Begum Rokhaya's Dream
by Diana Campbell·
It was a balmy summer night as I boogied home wrapped in the frequency of the 1981 Pakistani pop hit Disco Deewane streaming on repeat inside my head while my heels tapped out an accompanying beat on the cobblestones beneath my feet. “Bangla Begum!!” a friendly and familiar voice called out from across the street, pulling me out of my inner-disco and into the reality of the worldscape around my front door. Bilal, the Bangladeshi proprietor of my favorite corner shop, flashed me a toothy grin that seemed to mirror the crescent moon above, sharing the news that my favorite lemons from Sylhet would be arriving in his shop first thing in the morning. My eyes sparkled with delight as I returned his smile while jangling my keys in the front door, imagining a perfumed night of citrus-scented dreams emanating from yellow breast-like forms. I laughed to myself because according to the website Modern Ghana, if you have lemon shaped breasts as I do, small and symmetrical with pronounced nipples, you are meant to be a radical person; exactly how Bilal and most people on my street see me.
My smile sharply fell as I saw a sign notifying me that the lift was out of order, and I tip-toed up six flights of stairs, heels in hand so as to not wake up the neighbors. It’s funny that even as a mature woman in my early fifties, I still behave like a teenager afraid of what her parents might say when coming home past-midnight. After what felt like trekking the Annapurna circuit, I opened my front door, revealing a breathtaking view of the Sacre Coeur, and relaxed into the gratitude I felt to live alone, without having to continue this tip-toe routine in my own apartment or to have to explain where I’ve been, what I did, and with whom to anyone else inside. It’s funny that the world outside still really seems to care about these details; the level of scrutiny that the world still seems to apply to single women, no matter how much we talk about feminism or emancipation, never ceases to amaze me. As I slunk into my favorite armchair admiring the glimmering city of Paris below, the Sacre Coeur suddenly began to look more and more like the Taj Mahal. Some call it a monument to love, but I see it for what it is: a mausoleum for a woman named Mumtaz who was forced to exist on a pedestal with no room to budge, weighed down by fourteen pregnancies.
“I am not sure whether I dozed off or not. But, as far as I remember, I was wide awake. I saw the moonlit sky sparkling with thousands of diamond-like stars, very distinctly. All on a sudden a lady stood before me; how she came in, I do not know. I took her for Sister Sara,” a character from my great-grandmother (and namesake) Begum Rokeya’s story Sultana’s Dream. I wasn’t in Paris anymore, I was in Kolkata overlooking the Victoria Memorial, a massive marble monument that began construction in 1906 to honor Queen Victoria (perhaps the British were trying to turn her into their own version of Mumtaz). Just a year earlier in 1905, my great-grandmother immortalized a dream in a piece of writing where the same Sister Sara standing in front of me accompanied a character named Sultana in a world where women roamed free, where men were the ones who stayed home and did the tip-toeing. They explored this progressive, full of scientific invention realm from the safety of a flying car. Over the course of the dream, they unpacked how a social structure that reversed the power dynamics of men and women was successful in combatting inequality and geopolitical conflicts, reducing widespread death and suffering in the world. I asked Sister Sara what lessons she could share with me for today, since these systemic societal problems haven’t disappeared in the century since she came into being as a figment of my great-grandmother’s imagination.
Sister Sara smiled and assertively ushered me back down the six flights of stairs that I had just scaled. Unleashing her signature style of aggressive affection, she rushed me into her hovering car. Apparently, we were late for an appointment across the border in Dhaka, Bangladesh. As we zoomed over West Bengal, I caught a glimpse of the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School below which my great-grandmother founded as part of her mission to empower women through education in the region. Leaving the car parked in levitation mode outside the first floor, we skipped the stairs and walked straight into the bustling Green Market to enter one of Bangladesh’s oldest international contemporary art spaces, the Britto Arts Trust.
Crochet breasts of all shapes sizes and colors took over the small gallery that had transformed from its previous life as a corner shop. All seven shapes described by Modern Ghana’s breast-personality-test floated across the room: lemons, papayas, apples, pears, cherries, melons, and nectarines with cocoa, honey, rose, and ebony colored nipples. This was a project by the Indian artist Vinima Gulati who had been in Dhaka on a residency, asking women who were still subjected to purdah (a state of isolation where their minds and bodies were separated from men and public places, the very same state that Mumtaz was subjected to) to crochet self-portraits of their breasts in order to understand and share the beauty and diversity of the female body. As I marveled at these buxom floating forms, the sounds of infectious, friendly, female laughter began to take over the space. I recognized some of the voices, and my gaze turned from the breasts above to the gorgeous women lounging across in the room: Chitra Ganesh, Laure Provoust, Annette Messager, Nalini Malani, Nancy Spero, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keefe, Hannah Wilke, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Bharti Kher, Tayeba Begum Lipi, Teresa Albor, Carolee Schneemann, and Novera Ahmed. “Bangla Begum, you’re finally here!” they rejoiced, while quickly demanding that I lend my informal deejay skills to the room.
As we all began to go wild releasing out our inner divas to the sounds of Disco Deewanee, I had the brilliant idea that Sister Sara’s car needed an upgrade from 1905, and we worked all night in to collectively crochet a new set of wheels for her important mission to make the world a safer place for women like us. Admiring our new creation, we decided that we needed to put it to use and took a break in the fresh air of the Bangladeshi countryside. We flew to Sylhet, the land of my favorite lemons. I completed my studies in the United States, and there is a saying there that “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Back in Paris, all people could talk about was the development of vaccines. I wondered if patriarchy could be vaccinated against, and if perhaps we could administer this vaccine via Sylheti lemonade grown under the care of Bangladeshi farmers. “Why not?” said Sister Sara, and she immediately put her team of scientists to work. A few hours later, our outdoor dance party was interrupted by a triumphant announcement that the lemonade vaccine was effective and ready.
I was afraid that our car might be stopped by the police as a result of the curfew, so the artists and I stuffed our pockets as full of lemons as we could, and we clicked our heels three times and emerged on the ground floor of my apartment building in Paris. Empowered by the company and the knowledge that our new vaccine could overpower the most noxious of neighborhood gossip, we clunked up the stairs as loudly as we could, and began to dance the remaining hour of the night away in blissful revelry. Multitasking between playlists and juicing lemons, I heard loud knocks at the door, and made my way towards it, prepared to explain the paradigm shift that we were about to unleash on Paris. To my surprise, the neighbors were not angry, they just wanted to join in on the fun, and contributed some their own song choices to the playlist while downing Sylheti anti-patriarchal lemonade.
While losing myself in Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell, I suddenly heard my doorbell buzzing incessantly, and I realized that I had fallen asleep in my armchair. However, why was there a Sylheti lemon on the neighboring side table? I went to the door and accepted a package which contained a small vintage jewelry box inside, housing a golden ring shaped like a breast. This ring held so much of the power and emotion that I had felt in my dream, and I immediately put it on. I just couldn’t wait to run down the stairs and show it to Bilal.