Of all the things Zainab wanted to achieve, mountain-climbing was the most important and perhaps the most idiotic dream a 12 year old could have. It was not only because of her abject poverty—a state from which people like her will never be able to escape—but also because she belonged to the dominated sex in a male-chauvinist society. Yet at English class when Mr. Kumar asked all his students to write a 300 word essay on ‘Reaching my Dreams’ the eccentric girl felt no hesitation in talking about an imaginary expedition to a hill-top.
Living in a lowland village where television had not as yet set its foot at that time, Zainab was unaccustomed to having seen any mountains in her short life. Ironically she did not even know the proper difference between a hill and a mountain despite her regular attendance at the Geography class. And yes sir, it was far superior from her knowledge that the world’s highest peak was located in one of her neighboring countries and also the fact that the river she used for drinking, bathing and playing actually originated from that mountain. These were things that her geography teacher had not as yet covered and so Zainab eagerly anticipated the time when she will be told more about her love in the aforementioned class.
So how do you think a girl who has never seen mountains or even read about them actually became infatuated with such an existence? It was her brother. Her dear brother, the most precious person in her life after her father, was a soldier in the army and also the one paying for all her tuition fees and petty yearnings. He was the one who had seen mountains and trained among them in extremely hostile conditions. The name of the place was Boderbon, no Bonderban. Gosh! She could not even spell or pronounce it properly. According to her brother the place was more than a week’s journey from her home. But once you reached there it was bound to feel the most heavenly place on earth. It was like you are the most special and the only one living in this universe. Nothing else mattered. Everything was for you to use and command.
But the English master Mr. Kumar was up to no such romanticism. He taught his students with iron-clad rules——both in terms of grammar and the students’ behavior——and always believed in grounding up facts. For him therefore, ‘Reaching my Dreams’ was supposed to be an essay about what you wanted to do in the world of pragmatism. Whether you wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Or a policeman or simply a house-keeper. And outrageous as it was, mountain-climbing could never be a factually-grounded student’s dream. And never so in the case of a girl born in the cradles of the destitute.
And hence, slapped with an F in the English essay with a detention to boot during the tiffin break, Zainab was unable to enjoy the hide-and-seek matches during the break period today.
The village she lived in was located in the outskirts of a district that had never seen urban life in its entire existence. The only buildings composed of cement were made by the government in ‘a plot to bring the people under a legal system’ as described by the leader of the village council. As for the government, no one was really bothered about them. From the building bearing a huge ‘Department of Agriculture’ placard, men in clean and expensive English clothes occasionally came to the fields owned by Zainab’s father and the other locals. They called themselves the ‘agriculture scientists’, although what the profession meant or demanded was a huge point of entertaining political debate in the road-side tea-stalls and shops for the illiterate villagers who remained sitting there most of the time engaging themselves in every single conversation they could get hold of. The so-called agriculture scientists inspected the crops and the fertilizers and advised the farmers on the what-to-dos and how-to-dos for maximum output. Although most of the locals eyed these English-dressed Bengali people with skepticism fully encouraged by the village leaders and clerics, Zainab’s father knew better the value of education. Although a complete illiterate himself he had educated his only son till the 12th grade—one of the very few young people in that particular village to have achieved such a feat. And so it was with great pride when he had enrolled that worthy son of his at the Bangladesh Army to serve the country. The entire village had proclaimed him to be a model father of a model son, and such was his value in the rural community that he was always the center of attraction at every single village occasion.
But what about a girl’s education? Now that was somewhat of a dilemma for the illiterate father. Although Zainab was being given lessons on the religious doctrines at home by a female teacher and also had been sent to the primary school for learning her letters, he was doubtful whether educating the girl would bear a fruit. It was the soldier brother who had asked his model father to think better. Not only would educating the girl allow her to contribute to the village community in the near future but also make her a good mother and house-wife, and also a good religious devotee. And besides she could even join the Bangladesh Army or the Police to serve her nation. Although the man was not really idealistic about the latter, he eventually gave in and decided that Zainab should continue education, learn about mountains, write essays in English, read history and recite poetry. And so yes, in a way you could blame her father and brother for Zainab’s depravity at the English class.
After the class was over, on this particular Spring afternoon as Zainab came out along with her class compatriots she was surprised to find out a piece of paper lying folded on the bench in front of the headmaster’s office. Actually this was not a single piece of paper. It was a bunch of papers all folded together in an extraordinary fashion to preserve all the pages inside it. For us city-folks, one look at it would suffice to tell us that this was a daily newspaper. But for a 12 year old who had seen cement buildings for the first time only two years back, who had never even seen or heard about televisions or radios, newspapers were definitely something she was unaccustomed to. Her family’s and other neighbor’s only connection to the outside world was through people like her brother, who came home only once or twice a year with tales of unseen forests, religious extremists who made bombs, robbers who had evolved into political leaders and of course, the usual mountain-clad stories which fascinated the young Zainab most.
So the girl, perplexed with the printed pages that bore a strange semblance to her free books, tried to decipher what they said.
This was no ordinary book, as she realized. It was abuzz with tales from around the world. But the first thing she noticed on the top of the first page was the image of a young girl with heavy glasses and clothes as if she was in an extremely cold vicinity, at least much colder than the winters of her village as judged by the heavy clothes she was wearing. In the background of the woman what she saw made her heart skip a beat.
It was a huge land turned ninety degrees or more to one side. The land was covered with a bed of green grass, or perhaps, forest. It was impossible to tell from the distant photograph. The land rose up slanted and at many regions was covered by a prevalent layer of something brilliantly white. Gradually as the land ascended from the ground it emerged into a peak, a peak that seemed to point towards the Creator who had created it with such artistic hands, towards the Architect who had built it with such classic beauty, implicit precision, impeccable appearance and the enormous possibility of touching the sky.
Except that it did touch the sky.
The weird woman was standing atop one of these peaks holding a flag, which unmistakably belonged to her country, and a smile on her face boasted her achievement of having reached the sky.
What lay behind those rotated green fields? The silly girl wondered. Maybe a huge djinn or something?
By then all her class-mates had left her and gone ahead. If she did not catch up with them she will have to walk the three miles to her home all by herself, something she really did not want to do.
But still in deep consternation, she stared at that image.
As if someone had merely whispered it to her she immediately understood what those rotated lands represented.
Her eyes gleamed with a light of warmth, pride and disbelief as her thoughts were confirmed by the headline below the photograph: “Bangladeshi woman climbs the highest mountain ranges”.
Eyes glistening with a pride and passion more fierce than anyone looking at her at that moment could have discerned, Zainab gently put the newspaper back to its resting place. Unknowingly her hands reached her soft cheeks and quickly rubbed away the tear that had manifested itself all of a sudden. It was as if she was filled with a bliss of the dreams that she saw every night. As if the diaspora of her heart to meet the mountains was not going to go fruitless after all. As if she knew that if this woman could do it, there was no reason why she couldn’t.
Except that the woman had not merely climbed mountains. She told herself. She had touched the sky.
For the first time in her life, Zainab had seen mountains, albeit in the way she least expected.
This fictional post is dedicated to Wasfia Nazreen, the female Bangladeshi mountain-climber whose achievements make all of us proud. The impetus for this piece was derived from Aminatta Forna‘s brilliant novel Ancestor Stones when one of the characters described her feelings of having seen the sea for the very first time in her life.