Every Day, One Handkerchief -Mahmudul Haque
Blood At Sundown - Jafar Talukdar
The Journey- Rezaur Rahman
The Story of Sharfuddin And His Powerful Relative- Rashida Sultana
Man Without His Tongue- Syed Manzurul Islam
The Days Go By- Rana Zaman
Nostalgia For The Dodo Bird - Shahaduzzaman
What Do You Have On The Menu That's Totally Tasteless?- Syed Mujtaba Ali
The Girl Who Sold Incense Sticks- Delwar Hasan
Story Of A Cold Draught- Mainul Ahsan Saber
The Fowler In Him - Hasan Azizul Huq
1971- Tamiz Uddin Lodi
Beast- Sumanta Aslam
A Life Like A Story - Syed Shamsul Huq

Story Of A Cold Draught

Mainul Ahsan Saber
(Translated by Nuzhat Amin Mannan)

Anzam could feel a tremor in his right thigh. The muscles in the region quivered. That frightened him. This had happened to him twice before. A vein or muscle in his leg would involuntarily begin to throb. The sensation wasn't too marked this time, not like at other times when there would be a frenetic series of spasms. It was just a twitch now near the thigh. Could this niggling sort of tremor be more worrying for the body? He quietly slid his hand into the pocket and tried to feel the spot on his thigh that throbbed. He withdrew his hands with a smile, and with a small frown fished out the cellular phone from his pocket.

A while ago they were in a meeting with the managing director. Before entering the MD's room he had switched off the phone, putting it on vibrate. The meeting did not accomplish anything. A wrangle of words had just begun but that was swallowed by the noise - gunshots to be precise, outside. Downstairs, feuding factions were trying to gain control over the locality. The meeting was abandoned as everyone scrambled to the roof. From the roof, the entire battlefield was in view.

They saw that the traffic had come to a halt. A few people had sprinted as soon as the shots were heard. A few more brave at heart strolled on checking from side to side, curious to know more.

Shawkat said, “A bullet or two scares no one these days.”

At that moment a member of one of the sides was seen running across the street, a pistol in hand. He crossed over and took a position in the corner of a building. “How droll it would be if we were to push our MD into this mess,” mused aloud Zaman. “That’s a top-notch suggestion,”Shawkat added immediately.

Anzam says, “But why push in the M.D.? We could beseech him, O honourable sir, please join them downstairs…”

Mid-sentence, someone shrieked in an excited voice, “Oh look there, there… one of them has been caught.”

True enough, one had indeed been caught. Who knows what was going on behind the scenes but what could be seen up front was a boy running with a few others at his heels. He couldn't make it very far, and his pursuers overpowered him. One raised a hand holding a long-ish knife in it. The sun glinted menacingly on the blade. Over here on the roof, those who had assembled waited in anticipation. It was then that Anzam began to feel the tremor on his thigh.

Anzam saw that the call was from home. That meant that it was from Sonali. He took the call, pressed the green button and held the set to his ear, “Yes?”

Sonali, sounding slightly irritated, asked, “What's going on?”

“What's going on?”

“Can't get you in your office room. No one is picking up the phone. You weren't receiving the mobile phone either.”
“I'm standing before a battlefield, Sonali! A war is on.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“I had a meeting with the MD, which is why the ringer was muted. Then came to know that out on the street here two gangs are waging a pitched battle to gain control over the area. White Kalam and Tiffin Babu.”
“That would be what? White Kalam Tiffin Babu…!”
“Babu used to supply meals in tiffin carriers to offices. Now he's a gangster known as Tiffin Babu. And White Kalam, that's kind of self-explanatory - he's fair complexioned, that's why he is White Kalam. Wait, Sonali, he is bringing his hand down…

Anzam wouldn't know this himself but his hand came down as well. His eyebrows scrunched, his eyes narrowed as he muttered in subdued groans “E-e-e-e-s-s-h, eeesh!” The same utterance reverberated around him. Some one of course had yelped aloud, “Gone, that one is gone!”

One boy had been caught by a group of men from a rival faction. One of them dangled a knife eyeing to kill the captive. The long sun-dazzled knife hovered in mid-air for a while and then came down with a clean precision, right on target. Anzam picked up the mobile phone, “What a kill, Sonali…That huge knife kept plunging in and out…What a lot of blood to have in a body! You know, how it jets when you turn on the shower in the bath…Sonali, why did you call?”

