Traditional Healing By Jordan Alam
Forty days after my sister’s body was buried, I ducked into the hallway of my auntie’s house and played over the last voicemail message she ever sent me.
“Noor, I got in safe to Amsterdam. I’m staying with Auntie Chichi and they are taking good care of me now. I’m pretty weak, though, and we’re probably heading to the hospital soon. You know I said that I wasn’t scared, but I am. I definitely am. And I wanted to let you know something before we leave. Before…whatever happens.”
“Kala! Kalamoni!” my eight-year-old cousin shouted, bursting into the hallway. I was pressed up against the wall and he began to tug on the billowy edge of my kameez pants.
“Amma told me to come and get you—the imam is here!”
Reluctantly, I disconnected from the voicemail and followed him downstairs. As I looked around, I couldn’t name half of the guests who had descended into Auntie’s finished basement. The women clung to the corners, chitchatting and making sure the children were amused. Men wearing long white kaftans and tupees on their heads formed packs in the center of the room, talking and laughing as if they hadn’t seen each other in years. My sister’s friends stood out amidst the sea of bright colors; they wore somber black dresses and high heels that had them towering over the other guests. I started walking towards them.
“You can join us if you want—you don’t need to know the prayers, just follow what they’re doing,” I overheard a younger woman I had never seen before say to my sister’s friends. They looked uncomfortable.
“Yeah, it’ll all reach Khadi in the end,” I said, stepping in.
The imam called us to order and offered to begin the prayer ceremony. In an instant, every woman had wrapped a scarf over her head and the packs had spread into straight rows across the floor. We dipped low to the ground in unison, prostrated forward, and rose again as we muttered the prayers to ourselves. The littlest children were confused but polite, whining for attention only between the rakats. When it was all finished, everyone looked around at one another and smiled. It was time to eat.
As everyone flocked to the trays of Indian food set up in the back, I caught my breath. I thought about how our mother’s version of this ceremony was going in Bangladesh. There would be more tears, I thought. Our mother’s family would have cooked for everyone—here we just ordered catering. I started to feel guilty about staying State-side.
“They’re going to finish it off if you don’t get some soon.”
I turned to see Biran offering me a plate of food.
“There will be leftovers for days, trust me,” I said, accepting the plate and digging in with my fingers. “Thank you.”
Biran was one of Khadi’s friends, an Egyptian American she had met in college. He wasn’t Muslim, but his outfit blended in. When Khadi left the U.S., we started spending more time together, and he had this eerie way of reading me in seconds. We both began moving towards the stairs.
“What would you rather be doing today?” he asked when we reached the living room.
“Anything. Nothing,” I sighed. “It’s one thing to grieve by yourself; it’s another to be grieving and have to look nice in front of a hundred other people.”
He nodded. I lifted my clean hand to my face and rubbed my temples.
“I’ll bring my car around. You say goodbye.”
Without giving me time to object, he discarded his plate and headed towards the front door. I kept eating for a moment longer, then eased my way back to the basement.
“Chachi, I’m going home now. Thank you again for hosting us.”
“You don’t want to stay here? It’s a long drive back and we have an extra bedroom,” my auntie said, pausing in her smooth sweep of “hellos” to everyone in the room.
I shook my head and said, “No, I think I should be rested for work tomorrow. Biran is going to drive me to the train and then I’ll get back quickly.”
“Biran is a nice man,” she said with a smile.
I blushed and then regretted it. I didn’t like what she was insinuating. I thought of how Khadi would have teased me and then made jokes about Chachi’s endless desire to see us dating. Khadi would have told her some outrageous gossip to throw her off. I snickered. When I stepped outside, Biran had swung around the cul-de-sac with his car and I squeezed myself into the passenger seat.
“Can you tell me something?” he asked when we were on the road. My shoulders tightened. “Khadi called me in winter and she was getting ready to travel, but I didn’t hear anything after that. And I just want to know.”
The sound of the voicemail started playing in my mind. “Ok.”
My sister had done a lot of research when she had first figured out the diagnosis. She learned about the ways that cancer cells acted, cannibalizing their fellow cells, until they had caused the entire tissue to die. She had learned about the functional ways this happened, how treatments fought fire with fire. But for some reason, she was never satisfied. She was someone who had always been able to fix things.
