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     Volume 4 Issue 1 | June 25, 2004 | 8th Anniversary Issue


   Editor's Note
   Cover Story
   Nothing if Not     Serious
   Slice of Life
   A Roman Column
   Food for Thought
   One Off
   Straight Talk
   Dhaka Diary
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Modern men, in a post-modern city, after a long over-night flight, feel infirm and worn-out. The person in context is a young one though; and a three-hour long journey is not a good enough excuse for looking so rumpled. "Bhaiya! Abrar bhaiya!" his driver calls out to him. Abrar, in response, stares at the rear view mirror; though, it was loud enough to break any adult's daydream. But then again Abrar was not daydreaming; he was staring out of the window-- the car was at the traffic light and people were erecting an arch with something in Bengali written on it. "I thought you had dropped off," the driver reasons for calling out so loudly and smiles with a betel-leaf in his mouth.

"What are they doing, Makbul bhai?" Abrar asks before the light turns green. Makbul, the driver, smiles in return, an indulgent one of course. "Bhaiya, you forgot Pohela Boishak? The Bengali New Year?" he asks; it sounds more a statement than a query.

"Oh!" Abrar is somehow surprised this time; the song they are playing in is in Hindi.

"Sayan dil main ana re
Oh ake feer naa jana re
Chham chhamacham chham.

Come to my heart, my love
And do not go anywhere else

Chhaam chhaamachaam chhaam.

The music gradually fades away as the car moves on; <>Raja banke ana re, oh mohe leke jana re, oh mohe leke jana re, chham chhamacham chham

Come to me as a king, oh to take me away, oh to take me away, Chhaam chhaamachhaam chhaam.

"How's Ma coping with everything?" Abrar asks before the second chham-chhaamachhaam-chhaam.

"You're late for the funeral, bhaiya," Makbul says with a grim face.

"Your mother seems devastated. Your nana's face looked so fresh even when he was being taken to the graveyard. He was such a good human being, we had fought the war together," he goes on; and then suddenly asks, "Do you know the meaning of Abbas?"

Abrar is staring at a group of young women; Makbul slows down to let them cross the street. One of the girls has the white anchal of her red sari in front of her mouth to avoid the early morning sunlight, another girl stares back and giggles. As the car starts moving on again, he remembers that Makbul has asked him something .

"It must be Arabic," he says to Makbul's eyebrows in the rear-view mirror.

"It means lion in Arabic," Makbul would not feel so proud if it meant tiger in the "holy language". "He fought like a lion in Bagh Mara," he jealously adds.

"What is your favourite animal? Lion or tiger?" The man sounds interesting.

Makbul, however, does not get the chance to name his favourites; a truck, loaded with dried-fish, approaches the car at a menacing speed. Makbul makes the car turn right and before that, he shouts a four-word expletive in Bengali. The driver, in turn, shrieks back with all the F words he knows. "I don't like bagh, I love lion instead. What an animal…" Makbul quickly says; his facial muscles become tense as he pulls the car back into the street again.

Most of the roadside trees Abrar had seen last time have been recently cut down; some of their trunks are still there, blocking the road. Leaves on those who are still alive shine for an instant, as though they have just been rained upon. Makbul opens the dashboard to take out a white hankie and rubs his forehead with it.

"Summer hasn't arrived yet bhaiya," Makbul offers, "but it is becoming hotter everyday. Last time you came here during the summer, too."

Abrar pats the cell-phone he is holding, points a finger to a white building on his left, and asks, "Ma has donated the land for the college, naa?"

Makbul nods and slows the car down a bit to let Abrar get a full view of the area. Clusters of Bougainvillaea, which used to hide the entrance to the plot, were cut down. A six-storied building is now threateningly declaring its presence with a large white signboard. Abbas Ahmed Chowdhury University College, Dhaka; government approved, it says in black letters. Abrar notices the leaves of a Banyan tree in the back of the white building; thank God, they have spared it, he says, while staring at the large white wall that separates the college from the house.

