When a nation has devils to exorcise, it is a fine distinction whether they were bred at home, or abroad. Take slavery, for instance; to both importer and exporter, it mattered little either way. The sum of human misery and well-being was negative in their respective balance of payments. And today, in Bangladesh, we were paying for merchandise which appeared the very reverse of evil to its manufacturers, the antithesis of slavery, yet, paradoxically, had the same effect as the thesis, except that the whole nation had been substituted for the solitary individual, equally to be bought and bound: democracy.
It had been threatening rain for quite some time. Gathering clouds overshadowed the city, making the air muggier still; thunder rumbled like a menacing army. The room grew dark, even though it was morning.
"I have an Aeschylean feeling about all this, sir," I said.
"General Rashid, we mustn't let poetry get in the way of power," said Arif, sharply. He was a tall, dark fellow with a longish face and carefully parted hair. He sat upright as though he were at a board meeting, and not the living room of my flat.
The General looked thoughtfully down, his two chins merging. His deep voice faltered. "I know what you're saying, Zafar…and I understand you, too, Arif….I lost power at the hands of boys…with a push from the donors….they didn't need me anymore…no more Berlin Wall to shore up…."
Gauging his emotions, I refrained from speaking. Mistake. My opponent was a better salesman. He didn't hesitate to seize the psychologically right moment. He had something to sell.
"But if you had had your own student body then, you would still have been in power! And if you don't form a student body now, you'll never again be in power!"
The atmosphere grew charged. Flashes of lightning illuminated our taut faces.
We heard the General heave a sigh, but not of relief. "I have children, Zafar." A long pause. I listened to the deepening drum-beats of the impending storm. "Would I have ever…wanted them to carry guns…go into politics at fourteen…?"
"No, sir, you would not." I beat Arif to it this time.
"But it was fourteen-year-olds who overthrew your government!" He had neutralised me again. "Every democracy needs its ready army, General. From the rabble of the Roman Republic to the workers' unions last century. Now, in Asia today, it's the turn of the students - they can be concentrated in one area, the school or college, and turned into a private army."
"I'm thinking about their parents, Arif," remarked the General, weakly.
"And I'm thinking about the next election, General. The government rigged the last one, but this time we'll insist on international supervisors, after our boys have brought down the government. That will show them we can do it, and will do it again if the election is fixed. We'll give them a dose of their own medicine."
Arif was one of my brightest students. He gave one the impression that he'd missed his calling: that he should have studied business instead of philosophy, and joined a multinational firm rather than go into politics. Every time the General weakened, he conjured up a picture of future victory. And whenever I raised an objection, he countered it with impeccable logic. He was all technique.
The General wiped his forehead. "We have no choice, Zafar. We must use boys to bring down the government. The donors want democracy; but there can be no democracy in Asia, as you've argued again and again when I was in power. We are in debt-slavery, Zafar. And slaves have no choice."
"I implore you, sir; do not do this. It is evil."
"It is evil to do nothing, Mr.Shah. The General has decided to capture power and use it to liberate his country. With a conscience like yours, he'd be in the wilderness for the rest of his life."
The temperature always drops before a thundershower. I was cold.
I was sipping coffee to fight off the after-lunch lethargy that overcomes one in this weather, listening to the downpour, when a faint tinkle pierced the innumerable patters of rain descending from the roof and rising from the streets below. The bell must have rung several times before I answered the door.
There was a girl, half-standing, half-reclining against the wall, in a wet saree, her matted hair struggling to conceal her face. She seemed startled by the door opening at last. She whispered what sounded like my name and would have collapsed on the floor if I hadn't caught her.
"I want my son!"
They were her first words when she came to. I had made her as snug as I could, administering a mild sedative to give her some much-needed sleep. She hadn't been eating either, and I set out a table, expecting the drug to give her an appetite. She slept through the afternoon into the night. Now, a supporting hand raised to the wall, and the other clasping the side of her head, her face contorted in that preliminary to crying, she stood uncertainly in the dining-space connecting my bedroom and the living room.
"Let me get you something to eat." I jumped off the sofa, and sat her down in a dining-chair.
"I want my son! I want my son!"
