Sufia was getting restless. It must be five o'clock, she thought, Aziz should have come by now. She had been ready since three. Unable to bear the wait, she had come to stand at the head of the lane at four forty-five. Perhaps Aziz had completely forgotten, perhaps he had got stuck somewhere. He had all sorts of problems.
An endless stream of rickshaws and people passed by, the men, even as they hurried by, never failing to glance at Sufia. Sufia had stopped bothering about these glances.
The rays of the afternoon sun lit up the ugly red building that was the Telephone Exchange. Sufia suddenly felt nostalgic for her small family back home in Gaibandha. She knew exactly what each one was doing. Mother was just getting up from her Asar prayers. Bulu was preparing afternoon tea with gur, and Dilu had already left to meet his friends.
"O Sophie, I'm late, aren't I?" Aziz was in front of her, a sheepish grin on his face.
Sufia wanted to retort angrily, but didn't. There was no point in wasting time over such silly things. No, she would greet him with a warm smile.
"No, you aren't that late," Sufia said, bringing herself to smile. "What should we take? Bus or rickshaw?"
She looked up into Aziz's face. He looked very tired. Still, there was a smile on his lips, as if he had conquered the world. She had fallen in love with that smile.
Reaching for the packet of cigarettes in his pocket, Aziz paused. "What do you mean? Bus? Aziz Ahmed will take his girlfriend by bus? Never. If I could, I would have taken you by taxi."
This is how it usually turned out. Aziz would behave like this every time. Still, Aziz's words never failed to lift Sufia's spirit. The fatigue and tiredness of a long day of visiting people to service their telephone sets was forgotten. Forgotten too was the night the drunken son of her landlord had knocked on her door and the filthy accusations of his mother that followed. She could also shrug off the many occasions when, for slight mistakes, her boss had scolded her as if she were a maidservant.
Aziz hailed a rickshaw. "Come. Let's go."
Inside the rickshaw, snuggling up to Aziz, Sufia felt secure and comfortable. When the man one loves is sitting beside her, assuring her by his silent presence that he will protect her from all odds, what else does a woman need? Sufia glanced at Aziz affectionately. His unkempt hair, unshaved face and unwashed shirt had not dampened his spirit.
Sufia asked him softly, "Why didn't you shave today?"
Aziz blew some smoke rings before giving a sardonic laugh. "Did I get the time? I had to go looking for someone as soon as I got up." A cloud seemed to pass over his face.
The late afternoon sunlight softly lit up in the sky. In the southern horizon floated a wisp of a cloud, like a bird with outstretched wings.
Sufia didn't like the worried look on Aziz's face. She wanted to say, "When I see your worried face I am afraid." A cold wind seemed to send shivers through her heart. She remembered that her father had had the same haunted look in his eyes during those terrible nights of captivity during 1971. Sufia swept away those terrible memories as one sweeps away a nightmare in the early morning. All she wanted on that beautiful afternoon was to savour the joy of being with the man she loved.
Wanting to coax him out of his mood, Sufia asked tenderly, "What happened to your money-exchange business?"
Aziz emerged from his reverie. "I will start it. I will start it real soon. Do you think Aziz Ahmed will spend the rest of his life as a petty broker?"
Sufia laughed aloud, "When did I say that? I know you can be the president of this country if you want to."
Aziz also laughed aloud as if it was the funniest joke he had heard. He turned to look at Sufia with smiling eyes, "No, no, not the president. The foreign minister."
"Why not? Don't you understand? A president has all sorts of problems. No, it is better to be the foreign minister. This day one country, the next day another. You will also be able to travel."
The rickshaw headed towards Bailey Road. Snuggling up to him, Sufia said, "Will I really be able to travel?"
"What do you mean? If a smart, beautiful woman like you cannot, no one can."
Sufia's eyes glimmered in anxiety, "Don't joke! I'm not good in English. Do you know what happened when I went to a house in Gulshan to clean telephones one day...."
Sufia stopped abruptly as the rickshaw jolted over a bump in the road. She remembered how she had got into big trouble that day when she had gone to service the telephones. She hadn't seen the notice hanging on the gate of the house in Gulshan: "Beware of Dogs." As soon as she entered, she had been chased by two dogs. To Sufia, dead tired after walking all day in the hot summer sun, they had appeared as big as tigers. Sufia had tried to flee, but had stumbled on the porch and fallen down. Luckily, a fair-haired foreigner emerged from the house and called off the dogs. She asked Sufia a lot of questions in English. But Sufia, who had studied only up to the Intermediate level in a mofussil college, could not understand a word of what the woman was saying. The cook rescued Sufia, managing to explain to his mistress that Sufia had come to service the telephones. She had no other intentions.
Aziz lit another cigarette. The rickshaw was not moving smoothly along the road.
