About the book
Shefali Begum had never imagined that she was fated to become the face of the Birangona – the hundreds of thousands of women subjected to mass rape by the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. Her ‘fame’ as a war-rape survivor brought her even more misfortune and humiliation; the stigma and shame followed her everywhere she went, in everything she tried to do. Her life became one of constant movement, as she fled from job to job trying to keep herself and her daughter Champa – born of rape – safe. But refuge was hard to come by. As she said in despair, “This teeny-tiny country, where can I go!” Finally, she disappeared, leaving behind her daughter and the weight of her violation.
Champa grew up to realise she was replicating her mother’s life in her own; moving from place to place with her own daughter trying to outpace the shame of her birth. The Liberation War, brutal as it was, is Bangladesh’s moment of pride. But what does that pride mean to women like Shefali? Or her daughter and granddaughter who continue to carry the burden of Shefali’s violation? How can a nation come to a reckoning with generational trauma like that? Decades after the war, these questions still haunt the collective psyche of Bangladesh. Told mostly from Champa’s point of view, The Ice Machine attempts to come to a reckoning of sorts; a reckoning that has to start with recognition of the price that Shefali, Champa, and countless others like them, continue to pay.
Why the Selection Panel chose it
A tale of three generations of women, The Ice Machine is a work of cultural importance and literary excellence. Shabnam Nadiya has created a translation that sits perfectly on the fine line between the two languages involved, capturing the anticipatory energy of Wasi Ahmed’s Bangla original in her exceptional English translation.
Awards and press
Winner of the 2021 Abu Rushd Literary Award
The morning was bright and fresh but Champa’s legs had no sensation. They were sinking into the ground. When she slept, she dreamed she was falling into a hole, losing one leg, then the other, before she shook herself hard to wake up, and sighed in relief. This happened most nights. But in this moment, sleep was distant. The ground beneath her was rock hard, and yet, there they went: her feet in her strappy sandals, her soles, toes, ankles – everything was sinking. This time, though, it was not into a hole.
That morning, Champa was standing just fifty yards from the factory gate at 7.30, jostling and shoving the other girls inline, when she saw her. Although it was just a quick glance from a distance, there was no mistaking who it was. As soonas she spun away, she realised her legs were trembling: it wasn’t a hole, it was an earthquake, the ground was roiling underfoot, crumbling away beneath her.
Nobody else could tell; only Champa felt it.
She looked neither left nor right and began moving away from the line, worrying that someone might cause trouble, or call her from behind. But nobody did. Everyone was busy trying to get to the gate. It was the eighth of the month: payday. If only it hadbeen yesterday! But there was nothing to be done. The entire month’s wages, plus overtime–lost.
She had left home earlier than usual, for no particular reason. The pre-dawn azaan for the fajr prayers had woken her. Champa’s sleep was interrupted like this every day, knitting itself back together again soon after. But today, for some unknown reason, she had left her bed. She had looked outside; the sky had seemed very fresh. She had wondered whether the azaan was late this morning, or whether, if it didn’t rain, light blossomed in the sky earlier in the month of Bhadro. She had remembered the date: it was the eighth, according to the English calendar. On her thatched wall hung a one-page calendar; all twelve months were marked into little grids, and as soon as a new month arrived, Champa would cross out the previous one with a single, diagonal slash and circle the eighth in the new month. Joba was amused by Champa’s circling of the date. ‘People mark dates to make sure they don’t forget. Why do you mark it?’ she had asked.
‘What mark?’ she’d replied. ‘On that date, a full moon rises in the sky.’
With the bed all to herself, Joba had still been fast asleep with her limbs splayed out. She hadn’t spoken to Champa since her beating last night. When Champa had served her rice, she had eaten quietly and then, after washing her own plate, had curled upright at the edge of the cot, as if silently avenging herself after the thrashing she had just received. Champa hadn’t felt like calling her, so she finished the rest of the washing up herself. When she had come to bed, she’d realised Joba wasn’t asleep. She was tugging at the tangles in her hair repeatedly, perhaps hoping that Champa would pull her close and say something like, ‘Okay, fine, I won’t hit you again,’ like she usually did. Champa might would have done so, but last night she had been besieged by sleep after a hard day’s work.
