Blast | October 21, 2022

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In Noor Imaan’s romance “Nejma,”a gifted musician must choose between commitment to his art and his father’s wishes or the eccentric young woman who courts him.


by Noor Imaan


The talk in the town was that Nejma’s father had found her a husband.

“About time,” said the cha-walah as he handed me a cup. “The girl is getting old. Let us hope she doesn’t scare him away like she did the last one.”

I had vague memories of that incident. The suitor had traveled from two villages over to see her. The next day he left, claiming Nejma was possessed by a djinn. When I asked her what happened, she had thrown her head back and laughed.

“The boy was easy to spook,” she had said. “When I served him rice I spoke in tongues. Later he came to peek in the kitchen, and I raised my knife. I told him I had just sharpened it. He ran.”

Nejma was an odd girl. Every now and then she appeared at my hut and started sweeping. She repaired my torn sandals and fixed the holes in my kurta. Once she tried to polish my harmonium, but I stopped her.

“No one touches my harmonium,” I said firmly, and she went off to sulk in the sugarcane field.

“Who does he think he is,” she muttered later as she walked by my window. “Ayub Bacchu? Elton John?”

It was monsoon and the rain had let up for a few hours. The earth was soft beneath my sandals and the air smelled like wet leaves. I finished drinking and told the cha-walah to add the cost to my monthly tab, but he declined.

“I don’t do business on credit anymore,” he said. “Cash only.”

“Since when?” I asked. I was saving for the bus ticket to a nikkah ceremony in the town over. A friend of a friend had mentioned me to the bride’s family, and they had hired me to sing. “Can it wait till I get back? They promised to pay me a nice fee.”

“Promise-shomis,” said the cha-walah. “Take my advice. Sell your harmonium and do something useful. Then find a plump wife and settle down. It’s what your mother would have wanted.”

“Don’t talk to me about my mother,” I said. I took out a few folded-up taka and left it at the counter.


I lived in a tin shed that had holes in the ceiling. Raindrops stole in and stained the walls. Sometimes, when the wind was angry, I wondered if it would blow the house away. I used to weep into my pillow after my parents died, cursing Allah for leaving me an orphan. Then I had a dream. My father and my forefathers walked along the threshold, guarding the home they had built with their songs.

Music is your god, they said. Your mother, your father, your wife, and your mistress. Treat it well and it will never abandon you.

That morning I woke up and knelt in front of the harmonium. I pressed the wooden keys to create half-formed melodies that kept the thunder at bay. From then on I was not afraid.

I sang at the marketplace. Farmers and fishermen wept when they heard my voice and threw me their spare coins.

“Mashallah,” they said. “Your father would have been proud.”

Baba had been a strict teacher. At dawn he woke me up and did not allow me to eat until I had stretched my voice. When Ma came in with eggs and roti, he sent her back to the kitchen.

“Women,” he said. “They will ruin you if you let them.”

Baba often said things like that. When I was ill he forbade her from sitting by me. Once I fell from a jackfruit tree and skinned my knee, but Baba did not excuse me from lessons.

“When I was your age,” he said to me, “I walked from town to town, dawn till dusk. My voice fed my parents and my grandparents. It paid my sister’s dowry. So stop crying and focus.”

“Yes, Baba,” I said, but in the evening, when he stepped out for cha, I did not practice. Instead I slipped into the zamindar’s pineapple plantation, where Nejma played with fireflies. She engulfed them in her small hands, then released them.


That was a long time ago. Now when I saw Nejma here and there, I avoided looking her in the eye.

“Can’t you do that elsewhere?” I asked as she sat by the water, smoking a biri, while I washed my clothes.

“Do you own this river?” she asked. “I’ll smoke wherever I want.”

I went back to scrubbing my kurta with a bar of soap. Such an insolent girl. At nineteen she still walked around the village barefoot. She climbed trees with the children and said whatever came to her mind. What would happen to her? Would her mother-in-law beat her?

“Smoking is bad for you,” I said.

She flicked off the ash from the end of her biri. “Nothing else has helped my constipation.”

“Nejma,” I said. “You are getting married. Why don’t you try and speak sweetly?”

