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The Cockroach and Me:
Pretty Doctors And The Ghost
Of The Three-Legged Dog

Three days and seventeen hours before the death of the cockroach:
My hands are numb and the skin is flaking at the edges, the pale covering coming off in tiny pieces of pink. Rubbing constantly for two hours, without break, without a scintilla of hope and pleasure, on the bony fleshless behind (which, I was shocked to find out, boasted an L. Ron Hubbard tattoo parting the Red Sea) of an old man going senile at a hundred and two, is, to put it mildly, hard work. Doctor's orders. You filthy excuse for an insect, is this what you live for? The only good that came off of you is the doctor that I took my grandpa to see after the outbreak of boils on his curvaceous buttocks. She was so pretty. I want her to be my girlfriend.

She's twenty-three years older than me. But love is timeless.

The only reason I even listened to her was to impress her, and she made those googly eyes at me, those beautiful black eyes. I would love to immerse myself in that darkness, like a bat clings on to its cave. And her lips, oh how I wished to kiss them. Darkening with the hypocritical stain of cigarette smoke, she looked so desirable. So petite. So perfect. And her long neck, dirt stains on the edges of its crevices, leading up to those magnificent…er, yes, she was pretty. I want her to be my girlfriend. I am in love. Irrevocably.

I look at my hands and can't help but smile to myself. You see that, you swine! I smile! Your evil selfish plan has backfired. True, I have spent countless hours mating the skin on my palm to the bone on my Pa's hind, but I am the winner here. The poor condition of my hands gives me an excuse to visit that pretty doctor once again and win her heart. Do you have a pretty cockroach to be with you, Mr. Redunderweareater? I think not! I am the victor. And she's so pretty. I want her to be my girlfriend.

I immediately get on my grandpa's TVS Scooty and race off to see her. I stop on the way at a toy store and buy the Ken and Barbie Family Pack Set, spending all the money I had left, working hard to have earned them, squeezing cow teats day in and day out at that camp in Savar. Those milking days have haunted me during those nights, looking up at the wall, hoping one day I could have Katrina up there, blowing kisses at me, trying to go to sleep. But you, you have ruined my chances at happiness, at fulfilling the fantasies which so deplorably now haunt me as I drive to the pretty doctor's office. Or so you think. As I've said before, your plan has failed, my brother-in-arms, my false homie, for I speed towards happiness as we speak.

I arrive at the office, all ready to portray to her with the Ken and Barbie dolls how our marriage would play out, how we would take care of our kids while we grow old, hold tea parties in the lawn of our three-storey house, my hand soft and squishy and able to take her hand in mine because we can at least afford someone else to deal with my Pa's pimpled buttocks. But alas! Mrs…um, Pretty Doctor was only a temporary stand-in, I find out! Damn cockroach, you will be the end of me. My insides burst into melodramatic pieces of a Romeo heart, and I hug the receptionist tight, hoping to get a bit of comfort at this sudden loss of the love of my life. She proceeds to slap me across the face, not before she shows me the door to the permanent doctor, as I rub my soft cheeks, further aggravating the damage, with my coarse, flaking hands.

I walk in and instantly, all is forgotten: I stand stunned. The new doctor is prettier than the one before, and I realise, I was never in love. This is the doctor I'm in love with, this is the doctor who will save me from your wrath, from the unending brutality that my hands have come to bear. She is so pretty and with even more magnificent…er, features. My jaw drops and I observe her for a long while. She asks me what the problem is and I stutter and stumble out the intricacies of my injuries.

She is about to write me a prescription when I interrupt her. I take out the Barbie set and place it carefully and meticulously on her desk, making Ken face Barbie, faces so close they are almost kissing, and I place a baby in Barbie's lovely plastic arms. I tell her that I love her. And that she's the love of my life. And also that she's prettier than the last person I was in love with, which was a long time ago, bordering on three minutes. I control the dolls (my Pa once a professional ventriloquist, has taught me well in this regard) and show her how we could live together and be happy and have kids and go to the park and romanticise all day. I thicken my voice while playing Ken to further emphasise on my manliness.

