“Oh, how long have you been here?”
“Maybe three minutes.” Altaf leans back and stretches his legs. “Look at you, all clean and fresh.”
“Fresh? Really?” Wiping his neck with a thin green towel, he replies, “This is how you look when you scrub your body with laundry soap. Soon the skin will get all ashy. Ah, the taste of independence! Tea? Should I ask for tea?”
“You never serve anything but lemon tea. People all over Bangladesh manage to get condensed milk, but with you there’s a snag. No thanks, I drink my tea only with milk.”
“Should I then ask for some muri to be fried up for you?”
Altaf lights a cigarette, then says, “You don’t have to bother. Just get ready. We should go right away since I parked the car at the end of the alley. Be quick, I don’t want the car to get hijacked. It hasn’t even been 15 days since I had to fix the windshield.”
Shobuj asks, “Get ready? Do we have an urgent errand? Why not leave after lunch?”
“No, we can’t waste that much time. There are things we need to do. I don’t understand why you drag. Whenever I bring up going out, you start to drag. What rubbish. Just put on your shirt and let’s go.”
He doesn’t have the courage to argue with Altaf. That would be a waste of time. What excuse should he then give Rekha? An uneasy fear creeps into his mind. After days of pleading from his wife, Shobuj went to the bazaar himself this morning and brought home an entire cornucopia of groceries – tiny kachki and plump koi fish, several kinds of vegetables, along with fresh cucumber, olives, and lemons. This fellow Altaf is inflexible, lacking any empathy. Shobuj fails to come up an excuse to explain his departure to Rekha.
“What are you so worried about?”
“I do have to say something in there.”
“You don’t have someone in your life. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Spare me, I haven’t the least desire to understand. All across Bangladesh, men refuse to put a single foot forward without their wives’ permission. Every bastard here is henpecked. Be quick then, be quick!”
Ripping the word out of his mouth, Altaf says, “Rekha? Every bloody Rekha is one living, breathing ‘but.’ Don’t scratch your pumpkin head like those country bumpkins you teach in that so-called college in Ichapura. What bullshit! C’mon, daddy, don’t get me worked up any more, you’re trying my patience. You’re like a living cadaver!”
Shobuj doesn’t delay any longer. He yells into the interior of the house, “I’m going on an errand. Be back soon.” He quickly gets himself ready and skips out the door.
After starting the car and getting on the main road, Altaf relaxes and says, “Now tell me where you want to go. What kitchen shall I take you to?”
“We have to do something about lunch.”
“I don’t get you at all!”
“The two of us need to hang out, understand, kid?”
“Does this make any sense? Would ants have invaded our pants if we’d stayed longer at my house?”
“What pleasure you people get from staying in I have no idea. This is why I hate the idea of getting married. I can’t see any difference between home and the rubbish bin. Brother, you’ve become spoiled. Utterly spoiled. Beyond redemption.”
In a lighter tone, Shobuj replies, “Perhaps that’s true.” He lets out a long sigh that does not escape Altaf’s notice.
“Perhaps? What’s this perhaps?” Altaf snarls. “Visiting the in-laws with a rusted tin suitcase in one hand and a jackfruit in the other, raising a litter of children, fetching sour pickles for the wife, roaming the footpaths and bazaars for tiny shrimp and cut pieces of fabric — that’s become the grand total of your life’s ideals! STU-PID! In school you were the one among us with the broadest interests. You played terrific cricket, in debates you demolished the seniors, you were an artist, and you wrote poetry. If you called a strike, it was on in an instant. And now? You’re teaching, but that too in run-down Gobindopur, in some godforsaken Ichapura college where you get middle-aged fools who come after farming their fields, plodding in their bare feet and tying their lungis tight between their legs. Shit. Tie up some packs and bundles, get on a launch, and then take off! And at the end of each week, like taking a regular dose of medicine, honour a night with the queen of your life on some bedbug-infested, oil-stained bed, and then back again. STU-PID! Even death is more respectable than this! Such a huge movement shook the country — you should have plunged into it. You should have let yourself be washed away like eggshells, banana skins, and biscuit wrappers adrift in the current. You should have allowed yourself to be obliterated!”
Abruptly, in the voice of a helpless child, Shobuj says, “I fear death, Altaf. I swear, I am terrified. If the army hadn’t cracked down on the Twenty-fifth of March, I wouldn’t even have known how much I love life, and how scared I am of death!”