“Was there any firing?”
“Yes, some. Bet there will be some more soon.”
“Listen, Anzam, don't brag. I know you are standing in front. God knows when a bullet might hit you! Please move away.”
“Not to worry, Anzam lowered his voice. I'm, right at the back. There are some people in front of me. Don't worry. I'm careful when these things happen.”
“Careful, are you? Don't I know you…”
“Why did you call?”
“Today is Shantanoo's birthday. I forgot to remind you this morning.”
“Are we going?”
“Aren't we? They insisted we do. And…”
“Sonali, wait…The phone came away from the ear and then it was back again. They have thrown the dead body away, did you get that…”
“Is it alive?”
“Didn't I just say dead body? Just like when white pumpkin flesh is perforated before it is soaked in syrup…that's how it is. Not only with a blade but with iron rods…”
“What has the country come to! To just kill like that out of nowhere -listen, we ought to go to Shantanoo's birthday.”
“That's going to dent the purse. Any old present won't do, will it?”
“That's true, but just consider the benefits of striking a relationship with Shafqat Bhai and Zarina Bhabi?”
“Here we go again, someone else is being pursued…Sonali do you think we will be able to reap something out of this 'relationship'?”
“Certainly! They are so much richer than we areand haven't they still invited us to their son's birthday at a grand hotel? Haven't they asked us repeatedly to join them? And here you are talking of benefits! What benefits are there to be had…they will help you clinch a business deal. That's about it, right?”
“Hmmm…Sonali, can you hear the gunshots?”
“Did another one get killed?”
“Not yet. But at least a few are likely to..e-e-e-e-s-s-sh!”
“What is it?”
“Can't be giving you a commentary this way…And my phone bill is mounting. I'll tell you when I get home.”

That he had said he would recount the event when he got back had quite slipped his mind. He bought a gift for Shantanoo spending a pretty sum. He told Sonali the cost and said, “See that this does the trick.”

The skirmish outside between Tiffin Babu and White Kalam and the wrangle inside with the MD over staff demands fizzled out before the day at the office was over. The fracas outside went on till lunch hour. No one stepped out during the lunch hour. A few just rushed to collect their packed lunches and sped back to the roof. When the feud stopped, the MD slipped away. The others too left one by one.

