The note reads nakedly: No one is to blame for my action. You leave it sprawled on the table next to the empty coffee cup, put your rimless glasses over it.
You are all set.
Your wife may not figure out the reason for this action. You made love the night before, after the child had fallen asleep. You looked fine, familiar. She lay holding you awhile. Her head on your chest, her glowing smile, her refreshed satisfaction. You kissed her, said you loved her.
Love you, she whispered, releasing a warm breath of air that blew your chest hair. Her arms loosened, her body slipped back into her cotton nightie.
You drew the window curtains open for the monsoon breeze. Fading rays of light smuggled themselves in. The neighbour’s late sleeper television flickered pictures of an Indian Bangla drama series. The housewife’s nude bra on their balcony railing, among other dangling, drying clothes, draped confusedly. From your balcony to theirs the distance is nine or ten arms. Words above normal speaking volume can be easily caught between the flats. Any eavesdropper could make out the sound of lovemaking, for sure.
In Dhaka, buildings butt against each other, breathe out sticky, sultry air. You don’t complain. You only nag when it comes to disruptions curtailing your reading time. One book a week — the habit you have developed since puberty. If anything, say the little one’s sickness or any unpredictable matters, upsets your routine, exasperation smears across your face.
You are a bizarre breed, your wife thinks. The summer before, a relative of hers brought you a Certina watch from London. You tittered, asking her what to do with the gift. You do not wear a watch. Buying you some books instead would have been useful. You always need books.
What’s the point of your reading? your wife asked. What does it achieve anyway?
An absurd question, like Why were we born? you replied. Reading gives me life. My brain food.
Your brain food! It’s madness. You don’t socialise. You don’t talk much. Can’t you see your reading makes you worse, unfit for society?
Society? What society? You mean all those stupid people?
She would explode. If there’s no use for book knowledge in daily life, and it makes the people around you unhappy, then it is rubbish. Who do you think you are? All people are stupid and you are the only Socrates?
I’m not saying that. But I’m…
Whew! Lazy, self-absorbed bookworm!
Your wife works for a bank. Hard work ten to six o’clock has her earning twice what your journalism job pays. Plus, she receives incentives, annual raises and all-purpose loans whenever she wants. You? Nothing. But you have no headache about it. Had your journalism job not involved reading and writing, you would have happily sat on your unemployed ass. Reading. Feeding your brain.
As for household chores, you barely lend a hand in cooking and take no part in cleaning. Pointless waste of time — your catchphrase.
When she proposed buying this flat, you were against it. She went ahead without your involvement. A year later, she grew overburdened with the mortgage and increasing expenses.
I warned you, you reminded her. Not to go for a property. We could spend freely when we were renting.
Yeah, she said. At least at the end of the day, I own a flat.
Nope. At the end of the day, you own nothing. Because at the end of the day, you’re going down there. In the grave.
We are all going down there. Stop talking nonsense.
Nonsense? It’s a serious matter to muse on.
She noticed, over the years, how the number of your friends decreased. You said being with them was worse than being alone. They only discussed foolish matters, both worldly and godly. It nauseated you.
Pointless, pointless, she said. Everything’s pointless to you. I’m sick of your bullshit. Tell me one single thing that is meaningful to you.
Honestly? There’s nothing I find…
She cocked her head. What an intellectual asshole! she must have thought. The phrasing fermented in her dilated pupils. You could see it.
On the weekends, you creep off to hike a nearby, solitary lowland. Crossing deadly, dusty streets, treading spit-spattered sidewalks, avoiding ammoniac corners of urination; when you finally hit the soft earth a new universe opens up to you. As you sail through the place you smell the air awash with cow dung and green grass and warm smoke from cooking fires. Soon, all over, all around, you can see separate skies behind skies, your view not choked with swelling urban erections. You sink into the space which is alive with silence and sound, musical noise and noiselessness of its own.
Every June a group of nomadic snake charmers settle beside the homeless dwelling there. Your wife despises snakes. One Saturday you spoke about their migratory life to her, eschewing the exuberant snake show you had seen.
Every family, you said, lives in a makeshift shelter. With children. With kitchenware. They take no trouble buying or renting a house. Year after year under this squat ceiling they live. Have sex. Have babies. And life goes on.
You call that a life? Your wife rolled her eyes. Living like stray cats and dogs?
What is a life, what is not—who can define it?
You did not tell her that they had one toilet for a group of thirty or so. A roofless setup, wrapped around with a long piece of black cloth. When a woman popped into it, with a lotta of water, you could see her undo her dress before squatting down. You wondered how those women kept clean during their menstruation. Or when it rained nonstop for two, three days, how the families weren’t soaked sleeping on the ground.
You also did not tell her that you love that place, and had inquired of one charmer as to whether they sold venom. The man’s dark gypsy eyes, inspecting you from head to feet, asked why you needed it. To save a life, you murmured.
