There Was Alif… And Then There Was Laila
BACK in the days of jumbo-sized colour televisions and BTV's 'all-important' 8 p.m. news, life was pretty boring for the average entertainment-craving kid. For those were the times devoid of Playstations, KFC and Cartoon Network (not everyone could afford satellite cable lines at the 'Beginning'). And the only things BTV offered were 'Notun Kuri' and Barney & Friends. The grown-ups had Baker Bhai, of course. But Barney was a stupid purple (or violet, who cares?) dinosaur. And BTV, Baker Bhai and Barney all started with B, curse them all into Bloody hell.
Then, like a beacon of light amid darkness, appeared the eliminator of All That Started With B, the Champion of all champions, the one, the only: Alif Laila (drum-roll). The era of B had ended and a new one beginning with the holy letter A had arrived. A for Awesomeness. Period.
… Go ahead, laugh your head off at this writer because I'm laughing with you too. For despite my exaggerations, I do know the sad truth: Alif Laila was stupid. It had fake paper swords, ridiculous Bangla dubbing, laughable special effects and 'beautiful' bearded princes who wore rouge and lipstick. But what did that matter? Back in the dark days of the rampaging giant dinosaur and his “I love you, you love me”, Alif Laila was just too awesome. End of discussion.
So yeah, we had Alif Laila and it was driving us kids crazy. I remember this friend of mine who one day charged in out of nowhere and began whacking my head with a 12-inch ruler-
Friend: Behold the power of my Solemani Sword! He Allah Amake Shokti Dao!! (and for some weird reason he started making funny Tarzan noises)
This writer: Ouch, what the hell do you think you're doing?
Friend: Demonstrating the power of my Solemani Sword, ye ignorant soul.
Tw: What sword? That's just your Faber-Castell ruler, moron.
Friend: (enraged) That's not the point!
And after that, every time we played Alif Laila cosplays he made me play the ugly green genie as punishment while he got to be the great Sinbad. Some friend.
Alif Laila was probably the first TV show that strung us kids and the grown-ups closer in a single thread. Of course, grown-ups would never watch Barney and we never understood the whole point of Baker Bhai's charismatic 'swirling the key-chain around one's finger and then swirling it back' (I once called the man ugly and my die-hard Baker Bhai fan mom almost had a heart-attack), but Alif Laila was for all. There's Alladin being tricked by the wicked magician and my grandma would yell, “Bojjat Jadukor! Go to hell!” while we kids cheered her on, “Right you are, daadi!”
And when Ali Baba's behind was being saved by the witty maid Morjina, my pregnant aunt, in a tearful frenzy, declared that her soon-to-be baby girl was to be called the same (Morjina, not Ali Baba, duh!). We polapain clapped in excitement. And then there was of course, the mighty Sinbad and his Solemani Sword. When he came into action, the whole household would turn wild with applause; grown-ups, children alike. And if we were to have an accursed power-cut in the middle of such action-packed power-plays, there would be heart-breaking groans heard from all; grown-ups, children alike. Ah, those were such magical times of harmony.
But all good things must come to an end and soon it was time to say goodbye to the Amazing era of Alif Laila, because Cartoon Network of the holy letter C had introduced itself into the picture, marking the beginning of remote-fights between grown-ups and children. And surely enough, we took one good look at the Centurians, the Swat Cats, the Laff-A-Lympics etc. and knew that it was finally time to move on. Alif Laila was fun, but the world was spinning and so were our heads. Them kitties on flying jets were just too cool to be true.
THEY mope, they sulk, they snipe and they snarl. They are the household staff who keep us moving. We complain to our parents about how they never do what they're told, and they threaten to leave so our parents grovel. We come to accept that, in a choice between us and the house help, our folks would pick the latter. We know it, and they know it, you can see it clearly in their smirks.
What's amazing is how their stories are almost the same. No matter where you are in Bangladesh, your maid stories are bound to be linked. To understand this strange phenomenon better, our research was conducted on every door that lead to a room full of mothers and aunts, the women who know them best.
