6 months ago

Arts & Letters, April 2018

Short story 16 ly shoos

Short story 16 ly shoos them away with sweets and cheap candies. These children, these midget match-makers, pose a threat to my success, and to my scheme of ridding Ayesha of her blustering devotee. I have tried to win the favor of these little savages, but they avoid me; it is apparent their loyalties have been won over before my arrival. In the evenings, after I visit my debtors, I return to her road. In the descending darkness, I shift my vantage point from the end of the street to from across the restaurant. In the twilight, I can watch undisturbed. I sip on tea, and smoke cigarettes with a newspaper folded on my knees. I blend in with the locals like a gecko, untouched by their chatter I wait for Ayesha. No one detects my raspy breathing and my irregular heartbeat. When she returns from work, Kamal is usually busy serving dinner. He cannot watch for her then, but if their eyes meet, he smiles before returning to work. She tries not to look into the restaurant but I have frequently spotted her doing so. It makes me furious to think that seeing him again could be a marker for the end of her day. I have observed and learned this over the months since I first unearthed Ayesha. Since the sky split open its gray to pour her colors at my feet. I know I am not a good man, but Ayesha will save me. She will prevent my end from meaninglessness. She will lend me grace and succor to the last day. When I gain her, I will empty out every bit of my pain, and like limp monsoon soils, she will take me into her bosom. In the twilight, I can watch undisturbed. I sip on tea, and smoke cigarettes with a newspaper folded on my knees. I blend in with the locals like a gecko, untouched by their chatter I wait for Ayesha These past months have been busy for me. Apart from winning over her housekeeper, I have visited Ayesha’s hospital on Fridays to speak to her colleagues. Assisted with an introduction from a corruptible receptionist, I have posed as a hospice inspector and discovered a great deal about Ayesha’s world, and things that Kamal cannot know … things that he cannot clap about. I have learned about the women Ayesha treats, the ones who have survived acid attacks. After hospital treatment, they move to shelters to engage in cottage industry – some sort of weaving or crafting. They stay out of the public eye as much as possible: Very few can deal with the stares. The staff that work there are resolute about progress; they have showed me a picture of a group of women who traveled abroad for surgery. The picture shows the patients after operations were done and bandages were removed, and they are smiling. But when I look beyond their scabbed and tentacled features to piece together their souls, I determine that they must be empty smiles. Surgery can do only so much in the absence of skin and bone. I know from the washerwoman that Ayesha has this same picture in her room. I have probed ingeniously into Ayesha, and they pronounce her a good worker with a flawless record. She is kind to the patients. They tell me how difficult it is when a survivor wants to know how she looks, and when they ask if the wounds are to heal. As the pathetic caretakers began to shed a tear, I turned away in disgust. But one nurse notices this, and maybe she has detected my sickness, but she grips my arm. In a voice almost possessed she tells me that, yes, there are victims upon victims abandoned by their families. I nod, feigning sympathy, but she will not let go. Speaking into my face, this runt of a woman then tells me about a husband who stayed with his young wife, though she had been blinded and scarcely had a human aspect to her remaining face. She recounts to me how the husband painted his wife’s fingernails. She says the man made his wife beautiful again, every single day. I pull my arm free, and take my leave of them. I notice the nurse still shaking as I leave, and I almost want to run back in and deal her a blow. I want to pull her down and leave her a wreck. Now that my research is complete, I have decided to make my move. Every morning, I let my presence be known to Ayesha. When she reaches my intersection, I am sure to engage her in conversation. I pretend to laugh the loudest, to make the most sense, and yet appear most considerate. My clothes are neat and my hair is parted impeccably. I buy appetizers for my foolish compatriots and quickly become a favorite in my own little corner. These are happy and new days for me. Though Ayesha notices me, she continues to walk modestly with her head down. However, I am sure I have detected her glance at me approvingly. Everything is perfect; all that remains is to rid ourselves of Kamal’s distractions. It is time. Days ago, I have experienced a disconcerting moment. While I am scrutinizing Kamal, he abruptly turns towards me from his spot at the restaurant. While he is quite at a distance, and though his idiotic smile stays in place, I can swear that his eyes fix on me and look right past my defense. It feels as if there is an internal shifting of liquids, a flickering of mental shadows that forebode danger. A shiver passes through me and I feel exposed and afraid. But this only lasts an instant, and as Kamal turns away, my confidence sweeps back. Ayesha will be mine. She is ready for my picking. My plan is simple. I know the school Kamal’s sister attends. I hire three men to visit her campus and harass her. There is no need for anything extreme, but they scare the pretty thing into calling for her city siblings. The news has reached the two brothers this morning. I take my stool at the intersection early on this great day. Gossipmongers have ensured that the news of the sister’s predicament is exaggerated. It is early and Ayesha is not expected yet. Word has buzzed down the street: Listen to the urchins cry out, “Kamal bhai, poor Kamal bhai. He must leave immediately, his sister is ill.” The neighborhood is humming with reports: Kamal’s elder brother will stay and run the business, while the fool will attend to the sister. See how the shutters on the restaurant front are half drawn, as if in mourning. And Kamal is nowhere to be seen, his spot outside remains empty. Ayesha must be stepping out from her flat now, and she must immediately know that something is wrong. There are no little faces peeping around the buildings to watch for her. The pests are sitting by the roadside, too dejected to hail her. Now, as she turns her corner and enters my line of vision, I can tell she walks in confusion. The locals are too troubled to meet her eye. The laborers swallow their glum bread, as even the tea-stall owner loses interest in stirring his syrups. Nobody acknowledges Ayesha as she approaches. See her amazement that the space outside the restaurant is bare. The clown is not there, a first in three years. She passes the restaurant, looks within and hesitates at the doorway, stumbling with indecision. Oh yes, Ayesha continues to amble her usual way. She walks slowly though, and no children chase her today. As she reaches my intersection, and the game is almost complete, she stops suddenly. She turns and strides back to the restaurant. I rise from my corner and run after her. I gain ground to find her at the entrance. Kamal is sitting at a table inside, his face buried in his hands. His shoulders slouched, his back is to us as he stares into the dust at his feet. He is unaware of us at the entryway and of the whole neighborhood that is watching. Before I can catch my breath, Ayesha enters and sits at Kamal’s table, facing him. Her face is gentler and more serene than I have ever seen; even gentler than when she is with her dear beggar-children. She puts her plain bag down and waits for his eyes to find her. I hear her speak, “What is it, Kamal? I am here … for you now …” And I know my work here is done. • ARTS & LETTERS SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 | DHAKA TRIBUNE