After a few ravenous mouthfuls, she stopped eating. She seemed to come to her senses.
"I…I am sorry, sir!" She rose to wash her hands at the sink in the kitchen behind. "I hope you'll forgive me…but I have something very important to discuss. But you don't even know who I am!"
"I know, Lalla Rookh."
I remembered Lalla Rookh, the 'tulip-faced', very well. She wasn't the prettiest student in class, but she was certainly the most graceful and feminine. She wasn't the brightest, either; no, that was Arif Ahmed. Yet while her B's and C's added to her humanity, his straight A's seemed to subtract from his. Humanity is on an average between total success and complete failure, and I suppose she had somehow struck that golden mean. Strangely enough, they were lovers. But I remember, after class, she had once come up to me.
"Your last lecture on Asoka was - well, it was wonderful!"
I had thanked her, awkwardly.
"You remember me!"
"Come on, there's no use standing. Now, what's this about your son?"
"Your party's got him, sir."
"Mmm-hmm." That answered my question, of course. But I needed time to recover as well as fortify myself for the ordeal ahead. A little diversion wouldn't hurt, I thought. "Stop calling me 'sir'. I'm not your teacher anymore. Call me Zafar."
She smiled, looked down and inspected her fingers. She looked up again, more relaxed. She looked as if somebody had given her two black eyes, for lack of sleep.
Then there was a power failure.
We couldn't see anything until I lit a candle. Without the fan it was unbearably hot, so I had to open the door to the veranda. The sound of rain grew louder. The flame guttered, playing with her shadow on the wall.
She swiftly returned to the subject.
"Nafeez - that's his name - he's joined your party, sir - I mean - Zafar. He's only fifteen - he can't even vote - he has a gun - he collects taxes - that's what he calls them - from shopkeepers - and gives half to your party - and with the other half - he - he - buys drugs - ."
"Yes, I know how the system works, Lalla Rookh. Please don't go on. It's just that I've never seen its effects so close up…."
"You don't need him! Please give him back to me! There are so many others boys you can use - dear God, forgive me! What am I saying! May the Almighty forgive me! But I don't care! He's my son! Let the others go to hell! No, I don't mean that, O Allah! I'm only a weak woman! If only his father…!"
"Lalla Rookh, you've got to listen to me! I have nothing to do with this diabolical students' movement. The only person who can help you is Arif Ahmed."
I was sure that her expression changed, but I couldn't see anything, for a sudden draught blew out the candle. She certainly sobered the moment I mentioned him. For a few moments I could hear only the rain.
Then she gave a low grunt. "Arif Ahmed!" She paused. Again, there was only the sound of rain, relentlessly drenching the hot, humid earth. "The devil takes many forms," she began, very slowly, taking thought, "and he must be one of them. If I have ever met evil face to face, it was yesterday at his apartment." Her measured speech contrasted uncannily with her previous near-hysteria. "He tried not to let me in, at first. When I started shouting, he had no choice. He asked me what I wanted. I told him.
" 'That little bastard of yours,' he said, 'is indispensable to the party. I wonder where he gets his spirit from. What was his father like? Must have been quite a fellow to take you away from me.'"
"Then he started saying nasty things about Nafeez's father and me. I couldn't take it anymore. I grabbed both his feet, and beat my head against them, begging him….He kicked me away. I would have come to you last night, but I had to wait for Nafeez, to see if he would spend the night at home. He didn't. He often doesn't. I waited all day, until I couldn't stand it anymore."
The momentary loss of my most important sense had heightened my imagination. Vividness of detail, when fancied, can be more excruciating than when naked to the eye. I tried to clear the image.
"Where is his father?"
"Abroad. Married. With children."
There was little his father could have done even if he had been here. A party is a surrogate family, with the leader becoming a father figure. Besides, I felt from her tone that he wasn't interested in Nafeez. She explained.
"I was in love with Arif, as you know. Every girl in my class was in love with him. He didn't have to lie to me to get me into bed. Anyway, he said he'd marry me, and I believed him. He made what use of me he could, then lost interest. I married Nafeez's father, Humayun, mostly to forget Arif. Nafeez was born, and after a few years our marriage broke up. I got a job as a teacher, broke with my own parents, and rented a house."
