We were doomed at the station. There was no inter-city train bound for our destination. Slowly, on the horizon, a cloud was gathering. Going back to where we had come from was not an option – it was miles away.
The sun’s descent through a blanket of grey cloud was majestic. When it disappeared, the light fell too, baring almost everything around. In the absence of light, some plights cried out to show their existence. First my eyes caught sight of the station’s nameplate. The name was emblazoned by the sudden fall of light. It yelled into my ear silently: Bhairab Junction, Bhairab Junction ... Then I saw a cadaverous mendicant come crawling toward us. We did not notice him earlier. He said, “Sir, give me something. It might be your last chance to give alms. You never know the day you would die. It may be today.” What a technique of begging alms! We gave him some money and he crawled back to his place by his single arm. The other one was missing.
The railway station is a place where you can find many homeless people – vendors, coolies and beggars. Benches were almost always occupied by them. Threadbare quilts and bedspreads lay carelessly. Some children lollygagged by the railway tracks, picked some pebbles and threw them at a school of bickering sparrows on an electric pole. I was seeing their sport until my brother asked me dryly, “Now what, young Humayun?” It was my idea to go by train. We could have easily taken a bus and head for Mymensing without getting stuck here. “Let’s see the train schedule once again. There must be a mail train or something…” I replied semi-confidently.
We pored over the train schedule: My brother through his rimless spectacles and I with prying eyes. Fortunately we found one! It would arrive in ten minutes. In my head, I conjured up a huge crowd making their way through the window, scrambling for a seat and spitting lumps of red, munched betel-leaves the moment I read the train name: Isa Khan Express. It was a mail train service, which meant it would have to stop at every station it would cross.
The train arrived. But to our puzzle, it carried only a few passengers. We chose a less crowded compartment. The cadaverous mendicant leapfrogged towards our compartment, held the door handle firmly by his hand and took over an entire seat on our opposite row. He put his back against the wall and splayed his legs on the seat like an insouciant passenger. Then he blinked at us for a while and lit a cigarette and sent whiffs of smoke through the window.
The compartment gave me a feel of being in a homeopath doctor’s chamber – it felt small and stuffy yet it was somewhat comfortable. There was a kernel of story in the conversation of other passengers and also in their eyes, in the relaxed, ensconced posture and in the manner of pressing hands on their chins. We heard them chattering – in groups, in twos and threes. We tried to listen to them for a while before the train started moving, and their voice turned almost indistinct by the clickety-clacks of the rolling wheels.
It started raining heavily. Another train from the opposite direction streaked past ours, whistling so loudly that we had to cup our ears. When it disappeared, there was only rain, lightning and indistinct chatter of passengers. Streaks of lightning seemed to me as a white dressed ballet performer who was doing a pirouette towards the end of her performance. I had so many fleeting thoughts. I wanted to perch on one and open a thread with my brother. So I said conversationally, “Somewhere in the wave of time, on such a day, perhaps Márquez got on a train to visit his ancestral town and discovered his own world, Macondo.”
There is no country called America in this world, don’t you know this!” A voice of a woman sailed through the air to interrupt the mid-dialogue. I stood and leaned forward to see the face. We did not know some middle-aged women were eavesdropping on our conversation from behind. There were four women in two benches – all wearing tattered saris and looking exhausted by a long journey. I was confused who could be the source of the voice
My brother remained silent and kept watching the rainfall. The train clanged through a small bridge after a while. When it crossed the bridge, he piped up, “And perhaps Márquez also discovered some wonderful innovations on that day. He chose to tell his story with fictional names instead of his actual hometown Aracataca. You know why he did so? The places we live in or visit regularly become a part of our habit, an essential piece, a shire on the map of our existence. In writing, it makes a difference. Suppose some people go to Green Road every day. They may develop a complex set of attitude towards this place. They may have the best or the worst experience there. The moment they encounter this place in a piece of writing, a whirlpool of past experience shrouds their imagination and perhaps their mood, too. Sometimes they would never be able to come out of their personal experience and concentrate on your piece. So you have to choose different names that would make a de-familiarized effect in your story – and this is an essential technique of magic realist writing.”
My brother is a distinguished critic and also a writer of creative note. As an aspirant in writing, I wanted to prolong this discussion. So I made a point here, “I start my story with a lie then? I mean I want to tell a story of Green Road but I cannot write the exact name?”
