AT SHAHPARI ISLAND
The rains cooled the hills and the trees. Steam rose from the hills. It lay like clouds on and between the hills on both sides, in Bangladesh and in Burma. The fireflies disappeared. But the frogs arrived. Every night the frogs took up some forgotten chorus that resounded from the hills. They sounded prodigious, as though they were donkeys braying.
The full moon lit up the beach at Shahpari Island. This furthest southward extremity of Bangladesh was not an island anymore. Somehow the misnomer had stuck, and partly perhaps because it conveyed all the advantages of an island. On the western side lay the Bay of Bengal; a few kilometres to the east, the Naf and Burma. Faria took me for a nocturnal tour.
Boxes lay on the beach. Some had been opened. A few guns gleamed on the sand. This was half the merchandise. Engine boats were coming in from the Bay, carrying boxes from a ship anchored in deep sea. The fishing village behind us was asleep. The wind beat against our clothes and our umbrellas; it played like a stick against our eardrums. It was drizzling.
A 4-wheel drive drew up behind where we stood. I recognised Lalu Mia. Several suitcases were placed side by side. Lalu Mia opened one: it contained bags of heroin.
"The heroin from Burma will be exchanged for the guns and ammunition." Faria had to raise her voice above the whistling wind and the waves that pounded the shore. "Uncle Navid takes a percentage from both sides for arranging the transaction."
She called him 'Uncle', which I found reassuring. My first impression had been that she was his mole. Apparently, they had a filial relationship. I was to find out why.
"It is the perfect spot in the world. Teknaf. No one knows Uncle Navid exists. Teknaf is such an unimportant part of the world. Here he operates on a global scale without attracting the attention of the CIA, Interpol, anyone. We train divers here. They go out to ships in the Bay or further down in these boats and board ships and blow them up. Or sometimes they take the crew as hostage, demanding money. All this water is ours."
There was a touch of pride in her voice. I looked at her. She wore a black kameez and a white tie-dyed shalwar. In the moonlight, she looked like a sylph. The wind blew her umbrella out of her hands and I ran to fetch it.
All the suitcases had been checked, and the last boatload of guns had arrived. Another jeep pulled up behind us. It was Navid and the General. Lalu Mia ran up to the General and salaamed. A man in military fatigues descended from the other vehicle. Navid and he exchanged a few pleasantries - in a language I did not understand - and laughed.
"Who is he? He looks Burmese."
"I can't tell you his name - Uncle doesn't tell me everything. But I know he's one of the rebel leaders in Burma. His people grow heroin so they can have the guns."
"Tell me, Faria. Why does Navid do all this?"
She looked at me, quite startled. "But he told you the first day. To destroy the enslaver."
By then I had got used to their jargon.
"But I don't buy it, Faria. There's something else at stake here. Something doesn't feel right."
Faria had gone as pale as the light on the beach. My God, what a beautiful place it was! If only these people, Navid and his gang, weren't there! Only Faria and myself. On this beach. In this moonlight. Strolling together up and down, leaving our footprints for the high tide to wash away. I heard the sea moan like an impatient spirit. My spirit.
"Must you know everything, Zafar?"
On a signal from the rebel leader, 'soldiers' hidden in the shadow of the waving coconut palms emerged and ran towards the beach. They were joined by Lalu Mia, Navid and the General. Lalu Mia carried two umbrellas. The rebel leader inspected every box while his subordinate counted every gun. There were six suitcases and fourteen boxes. Four of the suitcases were placed in a boat that was heaving against the waves. One by one the eleven boxes were dragged up to the jeeps. The jeeps made five trips to the Naf. The Burmese soldiers disappeared in the direction of Burma. The engine of the boat started and Lalu Mia swung over the side. He was taking the pay-off to the ship. I tried to look for the ship's lights, but even with the moon full above our heads I could make out nothing. Lalu Mia waved and the boat set off. The boxes of guns lay on the white sand, along with the suitcases. These were the intermediary's cut.
"What will he do with them?"
"Sell them for hard currency in the international market."
