‘The Shedding’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Imran sat with as much of his body submerged in water as the narrow bathtub would allow, but he was a big man and his paunch rose out of the cloudy water like an island. His pale skin was flushed by the heat. He closed his eyes and sighed. This was his day off and he needed some time to himself.
Abigail walked into the bathroom and met with a wall of steam. It fogged up her glasses. She took them off and wiped them clean. ‘Wow, it’s like a sauna in here.’
Imran sucked his stomach in quickly, but then relaxed. Abigail proceeded to wipe condensation off a face-sized space on the foggy mirror and unsheathed her lipstick. She checked the time on her phone and grimaced.
‘Shit, I’m running seriously late. Okay, I’m off. Book club, then groceries.’
‘Alright, drive safe,’ he said, offering her a smile before she hurried out of the bathroom.
He sank further into the warm water, listening to the staccato sound of her heels; then, shortly after, the opening and shutting of the apartment door. Now finally, silence.
He lay back in the hot water, thinking of his boyhood summers back home in Dhaka. It came back to him in vignettes: a drenched shirt clinging to his back, dancing under monsoon rains,
— how, on the hottest days, his mother would freeze the milk jelly hearts of the taal fruit, cut fresh from palm trees, in a bucket of ice. When the sun became unbearable, he would run back home, dig into the ice and find the cooled taal which would sit in his palm like a giant pearl. How many years had it been since he’d had one of those? How many years since he had last seen his mother and his motherland?
He drained the bathwater and got out to towel himself. Now in his boxer briefs, he sat on the furry stool in front of Abigail’s makeup vanity, the fur tickling his shaved legs. Inside the drawer, his fingers glided over the lids and tops of lotion, serum, and moisturizer till they found a plastic bottle of coconut oil. He rubbed the oil between his palms and spread it across his arms and legs, letting it soak into the skin. He thought of the time he lived with his mother, before he moved to Rochester for college — she, in front of her mirror, fresh from a shower, rubbing coconut oil into the ends of her wet hair. Her pillow permanently smelled of it.
He moved towards the closet he shared with Abigail and opened the side of the cupboard that held her clothing, running his hand through the dresses that hung alongside each other: crushed velvet, delicate lace, sheer organza. Next to his drab men’s clothing, these looked like theatrical costumes.
Imran had always been fascinated by theatre. His first experience had been watching a jatra troupe that was travelling through his mother’s rural hometown perform a popular serpent myth. It was an all-male cast in a conservative Islamic town where seeing men play women was more acceptable than seeing women on stage at all. How flimsy their stage had looked. Not much more than a large box with a colourful awning. But dressed in royal garb, those actors had created a whole world on that small square of stage! Most astonishing was how — after a while — the actor on stage ceased to be a man in a woman’s costume, but had become the goddess of snakes herself, Manasa Devi.
In the world of the play, the legend said that, like her snakes, Manasa Devi could shed her skin and wear that of others. Imran thought of the discarded skins he found on the winding dirt paths of their village, and the first time his mother had picked one up to show him. The skin had been opalescent between her fingers like a fishing net made of thin slices of pearl.
‘Look, Imran! A snake must have shed its skin,’ his mother had said. ‘They tear their own skin on tree barks or rocks and peel them off slowly. This is how they cleanse the old parts of themselves and make room for the new. This is how they grow.’
Imran thought that acting was the greatest exercise in empathy: to understand a character’s emotional reality so deeply that you can shed your own skin to wear theirs.
A semester into freshman year at Rochester, he chose a course called The History Of Theatre as one of his throwaway electives. Boys like him didn’t get on stage but he wanted to learn what he could from the safety of a classroom. About halfway into the semester, a lanky girl with lightning eyes had filled the seat next to him at the lecture room, her skin as dark as the surma stones women ground up to make kohl for their eyes. Later, over cups of steaming coffee, Abigail and Imran had traced their fingers over the thousand-year-old wisdom of the Roman playwright, Terence — I am human, nothing human is alien to me.
Like in every new relationship, they each uncovered, once again, the stories of their lives — each one brought out like antiques, to polish lovingly and put back. His story was this: Bangladeshi. Muslim. Struggling family. Dad died young. Mom and sister. Duty as brother, and as son. Abigail’s was: Home was Fort Worth, Dallas. Only child. Black Evangelical family. Alcoholic dad. Wicked smart. Move back? Never. Soon, they became their own little world — a population of two, revolving around each other like a pair of binary stars.
By the end of first year, Abigail had practically moved into his dorm room to the chagrin of his roommate — another brown Muslim boy who had chosen to room with Imran in the hope that Imran, like him, would resist assimilating into this foreign culture of drinking and girls and eating pork, astagfirullah.