So after a day of gruelling snooping and nosing, no further insight was made into the fascinating psyche that our house help possess. It was conceded that more time and higher tolerance power was required to delve into the more complicated aspects of this research, which will be left to future investigators who stupidly amble up this path. However, the one success achieved was that we could classify a few groups for future reference regarding research in this field. The groupings are as follows:
The young 'uns: They're cheeky, they want your toys and they're sure to tell on you if you put one toe out of line in their presence. They know every grocery store in the vicinity, every single one of your friends' names, they have friends everywhere and if you have somewhere to be and don't want to miss an important TV show or game, don't waste time and precious energy trying to tape it, turn on the TV at your desired channel and leave the little one in front of it. You'll come home and receive a full detailed play by play of the whole event.
They might even make you envy the fact that they know how to bargain goods at half price while you still have to call your mom to do your haggling.
The teenage drama queens: She'll be your best friend, your look out when you're up to no good and might even take the fall for something you did sometimes. It's all a sweet deal till she demands a reward of two hours every other day of Moushumi and Joshim and goodness knows who else on TV. Also, her secret keeping skills may only extend to your parents when you realise that the neighbours are sniggering when you pass by.
The wise wisdomous group: They'll be loaded with advice. They know the world from many different perspectives. They'll have sayings and superstitions for every situation and they're sure to be standing there staring when there's a heated discussion going on between you and your folks, when guests are gathered, when your friends drop by, among other things. She takes it on herself to make sure she's in the know of everything that goes on in your house. Another common characteristic is the ability to convince themselves that they are right and no amount of reasoning, begging and crying is going to budge them from their stance and you can forget ever getting a word in after their decision is made.
Our study reaches a halt here as our investigators hear the end of discussion behind the door, signalling the end of this session of complaints, leaving us with no more material for our research. Until they convene again, we leave to ponder over the useless things we just gleaned.
By Tanzia Amreen Haq
Run on human power
SHE knew there was something moving downstairs. The thumping sounds were completely in sync, like that of a machine. Loose curls of grey smoke unfurled at her feet from the cracks between the wooden floorboards. She would've mistaken them for dust clouds, except the smoke smelled of sulphur and only rose from one side of the room.
Her heart thumped loudly, but she dismissed her unsavoury thoughts. She had been left a house. A small, dilapidated house, but still worth something. She had to investigate before deciding how much to ask for it.
The window creaked. She jumped. Her thoughts moved from the cheque whose numbers were still a bit hazy to her, to the strange smoke still seeping into the room from below. She tightened her grip on the flashlight in her right hand, her pepper spray firmly clasped in her left, and walked to the door leading to the floor below and slowly turned the knob, careful not to let her flashlight fall. The door opened quietly for one that had been unused in so many years. She trod carefully on to the steps leading down.
The room below was dark. Her eyes took a full minute to adjust. She felt around for a window or a light switch during this time, she hated the dark. But a faint glow reached her periphery before she could conclude her search. A long glass cylinder stood in the corner, wide enough to fit a person inside and as tall as the ceiling. It was emitting a soft fluorescent glow from the smoke inside. Smoke was curling out of the top of the strange contraption and strange tubes and wires criss-crossed over its face.
Instead of relief, wonder consumed her. What was this thing? Some new form of floor heater? But the house had been abandoned for ages, and the equipment looked quite new. She walked slowly forward, eager to decipher the purpose of such a thing. She removed her glasses to wipe them on her shirt. Glasses in hand, she looked up and saw a strange shape inside the cylinder, pressing against the glass. It was too blurry for her to see, so she put on her glasses immediately and looked again. The shape was gone. Funny, she thought to herself, the shape had almost looked like a hand.
As the enormity of her thought caught up to her, the first stirrings of fear began to sting in her heart. She looked at the machine for a long time, keeping her distance, but nothing appeared again. Her heart slowed and reality caught up. What kind of sick imagination would cause her to see such things? She shook her head and slowly made her way forward until she was within arm's reach of the glass. She stood there, watching the play of the smoke moving inside. The smoke thinned. Her eyes widened.
