Grave the vision Venus sends – W.H.Auden
It was a fateful decision we took on that morning to make love. I slumped in ecstasy on her body, her chiffon magenta saree raised above for my convenience. But something wasn't right.
"You didn't come?"
She opened her shaded lids and smiled. "It's all right. I'll be late, Zafar."
"Give me a minute." I couldn't bear the thought of leaving Shanta unsatisfied. I slid down her gleaming white thighs, and buried my tongue deep inside. It began to fork up and down. And soon she was bucking under me and moaning. The final moment arrived. Her breasts were heaving through her brocade blouse and her mascara was tinged with tears. She smiled, contented.
Shanta looked at her watch and her eyes widened with horror.
"O my God, I'll be late! Get off me!"
She pulled on her undies, and rearranged her chiffon saree, her black and brown hair, her smoky eyes. She blew me a kiss through her magenta lipstick, and left the flat, clattering on her heels.
I loved lying naked on the bed after making love. I loved the sunlight on my body through the damask curtains; the chatter of magpies outside the window; the odour of her perfume pervading the bedroom; the taste of her lips or vagina….
It had been a perilous quickie. Obviously, she had been tense. She was on her way to a civil service viva voce. She wanted to be a public servant and give up her job as a journalist. She wanted to make a difference to the lawlessness in her country. I had remonstrated with her at first, but then decided to let her find out for herself. I chuckled…and must have fallen asleep.
Something woke me. The door bell. I must not have heard it at first above the murmur of the fan. It must have been Shanti, the daily. I hurriedly put on my pyjamas and opened the door.
A burst of perspiration greeted me at the door and I stepped hurriedly back, turning on the fan. She closed the door after her and fell at my feet, sobbing the way slum-women do. She reeked of the slum. I wondered fleetingly how Shanta could work in the same kitchen with her.
Shanti wore a blue, faded cotton saree and a white cotton blouse. She was thin, like a western film star, and did not conform to the Kamasutra ideal of a woman with "three folds across her middle". She must have been nearly as pretty as Shanta except toil had taken its toll.
She was blubbering incoherently but I gathered something had happened to her husband, Arab Ali. Arab Ali was a trishaw-puller and it seemed he had been stabbed in the belly when he refused to pay 'tax' to the local goon. These extortions were common and those least able to bear them had to pay. Rich businessmen paid protection money, too, but they could afford it. Crime was rampant and murder was rife in Bangladesh.
Fortunately, Arab Ali had not been killed but received a deep wound in his stomach. He had been taken by his confreres to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, a grim, hostile place. Fortunately, I knew one of the doctors there and called him on my mobile. He called back a few minutes later and said Arab Ali was being taken care of. If you didn't have connections in Bangladesh, you were lost, and the poor had no connections.
Shanti dried her tears, and hurriedly left, forgetting her chores. Oh well!
I reflected on how fortunate we were, Shanta and I! We lived in a guarded apartment building with an intercom and high walls between ourselves and the city. Strangers were not allowed up to the flat by the guards unless their identity was confirmed by either of us on the intercom. Fear obsessed us.
Shanta arrived, looking disconsolate, but magnificent. She slumped in the sofa, and dropped her black bag to the floor. Her gold bangles tinkled. I turned on the fan and the downward air flirted with her straight, below-shoulder hair.
"You missed the appointment," I suggested, taking her hand with the French-manicure.
"I missed the appointment," she repeated, nodding her head, raising her brows.
But she didn't seem unhappy. I waited. It had been my fault, so I said nothing.
"I'm glad I missed it, though."
I still waited.
"While I hung around, disappointed, I met an old friend. She is now a bureaucrat and soon we got talking about things. Then – you know what? – she looked around to make sure there was no one around, closed her door and said she was going to give me a scoop.
"'What kind of scoop'? I asked in a hushed voice.
"She told me to come tomorrow and mumbled something about the recruitment process – high tech, she called it. What do you make of that?"
I arched my mouth and shook my head. "No idea. But if it's another crime story, I'm sure you'll love reporting it." I was happy she wasn't going to be a bureaucrat, at least not this year.
"O Zafar, you know I'm tired of crime…."
"That reminds me. How could I forget? Shanti's husband has been stabbed."
I recounted the morning's events. The muezzin called the faithful from the minarets.
"Poor Arab Ali! How will he pull a rickshaw now? How will they survive? We must help them, Zafar!"
I nodded definitely.
"You know," she continued after a pause, "it was rather nice this morning."
I tasted pleasure and rose.
"Yes, it was, wasn't it?"
"Now that Shanti isn't here, we could do it again." When she smiled, her chin dimpled.
I felt long nails scratching my rising erection under the pajamas. She was about to kick off her heels when I suggested she keep them on.
"Kinky!" came the remark.
"You'll never guess what Adeeba showed me today, Zafar." She spoke in an awed voice unlike the cynical whine she had developed. I knew she should remain a journalist, but perhaps not a crime journalist. "She took me upstairs and the guards at first wouldn't let me in, but she used an expression – 'She's one of us' – and besides you know how powerful bureaucrats are.
