(Translated by Noora Shamsi Bahar)
Holding the yellow envelope, Andaleeb felt, as if, he was holding a rectangular piece of sunlight.
He belonged to the generation who wrote letters. When he touched an enveloped letter, he would feel as if he had voyaged to an island once known yet forgotten, ona boat from the fleet of the seven dinghies. He would feel that he touched another human being. Within envelopes lie various types of handwriting, neat or clumsy. Enwrapped with human imperfections. Unlike the impeccable, crisp alphabets generated by a computer keyboard. Handwritings are different, just like the distinct voices and laughing sounds of people. The friend who wrote to him from Muktagacha in green ink now lives in Stuttgart. From a long distance he wrote emails to Andaleeb. With a single click, that electronic letter performed a somersault and presented itself on Andaleeb’s computer screen. Before his eyes, he saw alphabets assembled like skilled soldiers in formation. But he couldn’t spot the green friend amid the alphabets.
At this moment, the yellow, government-designed envelope he’s holding in his hand was from a stranger. He did not have any relationship with the letter. Yet, his chest quivered as he held the letter. He felt as if he could hear the sound of rogue waves within his chest.
Despite being an employee of a large corporation, he did think beyond business. He must be a corporate Baul. On some monsoon day, he would drive off by himself in his Skoda car, and go to a nearby haor. He would say to his wife, “Chollam, mobile off thakbe.”
Then, he would get on a fisherman’s boat and roam the haor with the boatmen. He would mingle with the unknown boatmen and eat the gravy of Shol fish (Snakehead Murrel) with them. He would come back home in the evening. Gripping the steering wheel, he would notice a gigantic moon in the night sky. He would feel restless. In an attempt to console himself, Andaleeb would say, “Be calm, my crazy heart! The moon usually smiles like that; it’s not a big deal.”
It’d been a while since Andaleeb felt impatient and yearned to go back to the letter-writing era. How incredible it would be, he thought, to receive a letter tied to a pigeon’s leg. The way Mughal emperors received messages. Or to receive a letter from Sukanta’s postal runner who constantly raised sounds of bells. But he knew that was not to be. As a result, he felt like looking at an envelope containing a letter. Not an official, typed letter. Rather a handwritten letter, lively and fresh like a piece of hot flatbread right out of a tawa. He longed to see a yellow envelope concealing a letter wrapped in mystery. But no one wrote him letters anymore; they only sent him emails. He didn’t know anyone who wrote personal letters by hand. The hunger to see a handwritten letter enfeebled him.
“Hey Rajib, do people write letters these days?” Andaleeb called and asked a relative who worked at the post office.
“They do, Mama. After all, how many people in the villages have access to emails? But then again, most people talk over mobile phones now. And yet, poor villagers still do write some letters. Come to the post office someday, so that you can see for yourself.”
Skipping work one day, Andaleeb took his Skoda and showed up at the main branch of the post office. Rajib showed him around. Upon seeing so many yellow, rectangular envelopes, Andaleeb was spellbound.
“Mama, the post office is no longer as busy as it was in its heyday. Nevertheless, quite a good number of people still write letters.”
Andaleeb took several envelopes in his hand and pored over them.
Rajib then turned his eyes toward one corner of the post office where there were a few letters lying on the floor, and said, “Mama, you see these envelopes? These are all undeliverable, unclaimed. Either the address is incorrect, or there was no receiver. We will be disposing of them. You could do one thing. Why don’t you take these letters with you? You wanted to see handwritten letters. You can open these letters and see them. All of these are definitely handwritten. Since these will be discarded anyway, what’s the harm in reading them? You have very strange curiosities. I think you should take these letters.”
Naturally, Andaleeb felt elated at the suggestion. He said, “That would be wonderful. Thanks a lot, Rajib. I’m taking these letters then.”
He brought the letters home, stuffing them into a bag. He found himself agitated and waiting with bated breath He went into his study, locked the door, and put the letters on the table. He pored over them. He went through the names of receivers and senders. That’s when this special envelope caught his eye. Picking up the envelope, he felt as if he was holding a rectangular piece of sunlight.
Mohammad Sohel Miah
C/O Handsome Dresser Salon
87 Miraj Complex
Dhaka – 1212
Mohammad Shaheen Miah
Convicted felon sentenced to death by hanging. Reg: 99027/B Cell
Barisal Central Jail
As he held this envelope, Andaleeb felt dumbfounded for a few minutes. Then, slowly, he opened the envelope. The alphabets appeared to be written with a fine ball point, blue pen. The lines were crooked—they started at the left margin but continued to curve till they reached the right margin. Incorrect sentences, erroneous spellings. Andaleeb’s chest quivered as he held the letter in his hands. He felt as if he could hear the sound of tidal waves within his chest. He started reading:
Faith in Allah
Take my blessings and love. I hope you are doing well with Allah’s mercy. I, too, am doing well with Allah’s mercy. I didn’t hear back from you since when you visited me two months back, after Qurbani Eid. I didn’t receive any letter from you either. Why not? Would you care to tell? I haven’t been hanged yet. I am not dead yet. Have you forgotten me already? I understand one wouldn’t want to keep in touch with a brother who is a convicted prisoner on death row. Only Allah and I know about the crime I’ve committed. What can I tell you? The date of my execution has not been fixed yet. I couldn’t do much for the family. I couldn’t make Ma happy. You’ve become an adult now; who am I to say anything to you? You will do the things I couldn’t. Don’t be the cause of any grief to Ma. Think of the days when our Baba was still alive. What times we had! The bus accident took our Baba away from us. Darkness seeped into our lives. Ma has only you left. I am a disgrace. I’d like to say one thing: No matter how much trouble you may be in, never ask for Ruhul Kaka’s help. Ruhul Kaka has heaped insults on Ma. Sohel, are you still an addict or have you given up? As your elder brother, I’m asking you to let go of your addiction. Ma has suffered a lot in life. Don’t be the cause of more sorrow to her. Kader Mama is by our side. Take advice from him. Don’t hold on to your job at the barber’s for too long. You won’t be able to progress much there. Talk to Mama; he might be able to get you another job. I get all the news despite being an inmate on death row. The situation in the country is bad. Don’t get yourself into trouble. Sohel, when I think of you and Ma while lying in my cell, I go mad. Tell Ma to pray for me. I couldn’t do anything for the family.
