Our prized culture has made me privy to a curious fact: A rotten egg that has laid waste to all that was ever invested in him could still hope to salvage much of his reputation by participating in a certain social ritual. The choice of pronoun is intentional as women here are often restricted even in their ability to rot. This is a story of redemption.
Abed was born to educated parents. I would not call just anyone with a degree “educated”, but I knew them to be progressive individuals with a remarkable lack of apathy towards everything except their children. So, Abed went to the best schools, wore the best clothes, and from a very early age, could charm a Bengali out of his box of roshogollas. But he also became involved in things you would expect a derailed rich kid in Dhaka in the 1990s was. I watched him through all the stages of degradation.
All humans are philosophers, at least to the extent that when presented with a possible course of action, they ask why. The answers they ultimately satisfy themselves with are often evasive or irrational, but for what it’s worth, they at least take that first step. Abed provides a shining example to the contrary. His instincts, though brought under some manner of control over the years through society’s constant conditioning, remain mostly untainted by civilisation. Growing up, he was completely unburdened by trivial things like purpose and consequence. And until a certain age, who could blame him? Smash his dad’s coffee cup? He’s just a boy. Take apart his little sister’s toys? He is sure to become an engineer! Pull down the dresser door while trying to climb up? What a spirited young boy. Sit down on boiling hot water? Tragic.
But crack the old security guard’s skull by tripping him with a string tied between the gates? Steal money from his mom to borrow VHS tapes from the local video store? Get caught trying to force his way with a household help when he was fifteen?
As his older brother by only two years, I had an evolving relationship with the discourse surrounding Abed. As a child, I was resentful as I was often made to feel dumber for not constantly breaking things, or spewing ridiculous, confrontational nonsense that everyone seemed to confuse for wit. As an adult now, I pitied him for what people said about him, knowing that he was not completely to blame. During my adolescent years, I had a brief protective phase when I would cover up for him, but I quickly realised that it was getting out of hand. My mother, of course, disagreed.
“But mom, you have to tell dad. It isn’t just weed this time. That was meth! Where is he getting the money?”
“Hush, your dad would take it too far. Don’t say anything. He’ll grow out of it.”
Before long, Abed was involved in a wide range of illegal activities, including mugging and selling mobile phones, to support his own drug addiction. I would be the last person to shame recreational drug use, but Abed was an addict at the expense of everything else. He dropped out of high school, could not hold simple jobs at retail stores, and ultimately almost ran his own cassette store, so graciously presented to him by our parents, to the ground. My dad, now finally aware, was also quite helpless. After multiple cycles of threats and promises, it was evident that they were past the point of punitive measures, and that Abed was not going to change. At this juncture, my mother, no doubt inspired by plenty of precedents in our society, came up with the idea of getting my then 22-year-old brother married.
Marriage in the minds of people like my mother, is a magic ritual. Throw your aberrant son into it, and out emerges a fully functional, stable income-earning father of two kids. It is impossible for me to understand the reasoning behind this, but I have gathered a little bit about how other people rationalise it. Evidently, having a wife calms the boy down – a subtle subtext might be that this is through the availability of sex – and instills in him a sense of responsibility that is so strong that it completely transforms his personality.
After a month of searching, my mother had decided upon a nineteen-year-old girl called Bipasha for the marriage. She came from a very traditional middle-class family, and in retrospect, her family were probably in awe of my very successful parents. While I was away getting my PhD in the USA, through most of this – I only came back to attend the wedding – it does not absolve me of any of the responsibility for what followed. I knew, for instance, that my parents had hidden much of my brother’s past from the girl and her family, cooking up lies such as entrepreneurial ambitions and gap years to fill in the wasted time. I had been instructed to share in their blind optimism that this ritual would cleanse my brother of his past, and I wanted to believe there was hope for him.
I first had a proper conversation with Bipasha three days after the wedding, after all the ceremonies, formalities and visits had been completed. She seemed nervous, but also excited. Her parents had not forced her into the marriage. My parents were planning to enroll her at a private university, and she was looking forward to that.
“Do you know what you want to study?” I asked her.
“Computer science. I want to design video games eventually.”
I was slightly taken aback by the specificity of her answer. Bipasha went on to talk about her favourite computer games and how modern games were almost like living through stories, and very well-written and rigorously animated stories at that. She asked about my PhD programme in statistics and what the field actually involved, as she had had limited exposure to it. Based on my interactions with her over the next few days, she was an incredibly curious and driven individual, to the point that it left me wondering why she had agreed to this marriage in the first place. But there were socioeconomic forces at work. I left a week after the wedding, and have not met her since.
My mother’s plan seemed to work initially. Abed tried to look after the store with some degree of responsibility, and had even started talking about finishing his studies. My aunt commented that Abed had finally changed for the better and for good. Extended relatives who had always been dismissive and contemptuous of him eagerly invited the newlyweds to dinner. Abed soaked up the attention, and had the air of an embattled veteran who was past his horror days. But he was really just caught up in the moment. Within a few weeks, he went back to his old habits. Very soon after that, Bipasha realised why his behaviour sometimes became erratic. But she did not get time to get accustomed to any specific behaviour pattern. Things got progressively worse.
It started with Abed selling her jewelry. He began to come in late often – always drunk – and behave increasingly strangely with Bipasha, often not responding to her in conversation at all, and humiliating her for being “poor”. If Bipasha ever became distressed enough to protest, he threatened her with violence. We learnt much later that he had also developed erectile dysfunction by this point. My parents knew bits and pieces of what was going on, and were always pleading with Abed to change, to expected results. They got a fuller demonstration when Abed finally made good on a threat, and hit Bipasha with a flower vase, badly bruising her arm. This triggered a series of similar incidents in which Bipasha would return to her parents’ house and then come back in a few days after getting new reassurances from my parents and brother each time. Her parents, too, were keen to send her back. Through all of this, Abed maintained his image in society as a reformed individual.
This went on for two years. Two whole years. Then she finally filed for divorce. For her parents, it had finally gotten to the point that concerns over her safety and well-being finally outweighed worrying about what society would say. My parents, by now repentant for their hand in all of this, were also completely on board. Abed and Bipasha went their own ways four years ago.
I am sometimes grateful that I was away from home through most of this because I am not sure what I would have done. Would I really have put an end to the situation sooner if I had been present? Or would I have been complicit in the abuse, just like my parents, by being optimistic about my brother and cajoling Bipasha to stay? My parents are good people, as good as they come in our society. Knowing how they became part of this cycle of abuse, I can no longer answer these questions with confidence.
Bipasha went on to complete her undergraduate studies. My parents wanted to continue funding her education even after the divorce, but she would not agree to it. She is now finishing up a Master’s in Animation, evidently on course to fulfill her dream of developing video games someday. I know all of this because she has somehow still kept me on her social media. She probably has not noticed, or does not care.
Seeing Bipasha today fills me with a strange kind of joy. Maybe it isn’t joy. Maybe it is relief. Relief that the giant ball of darkness my parents had created, and that society had thrown in her direction, could not snuff out her light. She has redeemed herself from utter despair. As for my brother, he simply lives on.
Ornob Alam is a fiction writer