Getting There by Farah Ghuznavi

Laila realised she had to get a grip when she caught herself sighing for the third time in five minutes. She desperately needed to talk to someone, and the few friends who qualified were out of reach. Their much-anticipated girls' night out the previous week had been eclipsed by the jolt of more recent events. Those celebrations now felt as if they belonged in an unattainably distant past.


It was an enormous relief to be heading back to Dhaka, which felt like home to Laila in a way that Chittagong never had. The car ride was the first opportunity she had had to hear herself think since things fell apart, and her body was using the breathing space literally, drawing in as many deep breaths as possible. Despite the vehicle's efficient air-conditioning system, Laila's skin felt heated. Irritation prickled along her tightly stretched nerves as if irreverent fingers were teasing a set of piano keys, every now and then hitting a grinding note of disharmony.


She cast another furtive look back at the children. They lay with their tawny golden limbs sprawled untidily in all directions, taking up the spacious rear of her new Honda Accord. She couldn't help wondering what she had let herself in for, although the accident had left her little choice. There were good reasons why she had decided never to have children, she thought ruefully, and now she had two on her hands! It was bad enough having to deal with a teenager, but she felt even less confident about handling the younger child, who appeared to have temporarily fallen silent.


Six-year-old Aliya had finally, mercifully, gone to sleep. Her repeated queries about how much longer the trip would take had been interrupted only by supplementary questions as to why she had to go anywhere with her unfamiliar aunt.

Laila sympathised with her niece's feelings. She too was finding the journey interminably long, made worse by the frequent slowdowns in traffic whenever they approached a bridge or passed through yet another small town. Each time, the noise level went up. Crowds of pedestrians swirled past the vehicle as it inched its way forward. Hawkers paused briefly to display their wares – paper-wrapped cones of hot, sand-roasted peanuts in the shell, improbably bright pink and green sweets, cheap plastic toys, unpeeled hard-boiled eggs, and multicoloured hair-bands. Every so often beggars tapped against the rolled-up windows, leaving behind smears on the glass as ghostly reminders of their passing presence.

After her interrogation failed to extract satisfactory answers, Aliya began making increasingly impassioned demands to return home, exacerbating Laila's already unsettled frame of mind. She held on to her impetuous temper with some difficulty. It was only after they had finally reached an open stretch of the highway, and relative quiet prevailed, that exhaustion finally caught up with the youngster.

In a contrast that could not have been starker, Aliya's teenage sister, Yasmin, had neither questions nor demands for their aunt. She had not uttered more than two consecutive sentences since their abrupt re-introduction a few days previously. Not strange, of course, given that she was still in shock.

Now, accidentally making eye contact with the older girl as she threw another compulsive look backwards, Laila observed the guarded expression on the teenager's shuttered face. Clearly Yasmin understood all too well what was happening, and why. Trying to deflect Laila’s annoyance during Aliya’s earlier tirade, she had said, pleadingly, ‘Don't mind Aliya. She's just tired, you know, and scared.’

With that, the teenager had lapsed back into what Laila was beginning to think of as her characteristic silence. Just as well. The emotions simmering below the surface of their mundane exchanges rendered hollow any pretence of normality.

Yasmin's reticence was perfectly understandable, Laila conceded. Their lack of familiarity had been brought sharply into focus by this unexpected, unwelcome proximity, something that would have been problematic even without the emotional carnage of recent events.

Laila's mind drifted back to the point where her life had started to spiral awry just seventy-two hours and a lifetime ago. She was on a night out with her closest girlfriends. The five of them were increasingly caught up in their hectic individual lives – careers on the upswing, family dramas, a boyfriend or two – so get-togethers had become few and far between. The group played a particularly important part in Laila’s life, since, unlike the others, she had no time for romance. She hadn't broken the chokehold of her father's control to risk replacing it with another entitled male in her life, however silken the glove disguising that handsome fist might be.

