. Her father, whose only concern was the welfare of his daughter, had not in his wildest imagination thought that something like this could have ever happened. He had held his daughter’s hands and cried like a child. But Shumeli never uttered his name; she buried Turag deep inside her heart. She completed her studies and got married as was expected of her. She had children and thought she had a full life.  True that her husband was not a man she loved, but they had two amazing children. Now, when she had bidden farewell to that world, where did Turag come from?

“Turag!” the girl in her sobbed. “I loved you so much! Why did you go away?”

“Why’re you using past tense, Shumeli? Don’t you love me even now?” a smiling Turag asked.

“How can I love you? I’m a married woman now.”

“What’s got marriage to do with anything? You’ve loved me through life, through your children. I’ve always been there with you.”

Shumeli cried as she suddenly remembered everything. Turag never shortened her name for Shumi or Mili as most people did. He always called her “Shumeli.” “It’s such a beautiful name! Why do people make it Mili or Shumi?”

“What does your name mean?” He had asked her during their first days together. 

“I honestly don’t know,” Shumeli had replied with slight embarrassment. “I was born in Iraq and Shumeli was the name of that small spot in the middle of some desert.”

“Really? Shumeli is an Arabic name?”

“Must be!”

The young man on the wing was still smiling when the plane lurched again and he was engulfed by the clouds. 

“I’ve betrayed you, Turag.” 

“Why do you say that?”

“Look at the man I live with. I’ve betrayed you…” Shumeli wept.

Turag cocked his head to look at something in the grey sky. And then he said, “But you don’t love him. You love your children. Not your husband. Isn’t that why you are still with him? Afraid that you might fall in love again and betray your one true love?”

Shumeli looked at Turag, stunned.

“Let go, Shumeli.” The boy in the clouds smiled. “Just let go.”

The plane gave a mighty lurch  and Shumeli hit her head hard against the glass window again. When she finally returned to her senses, Turag was gone, as was the hazy darkness outside the window. What was the time, wondered Shumeli. Was it afternoon, evening, night, or morning? Oblivious to the ongoing commotion, she just felt drowsy, sleepy. Was she dying?

______________

“Why are you so quiet? And you didn’t even bother to inform me that your plane would be late. Yes, yes, I fell asleep and hence I would not know. But still, how could you not let me know? When will you develop some sense of responsibility?  . . . By the way, Montu has finally graduated. Boro Apa has invited us over this weekend. Now, don’t give one of your lame excuses. We have to go. Bubli Apa will be flying in too. When is that dastardly son of yours coming home? I don’t understand that boy. He’s not at all like me. Actually, neither of those two kids take after me. You’ve made them like you. Selfish. You never listen to what I say—living in your own world. Did you have to go to this conference? Such horrid weather too ... And look at me—how much I suffer. I haven’t had bowel movement in two days—do you even care? My blood sugar has shot up. And I have a bitter taste in my mouth throughout the day. Still you don’t speak! Strange woman; no concern for her husband! I don’t know why I still allow you to live with me ...”

Shumeli kept her eyes closed. They survived the tornado. The pilot said it was a miracle. Shumeli felt the same. It was a double miracle. 

But why was she still living with this man? She was the one who earned and brought up the children single handed. She had been the breadwinner of the family for the past fourteen years since Firoz was diagnosed with some strange neurotic disorder. And all he ever did was yell and scream and complain of all sorts of ailments. He had even hit her in the past. Four years ago, Ornob had once grabbed his father’s hand raised to slap Shumeli and told him never to hit his mother again. He threatened to call the police. Firoz had been cowered. He yelled and whimpered but did not dare to raise his hand against her again. Ornob had turned to his mother and pleaded, “Why won’t you leave him, Ma? Just go.” Yet, in spite of it all, Shumeli had kept track of his bowel movements, blood pressure, and coughs and sneezes. She also fulfilled the various requirements of her in-laws. The only time Firoz did some work was when Shumeli went away on conferences and study tours. And of course, he kept on complaining to everyone who would listen or not listen, about his “useless wife” and “wicked children.” 

Shumeli realized that her boy was right. And finally, she was ready. After all, she had crossed the tornado.

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor of English, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.