“Why should I speak sweetly to you?” she asked. “Are you my lover?”

My face grew warm. She had the habit of answering a question with a question. “Imagine if your husband-to-be saw you like this. He might call off the wedding.”

Nejma laughed. “Why would he call it off? I have a head full of hair. My skin is not that dark. I know how to make ten different kinds of achar and the best shorisha ilish in town. What fool wouldn’t want to marry me?”

She was right about the ilish. My mouth watered as I remembered the tender fish she prepared in mustard oil. After my parents drowned, she had taken to bringing me meals. Naan and chicken simmered with potatoes. Sweet kheer and savory samosas. Cha with extra jaggery. While I ate she folded my clothes and put up the mosquito net, rekindled the oil lamp and filled the kolshi with fresh water from the tubewell. When she leaned over to serve me more rice, her skin smelled of incense.

Then came the dreams, and after that I devoted myself to music. For hours I knelt before the harmonium, unaware of my surroundings. When Nejma came to my door with supper, I did not let her in. She knocked and knocked and called my name. Eventually she stopped her visits. By then I could play with my eyes closed, and I discovered that I was rarely hungry. Songs came to me like fireflies. I had to catch them before they flew away. Was this what Baba had experienced? Was this the reason behind his frenzies and frustrations? Often I would find him weeping on the floor. There was a song that longed to be sung, he said. But he struggled to remember melodies. He would stop playing and stare at his stiff hands. When he sang, his voice wavered and left him gasping for breath.

No one knew how Baba lost his voice. He went to this fakir and that doctor, but none of them could give him a cure.


One night he found me with Nejma. We were sitting on the boroi tree. Baba ordered me to come down and pulled my ear all the way back to our house.

“That girl has the devil in her,” he said. “Otherwise she would be afraid of the dark.”

Could this be true? Her mother had lain in bed all day, talking to herself, until she died. People said a djinn took her. Would this happen to Nejma? From then on I stuck closer to her, stealing away whenever Baba was not looking. But one night she showed me how to bite into a sugarcane. My tooth came off, my mouth filled with blood, and I ran home screaming. After that I was convinced Baba was right, and I did not go near her.

But she found ways to be near me. By the river, beneath the jackfruit tree, at the cha-walah’s. When Baba took me to the bazaar to sing, Nejma was there, squatting in the mud among the menfolk. She swapped a biri with the rickshaw-walah’s son and stuck out her tongue at me. In the middle of my 333Rabindra-sangeet she hooked two fingers into the corners of her mouth and pulled. The sight terrified me, and my voice faltered. When Baba noticed, he said he would pay her father a visit.

“He should be reminded that no decent girl goes to the bazaar after sunset,” he said.

After that I did not see Nejma. This allowed me to sing and play the harmonium with no distractions. The audience praised me and sent me their blessings.

“Mashallah,” they said to Baba, “he sings better than you.”

I saw something like envy pass through Baba’s face, and we walked home in silence. At supper he ate little. He claimed the rice was burnt and yelled at Ma for being wasteful.


For years I rarely thought of Nejma. One day I woke up before dawn. I was washing up at the tubewell when I heard laughter. I had a view of the water from where I stood, and there she was by the river. Her hair was wet, and she was drying her naked body with a yellow cloth. Suddenly I was overtaken with a new kind of terror, and I fled.

But the next day I awoke at the same hour. My legs carried me to the tubewell and once again I saw her, this time climbing out of the river, squeezing excess water from her hair. What was she laughing at? Later, when I sat in front of the harmonium, I could not concentrate.

It became a habit. I lingered at the tubewell, scrubbing my teeth with powdered charcoal, until Nejma disappeared. The rest of the day I thought of the line of dark hair that began at her navel and disappeared between her legs. I tried to resume my morning practice, but a strange fever left my throat dry.

Baba knew. He could hear it in my voice. Each day he watched me struggle with my songs, and his silence shamed me.

“You are distracted,” he said, pulling the cloth over the harmonium. “Clear your head. We will resume tomorrow.”