Sohel, I don’t know if you will come before the hanging or if I’ll get to see you again. I have one request to make. Swear to Allah that you’ll fulfill my request. Please meet someone for me. Take the south gate of the telephone office, keep going straight, then take the fourth alley on the left and you’ll see a tailor’s shop named “Shariyatpur Tailors”. You must inquire if there’s a woman named Rina employed there. If Rina is there, call her outside and keeping out of view, tell her only these words: “Forgive Shaheen.” There’s no need to ask any questions or say anything else.
Take care of your health.
Your unfortunate elder brother,
After reading the letter, Andaleeb remained speechless for a long while. He kept staring at the unclaimed letter. He read the letter again after some time. While reading, a thought struck him. Andaleeb made a decision. He would fulfill the final wish of the sender of this abandoned, forsaken letter. Andaleeb decided to locate Shariyatpur Tailors.
Andaleeb did not go to work the next day. He called in sick. He told his wife, “Baire jachchi, mobile bondho thakbe.” (I’m going out to a place, my mobile will be turned off.)
Andaleeb didn’t take the car. He took a baby taxi. He got off the taxi when he neared the south gate of the telephone office. Then he started walking. Andaleeb had never set foot in this poor neighborhood of the city. He was walking in an unknown area of a known city. As he kept walking, he entered the fourth lane on the left, after crossing the south gate. Walking a little ahead along this lane, he actually did come upon “Shariyatpur Tailors”. His heart beat faster. A tiny tailoring shop. Salwar-kameezes of various colors—all made with cheap fabric—were hanging by the walls. Andaleeb went closer to the showcase at the front of the shop. A middle-aged man with a measuring tape hanging over his shoulders, was cutting a piece of orange-blue, printed fabric with fat scissors. The sound of a sewing machine came from the inner room. Andaleeb greeted him with a Salam and asked him, “Bhai, does a girl named Rina work here?”
With scissors in hand, the man furrowed his eyebrows and said, “She does. What’s the matter?”
Andaleeb responded, “No nothing, I just needed to speak to her.”
The tailor could clearly see that Andaleeb didn’t belong to the class of people who were his customers. But he didn’t really have the yearning to investigate into the matter. He turned back toward the inner room and called out— “Rina, ei Rina.”
The sound of the sewing machine stopped.
In reality, Andaleeb hadn’t expected to be in this situation, nor had he imagined that things would come this far. He’d just wanted, as if, to throw a stone into a dark room. He felt unnerved. He didn’t really know how to deal with this situation.
Andaleeb saw a young woman with dark complexion emerging from the half-dark, inner room. Her hair was tied on the top of her head. With a look of puzzlement directed at Andaleeb, she wiped away the sweat from her neck and chin with her orna. Her unique simplicity, which was beyond Andaleeb’s comprehension, bewildered him.
All of a sudden, without any reason or logical explanation, Andaleeb felt that any young man might feel that she was the kind of girl whose hand he could hold and with whom he could run away.
Andaleeb got a grip on himself and said, “Could you come out for a bit?”
With immense curiosity intermingled with fear, the girl came out onto the street. The tailor holding the measuring tape turned around to look at them once.
According to the instructions given in the letter, Andaleeb tried to keep out of view. Then, in the unaccustomed, colloquial language, he uttered the exact sentence requested by the sender of the letter: “Forgive Shaheen.”
The girl stared into Andaleeb’s eyes—speechless. Andaleeb saw that within an instant, teardrops welled up in her eyes from some bottomless source. Two drops, to be precise.
Upon the perforation of the Ozone layer, did the sun’s rays melt the ancient glaciers in this way—gently and strongly at the same time?
“No need to ask any questions or say anything else.” These were the instructions provided in the letter. Andaleeb followed those instructions. Having fulfilled the last wish of a convict sentenced to death, Andaleeb headed back.
In her eyes, an ancient natural drop of water shone like the moon and the sun.
Shahaduz Zaman is a fiction writer and essayist writing in Bangla, renowned for titles like Crutch er Colonel and Ekjon Komolalebu. He won the Bangla Academy Literary Award in 2016.
Noora Shamsi Bahar is Senior Lecturer, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University.