My first call from Khadi came when she was still in Europe, on her way to the first healer.
“When I went to the springs, all I could think about was Ma. She would love something like that, don’t you think? There were a lot of people milling around and they were all having such a great time—it was so relaxing.”
“Are you sure you’re thinking of our mother? She has always said that she prefers a quiet well-lit room to read in more than any place else in the world.”
“Ha, but there’s a difference between what she says and what she does. You know she adores going out to get a massage and facial every few months, don’t you?”
It was like we were talking about two different women, someone who could mother Khadi and someone who could mother me. I wondered what Ma would actually say about this.
“Anyway, the springs weren’t the greatest part. There was also this sweat lodge where you got completely naked except for a little towel and you just sit there and all your muscles relax.”
“You mean like a sauna?”
“Something like that.”
“Was it clean?”
“Is that the first thing you always ask?” She laughed a little, and it was the first time she sounded like herself on the phone. I had noticed the strain in her voice, but hadn’t mentioned it.
“But you know, I don’t think this is really it. It isn’t enough here. I just feel tired all the time. Relaxed, but tired.”
I wanted to ask whether she had finally realized that Europe was not going to be the place that brought her providential healing, but I bit my tongue.
“I want to go home.”
“That’s great. Ma is coming back to Massachusetts next month and she’ll be really happy to see you.”
“No, I want to go see our family. I want to go find a healer in Bangladesh.”
“What are you going to do there? Who are you going to stay with?”
My foreign accent had come back, the one I had made a point to lose once I was living full time in the States. Khadi had only been to visit Bangladesh a number of times, but I remembered it from living there before she was born. It was not an easy place to live then, and from what I knew it hadn’t changed.
“Bangladesh isn’t somewhere that you go without a plan.”
“Tell that to the hundreds of British tourists that go every year.”
“Even they have those terrible travel guides.”
This was how she always got me—joking until she got me thinking she might be right.
“I really don’t think you should go.”
“When I come back to the United States next year, I want to write about it. I think that it would be interesting to talk about Bangladesh in a different way, you know? Not like someone’s charity case, but somewhere with a full history that we need to respect and know about.”
“What if you don’t come back next year?” I wanted to draw the words back into my throat.
There was silence on the phone for a full minute.
“I talked with some people who know our village. They told me someone to get in contact with about a healer there, someone who has been talked about for a long time. I think it will be cool to learn more about myths and stuff. Plus, maybe if Ma is there at the same time, we can make the journey together.”
“Ma would not go with you. She hates leaving Dhaka.”
After we hung up, I made a list of things for Khadi to take with her. The list grew longer and longer until I had filled up two pages worth. I scanned through and saw what I had done. Then I crossed them off, one by one.
I hadn’t replayed the voicemail in a few days. Biran had said I needed to focus on myself for a while. He and I had gotten coffee at a new café that had opened up in the neighborhood. He had taken my hands in his and we closed our eyes. He told me to breathe deep. When I felt the squeeze on my palms, I opened my eyes slowly, exhaling out of my nose.
“How was that for you?”
“It was nice,” I said. “A little awkward to do in public, but I think I’m starting to get why you do this every day.”
“It helps. It also helps get rid of your self-consciousness.”
When he had shown me meditation techniques for the first time, I had been skeptical. I had also made appointments with three therapists and then canceled them, so I felt I had to at least try. I had been unable to sleep the entire month. The breathing exercises helped.
“Now, finish your story,” he said. I squeezed his hands a little.
When you leave Dhaka on a train, the station is swollen with a familiar exodus. No matter how long they have been away, every city-dweller is a villager at heart. People pile out of private cars, CNGs, and even the occasional rickshaw with their bags and families in tow, cooked food in plastic containers at hand for the pilgrimage.
My sister began her journey on a train to our village, looking out the window at a fresh brown pile of human feces on the tracks. She had been into the squat toilets on the train, holding her orna aloft over something little better than a hole to let the waste drop out, and even though she could understand that this was a common sight, her stomach squelched. Khadi had spent most of her life as an American who could afford not to see what I had seen day in and day out while I grew up in Dhaka. This was why she, at first, could not comprehend what was happening when a woman in open-toed sandals jumped down onto the tracks and, with a thick jharu, began to scrape the mess off of the tracks. Her eyes widened and after a few moments of blank staring, she turned away. In this country, she thought, you could be a literal shit scraper.