I went to bed early. I vowed that I would not rise before the sun. But when I woke up it was dark and raining, and I walked to the tubewell as if under a spell. Nejma was waist-deep in the river, clutching a bar of white soap. I watched her glide it across her breasts.


One afternoon Ma handed me a tiffin carrier filled with jalebis.

“Take this to Mustaque bhai,” she said, and disappeared back into the kitchen. Did she know? She had never sent me to their house before.

If Nejma were surprised to see me, she did not show it. She sat outside the verandah, slicing carrots with a crescent-shaped blade. Immediately I thought of her by the river and looked at the ground. A red transistor stood at her feet, playing songs.

“Ma made jalebis,” I said. “For your baba.”

“He is inside,” she said. The glass bangles around her wrists collided with each other in an uneven rhythm.

I gave my salaam to her father. He was a quiet man who had grown quieter after his wife had died. In his youth he had been a freedom fighter. Now he lived off the goodwill of the villagers. He ate the jalebis and asked after my parents as I looked around. There were two beds pushed against opposite ends. Nejma’s was smaller, and the wall behind it was plastered with laminated posters of James and Hasan. They wore dark glasses and held guitars. Their hair was long and hid their faces. My mood darkened and I left.

I tried to put Nejma out of my mind. But Ma continued to send me back and forth with meat pies, rice pudding, and sweet potatoes. Each day I saw her on the verandah with her transistor. I wanted to throw it into the river.

“What is there to like about him?” I asked as she played Hasan’s Eto Koshto Keno Bhalobasha.

“What is there not to like?” she said, turning the volume up.

“Modern music has no substance,” I told her. Baba often said so. “People who listen to it are simple-minded.”

Nejma laughed and laughed. When I asked her what was so funny, she said such high talk didn’t suit me.

“A cow moos,” she said. “If it tried to roar, you would laugh at it too.”

I walked home in the rain. Why did she always have to insult me? I stared at my reflection in the mirror and decided to grow a beard.

Later, there was an itch in my throat, and I could not stop coughing. Ma brought me hot water with salt to gargle with, and Baba watched me in silence. I spent two days in bed beneath the blankets, sensing songs brush past me. I tried to grab on to their tails, but in the end I let go.


She came to see me a few days later with a flask of ginger cha. “I heard you were dying,” she said.

Ma began to praise her. She dipped her finger in kajol and placed a mark on Nejma’s cheek to protect her from the evil eye. “Mashallah,” she said. “You have become beautiful.”

For once I saw Nejma lower her head. She averted her eyes and then began to talk about this and that. Baba stood by the window. When I realized he was watching me watch her, I put the tea down and pretended to fall asleep.

“He needs to rest,” said Baba. Nejma left, and Ma watched her go from the door.

“Such a good girl, na?” she asked, but Baba didn’t reply. Instead he emptied the flask out the window.

“Ginger won’t help him,” said Baba.

“Listen,” said Ma. Her voice trembled. “Our boy is a man now. It would be good for him to have a companion.”

“Music is his companion,” he said, and left for the mosque.

That night my cough got worse, and I could barely speak. Baba sat down at the edge of my bed.

“Son,” he said. “Your voice will feed you and clothe you. It will remain loyal to you. But you must also be loyal to it. Remember that music is a jealous creature. Do not make the same mistake that I did. Forget her.”

For one more night I watched her bathe while hiding behind trees. She reminded me of the stories my grandmother read to me, the ones about the brave sailors who were lured to their deaths by the songs of a sea-nymph. When they drowned, she ate their souls.


Slowly, my voice returned.  I sat in front of the harmonium all day. My hands hurt, but I did not stop pressing the keys. I sang and played and thought of nothing else. When Ma tried to send me to Nejma’s house with a plate of warm kebabs, I refused.

“Take them yourself,” I said.

For a few weeks she persisted. She said she was getting old, and wouldn’t it be nice to have some help in the kitchen? Each time a melody came to me, she interrupted to call me to meals. She reminded me she would not live forever. Who then would cook me rice and sew the buttons back on my kurta?

“Did I ask you to do those things?” I said one night. “Leave me alone, woman.”

Ma wept. I had never spoken to her that way before. I sang louder so I did not have to hear her crying.


