Tree of Sorrow

by Silmy Abdullah

Silmy Abdullah is a Bangladeshi Canadian author and lawyer based in Toronto. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Toronto and completed her law degree at the University of Ottawa. Silmy is the author of Home of the Floating Lily, a collection of eight short stories that highlight the Bengali immigrant experience in Toronto.

I was five years old when I discovered that my mother’s name wasn’t “Ma.” It was her birthday, and a delivery man came to our door early in the morning, bearing a “package for Nasreen.” As my mother took the item from him, which I later learned was a gift from a friend, I stood beside her and tugged at her kameez, demanding to know who Nasreen was. 

“That’s me, dear,” she said as she tried to control her laughter. “That’s my name. Haven’t you heard your Baba call me that?” 

Afterwards, she remembered that I hadn’t, because Baba, my father, addressed her as “Laila’s Ma” (Laila’s mother), at least in my presence. I stood silently with a look of shock and confusion, my eyebrows scrunched, my Barbie doll dangling from one hand while the other still held on to my mother’s kameez.

“But your name is Ma!” I finally yelled, before she let out a loud laugh and sat me down on her lap to give me a fuller explanation. 

It’s a story Ma loves to tell at dinner parties and gatherings, to our family friends and neighbours. She has never shared any such anecdote about my discovery of my father’s name, nor do I ever recall thinking that he couldn’t be someone other than “Baba.”

“Can you imagine?” she says, each time with a chuckle. “She actually thought my name was Ma. The way she looked at me that day! So disappointed, heartbroken almost.”

I have no recollection of the happenings in my mother’s story.  But the first time I remember feeling anything similar to what I supposedly did on that day, was in my grandmother’s house in Dhaka. 

I had just turned seven. School had closed for Christmas, and Ma announced we were going to visit Bangladesh. It would be just Ma and I. Baba had no Christmas break, because he drove a taxi, unlike Ma, who was a lunchroom supervisor at a school in our neighbourhood. That winter, I learned that I was born in Bangladesh, not Canada. On the plane, sipping her cool mango drink from a plastic cup, Ma told me that we moved to Toronto just before my second birthday, and this was our first trip back “home” since we’d left. Looking out the window at the big cotton clouds, as if lost in a dream, Ma went on and on about my grandmother’s house, her childhood home, which was a 15-minute drive from the house she moved to after marrying Baba. “Oh, how you used to love the car ride,” she told me. “As soon as you saw your grandmother, you’d run right to her lap.” Resting my arm on the tray table, I listened quietly as I coloured a butterfly on my sketchpad. Though my mother had taught me both Bangla and English, though I knew Bengali fish and rice as much as I knew pizza and pasta, I couldn’t believe I could come from any other place but Canada. After three plane rides, when we stepped into Dhaka airport, it seemed like a foreign place I was visiting for the first time. The air was suffocating, as was the crowd. I had never seen so many people before. This was a different planet. 

On a few occasions before our trip, Ma had shown me photos of my grandmother. I have vague memories of speaking to her on the phone, twice perhaps, though I remember nothing of those conversations. I was taught to call her “Nani.” Ma also explained to me that Nani was her mother, but until I saw my grandmother that winter, I only recall thinking of her as some kind of distant, magical, other-worldly being, like the ones in the bedtime stories Ma often told me. I remember imagining her as a fairy godmother named “Nani,” somehow related to me but not to my mother, appearing briefly in my life, then disappearing. In most of my memories before that trip, Nani isn’t there. 

Nani looked like a ghost, her white cotton sari wrapped around her body and flared at the bottom like a partially opened umbrella …

My grandmother was standing by the front gate of her home, a three-storey building in the heart of Dhaka. She lived on the ground floor and rented out the top two. A smile spread across Nani’s face as we stepped out of the black SUV she’d sent to the airport to fetch us. I stared at her as I walked out with Ma, our hands locked together. Nani looked like a ghost, her white cotton sari wrapped around her body and flared at the bottom like a partially opened umbrella, her gray-white hair intertwined in a thin, long braid. 

“Nasreen, my darling!” she said as she opened her arms. 

For a few moments, my mind couldn’t register that Nasreen was my mother, until she let go of my hand and ran into my grandmother’s embrace. That is when it came—a sharp stab in my heart, that crushing disappointment my mother describes in her story. “Yes, Ma, your Nasreen has returned,” she said to my grandmother. It was as if Ma was someone else, someone I didn’t know.