"What will he do with the money?"
"Assist fighters throughout the world."
"He doesn't do any of his own fighting?"
"He does. Remember the ships we blow up? They're quite beautiful to watch. When there's no moon, and you stand here, looking out into the sea, suddenly" - she made a circular movement with her hands - "the darkness would become pink with flames far away. We hope to merge our operations with those of others in Southeast Asia. We will bring shipping to a standstill."
Navid and the General got into the jeep; the operation was over. We mounted the other 4-wheel drive.
"What happens to the suitcases and the boxes?"
"They'll be kept safe. These jeeps will come back after taking us home and pick up the merchandise."
'Home' didn't quite sound right after everything I'd seen and heard. I must admit that I am an armchair philosopher, incapable of action, even vicarious action. I could not fault Navid for doing these things -- somebody had to -- but I couldn't ever imagine myself doing them. Navid had sensed that, and he had provided me with a library and had sworn to get me any book I wanted. Books, rifles and heroin. Quite a combination.
Behind the bungalow lies a footpath trodden by Navid in his reflective hours. Faria and I would go for walks along the path, and sit in the shade of some giant shegun tree with roots that looked like the stubborn claws of some ossified monster. It was on one of these walks in the evening that she told me the whole story.
Years ago, a young boy had come from the north to Teknaf to earn a living. He used to carry ice for the tenders that brought in fish from Burmese vessels. It was a hard life, and there were days when he didn't have enough to eat. Charismatic as he was, he found favour with the man who controlled the ghat. He became one of his collectors. He was probably a ruthless young man: Faria finessed that part of the story. At any rate, he rose through the informal ranks until he was Number 2. When Number 1 died, he naturally took over the ghat.
He married a girl from the north, somebody not associated with Teknaf and his ugly profession. When their first baby - a girl - was born, the mother died. That girl, Zahida, became the centre of his life. As soon as she could talk, he packed her off to Dhaka to attend a good school. She rarely came to Teknaf. Every weekend he went down to Dhaka and spent a day with his daughter. She never found out what he did for a living.
He bought a house for her. He sent her to the best schools. He even toyed with the idea of going into legitimate business.
This was where the General came in. It was 1990, and the Berlin Wall had collapsed. The donors refused to prop him up anymore. I remembered at the time I had predicted chaos, but I wish I had been less prescient. Zahida was eleven at the time.
Six years later, when Zahida had finished the first stage of her education, her beauty began to attract the attention of some young boys. She didn't say anything to her father. She was returning home one evening with friends when the boys kidnapped her. They were ruling party boys, so the police would say nothing. They raped her for days, and finally murdered her and dumped her body in the verandah of her house. Sheikh Navid Khan nearly went insane. The only thought that saved him was the thought of revenge.
Since the story had been in the newspapers, and the suspects had been named - and, as usual in such cases - never arrested, he knew who to look for. With the overlap between the underworld and the political world that had taken place under democratic rule, it was a cinch finding the boys. He murdered them personally.
That would probably have been the end of the affair. However, his intellect intervened. He kept asking, Why? Why? Why did the boys kill her? Because they could get away with it. They had raped and killed many times before with perfect impunity. Why did they get away with it every time? Because the party protected them. Why did the party protect them? Because they were vote-banks, they took to the streets, they brought down governments. They were student leaders. He realised then that the system was flawed. But with his scanty resources he couldn't rise above these insights.
He began to teach himself. He studied English until he was perfectly fluent. He began to read. He made himself intimately familiar with international affairs. He studied history. He studied philosophy. All the agony of a lone parent who had lost his only child in a brutal episode motivated him. And then he stumbled on my writings, and everything, he claimed, became clear.
The real enemy was the west.
For years he could not look at a white man without wanting to kill him. He thought of going to Afghanistan or Iraq to fight the white man. And then he realised what an asset he had right here, in Teknaf. There was the river, Burma, and the sea. He began to study sea-routes, and appreciated the importance of the route he could control. Of course, to be successful in everything, he had to have a state of anarchy in Bangladesh. Democratic rule would ensure that the country remained lawless. And he had to maintain anonymity. He installed loyal men in key positions he controlled: and then he pretended to be going abroad. Nobody had seen him in daylight for years at Teknaf. He made those imagined trips to Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Indonesia, the Philippines... He had a legitimate business in Dhaka which acted as a front for his real activities. He fought to avenge Zahida.
