A short story
The moment I felt a hand scouring my side pocket, I froze. I was already in a bad place, squeezed in the cramped aisle with rows of two-seaters on each side, my butt and groin tightly pressed against other butts and groins, all trying to find a footing. It was a rickety structure of an overcrowded bus running ahead with moans and groans that spoke well of its old age and rusted body parts. All the seats were taken and so were the spots for standing in the aisle. So, when someone, say, from the middle had to get off at their destination, the way he'd maneuver through the chinks between standing and sitting passengers was quite a spectacle, painful though it was for the man or woman undergoing this brief but unpleasant walk. After taking off, the bus settled into an unsteady cycle of speeding up and slowing down, depending on the frequency of potholes and speed humps, and the possibility of catching yet more passengers. The driver braked to unpredictable halts every few minutes, making us lurch forward or sideways, falling all over the person in front or on the side. Every time he braked, the whole aisle would be caught in an inevitable swing, causing a ripple, as if, through a pack of dominoes. So I had to engage both of my hands holding whatever I could, outstretching them in opposite direction, holding tightly on to the edges of overhead storage, to stop myself from hitting others. It was during one of those distressing moments that I froze upon realizing there was a faint movement in my pocket. My whole body thus occupied, I had only my eyes to check on things.
It was sometime in the spring of 2006. What I was going through was an uncanny feeling that combined fear and uncertainty with the forthcoming shock of financial loss. The pocket he was scouring had a decent allowance of 2,000 takas for the next two weeks. Would he take it and leave me penniless for the rest of the month? Would there be violence too? Would he hit me and cut me up like a mindless thug often does in a movie? This was, after all, my first encounter with a thug. I began to sweat, fretting over my next course of action: Scream and tell others I was being mugged? Or clasp his wrist and fight him off like a gangster hero in a Korean film?
Pick-pockets and muggers, when caught in public, often met the most unjust fate of an agonizing death by atrocious mob beating which was the last thing I wanted to happen to him. On the other hand, the frailty of my body—emaciated by half-a-decade-long career of staying up all night, alone, with mosquitoes flying about, and spiders and geckos crawling about idly on the peeling walls of the dorm room—admonished me for the thought of a fight with a machete or perhaps a gun-equipped thug. So, instead of executing any of my plans, I looked over my shoulder, almost instinctively, and took a glance at him.
He was standing right behind me; he didn’t look away when our eyes met, nor did he pull his hand out. He rather went still, like a statue. The only movement on the outside of his body was visible in his eyes and face which gave the impression that his mind was flitting between two contrary feelings: Submission and fear. The fear of being caught and beaten to death I’d expected but the look of submission unsettled me. I turned my eyes away and found myself speculating on the possible meaning of his reaction.
First, the fear in his eyes: The fear of being caught and attacked. I've heard this particular fear acts peculiarly upon a person, often goading him into attacking first! Consider the case of Meursault who attacks an Algerian man for a similar reason in Albert Camus's The Outsider. (I was studying English Literature at a public university, with a few courses in Continental Literature and was headed to Bagerhat, my home town, a one-hour bus ride from my university in Khulna, the divisional city.) My sweating sped up to think I might be a victim for having caused a similar fear in him. But my brain eased off a little when I thought over the alternate look in his eyes, that of submission and contrition, as if he wouldn’t utter a single word of protest even if he were taken to a scaffold now and beheaded then and there. Which means I can put my foot down and take back what rightfully belongs to me, I thought. All right then, I’ll make no fuss about it.
So when the bus was running smoothly without the possibility of any unexpected halt, I lowered my right hand and put it in my pocket to hold his. It was empty! There was no money left either! The shock of economic loss could be as painful as a crushing blow on your head, I realized at that instant. As three or four more passengers had jumped on board at the last stop, pressing us more to one another’s butts and groins, he had slipped off the back door. His submissive look was a sham! That son of a bitch got away with my money!! How’d I even pay the bus fare now? Hurriedly I searched into my left pocket and my fingers touched a thin wad of notes. I let out a small cry in surprise; I remembered I had kept the money in my left pocket!
Back in Bagerhat, that look, that pathetic, submissive look of my failed pick-pocket came back gnawing at me a few times but soon I forgot it all amidst my childhood friends. One proposed a party of bangla, accompanied by hash. Bangla is the cheapest variety of locally brewed liquor which on rare occasions caused death en masse for faulty distillation. No kidding there! Once in a while -- I thought and agreed.