The train made creaking noises and began to trundle forward. She watched out the window as the train chugged out of the city, haloed by a billowing cloud of dirt the train has kicked up in its wake. On the phone with me later that week, Khadi talked about the rows of tin shacks lining the black-colored rivers that only on optimistic days be considered a shade of green.
“I didn’t see how anything could be worse than that,” she said. I held my tongue. “But then we arrived at the outskirts.”
Just as the grey and rust-rimmed roofs faded out of view, another type of terrain appeared on the horizon. It appeared like a mirage, but it would not be ignored: a long strip of green. Dhaka, the brown reverse-oasis, had fallen away and the “real” Bangladesh had begun.
“When she met this healer, the first thing she thought was that he didn’t look anything like his picture,” I repeated my sister’s words.
In his picture, his beard had been shaped to look dignified and bushy, not scraggly and out of place on his long face. His eyes were now yellowed, as if he had become jaundiced in the time since it was taken. He had been wearing an overcoat and a cap that made him look stiff and posed in the photograph, but in life he wore a lungi and no shirt until it was cold enough that he couldn’t avoid it. My sister was shocked, but she tried not to show her disappointment. She had had high hopes that this man would be all that the village people had talked about and more. At the very least, I am sure she imagined him as imposing, not more sickly looking than her. After all, this was a man who was meant to cure all your ailments.
One thing that the photograph did show well was the patches of white skin that went up and down his hands and arms. The striped pattern extended over his chest, making him at first look something other than human. The entire village thought this was what gave him his terrifying powers.
The old man sat on the veranda and did not look up at her for a long time. He was focused on crushing something with a mortar and pestle. She waited until he asked for her name.
“Khadijah,” she said, pronouncing the first syllable from deep in her throat so it sounded like an “h.” A good Muslim name.
“My name is Tuhu,” the healer said slowly in English.
As my sister found out, she had underestimated how well Tuhu had been educated on modern times. Though his lifestyle looked provincial, my sister soon found out that he kept a cell phone in a drawer and often watched television with the wealthier neighbors who lived down the road. But to her his life looked very simple and, as much as Khadi would not admit this, in her mind she wanted it to remain that way.
“I’ve come because I know you can cure jinn-dara,” she said in awkward country Bangla.
“It matters what type of jinn,” he said back, spitting. “Some jinn require herbs, some require cleansing, and some…some require hospital.”
If my sister was surprised by the commanding voice that came out of this thin body, a deep tone that rose up from his belly, she was even more surprised to hear him tell her about hospitals.
“I’ve been to a hospital. I’ve come here because the hospital hasn’t worked.”
She could have given him any number of answers. Because the cancer moving through her lymph nodes did not respond to their treatments. Because she continued to hope that there was something else out there for her that might suspend the march of cells. Because she was stubborn. He looked at her then with his yellow eyes and decided to tell her a story.
When I was a young man, I believed there was a cure for everything. I had cured a young boy with a lame leg by preparing a paste of herbs that I would apply every evening, and in a few months’ time, the boy had been able to walk normally. People began to come to me with their problems. It made me very arrogant. I started using my herbs for every type of purpose, to cure anything. And one day, an elderly man brought his wife to me.
“I have snakes scratching my insides,” she said to me, so quietly I almost did not hear.
I knew without him having to explain that she was a pagol—when she looked around, she had the faraway gaze that made me believe that she was not in her body. Her husband whispered to me that she had become violent in the home and they could not care for her anymore. They needed her to be healed.
The jinn holding her was very strong. The snakes in her stomach were moving and moving, and even as she stood there, I saw her hands twitch. I kept her in my care as I prepared for the ritual. She slept in a separate room I had set up where her family members brought her food. In the daytime she brought me tea and I began to ask her questions—casual and very serious. On the fourth or fifth day, I asked her when the madness had begun.
“I cannot say when it happened,” she said to me. Her hands fluttered in her lap. “I was married to my husband a year ago, and for the first few nights I could not sleep. Whenever I lay awake, I saw faces above me—the jinn coming to me. But in the morning they were gone.”