She sped up as she left the factory compound. Even if someone saw her, they would just assume she had left something at home in her the morning rush, although that rarely happened to Champa. She had to calm her anxieties each time she left the house, keep a cool head. Her girl was growing up, and because she left her alone during her working hours, caution was necessary. Every single day, before leaving for work, she would assign some chores to Joba to keep her busy. There was always laundry to do, or pots and pans to be scrubbed. If there was nothing else left, then she had Joba pick through rice for unhusked kernels or gravel, or winnow the flour. Her daughter knew her trickeries – that it was a ploy to keep herat home – but even though Champa knew these sundry chores wouldn’t be enough to keep Joba shut up indoors, she always reminded her before she left. Not that Joba didn’t finish her chores. But still, she reminded her. She also voiced the real issue, the one that she didn’t have to say aloud, but still did: Joba was not to go out. If Champa found out she had, she would break her legs.
The slum wasn’t that big. She had lived here with Joba for over four years. She knew pretty much everyone. Still, a slum was a slum. Not a single day went by without bickering and quarrelling, and, of course, there was all the gossip about who was trying to seduce whose daughter or who had eloped, or which pervert had found an empty shanty and locked the door with some young woman, or even a girl. Champa knew she was powerless to stop anything, but she did what she could. She cautioned her daughter against going out. She even told her to sit down with her old schoolbooks. Joba wasn’t interested in her schoolbooks and, anyway, what had survived of them were merely the ripped and ragged Bangla and Social Studies textbooks from Class Three. At one time, she had been able to recite all the poems in her Bangla textbook from memory, beat by beat. Now she had forgotten them all. But, sometimes, as ifwithout noticing, Joba would recite lines from the poem about the moon over the bamboo grove. Champa tried to remind her that back when Joba had memorised the poem, sitting hunched over and rocking back and forth, Champa had learned all the lines, too, just by listening. When Champa repeated the next few lines to jog her memory, Joba hardened her eyes and turned away. Because, since she’d had to give up school altogether, what was the point of looking at the moon above the bamboo grove?
There was another fear in leaving her daughter alone at home. Every year, two or three slums caught fire. Everyone knew that it couldn’t be stoves that razed a slum in the blink of an eye. It had to be petrol. Whether they were from the slum our outsiders, someone set the fires. Rich people lived all around them, in Gulshan or Niketan. With the slums gone, their neighbourhoods would be clean. But they would also be the ones to suffer – where would they get their household help from if the slums weren’t there?
Champa frequently suffered from anxiety because of this. Joba was just growing into her body – if only she had an ounce of sense! If a fire broke out, she wouldn’t be able to figure out what to do, not even to save herself.
In the last four years, as they settled themselves here, the thought that she might have to run yet again had almost left her mind. And here she was rushing ahead, but where was she going? Where else but home. Champa would hunker down in her home like a thief, for as long as she could. How long was her home going to stay her home? Should she run today?
The journey back took twenty minutes. She walked fast, but still the path wouldn’t end. She would reach home, compose herself, and then figure out what to do. If only she had her wages at hand right now! She saved what she could, whenever she could, in a tin box. There was barely two thousand in there. Whatever she decided, she would have to do it quickly. This wasn’t a new thing; this would be the fourth time. Still, every time it happened, it felt like the sky was crashing down. The earth trembled beneath her. An earthquake, but, this time, the ground was churning harder.
Joba froze when she spotted her mother from a distance, unable to make up her mind whether to dash homeward from Torab’s tiny tong-shop or to walk towards her. So she stood there and allowed her mother to come to her. Even though she had the polythene-wrapped ball of soap in her hand – proof that she hadn’t left the house to gallivant about the neighbourhood, but to come to Torab’s store and buy some Bangla soap on credit – her heart was hammering.