“Worm! You’re just an intestinal worm!”
“Whatever you say.”
“Fool, true happiness only comes from wrestling with death. If you’d been in the Chilmari operation then you’d know death is nothing. As desperadoes with our private army, we played a kids’ game with death. What is there to fear in death? Do you think the world is a huge roshogolla, soft and squishy? It’s a hard place, understand, kid. A tough place. If you want to stay alive and carry on, you have to fight! Throughout one’s life, there are only battles, battles and more battles.”
Shobuj says, “To tell you the truth, I’m a coward! I don’t have the stamina like you guys. Can’t you see how I still walk hunched over? My spine’s so weak I can’t even stand straight!”
“Don’t keel over then! Look at you, so easily you start to snivel.”
“It’s true, I’ve come to loathe myself.”
“Quit whining! Tell me where you want me to go. Quick, quick!”
“Wherever you please. What can I suggest?”
“Wherever I want? You won’t object?”
“That doesn’t mean going to a gambling den. I’d find that unbearable.”
“How about a drink?”
“You do that every day anyway, why not take a day off?”
“Not this, not that, then what? Shala, why don’t you speak your mind and say what you want without acting so innocent. I want to stay excited all day. Let’s go visit some girl. Can you think of anyone?”
“You’re asking me?”
“True. Who would you know besides your wife? Hey, what happened to that girl? The one you used to be in love with. Where is she? Do you see her at all? Rokhsana, that’s it. Rokhsana.
“She’s here in Dhaka. She has a difficult life. These days she works at a bank.”
“What’s her problem?”
“She has to support her family.”
“Are you in touch?”
“No! I’ve only seen her once or twice.”
“Why don’t we go visit her then?”
“What would be the point?”
“Come up with an excuse to get her out of the house, then let’s go have some fun. Blah blah blah. A saucy girl like her, still unmarried, what’s the harm in taking a chance, brother? Blah blah blah.”
“Not me. No thanks.”
“Fine, if you can’t, then hook her up with me. I’m feeling very empty inside for the last few days. I need some love.”
“She’s not an easy one to pull.”
“Yeah right, you goddamn bastard! You’re just envious. Fine, let her go. Now tell me where to go to find some girls.”
“What am I, some sort of pimp? How come you suddenly got so worked up?”
“It’s an addiction. A fever. Every minute of the day I want to stay excited. I need to live on the edge.”
“You’re otherwise doing quite well except for this fever that grips you now and then. Can’t you control yourself?”
“Now you’re talking like Jabbar the engineer. I’ve never seen such a henpecked man. He quakes in front of his wife.”
Shobuj thinks of Rekha, and a fear crawls across his skin. There’s no doubt she will be upset that he wasn’t having lunch at home. She’d been delighted to see him bring home so much food from the market. Altaf is like a hurricane. The inconvenience of others simply doesn’t penetrate his brain. Rekha shouldn’t have to bear this injustice.
He leaves her all alone in Dhaka to take care of the children. All responsibilities rest on her shoulders. Two or four times a month Shobuj drops in, handing over some cash at the beginning of each month. It’s not that he enjoys being stuck in Ichapura either. But he has no choice. He’s tired. Until now he’d somehow managed, but he can’t take it any more. If there was some other way to support the family he’d quit the college in an instant. He can’t do this any more.
“There’s a pack in the glove compartment, why don’t you light me a cigarette?” Altaf says, “Which way to go, which way?” Then he whistles, Under the bam, under the boo, under the bamboo tree….
The car hurtles forward, keeping pace with a stubborn wind. Shobuj realizes that Altaf has no destination in mind. His emotions running wild, he’s just trying to float like a scrap of paper tossed in the breeze.
Shobuj returns to Rekha. The injustice being done to her is exceeding any reasonable limits. Day after day she remains neglected, bereft of affection. Apathy is a deadly disease, and it has Shobuj in its grip. Whenever he comes home for a day or two, Altaf ensnares him. He sticks to him like glue, refusing to let go. Shobuj has deprived Rekha of his company for months. Slipping some money into her hands to pay their credit — that’s their entire relationship. What if Rekha wasn’t such a patient woman? Shobuj thinks of his friend Jabbar’s wife. Now there’s a demanding woman, a frightful, dominating shrew. Jabbar is no longer the old Jabbar. The woman has tied a rope to his nose and makes him jump up and down at her bidding. From the outside it looks as if the relationship is defined simply by power, without an iota of love. Shobuj cannot imagine a life without love.
