Written by Roshni Rahman
I don’t remember how it started.
Was it the way she laughed, the way she cried? Or was it the way she hurt me when she ran away to her “better friends” everyday, leaving me alone to eat my lunch from my tiffin box in a desolate corner of the school field? I honestly can’t remember, but at one point, I started pining for her. I would do everything my ninth grader brain could think of, to get her to like me as much as her “loyal childhood friends”. After all, didn’t I call her my “best friend”?
But then, this boy came into our lives to take my best friend away from me. I hated him. I hated him for making Tanha feel things that I could never make her feel. I hated that there was another human I had to compete with for her attention now. Then one day, that boy emailed me, asking me for my help. He said Tanha’s other friends hated him, and they were making it difficult for him to talk to Tanha, much less let him woo her. And within a few email exchanges, Rudro and I united over our mutual dislike of Tanha’s friends.
Our teenage brains then came up with a plan. During our daily tiffin break, Rudro and I would hang out together and have fun, while making sure we were in complete view of Tanha. Our idea was to make her jealous that Rudro, her crush, was spending time with me and not with her because of her friends. Maybe that would make her realize what she was missing out on her life because of her stupid friends. But somehow, the plan backfired.
On the last day of our term, Rudro did not come to class because he was sick. Sitting in my old desolate corner of the school field, I sadly ate my lunch and missed my friend. Over the few weeks that we had spent together, I stopped seeing Rudro as Tanha’s crush, and more as my own friend. We would joke about how we would schedule our daily routine in the future to equally spend time with Tanha once Rudro and Tanha started dating. I would pull his leg about Tanha being both our partners, and he would always laugh and assure me that he will never take Tanha away from me. Where was he today? I felt so lonely seeing Tanha laughing with her friends and her friends occasionally giving me surreptitious glances.
I was staring absentmindedly at space and zoning out, when I suddenly saw Tanha’s friends gesturing me to her. They turned around and started walking towards me, Tanha leading the gang. I started feeling nervous.
“Snigdha, I want to talk to you alone”
I stood up. “Umm… sure? I am alone” I said, looking at her friends behind her.
Tanha motioned at them, and they put some distance between us. However, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a 1-v-5. I felt Rudro’s absence even stronger now.
That was the first time in my life somebody would break my heart.
The first thing I did after coming back from school was to steal the cordless landline from the living room and hide it in my room and call Rudro. My mother was home, so I couldn’t cry loudly, but in a suppressed voice I tried to relay the entire story to Rudro.
“She said she doesn’t want to be your best friend anymore?” Rudro demanded in an angry voice. “And what was her reason?”
“Sh-she said I hang around boys and” I tried to talk between my sobs, “I am not a good girl” and I broke down into fresh tears.
“Okay, and?” Rudro’s voice was icy cold from rage.
“She said she can be my friend b-but cannot be my best friend because it would make everyone think of her as a slut” It was getting incredibly difficult to suppress my cries and speak coherently. “Rudro, I can’t breathe. Oh God!”
“Snik! Snik, my friend, I am here! Please, Snik, listen to me. You will be okay. You don’t deserve this. You deserve a better friend than Tanha. I know how much you love her, and I cannot imagine what you must be feeling like. Please, hold on for me? I am your friend too!”
“Rudro, I -” my lungs weren’t expanding anymore “I can’t – breathe -” I started feeling dizzy “- I WILL DIE, RUDRO -”
“NO, SNIGDHA! Listen, you are having a panic attack. Please get up and try to walk. You may feel like you are dying, but you won’t. I am here for you. Put me on speaker and do some breathing exercises”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. But I remember the panic attack lasting almost 20 minutes and Rudro telling me a lot of techniques to help me calm down.
After that day, we talked regularly over the phone during the winter vacation. We avoided talking about Tanha because Rudro knew I still didn’t heal from the heart break, but occasionally I would bring her name into our conversation, because I really didn’t have anyone else to talk to about my feelings.