Laila was treating everyone to a lavish evening out at the cutting-edge sushi bar that had opened recently at one of the city's five-star hotels. Their gathering was in honour of a lucrative contract secured by the architecture firm for which she worked. They were to build another of the ubiquitous shopping malls mushrooming amidst the unmanageable urban snarl-up that was Dhaka. Their challenge would be to design something unique and eye-catching in line with their rapidly developing reputation.

The evening was hugely enjoyable. The exquisitely crafted Japanese morsels were colourful and delicious, and the accompanying sake flowed its smooth, riverine way into cups raised repeatedly in celebration, no one keeping track of how much made its way into their internal channels. It was, after all, a girls' night out, and a damn good one at that!

Returning home several glorious hours later, Laila cast a cursory glance at her mobile phone. To her dismay, there were twenty-three missed calls buzzing in her call-list like an angry swarm of bees. If the number of incoming calls had not been sufficient to signal an approaching storm, the area code displayed for the city of Chittagong left her in no doubt that she would not like what was heading her way. Mentally berating herself for the time lost, the digits from the persistent number flashing in red neon lights through the haze enveloping her tired brain, she called back immediately.

The reassuring solidity of the mahogany dining table provided much-needed support, though Laila was not conscious of leaning against it as she listened to her mother's splintered voice spilling out the story: her sister Shaheen, an accident on the highway, and the clinical silence of the intensive care unit as a terrified family huddled together for comfort, waiting for news.

‘Where were you? We've been trying to reach you for hours! You’re never there when you’re needed! And why did you pick up the phone now, so late at night?’ Ma said accusingly. Despite an instinctive sense of resentment at her mother's tone, Laila registered her usual Pavlovian response, stammering an apology as waves of guilt shuddered through her.

This was why she had left Chittagong, she couldn't help thinking, with more than a little bitterness. Not that she would ever have allowed herself to articulate that thought out loud. As she had done for so much of her adolescent life, she kept it tucked safely away in the inner recesses of her surviving self, the place that had always provided a safe haven when her immediate surroundings were no longer where she wanted to be. Ultimately, she had chosen to abandon the city of her birth for a new start in Dhaka, a change that was somehow far less frightening than the prospect of remaining trapped in her existing circumstances forever. It was the only way of escaping from the endless questions, the orders, rebukes, and demands that had defined her childhood and adolescence.

Her father had ruled their lives with impunity, her mother reduced to a pale reflection of the man she had married. Ma had been a young entrant to matrimony, still in her teens when she was handed over like a parcel, fully wrapped, of course, to a man much older than herself. She had learned her place early, and stayed in it. Although, Laila didn't doubt that her father would have made Ma pay dearly had she betrayed any inclination to rebel.

Ma never intervened to save her daughters, even on the rare occasions when her husband's anger took on physical dimensions. Perhaps she was incapable of it. Once Laila was old enough to analyse Ma’s behaviour, it had always seemed to her that her mother was too busy just trying to survive the burden that was life.

As it was, Ma had paid a high price for producing two daughters, persisting through several miscarriages until the severe haemorrhaging that followed Laila's birth finally released her from that particular cycle of suffering. But Baba and Ma’s relationship had defined for Laila with chilling clarity what she would not allow her life to become.

Artistic by nature, her creativity was something that her parents viewed with distrust. Her father, in particular, was adamant in refusing her the pursuit of those interests. Art classes were out of the question, and a series of hidden sketchbooks bore a mute testimony to the lonely passion that refused to die. But Baba knew his stubborn younger child better than to think that matters would end with his refusal regarding the classes. He remained suspicious. Until finally, yet another round of Ma’s surreptitious rifling through Laila’s clothes cupboard yielded the forbidden materials.

Arriving home in the afternoon, Laila found her parents waiting in her room. Her sense of outrage arrested somewhere between her chest and her throat, she struggled not to react. The pile of sketchpads lay scattered on her writing desk in a way that made her fingers itch to stack them more tidily, even if she could not actually whisk them away to safety. Baba’s nostrils flared, his voice tight, as he demanded an explanation. ‘What do you have to say for yourself, Laila?’