The house is painted in white too. Unusual in the area, for the whole neighbourhood is glittering with colour. It is a two-storied building built years before Bangladesh's liberation from Pakistan. The car enters with much fanfair indeed, with Makbul continuously honking and the security-guard screaming something towards the second floor. A boy in lungi and T-shirt runs out of the house to a white Greek column where the car has desultorily been parked. "Make Love, Not War," his T-shirt urges.

"Bhaiya has come," he screams and repeats it thrice. No one responds though; he takes the luggage out of the boot; his whole body bends forward as he takes the bag on his shoulder. Makbul gets out of the car and asks the boy, "Where is begumsahiba, Rafique?" The boy balances to his left and replies, "She's not home now. She went outside an hour ago. But she told me to tell you that she would be back soon "; he then turns right and asks Abrar, "How long will you be here? It's pretty heavy."

"It's because of my books I presume. Give me the bag. It's not that heavy for me," Abrar apologises. He stares at the boy on the doorway-- Rafique is panting now; and is smiling shyly. "You look like Rock. I love him; he is just too good. Last time he beat up the Undertaker. It was fabulous. Don't you guys watch WWF Wrestling Mania?" Rafique asks.

The drawing room has been changed a lot. A black statue, either of Buddha in a waistcoat or Sheikh Mujib without his glasses or Gandhi in a turban, sits besides a piece of Indonesian furniture. A large open-mouthed dragon comes out from the back of the chair and seems to be whispering something into the statue's ear.

The room is lowly lit-- the electricity has gone off a while ago and the windows are closed; a dim ray of sunlight comes through the windowpane and falls on the grandfather clock. Abrar turns round and calls out for the boy.

Outside, through the picture window, he can see the lawn with its Banyan tree. Beneath its branches, like fruit dropped from the tree, are two irons and a cat, lazily standing around the root. The cat spots him back; Abrar suddenly leaps up from the sofa, moves across the room, and finds a kitten walking towards its mother. "Bhaiya we have refurbished the small guest room for you. What are you doing there?" Rafique comes forward in the dark with a candle.

"Nothing really. Do the cats stay here?" Abrar asks in reply.

Rafique fondly nods and smiles. "Your lunch is ready, bhaiya," he says while going up the stairs.

"Whose statue is that?" Abrar has been trying not to stir a wind chime; Rafique looks quite philosophical in the mirror, which hangs on the wall of the landing-space. He does not reply; he rubs a hand on his shoulder instead and carefully goes up further. "I have sprayed your room for the buzzies," he says while leading Abrar to a small room. A roaring noise is heard and the power suddenly comes back. Abrar walks further towards the small window, sandwiched between a table and a steel almirah.

On the playground of the college, students are playing the same old song he has heard at the signal a while ago; Chandni raat hogi, taroki barat hogi, pahle pahle pair kee pahlee pahalee baat hogi, khushi khushi gaenge haam geet suhana r-e-e-e; Sayan dil main ana re, oh ake feer naa jana re, chhaam chhaamachaam chhaam. Abrar walks across the room, turns the air-conditioner on and sits in the chair in front of the dressing table. The song suddenly stops; God, I will pay you for this, he says to himself in the mirror and laughs.

A timid knock on the door, like the scar of a rodent, is heard. "Bhaiya, your lunch is ready. Begum sahiba is back and has been waiting for you in her room," Rafique had closed the door while leaving the room and now he is back with a bang; Abrar smiles and says, "Tell ma I am having a shower." A small boy in the window of the house outside has been waving a small plastic gun at someone. Abrar gets up; he really needs a shower.

It is late afternoon when he comes out of his room, after typing an e-mail on his laptop and reading the book he has been reading for the last couple of days. Night Train is fun. Unlike Money: A Suicide Note, which too depicts a strong female character, it is warm and a good read. Abrar loves Amis; he remembers waiting in the queue in Borders to buy Yellow Dog. But then Naomi used to love Amis too; Man U; kidney pudding; Dido, Abrar cannot recall more. She had unexpectedly come to see him off at the Heathrow last night--"Aby, try and give Bangladesh a chance." Abrar smiled.

