Nashat crossed her legs under her blue saree, in my cane-chair, sipping a cup of coffee.
"And would you believe it? He's even talking about joining the IMF!"
The fall of the Berlin wall spelled disaster for Bangladesh. General Harun ur Rashid had been military ruler. The donors funded his rule so long as there was a communist threat. After 1989, they overthrew him in an ostensibly students' movement. A two-party chaos followed. The two sides fought each other in the streets, killing innocent people.
When the Soviet Union was there, you weren't an intellectual unless you were a Marxist. Erstwhile Marxists, like Nashat's husband, Azam Khan, became capitalists and democrats. Their former patron had ceased to exist.
But unfortunately for Nashat, she didn't change.
The ceiling fan whirred overhead, and lifted up the edges of her saree to reveal her silver anklet. She wore her saree below the navel, and her naked midriff set my soul on fire. The smell of her sweat under her arms intoxicated me.
"He used to criticize General Harun ur Rashid for his privatization and denationalization. They threw thousands of people out of jobs. He used to love workers and peasants!"
I searched inward for something to say. "Maybe he had an epiphany." The coffee tasted reassuring.
She glared at me with her kohl-rimmed eyes. "Overnight? As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, he changed. Why?"
I knew why, of course. There were rewards to be had by preaching capitalism and democracy. But I couldn't tell her that. I myself lost my post as advisor to General Harun ur Rashid. The West wanted the people to rule now.
Nashat stared into emptiness. "I love him! I remember how we used to talk about the future of civilization on the telephone. Before we got married." Tears glistened. She gripped my hand. Her fingers were cold.
I wanted to take her in my arms, but the three of us were friends. We had been friends at university. I used to long for Nashat, so beautiful, so sensitive, so intelligent! But she and Azam were in love, and I had to learn to crush my desire. Now it welled up again.
She spent the next days in my flat, and slept in the guestroom.
* * *
"Let's go to St. Martin's Island," she announced one day.
I looked surprised. She hadn't left the flat for days, obsessed with Azam Khan's change of belief. She was reading a volume of Chekhov. I recognized that it had been published by Progress Publishers.
"Well…I suppose we could," I stammered.
It would be a good idea. She had been depressed. A change would do her--and me--good.
"But we have to wait until the weekend," I continued. "The hartals are still on."
A hartal is mistranslated as a 'general strike' by the Western media. It is anything but. A hartal is the attempt by the opposition to paralyze life by bringing all traffic to a standstill using the threat of violence. Several people had been killed already--innocent bystanders. The reason for a hartal is that unless the government is brought down through force, it will rig the election and cling to power. After the fall of the government, a neutral body would oversee the election.
"Yes," she mused, her tapering eyes looking down at her tapering fingers. "Democracy is a dreadful idea. You have always been right, Zafar. For a country ruled by the west, it's a sick joke." She might have added that, of our two political leaders, one was the daughter of a dead civilian dictator and another the wife of a dead military dictator: dynasty masquerading as democracy.
The day was cheerful, sunny and hot. One felt alive on such a day. But we were caged. The sparrows twittered outside the window. Sunshine seeped in through the damask curtains. The air-conditioner hummed. Not a sound of traffic reached us from below. She smelled fresh from her shower, her short hair parted to one side. I could almost taste her magenta lipstick on my lips.
I felt on edge. I swallowed whiskey to steady myself.
* * *
We ensconced ourselves in the seats of the overnight Dhaka-to-Teknaf luxury bus. Nashat wore a light pink, floral saree, her navel showing, and white chicken blouse. I sat close enough to smell her perfume, which offset the musty odour inside the bus.
It began to fill. A muted sound of buses honking and braking outside reached us through the thick glass.
Across the aisle sat two women in hijab and shalwar kameez. They almost certainly didn't approve of Nashat.
The hartal had been called off for a week. Still, you couldn't tell. My mouth felt dry. I tasted fear.
We were going to travel in convoy, announced the ticket collector on the public address system. Then verses from the Koran followed.
The air-conditioner had been switched on. Nashat drew a shawl around her shoulders.
We heard the muezzin's muted call to prayer.
Sitting close to Nashat, I began to feel new sensations, exalted yet miserable. We had never been so close except at university.
The bus was half-empty. One by one, we fell asleep as the bus raced along, a thin blanket covering us. The lights had been dimmed.
