Short Stories from The Indian Subcontinent
A Reading Life Event
"The Daily Woman" by Niaz Zaman (Bangladesh, 1996)
Prior Posts on Short Stories of Bangladesh
Today I am very honored to be able to publish an original short story by Professor Niaz Zuman, Ph.D from the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh.
Today I am very honored to be able to publish an original short story by Professor Niaz Zuman, Ph.D from the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh.
"Mariam and the Miser"
There were many stories Mother told us, my brother and me, stories that she had heard from her mother and her mother before her, stories from English books that she translated as she narrated them, and stories that she must have made up herself, because, when I was older and able to read books for myself, I did not come across many of these stories. I wish I had asked her from where she had got these other stories. But it is too late now, for she has been gone these twelve years.
There were many stories that Riaz and I shared – my brother was two years younger than me and my boon companion in mischief – but there were some stories that he did not know so I realized afterwards that there were some stories that she hadn’t told him, but only me. One of these special stories – women’s stories I would call them today – was about the woman who married a miser.
Mother’s stories didn’t always have titles, so I have had to make one up for this story. Nor did the characters in her stories always have names. I have named the woman in the story Mariam, but I don’t think the woman in Mother’s story had a name.
Mother wasn’t a feminist. She went to college and worked for a year, but, after getting married, she gave up her job. Later, when all of us were grown up and busy with lives of our own, she took up volunteer work, but she was never one – vocally, that is – for women’s rights. Nor did she much practise women’s rights at home. Between my father and my brothers – there were three after Riaz – she and I were generally left with the bones. I became so used to eating bones, that, to this day, I am unable to eat the good pieces of chicken – drumsticks and breasts. I will generally take the neck or the wings or the ribs. Perhaps there was an advantage to eating so many bones while I was growing up – my need for calcium was met.
But though chicken drumsticks and breasts and thighs were reserved for the “men,” when we ate mutton, there was one special piece reserved for me: an ear-like piece of cartilage. It was one piece that my brothers did not get. That was because, my mother said, the male passage was too small to allow them to excrete bone or cartilage. Perhaps that is not quite scientific. By the time bones –and meat – have gone through the digestive tract both men and women excrete the remainder from holes of the same size. Anyway, the advantage of being a girl was that I always got the kurmuria haddi, the soft piece of cartilage True, there wasn’t much meat attached to the kurmuria haddi, but the thought that here was something reserved for me that my brothers could not have gave me a sense of triumph in what I saw as a mainly unfair world.
There were other disadvantages to being a girl. Eggs, though not forbidden, were restricted and only offered in the shape of a sliver of omelet, a couple of slices of French toast, and the occasional egg curry when one had a whole egg to oneself.
With all these restrictions on food, it is surprising that my mother should have told me the story of the woman who married a miser – a story that was all about food.
“There was once a miser,” my mother said, cutting the onions fine so that they would turn a crisp golden brown in the ghee – in those days we cooked with pure ghee when we were not cooking with mustard oil, “who wanted to get married. Like most bridegrooms he too wanted a tall and pretty girl who was clean and well-mannered.”
With tears streaming down my cheeks, I listened to my mother, wondering why there were no tears in her eyes.
“But,” Mother went on, “he was so miserly that he also wanted a bride who would cost him nothing to feed. ‘I don’t want a woman,’ he said, ‘who will eat me out of house and home and who will eat so much that every year I will have to buy ten yards of cloth to clothe her. The woman I marry must be a small eater. For her one grain of millet, ground seven times and sieved seven times should be enough for a meal.’”
I had never seen a grain of millet. I didn’t even know what it was. So Mother explained to me what it was and how small it was and how only poor people ate it.
“Everyone laughed. They said, ‘Not to speak of a woman, even a bird could not survive on such a diet.’
“But the miser was rich, and there were no end of matchmakers, both professional and amateur, to help him find a bride. Old women, who were seeking a place in heaven and had not finished the required seven to assure a heavenly place for themselves, hunted for a suitable bride for free. Professional matchmakers, who make their living by arranging marriages, had a long list of unwed girls whom their fathers would be too happy to marry off to suitable or unsuitable bridegrooms. Marriage was important, compatibility [Mother, of course, didn’t use the word but she meant it] was not.