Returning to his topic, Aziz said, "You won't even take two days to learn all the English you need and all the fashions and etiquettes,"
A mild breeze stirred the leaves of the trees lining Bailey Road. Looking at the trees, Aziz asked Sufia in a cheerful voice, "Which country would you like to visit the most, Sophie?"
Sufia was startled by the abruptness of the question. "What do you mean which country...?"
"Why, shouldn't the wife of the foreign minister have some choice in the matter?"
Sufia got back into the game. She smiled. "Kolkata."
"What rubbish! Is Kolkata a country? Do you know that Kolkata is one of the dirtiest cities of the world?
Sufia asked, "Have you been to Kolkata?"
Aziz turned his face aside to blow out the cigarette smoke. "No, I haven't. But that doesn't mean I don't know anything about it."
Aziz paused for a moment and then said, "It's useless. I gave you all the choice in the world and all you can choose is Kolkata. It is like that fool in the story who went to his in-laws' home and was so dazed by all the polau, korma, kalia that he saw that he asked for panta bhat, stale rice soaked in water. All that the poor fool knew was panta bhat. He had never eaten anything but plain rice his whole life."
Sufia was annoyed and said, "Don't talk nonsense. Kolkata and panta bhat are not the same. The brother of my landlord is a very rich man. He lives in his own house and drives his own car. For his daughter's wedding, all of them went to Kolkata for shopping. And then...."
"There is a house where I go to clean telephones. The lady of that house went to Kolkata just to see an Indian film."
"And that's why you think it is a big city. All you know is Gaibandha. What more can I expect?"
Sufia was really angry now. It is true that she had not left Gaibandha till she was twenty-two. She was bewildered when she first came to Dhaka. But she had learned a lot now. Aziz was talking as if he knew everything. He too had grown up in the small and backward town of Joypurhaat. He had graduated but was still searching for a decent job in Dhaka. He lived in a slum near Gulbaag. He travelled by rickshaw ten days a month and by bus another ten days. For the remaining ten days he had to depend on his feet.
Aziz got back into the game again. "Why not a country in Europe or in the Americas? You can pour all the ghee you want when you dream about polau. Dream big, Sophie."
Sufia's anger dissipated. She was again transformed into the heroine of a late afternoon romance. But what city should the fiancée of the imaginary foreign minister choose? She remembered that she had gone to ask her landlord's daughter for aspirin a couple of days ago. The movie Blue Hawaii was being televised. Staring spellbound at the beauty of the blue ocean, Sufia had completely forgotten her headache. It was amazing! Could an ocean be so blue? Could any place be so beautiful? Back in her rented one hundred-taka room, she had swum in the blue waters of that ocean in her dreams that night.
The rickshaw left behind Hotel Intercontinental. The streetlights flashed on, showering the city with blue lights. Looking at those wonderful blue lights, Sufia said in a strange, dreamy voice, "Hawaii, blue Hawaii."
Aziz was taken aback. How could those two words sound so beautiful? Only his Sophie could make them sound so wonderful, his Sophie who walked the streets of Dhaka, ignoring the nails in her old sandals, ignoring the scorching heat of the cruel summer that made her blouse and brassiere drip with sweat, ignoring the sudden showers that drenched her washed, cheap old sari so that it clung to her, his Sophie who could not afford rickshaw fare, who curtailed her own expenses to support her four-member family in the village, his Sophie who went from door to door to do the low-paid job of servicing telephones. She had said those two words so beautifully, as if she were the fairytale princess who had just woken up from a long sleep at the touch of a golden wand.
Sufia was startled at the look on Aziz's face. "What's the matter? Did I say something wrong?"
Aziz was looking at the horizon. The brightness of the city lights had banished the last blue of the sky.
Sufia grew nervous. "Tell me what's wrong? Did I say something wrong? Why don't you say something?"
Aziz turned to her with a defeated and exhausted look on his face. The playful mood was gone. His unshaven face, his unkempt hair and tired eyes revealed the hopeless young man he really was. Sufia felt scared. The fear and insecurity of an uncertain future that had always haunted her, and that she had managed somehow to keep at bay, engulfed her. This fear usually never surfaced when she was with Aziz. His presence used to drive away those spine-chilling thoughts, inspiring her with strength and courage to face the world. Sufia felt that the ruthless blue lights were throwing her back into a deeper darkness.
Aziz said, "Sophie, what you just said was a mistake, a big mistake. When people like you and me say words like 'Blue Hawaii,' it is a terrible mistake. You shouldn't have said it so intensely."
"Then how I was supposed to say it?" Sufia's heart trembled.
Sufia realised that the rickshaw was plying on a dark road. The electricity had failed and the entire city was dark. The city, with all her bright streetlights and brightly lit markets, had sunk into a deep darkness.
In the dark, Aziz reached for Sufia's hand, "I don't know how you should have said it. Sophie, do you know what should I say now?"