She tugged at her orna and pulled it tight over her head. I watched as her hands went to her stomach, pinching the layer of cloth between her and the outside world. I excused her.
I knew then that I would fail.
This was not a jinn that could be exorcised. When she came again the next day, the faraway stare had returned.
“I can only offer you prayers,” I told her, but she would not be convinced. She wanted to be cured. So I chose to perform the rituals anyway.
“And now my life is here,” he said, spitting on the dusty ground. His home was on the edge of the river, the outskirts of a field where one of the landlords had allowed him to build a one-room shack.
“What happened to the woman?” my sister asked.
Tuhu hesitated and picked his fingernails on the cloth of his lungi.
“Every day after that, she came with new marks on her skin. There were spots on her arms that she tried to cover, but then there were marks on her face. She wanted more and more to complete the ritual. She began to beg.”
And just when he was about to perform the ritual, she collapsed and began foaming at the mouth. At first he believed that this was part of her night terrors, that the jinn had truly taken over her body. He tried everything he could, but it did not stop. Tuhu brought the woman’s to her maternal family home, and they were furious. They did not believe in his type of healing. The next week, a group of young men appeared at his doorstep, and before they beat him, they gave him the option to run.
“She was poisoned, but they never found out who did it,” my sister said when she finished telling me. Even over the phone, I could feel the energy leak out of her.
“He was giving you a warning.”
“He was telling me that there are some things that no one can fix. There are some fates that we can only face alone.”
Tuhu was the last healer that Khadi saw. She stayed with him for several days and then left, heading back to Dhaka on the same train that she had taken out. This time she had several things in her bags, remedies and talismans, that Tuhu promised would keep her safe and healthy as she made the journey back to Dhaka, then through Europe, and finally to the United States. In the short time they spent together, he had grown to like her. But I am sure he knew that she could only face this alone.
I was working late at my studio, painting watercolor illustrations for a deadline in the morning. If my phone buzzed, I didn’t hear it. By the time that I looked up from my work sometime around three a.m., there was a voice message on my machine and several missed calls.
“And I wanted to let you know something before we leave. Before…whatever happens.”
She drew in a deep breath and there was a few seconds of silence.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you about why I left. There was another reason. The woman in Tuhu’s story, I made her up. God, I was trying so hard to tell you. But I needed to feel safe.”
I thought back to the time before Khadi had left and the breath was knocked out of my chest. The unexplained injuries. The unreturned calls.
“I left some documents in a box in your hall closet at the going away party. There’s more information there. But I need you to know that I wasn’t trying to leave you. I just couldn’t live with this anymore.” Another pause. “We’re going now. Goodbye, sis.” The phone clicked.
We heard about my sister’s death in Amsterdam about two days after she left me the message. I had been trying to reach her at our second auntie’s house every day, sending what seemed like a thousand emails and messages, spending all my money on international calls. I had enough questions that I wrote them down in a notebook in a bulleted list. After I wrote them down, I went through and crossed them out.
I wouldn’t ever get to ask them. The forty days began and I had no way of getting to her funeral. Auntie had set up for the burial in Amsterdam, rather than shipping her body to the United States or to Bangladesh. It was just too difficult, she said, so she had found a space for her in one of the plots she had paid for years ago. Instead of seeing her buried, I listened to the message again and again. And I avoided the things she wanted me to find.
“Biran, I need you to trust me on this. Take the other side of it.”
He nodded and put his hands on it. We had come back to my house that afternoon and I had pulled out the old shoe box. It had blended into the back of my closet, but it had Khadi’s unmistakable handwriting on its top. When I touched it, my fingers hummed. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe deep.
I opened my eyes and together, Biran and I lifted up the lid. On top of the pile was a small picture of Tuhu the healer, dignified in his overcoat. I reached underneath and pulled out a typed copy of a suicide safety plan. In the back of my mind, I heard a faint familiar voice.
“Can you hear her?” I asked. But before Biran could respond, my hands began to tremble uncontrollably. I dropped the sheet of paper. He reached for my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
Jordan Alam is a Barnard College graduate who majored in creative writing and psychology. She is also the award-winning writer of “Sonali Exchange,” a short story about the effect of borders on Bangladeshi-American families. Her work revolves around explorations of mental health and mental illness, and how society and circumstance shape both of these labels.