A face, a white, hollow face, with gaping holes for the eyes and mouth stared back at her. Her flashlight fell from her hand, the glass shattering at her feet. The sharp smell of burning wire stung her nose for a second. She stumbled backwards and watched in horror as the face turned over and spun into the smoke. As she watched, more limbs began to roil before her eyes as if they were in the washer. Nausea overwhelmed her, she screamed and screamed, her left hand still clamped around her spray. But the screams were drowned in the strange chugging sound that now erupted from the machine that frighteningly sounded a lot like laughter.
By Tanzia Amreen Haq
Neither Am I
OH, how she shone for him.
He hadn't regained consciousness yet. She was waiting on it. But there was a silver lining: the sun was setting, and the dusk could muffle the screams of the night for only so long. In the darkness, her love would flicker brighter than ever, brighter than the sun promised on a wedding day, for everyone to see.
Four limbs lay bound to four bedposts on a massive bed, a plush apartment soaking in the heart of Gulshan, fit for a king. The ropes barely reached his legs, such were the dimensions of where he rested, shirtless, clad in a lone lungi, dressed in a black eye and a crimson-dripping forehead. She turned on the air conditioning, sweating, tired from all the work she had done, and sat on the edge of the bed, caressing his shin. She thought she had forsaken him, but there was still something there which reminded her of what she used to feel and what he used to do. All it had taken was a hammer, a blow to the head and a few punches to the face to knock his body fully unresponsive. Just this morning she had been washing the dishes, dropping their children off at school, watching her favourite soap on Star Plus. A stereotype if there ever was one. Alas, a chance encounter unreciprocated left her breathless and paralysed, her heart punctured and her rage filled to the brim.
It was her birthday; he had forgotten, of course, as usual. She sometimes wondered what happened to him after the marriage, what happened to those days of corny love letters and chocolate boxes and heart-shaped gifts. They had been so clichéd, and she had loved every minute of it. She had gone to give in to one of her few vices: chocolate. She had even called him to see if he'd come. He was in a meeting, his secretary said. There was this little bistro right down the street from where his office was, and it had the thickest and delicious chocolate cake she had ever tasted. She went there every year on her birthday since the day she could afford it. And she'd gone there every year alone.
And that's when she saw him, hand in hand with the very same secretary she had just spoken to, and it ate away at her mind to think she'd invited her over for dinner countless times in her home, her sanctuary, and she saw him escort her to his car and drive off. Nothing really happened. Skins touched, eyes locked. But the vision of how he looked at her, and how she looked back seared away at her consciousness and she had stood there, unmoving, wondering how she had not seen this coming, and how blind she had been.
The dusk died under the intensity of the sun's departure. She was losing patience and the longer the delay, the longer the pain. She slightly tapped the sides of his face, trying to wake him up, sprinkling some water during the process. He stirred awake, his eyes puffed, irises soaking red, disoriented. He looked up at her.
“What-What the hell are you doing? What's going on?” His voice was barely a croak. One of the punches could've landed on his throat. Everything had been a haze and still was, and she couldn't clearly recall much of anything that had happened, especially of the assault, which blazed through her memory like someone else's imprints. She smiled audibly. She went outside the room while he screamed at her, asking her where she was going and what she was doing, not replying, and came back with two glass bottles filled with brownish liquid filled, almost spilling. The smile never left her face.
“I brought your best friends: Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker,” she said, almost cheerfully. He was thrashing on the bed, still screaming his insides out, tugging at the ropes, but it was of no use. She had made sure he would go nowhere. He would always be hers.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked. She didn't answer. She took the cloth of her saree off and rubbed her face vigorously to remove her make-up. Her face lay bare; the black eye, the glass cuts on her cheekbones. Her arms were heavily bruised, blue under the weight of swinging lamps and expensive china. Her waist had suffered the worst. The most prominent was a thick red line across it, almost as if cutting her in half, a Swiss Army knife slashing through skin that sizzled for something that didn't deserve to be cared for. She didn't reveal anything else: he knew her body like the palm of her hand, and the back of it. He'd know what her thighs and calves have gone through.
She started pouring the bottles all over the bed, his body, on the bed sheets, the floor, his lungi, over herself. He continued to protest but after a while, he seemed to have lost hope, having gotten his answer, and having seen the fire that she was seeing in the future. It shone ever so bright in her eyes.