She was strictly barred from going out. The most she was allowed to do was visit Morjina’s mother next door. The old woman could barely move, but if Joba could push her into a sitting position she would begin telling a world’s worth of stories. Most of them were about when she had a full household and a family before the river took it all. Joba listened to her for the sake of listening, but she didn’t really believe her.
Supposedly, they used to get two and a half seers of milk, twice a day, from two milch cows. Morjina’s mother had never starvedfor rice – at least not until the river Padma had swallowed their land and house. How long could Joba listen to the old woman’s jabbering!
Sometimes she would just padlock the door and wander around. She wouldn’t go far – just to Torab’s store, or perhaps towards the embankment from where one could see the brickfield in the distance, where spheres of black smoke floatedlike clouds. When they flew upwards and touched the white clouds, the smoke would transform into elephants, or water-buffalo brandishing their horns. Staring at them made her neck sore, but if she could bear the pain for a bit longer thenshe could see whatever she wanted to: trees, mountains, ships with raised sails. Ma couldn’t stand any of it. If she foundout that Joba left the house, even to just go to Torab’s store, she would thump her, doom-doom-doom.
They’d had a bout just last night. When Joba heard about the NGO-wallahs setting up an awning at the very edge of the slum – where they were going to open a night school and they had been giving speeches and singing songs, and wherethey were now playing a recording of the ‘The fight this time is the fight for freedom’ speech – she had desperately wanted to check it out. Pretty ladies from rich families, with sunglasses balanced on their noses and chunky cell phonesin their hands, were supervising things. One of them who looked a little plump, asked Joba her name. When the ladyasked her if she went to school, Joba had responded with ‘Class Five’. It had felt nice to just say ‘Class Five’ instead of admitting that she had dropped out before even finishing Class Three. A twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl like her studying in Class Three might have surprised the lady. She had told Joba that everyone could study at the night school, young or old, so she should come, and she wouldn’t have to pay anything. Then, surprising her, the lady said, ‘Come here,’ and, oh my, how loving her voice was as she wrapped her arm around Joba and took a photo on her mobile. She had even shown her the picture.
But nothing stayed hidden from her mother. ‘Why did you go there, you bitch!’ had been followed by wallop after wallop.
Seeing Ma now made her battered back throb in pain. She stood there, waiting to see what her mother would do. Would she spot her and start up with her fists like last night? Her mother did indeed see her and, as if she hadn’t really noticed her, glanced out of the side of her eye and said, ‘Let’s go.’
As she followed, she thought about how, if her mother tried any funny business again, she would let loose with her mouth. When she went to Torab’s shop or towards the embankment, it was never with any bad intention. Did her mother know how her days passed by, stewing in the heat of that room? If only there was room to move around a little. If her mother tried anything today,she was going to talk right back and tell her, straight up, to either look for a job for her in the factory or stop whomping her. Joba couldn’t bear it in this tiny room any longer.
When they entered the home, her mother didn’t do much. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier we had no soap?’ she asked. And thenshe enunciated slowly: ‘Won’t be here much longer. The crows have arrived.’
Joba stared at Ma’s face, startled, and understood what she needed to. How many times had it been, now, including this time? The crows arrived and the two of them packed everything up. Before she was born, when her mother was still a child, she had similarly run from one place to another. Back then, Ma had lived with Joba’s grandmother. It was Nani who used to flee with her mother, then. And now her mother fled with her.
She didn’t remember her early childhood, but Joba clearly remembered that night four years ago when her mother brought her here. They used to live in the Agargaon BNP slum. Ma used to work in a garment factory in Mirpur. Shewould leave very early in the morning; it was a long commute by bus. Most days, she left while Joba was still asleep.After the previous evening’s meal, Ma would add water to the rice pot. In the mornings, her mother would eat some ofthat panta and leave the rest covered for her – a lot of it, so that, after stuffing her belly, Joba wouldn’t feel hungry again until later. But in the late afternoons, the cramping hunger would return, making her dizzy. Her mother had been smart enough to keep some puffed rice in the house and, along with water, that just about kept her hunger at bay. Back then, their place wasn’t so tiny,and there were even some open spaces here and there in the slum where children played through the day, screeching andquarrelling. Joba used to join in as well, drawn by the promise of play. She wouldn’t want to go home until it was time for her mother to return. Some days, her mother had to grab her by the hair to drag her back. She was small, back then, and so it was only her hair; the thumping hadn’t begun yet.