“Now most bridegrooms want fair, tall, pretty, clean and well-mannered brides, so matchmakers had long lists of brides who were suitable. But one condition of the miser’s was difficult to meet. The miser didn’t mind a bride who was less than fair if fair was not available, nor did he mind a short bride if tall was not available, nor did he mind a less than pretty bride if pretty was not available – as long as she was not downright ugly. The problem was that no girl – or her mother or father who spoke for her – was willing to accept the food ration the miser had specified for his wife.
“If any condition was impossible this was it. Parents of marriageable daughters – as well as unmarriageable daughters who were above the age of marriage – shook their heads when they heard the condition.
“Failing to find a bride in his own village, a persevering matchmaker went to the neighbouring village where there dwelt a man who had seven daughters, all of them of marriageable age. The man was poor and seven daughters is a lot of daughters to marry, especially if the father is poor and the girls are not all too pretty. Mariam was the eldest. Unless she got married, the other sisters could not get married. Now Mariam was no beauty: her complexion was olive, she was of middling height and, though she was not downright ugly, she was not pretty – except as all girls of a certain age are pretty.
“When Mariam’s parents heard the condition, they shook their heads. Even though they had seven daughters, no parents in their right minds could allow their daughter to marry a miser who refused her food. But Mariam, who overheard what the matchmaker said, boldly stepped out from behind the curtain – after modestly covering her head.
“‘I would be happy to marry the miser,’ she said.
“‘What are you saying, daughter? Do you know how small a gain of millet is? You’d starve to death.’
“Mariam retorted – but politely, as she had been properly brought up, ‘Yes, I know how small a grain of millet is. And, no, I will not starve to death.’
“Mariam’s mother wept, but Mariam was adamant. She would get married to the miser whether her parents approved of her action or no.
“The day of the wedding arrived. True to his nature, the miser brought only one red silk sari and a few small ornaments. Wearing her new sari and jewellery Mariam was married and set off for her bridegroom’s home.
“The miser showed Mariam where the oils and the spices, the rice and wheat flour were kept. He told her that in the morning she was to make six chapatis for him; three chapatis he would have for breakfast with a cup of tea, and the remaining three she was to tie up with a fresh onion in a piece of cloth for his lunch. When he returned home he would expect four chapatis with either dal or vegetable for dinner. The days he did not go to work, he would have rice for lunch. He showed Mariam the grindstone with which she would have to prepare wheat flour out of wheat when the wheat flour was finished. She was to use the same grindstone to prepare flour for her bread. Every morning before leaving he would give her three grains of millet for her meals. The days he had rice for lunch, she too could have rice as a treat. There must be no wastage. And he did not like or want guests. If guests came, all she could give them was a glass of water.
“Early next morning Mariam lit the fire and made six chapatis for her husband; three chapatis she tied up with a fresh onion in a piece of cloth for his lunch. She then made a cup of hot tea, sweetening it with gur, and served that to her husband for breakfast with the remaining three.
“Had she eaten, the miser asked. No, she said, she would eat after she had swept and cleaned the house and washed his clothes. Then she handed him his lunch and saw him off.
“After the miser left, Madam sat down in the kitchen and ate the two chapatis she had kept away for herself, twisted in a fold at her waist. Breakfast done, she swept and cleaned the place, bathed and dressed, knowing that people were bound to visit to see how she was faring.
“Sure enough, no sooner was she ready than the neighbours started pouring in. Curious, they asked her whether she had eaten. She showed the grindstone with its powdery remnants of grain.
“The neighbours were surprised.
“Mariam excused herself for not offering the neighbours any food. The miser had very little food in the house, she told the neighbours.
“Mariam, however, seemed happy, and the neighbours left puzzled, wondering how a live human being could survive on what was insufficient even for a tiny sparrow.
“Days passed. Every morning the miser would measure out the wheat flour and count out three grains of millet. Madam would make her chapatis, tie up three with a fresh onion in a piece of cloth for his lunch and give him three with a hot, sweet cup of tea. Four she would tuck up tight in the fold of cloth at her waist to eat for breakfast and lunch. Mariam’s only problem was dinner which she had to eat before she expected her husband to return.
“The miser was happy. His wife not only made soft chapatis and tasty dal or vegetable, she had also started looking fairly pretty. One afternoon when work was slight, the miser decided to go home early. Mariam had made the small hut so cheerful and bright with colourfully embroidered bedcovers and pillowcases that he counted himself fortunate to have a wife who not only was a small eater but had an aesthetic sense in the bargain. In front of the hut where there had been long grasses and weeds, she had planted rose bushes and flowering creepers. Yes, the miser said to himself, he was indeed a fortunate man.
