The lieutenant’s wife

“Welcome to the city of culture and science.”

I see the new sign they have put on the town’s entrance and look for the old one which read “Welcome to the city of martyrs”.

This brings back the memory of Ronak and her father who was one of our first martyrs.

Ronak came to our school one week after term had started. We were half-way through Lesson Two of Farsi Language when the principal opened the classroom door and brought her in.

“This is dear Fatima, the new student.” she said, “be good friends with one another.”

The teacher told her to sit next to me. Fatima walked slowly and sat on the very end of my bench. We stared at each other for some time. I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back.

At break time, I tried again. She murmured that her name was Ronak and that she didn’t like the new name they had forced her to use. I wanted to cheer her up. “Let’s go to the shop and buy cheese puffs!”, I said.

She smiled.

Ronak was pretty and wore a beautiful school uniform. Her unruly, curly hair stuck out of her scarf. She resembled the angels you see in holy images, she looked the opposite of me, with my plain face and straight brown hair.

When I told my mom I had a new friend at school, she said I should treat her well.

”All the teachers treat her differently, why?”

“It’s because her father is a martyr,” my mom replied.  She always answered briefly.

I felt sorry for Ronak, and the next day I tried extra hard to be nice. I told her my father was also fighting in the war.

“My dad was a lieutenant,” she replied. I didn’t know what my father’s military rank was, so I kept quiet.

One Thursday evening when we went to visit our relatives’ graves as usual, my mother showed me a butterfly shaped tomb and said, “This is the lieutenant’s memorial monument.  Ronak’s father.”

I looked at the tomb and the big photo of a man in military uniform with all the military ranks on his shoulders. Suddenly, I missed my dad and wanted to cry.

Ronak always hung out with her little sister, Azi. Everyone was shocked when they saw Azi for the first time because she had had her right hand amputated at the wrist. I heard that it had been severed by a meat grinder. Little Azi held her right forearm up all the time as if she was scared to lose the rest of it. Ronak used to hold her left hand wherever they went.  They were like inseparable twins.

I liked to play with them anyway, but every time I asked her to come to our house after school, she refused. “My mom would not allow me,” she’d say.

One day I suggested I go to their house. She shrugged her shoulders as if she was not sure. But then the next day she asked me to walk them home. I begged my mom for a long time to get her permission. When Mom finally gave in, she insisted: “Come back before dark!”

They had a huge house with a big courtyard full of roses and trees. Ronak told me to wait in the garden while she asked her mom if we could go in. After a few minutes, Ronak came out saying we were allowed to play in the garden. I wanted to see Ronak’s room and her clothes, but then I got so excited seeing a swing and  slide at the back of the building.  As we start swinging, Ronak said, “my mom never lets my friends in.”

“Why?”

She shrugged and went quiet.

I had seen her mother once. We were at the grocery shop when people pointed at this tall lady in full hijab. I could only see her eyes and the tip of her nose. I could hear people whispering, “She’s coming, the lieutenant’s wife, here she is!” Every head turned to her. She walked straight on and never stopped to talk to anybody. She seemed mysterious to me.

We played till nightfall that day. Ronak’s mom never came out of the building, although I saw her watching us from behind the curtains. At some point the doorbell rang and a posh car drove in. A few men went in to the building and then left very quickly. One of them who wore a grey suit, came to us. Ronak ran into the trees, hiding herself. The man stroked Azi’s hair and gave us some chocolates.

Ronak and I were good friends now, but she never asked me to go and play with them again. At first I thought maybe she didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, but she wouldn’t talk to any other girls either. My mom said it was time that I caught up with my other friends, or that I should play with my cousins instead. But I still wanted to see her. I would pass their alley every Thursday pretending I was going to my cousins, then hang around to see her and talk to her from behind the fence. I would give her stickers and she would bring me biscuits or pick cherries from the trees for me.