"Upstairs, it was a huge theatre with red seats in a tiered semicircle facing a screen. I took a seat and Adeeba strapped a pair of headphones to my head. Then she disappeared, and the lights went off. I was scared for a bit. Then the pictures appeared. Some were slides, some were moving. I remember the pictures of poverty, guns, knives, the national flag, footage of our liberation war….It just went on and on for half an hour. Then the lights came on and Adeeba took me upstairs into the strangest room I have ever seen. It was packed wall to wall with monitors!"
I sat up in bed. "What?"
She was reclining on the rail headboard, talking at a rapid clip. She wore a black leather kameez, and matching jeggings. She had just come back from her 'scoop'.
"Yes! Only one of the monitors was lit and Adeeba told me that that was my monitor. She showed me a disk, and said that was mine as well. She inserted the disk and it showed a brain."
"That was yours, of course," I added. The fan whirred above, playing with her ponytail, and a woodpecker screeched outside. Meanwhile, Shanti was wiping the floor, squatting, and a faint odour of sweat and dirt rose.
"Yes, and there were many images, all numbered. Then she explained how it worked. If I didn't like an image, my insula lit up strongly; if I liked a picture, a part of my inferior frontal cortex lit up. She read my personality. I hated our political leaders, loved the poor, hated poverty and crime and many other things. She said I'd make a perfect – and this is the term she used – new bureaucrat."
"That makes sense," I said, thinking. I looked up at the fan. There was some dirt at the edges.
"What? Tell me."
"You know how I'm always going on about the bureaucracy being politicized…."
She was off the bed; she grabbed her bag and put on her heels and tapped her way out of the house.
"I'm off to the office," she shouted before shutting the door.
That was the last time I saw her alive.
She was on a trishaw with the hood pulled up in the afternoon on road number four in Dhanmandi when a black motorcycle pulled up in front of her. A man in a t-shirt, jeans and helmet got off, strode up to the trishaw, stabbed her left breast with the gun muzzle, fired once and drove away. The trishaw puller pedaled with the slumped body to the nearest hospital where doctors pronounced her dead.
My life collapsed. I took to drink. Every noon I climbed the carpeted, torn stairs, past the potted plant and the mysterious piles of wood and a ladder, to the first floor of Sakura, a bar, where I slumped into a banquette. I left at eleven-thirty. My belly was filled with whiskey, gin, brandy, beer, local and foreign, and my eyes with the cigarette smoke released from the mouth, nostrils and glowing points of cigarettes in ashtrays that clouded the TV screens playing at either end. Hindi song-and-dance routines flickered but nothing of the music or song was heard above the din of carousers. I never saw a single woman come to Sakura.
Arab Ali had been discharged and was eating only one meal a day. I bought him a battery-powered trishaw, a contraption they called an 'engine', so he wouldn't have to pedal, just steer. In this 'engine', he deposited me at Sakura at noon and picked up a less sober Zafar Shah at half-past-eleven. We wound our way through narrow lanes, with houses cheek by jowl, and an occasional moon or star or Venus revealed itself in the sky.
Arab Ali had grown even thinner. He had grey hair and beard, and looked considerably older than Shanti. She must have been his child bride. Arab Ali's fair complexion had long ago been browned by the sun, but he had a cheerful disposition, unlike his wife, for he was a devout person. He didn't mind my drinking, though; he knew why I drank.
The pair adopted me. I would frequently come home and throw up in the living room. Shanti would wake me at dawn, leaving her kids behind, and wipe the vomit from the floor and give me a fresh pair of pajamas. She would put me to bed, hoping I would rest and sleep till Arab Ali took me back to Sakura. While I would be in bed, she would feed me with her own hands.
"You must eat! How thin you've grown!" And she would sob.
I used to think the poor unfortunate: they had so much less. Now I knew they were more fortunate than me: they had someone to love, like Arab Ali and Shanti had each other.
Sakura became half my home. There everybody began to know me, though not about me. The locals had a horror of drinking neat. They would carefully beg my pardon and broach the subject.
"Isn't it bad for your health?"
"Fuck my health!"
"That is not good."
"You should mix it with water."
"Yes, the water will do its trick, and the booze will do its."
Apparently, there was a sort of division of labor between water and alcohol.
I got used to the group of intellectuals singing nationalist songs, the younger groups singing Hindi film songs, the popular songs of today and yesterday depending on the age of the singers, local songs, every form of swear word and abuse. But I was moved to silent tears only once.
It was evening and I had a glass of Chivas Regal in my hand. I was sitting with my elbows on one of the tables with cracked tiles, watching the screen, when an actress with black and brown hair shimmered past in her diaphanous clothing. For a moment, I thought I had seen Shanta. But the scene recurred over the days, and I was disabused.
"I'm not going to Sakura today, Arab Ali, so you can go home."
That day I had a shave and dressed decently again. I was going to see Mashfik Anam, Shanta's editor.
"You were the last person to see her alive."
I was sitting in a leather chair facing the great man who seemed to sink in the cavern if his sofa. Anam was a short, fair man with sleeked back hair and a curved nose that gave him a predatory look. The room was air-conditioned and I felt cold. Anam was wearing a jacket, striped shirt, black pants and brown Hush Puppies shoes.