When they finally released each other, my grandmother’s eyes met mine. I hadn’t moved an inch from where I was standing. She was the one who walked up to me. She knelt and kissed me on the cheek. “Laila, my princess,” she said in Bangla as she stood back up. “You’ve grown so big!  Won’t you say hi to your Nani?”

“Say salaam to Nani, dear,” Ma said. “This is your grandmother. Finally, you get to see her, after so long! Remember what I taught you? Nani is Bangla for grandmother, just like Ma is Bangla for mom.” Ma came and stood beside Nani and wrapped her arms around her as she leaned her head against her shoulder. “She is my Ma, just like I am your Ma.”

I looked at the two women blankly. There was a strange, unfamiliar mix of fragrances in Nani’s body. Later, I would learn that it was the Nivea cream and the Head & Shoulders shampoo that Ma sent for her from Canada. Nani didn’t look like Ma. She was plump and petite. My mother was tall and slender, like a film actress. When Ma towered over me, she looked like a goddess, an angel who protected me with her wings. But that day, for the first time, Ma looked small, like a little girl. 

Nani’s house had many rooms, and no stairs. A long hallway ran through the middle, connecting to the kitchen, the living room, and all the bedrooms. A large dining table sat in the middle of the hallway. There were eight chairs around the table, and I wondered why. Ma told me it was because she had five brothers and sisters, and they were all scattered in different parts of the world. The seventh chair was for my grandfather, who died long before I was born. My mind couldn’t grasp the idea of having that many siblings, or having any siblings, or my mother having siblings. I was an only child, and Ma and Baba were my world. I couldn’t comprehend my mother having her own world, one that existed before me, outside of me. 

Ma was the youngest, she said, so she was the last of her brothers and sisters to leave Nani’s home. For a good number of years, it was just the two of them in the house. Even after marriage, Ma was always around, dropping by for a cup of afternoon tea, sometimes spending the night with Nani when Baba was out of town for work. Then, two years after I was born, Ma and Baba left Bangladesh. They left for me, to give me a better future. “That is when Nani cried,” Ma said. “For a whole week straight.” She paused and looked at me as I went quiet, then quickly resumed. “But she adjusted fast,” Ma said with a smile on her face that didn’t match the tears lingering in her eyes. So naturally, I didn’t believe her. 

After we bathed and changed our clothes, Nani invited us to the dining table. “Have some snacks,” she said. “Lunch isn’t ready yet.”

Nani sat at the head-chair, while Ma and I seated ourselves across from one another on the chairs closest to Nani. I had expected Ma to sit beside me like she always did at home, arranging one plate of food for the both of us. I wanted to hear her bangles jingle as she alternated between putting one morsel in her mouth and another in mine. It was our ritual. I waited for her to change her seat, but she didn’t. Within minutes, Sakina, the maid, brought a bowl of freshly diced yellow mangoes. I watched as Nani filled Ma’s plate with them, and then her own. When she reached over to serve me, I refused. “I’m not hungry,” I said. I looked at Ma. With a piercing look, she made it known that she was angry, that I was being rude to Nani, so I began to eat. 

“It’s not her fault,” Nani said. “These aren’t the best. It’s not mango season. Plus, I’m sure you get better fruits in Toronto than this.”

I said nothing to Nani to confirm or refute her belief. I ate in silence, chewing slowly as the flavour burst in my mouth. It was the best mango I’d ever had. 

Within half an hour, lunch was served—steaming white rice, three types of fish curry, a pink coloured spinach and chicken roast, especially made for me. Ma had told Nani I loved roast. But the chicken pieces were too small, and there was barely any meat on them. After a bite or two, I started to move the rice mixture back and forth with my fingers, not wanting to eat anymore. Ma and Nani’s plates were wiped clean, except for a few lingering streaks of curry. Then, I saw something strange. On the same plates, Nani and Ma placed some rice again. Next, they topped it with some of the left-over mango pieces from their earlier snacking and poured cold milk on top. With their hands, they lumped everything into a sticky mixture and brought it to their mouths, devouring it as milk dripped from the sides of their fingers. It was a revolting sight. 

“Doodh-bhaat!” Ma said. “I am having it after so long.”

I wondered why Ma didn’t eat Doodh-bhaat in Canada. We always had mangoes sitting in our kitchen fruit bowl, and jugs of milk and a pot of rice in the fridge. By the second day in Dhaka, I realized it was something Ma only did with Nani. This was their ritual, and I was not a part of it. 

