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     Volume 10 |Issue 49 | December 30, 2011 |


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Writing the Wrong

2012: Occupy Happiness

Sharbari Ahmed

I am afraid of things – failure mostly, and what I used to think was the fraternal twin of failure, mediocrity. Though I am starting to re-think what failure actually is. Many things come disguised as failure, but turn out to be opportunities. Other things come flamboyantly decked out as success and end up being that last guest who is a lot of fun but doesn't know when to leave the party-too much of a good thing. Now I know that one can be deeply mediocre yet successful in the traditional sense, materially, with a surfeit of approbation and sycophants at one's feet. In fact, I see mediocrity celebrated energetically all around me, constantly. It scares the crap out of me, because this obviously means my genius will go largely unrecognised in my lifetime. I am not quite sure what my genius is, but I am sure it will kick in any day now, I mean, I sincerely hope so, and when it does, I would like it recognised dammit, ideally, in the form of large, unmarked American bills, and before my 80th birthday.

Truly, my number one fear for a long time was death, then, one day, as I was driving through some bucolic place, possibly upstate NY, I thought: it's no big deal, this dying business. I think I saw cows grazing, oblivious to everything around them, and I thought, that is death, oblivion. It doesn't seem so awful.That was the extent of that revelation. —until 2008 when I was on a plane enroute to Dhaka from Dubai.

I was seated next to an elderly man in a skullcap, with a hennaed beard (no moustache), wearing a black suit coat over a white Panjabi. Inwardly, I groaned because I automatically assumed he was a mullah and would be the most disagreeable travelling companion for the next few hours. Sure enough he started interrogating me: was I married? Where was my father from? “Syhlet” I said. “But my mother is from Chittagong.”

This last bit of information appeared to have no impact on him.

“So, you're Sylheti?” He said.
“Well, I'm both,” I said “Syhelti and Chatgaya.”
He dismissed that. He continued the interrogation.
Did I have children? Did I work?
“I'm a writer,” I replied. “I have a son.”

“Oh, so you're a housewife,” he said. It was not a question, it was a statement and this is back when I was not sure what or who I was, and, therefore, insecure. I was rankled by his assessment. It made me self-conscious. I am now used to people being dismissive of writers, or artists of any type, especially if one is not very well known, but it used to irk me back then, people's dismissiveness and my anonymity. Now, it just seems part of the package, and I manage to laugh it off. But this guy scared me because he suffered from that peculiarly Bangali malady of having no boundaries when talking to strangers. The kind of person who will, to your face, tell you, you're fat after knowing you for five minutes. Sure enough he asked me how much I made as a writer.

“Well, you said I was a housewife,” I replied (I still had some vinegar in me and if Mr. Mullah was going to throw down with me for the next five hours, then he would have a fight on his hands).

“So you don't make any money?” He seemed quite appalled by the notion. I wanted to say, yeah buddy, I know the feeling. Somehow, very little value is placed on what we do and how challenging it is at times to write even one acceptable sentence. Most of my writer friends, even the ones who have been widely published, make a pittance from their writing, and have to supplement their incomes by teaching –another unsung occupation—or working office jobs that deaden their creativity. Naturally, I was not going to say all that to Mr. Mullah.

I decided not to answer his questions and closed my eyes and feigned sleep. That too did not deter him. He informed me (while I pretended to sleep) that he had gone on Haaj that year. I continued to ignore him, and he eventually stopped talking.

I fell asleep but was awakened by him touching me. Furious, I went to swat his hand away but then saw he was trying desperately to fasten my seat belt for me but could not find one end as it was pinned beneath me. The plane dropped suddenly. I saw the window being pelted with rain. There was an announcement that we had hit a storm over Calcutta and would be rerouted to Bangkok. The turbulence continued and I saw the panicked looks of the other passengers. I was terrified, but not of dying. I had only one thought: my son, whom I had left in the US. Then I thought of his name, his face, his smallness; that was it. I did not think of anyone else. Not my parents, not my friends, my spouse, nor myself. Just Anjay. I turned to Mr. Mullah as the plane shook, and I said (in Bangla) “My son. If I die what will happen to him? I don't care if I die, but I don't want to leave him behind.”

Mr. Mullah had broken out the worry beads, which did not ease my fears, let me tell you. He took my hand and did not say anything, just held it, and I let him. He smiled at me reassuringly and somehow that gave me a bit of comfort. The guy had been to Mecca, maybe he had inside information. But then the plane shuddered again and lost some altitude and I cried out. I tried to think: did I kiss Anjay when I left? Did I tell him I loved him?

“I didn't tell him I loved him,” I said to myself, out loud.
“He knows,” Mr. Mullah said. When I looked at him, he nodded, resolute.

Eventually, of course, the plane landed. I am still here, and I assume, so is Mr Mullah. He patted me on the head and told me he would pray for me and that I was a good mother. That experience made me understand that I was not afraid of death. I was only afraid of leaving my young kid behind. That was freeing in many ways because the experience gave me crystalline clarity. I love someone so deeply that his life is more important to me than my own. How wonderful it is for me to know that. But I vowed to try and avoid death for as long as possible, for the kid's sake. Of course, it is not in my hands, really. Almost nothing is. Except, funnily enough, happiness.

Though I am still wrestling with my fears, my endeavour for this coming year is just to be happy. It does not mean that my genius will be recognised and I will be re-numerated handsomely for it. It does not mean my kid will get straight A's or that I will meet Mr. Right, or that my health insurance premiums will go down, or that people will stop eating nuts loudly in the library, or that the 99% will triumph over the 1 percent, or that Assad will stop murdering his people. Imperfection will reign. I must be of service. My happiness has nothing whatsoever to do with anything anyone else is doing, and I intend to show up and occupy it. Fully. Happy New Year.



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