Ma stood silently on one side of the room. She was less an accomplice than a bit player in this drama. Her mind racing to come up with a strategic response, Laila decided that passive acceptance of whatever punishment was forthcoming would be the best way to deal with the situation. She kept her eyes trained firmly on the old-fashioned stone floor, with its black, white and grey geometric patterns, ‘I'm sorry, Baba…’

He didn't let her finish. ‘Liar – you aren’t sorry at all! You've been sneaking around behind my back after I expressly told you to stop all this nonsense! Well, I have had enough of this, enough of your stubbornness and disobedience…’ He flung out his arm, sending a few of the pads flying onto the floor. ‘Pick those up, and come with me!’

Laila did as she was told, following her father out onto the verandah attached to her bedroom. Shaheen was sitting outside, writing something in a notebook. It was typical of her sister to be doing homework on such a beautiful winter afternoon, instead of relaxing in the garden or reading a book, Laila couldn't help thinking for a brief moment. Looking up, surprised, Shaheen slipped the notebook back into the schoolbag and remained seated.

‘Put them down here,’ Baba ordered, and Laila complied, reluctantly setting the precious sketchbooks onto the floor, this time in a tidy stack. She didn't realise what he had in mind until he took out his lighter. Shaheen’s eyes widened in horror, but she remained still.

Not Laila. ‘No, Baba! Please.… Don’t do that!’ she begged, even as the small voice in her head pointed out that trying to stop him would just inflame the situation. It always did.

‘Are you now telling me what to do?’ Baba snarled. ‘This has gone far enough! How dare you disobey me like this? I will not tolerate such insolence from a daughter of mine! ’

‘You can't destroy them, Baba, they don't belong to you! I don't belong to you!’ Laila cried. Even as the words burst out of her mouth, she heard her mother gasp in horror, and knew that she had gone too far. Laila's defiance only inflamed Baba further. The loss of her beloved portfolio was a blow that stung far harder than the slap that accompanied it. Reliving the incident still left Laila shaking with a bitter, pungent anger.

Her sister Shaheen, nine years older, had never had the same difficulties with their parents, perhaps because she was the personification of what their father expected in a daughter, the qualities he considered desirable in a woman. Beautiful, intelligent, and talented she undoubtedly was. But above all, she was docile.

After the bonfire on the verandah, Shaheen had come to Laila’s room. But the younger girl was in no mood for sisterly wisdom. ‘You know, you shouldn't have had those sketches in your room. Baba told you not to do any more art. He was bound to be angry! Why didn't you just…’

‘Leave me alone! I don’t need your advice on how to be a good little girl for Baba. One of those in the house is enough’ Laila lashed out. Looking hurt, Shaheen was about to continue, when Laila got up, shoved her out of the room and locked the door. It felt good to show her anger to someone without having to worry about the consequences. Nothing her sister could say was likely to help her anyway, she told herself; Laila was no Shaheen.

Even her sister’s marriage had been decided by Baba and Ma, carefully arranged with the scion of a family belonging to the upper echelons of status-conscious Chittagong. The impeccable pedigree of this young rajputtur was chosen to provide consolation to a household deprived of a male heir responsible for carrying on the glorious family name. Perhaps it had been wise to leave the decision to Baba and Ma, Laila thought cynically. At least when her husband unceremoniously abandoned the marriage, her parents couldn't blame Shaheen for making a bad choice.

Laila, on the other hand, was determined to make all her own choices. What had started out as an academic compromise proved to be a fulfilling career after she won an architectural scholarship to a private university in Dhaka. That was an offer that even her father couldn't turn down, although they had few friends and fewer relatives in the capital. It was to be a blessing for Laila.

Despite that, and as if to disprove the doomsday mutterings of conservative relatives who maintained that nothing good could ever come of letting a teenage girl go off on her own like that, no major rebellion followed. Laila was too busy keeping her head down and her grades up. She couldn't afford any distractions, nor did she want them. And she allowed herself only female friends, lest rumours of romance filter homewards and pull her back in their wake.

Even with her closest friends, she was careful to distance herself from their wilder shenanigans. The normal pleasures of student life were ruthlessly excluded from her university experience. No, Laila had a plan, and failure just wasn't an option. The parties and boyfriends that many of the other girls took for granted would just have to wait until freedom became a reality to celebrate.