I had reached a dead-end in our conversation, if it could be called that. She rescued me.
"Why, Zafar? Why has this terrible thing happened to us, to all of us?"
"Because we've sold ourselves. People who sell themselves can have no dignity, no decency, no humanity." Another draught banged the door against the wall, so I had to stop speaking. There was only the darkness, and the rain, and our voices. "Slaves do not even have the right to demand an explanation. They live in an inscrutable universe, which owes them nothing." I went on like this because I wanted her to think. I could tell, more or less, what the outcome of her tragedy would be; I wanted her intellect to triumph over her emotions when the crisis came.
The pitch-black night completely isolated us, like two prisoners in adjacent cells, who could hear, but not see each other. I wanted very much to see what effect, if any, my words were having. We listened to the rain falter.
"We've sold ourselves," she repeated, at last. "Yes! You've made things very clear, Zafar. Now I understand."
When the lights came on again, the voltage had increased, and the fan moved faster than before. I blinked under the glare. But Lalla Rookh stared straight ahead, as though she were still in darkness.
Arif Ahmed unleashed his students against the government. Several hartals were called in quick succession. They were vicious. A fisherman was killed in a skirmish between the student wings of the political parties. Two trishaw pullers were bombed while pulling their trishaws during hartal hours. It took them twenty-four and forty-eight hours to die. An auto-rickshaw was burned to ashes, and when the driver tried to put out the flames, he was sprinkled with petrol, and burned to death. It took him more than two days to die. A truck driver died when a bomb was thrown on his truck. And a sixteen-year-old, injured by a bomb, died after struggling for his life for eleven days. A policemen succumbed to his injuries after two days. Only the rains gave some relief from the vigilance of the boys.
There was no novelty, of course. It was like watching a re-run of the overthrow of the General. Only Lalla Rookh succeeded in surprising me.
On opening the door, I saw a woman in a red saree and black, sleeveless blouse. She wore red lipstick, golden eye-shadow and a circular, black teep on her forehead. The diaphanous chiffon saree had been folded only once over her bosom and shoulder, and worn below the navel, revealing the dark mounds of her breasts and white cleavage, and her midriff. She was taller on account of her black heels. Her hair had been cut short The ebony strap of her handbag hung from white flesh. She exuded a breathtaking aroma.
"You look as though you've seen a ghost." She sat casually down, crossing her legs, and spread an arm over the sofa. Her long finger-nails were painted red and gold bangles concealed her wrist. She wore ruby earrings and a ruby necklace.
"Maybe I wish I had." I seated myself at a distance. "You're an excellent target for a mugger, at this time of the night."
Her golden eyelids shut leisurely as she shook her head. "Don't worry about me, Zafar. I'm not riding a trishaw and getting wet anymore." A raised index-finger pointed to the window. "But why do you wish you'd seen a ghost? I'm only taking your advice."
I looked down, trying to recall details of our last conversation. The fan played with her saree to show her ankles.
"You said we've sold ourselves. Well, I hadn't, and I began to see where I'd gone wrong. So I went and sold myself to Arif." Her plucked, tapering brows rose, accompanied by a minimum turn of the head, to indicate how simple it was. "The first time I went as a beggar, just skin and bones. The second time I went as a woman with something to sell. I stripped before him, and he had me right there and then. And I got what I wanted." She looked around my flat. "You know, Zafar, you haven't done very well out of politics. Even Arif's bedroom is bigger than your flat. Oh yes! I live with him, in his enormous penthouse, way up there. In fact, I was just going back there from a party for the great and the good. You see, some people hope to be ministers when the General wins the next election. They don't care about my boy, of course…."
Neither of us spoke. Only the torrent drummed all around us. Her forehead glistened with sweat. Now, the muezzin's call to evening prayer mingled with the monsoon.
"Arif always believed in power," I found myself saying, to break the silence.
She didn't seem to hear me. Looking down, she asked, "You think there's a God, Zafar? I hope He'll forgive me."
"I'm sure He will."
She looked up straight at me again. "Yes, Arif always believed in power. Do you remember how he argued with you in class one day? You were talking about how conscience preceded the unified state…."