Under the bam, under the boo, under the bamboo tree. Altaf whistles like a gust of wind. Narrowing his eyes, he asks, “You’re not taking us to Rokhsana’s then?”
In a situation like this, silence is the only refuge. Shobuj remains absorbed with Rekha. In the last few months, he hasn’t taken her out even once. Offhand, she’d suggested a few times that he take her to Gopibagh where her younger sister Jhimki lives. Shobuj was willing, but each time Altaf turned up like the demon Rahu and spirited Shobuj away. One of Rekha’s special qualities is that she accepts everything with grace. She isn’t one to disturb her peace of mind over the inevitable or trivial. They’ve been married for six years and Shobuj has seen, right from the start of their married life, that Rekha sidesteps conflict. In family life, she loathes disorder.
“I get it. You’re thinking of the wife. Will you also end up a bonehead like Jabbar the engineer? Where will I go then?”
Shobuj suppresses a sigh, then says, “First get married, then we’ll see what comes later.”
“To hell with getting married! You still don’t know this gentleman. Getting married and slipping into the mosquito net with the wife and eating panta bhat with potatoes, they’re about the same to me. For a stray cow the whole country is a bloody green pasture, no?”
“It doesn’t seem so,” Shobuj says with some disinterest.
“And how do you say that?”
“Just a few minutes ago you were all worked up about Rokhsana! Why, isn’t there any other single woman in this country? Talking big has become an ugly habit of yours. From now on, try to straighten up and fly right. Otherwise it’ll cost you in the long run.”
“Now I understand everything. Bastard, you’re still obsessed with your old love. I’ll have to report this to your wife.”
“You could do that.”
“Did I frighten you?”
“Rekha knows me well enough.”
“Stop, enough!” Altaf says, “I know very well how much one knows another person. You can brag somewhere else, not to this gentleman here. All your boasting will come to nothing, I can make sure of that. If you don’t believe me, go ask Jabbar how I cooked his goose.” Altaf cackles like a lunatic.
“Cooked his goose?”
“That’s right. The poor fellow’s thrashing around in the depths of the ocean. The ass’s face is swollen from his wife’s punches. The wretched guy is so pissed he doesn’t even speak to me when he sees me. He turns his face away. He’s really upset.”
When a 1962 Volkswagen overtakes him, Altaf gets all worked up. He shrieks, “I’ll show the bastard who rules this road.” He catches up, then starts to push the other car to the side.
“Hey Altaf, what are you doing?” Shobuj sits up, alarmed.
Squeezing the Volkswagen until it swerves onto the shoulder, Altaf says, “What did you learn?” Under the bam, under the boo, under the bamboo tree….
“You’re such a hoodlum. A teenager.”
“Take a look behind and see how the pig’s scared shitless. Look at how his face is all screwed up. Now he’ll meekly keep to his place. When I chew sugarcane and spit out the fibre, he’ll pick that up and stuff it in his mouth!”
The car has now left the city behind. On both sides of the road are wetlands and green mustard fields. The scattered greenery and gusts of wind work as a powerful sedative.
The sunlight is dazzling. The air dons a green colour from the strong odour of water hyacinth. Shobuj recalls the old days when he, Jabbar, and Altaf would take off whenever they had a chance, sometimes for a day, sometimes for two. They had named those trips ‘flash tours.’ How good it felt! Would such days ever return? Life changes so much.
“Altaf, shall we stop somewhere and sit?”
“Sit? Of course, a hundred times, yes, we shall sit.”
“You didn’t have this theatrical habit before.”
“Good God! Are you still feeling bad about your wife? I can’t stand your company any more. You shala have become another Jabbar!”
Spotting a dark and thick bamboo grove, Altaf stops the car. Leaving the vehicle parked on the shoulder, Altaf lifts his pants up and says, “I’m getting fat around the belly. Need to start watching my diet.”
He moves towards the grove and whistles again, Under the bam, under the boo….