On our way to the hash spot, I met Pavel bhai, a promising writer who had been trying to bring out a little magazine for about four years now. He hadn’t lost hope yet.
“Everyone, you see, everyone is ready to give you a lecture but not a single son of a bitch will dig into their pockets. It takes money, right? The papers don’t print themselves out, right?” Pavel bhai said by way of explaining. “So, what are you going to do for me?” He said.
“What are we talking about?” I intoned.
“About the magazine. What else?”
“Well, haven’t written in Bengali in a while.”
“So you write in English now?”
He sniggered at my answer.
“What’s that snigger supposed to mean?” I charged.
“You son of a bitch! Your university turned you into a snob. That’s what it is.” He paused in shock, then resumed. “How can you write a better poem in English? How can you write a better story in that alien language of yours? Márquez
didn’t write in English. Nor did his fellow Latino writers, and see what they have achieved! Do you see that? They are the ones dominating world literature today.” His voice soared a little. Pavel bhai, our dear Pavel Korchagin (that’s how we called him after the protagonist in Nicolai Ostrovosky’s How the Steel was Tempered, due to his background in leftist politics), was a different kettle of fish altogether, full of theory but lacking in action, and too uncompromising to survive in this society. So I thought better of telling him about the African and South Asian booms in English writing. “I’ll give you a short story,” I said instead.
“You’ve got two days. The mag is going to print in one week. Don’t you frustrate me this time! And don't you even dare to write it in that god damn alien language of yours! It has to be written in Bangla and Bangla only. OK?”
He expected me to be surprised. After all these years, the mag was finally going to print—enough reason for me to be surprised as I was somewhat involved with it from the beginning. “Sure,” I said, and left, unsurprised.
It was evening already. My friends had perched on a sidewalk in front of a small shop that sold spicy betel leaves, three or four shops down the street. This was one of the main thoroughfares in the town, known as the Rail Road, stretched between Sadhona intersection and the now-defunct and flattened railway station. The roadsides were lined with somewhat cozy shops selling flowers, afternoon snacks, jewelry items, medicine, and newspapers and magazines. While waiting for me, one of them ordered some sweet-spiced betel leaves. Chewing them was the best weapon to suppress the pungent liquor smell, he was explaining when I joined in. We turned right and took a gloomily lit, sparsely peopled alley. A few paces down stood Robin’s Tea Stall: A spacious, oblong shop with an earthen floor, and backless wooden benches and tables set on the sides, some in the middle. It was walled with golpaata and roofed with tin; the rear side was open while half the front was blocked with a waist-high mud wall, guarding a huge pot of cow milk being heated on a big kerosene stove. Atop a smaller but separate stove was a medium-sized kettle with raw black tea being heated to a proportion that would surely leave a strong taste on your tongue. With the stoves on his right, a big, tall man stood facing a large tin tray on which were arranged small tumblers, a sieve, a plastic container half-filled with sugar; he wore a lungi and his sleeveless shirt, locally known as sando genzi, was pulled up to his chest, revealing his tummy which threateningly swelled forth. An effective strategy to stave off the heat emanating constantly from the stoves. He took a small tin mug, filled it with milk from the big stove and poured the milk into half-a-dozen tumblers arranged in a neat line, filling one-third of each one. Then he picked up the sieve with his left hand, filled it with two spoonfuls of fresh tea, held it over the tumblers and finally, he picked the tea kettle with his right hand and tilted its spout over the sieve, letting strong black liquid pass through another fresh layer of tea, landing lavishly onto the tumblers, turning the white of milk into a light beige. A refreshing scent permeated the air all around, a scent we all were addicted to.
The stall was opposite Light Hall Cinema, a place well recorded in the annals of Bagerhat. People of this town, especially those of the romantic lot, owed tons of their sweet memories to this particular cinema because on top of being more modern and better managed, its outer wall on the right side opened onto a grassy patch of land that led to the doors of the town’s night queens who, we had been told, preferred to stay awake at night and sleep by day. The queens were also the best hoarders of hash. Well, they didn’t own this business, we had been told, but were commissioned to sell it.