Faria grew quiet. The sun began to descend on the Bangladeshi hills. It was raining over the Burmese hills in the northeast. That region of the sky was dark with clouds and a silver curtain of rain hung above the hills.
Faria looked down at the grass.
"You must be wondering where I fit in in all this."
I stayed silent.
"On those rare occasions that Zahida came down to Teknaf, she would play with me. I used to go to school, and I would write to her when she was away. I even visited her in Dhaka several times." She looked at me with challenging eyes. "I was the daughter of a prostitute, and a prostitute myself for some time. Then Zahida died and Uncle Navid took me away to grow up with him. My mother was only too happy to let me live with him. So you see, Zafar sahib, my station is way beneath yours...." She broke into sobs and ran towards the bungalow.
I didn't stop her. I watched the king crows hunt for insects for a while; the sky darkened and the place became gloomy; I walked in with heavy footsteps.
AT COX'S BAZAAR
The next afternoon, I knocked on her door, not having seen her the whole day.
"Let's go for a drive."
"To Cox's Bazaar."
She looked at her watch. "It'll be night before we get back."
"Are you afraid of the dark?"
She smiled despite herself.
"Let me change."
She changed into a black kameez printed with tiny, white leaves and a zebra-striped shalwar with matching dupatta. She wore her hair loose. She looked beautiful as she drove and the wind lifted her hair.
A rainbow hung over the Burmese hills on our right. The paddy was green on either side. Men carried the paddy in sheaves on both ends of a pole slung over their shoulders. The poles danced as they moved.
The highway was winding and undulating. Acacias had been planted on either side. Sal forests appeared towards the end. Sometimes, rain-trees formed an arch over the road, creating an avenue of trees bending their branches together like the palms of a hundred hands. We moved over hills and down hills. The hills were on either side, green and wooded. It was a beautiful stretch of highway - perhaps the best in the country. The scenery was not so varied as to interrupt the stream of one's thoughts, nor so uniform as to lull one into a stupor.
The border patrol stopped the car twice. A uniformed soldier inspected the vehicle -- in the boot, under the seats -- but otherwise left us alone.
We passed though Neela, Ukhia and Ramu.
Finally, to our left were the hotels of Cox's Bazaar, now touristless; the tourist season was still a month or so away. To our right towered a hill: the lighthouse at the top signaled to ships in the Bay. A low moon had risen.
"What's that light?" asked Faria.
Above the hill, against the darkening sky, a fire rose upwards.
"That's a paper balloon. That's where we are headed."
We climbed the hill to the Buddhist monastery.
"I've never been here!" she exclaimed as she took off her shoes to enter the compound.
"On this day of the full moon, the Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment."
A festival was on inside. An endless procession of men, women and children proceeded in and out of the gate. It had rained heavily during the latter part of the day here, so the ground was a bit soggy but the grass was dry under our feet.
Behind us, moderately loud instrumental music poured out of a megaphone. Ahead, a recitation in Burmese - which even the local Rakhine people, I was told, had difficulty understanding - issued from a tent-like structure erected in the field. It was a tape recording made in Burma. The temple on our right contained a golden Buddha enclosed in a big room. Around the base of the Buddha were various gods before whom worshippers placed their candles and prayed. The building was covered with thousands of tiny electric bulbs of various colours.
The voices of children and women and men mingled with the sound of crackers and other noisy pyrotechnic displays.
We were drawn towards the balloons made of paper. At first, the balloon would be droopy as it was filled with hot air from a flame. The balloon was as tall as a man, so three stalwart young men were engaged in the operation, around which a crowd of onlookers - including ourselves - gathered. Once the balloon stood upright, ready to take off with all the hot air inside, a flame was lit at the mouth below, and away it went into the night sky - like a soul lifting itself towards heaven. The flaming balloon would be visible for miles around.