Imran wished that his devotion to his religion and tradition had been as strong as the boy’s. Perhaps then he would have made himself a better son to his mother.
Eventually, he and Abigail moved into their first apartment, outside campus. Theirs was a small place: the kitchen, dining, and living room all huddled together next to a bedroom and a microscopic bathroom — so small that Imran’s knees would touch the cold enamel of the sink when he sat down on the toilet. The floors would groan under the weight of every step. The doorknob on the front door broke on the very first day. They had loved that apartment.
Here in this home, they learned how to change a light bulb, paint a wall and appreciate a home-cooked meal. They’d also learned that harmony mattered more than the unfairness of their partner leaving the cap off the toothpaste, or the cupboard door open. It was in this home that they shone a flashlight on those parts of each other that hid in the deepest crevices of the soul; and where Abigail had discovered him in front of the mirror in her makeup and ruffled skirt, her clothes spread out on the bed.
‘What the fuck?’
Imran spun around to find Abigail, mouth gaping, eyes searching for explanation. He moved to cover himself up as if he had been caught naked. She rushed out of the house without a word. Still dressed in her clothes, he was unable to follow for fear of making a public spectacle and sank instead to the floor under the weight of a heavy blanket of shame. He caught his reflection in the mirror then — a pathetic, twisted man, ugly and undeserving of love.
He struck the mirror with his fist and watched the reflection shatter. He called her frenetically, only to be redirected to voicemail every time.
‘Please, please, please give me a chance to explain,’ he begged, after each beep.
Abigail had stayed at a girlfriend’s to clear her head but agreed to meet the next day. Perhaps it was the inquisitiveness he had shown earlier about her shoes and nail polish that had dulled the shock of the discovery. Perhaps she had sensed the ghost of his secret when he had opened his heart to her. Abigail asked him questions she needed him to answer. Did he want to be a woman? No. Was he attracted to men? No. Why didn’t he tell her before? The answer was shame — the same shame he had felt when his mother had caught him, at twelve, wearing her red kitten heels and slapped him across the face.
‘What is it then? Why do you do… this?’ she had asked.
He said he did not know. Not at twelve, and not then at twenty-two. He had only just begun to arrive at an explanation. Perhaps his soul was so big, so complex, that it craved more than just the singularity of the masculine.
Imran suspected that it had perhaps been the divulgence of his two deepest secrets that year that had changed the course of his life. The second had been his mother’s discovery of his relationship with Abigail.
That morning, he had woken up to a dozen missed call notifications from his mother and sister. It was unlike them. Usually, they would wait for him to call on Viber to be able to talk for free. The last time he had woken up to that many calls had been when his sister, Lamia, had fractured her arm in an auto-rickshaw accident. Anxiety grew in Imran’s stomach. He called back in a panic. Lamia picked up on the first ring.
‘Oh my god, Bhaiya, I’ve been trying to reach you for hours!’ she said in hushed tones.
‘I was asleep. What’s going on? Are you okay?’
‘Yes! Look, I don’t have a lot of time. Amma’s around. She snooped through my phone because some neighborhood auntie said she saw me with a boy. Long story short, she went on my Facebook, found your profile and all the photos with your girlfriend! I told her she was just your friend, but she doesn’t believe me. Bhaiya, she’s furious!’
Just then, he heard their mother’s voice, distant but getting closer.
‘Lamia! Who are you talking to? Is that Imran?’
‘No, Amma. Just my friend, Rita,’ Lamia said casually. ‘I’ve got to go,’ she whispered before a beep announced that she had hung up.
Imran went through a mental inventory of the photos he had uploaded to Facebook, wondering if there were intimate ones that his mother might have seen. He thought of one on a boat trip with their friends where he and Abigail had stood at the bow, recreating the iconic pose from Titanic, his arms around her waist and she leaning back into him. In another photo, taken on Abigail’s birthday, she was sitting on his lap with her arms around his neck. There was no use denying it. He had to come clean.
He did not remember much of the phone conversation with his mother. The gush of fury and vitriol, her invocations of, what will people say, and her deep loathing of dark skin had all blended together into one ugly, amorphous thing. He hung up with shaky hands, tears streaming down his face. It was Abigail, rising from beside him in bed, who had wiped them away; her fingers cool on his feverish cheeks. What a blessing that she did not know his mother tongue. What a blessing that she had been oblivious to him having to defend her, her blackness, to his own mother.
With graduation came the stamped deadline on Imran’s passport counting down the time when he would have to leave the United States. It felt like a ticking time bomb. News had arrived through Lamia that his mother had been speaking to a matchmaker, now that he was about to graduate from a college in the States — a veritable gold star for a marriage candidate back home in Bangladesh. She had decided that Imran’s marriage to a good Muslim girl would solve all her problems, Lamia had reported.