One day her mom suddenly appeared outside. I was about to run but she called out to me and said I should come inside because it was really hot. Ronak dashed to open the gate and I went in hesitantly. It was like somehow I had entered a palace. It looked like the palaces I had seen on television, where the Shah used to live with his family. There was a big picture of Ronak’s father on the main wall, and a huge vase full of flowers beneath.  We spent a few hours in Ronak’s room and she showed me the dancing doll her uncle had brought her from abroad. We wound it up a few times till its battery died. After a while, her mom brought us two glasses of icy Sharbat to drink. She wore a white long dress and had huge curly hair, she looked very much like Ronak. She asked me some questions– where I lived and how I was doing at school. She was charming and had a soft voice. For a moment I wished she was my mom but I loved my mom so much.

When she left, Ronak showed me a photo of her dad and told me that every night when everyone else was sleep, he came to tell her a story about heaven. Her dad was living in a castle in the sky and could fly wherever he wanted. She kept his gifts in a little box hidden under her bed.  We promised each other that we wouldn’t tell our secrets to anybody.

When Norooz arrived, Ronak’s family went north to stay with her grandmother. I was happy because I had two weeks off school and could play as much as I wanted, and because there were the New Year’s gifts to look forward to. But Norooz turned out to be very somber. Soldiers killed in war everyday and bombs were pounding cities, everyone was unhappy. One time three hundred martyrs were brought home. The whole town sank into mourning, every family seemed to have lost somebody. For us, there was a little happiness though, as my father returned home safe and vowed never to go back to the fighting. I insisted that I should be allowed to go to the funeral of martyrs. My mom said this is not a place for young girls, but my dad agreed to take me this once. I found myself in the middle of a sea of crying people, all smothered in rose water which was being sprayed from vans, and in gladioli flowers which were scattered from helicopters.  I fell asleep in my dad’s arms.

As the start of the school term neared once more, I began to get excited. I anticipated telling Ronak how much New Year money I had collected and what I was going to buy with it. But she didn’t come back to school. At first I thought they must have stayed at her granny’s house for longer. After waiting a few days, I went to Ronak’s house. I rang the door-bell but no one answered. At night, when I asked my mom to let me phone her, thinking maybe they had returned in the evening, she refused.  ”No. You shall never go there again,”

“But why?”

I could not understand what was going on, and I looked everywhere for an answer. When we asked our teacher why Ronak and Azi were not coming to school anymore, she said they had moved to another school. There were rumours everywhere but I did not understand them very well. When I asked  simple questions, everybody ignored me.

I became sad, thinking about Ronak. A few weeks later, when I was almost forgetting whatever that happened, I heard about them again. I was in a local shop waiting to buy ice cream and I overheard two women talking about the lieutenant’s family. They were discussing about how somebody had done a bad thing, and had now dared to come back and begin her bad deeds all over again. I felt fear as I listened to them. Instead of going back home, I ran to Ronak’s. When I got there, I saw a crowd of women gathered outside her house. They were all wrapped in black chadors, and they were angry. One of them shouted, “Shame on you! How could you betray your martyr husband?”

Another screamed, ”If you were a proper mother, you wouldn’t have put your daughter’s hand in a grinder!”

Suddenly a police van arrived. Police bustled out and told the women to leave. I wanted to see Ronak but I was scared of the police. I hid behind a tree trunk. My ice cream was melting in my hand when I finally saw the gate open. A car was driving out of the house and I saw Ronak sitting in the back seat with her sister. They were both in tears. Her mom in her usual hijab was in the front seat. The sun was shining on her face. They drove off very fast, and I never saw them again.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s New book in Italian

“In other words” Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book.

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Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favorite writers and the author of “Interpreter of Maladies”, has written her 5th book in Italian. In fact, her inexplicable craving for Italian language compelled her to go live in Rome. Her story is interesting to me because I went through the same experience when I moved to the UK and started writing in English. ( Though I must admit that I am not as famous and as good as her). Being a writer in exile and trying to write in a new language could be challenging, exciting and rewarding all at the same time.

“I read slowly, painstakingly. With difficulty. Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel…. I find the process more demanding yet more satisfying, almost miraculous. I can’t take for granted my ability to accomplish it. I read as I did when I was a girl. Thus, as an adult, as a writer, I rediscover the pleasure of reading.”

And her explanation of the sense of linguistic estrangement is absolutely beautiful.

Read her story here