“Don't do this, Ayesha.” She had a matchbox in her hand. “I'm sure we can work this out. I can stop. Please, I can stop. I'll change. I swear.” She sniggered. Empty promises cracked her up now. She lay down beside him.
“I know about her.” The first thing she said. He stopped talking, having given up on all thoughts of redemption. She snuggled up beside him, hugged him. “Mmm, you feel warm. You know what's weird? I hadn't planned on this. I thought I'd have left by now. I could never leave you, could I?” She giggled like a schoolgirl as she said it and his eyes widened at what was to come. “I hope you don't mind, but I used the rest of your bottles and spilled it all over the apartment. Not like you'll be drinking them anytime soon.”
“Think of the kids, at least, Ayesha.” Last words, they come so fast.
“Ha,” she laughed. Her mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of him. “You don't love me, do you? You aren't even in love, are you?” She lit the match. It gnawed into his eyes, and crackled the pain of the desperate.
Hope lay bulldozed to the ground, smithereens of the possibility of life for one, and the possibility of love for another. “No.”
“Neither am I.”
The match dropped. The haze lifted. And the night screamed. And oh, how she burned for him.
By S. N. Rasul
THE perspiration gathers at the back of my neck, droplets condensing to form that one perfect union, scraping against damp skin before beginning a gay careen down the length of my esophagus, swooping and curving and curling around the contours of my craned neck. The plop of sweat as it stains the fabric of my collar a deeper red. Suddenly the sound is magnified a thousand fold, or maybe it's just me, foot tapping the linoleum floor and finger drumming on the arm of my chair. Impatience laces the air with an unhealthy pallor.
Or maybe that's me again, looking up and expecting sky but seeing only speckled ceiling. The patch of grey-on-white that whirs past me with every rotation of the fan is the same shade of dismal from ten seconds ago.
Dismal is the barrenness of the mind. The vast terrain of nothingness, rolling and stretching on for far too long, as I sit here and tap my foot and drum my fingers on the arm of my chair and glare at the ceiling and hope for a spark. Dust whirls nonchalantly around my slumped figure and settles on my hair, a fine, fine sheen that I brush off regardless. No muses crowd my fate today, no wheels of Fortune, just my loneliness and I in our little nook, whiling away the hours.
Suddenly I ache for coffee. A jolt of caffeine to get me grooving. I reach for my long-abandoned coffee cup and stare glumly at the sorry dregs. I am in no mood for a refill.
My gaze wanders now, past the books arranged height-wise on my table, past the dry-erase board with its business cards and refrigerator magnets crowding whatever sliver of empty space. Past the pocket dictionary that never went inside any pocket, the pages now soft to the touch and caving in on themselves. Past the prayer mat still folded on the side table, untouched for who knows how long, and then the tunnel vision. The honing in, the pinprick of light and shade, a vortex almost.
Black and white, or to be more precise a myriad shades of grey, the darker grey of the fabric and the paler grey of the palm of the hand. The creases of the fingers stained a darker color, the lifelines that merge and swoop across the surface of the palm standing out like so many branches. The shirt sleeve juts out where the upturned wrist bone nudges through the skin. Slightly frayed sleeve ends, frayed from too much use, from too much tugging into place and rolling up past the elbows. A weave that survived the years, imbued with the comfort of old friends.
And where the light falls it catches the gleam, the glint of strands of silver interwoven around a certain groove. The indentation caused by many months of ring-chaffing and ring-twisting, coloured a paler shade of coffee that the camera would not have caught, no, for these things were not remarkable things, not extraordinary things. Just a ring on a hand behind a sweatshirt-clad back, fingers crossed. Nothing more.
The sunlight that streams through is resolute, catching in its golden bars the sudden whirring of the dust that resettles on my table and then lifts into the air again. A sneeze, the godforsaken allergy, and I pluck a sanitized napkin from its dispenser and wipe the surface clean. And then I reach over and pluck the picture out of its corner and prop it up against my knee.