Sufia didn't reply. She could feel the restlessness of Aziz's hands in the dark. Aziz too was searching for security. She lightly placed her face on his shoulder and whispered, softer than the breeze, "Let's talk about love. We love each other."
Aziz touched Sufia's soft cheeks with his rough hands. The darkness of the night was suddenly shaken by the strong Falgun breeze. A whirl of dust was followed by a gust of stormy wind.
Aziz's voice mingled with the sound of the wind. "But love also makes strong demands, Sophie, demands that we are unable to satisfy." His hands crumpled Sophie's fingers, wanting to pass on all his sorrows and guilt to her.
Sufia wanted to blow down all the barriers around them. But the liabilities of her family in Gaibandha were a stronger storm. She had to suppress her own desires. Bulu was only fourteen. Dilu had failed his school finals. Bulu had to be married soon. Dilu wanted to start his own business; he needed two thousand taka. If Mother did not have a cataract operation, she would lose her sight. Her responsibilities were arrayed like armed enemy soldiers, ready to chase away her desires. Sufia's sigh mingled with the wind blowing from the South.
Sufia murmured, "If father hadn't been arrested in '71.......”
Aziz was silent. The rickshaw crawled through the darkness. Sufia was silent, too. Aziz's frustration conveyed itself through his desperate groping in the dark. Aziz had been in Dhaka for three years but had been unable start a business or get a decent job. Sufia knew that he had bought one shirt and a pair of trousers from a second-hand cloth store. His old sandals had given up and were due for retirement. He bought cigarettes on credit from a local grocery shop. He had run into debt in the slum mess as well. Sufia wanted to push away all his frustrations with the tenderness of her affection.
"Aziz, we will get over our bad times. I will definitely get that job of a receptionist. And you will start your own money-exchange business," said Sufia.
A car came towards them, dazzling them with the brightness of its headlights. Then they were back in the darkness. Sufia felt Aziz's face close to her.
Aziz smiled slightly and asked. "Then what?"
Sufia smiled too and said, "Then we will fulfil all the demands of our love. We will send money back to our homes. And even after that we will be able to run our own family smoothly."
Aziz said, "Our own family?"
Sufia was happy again. "Yes, dear, our own family. Do you think we will spend our whole life on a rickshaw? We will get married, and have our..." A big BRTC bus rushed by, drowning the worlds of her desire with its noisy sound.
Aziz was impatient. "But that's a long way off. How will we wait for so long? Tell me, Sophie, how?" He took her in his arms and pulled her towards him. His lips trembled near Sufia's.
Sufia felt the storm inside her heart and understood that their desires had to be fulfilled soon. Sufia surrendered to the moment and felt the passionate touch of Aziz's lips on hers. Their desires shook them as they realised their own imitations. Through their silent touches they gave each other hope, security and serenity.
The lights of the roads suddenly bedazzled the city. Sufia and Aziz parted. The glaring lights seemed to be mocking them.
Aziz smiled at Sufia. He lit a cigarette and said, "What would the wife of the foreign minister say now?”
A happy smile spread over Sufia's face. She ignored the mocking streetlights. “How much money does the foreign minister have in his wallet? Can he afford a rickshaw home?"
Aziz laughed. "I don't care. We will board a bus if I cannot afford a rickshaw."
Sufia said, "No, you cannot. I have told my roommates that you are taking me out for dinner in a Chinese restaurant. What if someone sees me in the bus? Does anyone go back home by bus after a dinner date?"
Aziz laughed out loud. "So you have also become as clever as me. I told my roommates that you were taking me out for a movie."
"We often lie about all these matters. So what? There is no harm. Some day we will definitely go to see a movie and then we will dine at a Chinese restaurant. And then we will ride back home in our own car."
Aziz was amused at Sufia's self-confidence. But he just said, "Then some day we will go to Blue Hawaii."
They looked beyond the artificial streetlights, searching for a greater blue in the starry sky. They forgot that they had to get down from the rickshaw just then. Neither of them could afford the rickshaw fare back home. Sufia would go back to her miserable room in a crowded and noisy public bus. Aziz would walk along the narrow lane to his slum. After some time his sandals would give up, and he would rest at a bus stop. All they could do was imagine a time when all their dreams would come true, all their desires would be fulfilled.
Sufia suddenly said, "Look, fireworks!"
Aziz looked up. Blue fireworks lit up the dark sky.
Aziz said, "It seems that there is a wedding nearby. They are celebrating it with fireworks."
They got down from the rickshaw and paid the fare. Then they stood on the sidewalk, watching the fireworks display. One after the other the sparklers whooshed up into the night sky. They flashed deep blue lights and then disappeared, almost instantaneously.
By Rizia Rahman
(The Bangla original “Blue Hawaii” was published in a monthly magazine, Baishakhi)
Translated by Niaz Zaman with Musharrat Hossain
Art Work: Sabyasachi Mistry
Courtesy: Taken from Under the Krishnachura, The University Press Limited, 2003