He now takes a deep breath and prepares to face another important character of the story. An intriguing one, indeed; he has not seen his mother for almost a year.

The dining room is the most brightly-lit room in the house. It is filled with paintings, mostly of Bangladeshi and Indian artists. A black statue of the Hindu deity Kali hangs from the wall; shades of different colours have been bursting out of the four walls of the room. Compared to its interior, the room in which he has been staying looks like a post-existentialist nightmare. Abrar smells cardamom as he enters and spots his mother sitting at the dining table, among freshly cooked fish and vegetables. Nafisa Khan is wearing a blue sari; she has not been sleeping for some time the dark circles under both of her eyes have made her look ill and exhausted. Sadeq Khan, her husband, on the other hand, in jeans and T-shirt, looks younger and cheerful. He first sees Abrar coming and says, "Hey, you have put on some weight. You are looking like Rock; do you guys watch WWF Wrestling Mania back in England?"

Abrar smiles politely; Nafisa was staring at a bowl of rice, she looks up and says, "We thought you were not coming. That white girl friend of yours…what's her name…I phoned her last night. She told me that you were coming."

This is news, Abrar thinks to himself; he didn't know that Naomi had been in touch with his mom; "What did she tell you, ma?"

"Nothing really. I didn't know that you two got separated," Nafisa seems happy; she has always loathed the idea of his only son marrying a Jew. A Jew! You are going to marry a Jew, baba? She will make you a Jew; if she fails she will surely make your son a Jew, she fumed during her last stay in his South London flat. That fret turned into fury when her son replied, "What if we have a daughter?"

Abrar has contemplated with the idea of explaining it-- Ah ma, see, everything was not going on well. But he cannot; a strong sense of defeat grasps him; it surprises him in a way, because he does not even know the reason for it.

"How long will you be here?" she asks and watches Abrar as he forks a potato in half and eats it. "I told them to cook your favourite dishes."

"Four days, ma," he replies while struggling with his fork and knife. Rafique comes across the room with a plate and as he puts it in front of Abrar, he can feel the heat of smoked hilsa.

"Use hands like us. Why are you using fork and knife?" Nafisa has been staring at him.

Abrar opens his mouth with a small piece of potato in it and suddenly realises he does not have anything to answer. Nafisa looks down for a second or two; "How is your father?" she asks.

"Abba is fine. He has been promoted as the Chief Financial Analyst last month," Abrar says while staring at Sadeq.

"You love smoked hilsa, naa?" Sadeq looks up and stares at the ceiling; it is freshly painted in white, small patches of blue are still there, silently but indiscreetly declaring the hurriedly whitewashed history of the room. A brown fan is suspended from the top and imoving pretty fast with its blades remain invisibly present all the way.

Abrar knifes the fish into two and takes a part of it on his plate.

A yearly visit to Dhaka has been his only source of the fish, as the Indian restaurants in London do not serve hilsa. Sometimes the mere thought of fish could bring back memories and Abrar has loads of them; he smiles and says to Nafisa, "Dad loves smoked hilsa too."

Nafisa tucks a strand of hair behind her ears and smiles meekly; "He's the only Pakistani I know who loves that fish. It's full of bones you know…" An uneasy silence follows. Everyone seems to have suddenly concentrated on food. Rafique pops up with a bowl of curd. Nafisa tucks another strand of hair behind her ear and asks, "How's your writing going on?"

The shutters are half closed against the sun. A breeze must have blown outside, for the branches of the tree has moved; Abrar realises it is going to rain soon. He sees that cat again, feeding two kittens near the garden. Ma has asked him something, but he cannot recall the question any more. Abrar is now too engrossed by the cat.

