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Arts & Letters, April 2018

Short story On the way

Short story On the way •Numair Choudhury Only after she secures her starched white blouse does she line her eyes and dab her cheeks. Otherwise she wears no visible makeup. Slinging the yellowing cloth bag over her shoulder, she locks her door and makes her way down the unpainted stairs. When she steps outside, she is confronted by the dust and commotion of a seven-am weekday. But there is a welcome that Dhaka reserves solely for her. After she turns the corner and makes her way through rickshaws and cycles that jingle in unison, she passes a small restaurant that caters to the budgets of low-level office clerks, factory caretakers and wealthy college students. Outside the eatery, her special greeting awaits. Smiling in a ridiculous manner, the clown stands. On spying her, his grin broadens and his face folds into mad, childish happiness. And as she hastens by looking elsewhere, he laughs and stamps in delight as if applauding her appearance. He claps as if magic had just unfolded. She blushes at his attention and paces onwards, furious with the public display. Local youngsters revel: Dancing and laughing, they are thrilled that the ritual has once again been observed. Strangers halt their morning routines to stare at the spectacle, while she hurries to the end of the street. This is where I watch from. In daylight, just as at night when the power cuts arrive, this colossus of a city groans under the weight of its own frame, and as bones turn to diamond under the crush they are mined and shipped away quietly Numair Choudhury is a fiction writer. Bothered by flies, I sit unnoticed in the bamboo shade of a fruit-stall and watch her face. When she reaches my intersection, she seems relieved to have escaped the simpleton’s buffoonery. But I have also observed, much to my consternation, a bemused smile on her face. Her name is Ayesha. She is a nurse in burn-victim rehabilitation at a nearby hospital. It is a new institute, funded by foreign partners and aid. The hundred-bed facility was launched with the pomp reserved for do-gooders and thieving bureaucrats alike. They boast top quality equipment and a staff trained by busybodies who fly in from glamorous lands. Specialized in treating women that are casualties of acid-attacks, they have money to throw. I detest their type; busy saving the world, they close their eyes to the truths of our times. They do not accept that even the toughest laws cannot make man turn away from the sulfur in his nature. The victims they try to save, I have seen them charred and scorched because a dowry bicycle was the wrong color, because a relative was a week late with rent, or because a brother did not comply with local thugs. For any number of trifling reasons, actually. This makes me laugh deep into myself, until my amusement rings and echoes about my core. Ayesha lives alone. An older woman from the mohallah has the keys to Ayesha’s flat; she visits on Saturdays for a few hours. This woman cooks and freezes some food, and takes care of the laundry. Mostly, she just lazes about while the clothes dry, farts piercingly and smokes hand-rolled bidis. The hospital pays little, but Ayesha needs little. Friday is her day-off and she stays home, to experiment with new recipes, to read her Bengali books and to hum the hours away. She likes to sing, but I find Ayesha’s style unpolished, with none of the nuances and flourishes of an experi- 14 ARTS & LETTERS SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 | DHAKA TRIBUNE

Most of this I glean from her Saturday assistant. The lonely crone is full of frivolous talk. My charms, and the treats I buy her at the tea shop, unlock secrets enced artiste. Her family is a small one—the parents have retired to their village home in Rajshahi, and two elder brothers live in nearby cities. Ayesha is almost twenty-four, and is often pressed to marry. Concerned relatives regularly send messages praising this or that bachelor. But Ayesha shows no interest in meeting a man to share her days with. Most of this I glean from her Saturday assistant. The lonely crone is full of frivolous talk. My charms, and the treats I buy her at the tea shop, unlock secrets. This woman fits perfectly into this slatternly megalopolis; her hands are crude and square and they look as capable of murder as they are of washing the fragile garments of sweet Ayesha. I know this shrew well, as well as I know this city of my birth. This great labyrinth of men and beasts shrieks and groans in the night as its bones stretch, as new buildings swell and bridges collapse, as red dust fills the air, and as cement bags, glass slabs, and iron rods stifle the sounds of childbirth, of pedestrians run over by VVIPs, of bulldozers clearing shanty-towns and forests, of women trafficked and raped and of worried children that pray in square madrasas. And our gentle youths sit by nonplussed, only to blow smoke into the skies. All of this takes place as motors and politicians belch carbon at us, and as compromised soldiers take aim, as seasons disappear, as idols topple and burn and as generations are buried in peaty and foreign marshes on their way to seek employment abroad. In daylight, just as at night when the power cuts arrive, this colossus of a city groans under the weight of its own frame, and as bones turn to diamond under the crush they are mined and shipped away quietly. While some acquire furs, others hunt frogs and rodents and monitor-lizards. But there is no right or wrong side for me—we are all tormented by gnats and give chase to flashy flags, in this mad, striped merry-go-round, while behind us we hear the hiss and gurgle of a tidal surge assuming shape. In my own days, as a marketing mercenary, I shielded myself from the squalor. I made money for myself – an astute and ruthless tradesman, my returns were high. But then, just as I thought there was nothing left in this warren for me to learn, nothing left to beat or break, I found Ayesha. The first day I spied on her, she was waiting for a bus. Tender-footed rascals horded about her, but Ayesha was patient. A rock, she held them down like bits of flapping papers. In all her simplicity, she struck me in the gut with the undeniable realization that before me stood the last, unpolluted woman in this city. And I knew then that she must be mine. I have been watching her since, to measure my stratagem. It is a minor irritation to discern that there is a competitor for my attention. The buffoon, his name is Kamal. Though he works in the restaurant as a waiter, he has his petty aspirations: His brother owns the restaurant. Kamal has been working there for three years and his sister attends a boarding school in the village. She visits her two brothers over the summer and on holidays. I study Kamal as closely as I watch the lesions that increasingly break over my skin. I have heard that for three years now, rain or shine, this jester has been wooing Ayesha. He never looks at any other. While he has never missed a morning, he does not try to approach or speak to her. He just sticks to his laughing and clapping thing, oblivious to the world that slows down to observe the encounter. It is not unusual for Ayesha to peer shyly when pedestrians confront Kamal and demand that he cease harassing her. But he, this bizarre man, keeps laughing with delight and their objections melt away in the face of his absurd innocence. Local shopkeepers tell me that Ayesha knows his name, but never speaks of him. Residents in the quarter are well accustomed to the daily ceremony. Kamal never fails to plant himself in his spot, greeting everyone. The imbecile is well-liked by neighborhood regulars—laborers pause to address him, housewives procuring groceries chuckle on espying him, and elders sit down to adda with him. They commonly anticipate Ayesha’s arrival. Children of the mohallah patrol the road and shout to Kamal that no, she was not there, or yes, she’s on the way, she’s almost here. Ayesha knows most of these children by name. They follow her, but she eventual 15 DHAKA TRIBUNE | SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 ARTS & LETTERS

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