That night you’d become a snake charmer in your sleep, playing to a crowd. The following night your professional hands were defanging a cobra. It was easy. Natural. A two-finger job. You cut the venom glands too. Then, releasing the snake, you ducked into a makeshift bed and began copulating. All in the open! Gosh, it was your brother’s girlfriend, who you were fascinated with many moons ago.
Your brother, four years older than you, had been studying medicine. His body was found hanging in his room. The room suffocated by books, certificates, medals, and trophies that echoed his talents. He ended his life leaving no note.
Dead for thirteen years, your brother still enjoys his legacy, even from his grave. Your parents daily invest a good amount of time reminiscing about his genius. How he won this, how he won that. A veritable Einstein, outperforming all others. School. Double promotion. Medical college. Full scholarship and top of his class.
After his suicide, your parents pointed the finger at a couple of girls from his college. But you knew the accusations were baseless. You had always seen it was the girls who were serious, not your brother. He was more interested in those who didn’t fall for him. He loved challenges.
It was a poem that melted your wife’s heart. Twilight, years ago at the university. A group of friends sitting in the courtyard, asking you to recite something. You shied away at first, then consented. Aat Bochor Ager Ekdin by Jibanananda Das. One Day Eight Years Ago. From your memory it came alive. A celebrated poem about a man, a happy man, married with a child, who hanged himself for no apparent reason.
Days later her path crossed yours.
Hello, she greeted you.
You must recite that poem again for me.
You smiled. Why?
Because I loved it. And… She paused, held your gaze. Your voice makes the words your own.
You strolled towards the library’s back garden, for a quiet spot. Somewhere a cuckoo was calling for a mate, mad and passionate.
Do you know how Jibanananda Das died?
Her head shook.
Tram accident. But some claim it was suicide.
I like his Abar Ashibo Phire poem. I will come back again to Bengal, to this Dhansiri riverside.
I Will Come Back Again was in the high school textbook. The poet wrote it in the 1930s. You wondered how he had foreseen that India would fall apart. That India would be partitioned on the grounds of circumcision. That he would have to leave his land of birth, this Bengal, just because he was uncircumcised, a Hindu.
The two of you sat on the grass, under a Krishnachura tree burning red with the flames of the flowers in full bloom. The afternoon air was fragrant. You began, let the poem flow, as a shepherd would play his flute:
It was heard
To the morgue he had been taken
Last night—in the Falgoon darkness
When the five-night-old moon had sunk…
The cuckoo’s calling played as background music. She was owl-staring at you. Her dark chocolate pupils reflected your image. Her ebony hair lolled down, becoming a seagull’s wing, fondling the side of her forehead. Beads of glittery sweat swarmed on her upper lip. The shimmering sunlight brushed her handsome heron neck, her comely collarbone.
You scented a tantalised, dazzled woman before you, willing to be wooed.
From that day, and for many a day until the last of your post graduation days you were together. Then the two of you intertwined in a till death do us part lock.
A tiny part of you had fancied having a Sartre-Simon de Beauvoir relationship. No marriage. No children. No house sharing. But this was un-Quranic, unacceptable in your country. ‘I hope you find a good husband’ is what girls are blessed with from an early age. The purpose of a woman’s soul is to get a good jamai. A perfect partner. They believe it is a truth universally acknowledged.
After marriage you shared a dream with your wife. A dream of living on a farm. A farm where chickens, ducks, rabbits and goats wander around. Where you grow vegetables, live green, eat fresh. Not dreading about ingesting food rich in pesticides. Expensive city food, luxurious city diseases. Shanti! Shanti! How much does a soul need to be joyful?
One doesn’t require a masters to run a farm, she said with a laugh. Education is meant to move you forward. Not backward.
Glancing away from her favourite Hindi soap opera, she added, A city has all the best to offer you. That’s why people are here.
Yes, all the best, you say to yourself. All the cream and crackers. Ice-creams. Fried chicken. Big burger. Big pizza. Coca-Cola.
Sometimes you stammer. It occurs, occasionally, when talking with strangers. As you speak their puzzling eyes squint. Often, at a kiosk, you struggle to utter the thing you want, and watch the vendor serve others while ignoring you. You do not react. At restaurants, you let your wife study the menu and order. Unheard by her. Invisible to the waiter.
A bunch of times you tried to excite your wife with a fresh idea. What about migrating to Australia or Canada? ‘Making connections’ has become the art of survival in your country. And here you must have a bossy voice and attitude that can get things done. You don’t have that. Never had. You are a better listener than a speaker.
Escapism sucks, your wife remarked. She has a nice banking career. Why should she take pains to move? If you do all the work, send out applications, get accepted, she will gladly join you. But, the reality is you do not qualify for jobs abroad. Australia or Canada are in no need of journalists.