Whipped up by the wind, the water slaps against the bamboo trees. The reflection of the bamboo breaks apart on the unruly surface of the water. The two sit on handkerchiefs they place on the ground. Shobuj sniffs his fingers. They smell of burnt tobacco. Rekha loves these fingers, they are precious to her. In the air thick with the smell of rotting grass and hyacinth, the fingers evoke a strange languor. These two fingers, kissed by Rekha’s lips day after day, drip with enchantment. These two fingers, night after deep night, transform into a huge swarm of bees and take flight. On a bed of soft breaths, when a pair of wet lips loses these two fingers and then seeks them out again, then life pools into a fleeting moment. It seems then, this is good, this is everything, there is no joy beyond a life this poor, and the vastness is overwhelming.
“Let me tell you about this business with Jabbar.” He lights a cigarette, stretches his legs, and starts, “All the time he’s been whining in my ear that no one can have a wife like his. There’s no end to his pride about her. His wife supposedly thinks he’s Judhisthir of the Mahabharata. He doesn’t understand anything about the world aside from his wife, and he never looks back. So I fucked him up. I slipped a dose to the wife that since he’s an engineer she should keep an eye on him. After all, everyone knows contractors are a hell of a catch. That’s all it took. The medicine worked so well the bastard’s life is now on the wire, he has to account for himself every minute. Straight off, the wife believed that her husband the emperor is going around doing all sorts of vile things, that behind his quiet demeanour he’s a jackal, a total devil, a rongbaj. Right in front of me, she went after Jabbar. She told him, why don’t you leave everything and work in the cinema since you’re such a good actor. Your father had two wives, and, you are, after all, his son. It was like the curse of God had come down. If you only saw the woman’s wrathful appearance….”
After stopping a bit and jerking his arms and legs like a robot, Altaf continued, “I know what you’ll say. You too have a wife at home. You’ll say, Altaf, this wasn’t right. Perhaps, but some of it was necessary. Day after day, that ape was getting too pretentious. You’re neck deep in bribery, yet when the talk turns to corruption you bare your teeth and curse everyone and their families. Why? Why so high and mighty? You’re wallowing in fraud and deceit, sleeping in a bed of money, none of us have ever stood in your way. Why this arrogance with us? So fine, the world works like this, go ahead, live that way, but why do you come to lord it over us? I’m a bloody merchant, I trade in love using my money, I ply a pleasure yacht, and he comes to teach me the heights of love? How much do you know of women? How many women have you seen? How many have you mixed with? As for your experience, there’s only this married life of yours, and that, from top to bottom, is a house of cards. So I stuck a finger in his eye and showed him that much, that it’s all a house of cards. If that’s not true, think of this, the woman didn’t even question once if what I said was true, she just heard something suspicious from one man and then jumped up and started flailing in every direction. Yes, what soul mates they are! Goddamn bastard!”
With weariness in his voice, Shobuj says, “Altaf, I’m not quite getting what you’re saying. What exactly is it about him that offends you? So he takes bribes and denies it. That makes him a hypocrite. But that’s typical. As for bringing up his wife in any conversation, that too is not a terrible sin. You might say he’s a bit vulgar. Which of the two are you hostile to?”
Altaf replies, “Married life, the relations of man and wife, he’s too arrogant about these things. Maybe you’ve noticed that because of this he is distracted all the time.”
“I don’t know….” Shobuj says in a pained tone. “Unlike you I haven’t thought about this very much. I haven’t wanted to, either.”
“All right, let it go,” Altaf says. “We seem to be dozing off. There’s no sense in getting tied up in these useless matters. Let’s go somewhere and do something fun. All my life, every day, I want to stay in an excited state. Who wants to live without thrill and adventure!”
“You need therapy.”
“That’s precisely why I want to be around women!”
“You always come back to the same old thing.”
“There’s only this one circuit. Life equals excitement, it means restlessness.”
“That’s a formula! A formula from pulp fiction.”
“You still don’t know me, buddy. Do you know what I do? You have no idea. Your head would spin! I deliberately monkey with women, and after satisfying myself I leave them with a dung beetle in their heads. Understand-o?”
“So give me an example.”