They were there for a year. One night, her mother had said, ‘We’re leaving this place tonight. Careful, don’t fall asleep. Nobody can know.’ She was lucky; Ma hadn’t made her walk too far. Her mother had brought out several of their bundles through a narrow pathway by the slum to the main road. She couldn’t do it in one go, so Joba guarded the bundles while she went back andforth. Dozing on a rickshaw, and drinking in the night air, they had reached their new home in the deep of night.
The crows weren’t mentioned at all over the last four years, and then, today, they had suddenly popped up. She had staredat her mother in astonishment, slowly collecting herself. There was no need to ask anything: the crows had arrived, but this time they had a lot more stuff. When they had left Agargaon, just a few bundles had been enough; now they had a cot and a mattress, blankets and pillows, low wooden stools, pots and pans, a tin trunk and even a clothing rack. Perhaps her mother had forgotten about the crows; would she have filled up their home with so many things otherwise? What should they do, abandon everything and go? Of course, if they paid off the rent, then they wouldn’t have to think about sneaking away. Did her mother have the rent money? Where could they go?
She couldn’t find the nerve to bother her mother with it, but nor could she stop worrying. Her mother had just brought up the crows and shut the door and lain down, and hadn’t said a single word since. Should she stroke Ma’s hair, or perhaps fan her? How she was sweating! Morjina’s mother was yelling in the next shack. The old woman probably wanted to sit up and needed someone to help her up. A few moments later, she heard the old woman calling for her by name. ‘Oh, Joba, where are you, love? Will you come here for a bit?’
Joba paid no attention. She took the fan and sat near her mother’s head. After the long silence, her mother finally spoke: ‘See what she wants.’
Joba kept just kept sitting there. Her mother’s hair fluttered from the fanning, and her eyelids trembled. She fanned harder. Her mother reached up and pushed her this time. ‘Go and see what she needs.’
Still, Joba didn’t move.
Champa could recall it clearly. When she was even younger than Joba and fleeing from one place to another, it was her mother, Shefali Begum, who was the source of her terror and anxiety. What would the new place be like? What kind of work would her mother find there? Where would they live, and what would they eat? But even more than these worries, itwas the fear of her mother attacking her, cursing at her and hitting her, that kept her defeated. It was all her fault, all her mother’s suffering was because of her – this is what she had heard again and again growing up. ‘Why did I let you live? If onlyI’d salted your mouth and killed you right after I was delivered of you! When did I even have the chance to do that? Rekha Bugrabbed you and wrapped you in her own sari to stop you from crying. Oh, Rekha Bu! What good has that done!’
When Champa came to know her mother’s Rekha Bu as Amma from Malibagh, and later just Amma, she wondered how it was that she and her mother had survived because of this thin lady with big eyes, gaunt cheeks, and high cheekbones. It was complicated. Her mother blamed Amma – blamed her for saving them. But she would also praise her. ‘All those angels inheaven, they’re all men, none of them women. And yet here is one woman, not in heaven, but walking about right here on earth.’
Hearing all this from such a young age, Champa used to think that all mothers perhaps spoke such nonsense. But she was sure that not all mothers spoke of the crows. She remembered the first time she heard about them. She wanted to know, why crows? Her mother scoffed, ‘You don’t know crows? They caw and caw and beat the drums. You’ll know them soon enough.’
She still hadn’t understood. Her mother hadn’t explained. It had taken a long while for her to understand it.