Nani had a room ready just for me, in the innermost section of the house, across from her own room. “It used to be your mother’s,” she said. “I left it just as it was before she got married. You and your Ma used to come and stay here when you visited.”

There were no pictures on the chipped, dull green walls, no toys in the corners like my room in Toronto had. A steel cabinet with a rusty, metallic smell leaned against one of the walls. A double bed sat in the middle of the room with ugly, yellow flowers printed on the bedsheet, its foot facing the window overlooking the backyard. The window framed part of a tree, which I didn’t notice until it was nighttime. 

As Ma tucked me in bed that night, I kept on looking at the window, and then looking away. The tree was a ghostly silhouette, its leaves rustling like apparitions in the dark. Seeing my expression, Ma walked up and pulled the curtains shut. “Are you scared, sweety?” she said. 

“Where are you sleeping?” I asked her.

“With Nani,” she told me. 

“But this is your room.”

“I rarely get to sleep with Nani, dear,” she told me. “Plus, you always sleep by yourself at home. You’re my big girl, aren’t you? Here, let me put you to sleep.”

I moved my face away from her and pretended to sleep while Ma lightly patted my back, and when she finally walked out of the room, I began to cry. How could Ma leave me alone in this strange, unfamiliar place? How was she forgetting about me so easily? In a matter of a day, she had started to feel like a stranger. 

The second night, after Ma left my room, I crawled out of bed and peered into Nani’s bedroom. The door was ajar, and I tried my best to not make myself seen or heard. Ma and Nani were sitting on the bed with an array of items spread out before them—shoes, clothes and a few bulky packets covered in plastic bags and taped many times over. Ma’s suitcase lay open on the floor. She ripped the tape off one of the packets and handed the bag to Nani as it unrolled itself. Nani dug in and took out three blue containers that said “Nivea” on it, and four bottles that said “Head & Shoulders.” Her face lit up as she fingered each item.

“Thank you,” Nani said to Ma. “Come, let me comb your hair.”

Ma shifted on the bed and sat in front of Nani, her eyes shut in a state of pure bliss as her mother ran the comb through her hair. From a distance, I watched the two of them in their world, a world where I didn’t seem to exist. I quietly tip-toed back into my room and crawled into bed. I stayed awake, hoping Ma would come back just once to check on me, but she didn’t. 

For the next few days of our trip, Nani tried to pamper me with all things possible. She took me and Ma to crowded markets and bought expensive dresses for me, which I thought were ugly. She offered ice-cream after shopping, but I insisted on going home. One day, she planned a trip to the theme park. Though I had no interest in going, I agreed only because I was bored in the house. Nani bought tickets for each ride. She and Ma sat on the bench and waved at me while I went in circles on the merry-go-around. When it was time for the ferris wheel, all three of us got on. Ma sat beside me and wrapped her arms around me, while Nani sat across from us. 

“Excited?” she asked as our capsule lifted off the ground and began to float in the air. 

Without answering her, I held her tightly, and she planted a kiss on my head. 

The very next moment, she pulled herself away from me and began to talk to Nani. The closed compartment started to suffocate me, and I wanted to get off as soon as possible. From the top, as our capsule swung back and forth in the evening wind, I looked down at the tacky, multi-coloured lights blinking everywhere in the park. This was nothing compared to the theme parks in Toronto. I couldn’t wait to go back.

Every morning, Nani instructed Sakina to make different types of delicacies for me. One day there was prawn curry, another day there was kachchi biryani. By the time afternoon rolled around, sweet yogurt arrived from a nearby sweet shop—rich, creamy, perfectly settled in clay pots. It angered me that Nani thought this would make up for what she was doing, that it would make me forget that she was taking Ma away from me. 

One evening, a couple of days before the end of our trip, I told Ma I wanted pizza from Pizza Pizza. Nani told me there was no Pizza Pizza in Dhaka, but within an hour, hot pizza and burgers arrived in our house from a bakery nearby. Nani’s driver, Sajjad, knew where the most popular restaurants and bakeries were.

“I don’t want this,” I said. “It looks gross.”

I looked at Ma for her support, for words that would assure me that I wasn’t wrong, that she understood how I felt, but instead, she looked back at me with the same, piercing eyes, and scolded me until I cried. “You’ve become very spoiled,” she yelled. “Nani is trying so hard, and you are acting like a brat. Learn to adjust. You’re not in Canada.”