“Just yesterday, I lucked out with a tasty dish in my hands. She spent the whole night with me! Great girl. Smart, even though she was a bit of a snob. So what. I did everything with her. Blah blah blah. Do you know what I did all through the night? I rattled off the assets of this other girl she knows. Praised her body, mind, and soul. Assets, only assets. Know what I’m saying? All night I waxed eloquent about this other girl. It was all a pack of lies. There can be no such girl. I’ve never seen a woman with that shapely a body. But she burned with envy, that’s what happened. Up in flames! That’s exactly what I want. I toasted myself in front of a fire like that. What did you understand, buddy?”
Without replying, Shobuj sits with his shoulders in a sulk. With the midday sun beating upon the still pasture, the breeze whirls around. The nest of the babui swings at the top of the palmyra palm. A flock of green pigeons darts out in a rush, scattering the green boughs of the bamboo, and they fly off in one direction. Mingled with the smell of crop fields in the air, a sense of desolation rises from the earth, stretching to the horizon. The cowherd’s flute sounds out a mournful tune. Beyond nature’s restlessness, everything else pales into insignificance.
Suddenly Altaf yells out, “I-I-I-I-I!”
Shobuj is startled out of his reverie.
Altaf jumps to his feet and shakes his body. “Enough. Everything feels like mud. Let’s scram.”
“How come you bolted upright like an explosion?”
“I exist, don’t you understand?” He cracks up in wild laughter.
Shobuj also rises. Walking alongside, he asks, “Any news about the job prospect for me?”
“It’ll happen, it’ll happen.”
“Has anything moved yet?”
“Why’re you getting so worked up? When I’ve given my word, it will happen. F’sure, f’ sure.”
“Believe me,” Shobuj says, his voice breaking, “I can’t go on like this. Now Dhaka, now Ichapura, I can’t stand it any more. What I’m earning there is pitiful in today’s market. I can’t make ends meet.”
“I’m telling you! Why are you getting so worried? No matter how, I’m going to make sure you return to Dhaka. I’ll get you a place in some government college. Now stop your whining.”
“I know that if you want you can pull it off. Your network is huge, you have a zillion contacts. I’ve given my word to Rekha, no matter how I’m going to get a job in Dhaka. We’ll be together all the time.”
“Fearest not, son, there will be an arrangement.”
Shobuj clutches Altaf’s hands, looking helpless and troubled. “Then you’re promising, right?”
“Why ‘re you breaking down like this? You’re a total idiot. I’ve told you before, I’m telling you now. It will happen.”
Shobuj looks as though today the feeble response he’s become used to is no longer reassuring. In his own eyes, he appears pathetic. Stabbed by doubt, Shobuj becomes absent-minded. As they walk, he stumbles repeatedly.
Starting up the car, Altaf zooms towards the city.
“You’re of no use, Shobuj, none at all.” Looking straight ahead, Altaf begins to say, “It wouldn’t be bad if we dropped in on Rokhsana. You haven’t yet figured out anything about women. You are another Jabbar. If you’d introduced her to me, you’d have seen how your sunken-cheeked beauty would dash into the love boat belonging to Altaf the hustler. You couldn’t even imagine. Some swine say that it’s an art to pull. Art, my foot. It’s a mere trick. If you know the trick, you can pull off the scam. One thing leads to the other. You just have to know what button to push. If you push right, then ding! And who doesn’t like ding dong!”
“You don’t know what a good girl Rokhsana is.”
“Stifle it, stifle it. Of all the words that begin with ‘g,’ such as goat, gobbet, gobbledygook, or golliwog, the cheapest and trashiest is ‘good.’ You shala are naïve to the core. You must believe that a woman emerges from the womb wearing a sari. Arrey shala, we — meaning we the male species — we are the ones who’ve wrapped them in saris for our own ends. Understand, boy?”
“Altaf, you babble endless nonsense.”
“When all is said and done, you are after all the Teach-er.”
“No matter how much you deny it, you’re completely changing. You weren’t like this before. For three years I’ve been watching how you’re becoming bull-headed and one-dimensional. God only knows where you’ll land in the end. How much more? Now calm your….”
“Calm myself? That’s not written in my destiny.”
“Don’t you feel worn out? You’ve made piles of money. What are you racing after?”
“A mirage, understand, dear boy, a mirage.”
Suddenly he screeches to a stop. He parks the car on the side of the road.
Lighting a cigarette, Altaf takes a deep drag. “In good time, you’ll see.” He’s bubbling over in excitement.