Ironically, once the long-awaited freedom did materialise, she was to find that a deep-seated mistrust of men, coupled with an unwillingness to sacrifice her hard-won independence, had created within her a siege mentality where the opposite sex was concerned. That Baba would have approved, for very different reasons, of her capacity for self-protection galled Laila no end.

Ultimately, five years of punishing discipline and single-minded focus paid off, as did the ultimate ‘good Bengali girl’ lifestyle, even if the latter was essentially meant to ensure that Baba could find no reason to haul her back to Chittagong. Her visits home became progressively more infrequent, heavy work schedules and library access for exam preparations providing a natural, and sufficiently convincing excuse for her increasing distance from her family.

While some of her friends found her self-sufficiency peculiar, for Laila the logic was simple; trips to her parents’ home only reminded her of the unhappiness she had experienced walking the tightrope between her father's impossible standards of behaviour and her own longing to appear ‘normal’ to her peers at school, most of whom found negotiating the draconian rules that governed Laila's life more trouble than it was worth. Despite the fact that Chittagonians were generally considered to be socially conservative in comparison to those who lived in the more progressive capital, none of Laila's friends had ever been refused permission to attend the annual school picnic on the grounds that it was ‘a waste of time, when she should be studying’!

The lure of Western mores of individuality also became more apparent to her, though she was aware that voicing such opinions would not have been acceptable, especially to her immediate family. So during those ever more widely spaced visits home, she kept her lips pressed together to hold in inappropriate views, and her emotions firmly disengaged.

To her father's probing questions, she provided answers that were as vague as possible. With her sister and nieces, she maintained a friendly but distant manner, the invisible iron fence that surrounded her remaining firmly in place. She smiled as she ate the delicacies that her mother painstakingly prepared – luscious tiger prawns swimming in a rich coconut gravy, and the classic nona ilish, seasoned fish roe cooked in a mouth-watering lentil and tomato sauce – carefully choosing not to acknowledge the ever-present sadness in those lost, lonely eyes. After all, if Ma needed company, she could always go to her older daughter, who had never left the port city.

And after a few years, Ma didn't even have to go anywhere to visit Shaheen. After a decade of marriage failed to produce anything more fruitful than two daughters, her husband left abruptly for more promising pastures. Never having had to, nor been allowed to look after herself meant that Shaheen was left completely bereft by this turn of events, and the ‘respectability’ valued so highly in old-fashioned Chittagong required her to move back to her parental home with her unwanted daughters. At the time, Yasmin had just turned nine, and Aliya was a baby.

But Laila had to give her sister credit. With a meagre BA in English Literature under her belt, Shaheen went back to school, leaving Aliya to be looked after by her grandmother. And within a few years, she had progressed from being a lowly substitute teacher to the coveted post of vice principal at one of the leading English-medium schools in Chittagong. She earned a decent salary, which was just as well, since her ex-husband couldn't be bothered to waste his time or money on his disappointing daughters. But like the good daughter and respectable woman that she was, Shaheen continued to live in her parents' home.

Sometimes Laila wondered what her sister thought about the way her life had turned out. Shaheen had played strictly by the rules, but the outcome of the game had hardly been as expected. She had gone from being an obedient daughter to a dutiful wife, and it now looked as if her last major role would be as a devoted mother. Did she ever wonder who she really was, or what she could have achieved if she had been allowed to make any of the important decisions in life for herself?

Laila had no intention of asking Shaheen any of those questions. What she did know was that she would not be asking anyone for permission to make decisions about her own life. Several job offers had followed her graduation with first-class honours, and her decision to accept a position in a smaller firm established by a recently returned expatriate Bangladeshi ultimately brought her not only greater creative freedom than she might have had with one of the larger, more well-known architectural firms, but also professional recognition. Winning the contract to design the new shopping centre was just the latest in a string of successes for their team.


With the realisation of her cherished dream of financial independence, the last bastion of her father's influence in her life crumbled. Laila had never looked back since. Why would she? There was nothing that she cared to remember about the life she had left behind in Chittagong, least of all the frequent and unflattering comparisons with her sister that had characterised the years she spent there.