But those were events from Champa’s mother’s time. In her own, she hadn’t made Joba wait too long for an explanation.Back when they were about to head for Agargaon, leaving behind the Cheragi slum near the Martyred IntellectualsGraveyard, she had mimicked her mother’s voice to tell Joba, ‘The crows have arrived,’ which had given Joba the guts to ask, ‘You’re scared of crows?’ It was then that Champa had told her tiny six-year-old daughter the story of the crows.
She’d had some doubts about how much Joba would understand. But the thought that she was, after all, a girl, had made her decide that Joba should know. Perhaps, after hearing it through, this story wouldn’t sound too bad to the child. And several thingsJoba said made it clear to Champa that she had understood her mother’s story. ‘So the crows aren’t really crows.’
But her own mother had hidden the story from her. When Champa asked about her father, she would say, ‘He died before you were born.’ But when she was angry, she didn’t shy away from calling Champa a bastard. Champa was a bit of a foolnot to have pestered her mother about her dead father. He was dead, so what was the point of bringing him up? When her mother would say, ‘The crows have arrived, we have to fly,’ nothing other than a nameless dread rushed through her mind.
Her mother’s bad luck was such that she couldn’t even make it working as a household servant. She preferred live-inpositions to day shifts, thinking that she wouldn’t need to pay rent. She wouldn’t have to worry about room and board, wouldn’t have to be out and about. And Champa would learn how to do the work from just watching her. These were probably the ideas her mother had relied on to keep herself hidden away. If she could just keep them hidden, what was there to worry about? Surely Champa’s life wouldn’t – couldn’t – turn out like her mother’s? She would get married, havea husband and her own household. Who would pay attention, then, to who her mother had been? Her mother’scalculations weren’t exactly wrong. But had they worked out? Her life had flown by, just running from one place to the next.
Champa had no way of knowing how her mother’s days were passing now in Kalkar Char. A bus or a tempo from Faridpur town to the CNB docks and then three hours in a trawler was how her mother had reached that island in the river Padma – a choice she had made herself. That was many years ago. Though she hadn’t seen her mother since she left, she did know that her mother was alive. Shefali Begum sent news sometimes, but not to her – to Amma. Champa visited Amma’s house monthly. Sometimes, when she visited, she heard that her mother had got someone to make a phone call. Mobile phone networks had no coverage over there, and so she couldn’t even use BKash to send her money.
Her mother had made this decision after much consideration. She’d thought that, if she just stepped away, her misfortune wouldn’t touch Champa. She used to say, ‘Such a tiny country, where can I run? But I have to let you go. If I’m around, youwon’t be spared. I’m going to go off to a remote river island where nobody can find me, not even you. Tell yourself, you came tothis world alone, you never had a mother, you’re nobody’s daughter. You can do that, can’t you?’
What could she do? Just as Shefali Begum had failed to understand, even as she wiped away her tears, that her ideas wouldn’t work out in the world, Champa had been unable to predict that, even in her absence, her mother’s life would ride hard on her shoulders. Her mother used to run with her, and now she fled with Joba.
Champa had never imagined that she would spot Manto that morning in the crowd of girls lined up at the factory gate.
Asgar’s cousin Manto had married well; her husband drove a bus, or truck, or something. Pleasing in her looks and manners,Manto should have had a happy life in her husband’s household. What misfortune had brought her here?
Perhaps she’d just started there. It could be her very first day in the line to clock in. Although it had been nearly a decade, Champa recognised her right away. She was thinner than she used to be, and while she used to be fair her complexion haddarkened. The scar between her eyebrows had immediately caught Champa’s eye. Who was she seeing? What was she doinghere? Quickly, she turned her face away, and, step by step, moved away from the line.
Neither of Asgar’s sisters were alive, and Manto had been the closest thing to a sister-in-law for Champa. Although Asgar’s uncle built a separate house in the same village and moved away, Manto came to visit often. She called her Champa Bu. She would ask, ‘So who was it that knew you’d smell like champa flowers when you were born? Who named you? Your mother or father?’