He replied, “Of course, you can. But you can still tell your story without mentioning an exact name. It’s not a lie. It frees up your readers from their personal prejudice. There is an American writer named…”
“There is no country called America in this world, don’t you know this!” A voice of a woman sailed through the air to interrupt the mid-dialogue. I stood and leaned forward to see the face. We did not know some middle-aged women were eavesdropping on our conversation from behind. There were four women in two benches – all wearing tattered saris and looking exhausted by a long journey. I was confused who could be the source of the voice.
I asked, “One of you said something to us. Who is it?” They spurned my question and looked askance at us. One of them, a woman past her prime, said, “Why was your man speaking all these lies? America never exists.”
I was confused about what to say next. “What do you mean?” I simply asked. She became softer than before and said, “Come, sit with us. I will tell you what I mean.”
We complied with her request. My brother was already on his feet. We went to their seat and they scooted over to make some space for us. “So you believe that there is no country named America?” I asked her.
She replied shortly, in a singsong voice, “Twenty-five years ago I believed like you. I used to believe in everything they would say. When the river Brahmaputra devastated our land and we were made homeless, they came from all the places with all the promises of the world. They said the government had opened the door for all the countries and for all the NGOs. And they will come with all the help from the other part of the world and they will build new house for us, they will give us job, they will provide us food and they will make us dream. And they said they will surely come and they will come with all the money from America and they said they never tell a lie. All we had to do was sit and do nothing and dream and dream. Of the relief that would come, of the good days impending, of the dreams we are to weave. And here you see. We are still homeless and roam about and beg alms from NGOs and people. And NGOs still give us some relief and they still say everyone is working with America. And there will be home for us soon because the roofs of our home are coming from America! We have had enough with all these tricky men. They look like you. All neat and clean; nails cut; shirts starched; head straight – perhaps you all are military born. You say about this country named America in every word and want us to believe in this country? This country that sells dream to millions of starved, homeless people through their NGOs and agencies? We have been fooled for a long time but not anymore. There is no country called America.”
We sat rooted to our seats when she stopped. She kept us rapt in thought for some moment. My brother looked very pensive. I looked at her closely; she wore a green flower print sari, the anchal pulled over her head. Her cheeks were slightly pouchy. The folds on her forehead told me of her age she had reached and of the plights she had been through. But more than that they also revealed how different she had turned in her thought. You never know who you could meet even in a mail train compartment, I thought.
After a while my brother asked her in a much venerated tone, “You have opened a new door of thinking today. May I ask your name if you wouldn’t mind?” Now she replied calmly, “My name is Sofia Banu and I live at Nandail railway station for the last two decades. These women you see here also live with me. They are also homeless and had the same experience with NGOs and all their promises. But we were disillusioned a long ago.”
Her impressive words dogged me all through the entire journey to Mymensing and also, after returning to Dhaka. I discussed it with one of my friends who worked at a newspaper. I recounted her enthused words and her plight of being a homeless woman for two decades. The friend’s eyes gleamed. With a bright smile he said, “I have found a perfect cover story for the next week!”
A week later I read a feature on Sofia Banu and her group we met on the train. There were several pictures; in one of them, she was sitting on a white bench on a station platform. Behind her, the other three women looking at the camera with the same spurn they had given me the first time I asked them a question. And there was a relatively small interview interspersed with high definition (HD) photos. Yet on a shorter scale, she told all the extremities she had faced in all these years and all the uncertainties she and the group had endured.”
The journalist asked at one point, “Do you sometimes turn to prostitution for want of food?”
She shot back, “No, we do it all the time! We do it for fun!”
Sofia Banu’s interview supplied a demand to every newspaper and TV channels – for more stories and more works on her. So more features were written; documentaries were made with traditional folk music in the background that hummed very sadly. Millions of viewers watched the plight of these homeless people; large amount of advertisement revenues were collected by the internet giants; and column after column were written in newspapers.
One left-leaning columnist wrote, “Sofia Banu is the avatar of the twenty-first century. Believing America doesn’t exist is the first step to solving the problems of humanity. She is a proletariat of exemplary note who knows how to fight back a juggernaut…” Another columnist of the right-wing politics opened his column with the following lines: “In 1842 Walt Whitman was declared a public lazy for not fulfilling his duty properly. Now we have a public mad who is nothing but a piece of chess for the opposition party. They are trying to draw people’s attention by highlighting a mad like her who continues to say America doesn’t exist. When the country is moving forward with a steady GDP in the last two decades…”
A young journalist popularised her as ”Lady Bangladesh” and the name stuck in all discourses and documentaries. Everyone called her by this name. From a homeless woman she turned into a discovery of the media – of newspapers and TV channels. She became a name that was enough to draw people’s attention and to get some readership and viewership. Her troubles and plights were long buried under countless clicks of high definition cameras.