“I know,” I got up and yelled back. “And I don’t want to be here. I miss home.” 

I stormed into my room and closed the door. Ma tried to follow me, but Nani stopped her. I heard her say something softly to Ma. Jumping onto my bed, I pulled the blanket over me, never wanting to come out. Every now and then, I peeked out at the window, wishing for the tree outside to disappear. But there it was, standing firm and tall, haunting me through the gap of the curtains, keeping me awake. 

After a few hours, just as night was transitioning into day, the creaking sound of the door made me sit up with a jolt. It was Nani. She entered my room and sat beside me on the bed, a large shawl draped over her head, the beads of a rosary slipping off the tips of her fingers one by one as her lips moved continuously. Nani had woken up to pray.

“You’re awake, princess?” She said. 

“Where is Ma?” I asked her. 

“In the shower,” Nani replied. “She is getting ready to pray. Come, I would like to show you something.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now.” 

Nani stood up and began to walk out of the room. Scratching my eyes with the back of my hand, I followed her. 

“Where are we going?” I asked her.

“You will see.”

We went out the front door of her house and around until we reached the backyard. A thick film of mist hovered over us. We were standing in front of the dreaded tree that stared at me from the window every night. I’d been so afraid that I never bothered to open the curtains during the day to get a complete view of it. This was the first time I saw it in its entirety, in all its shapes and contours, the colours more apparent. This time, what I saw was beyond my imagination. On the tree, there were hundreds of white flowers with orange stems at the back. They shone like little jewels. They were the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen. A soft, subtle scent wafted from them. 

“These are Shefali flowers,” Nani said.

Later, I would learn that they were also called night-flowering jasmine, as the flowers would bloom at night and start to fall in the dawn. I looked at the ground and saw a carpet of them, little pearls of white and orange scattered under the tree. 

“Want to see some magic?” she asked. She then told me to hold the tree from the other side. I put my hands on the trunk and Nani did the same. “Now shake,” she said. “Gently.” 

Together, we gave the tree a little shake, and within seconds, hundreds of flowers began to rain on us. In an instant, an intoxicating perfume filled the air and enveloped us completely. It was the most beautiful, magical thing I had ever experienced. 

“Now, I want to show you something even more magical,” Nani said. She handed me a basket that was sitting by the tree, pulling out a spool of thread and a needle. “Fill up the basket with as many flowers as you can.” I did as she asked and then, sitting beside me on a bench by the tree, she took the flowers and began to stitch them together. Soon, it became a fragrant bracelet. I was mesmerized. 

“So pretty,” I said. “So, this is a Shefali tree?”

“It has many names,” Nani said. “Shefali tree, Shiuli tree. Did you know, sometimes it’s called Tree of Sorrow?”

“What does sorrow mean?”

“You know, when you’re sad.”

“Why is it called that?”

“I don’t really know,” Nani said. “There are different stories.”

“But why would something so pretty be called tree of sadness?” I asked. Then, I said, “Oh, I know! Is it because the flowers fall from the tree so soon? Before even morning comes?”

“Look at you, you smart cookie,” Nani said. “That could be one reason. You see, sadness and beauty, they can go together. Sometimes, something beautiful can come out of sorrow. Something different, but beautiful,” she said as she slipped the bracelet into my hand. 

I kept on staring at Nani. I had no idea what she meant, but it was a moment I would never forget. Throughout the years of my life, that image of Nani would come rushing back to me all too often, without warning, without permission. Each time, I would find myself surprised that I remembered exactly what she had said, word for word. 

Soon, Ma joined us. Her eyes were no longer angry. She approached me with a smile and kissed me on my cheek as she sat beside me. “A party without me,” she said. “Not fair!” By then, Nani had already made another bracelet. She handed it to Ma. “How beautiful!” she remarked.

I thought Ma was going to get up and seat herself beside Nani. But she didn’t. Sakina brought two cups of tea, and Nani and Ma sipped languidly as I remained perched in the middle. I loved that Ma was beside me, but for the first time, it didn’t feel so bad to have Nani by my side as well. We sat together until daylight spread through the sky. 

That night, I fell asleep in my room instantly, before Ma had a chance to come and pat me. The curtains were partly open, but the tree was less unfamiliar this time, less frightening. The next day, the fruits on the table didn’t taste so foreign, and when Nani asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner, I told her I would be willing to eat the pizza she had brought last time, and sweet yogurt for dessert. But I didn’t stop counting my hours to our return to Toronto. I missed my house, I missed Baba, and I missed my mother, the one I knew in my world. 