"I was shocked," came the thin voice. "This is what the country has come to: you can shoot anyone in broad daylight and get away with it." He sounded genuinely grieved. "I called you a few times to offer my condolences and I came to your flat." I knew all that but I had resolutely ignored everyone.
"What did she come to see you about?" Would he tell the truth?
He seemed lost for a while, rose, and opened a cabinet of drinks. "Can I offer you something? It's not every day that a distinguished visitor graces my office."
"No, thanks. I don't drink."
He seemed hurt but returned to his sofa. "I can't recall what she came to me for. Routine, I suppose."
"Let me refresh your memory. She came to you with a scoop about brain-scanning to recruit bureaucrats."
He was silent for a while and worried a diary. I remained silent.
"Zafar, you know how the bureaucracy has become politicized under democracy." I knew that. "And the army and the elite and the students."
"What has all this got to do with Shanta's killing?"
"She… er… knew too much, I guess."
I drew a sharp breath. "You!"
"Wait, Zafar, listen to me. It's not just me… It's the deep state. They want to de-democratize the polity. They want to hire people loyal to the state only, not to one of the political parties. In Asia, no country has developed without a one-party system or military rule. The western donors won't allow us military rule, so this is the option we have chosen."
"But why kill Shanta?"
"She was going to publish the story online. It would have meant the end of Project Lucid. It was for the greatest good of the greatest number. You understand that, Zafar? Think of the millions who will be lifted out of poverty, think of the restoration of law and order, the end of the mafias… Think beyond yourself, for God's sake!"
I quickly thought of Shanti and her family. But Shanta overpowered all else.
"Join us," he nearly begged me. I could have sworn there were tears in his eyes.
"I'll see you in hell."
I stormed out of the office and on my way out I noticed that the stout secretary was talking rapidly on the phone.
I strolled down to road number four, thinking what to do, when I recalled that somewhere there Shanta had been murdered. The day was hot and humid and I was perspiring. An ineffective breeze cooled my body somewhat. The muezzin called the faithful from the minarets. His voice rose above the noise of cars, buses, trishaws and 'tempos' with screaming young 'helpers' calling for passengers. The smell of petrol filled the air and I seemed to taste fear.
I began to walk towards Green Road when I heard a motorcycle behind me. Before I could turn, a shot rang out and I felt my forehead burning. I ran. Then another shot. I ran into a pharmacy on Green Road.
A miracle occurred. A roar of people drowned all sounds. In a body men in lungis and trousers and vests and shirts rushed towards the motorbike. It tried to turn but was blocked by another posse from the other end. The two bodies descended on him like a cell devouring bacteria. The sound of a thousand fists and feet could be heard as faint thumps. The crowd was electrical energy.
Then the spot burst into flame. Somebody had lit kerosene. The smell was quickly accompanied by the odour of burning flesh. The motorbike driver now stood half-straight, in flames, and screamed.
I took a bus to the farthest north-east corner of Bangladesh: to the Jaintia Hills. I put up at the Jaintia Resort, where Shanta and I had once stayed. And it was in the same room eleven, on the first floor of the main building.
The hills of Indian Meghalaya extended east to west, green sloping turfs showing a pair of silver waterfalls above. The view seemed sadder, less scenic.
The hills were alternately covered with clouds, and then uncovered. – but one saw very little sunlight on them. The sky was overcast with altostratus opacus, which occasionally rained in light drops. At night, the bullfrogs would be vociferous, and no sooner did evening descend than the chorus of frogs began.
A cricket and the fan were the only sounds now, except for the occasional twitter of sparrows and the Indian cuckoo. The place wasn't hospitable to birds. At night, the temperature dropped considerably but in the afternoon it was warm, and the fan would suffice. On the whole, it was a cool place.
Beyond the compound, the land dropped and one could walk to the BANGLADESH LAST HOUSE – a makeshift, roofed, wood-and-bamboo machan on a pond. Beyond laid the green fields of no man's land between India and Bangladesh.
I could climb over the barbed-wire fence or go under it and then into India at the risk of being shot. If I were still alive, I would claim political asylum and I was sure the Indian government would be very interested in my story.
On the other hand, I could go back to Jaintiapur town and seek out a cybercafé. That way I could tell my story without running the risk of being shot by the border security force of India – a very trigger-happy lot.
Jaitiapur town is a town of one- and two-storey houses. It had once been Khasi territory and the Khasis practiced human sacrifice as a well-maintained relic testified. That had been the reason for British annexation. The thought occurred to me rather unpleasant now with my own neck in danger. Around the relic stood the mysterious megaliths, ignored by the townspeople. On my part, I was about to throw light on a major local mystery myself. Operation Lucid.
I found a cybercafé in a low one-storey building. The room was squeezed between a restaurant and a trishaw rank. The streets were not very noisy, for there weren't many motorized vehicles here. The air smelt of rain.
The cybercafé had only two computers and I had to wait for one to be free. No sooner had I logged on to my blog than there was a power failure.
"Damn!" Now I would have to wait several hours.
It was dark outside when the power came back on, and I was about to type my first words when I faltered.
Shanti or Shanta?