I could have begun at the beginning, a recounting of a camera on its tripod and the shuffling around to get into the frame. I could have begun at the giggling, the shoving around, the complaints of “the things I do for you” that weren't complaints at all, muttered in a miasma of good-natured banter. I could have begun at the glossy sheen of the picture, when the envelope was ripped and the snapshot cascaded onto the ground in a brief spell of grey. I could have begun at the finger trailing down the many shades of not-quite-black and the spot, the rectangle of space on a cavernously blank bulletin board that snapped around the borders of the picture like a familiar embrace. Picture this.
I put my fingers to the keyboard. There is only one way to begin.
I'm glad you found yourself to my little cottage. Come in, come in. Please. I've just made some tea. Have a cup.
There you go, sit down. I haven't had a visitor in such a long time. I live here all by myself. Truth be told, I enjoy the silence, but I do miss the human company now and then. Tell me, son. Do you like stories with a bit of strangeness in them? You do? That's good. I do, too. And I feel like talking, so instead of boring you with old-man babbles, I'll tell you an interesting tale. What you make of it and what you do with it is entirely up to you.
Alright, then. Let's see… I'm around sixty one years old, now. The fresh mountain air and a healthy living's is good for the age, men get old, all the same. Anyway. This story here is about forty years ago. That's right; it's about the Sun Wars. As you probably know, the Kingdom of the Sun was invading our good land. And well… Okay. How about I skip the details and go right into the fold? I've sure you've heard most of the stuff a million times, anyway. So I'll get to the part you never hear of, even behind closed doors.
A few others and myself- a squad of, well, specials you could say, I guess- had been sent behind the enemy lines. It wasn't easy sneaking through but we did and were there, and it was a vital mission. The right documents in the right hands can be impossibly powerful. We were in the woods, in our uniforms and our tight boots with no weapons except our knives and nine shot pistols. Darusan 500, I think. And we were supposed to live off the land, and by God we did.
A hundred yards in front of us was the enemy base. More of a fort than anything else, really. We had to go in there and disable the communications link. It was a sub-base for a hub. If that went down, they'd have some serious trouble with links. And the place was supposed to be impenetrable, too. Well, it was near enough impregnable.
Anyway, there were armed guards all over, with Bologois on their shoulders and more ammunition than there were grass. Our orders were to wait for one other man. We waited till dusk, and then the man showed up. He was ragged, tough, filthy and completely naked. We knew it was him because we were told he'd be like that.
He looked at us and just nodded his head, thanking us for waiting for him, “Name's Vole. You know the plan?” We all replied in the affirmative. And we waited a few more hours.
The moon was out, a full moon, but it was hid behind some real dark clouds. And soon enough, it started to rain. That seemed pretty fine with the new man. That's when it started, and didn't end soon enough, if you ask me. He nodded at us once again and started to head towards the fort. We were all staring after him wondering what the hell he was planning to do. We were good soldiers, but this man with his white hair was supposed to be something else.
Well that suited fine with us. And off he went just waltzing in towards the front door. We saw two soldiers up on the battlements look down at him not even aiming their gun at him. He knocked on the door as if he was visiting his courtesan or some such. And sure enough, the huge double doors opened right up and an officer came forward. They chatted for a minute, before the officer threw a cross at Vole, and down he went. If we were lesser men we'd have panicked. But, we didn't. And things were still going to plan.
And it was the waiting game, once again. The rain fell all around us, soaking us in our fear and our doubts and responsibilities to our land. There was a howl in the distance, followed by several more near around. The wolves were out hunting tonight.
And then the strangest thing happened. It chilled our blood and bones and made us shiver like we'd been frozen right there and then. We looked at each other and just kept quiet as another howl came up from the fort. We just kept quiet and hugged ourselves to keep out the cold. The rain died down slowly, but the howls just kept on going, and the other ones seemed closer now.
We heard a scream from inside the fort, and we were all looking at that huge building with our eyes bulging out. And you know what happened? These enormous wolves we heard appeared out of the dark, and padded up to the fort. Huge bear-like wolves. You could see their sharp teeth clear as day, so big they were. They were in front of the double doors and just stood there waiting, paws dug into the ground, like coiled spring. Then another howl went up from inside the sub-base. And the wolves? Quick as lightning, they leaped towards the door, and splinters were everywhere.
