By Tabassum Tahmina Shagufta Hussein

While looking at her regular stray cat friends, Nivi felt so special today. All she can recall from her 14 years of life is a dispute between parents, her grandparent’s targeted hostility, and being treated like a second class. No one has ever made her special. She never knew how it meant to be treated as special. Today, Shirley Aunty is sending her a bowl of Tom Yum soup. Nivi had a cough and cold for a few days. When Aunty found out, she told her that she would be sending her Tom Yum soup cooked by herself. She met Shirley Aunty by chance. Nivi was helping Grandpa Inam in the Zoom meeting for months since the Covid-19 outbreak. Both Grandpa Inam and Grandma Anna are in the international club and knew Shirley Aunty for years. Nivi met Shirley Aunty in the zoom meeting while helping her grandparents.

While Nivi is wrapped by the bubbles of joy on the ground floor, Anna is furious, and Inam is agitated on the first floor of the same building. They couldn’t understand why Nivi is getting Tom Yum cooked by Shirley. They have known Shirley for years. Shirley never did anything like this for them or for Arusha and Abrar, their daughter Diti’s kids. They are adults now and settled-in abroad.  They used to live with Inam and Anna with their parents. Nivi and her parents lived on the first floor of the building. Shirley was never interested in Arusha and Abrar. Shirley never sent Tom Yum for their Eldest son Asik’s children Anisa and Joshner when they visit each year from abroad.

It always has to be Nivi, Inam and Anna’s youngest son Nick’s only one child. Anna is shouting out loud towards Inam. It is Inam’s fault that he can’t operate Zoom meetings. Anna couldn’t handle that as well. That’s how Shirley came to know Nivi through her help on the Zoom calls. Inam can’t take Anna’s anger any longer. He tells her to think with a cool head and tells Anna that Nivi bewitched Shirley with her fake smiles and sweet words. She agrees. Nivi is indeed her mother’s daughter. Nivi is manipulative, shrewd, exploitive, cunning, and deceptive just like her mother.

Knock! Knock! Anna and Inam’s driver arrived with a bowl of Tom Yum soup in a large container. The driver tells them that it is for Nivi from Shirley Madam. Shirley Madam’s driver dropped the Tom Yum and told him to give it to Nivi’s floor. Anna felt better now. All deliveries, mails, bank papers, bills, packages and whatever else are for Nivi had to be brought to them first. They see who has sent and what is inside. Anna thanked herself and Inam for setting such a rule. They both share the same feeling that their son Nick and his family must obey the rules arranged by Anna and Inam. After all, they are the owners of the building. Nivi and her family are not even tenants. They have no rights of privacy or anything. Son and daughter in law and grand-daughter need to be controlled by the halter. Otherwise, Anna and Inam will lose control. Nick’s wife, Neelkonthi, took the land telephone without their permission. They blocked all the bills, and finally, she lost her land phone connection because she was not receiving the bills and could not pay the due on time. When she found out, it was too late. She was taught a lesson. They have given them countless of such lessons. Inam and Anna controled her life.  She though herself as a bird with wings–wings of liberty and freedom. Now the wings are curtailed. 

Nick was an obedient son but Neelkonthi couldn’t be trusted. Anna and Inam always hated Neelkonthi and Nivi was as wretched as her mother. Inam told her not to send Tom Yum to Nivi. Anna smiles finally and tells Inam that she had no intention. They look at each other with mutual victorious smiles. Inam tells Anna that let Nivi tell Shirley that she didn’t receive Tom Yum. If Shirley asks them, then they will deny any information on Tom Yum. Shirley will never believe Nivi’s words over theirs. Shirley then will think of her as a mischievous and notorious one who tried to frame the grandparents with lies of not giving her Tom Yum. Nivi’s hope of joy of having Tom Yum will turn into ashes.

Nivi was feeling great. She always set up Zoom meetings, sent confirmation emails, helped the grandparents with apps, social media. She talked to Shirley Aunty when her grandparents’ sessions are over. Shirley Aunty talks about the school, hobbies and both of them are foodies. They talked about cuisine all the time. An email notification sound distracts Nivi. Its Shirley Aunty. She wanted to know whether she has received Tom Yum. She sent it three hours ago. Nivi instantly replies that she didn’t.