‘Just you wait,’ Imran’s mother had told Lamia. ‘He will forget all about that witch as soon as I can get him away from her clutches.’
She had been particularly taken with one of the girls of a family that was comfortable, if not exactly wealthy. The girl had just finished her schooling in the outskirts of Dhaka. Lamia had even sent him a photo of her sitting demurely, a forced smile under a headscarf. The too-bright flash illuminated the patchy white foundation she, or perhaps her mother, had used on her skin to make it a few shades lighter. His mother had even taken Lamia to meet the family.
‘At least she’s a good cook, Bhaiya!’ Lamia had said, her laughter choppy over the long distance call. ‘I can’t say much else since her father never let her open her mouth. She does cook a mean biryani, though.’
The course of his life had played out in his mind: marriage to a complete stranger; a girl he had never met. Love was off the table, perhaps even companionship. After all, there would be no shared mental space. He would work and she would stay at home playing servant. It would be years of silence at the dinner table until their mothers began asking about grandchildren. They wouldn’t be getting any younger, their mothers would say, and they would love so much to see grandchildren before they passed. They would oblige and bring children into a loveless marriage.
Then there would be the shackles of tradition: of pretending to be a good Muslim who took his sons to the Friday prayer at the mosque, gave them Qur’an lessons, and taught them the fear of God. His own father, when he was alive, had forced him to watch as he slaughtered a cow by his own hand each year on the day of qurbani.
And what of that part of him that had been nurtured by Abigail’s compassion, her acceptance? Once again he would have to stifle it until it withered and died. It would hang like a perpetual corpse around his neck — all for the sake of fitting into that mould of what they thought a man should be. A Muslim man. He could not do it. He would not do it.
He knew he could object to marriage, but not for long. Soon there would be other girls from other small towns — subservient, fair complexioned, good cooks. Girls bred to win over the mothers of prospective Bengali grooms. Gentle girls who never could afford the luxury of defiance, reserved only for the daughters of rich men, in their sleeveless blouses and posh colonial accents.
This is the fate that awaited him back home. Unless home was what he had built here with the woman he loved. If only she would marry him.
Imran remembered well how the light coming into their window-side booth at the diner felt. He had taken a photography course in college, and this was what his instructor had called ‘apocalyptic lighting’ — all back-lit dark clouds in a dismal sky. Photographs taken in this light were infused with drama. If he had his camera, this is what he would have captured: a cup of black coffee, the dark liquid like a mirror reflecting her countenance; Abigail’s mouth like a line betraying no emotion, but the hint of a furrow on her brows. Snap!
He watched Abigail watching her spoon swirl around the perimeter of her cup. The sugar had dissolved long ago, but she kept stirring as if hypnotized.
‘I don’t understand, Imran. Are you asking me to marry you, or are you asking me to sign a piece of paper to let you stay?’
Imran didn’t know the answer.
‘I don’t know, Abby. I don’t want to go home.’ This was all he could say.
This, she understood.
Many a time, lazily chewing betel leaf in the afternoon daze of hot summers, Imran’s mother would sit her restless boy on her knee and daydream about her only son’s wedding. He would look like a prince in his hand-embroidered sherwani, she said to him, while his bride would shy behind the red saree draped over her head. They would invite a thousand people: friends, neighbors, family, even the ones living in the villages. Giant cauldrons of biryani would feed everyone. They would sacrifice and roast a whole goat for the groom’s table in honor of his vitality. How far from the truth this had been, thought Imran.
He and Abigail had taken the 5 a.m. Amtrak into New York City — he in a simple but smart evening jacket, and she in a short white dress that hugged her body in lace, their fingers entwined and hearts beating fast. By the afternoon, they had been at the City Clerk’s Office squeezed in between a throng of other couples, nervously clutching ticket #C969 that indicated their place in the line entering the West Chapel. A friend of a friend had been hired as an amateur photographer. He also signed his name as a witness. The whole ceremony — vows and all — had taken no longer than a minute and a half. Blink and he could have missed it.
The photographer had driven them to Brooklyn Bridge afterwards for a photo shoot. Imran’s favorite photograph had been one where they were mostly silhouettes leaning across the side, watching the cars go by. The orange afternoon light had backlit a halo around Abigail’s head of corkscrew curls, like a divine revelation.
They had sprung for a night in the Honeymoon Suite at a boutique hotel in Brooklyn with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Exhausted from the day’s journey, they relaxed together in the bath.
