A translation of Humayun Ahmed's short story
(Translated from the Bangla by Zaynul Abedin)
“Would you like to hear an interesting story?”
I looked at the man in surprise. A while ago, I had a brief exchange with him. It was only the usual stuff, an idle chat. He had wanted to know whether I was waiting for a train. I said yes in reply and being polite, I asked, “Where are you going?”
He was all smiles, and said, “I am not going anywhere. I have come to receive my wife. She is coming from Chittagong. The train she is on board is two hours late. I do not feel like returning home for this short while. I will have to go all the way home and come back again. I thought I'd rather wait here.”
This was all the talk I had with him. If a complete stranger wants to strike up a conversation after such a short exchange, you cannot but feel a little surprised. I hardly take any interest in listening to stories from strangers. Besides, from my many years’ experience, I have always noticed that stories which begin with the claim that they are "interesting" are not interesting at all.
I chose not to say anything. If he were wise, he would surely understand the meaning of my silence. But if he were not, I might have to hear him out.
It so turned out that the man was not wise at all. He took a betel-and-nut container out of his pocket and began the story while preparing a leaf:
“I must be annoying you. If a complete stranger begins blurting out a story, who will not feel annoyed? But you know what? Today is a very special day in my life, and on this special day every year I feel tempted to tell the story to someone or the other. Now if you don't mind, I can begin.”
“Would you like some paan?”
“You can have one. This paan is sweet-tasting. You’d surely like it.”
“Do you always offer a paan when telling someone the story on this special day?”
The man burst out laughing. It was a hearty laugh. About 40 years old, he was very handsome, and was looking very nice in impeccably white pajama and punjabi. It looked as if he had especially dressed for his wife today.
“It was about twenty years ago. I was doing my honors in physics at the University of Dhaka. It is too dark to properly see here. If there was sufficient light here, you could see how handsome I am. Twenty years ago, I looked like a prince. I was known as “the prince” among fellow students. But interestingly, the girls showed no interest in me at all. I am not sure if you have noticed but girls do not care much about how good looking a man is. They take note of everything about men, except for their attractiveness, as it were. No girls ever came forward for a chat or for a little bit of flirtation. I myself never made an effort either because I had a speech problem. I’d speak with a stutter.”
I interrupted the man and said, “I do not find you stuttering. You're speaking just as well as anybody else.”
“It was only after my marriage that my stuttering was gone. But back in those days when I was in university, the problem was quite severe. I had tried a whole lot of medications, from the voice exercise with marbles in the mouth to homeopathy to the amulets prescribed by religious clerics. But nothing really worked. Be that as it may, I took up math and chemistry as my subsidiary courses. One of the female students in a chemistry subsidiary class took my breath away the day I first saw her. What a comely face! What beautiful lips and restful eyes! She had a beaming smile. Brother, have you ever fallen in love?”
“No,” I said.
“If you've never fallen in love, you'll perhaps never understand the state of psychological turmoil I was going through back then. When I first saw her, I fell ill. I spent a restless night. That night I developed an unquenchable thirst. I kept drinking water all too often to slake my thirst. I could not sleep a wink at night. I kept pacing around on the veranda of Mohsin Hall, my dormitory at the university.
“We had only two subsidiary classes a week. I felt I'd start crying out of my angst and desolation. What problem would it cause if we had a subsidiary class every day? A class would last fifty minutes, so two classes a week meant a hundred minutes only to be in her presence. The hundred minutes would elapse in the twinkling of an eye. Besides, the girl would quite often miss classes.
"Sometimes it would so happen that the girl absented herself from the class for two weeks in a row. I would then feel like jumping off the roof of the dormitory to put an end to this unbearable pang. You would not understand what a terrible situation it was!”
“But you have yet to tell me her name? Does she have a name?” I cut in.
“Her name was Rupa. But of course I did not know her name yet. In fact, I did not know anything about her. I did not even know which department she was from, let alone her name. All I knew was, she also took chemistry as a subsidiary course, and that she would come to campus in a black Morris Minor car whose number plate read V 8781.”
“You did not try to find out about her!”
“No. I did not give it a try for fear that I might end up knowing that she was romantically involved with somebody else. Let me tell you an incident that happened one day, and you’d understand why I had always avoided finding out about her. Once at the end of a class, I noticed that she was having a chat with a boy, and her face was painted in smiles. The incident gave me the shivers. It seemed as if I’d pass out. I could take it no more, so I bunked off and quit the place. Within a very short while, I noticed I was having a raging fever shaking my whole body.”