We heard a lot more screams after that, all of them human. And then it was silent. Just… nothing. The rain had stopped, and we could hear the trees rustling, and that was about it…
The wolves padded out of the broken door. There was blood all over their furs, thick and sticky and some already dried. It scared the hell out of us. We just stared on. After all the wolves came out, our man did too. Still naked, but covered with blood. His eyes were glowing and he had something in his hand.
It was a crystal. And that little thing glowed, too, as if it held all the magic in the world. There was a gun fire, and all those glowing eyes, of the man and the wolves, turned towards the sound. A platoon came towards them armed with rifles. That was when we jumped into action. We only had nine shot pistols. But we were darn good at using them. And we hardly missed. We were firing at them, getting them left and right. We had good cover so they didn't see us. The man and the wolves began to run the other way. I saw the man put the crystal in his mouth and he leapt.
And that was the last I saw of the man. Because what I saw then was no man. In mid-air, he… changed. He changed, right in front of us into a damned white wolf! I swear to God he did. The crystal was still in his mouth, and him and his pack of wolves just kept on running and running and running. We kept on shooting and shooting and shooting. The platoon was shooting right back at us, but some were still shooting towards the wolves.
I ran out, and reloaded. I looked at the pack and I saw our man, our Wolfman, spit the little crystal into the air. With a swipe of his paw, the crystal shattered, and there was an explosion of light. We had more cover of darkness in the woods so we weren't as blinded as the enemy. We were able to take out the rest of them in the confusion. And then we looked at the wolves.
They were circling the shimmering light, and it just hung there in the air. Our Wolfman looked back at us and dropped its head just a slight little as if to nod its head. We did the same. And then they were gone. So was the light.
We went into the building and we took out everything that needed taking out and we returned to our rendezvous point, and… well, we never talked about it again… It isn't something you talk about often. Les they lock you up in a mental asylum, you know?
I see you've drunk your tea… And it's getting dark outside. You want to head off? That's wise. Woods aren't safe in this season.
You take care now, you hear? And don't go running into trouble.
By SS Emil
Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
LOOKING back on nineteen years of Rising Stars, putting together an issue that looks forward as well as back sort of opened a lot of doors for us. Sorting through the articles we wanted to use, we relived all those all-nighters we pulled, trying to meet the deadline, the mayhem of the weekly meetings, the fights, the in-house jokes, the occasional birthday party, getting to know a new team each year, and saying goodbye to old friends who chose to move on.
Nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion, and no one captures its complexities the way Christopher Brookmyre did in Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil. The book is
The story opens with Detective Superintendent Karen Gillespie coming back to her hometown to solve a double homicide, where both the victims and the chief suspects are her former classmates Although evidence points to the arrested pair being the perpetrators, the case isn't as open-and-shut as it appears, with the suspects claiming to be involved in the disposal of the bodies, but not the murders themselves. Gillespie draws on her experience of the suspects as being 'not the sharpest pencils in the box' as a reason for the benefit of the doubt, and decides to dig deeper before drawing any conclusions, and one of the suspects, Noodsy, makes a desperate call to another old schoolmate Martin Jackson, now a successful lawyer, to come and help uncover the truth.
And so, the story alternates between multi-perspective flashbacks from the school years, to the ongoing investigation, until the complete picture develops, and the actual events are miles off the track of anyone's initial assumptions. A spot of trivia: the chapters are divided by school years, each year denoted by a Greek or Latin heading, such as Delta Pavoni or Beta Hydri. Each of these are actually the name of a star, beginning about twenty-five light years away and growing gradually nearer to earth. The light that left these stars while these characters were children would only be reaching Scotland at the present-day of the adulthood murders. Neat way to connect the past and present, don't you think?
A departure from Brookmyre's usual fast-paced, highly political action adventures, most of which feature high body counts, this book is rather personal, and unfolds slowly. However, it is not an easy read. Generous amounts of the Scottish dialect, a plethora of nicknames and minor characters only serve to confuse the issue, and what is worse, the perspectives switch without prior warning, so you find yourself jumping straight from Martin's head to Joanne's, and this can be disorienting. If you're willing to pay attention, though, the book is a truly rewarding read, richly layered with complex emotions, brought to life through believable characters.
By Sabrina F Ahmad
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