“Rudro, I don’t know, buddy, but I have never felt so strongly for a human before as I feel for Tanha. It hurts so much, I really can’t explain.”
Rudro would be silent everytime I would pour out my feelings to him.
As the one month winter break neared its end, I started feeling a little more cheerful thanks to my rekindled hobby of painting, and ofcourse, Rudro. I painted a lot that winter, and after some hesitation, painted the most beautiful girl dancing in the middle of a blooming flower. I was excited for school to restart in a week, because that meant I could meet my friend again and also show him my paintings in person instead of just describing them to him over the phone.
It was the first tiffin break after school reopened. I was nervous about seeing Tanha but at the same time my heart skipped in joy at the prospect of seeing Rudro in person after ages. I sneaked my painting book out of my school bag to the field and when I got the chance, I showed my paintings to him one by one.
“Snik, you are such an amazing painter, I didn’t know!” Rudro gaped at my artworks. I felt ecstatic showing him my talent.
Finally I got to the last painting, and after hesitating, I opened my copy wide to reveal my masterpiece, the girl in the middle of a blooming flower. Rudro gasped audibly, and quickly looked around him to check no one was watching. He then grabbed the copy from my hand and closed it and whispered, “we are being watched”
He then ushered me to follow him to my old corner and after reaching the lonely spot, he asked, “Snigdha, was that Tanha that you painted?”
I gulped, “Umm… yes?” I snatched the painting book back from his hands. “Why, what’s wrong?”
“Snik, I need you to look into my eyes and answer something. Are you a lesbian?”
Snigdha gave me the most confused look ever.
“A lesbian? Are you romantically attracted to women?” I repeated.
“No! What are you talking about? My first love was a guy! Why will I be a lesbian?”
“Then you may be a bisexual person. Someone who is attracted to both men and women.”
Snigdha opened her mouth, then closed it again, opened it again thinking she finally had words, but went quiet again. I stared at her intently, waiting.
“I – I -” she stuttered, “I don’t know, Rudro!”
Snigdha looked very concerned. I could literally see a thousand ideas whirling inside her head at once. She turned around and faced the wall bounding our school field from outside. Hands locked together behind herself, she rested her forehead on the wall and started pensieving.
I knew I couldn’t just put a label on her, but I had detected that she definitely loved Tanha more than as a friend from the very first time Snigdha talked about her. With Snigdha and Tanha falling apart so badly, and the way Snigdha described her feelings for Tanha during the winter break, my suspicions grew even stronger. But this painting, this was the final clue. She definitely loved Tanha, but did Tanha love her back? I started feeling very conflicted. On one hand, my best friend was in love with someone not right for her. And on the other hand, her love for Tanha was a taboo in our society. We were dealing with a very dangerous situation here. I felt very bad for my friend. No matter what, Tanha would never understand Snigdha’s feelings for her. She was very religious, and had already slutshamed Snigdha just for talking to me. I stopped liking Tanha the moment she slutshamed my best friend, but I never spoke ill about her in front of Snigdha because I had my suspicions that my friend was in love with this toxic person in a dangerous way. I had hoped that the winter vacation would help her, but this painting…
“Rudro, I think I might be bisexual after all” Snigdha turned around and broke my trail of thoughts. She had tears in her eyes. I really wanted to hug Snigdha, but if any of our teachers saw us hugging, we would be in trouble. “And I think I am madly in love with Tanha.”
Snigdha and I both turned to look at Sarah, who just gasped. She was standing with her hands cupping her mouth, her eyes thrown wide open, looking from Snigdha to myself and then back at Snigdha again. Tanha’s gang must have noticed Singdha and myself rushing to this corner and sent Sarah after us. Sarah must have eavesdropped and heard everything, and until she had gasped, we did not notice her presence.
Seeing us looking at her, she broke into a run.
“SARAH, WAIT!” Snigdha and I both shouted, but Sarah had already run off to tell the gang.