But Shaheen's accident changed everything. Laila made an emergency call to her driver, setting out immediately for the city of her birth; waiting for a flight would have meant losing precious hours. What she hadn't bargained for was the return journey with two traumatised children that she barely knew. Shaheen's condition had yet to stabilise, and Laila didn't dare think about what would happen if it didn't.

It was easier to focus on the practical details. There was no way her mother could cope with the long convalescence required for Shaheen's recovery and look after two scared children at the same time. And Baba wasn't likely to be of much help. Between meeting his demands and caring for Shaheen, Ma would be stretched to the limit. So under the circumstances, Laila could not bring herself to refuse to take the children to Dhaka, ‘just for a few weeks’, however much she wanted to. And at least to herself, she could admit that she very much wanted to.

Because they were still on summer break, neither Yasmin nor Aliya would be missing school, and with a live-in housekeeper, Laila already had someone to keep an eye on them during the workday. But having had so little to do with her nieces in the past, she knew that she would have to stretch her creative resources to find ways of keeping them occupied.

She was drawn out of her musings by a sound, realising that Yasmin was awake. Her older niece had been surprisingly accommodating, perhaps to compensate for her little sister’s tantrums. Once Aliya fell asleep, Yasmin had occupied herself with the passing landscape of emerald-green rice fields that separated the clusters of thatched mud huts sheltering under a cloudless blue sky.

Apparently lulled by the picture-perfect rural surroundings and the hypnotic movement of the car, Yasmin’s even breathing soon indicating that she had been given a brief respite from her anxieties. As Laila surveyed the scene outside the car window, she could only hope that Yasmin had not taken in the numbers of rusting, skeletal hulks that lay on either side of the highway, reproachfully bearing witness to the recklessness that seemed to afflict so many of the drivers in Bangladesh. It was a similar disregard that had left the girls' mother a splintered mass of flesh and bone in a hospital bed.

‘Hi there, awake again?’ Laila found herself asking somewhat lamely, hating the artificially upbeat tone of voice she felt compelled to use. Yasmin nodded. Despite her nap, the bruised look around the teenager's eyes indicated that she hadn’t had much sleep in the last few days. The protective way she held Aliya as the younger child slept revealed her priorities. If only she had got to know her nieces better before the accident forced them together, Laila thought despairingly, ambushed yet again by an overwhelming sense of inadequacy.

Racking her brain for something intelligent to say, she felt singularly uninspired. Despite knowing that it was a pathetic topic to raise with any self-respecting teenager, in an attempt to reach out to Yasmin, Laila found herself resorting to that old conversational standby: school.

‘Do you enjoy studying at Dr Khastagir's? It's supposed to be a pretty good school...’

‘Yeah, I guess so,’ Yasmin answered listlessly.

‘Well, I guess it has to be better than studying at a school where your mother is the vice-principal?’

‘Yes...’ This time the response was longer in coming, the teenager's voice sounding thick with suppressed emotion.

Laila could have kicked herself for that accidental reference to Shaheen. The last thing she wanted was to remind Yasmin about her mother's situation. Desperate to change the subject, she continued, ‘So what's your favourite among the classes you're taking?’

To her surprise, Yasmin responded with sudden animation to the query. ‘It's art, actually. Like you. But I enjoy doing watercolours more than the pencil sketches you did. I think that's what I'm best at.’

Misreading the look of shock on her aunt's face, the teenager continued hurriedly, in a tone of voice clearly meant to pacify her, ‘Of course, I do a lot of sketches as well, for portraits, and as outline drawings for my watercolours...’ Her words tapered off as she continued to look at Laila, a little uncertain.

‘How did you know that I liked sketching?’ Laila asked, utterly taken aback by the extent of Yasmin's knowledge about her. There was more to come.

‘Ma told me. She said that you were really talented, but Nana never allowed you to have art lessons, although you wanted them so badly. It must have been really difficult for you!