Some days you do not read newspapers. You can smell the shit of the headlines from the chattering around you: Bangladeshi deposits in Swiss banks soar. Professor jailed for Facebook rant on PM. Hindu temple vandalised. Minor girl raped and killed. Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings rise. Atheist blogger hacked to death…
Every once in a while, after work, you don’t take public transport. Rather than sweating in the cave of a crammed bus, you walk, outmarch the snail-paced honking traffic. The smoggy, blaring city buzzes. People rush like ants. In the midst of them you feel you are floating, fleshless as a soul for a thousand years.
The air is soupy. Your handkerchief mops your face. A woman in black burqa steps past. A twentyish boy prepares to empty his bladder. Standing alongside a tree, on the pavement, he disregards the walkers behind him. He keeps pissing and spitting. Once over, he jerks his nunu to not defile himself.
In the first year of your marriage, the child was born. A week later you lost your job. The newspaper cut half of its staff without notice. A bad practice in this country. Every new parliament impregnates the media with revolutionary promises of change. News outlets breed like rats. They lure journalists with fat pay cheques. A few years go by, everything becomes peaceful, subscriptions fall, outlets falter. Pay becomes irregular. Staff are laid off.
Your wife carries a scrap of cloth in her purse. The cloth, blood-doused from a sacrificial sheep, was flown in from Saudi Arabia. A gift from her auntie. One never runs out of money if it is kept, she said. You jested about this mumbo jumbo. Your wife listened, but the vein on her forehead bobbed up. Luck will not favour your life, she announced, as certain as she is of God’s existence. Twice you missed the BBC job. Junior boys from your university days getting American fellowships. Or grabbing big posts with television channels. And you? Rolling in the deep.
At times your parents fuss. Switch to another profession, they say. To some money-making business. Since you have a kid now. And the monthly amount you give them is too meagre to manage on. Their hair is already grey. How long should they wait to enjoy a happy, wealthy life? Hadn’t they made enough sacrifices raising you? When are they supposed to get their return?
They sigh. Had your older brother not died, they wouldn’t have had to fall on hard times. A premier doctor. A magnificent income. They sigh again.
They always sigh. For the death of their gifted son. For their treasured desire to perform hajj. Every year they tell you stories about relatives’ and neighbours’ sons who have sent their parents to Mecca. Often they tell you about the youths of their village who have no education at all but make their fortune in the Middle East. Send their earnings home to build brand new houses.
They sigh again. And again. And again.
From their heavier sighs you catch the hint they drop. You ought to be ashamed because your wife makes more than you. Money is everything. No penny, no dignity, your father warns you with a Solomonic expression.
Indignation wells up, ripples over your tightening face. But you keep quiet. Your begetter is a man who doesn’t like to be questioned. All through your life you have hardly exchanged even necessary words. If you need to have a longer talk, you have your mum for that.
A memory of him resurrects. You were six and a first grade student. Having written down the country’s name, ‘Bangladash’, he ordered you to copy it ten times. Unfortunately, you knew the spelling: ‘dash’ should be ‘desh’. You told him. He checked. Then the flat of his hand touched your cheek. For a five full minutes you heard crickets shrieking in your ear.
After your school finals, you joined a theatre group. It vexed him. Those things are not for us, he declared and had you abort your stage delight. Look at your brother, he’s going to be a doctor. A doctor! he repeated. He advised you to prepare yourself to go into engineering.
It is a white-hot Friday. You drink coffee and think of those days. Your wife set off for her mother’s home with the child. They will stay overnight and come back tomorrow evening. She asked you to join her. You concocted a story about needing to work on a report. Eat. Sleep. Small talk praising the hospitality of the in-laws. Eat some more. Sleep again. What else was there to do? You wouldn’t have a free moment to read. Your child won’t let you read. So you stayed.
You put them in a taxi and hurried home. On your way back, you ran into your next-door neighbour. His face emerged as the lift doors opened. He informed you his running shoes had been stolen. They were by the gate, as usual, and he was going out for his morning walk, as usual, but found the shoes were gone. He said the shoes came from his brother-in-law, a general, who had brought them from New York.
Very expensive, brother, he said. You know what the tastes of generals are like. They always go for the best.
Sure I know, you assured him. Everybody in this building is aware his brother-in-law is a general in the army, and is close to the premier, and has a very good chance to be picked as the next army chief.
He spoke in a moronic, meandering style as if the day consisted of 365 hours. He suspected that some crooked visitor or maidservant may have lifted his soft, lavish, brand-new shoes. He began bleating about the building security.
