Since the Last Soirée
By: Mehreen Ahmed

"How did all this happen?" Mila asked Lutfun one afternoon over tea. They were sitting in the garden under the berry tree.

"Well, here's the story," Lutfun said.

The servants of the House of Chowdhury, had prepared the front–yard as usual for a regular singing session. The family just finished dinner. At dinnertime, the master and the mistress of the House of the Chowdhury, Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury noticed that their youngest son Ashik's chair at the table's far end was unseated. After dinner, the family gathered on the mat in the front–yard, although they expected no singing tonight. There wasn't going to be one, because the singer, Ashik, had disappeared since last night. An uncanny silence surged in the atmosphere. It pervaded the adjacent gardens, next to the front–yard. Several lanterns placed around the musical instrument, shed light on a forlorn harmonium sitting on the mat without a vocalist. The slightly ajar gate, between the neighbor Raja Hashem's place, and the House of Chowdhury lent a view to how big this house was in the backdrop of the cottage next door. The House of Chowdhury, housed at least fifty members.

None among those fifty residents, almost no one, had any clues to Ashik's sudden disappearance, except Lutfun and Sheri. Ashik's brother, Sheri and his girlfriend, Lutfun had some inkling. They saw something two nights ago. They saw the couple sitting by themselves on the mat after the singing had ended, and the elders had gone to bed. Curiosity goaded the duo to watch. They witnessed a horrific revelation unfold right before their eyes. They saw, Ashik pull the neighbor's wife, Prema Hashem toward himself by the hand. She relented without a hesitation. It was a dark, moonless night. The monsoon covered all of the stars in the wake of an impending rain. But the lanterns had not been snuffed out just yet. The telltale tall shadows were a sign that the pair was in love. They held each other closely. Then he leaned to kiss her.

Lutfun was rooted to the balcony's mosaic floor. She blinked a few times, gripping Sheri's hand. Their gaze transfixed at the looming shadow. She sensed this was all wrong. How deplorable an act to covet the neighbor's wife? One, which would also hurt the reputation of the noble House of Chowdhury. They saw the shadows rise to make an egress through the main gate.

The following evening, people sat glumly outside on the mat in silence. Lutfun and Sheri were there too. Somewhat statued on the mat, they realized that this uncomfortable secret of the elopement needed to be told. They wanted to tell the family, but their courage failed them. This could become the fodder for gossip amongst the elite for days on end. Ashik's absence stirred the core of his parents' heart as it is; their son, a talented singer gone missing. The singing disrupted tonight on account of it.

A stormy wind picked up and swept through the front–yard. The elders, Ashik and Sheri's parents, Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury, quickly rose from the mat and went indoors with all other fifty members in tow, including Lutfun and Sheri. The flowers in the garden trembled in the gust. A few even wilted instantly, and snapped off their dry branches in matter of a few seconds.

This, a sprawling ancestral home, the House of Chowdhury, was a show of grandeur and their landed aristocracy. The Chowdhury family, may not have been particularly inclined toward conservatism, but the mistress of the family knew where to draw the line. She would not have condoned Ashik's elopement with the neighbor's wife if she knew. That would push her limits too far. However, everyone was still in the dark, except Lutfun and Sheri. All they knew was this, that Ashik had not been home since the last soirée. Raja Hashem reported his wife Prema Hashem to be missing as well. Only Lutfun and Sheri knew the truth. It was their best kept secret. They continued to observe the trepidation's without so much as a word.

A dream within a dream; a plot within a plot; a cloud over a cloud; a layer upon a layer, blues played out through the monsoon pour. Servants rushed to close windows around the house; the winds raged. The Lyra behind the wooden shutters, desperate in a bid to enter. When they couldn't enter, the drifts drove up fallen branches of dead leaves and the discarded weeds. The rain hammered on the open veranda. Behind closed doors, Lutfun lit a few candles inside the house and placed them around the room amongst the decrepit, antic furniture. Then she sat down on a high–backed chair in a cove of the room with the mistress of the house, Ashik and Sheri's mother, Mrs. Chowdhury.

They were Zaminders, every inch a King, and rightful landlords of their villages. They retained the title Chowdhury; a remnant, a whiff of a bygone era. A hedonistic lifestyle, which entertained decadence, and amorous behaviors. The Zaminders could practically engage in anything they wanted. Womanizing topped the list. They could take any number of women they pleased. The heavy smell of alcohol and the unending tinkling of ankle bells of court dancers stifled the palace air. Their official wives had not much say about who those Zaminders took as paramours. They were powerful men, who rarely cared about anyone's feelings. Even less, they cared how they squandered their money. Whether or not, their personal accountants kept an honest, vigilant tab on their accounts; the accumulated wealth over many generations. Clearly, some attracted more disrepute than the others, this was an era of no accountability; the Kings literally got away with every mortal sin on earth. The cozy confluence of power and money made them untouchable; the sanctuary of nobility, their refuge. They could even get away with bloody murder.