Later, after they had their room service meal and, still in their bathrobes, they turned the lights off to watch the twinkling skyline — a complex organism of tiny points of light, its arterial freeways pulsing with life. Imran had gotten lost in one lit skyscraper window then another when Abigail had gotten up, and returned with a tube of lipstick and her bridal veil. Holding his head gently, she had applied the subtle pink to his lips and pinned the veil on top his head. Then, in the dark, lit only by the glow of faraway buildings, Abigail had lifted the delicate tulle falling over his face to kiss him. Imran knew then that he had made the right decision, and that this was the only decision he could have made.
After he called home with the news of his marriage, Imran’s mother shut herself in her room for days, Lamia had said. The trays of food Lamia prepared for her mother were left untouched. Her son had married a bidhormi, a woman outside the religion. How then would she reunite with her son at the gates of Heaven after she passed? And worse yet, a black woman!
Imran’s mother told Lamia that she had attended a sermon at a nearby mosque about marrying outside the faith. A Muslim woman was forbidden to do so, but a Muslim man would be allowed so long as he could convert a woman into Islam from one of the other two Abrahamic faiths.
‘But be wary of black women, sisters, and warn your sons!’ the preacher had reportedly said. ‘The ones who are not Muslim are pagan women familiar with the workings of dark magic, astagfirullah. They bathe only every fifteen days to let the Devil make himself at home in their impure bodies.’
Imran thought of how he had fallen in his mother’s eyes from her prince to a heathen who would burn in the fires of Hell. Some nights he would dream that he was hanging onto the achol of his mother’s saree like he had done when he was a boy, twisting and untwisting that loose end till it slipped from between his fingers, and she disappeared into thin air. The weight of this loss would slam him awake like a punch in the gut.
Imran pulled out one of Abigail’s drawers and burrowed to the back. He retrieved the sarees: one a lilac dupion silk with a delicate intricate flower print, the other a forest green georgette with patchwork. He selected the lilac.
While his mother grieved, it was his sister, Lamia, who had taken her place in welcoming Abigail to the family. She called often, developing a friendship with Abigail over video calls in fractured English. Soon after their marriage, a package arrived at their apartment. Inside were two beautifully wrapped sarees in a beaded bamboo basket. Wedding gifts. Lamia must have saved up months of the tuition money she had been paid to afford them.
He was touched, but had admonished her still. ‘I’m sending them back. You can return them to the store. I’m not going to be responsible for you starving yourself on your lunch break everyday.’
‘I’ll be fine, Bhaiya. You know it’s tradition.’
She was right. Imran remembered the extravagant weddings of his childhood and the parade of decorated dalas and bamboo baskets bearing all kinds of gifts, that would be exchanged between the two families. It was more than just an exchange of gifts. It was a way of saying, when I have, you will have too.
Somehow, in forsaking the traditions that felt like shackles around the feet, he had also given up the ones that gave wings to the heart.
Abigail had found the sarees beautiful, but she did not have the slightest clue as to how a large swath of fabric could wrap around her figure to create the beautifully draped dresses she had seen in pictures. As a boy, Imran had helped his mother drape her saree before Lamia was old enough to take over. He had held the delicate pleats, each separated by one of his small fingers so they would not bunch together while she tucked them into the waist of her petticoat. Imran delighted in the way the loose fabric took shape around his mother’s form. With a quick refresher from the Internet, he was able to wrap Abigail in a saree.
Imran opened up his own side of the closet and found a thin, maroon t-shirt to wear under the saree. And so he began. He closed his eyes and imagined his mother knotting the plain end of the garment in her hands — hands that smelled of ground cloves and cardamom. He felt the same soft knot of fabric forming in his hand, then he tucked it in. Next, he would have to wrap the saree around his body. This part had thrilled him as a boy. He had held the saree as his mother spun into it, like a soaring kite being spooled in.
The remaining fabric now hung from his waist. He gathered it up in his hand and began to form the pleats before tucking them in. His mother had praised the delicate pleats he could form with his child’s hands. Now, he used the tips of his fingers the best he could to form those same fine pleats. He twisted the saree around him once again as if twirling an invisible dance partner. Finally, he draped the end piece — the achol — over his shoulder like the tender, reassuring touch of a mother’s hand.
He stepped in front of the mirror to look at his handiwork. There, he saw a reflected figure standing at the doorway, and flinched.
‘Hey, I didn’t mean to startle you,’ Abigail said, her hands going up defensively. ‘There was a pile-up on the freeway and I had to turn back around,’ she said apologetically.
She moved towards him, smiling.
Abigail wrapped her arms around his waist and together they gazed at his reflection. He thought of the actor he had seen at the jatra performance when he was a boy; how he had morphed from a man in a saree to the serpent goddess herself. He looked at his image now, relishing this new skin, choosing for a moment to forget what it meant to shed the old.
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