A rickshaw is coming up from behind carrying a young woman of about twenty, twenty-two. Altaf swivels his neck to take a look, a smile on his lips, a blaze in his eyes. By accident he drops some ash from his cigarette on Shobuj. He says, “In a word, a knockout. What do you think?”
The girl is truly gorgeous. But she isn’t paying attention to anything, and certainly not Altaf. She seems drowned in melancholy. Burdened. Shobuj thinks her mind is somewhere else, like the hospital or the prison.
Altaf opens the door and gets out. He beckons to the woman, and invites her to leave the rickshaw and accept a ride with him. Shobuj notices the woman has turned blue in fear. Leaning over she says something, and the rickshaw scoots off.
Altaf returns to the car.
“What’s happening, Altaf? Have you gone crazy?”
“Now if someone makes me crazy, is that my fault?”
“It’s not what you think.”
“All girls are the same, understand kid, they’re all the same.”
“You’ve gone utterly mad!”
Whistling Under the bam, under the boo, under the bamboo tree, Altaf chases the rickshaw, his face flushed with anger and intransigence. “This girl’s the playing type. She won’t give in so easily, understand, kid? She’ll play around for a bit, that’s all!”
Shobuj pleads, “This is not right. Altaf, stop chasing the rickshaw. You’re going too far.”
Overtaking the rickshaw, Shobuj stops the car again. Once more, he beckons to the girl. When the rickshaw is about to rush past him, he orders, “Hey, rickshaw, stop. Stop right now!”
It doesn’t work. The woman’s face has now become even darker. She sits in the rickshaw like a block of wood, her eyes shut. Furrowing his eyebrows, Altaf lights a cigarette. While trying to suppress something inside, his face is turning hard from the shame of defeat.
“Drop me off here, Altaf. I’m feeling awful. It makes no sense to chase a girl in the middle of the day without any sense of shame. You can see the girl isn’t responding to you at all, but still you’re hounding her. You’re being repulsive.”
“Perfessor, I’m definitely going to get her into my car.”
“I’m telling you, you just can’t.”
“There’s no choice. I have to.”
“There’s no sense creating a fuss, sticking to the girl like glue. Your assumption about her is baseless. Now stop chasing her. You’ve shown enough bravado for the day.”
“Girlie, you may think you’re a player, but I’m no less. I am the king of players. I’m getting you into this car. Under the bam, under the boo, under the bamboo tree.”
Now in front of her, now at her back, Altaf keeps the game going, but he makes no progress. Shobuj realizes that Altaf is losing control. He’s getting desperate. He is driving with his teeth clenched. At one point, he lets the rickshaw overtake him. His face has changed into a frightening coldness, his blazing eyes bulging out. Shobuj sits petrified. Suddenly Altaf speeds up the car, and then like a storm he swerves, smashing into the rickshaw. In thirty seconds it is over, the rickshaw a wreck. He reverses and drives off.”
“Altaf, Altaf, what have you done? What have you done?”
Altaf does not speak. He’s now retreated inside himself, inside barbarism, inside darkness. Whether there is darkness there, or barbarism, or sheer sport, only he knows.
Snaking through the roads of the city, he arrives at the mouth of Shobuj’s alley. Between the two of them, a cold silence hangs like a sword.
Shobuj opens the door and gets out.
Altaf offers him the pack of cigarettes. “You’re sweating. Make sure to wipe your face. Keep the pack, there’s still four left in there.”
Shobuj fishes in his pockets but can’t find his handkerchief. He remembers that he’d sat on the handkerchief near the bamboo grove. He left it there. He loses his handkerchief so often that Rekha gripes, how do you lose so many?
“You didn’t ask me anything.” Altaf says.
“What am I supposed to ask?”
“About what I just did.”
Starting the engine, Altaf says from inside the car, “No matter what you say about my faults, this is how I am now. I don’t sit around looking at someone’s face with longing and awe. Whatever I need I grab by force. Where that’s not possible, I use force to destroy it. I have to be this way for my existence. I understand you’re feeling awful. I’m sorry. Try to wipe it out of your mind, forget about all this. You’ll see, everything will look clean again. The world works like this, friend. One’s ability to forget must be as tall as a mountain.”
First published in the daily star in 2007.