On the morning of our departure, I got ready for the airport in no time. I could not wait to get on the plane, to go back to our apartment, to sleep in my room and wake up to the view of snow-covered trees, to eat food cooked by Ma and ordered from my favourite restaurant. Before getting in the car, I went to the backyard with Nani and took one last look at the Shefali tree. She slid another flower bracelet onto my wrist. “You won’t forget me, will you?” she said. 

I don’t remember fully what I said in response, only that I would call her more often. Nani didn’t cry that morning. It was Ma who sobbed, first in Nani’s arms, then inside the car. I didn’t know what to do or say to her as she wept, as my own tears poured down my face. Though I could be indifferent to my mother’s happiness, my mother’s sadness ate away at my soul. 

Four years passed and Ma didn’t go back to Bangladesh, though she spoke to Nani every weekend. I, too, began to talk to her more frequently, though our conversation never went beyond asking each other how we were doing, and me telling Nani that school was going well. Ma kept a photo from our visit, the three of us at the theme park, inside her wallet. Often, when she stopped to get gas after picking me up from school, or at the cashier while paying for groceries, she would glance at the photo and then quickly return to finishing her task. 

Ma had begun to work longer hours, switching from her lunch-room supervisor job to tutoring children from our building. Resting is something I rarely saw my mother do. I hardly ever found her on the couch, reading a book or watching TV, or taking an afternoon nap like Baba often did. Her evenings were mostly reserved for my duties, fetching me from school, checking my homework, making sure the table always had food of my liking. I wondered sometimes why Ma didn’t go back to Bangladesh often if she missed Nani so much. For a while, I couldn’t understand why Baba didn’t force her to go. Was it because his own parents were dead, and he had no one to miss? Would he have been so indifferent if he had his own parents to visit? But Baba didn’t seem like that. I had never seen my parents fight or be angry with each other. I couldn’t imagine my father doing anything that would hurt my mother. 

One night, I saw Ma and Baba sitting together on the living room rug. With a notebook open on the coffee table, she was filling out columns and charts with numbers while Baba punched away at his calculator, both their faces marked with lines of worry. 

“I may need to start driving more,” Baba said. “We’re not putting away enough money for Laila.”

“I’m going to stop buying new saris for Eid,” Ma said. “I have so many that I haven’t worn yet.”

A part of me felt relieved Ma didn’t go. I couldn’t stand to see my mother slipping away from me all over again. 

I observed my parents as they meticulously planned their finances, my father increasing his work hours, my mother slashing her expenses, all for me. Saving money to visit Nani wasn’t part of their plans. A part of me felt relieved Ma didn’t go. I couldn’t stand to see my mother slipping away from me all over again. 

Near the end of my grade six school year, on a cloudy summer morning, a phone call came to our home. Nani was in the hospital. The news arrived from my uncle, Ma’s older brother, who had traveled from Malaysia to visit her. I had no idea that Nani had been ill for a long time, that her kidneys had failed two years ago, that in addition to Sakina, she now had a caretaker living with her. After two years of dialysis, her body was finally giving up. 

It was hard to imagine her like that. Nani, the strong, vivacious woman I’d seen four years ago, living and doing everything by herself, not a hint of illness in her appearance or her life. 

“What is dialysis?” I asked Ma. She explained, and I shuddered as I imagined all the blood from Nani’s body going into a machine and then back into her body, while she lay in a hospital bed. Her body was no longer responding to the treatment, my uncle said. The doctors could not guarantee anything. 

“Should I go?” Ma asked Baba that night. 

Their bedroom door was ajar. I could hear them from the living room. 

“Of course, you should.” Baba said, his arms around her and his head tenderly touching hers. 

“But what about Laila?” Ma said. “How will she spend so much time without me? 

I agreed with Ma. I would be devastated without her beside me. Who would help me with my homework? Make my lunch every day? Baba rarely did these things, and it just wouldn’t be the same with him. With Ma gone, there would be a void in our home, in our lives. 

Baba suggested she take me with her, but Ma refused to disrupt the end of my school year. “Plus, it will be too stressful for her there,” she said. “I will be in the hospital all the time.”

The next evening, Ma came into my room and sat beside me while I played a game on the computer. She placed a sandwich on the desk. A happy face, drawn on the bread with ketchup, stared back at me. She took my hand in hers. “Darling, you know that Nani is sick, right?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I replied. 