Sonali liked the gift, she had said. Shafqat Bhai and Zarina Bhabi would be sure to like it. In fact, if Zarina Bhabi approved, that would do.
Anzam repeated himself grittily, “See that this does the trick.”
Sonali laughed, “It will. Just leave it up to me…I am not too mad about the fact that you are a puny executive.”
“Meaning that you don't get to spend all that your heart wishes to, right?”
“Looks like you are making it look like that's wrong of me! Wouldn't you too rather spend without a care?”
“Absolutely,” Anzam grinned. “If the wallet is not a hefty one, do you know what it feels like? It feels like as if there is no money, just rump. Money is protection for the rump.”
“There you go again, with your foul mouth. Really, I've noticed this, you can't seem to say anything in a simple way,” Sonali's face reflected mock disapproval. That too disappeared. She surveyed Anzam from hand to foot.
“What is it?”
“I should have done this as soon as you walked in.”
“Tiffin Babu…God, the name is enough to make one giggle…You witnessed a fight between Tiffin Babu and White or Mite whatever…I should have checked if you're in one piece or have come back riddled with holes.”
Anzam replied, “No, I'm back with as many orifices as I had in the morning. The hope of getting some more - but you since you are so good in Bangla, I should correct myself and say the fear of getting some more holes can never be ruled out…”
“You showed a bit too much bravado standing in the open with bullets flying around…”
“Didn't I tell you, I was in the right spot. I had people in front of me, on my sides too.”
“Nevertheless. How many went down?”
“That is exactly what I was going to tell you. Never had that kind of close encounter before.”
“So tell me all about it…Out with it.”
Anzam said, “Sonali, people have become very brutal.”
“Is that so?” Sonali quipped.” And you think we didn't know that!”
“We do…but still.” He yawned as he said 'still'. He sat on the bed. Sonali sat beside him. Anzam played with Sonali's fingers. “I know,” he said again, “but knowing and watching are not the same. See, back in the past if one was cornered by a few from the opposing faction, they'd beat him up. There have always been fights. But back then it was a time when there would be a punch, a jab, a slap, a kick that's about it. Now they start with a hockey stick. This is …”
“Anzam, you weren't a student of history if I am right?”
“No. I was just lecturing you a bit or you could call it an introduction if you want.”
“No need. Everyone knows these things. Go on.”
“If one has an axe to grind then a few bullets could get that done. But if someone wants to vent one's rage then...No, one didn't go for bullets. The knife does it, sinking its sharpness here and there. The iron rod pierced the eye, the hockey stick thwacked against the face, the cleaver came down with a bludgeon…Didn't you wear a bra?”
“In this kind of weather? And who asked you to touch that?”
“No one. I can feel the heat, though.”
“Stop that! Remove your hand.”
“Why remove my hand? Listen, they killed four right in front of our eyes. Later the police, I learnt, took the fallen to the hospital. But who would pull through after injuries like that? Even if they do make it, they will be done for life. From gangster to beggar, that is what their fate will be.”
“Has that made people shy away from mastaani?
It is on the rise. And violence too.”
“Gosh, if you want to eliminate someone, you can do it in one go...Why have him pinned on the round and pulverize his head with a brick?”
Sonali nodded. She looked at Anzam and laughed.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Business is a form of mastaani. Rubayet Bhai said so.”
“That's because his business venture flopped, that's why. And even if business is like mastaani, it is not as crude. You don't need to chase someone with a cleaver.”
“Don't be so certain…I will get you the deal through Shafqat Bhai and Zarina Bhabi but what you will be able to do with that is the real issue. The use of the cleaver, you say, is on the rise again, is it?”
“Very. The way they did it today - Sonali, one was clobbered by the flat edge of the cleaver. Damn bugger died on the spot. His brain oozed out.”
Sonali grabbed Anzam's hand.
Anzam looked into Sonali's eye “…What? Now? Do you want to?”
Sonali let go of Anzam's hand. “That is all that you ever think of!” Getting off the bed, she said, “Get up now. Take a shower…Let's get ready.”
“Ready for?”
“Aren't we going to Shantanoo's birthday?”
“Right away?”
“Listen, we want to be there before the others arrive. We'll say that we have come to lend them a hand. Tell us, what we can do.”
“They have a lot of help. Catering people and all.”
“Don't I know that? But is there any harm in showing some good spirit?”
“None whatsoever,” Anzam nodded his head. He too would move and get down from the bed eventually. “Have you decided what you will wear?”
“The maroon one.”
“You have a few of them in maroon.”
“The maroon sari that has a hint of chocolate in it.”
“That one is becoming on you. Good decision. Sonali, human blood is red, isn't it?”
Sonali pried open the wardrobe, “Yes, that is what is commonly believed.”
“But left to pool for a while in a place, the blood looks maroon or chocolate.”
“How do you know? Oh! yes. Well, Anzam,” Sonali turned back, “You didn't say a thing about how that fight went, remember that?”
“Remember what?”
“If something happens here, I won't tell you a thing either.”

Anzam laughed, heaving himself out of the bed. “When I was returning, the street was red in places with blood.” He stretched his arms. “What am I to wear? Have you decided on anything? Faruqui is such an imp. Walking past all that gore he says in a poetic spasm, hundreds of blood camellias are abloom along the way.”

“Get away!” Sonali shook her head vigorously. “No one can be that brutal…Anzam, do you want the bottle green shirt?”
“And what about the trousers? What if I were to go without them on? That would convince Shafqat Bhai and Zarina Bhabi we are really in a tight spot.”
“Brilliant idea. Wear the buff-coloured trousers…Hang on, between Tiffin Babu and that White or Mite whatever his name is, who won?”
“How can we know that? Let's say it was a draw. Each side lost two. And it all depends whom the police sided with…”
“Hmmm…I sometimes wonder how is it people can be this cruel! Anzam, I need to buy a couple of lipsticks.”
“Buy them.”
“The other day, I saw such an outfit.”
“Wait a bit, let's just get the business going.”
“Got it. You know why people can so cruel?”
“No. Professors of sociology and psychology would know that. Honestly, Sonali, if it was only annihilation of the enemy, then what's the point of such cruelty? A single bullet aimed right would be able to get the job done.”
“You said that a little while ago but you're right.”
“Say, for example, one on the left side or in the head or below the chin…”
“Anzam,” Sonali chided, sounding decidedly cross. “Why aren't you off to have a shower? Forget the germs, shouldn't you want to wash up after all that you have seen today!”

