A short story
On the third day the oil ran out. We were searching for food in the kitchen—an old passageway turned into a narrow room. There were plastic pots containing churned chili, turmeric and a packet of salt. The salt, left open in the air for months, hardened itself into a white knoll. We scratched its stony shell and pinched the amount we needed to pepper over whatever we cooked. The soot, tangled like the matted hair of a medieval minstrel, nestled in every nook and cranny of the kitchen. We never cleaned it since we had moved here. In fact, we doubted that any tenant had cleaned the kitchen or the house in the last hundred years. But now we were too hungry to consider the ergonomics of a kitchen or its cleanliness.
Two days earlier Anis held out a polythene bag before me and declared grandly: “Salim, what you see is the eighth wonder of the world!” He opened the bag and showed me a palmful of maize. Their yellow hulls glinted in the dim electric bulb that barely illuminated the dusty room. He asked me to sniff at them, saying they smelled as strong as freshly harvested maize in one of his nostalgic fields in the great expanse of the northern delta. But contrary to his claim, a sharp, ratty smell struck my nose. They were stale, left out for months for a day like this, so he could discover their wonder and worth on a hungry stomach.
Anis asked me to clean the frying pan. I went to the dimly-lit yard and started cleaning it with a scrub. From the veranda on the first floor the landlady saw me working, bare down to the waist. I was only wearing a lungi, which I folded in half and tucked into the waist like a white mundu seen in the south Indian movies. It helped me squat and do the cleaning more comfortably. Covered in dark, thick hair, my strong legs frightened the landlady into covering her chest with a piece of black veil that was hanging loosely from her shoulder. I exchanged glances with her while sluicing the pan in the faucet water, and found her looking at me dourly. She went to her kitchen right above the old storeroom on the ground floor, and started cooking. She wouldn't provide us any food until we paid the previous two months’ rent and cleared the threat of eviction, which she had also issued to four other members of this tumbledown boarding house.
But we were not like this when we had first come here. We were always busy, selling medicines to drugstores in the entire range of Old Dhaka—from the Lalbag Fort neighborhood to Narinda—until Anis lost his job two months earlier. He was laid off for his poor performance. He moped around all day and waited for the meal provided by the landlady twice a day. But she had stopped sending it since last week. Anis started receiving an allowance from his maternal uncle. But it also fell short of two hundred takas for the monthly rent we halved since we had moved here. I was lucky to save my hide in the office. I fulfilled the 70% of my target that confirmed a 2% commission on all the drugs I had sold. But I was yet to receive this month’s salary and the commission.
There was only a little oil left in the bottle. However, Anis pressed my back in joy and started frying the palmful of maize with it. He left some maize in the bottom of the bag, saying they might grow the next day, as if sown on good soil. He kept the mouth open to add moisture from the air—or perhaps he hoped that new seeds of maize would trickle into the pit of the bag from a miraculous source.
The maize didn’t pop well despite his passionate efforts. But when heated on fire, their ratty smell was completely gone. They were edible; in fact, we never knew that maize could be so amazingly tasty. There was something wild in them that drew my attention—I felt I could smell wet traces of soil in the barely-popped maize.
I was busy the following day. I passed a sea of traffic to send a consignment of drugs to the other end of the city. I was given only a hundred taka allowance from the office for food and travel, which hardly served the purpose. Yet I saved some money, and while returning home in the evening through the twisted lanes of our neighborhood, I spent the last banknote in my pocket, buying a quarter kilogram of maize.
Anis was not in the room; the door was locked, but I found it slightly ajar. The empty room was a deluxe saloon for the few stray cats that lived with us in the house. They crawled through some invisible holes into all the empty rooms of the house and occupied bedspreads and soft objects. They searched for fish bones and biscuit leftovers; but we had none inside. When I was opening the door hasp, three cats gave me frightening meows, striking my ear with feline anger, cursing me for waking them up from sleep or disturbing their secret sports. They bolted into the yard and looked back at me with contempt. I heard Anis’s footfall a few minutes later. It was easy for me to identify his steps: Short, quick and less hesitating.
He had had a job interview in another office. The sad look on his face told me not to ask about it or to find out if he had had lunch. He rushed to the kitchen without taking his shoes off, his only pair of leather. I strained my ear to listen to his discovery of maize growing in polythene bag, or his loud cry that there was a ninth wonder in our kitchen. But his reverberating laughter rippled across the kitchen, interspersed with his solemn conviction: “It's hard to live without a god these days!"
The polythene bag was full of freshly-harvested maize once more. He shook the remaining oil onto the pan and turned the bottle upside down, saying, “If God is with us, we can also grow some oil out of this empty bottle!”