“I may have to go and spend some time with her.” She paused, taking in my tightly shut lips, my lowered eyes. “Would you be okay if I go for a month? If you want, I can do three weeks.”

I didn’t like the way Ma was begging for my permission, my approval. 

“Ma,” I finally said. “Is Nani going to die?”

My mother looked away for a second or two, then brought her gaze back to me. 

“No,” she said with a subtle force, as if trying to convince herself, not me. “She will be fine, Insha-Allah.”

I believed her. Nothing could happen to Nani. At the same time, the desperation, the fear, the grief in my mother’s eyes broke my heart.

“You should go,” I said to her. “Nani needs you.” 

She smiled as she hugged me. I felt her lungs releasing a deep breath as I pressed my head against her chest.

But Ma delayed her flight for a few more days. She sat with me every night, making sure I was caught up with my homework. Perusing through my syllabus, she made a note about my upcoming assignments and answered my questions as I prepared ahead. In the mornings, she cooked an assortment of curries, and different types of rice so I wouldn’t get bored—biryani for one day, polau for another, and plain white rice as back up. She stored them in Tupperware and stacked them in the fridge. Some went in the freezer, arranged in a pyramid, largest container at the bottom, the smallest on top. I wondered where my mother got her impeccable organizational skills from. It must have been Nani. When we were in Dhaka, I remember Ma opening Nani’s closet one day—an array of saris sat inside every shelf, in different shades of beige and white, folded and stacked in perfect rectangles, all the edges matching with precision. 

“Make sure you finish the ones in the fridge first,” Ma said to me. “Then go to the freezer, okay? Remind Baba as well.”

Every day, Ma spoke on the phone to my uncle in Bangladesh, getting updates on Nani’s health. One day she was slightly stable, the next day she was not.

“You mustn’t delay anymore,” Baba told her one day. 

“I must make sure Laila is okay first,” she replied. “So I can be tension free when I am with my mother. This is the first time I am leaving her behind for this long.”

Ma started for Bangladesh on a hot evening in June. The rest of my aunts and uncles had also begun their journeys from different parts of the world, a reunion waiting to happen after many years. At the airport, she kissed me many times all over my face, then disappeared into the security area.

Ten hours later, I was roused by the phone ringing. At that hour, it could only have been Ma. She’d told us she would phone after she reached London, her first transit. I jumped out of bed and ran to the living room. Baba was already there. He was standing by the table where the telephone sat, the receiver pressed against his ear. Seeing him, my arms and legs went numb. He stood quietly, like a statue, his face wet with tears. On the other end of the line—the sound of crying. Loud, uncontrollable wailing. A few seconds later, he dropped the receiver from his hand, sat on the couch, and covered his face with his palms.  

“Baba, what happened?” I asked as I ran to him.

A click from the other end. The line was disconnected. 

“Your Nani,” he said. “She’s gone. Your Ma couldn’t make it.” 

At first, I didn’t believe my father. This wasn’t within the realm of possibility in my mind. How could it be? Ma had assured me that Nani would get better. How could she go so fast, without waiting for her Nasreen to arrive? I ran back to my room and shut the door, panting as I sobbed. Baba didn’t come and knock on my door. I heard the sound of his bedroom door shutting. He knew, perhaps, that it was better for both of us to be alone. Except, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and saw a being that I hated. Would it have killed me if I’d gone with Ma? If I hadn’t finished my school year? Why didn’t I protest when she decided to stay back for me? Why didn’t I force her to go to Nani earlier? Then, a thought came and hit me like the winds of a sudden storm. Why did I come to this world? If Ma hadn’t become a mother, she could have been my Nani’s daughter, her Nasreen. 

Ma returned from Dhaka a week later. After the burial rites were complete, and a few meals with her brothers and sisters without my Nani, the connecting glue, there was nothing else to do, no reason to stay.  I didn’t accompany Baba to the airport to pick her up. For the whole week, I had had minimal communication with my father. After he picked me up from school, we spent most of our time in our own bedrooms, only to convene at the lunch and dinner table, quietly eating with our eyes on the food. I wished I could stay in school for the whole day, and I knew that Baba also wished that he could distract himself all day with his driving. As much as I eagerly awaited my mother’s return, I wanted to hide from her for as long as I could. When she walked through the door of our home and hugged me, I wished that I would disappear forever. 

