“Tell me the story again,” Yasmin asked her youngest sister, Nusrat in Bengali. She fluffed the cushion underneath her.
Nusrat laughed as she tried to kick her sister off the cushion. She kept her hands flat so her eldest sister Bushra could apply henna paste on them. She had told the story about how she had met her fiancé more than twenty times during her three-week visit to Bangladesh. The words that seemed so fresh to her two years ago when she had first relayed the story to her older sisters were stale now. She loved telling the story at first, pleased to have her four older brothers end their constant berating about how she lived in London alone without a husband. She was glad that their complaints and turned to grudging appreciation for her fiancé.
Even though her family and their friends knew the story of how Amir and Nusrat met in a Moscow airport waiting for their connecting flight to their native country, they wanted to hear it. The reactions of course were the same. Laughter, a slight nod of their head as if indicating yes, this is typical Nusrat. She does everything in her own way.
“We talked, we found out we had a lot in common and two years later, we’re getting married,” Nusrat said, ending with a laugh.
“If you don’t stop moving, you’re going to mess up your hands,” Bushra said tapping her finger on the uncolored part of Nusrat’s hands.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t have hired a professional. Our baby sister deserves the best,” Yasmin said. Before the night of her own wedding a year ago, the professional henna designer cancelled and Bushra decorated her hands instead. She spent hours, crouched on her knees, lining the swirls on Yasmin’s hands that night so long ago, while Yasmin planned her wedding day in silence. They were quiet, speaking softly so as not to wake Nusrat who had flew over from London the night before. Yasmin never thanked her sister, but now looking at Nusrat’s hands covered with carefully applied curved lines and intricate patterns, she knew she had to. She walked over to her eldest sister and wrapped her arms around her back
“I’m sorry. You are better than any professional. Nusrat’s hands look beautiful,” Yasmin whispered into Bushra’s ear. Bushra set the henna tube on the floor, turned around and hugged her sister. She hugged her until she felt the corners of her eyes prickling with tears. After Bushra let go of her sister, she stood up and glanced at her watch.
“I need to call home and make sure Shad’s in bed. I’ll be back,” she said exiting their mother’s guest bedroom.
Nusrat watched the glint of Bushra’s gold anklet fade as she walked down the dark hallway. She knew that while she was away in London, she could never get the full story from her sisters. They would tell her about their problems with their husbands, with the careers and with their brothers. Even so, each phone call could not capture the anguish she saw in her eldest sister’s eyes when Yasmin hugged her. Bushra and her husband were having problems, but surrounded by her friends and Amir in London Nusrat didn’t realize how defeated her sister felt.
Nusrat recalled the loud laugh that would escape the mouth of her usually reserved sister when her husband whispered into her ear at Bushra’s wedding reception. Bushra’s husband turned in his chair so he faced his new wife rather than the people at other tables. The older people, like her mother, shook their heads at the break in propriety. Recently married couples were not supposed to converse as loudly as Bushra and her husband did. They were supposed to sit quietly asking each other polite questions. Bushra always followed the rules, except when it came to her husband. Then, disregarding what her family said, she married the man she fell in love with. Nusrat had looked at the flowers that had loosened from Bushra’s hair. It must have been from shaking her head when she tried to suppress her laughs. Before meeting her husband, she would have never let the flowers fall as far as they did.
“I thought Bushra was happy. I didn’t know it was more than a fight,” Nusrat said.
“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Yasmin said as she alphabetized the books on the table. Nusrat wasn’t there when Bushra’s marriage started to fall apart. She only showed up to the weddings and the funerals. She felt the extremes, but never the everyday moments. No, she had her own life, far from her sisters.
“Look, I’m sorry. I know you can’t help living in London. It’s just that it is so hard dealing with family. At least you can pick and choose,” Yasmin said. She knew it wasn’t fair to blame her younger sister, but sometimes she just wanted to go far away too.
“Is Shad sleeping?” Bushra asked her husband after he picked up on the seventh ring.
“He fell asleep twenty minutes ago. He’s fine,” he said. Bushra heard the throbbing of music through the phone. A mix of the rhythmic traditional music mixed in with steady modern beats.
“Where are you? I told you to stay with him. You aren’t drinking at the club are you?” Bushra asked clutching the phone closer to her ear.
“You’re a great mother who worries too much. Don’t worry, I’m not drinking,” he slurred. Even when he was drunk, he was charming. Before, it may have worked on Bushra, but now that she had her own child to worry about, it didn’t. Bushra stared at the phone willing herself to think and not run off home to make sure Shad was alright. She walked back to her sisters.
“Nusrat, I’m so sorry. I need to go back to Shad. He’s all by himself,” Bushra told her youngest sister.
“Bring him back here. We should be together tonight,” Yasmin said. When Bushra got married, Yasmin hoped that her selfless sister could finally start focusing on her own well being rather than worry about her older brothers’ sport injuries or her younger sisters’ arguments. Her older sister had followed familial duties. She was the one that put up with the relatives who criticized her siblings. She was the one who talked to the grandmother who was so disappointed when Bushra was born a girl during parties. She protected Nusrat from accusations that she was abandoning her family when she moved to London as a teenager.
When Bushra focused on herself and refused to marry the boy that her mother had arranged for her to marry the family noticed a change. The little things stopped. The food tasted blander, the house looked less clean and the laughter was minimal. Yasmin always knew that Bushra was the force that the others depended on and finally her parents saw that in order to gain that balance back Bushra needed to be happy. Yasmin thought Bushra was happy when she married the boy from her university class. How could Bushra have fought so hard for someone that ended up failing her?