The reason for our landing around Robin’s explained itself. The liquor shop was nearby, the hash right across the street. But who’d bell the cat? That was the question. There was a time when crossing this street in the afternoon or evening meant a fabulous show of some famous movie starring Razzaque and Kobori, or Zafar Iqbal and Bobita, or Jasim and Natun. The days of the younger breed were also dying down, what with the mysterious death of Salman Shah. So the golden days of cinema had declined years ago and films running now saw the rise of Dipjol and were full of brutally prolonged rape and violence scenes, and ridiculous acting, providing fodder only for those with dubious intentions, or at least that's what we had been told. That was also the time of the once-famous VCR and dish culture, bringing in the latest Hindi and English songs and movies. We were hung up on those non-Bangladeshi songs and movies like kids are on toys. In fact, watching anything Bangladeshi was a clear reflection on your out-datedness. Very few known faces, least of all those with a prestige tag, would be found there for a show now, not during the day, leave alone in the evening.
So, walking across the street at this time of the evening might mean either of two things: You were in for a tryst with a queen, or you were looking for hash. A stint in hash and alcohol could be condoned, but even a one-off tryst with a queen, if revealed or misconstrued, might leave a smudge on your character as permanent as the black mole on your cheek. We all came from somewhat privileged families, a fact that deprived us of the right to afford that risk. Apart from decent and stable means of income and considerable landed property in villages further down the river, what our families commonly shared was prestige founded on the thin line between the moral and the immoral, and on our ability to shun away from the latter. So, although we’d always desired to pay them visits and imagined cupping their round balls of softness ever so often, we were not allowed to step across the street because there, we had been told, lived the goddess of immorality, with her depraved counsels and debased companions.
“I’ll have to pull a few strings,” Akbar announced. He had political connections; his grandfather was a powerful landlord: Two Alsatians and three tall, well-built and liveried men with rifles dangling from their shoulders guarded his sprawling mansion on the fringes of the town.
“Who’re you going to call?” Salauddin asked. He sounded worried. Coming of a rich and respectable family, with a clean chit of a character, he had much reason to worry. He did not even flirt with girls. Only when his desire for them overflowed his heart, he’d scream at a bunch of them from afar, spouting curses as mean as “Hey street whores, are you at work, huh? Coz if you are, then you better know this is no whorehouse. Got it? Coz if you don’t, then I’m going to shove this cricket bat up your ass real hard. Ha ha ha,” but when they came closer and stole a look at us to find out the source of this apparently preposterous grudge, he’d disappear into the crowd of his friends like a snail hiding its head under the conch after a slight push from an intrusive, belligerent kid.
“I’ll call Khitish the man,” Akbar announced.
“Who?” I asked.
“Khitish is the man. I’ll call him and have him buy some liquor and hash for us.”
“We don’t need to pay him extra,” Salauddin said.
“We’ll take him along and have him roll joints for us,” Akbar added.
“But who’s Khitish?” I repeated.
They ignored my query altogether. Akbar said something about his sister and Salauddin said after him, “She’s a whore!”
“Listen, I’ve got an idea. Let’s go see Khitish at his place. Who knows may be we’ll get a glimpse of her? Oh god! She’s a hot pot of burning beauty! I want a sip of it!” Akbar said.
“Your stomach might get burnt! Oh Khoda! You are such a luichcha!” Salauddin reacted and looked at me for approval.
By then I was too agitated to entertain Salauddin. Instead, I asked, “What’s happening here? Who’s Khitish and why are we talking about his sister?”
“Khitish is the man. He’s got the guts to bell the cat,” Akbar replied.
“There he is!” Salauddin said loudly, pointing to someone behind me.
Akbar gave him a warm reception. “Khitish my man! We’re about to head toward your home. How can we survive without you?”
“What’s the matter? What is so urgent?” said Khitish the man, standing with his back toward me.
“Well, this friend of ours studies English at Khulna University and visits us only once or twice a year,” Akbar said, motioning toward me. “Perhaps you know him. We all went to the same high school!”
Khitish turned around, a wide smile painted all over his face. He took a good look at me and I at him, and we both went still, like in the bus that afternoon. The person standing in front of me looked more like that failed pick-pocket of mine than any of my school buddies. His eyes were bloodshot and the circles under them darker than in the bus. Even so, he looked more energetic and jaunty. But the smile left his face as it did mine.
Overcoming the initial shock of this sheer coincidence, when I was sure Khitish and my pick-pocket were the same person, Khitish dashed toward the street, without saying anything, leaving us all behind and baffled. Akbar called after him and he paused for a moment, looking over his shoulder, and disappeared across the street as swiftly as a chipmunk up the torso of a giant mahogany tree.