I woke up. The window was curtained, but it was dark outside. Then the driver began to blow his horn. I sensed danger. I moved the curtain and saw fire a short distance away. Faintly, I heard people laughing and screaming.
I got out of my seat. Nashat stirred. I went to the front. The driver, in a beard and skull cap, glared at me.
"Go back, sahib!" he growled.
"What's happening?" I hissed.
The ticket collector stood at the closed door. "They're burning our bus!" His face was ashen.
"Open the door!" I commanded.
"No!" He stood trembling.
The other passengers had now woken up. They stood at the front of the bus.
"Let's get away from here!" they yelled. "Go, driver, go!"
"Open the door! We have to help them!"
Reluctantly, the man opened the door.
The bus was ablaze. Passengers were trapped inside, screaming. Young men in pants and T-shirts threw Molotov cocktails into the bus while others emptied jerry cans The air reeked of petroleum. All the windows had been shattered. The flames gave off scorching heat.
"Zafar!" shrieked Nashat behind me. She was barely audible above the crackling of the flames. "Come back! They're leaving!"
The bus started as one of the boys poured petrol over a tyre. They were beside themselves with glee. Then he came towards me, grinning. I stood riveted and he poured petrol over my trousers. I ran after the bus.
"Zafar! Zafar!" screamed Nashat from the door. The ticket collector shoved her aside and extended an arm. I reached. But the bus was going too fast. With one last spurt I grabbed his hand and he swung me in.
* * *
Hotel Ne Taung stood on a hill, overlooking the river Naf and the distant hills of Burma. The sky hung pierced with stars. A million fireflies responded among the hills.
Calm of mind cannot survive an encounter with evil. We stayed in our rooms.
There had been a power failure, so I kept the door to the veranda open. Both the heat and the humidity were high. I perspired. I took off my shirt and lay in the darkness. A scent of roses entered.
The crickets chorused without interruption.
Sometimes a car drove up the highway in front and a sword of light lit up the acacia trees. A faint breeze filtered through the door.
A knock on the door. Nashat. I smelled her faint perfume. We took our places on the sofa, a pair of benighted personalities.
I said nothing.
"Why did this happen to us?"
"What did those innocent people do to deserve this?" I asked.
We could give no answers.
"Let's go back home," she said.
"No! We can't let those lunatics run our lives!"
Then for the first time, she kissed me on the lips, a long-drawn-out exchange of tongues.
Then, weeping, she left.
* * *
The next morning, we went to the ghat in Teknaf town for our boat to St. Martin's.
We waited for a jeepney (called chander gari, or moon car) outside the hotel under the acacias and eucalyptuses. A breeze rustled the leaves and mitigated the heat, but not the humidity. It played with Nashat's green saree. Doves cooed from the branches. The sun burned in the blue, cloudless sky.
Teknaf was a dirty little town. Sugar cane shavings lay everywhere. Mangy dogs burrowed into the rubbish. A stench of rotten food pervaded the air. Jeepneys belched smoke and blew their horns. Trishaw-pullers rang their bells.
We walked through a few lanes to the ghat at Namar Bazaar. We waited in an office. The windows had railings of curvilinear design, through which we could see the inlet of the bay and the boats. Three planks of wood formed the ghat, the green water of the Naf visible between them. Wooden poles held the ghat in place. We held on to one for balance.
There were three large wooden boats on this side - one to my left, which we were to board, and two on the right. The entire place was alive with activity. The boats were being loaded by coolies with cubes of ice. An old man carried the large block on one shoulder, over which a jute bag had been draped. He stepped carefully from the building, on to the ghat and then over the gunwale to the cuddy. These boats were lighters, and they brought fish from the Burmese ships anchored in the Naf. Two younger men, similarly clad in vests and lungis rolled up above their knees, were similarly engaged.
* * *
We sailed up the Naf, with Burmese hills on the left and Bangladesh on the right. We sat beside the tiller. The engine stood below, belching smoke on deck through an exhaust pipe. The odour of the smoke trailed behind us. A dark, teenage boy with untidy hair in knee-high lungi and vest removed bilge water. The men wore lungis and pyjamas and the women were veiled.