As long as they were at Shantanoo's birthday, the time went by pleasantly enough for Anzam and Sonali. They had not anticipated the degree of cordiality that Shafqat and Zarina showed towards them. Nothing was left undone, not even a car to take Anzam and Sonali back home. It would be almost rude to overstay after that. So they stood in front of Zarina Bhabi and said, “If you permit us, we'd like to be on our way.” Zarina said, “Now? Well, all right, you have worked so hard, need to rest.”

“Not at all, what is it that we could do here! Everything was going so smoothly.”

“Shafqat and I are aware of how much you have done…Just like our own would have done…Shafqat, Shafqat…they are about to leave. Listen, do drop by whenever you wish to. Give a ring, we'll send the car. Hold on, let me arrange a car to take you home.”

They protested no, no. Zarina would not hear of it. Shafqat came to join them and he shook Anzam's hands warmly, “It was wonderful that you could come.”

On their way back, Sonali asked, “What do you make of all this?”
“This is perhaps a 1800 cc. No bumping whatsoever.”
“Tell me what have you made of it all.”
“If we aren't bitch-fortuned then we should be able to make it good this time.”
“We will. I feel certain of that. See, what a good idea it was to go there early.”
“My smart thinking wife!”
“Don't you forget it.”

On returning home, they changed and washed their hands and faces. It was quite late and they should have gone to sleep. But before dozing off, they had a habit of lying in the bed surfing the channels and chatting.

“If the business does materialize and if there is a profit, do you know what I will buy first?”
“You can't block money by first by wanting to buy a car.”
“We will buy a car later. First, we will get an air-conditioner.”
“Right. How hot it is! It is going to be sweltering like this for quite some time more.”
“Not just that. Say, who doesn't want to be rich? I mean to be well-off. Nothing wrong in wanting that, is there? Not just for a car or AC. I want to put together a business so that I don't need to have a business.”
“Was the meeting with the MD today successful?”
“Success didn't have a chance. Before the meeting made any headway Tiffin Babu and White Kalam met in combat. Success went to them, either to Tiffin Babu or White Kalam. And to the police.”
“Honey, be a little careful in streets near the office for a few days.”
“It is quite frightening. All on a sudden one could be caught in a skirmish.”
“Don't talk like thatyou're scaring me.”
“Did you have the ice-cream?”
Sonali asks, bewildered, “What did you say?”
“The ice-cream. The one that came after dinner. What was it called, ‘ice-cream float’? Did you try it?”
“Why wouldn't I, it was delicious.”
“I didn't have it.”
“Why on earth not?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Well, tell me then. Say, have your tonsils been playing up again? Are you hiding something from me?”
“No…no…it is something else.”

“Tell me then! Do you know what will happen if you don't tell me…”
“It is about the fight. I came out after it was over…but wait, let me finish what I was saying about the ice-cream. It was about the same. Ice-cream float, it is called. ..a scoop floating in a thick syrup…So as I was saying to you, one of them had his head halved into two. The brain oozed out. There it was on the road, a pool of blood with bits of brain in it…didn't feel like having the ice-cream after all.”

“Now my stomach is beginning to churn!” Sonali really looked like she was feeling queasy. “Get me a bit of paan masala quick, will you,” she said to Anzam.
After a while, when the feeling had subsided a bit, she told Anzam, “No more tales about the fight.”
“Done. What is it to us? God knows who they are and who got killed in whatever circumstances…”
“One thing saddens me, though. Those who died if they had lived they would have had normal lives…Would have had dreams like we do, life could have been charming for them. But what happens? They meet their ends in the streets.”
“Right. They die in such a terrible way, but does any one get fazed by that? Does any one feel sorry? People gawked. Feeling a little thrill, something to gossip about for a while. That's all.”
“True enough. Go and see - your colleagues are recounting the tale to their wives.”
“And the wives too are listening with rapt attention. People have become so very cruel.”
“Right. No one is sparing a thought about them dying in that insensible way. You are absolutely right. There is nothing more beastly than humans.”
“Let it go…Remind Zarina Bhabi about the business soon.”
“Will do.”
“A cool breeze from the AC in this room. Feels good to just think about it, right?”

artwork by anisurzzaman sohel

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