Oh, shut the fuck up, you wanted to yell at him, but you are too polite. This oldie man and his oldie woman are problem residents in this building. The moment you meet them, they hijack half an hour of your life. The security guard has no manners, never greets them. The cleaner does a bad job, never mops the common space. And they never forget to mention the critical condition of their health. Heart failing. Diabetes up. Kidneys down. Back pain. Knee pain. Living pain. Dying pain.
Every time you hear about their ill health, you fake sympathy. But deep inside you really want them to die. What’s the point of living any more with this ailing health? Better to check out, lie flat in peace and let the world be rid of you, your thoughts hiccup to talk straight. Their bodies are nests of diseases. They swallow handfuls of medicines like food. After all this, how do they have an appetite for life? Give up the ghost. Go into the earth. Who cares?
People feign wonderfully at funerals, you have seen. Their lips smack. Tongues cluck. Words race to describe how amazing the departed was. They sigh, rhythmically, as loudly as they can to bare their saturated hearts. But a moment later, they engage in everyday mirth — feasting and laughing, laughing and feasting.
The day your brother killed himself, the whole neighbourhood broke into your house. They wanted to get a glimpse. They were adamant. Your house became a theatre, your brother a free show. Later you heard that an old woman had come to collect a tiny piece from the hanging rope. It could heal asthma, she believed. She pleaded with the maid but had to leave without hope.
Looking back, you wonder what your funeral will be like. Honestly, you don’t want one. Not any sort. You will finish your life and that’ll be the end of it. If possible, you would also like your body to be cremated. Extinguished. Burnt to ashes. You know neither of your preferences will be taken into consideration.
The other day the street-sweeper woman asked for money to help marry off her daughter. She was a widow and raised her offspring alone. The folks in this building gave her some notes. Fifties and hundreds. You offered nothing. You do not believe in sawab, the religious reward gained from this kind of help. Get your daughter a job instead, in a garment factory, you encouraged the sweeper woman. That’s more important than marriage.
The woman, thin as a street-pole, looked at you speechless. And from her sunken cheeks you sketched her whole life in seconds. Marriage at twelve or thirteen, childbirth at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and onward… and the death of her husband at eighteen. Then she stopped being fruitful, stopped multiplying. Started to work to feed the mouths she’d borne. Here you ceased sketching, left at once. Thoughts flooded in: Why do people work hard, raise children, run around? What for? They know they will die. But they live as if they will never perish.
The winter of 2013, your parents christened you pashan, a cold-fish. Why? They ached to buy your brother’s burial plot. You gave no monetary help. Let’s set up a small library in his memory, you offered. What good books can do for a dying soul? Their jaws dropped, eyes goggling at you. How about setting up a mosque or madrassa in the village, they suggested, so that peoples’ prayers will land him straight in jannat. The image of your brother, swimming across the river of honey and wine in heaven, twinkled in their eyes.
Fab bastard, your brother was a Romeo. When it came to dating or stealing a heart he was second only to Don Juan. Several times you saw him making wagers with his friends that he could seduce any gal, any lassie, any woman. He never lost. At least you had never heard of any such case.
At medical college once, your brother got the chance to observe the autopsy of a famous film actress. Afterwards he made up his mind to specialise in forensic medicine. That is dreadfully interesting, he said. Post-mortem examination is fun. But later it crucified his enthusiasm. He said sometimes doctors’ hands are tied. Under pressure from authorities, they have to change the forensic report…
For a long time, there was this shadow of you who wanted to be like your brother. The shadow dogged him, copied him, loved and envied him.
Why did he take his life? You have long been wondering.
Now, as you are going to take yours, you are certain that when you die, you will die forever. At best, there will be a paltry legacy that will fade quickly. In fifth grade, you got 100 out of 100 in math. You once won a prize for reciting a poem. And a couple years back, a friend approached you to record your recitation of One Day Eight Years Ago. You agreed. It is now available online.
So once you are dead, you are dead. Dead to the universe. Only your voice will exist.
You have finished your coffee. You look at the dining room cabinet, at the framed photograph. In the photo, the child is in the middle, you and your wife holding her hands on either side. Moments from Cox’s Bazaar Beach. From your last vacation. Behind three smiling faces are the boundless sky and the bottomless sea. They meet in the horizon. You cannot tell them apart. You hear your three-year-old daughter’s singsong: Baba, sea, sea, sea… She liked the soft sandy world, the wild waves, the melodic waters.
You turn and walk slowly into the bedroom.
The rope is already tied to the ceiling fan. You place the chair on your bed. Put the noose around your neck. You close your eyes and imagine… You imagine that you are on a farm… Alone. Humans are not allowed here. For they are the worst of all beasts. You see two baby goats suckling their mother’s udder. The kids’ tails are wagging. Warm. Happy… You see a hen. Chirping chicks scurry behind her… You see a duck and her ducklings swimming in the pond… How beautiful! What a wonderful world! The spirit of life is dancing as ever. You take a long, peaceful breath. And jump.