Personal essay Believe it or not •Shamsad Mortuza In 1997, I went to the US on a Fulbright scholarship. My monthly stipend was US $990, ten dollar shy of 1K, apparently to keep us below the poverty line to avoid federal tax (whoever has heard of rich scholars anyway). Having said that, the amount was decent enough for one family to live a modest life in a campus town in the American Southwest. Before being dispatched to our respective institutions, we had our Fulbright orientation at the University of Pennsylvania where we were given many practical tips including how to search for an apartment; how to avoid dodgy areas; how to get discount coupons; how to get cheap, used items from flea markets, yard sales or thrift stores; and of course how to open a bank account. We were told that it was usually better to add additional income in order to improve chances of getting credit cards. After a month-long practical and cultural appetizers in Philly’s best university, it was my turn to start my main course in Tucson, Arizona. I just had a few dollars given to me by the US Embassy in my pocket, and the initial check for settling in with which I was supposed to open my bank account. As prescribed during the orientation, I went to the International Students’ Office at the University of Arizona for getting suggestions about a student friendly local bank. I was referred to Saguaro Bank, named after the tall stretched-armed cacti for which Arizona is well known. At the bank I took a coupon and waited for my turn for a service manager to attend me. A lady officer came up, and we lounged in a cozy corner where she gave me a form to fill in. This was the pre-Trump, pre-9/11 American South, when we were addressed as “Hon” (honey). I tried to impress the busy bee bank manager by mentioning my salary at Jahangirnagar University as I was at that time on paid study leave from my alma mater. I wrote $100 as my “other” income. Yes my monthly basic salary as a First Class service-holder was Tk 4,700. With my house rent and medical allowances, the gross monthly salary was Tk 6,000, roughly corresponding to $100. She didn’t need to know that I would only get my basics during my leave, did she? The manager looked at the figure and thought I had got it all wrong. “Is this your weekly salary?” “No, monthly.” She had her jaw dropped. She just put her pen down, leaned back in the couch and looked at me. “How much is your house rent?” She had surely forgotten all subtlety in her blunt pursuit of understanding how I could survive on such a paltry salary. “Well, I live with my family. So, the rent is shared.” I could not tell her the rent of our Shidheswari Apartment was Tk 6,000 at that time. “How much is a loaf of bread?” Her curiosity continued. “10 cents. I guess.” “How much is a gallon of milk?” “We don’t drink milk!” She must have thought we have milk and flakes, bread and jam as breakfast. Not her fault that she was located in a desert with little news of the outside world. I started regretting filling in the gap. The snake-like dollar sign hissed through the gap between the First World and the Third World, and I could feel its venom. I didn’t tell her that I had left behind a five-month old daughter. The sweet caring manager would have been worried to think about me not being able to buy jar food or diapers for my daughter, let alone buying health and education insurances. DHAKA TRIBUNE | SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 ARTS & LETTERS When Arshi and Ela joined me in Arizona *** Fast forward twenty one years. I was telling my daughter about this experience. She looked at me in utter disbelief. “6,000 Tk? Isn’t that what we pay our bua now?” “Yes.” “How did you manage then?” “Well we both worked – your ma and I. And I was an idealist who would not teach elsewhere to supplement my income. Six days a week, sixteen classes every week.” She kept quiet. “Is that why you used to give me Happy Meal once a week when we were in London.” “Yes. And we hardly ever bought a Mac Meal for us. It was usually two 99p cheeseburgers, one shared coke for the king and the queen, and one 1.99 happy meal for the princess!” The snake-like dollar sign hissed through the gap between the First World and the Third World “But we lived in a decent house …” “Yes, the government paid for the house rent to the landlord, but your ma’s salary as a diplomat was barely enough to sustain all of us. They call London as hardship posting as it’s very expensive.” “The government salary has gone up only in recent years. You are so attached to the country’s progress that you hardly get to realize that you have made one. We never made you feel the hardship just like our parents never let us feel it. That’s what makes our culture so beautiful. We take care of one another,” I continued. *** Arshi had texted me. She was famished, and wanted me to bring her some food. I ordered for a family size large pizza as there was a “buy one get one free” promotion and lasagne to go. I looked at the bill and realized how sometimes we take things for granted. We are so close to reality that we don’t often see it. The country has made great progress. One can argue that we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. I have moved on, because the country has moved on. We have moved on, because the country has moved on. Congratulations Bangladesh on your graduation to the developing country club! Yes, we better believe it! • PHOTO: COURTESY Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English (on leave), University of Dhaka. Currently he is the Head of the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. 17

Fast Lane Biker April 2018
March - April 2013 - Arts and Education Council