Short Story |
Ghost Alley* -Part I
Late at night, Qismat sneaks into their house on Bhooter Golley. He passes Raja Miah dozing at the wooden guardhouse at the front gate, his nightstick dangling in his fist, his upturned moustache gently moving to his breath. It is December and dry, yet Qismat feels heaviness in the air, like the gathering of moisture, a quickening. He enters the house through the double doors. Locks the doors behind him with a violent twist of the deadbolt left-- right, the door groans and Dhaka city is locked out. Tayeeb, Hasmat, Babar and all the others left behind. Qismat expects to walk into a wall of noise when he walks home. So the silence feels alien, pensive. On the wall as he enters is the large painting of his grandfather the professor-- missing since '71. Other paintings of him hang all around the house. Qismat strides up the stairs fast, he doesn't want to run into anyone, just reach his room at the end of the stairs and lock that door too. Otherwise there are the usual questions, from his mother, his aunt. Questions that he could, quite frankly, skip thank you very much. The whats, whos and wheres of his life could lie with him without being shared or mulled over. It was a day gone, never to return.
The steel banister tight within his fist, two steps at a time he passes the second floor where the bedrooms are-- rooms with the arcane logic that only old houses have-- bedrooms that can only be accessed through other bedrooms, verandah intertwining rooms. Thankfully no sounds from Nani Ma's room, which is furthest from the stairwell, near the verandah that overlooks Bhooter Golley. Qismat can do without the screams tonight.
Qismat's own room offers the same view as his grandmother's -- the road below, buildings like gaping teeth and the large pond, lying behind the shops and the government buildings. He enters his room and walks over to the window, which is dead-bolted. He flings it open -- he hates that people come here and rearrange his room -- didn't they do enough of that all the damn time? He sits on his bed, notices the jug of water, a glass with a saucer to cover it. Someone has placed these for him-- maybe Ma, maybe Salek Miah. He picks up the saucer gently and drinks the water. What was Salek Miah talking about yesterday, or was it the day before that? - Nadira Nani was arriving in a few days, from Majarkot, the family's ancestral estate. Qismat remembers it as a place where he had once seen two rivers meet-- now a decaying old place where no one went to visit any more. He hasn't seen Nadira Nani since he was a child, and even then he has vague memories of his grandmother's half-sister. She hadn't visited for many years, there a fight or something. He was quite young and the details are vague. Anyway It was probably better she stayed away. She was too closely related to Qismat's grandfather's disappearance at the end of the war. So why show up now and create more trouble? He sees a flash of a boat gliding along on a black river- then that night long ago after which, his grandmother had never been the same again. Nadira Nani had never come to their house since then -- so why now? But he is still stoned enough that he can shut off thinking about unpleasant things. He tries to sleep, that other escape.
Qismat sleeps, but he is taken by the same dreams as every night and the strange creatures come as he lies paralyzed in sleep. There is no peace, no rest, and no forgiveness.***
That night an unseasonable hailstorm came. Hailstones, large as eggs -- an ancient pearl of frozen air in the center of each- fell from the white clouds that had been gathering. Qismat lies with his knees bent skyward, uneasy things behind his eyelids. His wooden bed is shaky. The hailstones fall faster than the beats of his heart, his eyes dart under eyelids and his mind races like the people rushing at him. The hails stones hit tin, roofs, cars, shanties. Taak-Taak-Taak. The noise is everywhere.
On their brows are bandannas askew, traces of red sindoor glint between the partings of the women's hair. In their arms are round bundles of pots, clothes and rice tied hurriedly. Children in rags, old men without teeth, and women without husbands -- wrists devoid of bangles run, breathing laboriously. Taak-Taak-Taak. And as they come at him, they pass through him like cigarette smoke, their eyes never changing expression. Why do they run? Who from? Taak-Taak-Taak. Amidst the catastrophe that rushes at him like a black age, listen: and there is a single gentle cry 'Wake' someone says. And cool hands touch his face and then the shadow falls over him. Qismat opens his eyes.
Qismat wakes with a jump, his heart still beats to the hail. He finds the face staring down at him in the semi-darkness of his room. Like someone has passed from the dream to his room. But his grandmother stands by his bed staring down at him in silence.
His hand gripped tightly in hers, a ray of light across her face like a welt. He immediately jumps up.
"Nani Ma! What are you doing? You could have fallen down the stairs! If they find out... you know what always happens!" He rubs his eyes.
She looks at Qismat, a slight smile playing somewhere. "Get up boy" She says, "I want to leave tonight...this very night. My time is drawing near."
Qismat stares dumbly at the old woman in the shadows.
"You saw them tonight...again," she said.
"Who...?" and then the dream came back to him like a pond becoming still.
"Here, take...take this now" she says extending her hand from the darkness, "now you won't cry when you sleep..." and Qismat suddenly smells roses in her palm. She wipes away tears that had collected on his cheeks-- a magician pulling a coin from someone's ear. He takes the handkerchief and slides it under his pillow, breathing in the deep ether.
"Come, come let's go..." She says
Qismat sits upright, and at first his head doesn't stop spinning.
"When you tried to run away, before...that night, remember?" Qismat asked.
And on that past night, years ago:
The family is awoken!
Noises of house doors banging in the night wind!
Nani Ma, nowhere to be found in the house!
Finally Salek Miah, calls -- "Here! Here! I see her!
But she is deep in the shadows in the back of the house where the large yard surrounds the verandahs, bleeds into the old orchard.
And Nani Ma? --
Her sari is tucked at her waist, that classic fighting stance.
She appears to be talking to someone up a large mango tree.
She struggles and fights.
From behind his mother, a younger Qismat watches as his small siblings yowl.
Nobody knew what had happened that night and nobody could say how she had gotten there or with whom she spoke. But stories sprang like fire. Tales of Nani Ma- the great keeper of Majarkot-- still the true steward against bhoots, petnees and other demons kept watch. But then there was trouble- no one said anything when her room was locked at nighttime from then on.
A sudden movement and his grandmother moves to Qismat's other window- next to the dirty mirror on the wall. The window offers a view of the city through a slit in complicated buildings and scaffoldings. She peers off into the darkness and lets out a little tittering sound. "The view here is a different view, Oi." she says pointing at something. Qismat tries to follow and sees what he saw every night. His room--the various posters on his walls, the naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, his books, his clothes on a clotheshorse. Tonight, something is clearer-- like he has found a little slice of night, in which he had never before been awake. In the mirror, he sees himself and his grandmother, framed by the darkness of the room. Hailstones ricochet off windows panes outside, some break. They jump and bounce, like frogs under the deluge of the first rains, steel grills jangle and sunshades throb. A rhythm emerges from the clash of the night.
Bangladeshi-born Javed Jahangir lives in Massachusetts. His novel Ghost Alley* awaits a publisher.
artwork by apurba