One evening Baba came back from the mosque and told Ma to pack his clothes. The imam had told him about the shrine of a Sufi saint on the other side of the Meghna. People went there looking for miracles. A small donation and fifteen minutes of prayer was all it took for a blind man to see again, for a widow to find a good relation, for a barren wife to bear children.

“Don’t go,” Ma kept saying. For some reason she was uneasy about the shrine. Baba ignored her. But when I walked with him to the riverbank to see him off, Ma was already on the boat, sitting in a corner with a small bag of her possessions in her lap. Her head was covered with her aanchal, as if she were a new bride.

“I am coming with you,” she said.

Baba ordered her to get off the boat, but she didn’t move. The boatman watched them quietly. If he hadn’t been there, I was certain Baba would have struck her.

“We should leave soon,” said the boatman after a while. He looked up at the dark clouds gathering in the sky. In the end Baba climbed on, sitting across from Ma, refusing to look at her.

“When I come back,” he called to me as they rowed away, “you and I will sing together.”


Talk of my voice traveled here and there, bringing me work. I sang at weddings and milaads, at the mosque during Ramadan and at ribbon-cutting ceremonies. When the cha-walah bought a shutter for his storefront, I sang without asking for a fee to bring him good fortune. Back then he had cried in gratitude and called me his son. Now he refused to sell me cha on credit.

“Are you singing at Nejma’s wedding tomorrow?” he asked as he sliced betel nuts into slivers. “Mustaque bhai doesn’t have the money to spare, but his son-in-law might give you a nice tip. He has a B.A in agriculture and refused a dowry. A modern-shodern man.”

“That is good,” I said. For some reason I did not want to hear more and finished my cha in two gulps. The sun was bright red as it lowered itself into the river. At home I lit a kerosene lamp and played till my mind was empty. Sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-nee-sa. Sa-nee-dha-pa-ma-ga-re-sa. And on it went.

A knock at my door. I opened it to find Nejma. She was wearing a yellow sari. Her cheeks were smeared with raw turmeric and marigolds hung from her ears. Behind her the moon was full.

“We can elope,” she said. “There is still time.”

I laughed and laughed and ignored the wetness in her eyes. “You really are a strange girl.”

Her lips trembled. “Why didn’t you ask my father for my hand?”

I stopped laughing. “Go home. It is late. You should not be here the night before your wedding. What will people say?”

“It doesn’t bother you?” she asked, taking a step forward. “That tomorrow I am marrying someone else?”

I stared at her feet. Her toes were red with henna. “No. I wish you well.”

“Why won’t you look at me?” she demanded. “You were not so shy when you watched me bathe morning after morning.”

So she had known. “Chi,” I said. “Don’t say such things.”

“You are a coward,” she said.

I turned away. “Goodbye, Nejma. May Allah bless you.” I went back into my house and closed the door. I heard her weeping. The harmonium sat near the window. For a moment I considered throwing it into the river. Let the water take it the way it took my parents. I could become a fisherman or a cha-walah. At night I could fall asleep holding someone else. It would be nice. It would be easy. I thought of all this, but in the end I did nothing.


I did not go to the wedding. Instead I walked to the sugarcane field and sat among the fireflies. I tried to sing myself a song, a lullaby I had once heard from my mother. Her voice had been sweet and nimble.  But she hid it away in front of Baba, and later in front of me.

“I heard her before I saw her,” Baba had told me years ago. Occasionally he would return home smelling of hasheesh. On these nights he spoke as if he were someone else, someone younger. He talked of this and that, his mother’s favorite sweet, the dog he used to play with, the cotton sari he had once bought for his sister. By the morning he forgot it all.  “I was sitting in the verandah of her house, waiting to see her father. Then I heard a song. It was simple, with no rhyme or rhythm, but it lured me to the kitchen. She was making cha. Her hair was frazzled from the steam. She didn’t notice me and continued singing, carelessly, as if she were the only person in the world. I listened to her and felt at peace.”


Noor Imaan is a writer from Bangladesh. Her fiction has appeared in Boston Review, Mississippi Review, and Indiana Review. She lives in New England and is currently at work on a collection of short stories.