“Mariam would be pleasantly surprised, he thought, to see him so early in the day. As he neared the hut, he wondered how she occupied herself at this time of day. He himself had earlier eaten the neatly packed three chapatis and onion. Perhaps, he thought, after finishing her zohr prayers, she might have sat down with her embroidery.
“He quietly stepped up to the threshold and knocked on the door.
“‘Who is it?’ Mariam called from inside.
“Wanting to give her a surprise, he made his voice sound like an old woman’s. ‘It is only me, an old beggar woman begging for alms.’
“‘Go away,’ Mariam called from inside. ‘We don’t give alms in this house.’
“To the miser, Mariam’s voice seemed strangely muffled. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have sworn that her mouth was full of food. But he knew that a grain of millet could not fill anyone’s mouth.
“Again he called out, mimicking an old woman’s voice. ‘Give me a few pice, beti, or an old dress of yours.’
“This time Mariam peered through the bars in the window on the side of the door. Her head was bare, and, yes, she did have something in her mouth.
“Seeing her husband, she quickly withdrew, and, covering her head, she opened the door. She seemed to have swallowed something hurriedly, and her right hand showed unmistakable evidence of food.
“The miser stormed into the kitchen. There, in front of him, was a plate with a half-eaten onion and one and a half chapatis. He looked from the plate to Mariam and back to the plate.
“But Mariam, instead of looking ashamed or embarrassed, laughed. ‘So you’ve found me out at last. Did you really think that any woman could survive on one grain of millet ground seven times and sieved seven times for a meal? I may need less food than you, but I too must eat.’”
My mother’s story ended at that point. But happy endings are important when you are small, so I wanted to know whether the two of them lived happily ever after as fairy tales tell us. But Mother asked me what I think happened.
Well, I said, thoughtfully, the miser must have been silent thinking that he had truly been a fool. But he must also have been angry that Mariam had lied and cheated. But he also knew that if she hadn’t lied and cheated, he wouldn’t have married her. But she had made his home so pleasant that he couldn’t think of life without her.
And Mariam, my mother asked.
Mariam too must have grown to love the miser. He was foolish indeed to have thought that any woman could live on air. But she had lied and cheated so perhaps he would be right to send her away.
But then I thought the miser must have asked for Mariam’s forgiveness for the conditions he had placed on her, and she too must have asked for his forgiveness for deceiving him.
But Mother’s story was not about love, so her story ended there, on that fateful afternoon when the miser returned home early and Mariam showed up the miser for a fool. What Mother was telling me through the story – before I knew the words “feminism” or “gynocriticism” or “feminist theory” – was that women had to learn to manage situations they found themselves in. I also realized that she was telling me through this folktale that women must look after themselves, eat enough to stay well and strong.
But today I would have put other questions to my mother. I would not have asked for an ending. I would have asked why Mariam had had to marry the miser. Wouldn’t she have been better off without marrying him? A miser and a fool? Of course, I know that even a few years ago marriage was important – it still is in many cultures. Even in the most advanced societies people worry about the falling marriage rate and the falling birth rate.
But I would also think about the impossibility of a story like Mariam’s ever happening. Mariam would have moved into her in-laws’ house and, if her husband had laid a condition on Mariam, her mother-in-law would have seen to it that Mariam didn’t steal food. But then I realize that daughters-in-law of strict mothers-in-law also resort to other tricks – unless they are unfortunate enough to have married truly wrong men who torture them till they die “accidental” deaths.
I wonder whether other mothers also teach their daughters deception? Other daughters when speaking about their mothers describe how their mothers taught them to live for others, to be ideal daughters-in-law and wives and mothers. Why did my mother, a woman who was honest and who sacrificed herself for her family and who lived for others, teach me long before there was any thought of marriage to look after myself? How well have I kept the lesson she taught me in the kitchen weeping over onions?
Author Biography (there are additional details on my post on her story "The Daily Woman").
Niaz Zuman, Ph.D. is a Professor of English at the University of Dhaka specializing in Anerican literature. She is considered an authority on the folk art of the women of Bangladesh and has published highly regarded works on the partition of Indian and of Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Lovely story, especially how the child finished the story and then the later reflection from the author, grown up. The messages a girl receives from her mother can be the making (or undoing) of her.
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