I expect her to be impressed, to giggle like the schoolgirl she should be for me and jump into my arms, kissing me senseless, but she doesn't move. She tells me to “get the hell out of her office” or else she'll call security. I tell her that no security in the world could stop our love; such is the grandness of it. “Security!” she yells. All I hear is yelping and a sudden shooting pain in my ankle. I look down to see a dog, limping up my leg, having bitten it tight. I yelp like a schoolgirl, at once embarrassed at what the love of my life would think now, for I had worked so hard to build this solid impression and immediately kick my leg at the air, taking the dog with it. The dog shoots out of my leg, hits the wall and tries to fall on his feet. But alas, it has one leg and it falls awkwardly and hits its head on the floor. It doesn't move.

She runs to it, bawling her lungs out, kissing its furry nose at, yelling me. She rubs her red, puffy, wet eyes and glares at me: “Remember Fluffy, his ghost will haunt you 'til the end of your days.”

I run, screeching into the lobby at the possibility of being haunted by a crippled dog and slam into the receptionist and fall down. As I faint, I curse you, my nemesis, for what you have done. You ruin my life, give me hope, and then take it away, leaving me purposeless. You were the end of me, dear cockroach. Now I'll be the end of you.

By S. N. Rasul


Deshi, Bideshi

THERE it hangs, studded with sequins, hemmed in with intricate cross-stitch patterns, beads woven into the fabric. In the light of the day it glistens, moon-bright, slow rivulets carving delicate lines against the more brazen wool of last season's winter coat, muffled by the overbearing array of Faded Glory T-shirts that were ironically made by Bengali fingers on a Singer's sewing machine under the dim fluorescent lighting of some Mirpur factory. A rainbow array of mundane, and then this expanse of red-and-gold georgette suspended from a scrawny wire hanger.

Reserved for special occasions, this one is, an elaborate affair by the understated American standards of denim and cotton tees. When I traipse down the aisles at Walmart in my three-piece apparel women pushing carts and men lounging by the magazine racks will turn and stare. Sometimes there will a compliment. Most times there will be wide-eyed befuddlement.

To think that this was nothing at all, so many miles back home. This icon of deshi culture, for which our mothers dragged us to the tailors and had us measured and fitted, for which we spent hours in Chadni Chawk and New Market trailing fingers over lace and inspecting loose-leafed books of patterns. It was for this that we learned to tell apart georgette from chiffon, silk from muslin, learnt the summer colours from the autumn. At least, most of us did.

Some of us remained blissfully unaware, only cognizant of the familiarity of this daily ritual, of this donning of a three-piece attire before rushing off to coaching and parties and last-minute family dinners. The trinity of the salwar, kameez and dupatta, seeping into the daily motions of our lives.

And then, taken off plastic hangers and packed into a bulging red suitcase, tossed from one luggage belt to another, bumping along on its trip around the world before unfurling itself on the other side of the Pacific. The silken fabric unfolds on my lap, the sequins on the sleeves catching the too-bright light of load-shedding-less America. “Nowhere to wear this,” I say before hanging it up in the closet, rarely to be revisited, and it languishes in its meagre domain. Days melt into weeks melt into months and only is it plucked from its perched for the special occasions, the unwilling dinner parties and half-hearted attempts at socialising with crowds who share with me nothing except a similar shade of skin.

And the women, the girls, the young ladies teetering on their too-high heels and swinging Juicy Couture purses from varnished hands, donned in their own three-piece attires, their sequined and embellished affairs. A common culture, a shared costume, we are momentarily sisters united by the salwar kameez.

When it slips over my skin, taut from yogurt-scented moisturiser, and trickles down the expanse of my back, moulding to my shape, I am once more familiar with the rustle of fabric as I readjust the waistband around my burgeoning hips and the sleeves on my accustomed shoulders.

We are old friends, or at least we were, back when my feet pounded cool mosaic and my hair wilted in the hot Dhaka air. The knee-length tunic that flares at the hips, nipped in at the waist, the embellishment around the neckline visible beneath the drapery of the dupatta. The salwar of a slightly different material, my mother's take on mixing and matching patterns. And yet, feet planted apart on a carpeted walk-in closet, central air-conditioning cooling the back of my neck, the American eight o'clock news pouring in through the slit beneath the bathroom door, I am nowhere near the bustling crowded throbbing straining streets of Dhaka.

He says, when he sees me, how the colour brings out my eyes. I smooth the creases over my lap and cross my legs at the ankles, not daintily like I was told but in the manner of my surrogate homeland. And here I am, lounging casually in my swivel chair, dressed like a bloodshot sunbeam on a beige morning sky, waiting.

By Shehtaz Huq


 

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