Anis was brimming with happiness, the frank, earthly kind you see on a hungry man’s face. I split each matchstick into two while he was frying the maize. He waxed philosophical and told me a story about the prophet. During a distant desert war in the Arabic calendar, the prophet’s men were exhausted after digging a ditch, and the prophet asked one of his companions to go home in search of food. There was only flour in the house, onto which the prophet smeared his saliva and asked the companion’s wife to start making a dough. The wife did so, but to her wonder she discovered that the dough was never reduced in size. One thousand men ate bread to their satiety, and even when they left the house, the earthen pan was still full of puffed bread. But the companion’s wife was curious; she turned up the pot to know where all the bread was coming from. But the moment she lifted the pan off the fire all the bread vanished into air!
Anis was in a metaphysical mood, trying to prove God's miracle with messianic zeal. I didn't care much since I committed the crime of provoking his sense of faith. Only when he started reading the front and back page of a newspaper he had brought with him did he change the topic. He said they were swine to have charged batons on unarmed students protesting against discriminatory quotas for government jobs. "You are deprived of the 56% commission since you were not born deaf, dumb or mute, or into the family of a war veteran. A natural birth is not enough for you in this country!" He parodied everything he read in the newspaper. He pledged to sit in with the strikers and asked me to accompany him; but I was hemming and hawing. I had seen the futility of the world-weary voices of these strikers and protesters, spoiling their lives too ambitiously.
As Anis persisted I couldn’t but get angry. It was none of his business to pursue me to shout for something that wouldn’t benefit me in any way. I was not a university graduate like him; I had only spent two years studying chaotic psychology in the same university where I had first met him half a decade earlier. So I thought I'd better remain busy selling medicines in the city, from one end to the other. Our éminence grise of political affairs! He was now in the mood for fighting all the malice in the world with a few maize seeds rustling in his stomach. I could have told him the truth and broken his heightened spirit at the snap of a finger!
But I didn’t tell him anything. Things were hard and drab the next day, and as it neared evening, I called Anis to find out if he was in the agitating crowd of students. Asking for the fourth time, I only managed to hear that he would return home late in the evening.
“You give boutonniere of roses to the police in the morning and they charge you batons in the evening. Bunch of swine, aren’t they?” He flared up, preparing to sulk for the rest of the night. He didn’t smile, and slumping on the bed, looked out the window at the dusky backyard of our house. I sped up the ceiling fan, for he was reeking badly. It was a bad sign; men could kill each other in this mood. I read every feature on his face, revealing despair and dormant anger. I went to the kitchen and sang out his name, “Anis, Anis!”, and declared a false miracle for the final day: “God still hasn't left us!”
Anis almost whizzed into the kitchen. He held the old polythene bag that contained maize, his lips widened, his eyes brightened. It was only the oil that didn't grow in our kitchen. But he showed no sign of sulking. He laughed and talked and struggled to trickle out the last droplets of oil from the upturned bottle. But when fried, they couldn't save the maize from an ugly blackness. He didn't turn the oil bottle upside down or leave some maize in the polythene bag like yesterday.
After a veritable banquet, distinguished for its soil-like taste, we went to the yard. Anis started crooning Asha Bhosle. I lit a cigarette, took a long drag and blew the smoke toward the bright moon. I looked up at the clearing in the sky—the vast celestial expanse of untarnished glory. The arms of the young banyan tree cast lovely shadows on the yard. Anis stood by me; we were two shadows crying out their joy to the sky above us. He talked at length. Not about the streets, the agitation, the baton charges, the anger, the detention, the police, or the false promise; rather, he spoke of some palmyra trees he had climbed up in his childhood; of the Madhumati river that still glittered in the moonbeam like scintillating snakeskin; of fox hunting at midnight in wheat fields; of a girl in the early days of his youth, whose bathless breasts smelled like withered, forsaken bokul flower. He spoke of his song-filled days, intoning in a way as if he were seeing his life years after living in a far-off continent. The sky opened before us with all its shining objects. I couldn’t remember what I said. I knew tomorrow there would be no maize in the kitchen. We had already spent the last droplets of oil. And I wouldn’t be able to fill the bottle before Anis returned home. But I wanted him to exclaim into my ear: “Look! Ours is a god’s kitchen. Didn’t I say? Now ... get the maize quickly ... onto the pan ... and the oil ... Ah, you see. There is oil, too! Shake the bottle ... here you go ... thank God we are not dead yet.”
The moon slipped behind the banyan tree, yet the sky gleamed with a silvery sheen.
After a long time, Anis murmured under his breath, “Bastard, I know it was you playing with God and maize ... I guess we are only to eat the moonbeam from tomorrow!" He tried to gather some anger in his voice but pressed my shoulder in the secret faith of a long companionship.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.