Several such takeoffs occurred within the space of an hour. Sometimes, the takeoff would be obstructed by a tree, and the balloon would be caught in the branches. In a way, it symbolised - for me, on this day - the frustration of earthly desires to ascend to a higher plane.
Having watched the balloons soar, we went round to the other stalls. Rakhine girls, looking very pretty in their pink thamis and matching blouses, offered us sweet drinks - which were also pink in colour. The sherbet was good, and we had several glasses.
We fetched up at another pagoda before which the Rakhine girls were offering drinks. There were folding chairs for devotees and we seated ourselves and inspected the imposing structure. This statue was grey, and austere. It was covered from the peak to the base with long strings of light. Above the base was a small casement where a few objects of devotion, wrapped in garments, had been deposited.
It was a warm night; the sky was overcast and there was rain in the air.
"What a beautiful place, Zafar!" There were tears in her eyes.
"Lovely, isn't it?"
A Rakhine girl came up to us with a glass of sherbet in each hand. It seemed rude to refuse.
"The balloons symbolise souls, don't they? Souls ascending towards heaven - liberated!"
"Something like that, I should think."
She looked into my eyes.
"Can we ever do that? Rise above?"
"Why not?" I tried to sound facetious. I knew we couldn't. Not in this world. I sipped the sherbet. "Nice sherbet."
She looked down, and downcast.
"Look, look up at the balloons!"
She looked up again, and a smile broke out, a smile accompanied by a few tears. She wiped her eyes quickly. Her lips parted in something more than a smile - perhaps a prayer.
There was a thunderclap.
"I think we'd better get back to the car," I suggested.
"Let's not go home for dinner," I said as we walked towards the gate. "Let's have dinner at the Sagorika."
"Good idea," she shouted above the music, and the sermon, and the talk, and the laughter.
On our way out, a beggar, bent over a book, asked for alms. Faria opened her handbag, and dropped a wad of notes on the cloth next to the pavement.
ESCAPE FROM TEKNAF
The unexpected happened.
"There's been a military coup in Dhaka, General," announced Navid in the drawing-room the next day.
"A coup!" echoed the General.
We all sat down instinctively.
"Yes, a coup. Apparently the mullahs were going to get a large chunk of seats the next election. Hence, a coup was permitted by our western masters."
"That makes sense," I said.
"You see, we are slaves. We are not free. The west decides whether we will be run by civilians or by the army. They decide everything."
"But doesn't this change everything for you, Navid?" I asked.
"You're absolutely right. I will be found out sooner or later. My midnight operations have become impossible. I shall have to leave."
"I'll go with you, Uncle," said Faria.
Navid lifted gentle eyes towards her. "I wish you didn't have to, Faria. You could have gone with Zafar. But they'll arrest you and torture you for information." He turned to me. "The west doesn't mind torturing people now that their own safety is at stake. Don't they realise that we, too, yearn for safety? We wanted to live under the General, and they put a stop to that."
The General nodded, his prominent nose bobbing up and down.
"But they shall pay. They shall suffer for what they have done to us." He paused. "To me."
We were silent.
Eyes cast down, Navid resumed. "Zafar sahib and General Haroon, you must leave immediately. My car will take you to Cox's Bazaar. We, too, shall leave, for goodness knows where." He looked up. There was decision in his eyes.
I rose and went over to Faria. I sat next to her.
"When shall we meet again?"
She was silent.
"When?" I repeated.
Navid and the General glided out of the room.
There were no tears today. There was resolution in her voice as well.
I shall respect and feel affection for Navid, and I shall continue to miss Faria. Will she ever send me a sign? I live with hope. Meanwhile, every year, I go back to Cox's Bazaar to watch the paper balloons rise towards the sky, flaming symbols of our freedom from the earth.
Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Southern Cross Review, Opednews.com, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, Down In The Dirt and other publications. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh. You may find him at http://www.iftekharsayeed.weebly.com/