“What the fuck was that?” Salauddin said.
“I’m not surprised. I hear he’s become a full time junkie. From a part-time pothead to a full time junkie,” Akbar explained. “Junkies can do anything. Let’s hope he doesn’t sell his sister.”
The tea arrived on a wooden tray, carried by a boy who ran errands for Robin da. It came as a good diversion: Sipping at the best tea in town. I was glad my friends left it at that and felt relieved that they remained in the dark about Khitish the pick-pocket.
But I became increasingly obsessed with Khitish the man. While Akbar, after tea, called another political friend who oversaw that we got all the substances we needed without having to risk our reputation, I could not stop thinking about Khitish, about why his face began to look familiar now, like a shadow on water, becoming clearer with the waves vanishing into stillness. I was taken back to college. PC College, that is.
Ours was a university college that offered higher secondary, and honors and master's degrees at the same time. College was where we boys embarked on higher secondary education with a chest full of expectations about the freedom to mingle with the girls. So we did. Some took it too far, to breathtaking cases of elopement, some to beds, though finding a place that none would know and gossip about was always too hard. But most of us kept it within the boundary, some chasing girls, some chatting with them in groups, some busy making introductions to new girls from the mazar area, some grave-looking boys pursuing them for cheesy notes that were available at any bookstore. If anyone dated, he would keep it within the boundary, may be in an empty classroom, guarded by friends who promised they’d take it to their graves but would spill the beans at the first opportunity that arises. So, in that room when there was no one, except those straining pairs of eyes glued to the window chinks from the outside, if you could score a few passionate kisses with some solid moments of cupping her boobs and butt, your names, the girlfriend included, would be placed in the hall of fame, inducted in the list of heroes and heroines who had done us all proud and given us something to go by.
Of course, for some college was about the power of maths, the fun of chemistry, the brilliance of physics, or the appeal of the humanities, or the potentials of finance and marketing for that matter. But for those of us who found life, all of a sudden, too beautiful, too colorful to give a fuck about these theories and appeals and potentials, college was where we learnt that the beauty of a 17-year-old girl was different from, say, a 23-year-old. The honors students were of the latter age group and would be referred to as “apus” (elder sister in the plural). No matter how poetically inspiring the beauties of our classmates were, some of us would always be on the lookout for an opportunity to engage the apus in conversations, shivering and stammering at times in nervousness. If ever, in response to our persistent but stealthy flirtation, one of them threw us a look over her shoulder, with a few long, silky locks of hair falling over her forehead, we would feel like being hit by a strong gust of wind. Anita apu swept us over, into that sensuous zone that pulls at your core, making you thirsty for one more glimpse of that beauty that is distributed most proportionately in geometric precision. No, she never flirted back and we too stopped when someone else came into the picture. Furthermore, she had little time for silly boys like us, busy as she was with the student leaders. Her affair with Kabir bhai, the dashing and popular leader of a right wing party, then in power, was our most favorite fodder for gossip, more so because she was Hindu and bhai Muslim. We used to speculate about the places where they had dated. Some said they had done it once in one of the college rooms on the first floor. You do understand what I mean by "done it," right?
I remembered clearly how desperately we would wait to get one full and clear view of her face while she was walking, or, say, sitting proudly behind Bhai when he was driving his Yahamaha 125 RHS, the sleekest model in those days. She dressed up in fashionable salwar kamiz. Bhai sat astride while she sat behind him, turning neatly toward the left side with both legs, always wearing a sunglass, and her right hand always wrapped around Bhai's waist. Bhai sped through the narrow streets of PC College with Anita apu sitting like that, her head held high, her body pressed against Bhai's back, as if their whole life was one long wait to reach this ultimate moment of fulfillment where one was inseparable from the other. Yes, on their faces there were obvious marks of confidence and elegance but there also were those few moments of blissful fulfillment. I was damn sure about this, which I still am, though what everyone was impressed with was the pride evident in their appearance. As you can well imagine, I was just one of the many bystanders who'd stare with eyes wide open at the speeding couple.
Just as agitation on a water surface dissipates, the contours of her face formed into a shape sculpted out of a ball of liveliness, imbued with remarkable brown hues.
Khitish the man was Anita apu’s younger brother. Now I remembered. His name was Sandwip and yes, he became one of my closest friends, one who had become the most trusted companion in my literary and intellectual pursuits in those college days.
(This is the first installment of a four-part story)
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.