Ma had started to behave strangely. She didn’t cry or withdraw into silence like I’d expected her to. The day after her return, she cleaned out our fridge, taking an inventory of all the food we had ignored while she was away, sniffing to see if anything had gone bad, making a note of what fresh dishes to cook. Baba offered to help, a rare occurrence in our household, but she declined. She began to perform her tasks with a new level of focus and perfection, dusting the furniture more rigorously first thing in the morning, quickly putting breakfast for us on the table, then getting ready for work half an hour earlier than she normally did. It was I who cried myself to sleep every night, my eyes puffed up like a bull frog’s the next morning. 

“Don’t be sad, dear. It’s Allah’s will,” Ma comforted me, as if I was the one who had lost her mother, not she. 

Nothing affected the perfection with which she showered her love on me. The only thing I noticed was that Ma didn’t smile as much as she did before. When she and Baba were invited to dinner gatherings in the building, they returned home earlier than before. Some nights, just around the time Ma would telephone Nani, I would find her on the balcony, staring at the sky. I couldn’t understand these adults, their ways of grieving. I couldn’t live without my Ma for a day. How was she going to spend a lifetime without Nani?  

Eventually, my mother’s smile returned. She laughed and cracked jokes, and became her old self, the way I’d known her. But I couldn’t go back to who I was. My mother’s apparent happiness didn’t give me solace. Instead, it made me more restless. Did she not feel sad anymore? Was she not enraged that she missed the final chance to say goodbye to her mother? That she sacrificed years of closeness with Nani because of me? The more she emerged from her shell, the more I retreated into mine. But I made sure Ma didn’t notice. I no longer appeared before her with puffy, tear-filled eyes. Each time she caught my silence and inquired about it, I was quick to make up a new excuse—a fight with a friend, a headache, the stress of schoolwork. 

At one point, Ma started to do something she’d never done before at home. She’d begun to eat Doodh-bhaat. Every day, she kept a glass of milk and a bowl of diced mango beside her at the lunch and dinner table. Without fail, she mixed a handful of rice with the milk and mango after each meal, and I watched her eat it slowly, contemplatively, a meditative calm descending upon her face each time. 

One day, she asked me to join her. 

“Try some?” she said. 

“No, thanks, Ma, I am full.” It was a lie, of course. But how could I invade her sacred ritual with Nani?

Ma didn’t question me any further. That was the last time she asked me to have Doodh-bhaat with her. I was 13 at the time.

I never asked Ma if she missed Nani, how she felt inside, if she needed a hug or wanted to cry it out. I had no right to. But whenever Ma talked about Nani, I forced myself to listen, despite my strongest desire to escape. I laughed along when she laughed, helped her organize Nani’s photos when she asked me to, and tried to make sure my eyes did not wander when she shared her memories. Every year, on Nani’s death anniversary, I sat with my parents for her prayer service in our home, distributed packets of biryani to the guests with a smile on my face, and then ran to my best friend’s house next door to have a good cry. 

I didn’t want my parents to get the slightest hint, to comfort me, to try and lessen my guilt. I could no longer be a burden to my mother. I was through being selfish, and when I turned 20 and met my husband, I made a promise to myself and demanded he do the same—we wouldn’t move far away from my parents. I had taken Ma away from her mother. I would not rob her of her daughter, too.


Today, my 17-year-old daughter is leaving me. Since my marriage, I have remained in the same neighbourhood as Ma and Baba. All these years, I have been grateful that my daughter and I are in a country that has given us a permanent home, a place we wouldn’t be compelled to leave behind, like my mother and father were. But ultimately, I couldn’t keep my daughter with me. With a scholarship from the University of Sydney, she is moving to the other corner of the world. 

Her flight is in a few hours. She kneels beside me as I sit on a chair in her bedroom. Ma is standing behind us. My husband is waiting for her in the car, ready to drop her at the airport. “You’ll be okay?” she asks me. “I’ll be back for summer holidays.”

I try to hold back my tears. I look around at her room, at every piece of furniture, every crease in her bedsheet. I think of the time when Nani was sick, how she died before Ma could reach her. Though I am young and healthy, not even 40 years old, I imagine the worst. What if I don’t see my daughter that often? Will years go by before I meet her again? If something happens to me, will she reach me on time? I am engulfed by an intense sorrow at the thought. 