“ARE YOU SURE? IT IS NOT POSSIBLE. MY DRIVER HANDED TO INAM AND ANNA’S DRIVER AND TOLD HIM TO DROP IT AT YOUR FLOOR. THAT DRIVER TOLD HIM THAT HE WOULD.”

Nivi was surprised! Shirley Aunty is writing in block letters. Maybe it’s nothing.

After an hour, Nivi went to the ground floor to see her grandparents, as per her regular habit. She opened the door of the living room of her grandparents and froze. Grandma was about to warm the bowl of Tom Yum in the microwave. She felt the shiver in her spine. Flashes from the past visit her. Grandparents shouting, throwing tantrums toward her and her mum. She could barely move her lips, let alone legs. “Would you like to have some Tom Yum?” both Anna and Inam ask. “No, thank you,” Nivi replies. None of them mention Shirley’s Tom Yum. She doesn’t either.

Nivi goes back to her floor. She tells her mum what she has just seen. Neelkonthi bursts out with anger, “Why, Nivi, Why? Why do you have to be friendly with Shirley and everyone? Why didn’t you refuse Shirley’s Tom Yum? Haven’t you learnt anything from the past? Why you are so naïve?”

Nivi is numb. Her mum’s questions are not reaching her ears. “Nivi, Nivi! Are you listening?”

Nivi comes back to reality from her short-lived semi blackout. She slowly gathers her courage and says, “Four hours ago, Shirley Aunty wrote in the email that she had sent the Tom Yum. I wrote to her that I didn’t. Aunty was not convinced”

Her mum raised her voice and says, “You are a fool as I used to be. Tell Shirley that you received the Tom Yum four hours ago, but you forgot to inform her.” 

Nivi says with a strong voice, “It’s not true.”

Her mum intensely says, “You write what I tell you to write. If you write the truth, it will show what your grandparents did. Telling such mean things is below my standard and it should be yours. Besides Shirley won’t believe you. She will misunderstand you grossly. You must take the blame.”

Nivi says, “Why you keep doing like this? I mean taking the blame. You make me do the same. Why?” 

After a moment of silence Neelkonthi replies, “Survival.”

Puzzled Nivi asks, “What you mean?”

A void replaced the anger in Neelkonthi’s voice. She says, “You won’t understand until you experience the malice, the torture, the humiliation, the abuse and digesting all those for twenty years.”

Nivi wanted to tell her mother that she knows what trauma and mental torture are, and how does it feels to live in the constant fear and pain. Instead, Nivi starts typing to Shirley Aunty taking all the blame. 

The dinner was over. Mum was busy in her room reading books. Dad was in his room and not to be disturbed. Her parents are like flat mates. Her dad spends time only on the dinner table as a family. Nivi covered her body with a shawl and went out to the veranda from where she can call and talk to her cat stray friends. Nivi tried to call the stray cats but flashes from the past appear. Her parents’ quarrel, domestic violence, she was traumatized by the clashes, she was not treated equally like her cousins by her grandparents. She had always taken the blame, unfairly accused, always the target of being guilty, no one standing up for her. She wanted to run away from this house. It’s a prison. Dad was not bothered. Mum sometimes tried but she always puts her “survival” first. Nivi was alone. She had no one. Nivi’s voice breaks while calling out the stray cats. Tears flow, the Moon and the stars looked down at the helpless girl in the deepest pain and became the witnesses silently. At the same time, the leftover of the bowl of Tom Yum soup rested in Anna and Inam’s refrigerator peacefully.

 Tabassum Tahmina Shagufta Hussein is an aesthete and humanitarian and Masters of Arts holder in British & American Literature from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her poems have appeared in several literary magazines and journals. She has contributed to five anthologies. She writes columns for Different Truths Publications, India and other news portals in Bangladesh. Her poems have appeared in  Das Literarisch , an international referred journal of English Studies and Creative writing. She has also contributed to London School of Economics Human Rights Blog. She is weekly Translator of ITHACA Foundation’s initiative Point Edition. Her past time is art and DIY making. She believes in humanity, equity and secularism. She finds beauty from the blade of grass to twinkling stars. Aestheticism and humanism are the essences of her existence.

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