When revolution stirred, and governments turned, the Zaminderi tradition began to stink. The wheels of overhaul underway, it foretold the end of this sagging system, with the slow, but sure raid of colonization. This was the fulfillment of a destiny, riddled with the sins of fathers and the forefathers all the way up to the brim. An era, which had come round a full cycle. As the days ended, the crows and the bats went to sleep to wake up to a new rule of law. Although the class of Zaminders as a whole faced a major blow, however, they could not be cleansed any time soon. Some kept their old money, jewelry and their land assets. Then they forged deals with the new governments with serious face lifts. Such makeovers replaced the old corruption to a crisp newness.

God finally took a shine to the oppressed. Divine retribution descended on them in full fury like molten lead. It compromised the fate of these Zaminders from the House of Chowdhury too, which now hung in the balance. For a devastating flood occurred to boost the onslaught of colonization. It drowned many of their villages, ousting them into the cold. Most thought of it as comeuppance. It drove them out of their opulent home and forced them to make a choice between either to leave the village or die in the flood. They chose the former and migrated to town. Their ancestral village remained submerged for many years to come. But they survived by entering into business, and flourishing on the repute of being fallen aristocracy. They managed to remain well within the circle of similar high profile families.

Whatever happened to Prema Hashem and Ashik Chowdhury still remains to be found. The night of the monsoon rainfall, the family had sat grumbling over the disappearance of their beloved Ashik. Apart from Lutfun, and Sheri, no one else could shed any light. But their mouths were sealed. Somewhat they behaved like terrified, vexed children, who had been assaulted by a relative, and vowed to never divulge. The steady monsoon rain tapered off, like the gradually fading of anklet bells before a maudlin Chowdhury, soaked in alcohol and lust.

Then there was a knock on the door which the family couldn't hear at first. At first, they thought the window rattled from the rage of the winds. But this rattle became louder, until a servant opened the door. There were visitors at the door, who had come with bittersweet tidings. Ashik Chowdhury appeared on the doorstep with Prema Hashem. It was puzzling, but the news they carried was even more shocking. That Prema Hashem dressed in a red bridal sari, had her head covered in a veil. It eluded Mr and Mrs.Chowdhury. Ashik and Prema Hashem walked over the threshold. Ashik entered at first, followed by a demure Prema Hashem. In the lime candle light, she looked soft and young. Her fair, flawless beauty impressed everyone in the room, as they looked at her speechless. She came forward and stood before the mistress of the house.

Lutfun and Sheri watched in awe. Mrs. Chowdhury's face paled. She rose from a leggy, but rickety chair. It creaked, and fell resoundingly giving way to its weak structure. She looked at Ashik with rage emanating through her eyes. Then she spat out, "What have you done? Are you in your right mind? Have you gone mad?" Ashik stood there with his head bowed in front of the revered Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury and the rest of the family.

"We're in love," he said.

It hurt Sheri to see his suave, talented brother slighted and diminished to this.

"You couldn't find anyone else to fall in love with? But of all people, it had to be her?" his mother retorted. And then, she declared to everyone's astonishment."Get out. Out! This very minute, I don't care where you go!"

Mr. Chowdhury tried to calm her down by patting on her back. But she was inconsolable. She was not prepared to give even an inch of a leeway. He said, "Calm down, where would they go in this rain?"

"Rain or sunshine, I don't care. I disown you. Get out of here this very minute." She then turned toward the family. She said in full fury, "Listen up everyone, if I find out anyone helping them, make no mistake you too will be kicked out."

Saying so, she left the room. A servant followed her with a candle. Mr. Chowdhury meekly went out with her. However, Sheri and Lutfun couldn't endure this anymore. They knew this would be frowned upon, but they came forward to the newlywed's aid anyway, as soon as the elders left. They whispered to Ashik and Prema Hashem that they could sleepover in the guest room for one night on the roof; a room, with a view of the full sky and a hanging garden of enchanting monsoon blossoms; green tiger ferns, yellow lilies, arundina pink, and orchids, growing abundantly over the musty, brick walls.

Although they colluded with Ashik, against Mrs. Chowdhury's will. But this pleased Lutfun, as much as it pleased Ashik and his new wife. Ashik decided to spend his wedding night with his wedded wife in his own house, like a thief–in–a–hideout. The wake of a fresh rain triggered a keening of a muggy night's wind. Mila's apprehensions got the better of her.

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