Abrar confronts a strange problem when he sits at the laptop to finish typing the e-mail. The mail he had typed before lunch does not say what he has been meaning to tell his father. He had written:

Salaam. Have reached Ma's place an hour or so ago. Ma has gone to nana's, probably for the Fateha (It's the Bengali version of the end of a three-day of mourning, in case you don't know). Haven't seen Ma's husband yet. Last time Mr Khan behaved in a really weird way. And do you know that nana's name means Lion in Arabic? Need to finish writing the story; have talked to my agent before coming here, the publisher sounded quite interested.

So, he opts for writing an email to Naomi. It has just started raining outside; he gets up from the chair to close the window and sees a small boy in his mother's lap in a balcony. It must be the boy who was showing his toy to someone in the road in the afternoon. The boy, in red and black Spiderman suit, is now biting the barrel of the gun. The mother rubs her face with the anchal; it is still hot and humid outside.

And it is around Five now; the mosque nearby has just started calling the faithful to the evening prayers. Last time he had stayed in this room too, Abrar remembers, but the azan, now, sounds much louder than before. Abrar pulls the curtain and turns the light on.

Have reached Dhaka; never thought of giving Bangladesh a chance, and am not doing it now.

Rafique comes in a new T-shirt. Abrar turns round and sees him put down a bottle of water on the bedside table.

Every time I think about you, I do not know why, an unknown sense of guilt engulfs me. And I do not know the reason for it. It seems I do not have any explanation for anything nowadays. It might be for the baby. But we have decided it together; if it is guilt, it should be collective.

Rafique is still standing at the desk, staring him down. The law of staring down says if you stare out at someone or something, it will surely spot you back. Abrar looks up. "This is computer naa?" Rafique asks him.

“Rafique, I am typing an important mail," Abrar replies; he cannot hide the annoyance.

"But bhaiya, begumsahiba told me to ask you if you will go out now," Rafique sounds as gentle as a lamb.

"Tell ma I don't need the car," Abrar is still annoyed. The boy might come back to call him for dinner; so he adds, "I will sleep early today, please tell whoever is interested not to disturb me."

Don't know why, get exhausted pretty quickly. Have never asked you how you have been feeling, sorry for being such a jerk.

Abrar gives up and turns the light off. The curtains are tightly pulled, but there is a cold reddish glow about the edges. He wants to tell Naomi so many things, but so far, whenever he sees her, an unintelligible numbness grasps his tongue.

Abrar now feels that numbness all over his body. He lights a cigarette while reclining in the bed and starts reading the last chapter of the Night Train. If she had seen him here, reading in the dark without his glasses on, Naomi would have killed him. A truck shrieks past the house, making a mild tremor with its horn. Abrar looks at his cell, a yellowish light from the lampposts reflects on the black body of his Nokia; he switches it off. He wants to sleep now; he has not had a goodnight's sleep for months. Whenever he closes his eyes, he sees the same old dream; that meadow, that black calf, that old woman and her shrill laughter.

Someone hurriedly walks past the room; Abrar follows the sound of his footsteps; and as it slowly fades away, he closes his eyes again and starts to count back from hundred. A car honks noisily, but it has not able to make him stop. To him, everything around is gradually changing; he looks up the sun as a narrow line of white light falls from the sky. He tries hard to change the course of the events now that the old woman is heading towards him, silently, but with an amazing firmness in her every step. The calf is seen in the horizon, too, looking much greyer in the white light. The woman gets closer, opens her toothless mouth and slowly whispers something in his ear. He does not hear anything; his dreams have always been silent, except for the laughter that is going to follow when she walks him off through the meadow.

Abrar, however, has not stopped counting backwards. It will be utterly quiet when he reaches zero; and, as we all know, zero is only a signifier.

Funereal is an edited excerpt of SWM's Staff Writer, Ahmede Hussain's first novel. Hussain is still working on it; and the book will hopefully hit the market in the beginning of next year. ahmedehussain@gmail.com

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004