“Strange indeed! Thus two long years elapsed, and I was on the verge of giving up my studies. Then, one day, I accomplished a very courageous feat: I managed to get her home address from the Morris Minor car driver and wrote her a letter without salutation. I cannot exactly recall what I wrote in it, but the essence of it was: I wanted to marry her. She must consent to the marriage. Until she gave her consent, I’d lie in front of her house without budging an inch and touching any food. In fact, I threatened to stage what newspapers call ‘a hunger strike.’ Are you finding the story interesting?”
“Yes, I am. What happened then? Did you send the letter by post?”
“No. I myself carried it to her home address, and handing it to the security guard of her house, I said, ‘Please take this letter to the apa who studies at university.’ He obliged and took the letter inside. Returning after a while, he said, ‘Apa said she does not know you.’ I promptly responded, ‘Yes, that’s right. She does not know me, but I do. This is more than enough.’
"Having said that, I took my position outside the gate and literally stood my ground with an unswerving determination. You see it was an act of sheer foolishness. I was really out of my mind. All the same, I had stood my ground from 9 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon without much happening. In the intervening time, I just noticed some curious pairs of eyes looking at me from time to time through the windows of the second floor. At 4 o’clock, a man got out of the house and said in a severe voice, ‘Enough of your madness! Get out of here!’
I responded in a severer voice, ‘I will not.’
‘I am sending the police in. They will take care of you.’
‘I have no problem. Please send them in.’
‘You rascal! This is no place for sporting your madness.’
‘Why are you swearing at me? Did I swear at you?’
"The man went back, flying into a rage. As soon as he went inside, it started raining. It was a torrential downpour. I was impassively standing in the pouring rain. Then I realized I was running a fever. I realized I’d not be able to withstand the downpour after standing for the better part of the day under the scorching sun. But by then I was possessed with an overwhelming sense of nonchalance, and told myself, ‘I don't care.’ I grew listless from hunger and exhaustion. It seemed I’d actually faint!
"In the meantime, I have been able to attract the attention of some curious people around. Quite a few of them even asked me, ‘What happened? Why are you standing here in the pouring rain?’ To all of them I invariably said, ‘Please do not bother about me. I am crazy. Just leave me alone.’
"In all probability, this strange incident was also reported from inside the house to some people over telephone. Three cars came, and the passengers, stepping out of the vehicles, looked at me angrily for some time and then entered the house. The clock struck nine and the rain abated for a while. I was running a high fever. I could no more keep standing. I sat down, spreading my legs. The security guard came up to me and said, ‘Shaheb wants to send for the police, but apa is not willing. Seeing your misery, boro apa is crying a lot. Keep sitting tight.’ And I kept sitting tight.
"The clock struck eleven and the light on the veranda of her house was turned on. Opening the door to the living room, she came out, followed by all her family members who did not, however, step outside the veranda. The girl all by herself came up to me; she stood in front of me and in an incredibly soft voice said, ‘Why are you doing all of this like a mad man?’
"I was completely taken aback because she was not the girl I had been looking for. She was a different girl altogether, and I had never seen her before. The Morris Minor car driver must have given me a wrong home address. Perhaps he did it on purpose. Once again, in a soft tone, the girl said, ‘Come in. Please come in. Food is served on the table. Come in. Please.’
"I rose to my feet, and tried telling her, ‘Look. Please do not take it otherwise. I have made a horrible mistake. You are not the girl I am looking for. You are a different girl altogether.’ But looking at the deep affection reflected in her eyes, I could not afford to say it. Indeed, no girl had ever looked at me with such a deep affection in her eyes as she did.I was so overwhelmed with fever that I could barely walk. The girl said, ‘You are probably feeling ill. Please hold my hands and walk. No problem.’
"From the veranda, all her family members threw us an angry look. Defying their angry look, the girl held her hands out to me. God has not given men the ability to ignore this kind of profound love. I held her hands. In fact, I have been holding her hands for twenty years now. Every now and then I feel restless, and desperately want to share this story with my wife but cannot. Then I find someone like you whom I have never seen before and recount the story. Thus I know my wife will never get wind of it. Okay. Thank you very much, brother. I must be going now. The train has just entered the station.”
The man stood up. The light of the approaching train could be seen at a little distance. It let out a deafening roar. The train finally screeched to a halt.
Zaynul Abedin teaches English at the University of Dhaka.