There was another reason for their intimacy. Discussions about Manto’s marriage were ongoing, and she had a lot of whispering to do whenever she had Champa to herself. Like, what if, after the wedding, her husband told her to wear a burqa? She wouldn’t agree at all. Would he try to touch her on the very first night, would he force her? What if he had a moustache or a beard? She would reject it saying astagfirullah and ask for Allah’s forgiveness, because keeping a beardwas a sunnat because of the Prophet – there was so much whispering required! Champa used to smile to herself; the girltold her everything because she liked her.
There was no way to know what had happened to the Manto from back then. If only her life wasn’t what it was, Champa thought, she would have run over and grabbed Manto’s hand as soon as she spotted her. If Manto was working at the factory, that meant there had been some kind of misfortune. Clasping Champa’s hand would have been a balm of sorts for her. Would Champa merely have stood there holding her hand? She would do what was needed for Manto, letting her stay in her home, or the two of them could have looked for a bigger place.
If she wasn’t who she was, with all that made her Champa, would she have left the village to live in this slum with Joba, or work at the garment factory? Would she have turned away as soon as she had spotted Manto, the one she was spending so much timethinking about? The ground beneath her feet was dancing and churning so hard that she felt darkness descending on her eyes. Oh, poor Manto, didn’t you use to dream of one day finding a husband like the movie star Riyaz?
There used to be a shaggy, hunched-over mango tree at the mouth of the alleyway. The tree had been cut down long ago, but the wide stump was still there. Rushi, the mad woman, sat on it quite comfortably with her head lowered close to her lap while sheuntangled the knots in her hair. Although her face wasn’t visible, Champa was certain it was her. When she was younger, Champa had seen the neighbourhood children taunt her, ‘Rushi! Show us you cooshy!’ Rushi wouldn’t get particularly angry; she would just jab at her breast and say, ‘Want some?’
Champa had been anxious about whether Amma would be home. The house had a new security guard, who said ‘Khalamma isout. Let her come back. You can go in if she says to let you in.’
Just hearing that had calmed her down. The guard didn’t know her or Joba. He jabbered at them to try and move them on, ‘Go away now. Don’t just hang around. If anyone and everyone were to just loiter here, it’ll mean my job. Look, there’s a camera set up there. It photographs every person who comes and goes. Who’s this with you? Your daughter? And you’re here this early in the morning with all these bundles – are you looking for work? Khalamma asked me to find amaidservant, but where would I find one? Although I did ask around in my village.’
Champa walked away from the gate while the man was still talking – ‘Why do you blather on so much? We’ll just wait outside.Amma will see us anyway when she gets back, you won’t have to do a thing.’
It was sunny outside the gate. If they were going to wait, they would have to move to the shade of an almond tree nearby. A girl and boy were by the tree, chatting. They were all over each other. They were probably students from the coaching centre across the street. As she stepped towards the tree to wait there with her daughter, she realised Joba was still at the gate. That bastard guard was talking to her. It was possible that he was telling her that she could stay there if she wanted to. Joba finally movedwhen Champa shouted, ‘What’s going on with you?’ When Joba realised that she was headed to where the couple sat together, she stopped, ‘No, not there’.
They didn’t have to wait long. Barely fifteen minutes had passed before the charcoal-coloured car with faded paint stopped at the gate. As soon as Champa spotted the shadowed face of Amma inside, she brushed past the guard and stepped out with Joba right in front of the car.
As they took the stairs to the third floor, Champa couldn’t help but notice that Amma had suddenly grown old. With every stepup, she panted. Her face looked gaunt, her big eyes were sunken, but, despite that, there was something within her that was unchanged.
‘Your daughter’s all grown up,’ Amma said as she climbed the last step and stopped at the doorway, turning to face Joba. Champa noted that even if her body was frail, her voice was firm. She looked at her closer and realised that Amma’s eyes weren’treally sunken in her face. Instead, her large, deep-black eyes were pushing against the constraint of their small sockets, spreading light all across her face as she watched the two of them, mother and daughter.