I read another piece of news a week later that said necessary steps were taken by the government for relocation of Sofia Banu’s homeless group, and not only that – an NGO offered her a trip to America so that she could see the country on the opposite side of the North Atlantic. They wanted her to return with happy memories and live happily ever after with a belief that America does exist on the face of earth.
One of my friends said, “It hurt the ego of the imperial bastard, and they are doing it as part of their diabolical generosity. We know all of this; we are not grass-eating creatures!”
We – me and my brother – headed for the airport on the day of her return from America.
It was the end of June. A huge crowd gathered at the airport. The Bangla month Ashar had just set in with hints of precipitous rain. I remembered how we had met her on the train in this same month almost a year ago.
The journalists brought umbrellas with them. The light also fell today, baring everything around. One black umbrella had a cursive handwriting on its bulged belly. I did not notice it earlier. But now, after the fall of light, it was the only thing that caught my attention more than anything else. It read: Parapluie. Poor French word, I thought; it would not have any chance to live when the sun would blaze all around.
Sofia Banu’s plane landed. The mike screeched, announcing her safe return, and the crowd clapped on end. There were some gunmen on the raised platform where she would give a speech. The gunmen’s eyes could not be seen, for they were covered with black sunglasses that kept scanning for hidden weapons in private parts of the crowd.
Sofia Banu came on the platform, her face beaming with a new light and her eyes glimmering. So it was true that everybody comes back from America with warm memories and a beaming face? I was thinking at the back of my head. My brother looked otherwise; he was rather equanimous as if he was aware of what Sofia Banu was going to say.
Sofia Banu looked at the crowd with much admiration. Then she took the mike and said: "My beloved countrymen, I have been taken to a wrong place by this NGO. My belief has become stronger than before. I want to tell you once again that there is no country called America. It never existed and it will never exist. The place I was taken was full of people living in misery. There too I saw homeless people. I asked them: How do you feel when others call you Americans but you don’t have a roof over your head? They said they were not Americans any more. I want to ask this question to countless other people around the world, who have been made homeless for so many reasons – river erosion, war, political violence and state policies. I want to say, the moment you are born a country steals your identity and makes you a citizen without securing your wellbeing. Today we have achieved our right to deny. Don’t you ever believe whatever you see. They will come with impressive ideas to deceive your imagination. Guard it and use it as a resistance. You can resist neither with weapons nor with fights but only with your imagination. It is the first thing you need to learn…"
Some gunmen took her away from the mike. The local MP cried into the mike, “Balderdash! We have the biggest impostor in our country. Don’t believe a single word of hers.”
My brother looked very elated. He said almost in a shrill, “I knew she was going to say something like this!” Then he looked up at the sky; it would rain soon. He pressed my shoulder very enthusiastically and continued, “Don’t you see a new day has come? We know the Empire is there because our reason affirms that. But it is the power of our text and imagination that we let it stand where it stands now. The way you can imagine and discover a new world, such as Macondo, Malgudi or Kanthapura, you can also deny an existing one, which disturbs your sleep and instills bizarre dreams in your head and steals your peace of mind. Sofia Banu taught us how to deny a sleep-disturber in a conscious manner …”
I could not listen to the words of my brother anymore. The crowd was already booing the local MP. Sofia Banu was taken into a police van. The crowd made threatening gestures and rolled back after the MP had left the place in another police van. We headed back home. From that day onward Sofia Banu was not heard anymore. People kept talking of her though; column after column were still written; talk showers lost their voice complaining about the state’s treatment of a homeless woman. Some years later, people would forget her and she would be living in stories, columns and documentaries only. Then there would be a great silence. Light would fall again on many a rainy day. Other creatures and other plights with fancy names would come to surface after prolonged dormancy and cry out their existence. And in the meantime, Sofia Banu would be the sole owner of a red file in a police station. A short profile on its first page would read:
Case no: 551
Birth name: Sofia Banu
Alias: Lady Bangladesh
Address: N/A (Homeless)
Short description: She was a woman of 45, a public mad. She tried to sloganeer: America does not exist.
Current status: Disappeared.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He is currently working on a novella.