Before Bushra left, she touched the fifth wedding photo on the mantle. In the photo, she was looking up at her husband, smiling with her teeth open. She couldn’t recall the last time in a long time that she had looked at him like that. Before he was her husband, he was the sweet boy in class that took the time to call her beautiful. He looked at her face and not away from her like the other men did. When they spent time by the river after classes, he touched her hands and listened to her. She fell in love with his words more so than him. His sweet words when he talked about her beauty and how he was so glad that he had found her before anyone else did affected her more than his presence did. In a family where she was taking care of her siblings, it was just nice to be appreciated. She remembered a week before the wedding, when one of his past lovers visited her. The lover described his gentle caresses and his words perfectly. As if she had watched the couple by the river. He took good Bengali girls and made them wild Bengali women. Then, he left. Why did he stay for Bushra? In spite of being taken in by him, she could not give herself entirely to him. She wanted to whenever his lips would touch hers and his hands would work their way throughout her body. She couldn’t help the feeling that her deceased father was watching her. Maybe she should have slept with him by the river. It would have saved her from the loneliness she felt now.
After Bushra left, Yasmin continued painting the rest of Nusrat’s hands. Some of the green paste had already started to dry and was starting to crack, letting the bright red underneath peek out. When she finished, Nusrat rested her head on Yasmin’s shoulder.
“I know it’s a few days early, but I haven’t had time to give you your wedding present,” Yasmin said. She carefully unwrapped the long rectangular box and pulled out the royal blue sari that she had designed for her sister. When Nusrat saw the rich blue hue surrounded by shimmering embroidery, her hands reached out toward the dress even though she knew that her henna covered hands would ruin the silk sari. She couldn’t help but extend the back of her hand over the vivid gold and red threads as they formed intricate patterns together.
Yasmin hoped Nusrat would think she bought her the beautiful sari because she loved her. Yasmin did love her sister, but she bought the sari because of her own husband. When she told her husband the price of the material, he had merely nodded his head in affirmation of the purchase. She wanted to shock him with a sari that was more expensive than regular wedding dresses. She was hoping for a reaction from the distant man she had married.
As the sixth child, all of Yasmin’s possessions once belonged to another family member. Yasmin worked hard so she could buy her own clothes and pay for her own books and food. When the wealthy businessman arrived at the bank where she worked five years ago for a conference, Yasmin knew she met her ticket for a different, more luxurious lifestyle. She attended the same parties, conferences and restaurants that he was known to frequent. She crafted witty phrases — part suggestive and part ambiguous— that she knew would linger in the back of his mind. She practiced her walk, her phrases and whenever she saw him she waited. She waited for him to recognize her laugh and walk towards her. When he started to dole out the more expensive gifts like saris made from foreign silks and Saudi Arabian gold jewelry, she knew that she had won his affections. Still, sometimes she wished she had married a less wealthy man that cared about her more. She still played the seductress role to keep him interested. In public, she was the prefect Bengali wife. She was tired. She wanted to stop trying so hard for a man who took everything for granted. She wanted to stop waking up twenty minutes before he did so she could brush her teeth, wash her face and slip back into bed before he woke. When Yasmin wanted to cry, she had to go to another room so he wouldn’t see. She made the mistake of crying in front of him once. He looked at her, confused, as if wondering how his beautiful temptress had turned into such a mess. When she stopped, he patted her shoulder and went to his study.
“Nusrat, why are you marrying him?” Yasmin asked her sister. Yasmin did not want her sister to make the same mistake that she did. In her bridal henna, she looked the part of a bride. Yasmin however knew that the henna and wedding dress didn’t matter. Money and financial security made her happy in those early days, but the price of living with a stranger reminded her of the hopeless feeling she would get when her own grandmother mistook her for another sister.
“I know how you feel about marrying people for love. It didn’t work out all too well for Bushra. I know, so you don’t have to worry about me,” Nusrat said. She went pack to peeling the dried paste off of her hands. When people asked her for the story of how they met, she left out the story of how he proposed. She left out the part where she gave him an ultimatum.
“Marry me or I’ll marry the boy my brothers have picked out. It’s really your choice,” she had told him during lunch one day. She was annoyed at her brothers for trying to control her life even though they lived in different countries. She was tired of waiting for Amir to propose. Most of all, she missed being part of her family. When she would visit home during the holidays, she noticed that she had the fewest photos in the family album. Her younger nieces did not remember who she was. She wanted her wedding photo to join the six others that stood on her mother’s dresser.
Was she making the same mistake her sisters had made? Was it wrong for her to give him an ultimatum? Did she manipulate him like Yasmin did to her husband? She needed to call the wedding off. Nusrat could see her future reflected in her sister’s faces. She saw how beautiful they looked during the weddings, like dolls with dark kohl-rimmed eyes, gold bangles and a shimmering sari. She knew in a few days she would look like them. Did their actions determine hers? Her sisters were different than other Bengali girls. They had broken free of arranged marriages. The ones that they pursued did not seem to make them happier though. She could not squander her choice like they had.
“No, I was wrong. Does he know who you are? Does he see how cruel you can be? How wonderful you can be? Does he only think you are beautiful?” Yasmin asked her sister. She looked at her sisters closed eyes and could feel, almost as if it was palpable, the thoughts jumbled in her head.
Even though Nusrat had told him to choose, he chose her. He wanted to wait three years, but when she asked, he said yes. Did her desire to be a larger part of the family cancel out how much she appreciated Amir? Did they erase those rainy nights they spent together, reading, talking, cooking and enjoying the silence? He didn’t run away when she was sick. No, he came over and brought soup. When she didn’t get the job promotion, he took her to Spain. He was there always and she knew that.
Nusrat also knew that she didn’t have to decide on her own. Her sisters had married men that they could not talk to. They were alone and isolated, stuck with their choices. She picked up the phone off the table, dialed Amir’s number and began the conversation.
Age 17, Grade 12
Stuyvesant High school