We sailed up the Naf with its beautiful green waters. The sky groaned and we were assailed by rain. A silver streak of lightning descended: it blazed a hair-thin line of white fire into the waters somewhere in the offing. The waves danced away from the boat and raindrops punctured minuscule drills on its green surface. Terns flew and shrieked behind us, diving into the foam churned up by the propeller. We swallowed tasteless rainwater. The wind knocked against our eardrums.
The waves usually rock the boats like children in a cradle. But today the Bay of Bengal sent light waves. A storm had swept the Bay a few days ago, leaving a calm sea in its wake.
* * *
Wooden fishing boats hyphenated the horizon. At high tide, the green waters of the Bay lapped the sand with a roar and retreated with a hiss. The sand breathed heat; we had to wear sandals. We tasted brine as we bathed in the bay. A warm wind blew across our bodies, comingling with the warm sea. Screw pines stood like sentinels along the sand to disappear at the bend of the island. We were alone in the water: the hartal had kept away the guests.
Nashat's saree, blouse and petticoat clung to her wet body, like Venus rising from the sea. I placed my hands on her hips.
We went back to the hotel, and made love.
* * *
The moonlight lit up the surf that arrived incessantly with a gentle roar and dissipated itself on the sand with a sibylline whisper in a carpet of frothy water. Surf upon surf, wave upon wave, roar upon roar--the insistent syllables of an inarticulate desire--broke in on the silence and the shore. It was high tide again.
We searched for sea turtles--they were wont to come ashore to lay eggs. We were still too citified to venture far, instinctively thinking it unsafe. We walked to the screw pines, each distinctly lit up in its individuality. They stood in an untidy line along the surf, their leaves appearing like clusters of giant grass. But there were no olive Ridley sea turtles to be seen.
Presently, we saw a man in lungi and shirt coming towards us. We salaamed, and I told him our errand.
"There are very few turtles these days. Tourists and the dogs keep them away. But come to the hatchery. Maybe there are some hatchlings."
The sand was clearly parted between the brown and the white--the former indicated the part where the water would come, and the latter the dry sand, so difficult to walk over, for the foot tended to sink and it dragged the steps and impeded progress. Tonight, the brown had disappeared under water, and we trod the white sand.
Our shadows preceded us. We could see fishing-boats in the distance, their kerosene lamps winking. Sometimes the torch revealed a group of red crabs. In the first light, they froze, and then scurried about. The night lay hot and humid like a wet blanket.
Such proximity to nature--and nature so benign in her proximity--was far removed from our experience. That nature is not necessarily hostile to humans, and can--and usually is--a companion, was borne in upon us for the first time.
We went into the hatchery. The hatchery was an imposing name for what was in fact nothing but several rows of circular wire-netting--each six inches in diameter and about a foot high. Beneath these nets were the hollow pitcher-shaped structures that mimicked the shelter that the mother turtle herself made.
"Look!" he cried.
Inside one enclosure, two hatchlings moved about. They must have been a few minutes old. The man placed one in the palm of my hand, but the agile little fellow clambered with its small legs up to my wrist and once fell off into an enclosure. Then I held it between my index-finger and thumb. The colour was ash, almost black, and it felt like a piece of rubber between my fingers.
We took them to the water's edge. Nashat took pictures. A handsome dog - a cross between a local breed and an Alsatian--loitered with intent. Then Nashat held the turtle and I let mine go. She followed suit. The turtles were confused by the torchlight, and instead of heading out to sea, as they do, headed towards the light where it fell on the sand. We turned them around, and switched off our torches: we flashed them on again to see the two disappearing in a wave. Did they make it past the rocks? Did they live till morning?
We went back, elated, to the hotel.
* * *
This was peace.
* * *
Finally, however, Nashat went back to her husband, but her views hadn't changed. A few days later I received a call from her.
"I'm in Khagrachari," she said.
"Why did you go there?"
"Azam wanted me to be with him."
I breathed a sigh.
"It's a malarial place. Are you taking anything?"
"No, Zafar, and I'll be fine."
I could hear a tokay gecko at the other end.
"I have to hang up. I think he's here."
I went to Laz Pharma, the only druggist that sold artemisinin. I planned to courier her the medication. But they had sold out; the drug wasn't much in demand. They said Azam Khan had bought it. Azam Khan was a famous intellectual. And he had bought only enough for one person.
I opened the newspaper one day, and found that Nashat was dead.
She had died of malaria.
Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English. 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 travel. You may find him at http://www.iftekharsayeed.weebly.com/