Snigdha looked at me, her face panicstricken. “What do we do now, Rudro? If people find out, I am going to be dead! I will be expelled from school and my mother will kill me. I can’t do this to her, I am all she has got! Rudro, I -” she broke off as we both noticed Tanha’s gang marching towards us, their faces white with anger.
Snigdha dropped her painting copy and ran inside the school building, I was frozen on the spot, unable to think of anything except doom.
“We know everything, Rudro” Tanha seethed in fury.
Sarah picked up the painting book and handed it to Tanha. Tanha opened the copy to the page where she was painted, and throwing one look of pure disgust at me, she ripped the page of the book and tore it into shreds.
“Let’s find that slut!” Tanha ordered her gang. “Lesbian, my foot! FIND HER!”
After they stormed away, it took me a few seconds to process the entire thing. I then ran into the school building to find them, and my brain was completely blank except for pure fear.
It took me several minutes before I found the girls bathroom on the third floor with some muffled voices coming from inside. I pressed my ears against the door, and I heard grunts and thuds, and a lot of slurs. I knew Snigdha was inside, possibly being beaten up by the gang of girls right now. I started knocking on the door because I did not want to grab any teacher’s attention by banging on the door.
“Tanha, stop it! I beg your mercy, stop hitting her! Please!” I started crying. “Please Tanha, let her go! Have mercy!”
Panic gripped me as I saw Sarah running away from us towards Tanha. She must have heard everything! Oh no!
“What do we do now, Rudro? If people find out, I am going to be dead! I will be expelled from school and my mother will kill me.” My mother! No! She has no one in the world except me. “I can’t do this to her, I am all she has got! Rudro, I -” I broke off as I saw Tanha and her gang approaching us, their faces looking merciless. I am going to be dead now.
Before I could think, I dropped everything in my hand and made a run for the girl’s washroom inside the school building. When I reached the nearest washroom on the first floor beside the staircase, the door was closed from the inside. Someone was occupying it. Think fast. I heard footsteps approaching. The few seconds of head start that I had got cancelled out by the time lost in front of this washroom. I dashed across the stairs taking two at a time, but I was only a flight of stairs ahead of Tanha.
As I reached the third floor washroom and got in, I turned around and was about to close the door, when Tanha’s foot caught the door. I tried to close it shut but she got backup from her friends, and eventually pried it open.
Tanha slapped me, sending me sprawling across the bathroom floor. I sat up, my cheeks burning, and before I could say anything, Tanha kicked my belly. I felt my breath leaving me.
“You stupid fucking slut! You think you are going to be a lesbian and get close to Rudro? You know what they say about homosexuals?”
I looked weakly at Tanha, unable to speak from the pain in my abdomen. I had tears streaming down my eyes.
Tanha grabbed me by my hair and shook me. I tried to get her hands off my hair when Sarah grabbed one of my hands, and somebody else grabbed my other hand.
“YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY?” she shook me harder. I was whimpering in pain, but at the same time, I knew that I couldn’t make too much noise or I would grab the school authority’s attention and get into worse trouble.
Suddenly, we all froze and looked at the bathroom door. There was an urgent knocking on the door. The momentary fear on Tanha’s face faded away when she heard it was Rudro who was crying behind the door. With a grin she looked at her two other friends who were not already grabbing my hands and gestured something to them. They then grabbed my legs and yanked them to either side so I was spread eagle by four girls. Tanha grabbed my hair again and pulled her face closer to me and hissed, “they throw homosexuals from the top of the highest building so that they die.” And with that she kicked me on my genital area with all her might, that sent the pain to all parts of my body. The girls then dropped their hold of me and left me lying on the ground. As they opened the door to leave, Rudro ran inside and grabbed me.
“They throw homosexuals from the top of the highest building so that they die.” Tanha hissed.
“NO!” I whimpered, my eyes wide in shock as I stared at the door. Then I heard a thud of shoe hitting flesh, and a groan, followed by a thud as I figured they dropped Snigdha’s body on the floor.