‘For Ma too, I guess. Imagine, she had to write her stuff down secretly, in her diaries. She showed me some of them – her stories and poems. She says I can read the rest when I'm older. But I've already seen the story she wrote about you, about the time that Nana destroyed your entire portfolio. How could he be so mean! Ma said that you gave up art after that. Is that true? I can’t believe you would give up so easily!’

Laila was having trouble absorbing the implications of what Yasmin had so casually revealed, not least the fact that her goody two-shoes sister had ever had any secrets. Growing up, Laila’s resentment at Shaheen's effortless ability to live up to their father's idiotic expectations had alienated the two of them from each other. It had never occurred to her that conforming might simply have been her sister's survival strategy. It was unsettling to now consider that they might have had something in common after all.

Unaware of her aunt's thoughts, Yasmin went on, ‘I'm so glad that Ma isn't like Nana! He thinks it's a waste of time, but she's really proud of my work. So is Nani. She keeps one of my pictures in her steel almirah. Actually, I have to say that even Nana isn't so bad anymore, at least, not with me. I can't believe he burned your pictures though ... Ma said that she had to be even more careful with her diaries after that happened. You must have been so upset!’

‘Yes, I was. But you're right, I did keep drawing. It's just that after that, I made sure that I never kept any of my sketches at home,’ Laila said slowly, struggling to understand how Yasmin could know so much about her. So much more than she herself knew about either of her sister's children. Somehow, thanks to Shaheen's efforts, and despite her own determined distance, Laila had remained a real presence within the family she had so firmly left behind.

Misunderstanding her sudden thoughtfulness, Yasmin continued to chatter. ‘At least you're happy now,’ she said consolingly. ‘It must be great to have a house of your own, and a car, and to be so good at what you do. Everyone in Chittagong talks about how successful you are, and how you've done it all on your own, getting scholarships and everything. And Ma says you didn't even know anyone in Dhaka when you first went there!

‘I heard that for a while Nana didn't want you to go. Nani told me that she thought he was going to say no. Ma says he only allowed you to go because the scholarship was such a big deal, and they couldn't afford to send you to a school like that themselves. But he thought you’d get tired of being alone and decide to come back home anyway. Boy, was he wrong, huh! And now, even Nani spends her time showing off to her cousins and the rest of the family about the buildings you've designed.

‘You know, I think I might want to be an architect too, if I decide not to be an artist, that is!’ Yasmin asserted, laughing. ‘Will you show me some of your drawings once we get to Dhaka?’

‘Of course,’ her aunt responded. ‘I'd love to.’ Their conversation was interrupted as Aliya awoke, but somehow Laila had no doubt that it would be resumed.

As the little girl rubbed away the clinging remnants of sleep from her eyes, the other two braced themselves for the inevitable barrage of questions that was bound to follow. Yet this time it was different, and Laila smiled reassuringly as she met Yasmin's anxious eyes. Anticipating Aliya’s unspoken question, she responded, ‘Don’t worry, sweetheart. It won’t take much longer, I promise. We’re getting there...’



Earlier versions of this story appeared in the Lady Fest e-book, Curbside Splendor Issue 2, Lifelines and Fragments of Riversong. The story was awarded second place in the Oxford Gender Equality Festival Short Story Competition held at Oxford University in 2010.


Farah Ghuznavi is a writer and newspaper columnist, with a background in development work in Asia and Africa. She remains an unrepentant idealist despite the existence of empirical evidence that suggests it might be better to think otherwise.

Farah began writing fiction in the desperate hope that putting stories down on paper would send them on their way and out of her head. Her work has been published in the UK, US, Canada, Singapore, France, India, Nepal and her native Bangladesh. Her story Judgement Day was Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Competition 2010, and Getting There placed second in the Oxford GEF Competition.

Farah has just published her first short story collection, Fragments of Riversong for Daily Star Books. In 2012, she edited Lifelines, an anthology of new Bangladeshi writing for Zubaan Books. She is writer in residence at Commonwealth Writers. Farah has participated in several literary festivals in India, and is an advisor to the Hay Festival Dhaka.


Edited by Indira Chandrasekhar.