Then, the very next moment, I look at my daughter’s smiling face, and I am overcome by a feeling of absolute joy, the bliss of seeing my daughter happy, observing her life unfold as she spreads her wings. “I am thrilled for you,” I say. “What more could a mother want other than her child’s happiness?”

“I love you, Ma,” she says, kissing me on the forehead. 

As she heads out the door, I catch my mother’s reflection in the mirror. Ma lets out an exhale as if she has been waiting for this moment for an eternity. She reminds me so much of Nani these days. The saris she wears are mostly white, and just like Nani, she has grown round and chubby. 

“How beautiful it is, no?” Ma says. “Being a mother.”

Suddenly, I remember that morning in Dhaka, when Nani and I stood under the shower of Shefali flowers. I don’t know how it happens, but finally, as if through an external force I have no control over, I release the words I haven’t had the courage to say for all these years. 

“Ma, don’t you miss Nani?” 

Ma walks around my chair and faces me. “Your Nani is always with us, love,” she says, gently placing her palm on my cheek.  “But,” she says after a momentary pause. “I do miss my daughter.”

I stare at my mother, stunned. 

“None of it was your fault,” she says. 

I remain shocked as I wonder how my mother knows. I have been so careful. 

Though I have always been with her, I have failed to be present, to grieve with her, to understand her.

I begin to cry, and Ma pulls me into her embrace. “Why did you shut yourself out? Why didn’t you talk to me?”

My mother’s question hits me like a ton of bricks. Though I have always been with her, I have failed to be present, to grieve with her, to understand her. “I felt responsible for it all, all your sacrifices, all your duties that kept you away from her, even when she was dying,” I say. “I took you so far away. You were so busy being my mother that you couldn’t be her daughter.”

“My goodness, you’re unbelievable,” Ma says. “A fully grown woman but saying such silly things!” She taps me lightly on the head, and smiles. 

“My crazy girl,” she says. “When I became a mother, I became a better daughter.” 

I stare at my mother as her words slowly sink into my mind. I am not sure if I can say the same about myself. 

“Laila darling. There is an inherent sorrow in motherhood. The minute your child emerges from the darkness of your womb, the journey of separation begins. It happens over and over again,” she continues, “when you cut the umbilical cord, when they go to school for the first time, every time they rebel against you, when they get married. But something beautiful comes out of this sadness, walks along with it, dances with it, overcomes it in many ways. You know this, believe me.”

I nod as Ma speaks. Her words strike me like ocean waves, crashing against the shore, then receding gently, having soaked and softened the sand. Suddenly, I am smiling. Somewhere deep within, I know exactly what she means. My gaze shifts to my reflection in the mirror and I catch a few strands of gray hair by the front of my head, just like Nani had. 

“Let’s eat,” Ma says. “It’s getting late.”

For the first time in my life, I join my mother for an after-dinner treat of cold milk, rice and mangoes—Doodh-bhaat. We look at each other and smile, as we savour the delicious flavours. 

Tomorrow is Nani’s death anniversary. I ask Ma how many people she wants to invite, where to order food from, and promise to spend the night with her afterwards. This time, Ma doesn’t share any memories of Nani. So, I ask her about the present, about Nani’s house. Everything is the same, she tells me—no new occupant, not a single piece of furniture removed. Sakina and the caretaker are still there, guarding the house and cleaning it routinely, and opening it up whenever one or more of Nani’s children decide to visit Bangladesh.

“What about the Tree of Sorrow?” I asked her.

“What?”

“The Shefali Tree.”

“Oh,” Ma said. “The old one died. The caretaker planted a new one.”

My daughter calls me from the airport, tells me she will be boarding soon. Tears appear in the corners of my eyes after I hang up. Ma nudges me. 

“Laila, eat my dear,” she says. “Don’t worry. She will be back before you know it.”

I hold my mother’s hand and release a deep breathe. For a brief moment, I think of Nani, her house, the Shefali tree—both the old one and the new. Then, as my mind starts to get lost in a spiral of thoughts, my mother calls out my name once more. “Laila.” But that isn’t all that I hear. I feel another presence in the room. My daughter. How could it be? Again and again, I hear her voice—sometimes a soft whisper, at times a distant echo—saying one word. 

“Ma.”


Silmy Abdullah is a Bangladeshi Canadian author and lawyer based in Toronto. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Toronto and completed her law degree at the University of Ottawa. Silmy is the author of Home of the Floating Lily, a collection of eight short stories that highlight the Bengali immigrant experience in Toronto.

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