Moments later, I heard the door lock click and the second it opened an inch, I kicked it and rushed inside to find Snigdha lying on the floor, no visible marks of the torture she had just endured, except for her sweaty face, messy clothes and devastated hair. She was groaning in pain. I raised her torso and propped her up so that she was sitting with her back against the wall.
My brain wasn’t functioning properly. All I could think of was that I needed to save Snigdha. I grabbed some tissues and wet them under the sink and used it to wipe her face. My vision was blurry from the bank of tears forming in my eyes out of anger.
We heard footsteps, and within seconds, we saw Tanha and her gang, followed by a teacher, in the hallway connecting our open bathroom door. I instinctively stood up because I knew that if I was seen in the washroom with Snigdha, I would be framed in a case that will lead to both of our expulsion. Unfortunately, I was too late.
I was sitting in the principal’s room, yet I was not there. Everything that was unfolding in front of me seemed to be happening in third person. I could see Snigdha and her mother on one sofa, myself and my parents on another sofa, and the principal sitting on a chair facing our families. The principle was telling us a fabricated story about how Snigdha and I were caught in the third floor washroom being physically intimate, and how Tanha and her friends promptly notified a teacher who then went to the scene and caught us red-handed. Everything felt unreal. Snigdha was crying into her hands, and her mother was just staring at the floor with a dead expression. My father was sitting with his arms crossed, and my mother was yelling at me in front of everyone. Looking back, I think my ability to dissociate myself from traumatic situations was my way of coping with things.
As I walked out of the principal’s office with the expulsion certificate in my hand, I exchanged one last look with Rudro. I knew our parents would never allow us to talk to each other again. I lost my best friend, my reputation, my friends, and my self-esteem, all because I fell in love with somebody who was the same gender as me. Oh how I wished I was never bisexual!
On the rickshaw ride back home, my mother did not exchange a single word with me. In fact, ever since my principal opened her mouth, my mother had shut hers. I wish she would say something, so I could tell her that everything was false, that I was framed in a crime I did not commit. We were almost home.
“Snigdha,” she still had a dead expression, “I know you did not do anything that the lady said. I know my little girl.”
I looked into her eyes in disbelief but relief. “Thank you, Mamuni, thank you for believing me,” and burst into tears. “I am so sorry you had to be humiliated this way. I am so sorry,” I sobbed into her arms, “I am so sorry.”
Mamuni eventually gave in and cried too, holding me. And I felt a huge burden slide off my chest. Even if the whole world was against me, at least my mom understood me.
When I reached home, I thought about Rudro and how I will never be able to meet my best friend, and cried again.
15 years later
I was sitting in the restaurant we agreed to meet in. I looked up from the phone and saw Snigdha walking towards my table, grinning ear to ear. My heart leapt in joy seeing her after fifteen years. She pulled the chair opposite to me, and sat down.
She was wearing a barrister robe, and carrying a big purse which I assumed was filled with papers. She looked tired, but cheerful. After settling down, we looked quietly at each other for a few minutes, observing how the fifteen years had changed each of us. She looked slightly older than our age, must have been all the work in the court, and had an intimidating aura about her now. When she finally broke into a smile, the fifteen years seemed to fade away and I could see my old friend sitting in the chair in front of me. She was the first to break the silence.
“It feels so good to see you after so long, Rudro! I have heard a lot about you from the youngsters in my community!” When she spoke, her words had a purpose. I couldn’t believe how eloquent the once crybaby had become. “I am so glad that the young lgbtq people in our country have a place to seek psychological counselling now. I am so grateful to Ashar Alo, your organization has helped a lot of people in my community.”
