The train rolled to a complete stop and lurched back to life again to make its final crawl into Kamalapur Railway Station in Dhaka. Imtiaz stepped off and into the teeming crowd of the platform with his eyes trained on the exit. He shooed away a trio of young boys that had fallen on his suitcase and bag without delay, tugging at them for a small tip to carry them to his car, and shouldered his way out through the crush of bodies.
The heat was a full-on assault. Imtiaz could feel it squeezing the sweat out of him by the seconds, and as soon as he was out from under the shade of the station’s scallop-edged roofline, the sun added an extra hand. After sitting in the train for so many hours, through a slew of delays, it was not so bad to get the blood stirring again.
‘Imtiaz shahib, over here!’
Imtiaz followed the voice to his right and saw his uncle’s driver, Amir, running over with arms extended.
‘Give me, just give me,’ Amir swept up the two pieces of luggage, which Imtiaz had momentarily set down. ‘I thought your train would never come.’
‘How are you?’ Imtiaz asked, patting his back. The thin fabric of Amir’s shirt was soaked through and sticking to his back.
‘Alive, shahib, for the time being,’ Amir replied, bounding ahead. ‘Come, this heat is a murderer.’
He stuffed them into the back seat of the sky-blue Toyota Publica and, in the same motion, swung open the passenger side door for Imtiaz.
‘It’s been so long since you came last,’ said Amir, bustling into the driver’s seat. ‘Your uncle and aunt have been anxious since you said you were coming.” He gunned the engine, revved it a few times, and cut a wide circle to head out of the station grounds. ‘You’ve come at a very good time,’ he said.
‘Why is that?’
‘Your uncle and aunt, they need family around them. Let’s go. You must be very tired. ‘Lubna madam didn’t want to come?’
‘No.” It had come out as more of a snub than Imtiaz intended. Amir took it as a cue to stop talking.
Imtiaz didn’t know if Lubna would have wanted to come or not. Their world was different now than it had been three months ago. What was generally known as the point of no return was crossed, it was staggering for the mind to comprehend, a mere ninety days earlier, on a Monday afternoon. Imtiaz had learned that morning at work that his promotion, overdue by a year, had gone to his bank manager’s brother-in-law. He couldn’t take the news to Lubna and instead sought comfort where the stakes were so low they didn’t matter. He took his troubles to another woman who brought them back around to Lubna. He had been wrong about Lubna’s powers of judgment for most of their decade and a half of marriage, but this time he’d raised the bar on how wrong he was. It was too late by the time Lubna knew of the promotion. The other news had reached her first.
Imtiaz controlled himself from breaking down because he was aware of Amir watching him from the corner of his eye.
‘What about you? Are you finally married?’ Imtiaz tried to offer a friendlier tone.
‘No,’ Amir shook his head with an accompanying chuckle. ‘No woman wants to get near a middle-aged driver with no other prospects in life. And I’m happy not to have to burden someone with that.’ On a more sobering note, he added, ‘Curfew, Imtiaz shahib. These bastards, forgive my language, they cage us in whenever they feel like it.’
‘We still have time, no?’
‘Yes, but not much.’
‘What do you mean?’ Imtiaz asked, grabbing the dashboard to keep his face from banging into it as Amir sped up.
‘I mean, they can say it’s at six, but if they feel like it they’ll cut it short by two hours.’
‘That means we could have only fifteen minutes to make it home?’ Imtiaz said, checking his watch.
‘It could,’ Amir said. ‘But don’t worry. It doesn’t happen. These army people, they pride themselves on maintaining time, if nothing else. Six means six. Even though it’s not always six. It’s not always curfew either, shahib. We’re slaves to their will.’
‘Things have been pretty bad here, I suppose,’ said Imtiaz.
‘Shahib, things have never been good here in Bengal, ever. We’ve never had anything. Whatever we’ve had we had to beg for. We’re a race of beggars. Maybe it’s what we deserve.’
‘You believe that? Really?’
‘Shahib,’ he spun the steering wheel to avoid a rickshaw, jerking the car almost to a tilt, ‘goddamn these scourges. Sorry, shahib. Belief. What does it matter what I believe? That’s all I’ll be able to do. Believe. And then they’ll stick a gun up my ass and tell me what I should do. Shahib, I’ve known you and your aunt and uncle for many years. Forgive my language. I speak honestly.’
‘Yes. I appreciate that.’
Once they passed St. Mary’s Cathedral on one side and the mosque and Ramna Park on the other, Imtiaz recognized Kakrail. From there Imtiaz had a clear recollection of where the Circuit House was as Amir sped the car along, and within minutes brought them to Chowdhury Villa.
(Excerpted with permission from the author’s debut novel, In the Time of the Others, forthcoming from Picador)