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
Abrar is somehow surprised this time; the song they are playing
in is in Hindi.
dil main ana re
Oh ake feer naa jana re
Chham chhamacham chham.”
to my heart, my love
And do not go anywhere else
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
to me as a king, oh to take me away, oh to take me away, Chhaam
Ma coping with everything?" Abrar asks before the second
late for the funeral, bhaiya," Makbul says with a grim
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?"
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 .
must be Arabic," he says to Makbul's eyebrows in the
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.
is your favourite animal? Lion or tiger?" The man sounds
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.
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
hasn't arrived yet bhaiya," Makbul offers, "but
it is becoming hotter everyday. Last time you came here during
the summer, too."
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?"
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
really. Do the cats stay here?" Abrar asks in reply.
fondly nods and smiles. "Your lunch is ready, bhaiya,"
he says while going up the stairs.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?"
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."
is news, Abrar thinks to himself; he didn't know that Naomi
had been in touch with his mom; "What did she tell you,
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?"
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.
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."
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
hands like us. Why are you using fork and knife?" Nafisa
has been staring at him.
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?"
is fine. He has been promoted as the Chief Financial Analyst
last month," Abrar says while staring at Sadeq.
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.
knifes the fish into two and takes a part of it on his plate.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
comes in a new T-shirt. Abrar turns round and sees him put
down a bottle of water on the bedside table.
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.
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.
I am typing an important mail," Abrar replies; he cannot
hide the annoyance.
bhaiya, begumsahiba told me to ask you if you will
go out now," Rafique sounds as gentle as a lamb.
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."
know why, get exhausted pretty quickly. Have never asked you
how you have been feeling, sorry for being such a jerk.
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.
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.
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.
however, has not stopped counting backwards. It will be utterly
quiet when he reaches zero; and, as we all know, zero is only
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.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004