I felt myself beaming. For the first time since deciding to become a psychologist, I felt like I had achieved a milestone. To get recognition from Snigdha Khan herself, THE queer lawyer and activist in our country, felt like a huge success for me. Ever since Snigdha and I parted after our expulsion, I poured myself into psychology books to understand what exactly maybe a reason for some people to be born with a different sexuality than the norm. I researched history, literature, religious scriptures, science, all to make myself a better ally for people like Snigdha. Eventually, I found my passion in the psychiatric field and went to the USA to study in that field. There I learned more about the plights of lgbtq people and decided to go back to Bangladesh, where I knew that the queer community had it worse, and wanted to work for the betterment of the community. Back then I thought I may never meet my best friend again. So, by serving people like her, I thought I may at least feel spiritually connected to her. After I came back, I set out to create Ashar Alo, an organization for mental health awareness with a huge focus on the LGBTQ community, which of course was a secret agenda since homosexuality was still banned in Bangladesh. Through meeting clients from the community during my work, I got to know about Snigdha, who was now a very prominent figure in the field of law, and a huge activist and a leader in the underground queer world. We then connected over social media and decided to finally meet one day after our offices were over.
“It has been a humbling experience, truly, to have been able to serve the LGBTQ community. To be honest, I thought I would never meet you again, but look at you! You have mobilized a huge community under your leadership, and have been actively fighting with other activists in the frontend of the battle to decriminalize homosexuality. You are… everything I hoped you would be one day.” I rubbed a droplet of tear forming at the corner of my eye. I couldn’t help but feel immense pride in knowing such a great person. “So tell me about yourself. How has life been treating you now?”
“It could not have been better! I never imagined I would be so happy one day after, you know… that day” we both looked at each other intently for a second until she changed the mood again, “But guess what?” She smirked at me.
“What?” I asked.
“I have a girlfriend now!” She replied with twinkling eyes.
And we both screamed a little, and then laughed in joy, just like the old days. Oh how I missed laughing with her! I smiled nostalgically. Wow, Snigdha actually has a secret girlfriend now? That has to be the most rebellious thing ever done in our country!
“She is also a barrister and we met while investigating how to outlaw section 377, the colonial law that makes homosexuality illegal in our country. You should see how passionate she is about the entire cause of making LGBTQ rights legal in this country! My heart!” It felt so refreshing to see Snigdha gushing over her new girlfriend. And it felt even more amazing to be talking to an old friend about a cause we were both passionate about – LGBTQ rights.
We caught up on the important details of our lives over some good coffee in the next two hours. I learnt that Snigdha’s mom turned out to be an ally ever since Snigdha confessed everything to her after she got expelled. It was difficult for Aunty to accept her daughter’s identity, given her conservative raising, but she had already broken a taboo by being a divorced single mother. More than anything else, Aunty prioritized Snigdha’s happiness, and realized how important her support was for her daughter’s wellbeing. Her support for the lgbtq community definitely did not come overnight. At first it was something along the lines of “My daughter needs me”, but thanks to her receptive nature, Snigdha could teach Aunty a lot more about being lgbtq, and slowly Aunty became one of the best support systems for Snigdha, rallying behind her for the just cause.
At the end of our hangout, I was feeling more refreshed than I did in the last fifteen years. We parted on a promise to keep in touch with each other, and meet again sometime soon. Snigdha gave me her word to introduce me to her girlfriend, and I couldn’t wait!
On my way back home, I was feeling like the happiest man on earth. I switched on the radio and some pop music started playing in the background. I lowered the window glass to let the breeze waft through my hair as my car came to a standstill in front of the red traffic lights. I looked outside the window and saw two teenage boys around the same age as when Snigdha first discovered her sexuality, walking hand in hand. As the lights turned green, I drove away and smiled. I wondered if the Snigdhas out there would be able to make it in time to change public perception enough so that these two boys’ love could win. Would they make it in time for Snigdha’s mom to see her daughter running through the street with the rainbow flag, tears of joy flowing down everyone’s cheeks as they all paraded in celebration of their human rights!
Source: Queer Women Fiction Story Competition – a collaboration between Mondro and an online Queer group (2020)