"Oh yes! I'm not likely to forget that. He made me think hard afterwards."
"You were saying that conscience appears before the state is united. Buddhism in India, Confucianism in China, Islam in Arabia…."
"He pounced on the exception, of course."
"That's right. Christianity and the Roman Empire."
"I remember his exact words.
"He stood up and said, 'The exception, which was based on slavery and the rejection of slavery, proves that conscience has nothing to do with the state. If anything, that they're antithetical. Slavery is a recurrent phenomenon of Western civilisation.'"
"When I said that slavery was unique to Western civilisation, he replied, 'A general theory must take the unique into account. Power is the only reality the state understands.'"
"You remember every word!"
"It was a good argument."
Another silence followed. Occasionally a light wind would flirt with her perfume and lift her hair. Outside, the rain soaked the sultry night.
"Do you trust him?"
She looked away from the wetness at me. "I think so. The night before last, he had Nafeez come to the flat. When Nafeez saw me there, he was furious.
"'Why are you living with him?' he screamed.
"'Shut up!' said Arif. 'Your moral values don't give you any right to question your mother.'
"Well, that worked. Then he told him to start attending classes and stop collecting taxes and taking drugs. I was amazed. And relieved. Nafeez did not say a word. And he went to class the next day, and he's been going every day. I also have something important to say to Arif."
"So you trust him."
"So far he's kept his side of the bargain." Looking down at her bare midriff, translucent bust and gold bangles, she arched her mouth, shrugged, and said, "And I've kept mine. As long as he gets what he wants, I don't see why he won't give me what I want. Besides, I have something important to tell him."
The trouble with people who can feel around corners is that they cannot think in a crooked line. She believed that the worth of her merchandise was proportionate to his purchasing power. A man who ran half the nation could procure more than a penthouse-full of women like her.
The movement collapsed. The General dissolved his student body, which, since the governing party did not reciprocate, made him immediately popular. But he knew that where democracy could not be practised, popularity would not translate into votes.
Several years were to pass before I could form a coherent picture of what had happened to the principal as well as petty actors in the tragedy. With my renewed duties at the party and the shape I found it in, it took me a year to locate Lalla Rookh.
The reader may be interested in the research I did on student politics in this country; every dead student in my chart below was reduced to - what social scientists call - a statistic. But I had known Nafeez's mother: through her, he survived as a person.
She was a patient in a psychiatric clinic in Dhanmandi. Her family had got her a nice room, overlooking the lake, right across from a luxuriously green island. But it was winter, and the lake was dry, so no boats rowed out there. She was too depressed to look between the grills of her window.
Spring passed, summer disappeared, winter returned. I saw her often, but she was too withdrawn to notice me. I left books, and flowers. Her nurses arranged the volumes on a shelf. A miniature library grew.
When I gradually learned the whole truth, I marvelled how little of the positive was left in her life. She had fought long with very little to fight with.
Another monsoon filled the lake, and the boats appeared, making trips to the inconsequential island. Gradually, she recalled the past to me. I sketched in the details from the files at the party office and the less tangible records lodged in the heads of our intelligence personnel.
At our last meeting, Lalla Rookh had repeatedly mentioned that there was something she had to tell Arif. She had gone home - to the penthouse - and waited for Arif to get back. Meanwhile, he gave instructions to have Nafeez disposed of. The boy had become an embarrassment to the party. His ruthless efficiency had made him hated in the areas in which he operated. The party couldn't bump him off; it could be traced back to HQ. Even a professional hit man was out of the question. If word got round, it would demoralise the armed cadres. I realised why he had told the boy off before his mother. He was going to be 'retired' soon, anyway; so why not get a woman to stop her nagging at night? True to his genius, Arif asked him to collect a preposterous sum as tax from the stores in his area. When he went there, twirling his gun, the shopkeepers were ready. They beat him to death. Later, it was reported by the press that they had killed an innocent student, who used to attend class regularly. The party was saved.
Arif went home and told her to pack. He was kicking her out. After all, he wouldn't want her around when the news hit the headlines the next day. Lalla Rookh was stunned. She couldn't make out what was happening; but she obediently got her things together. She didn't want to annoy her benefactor. Just before he closed the door on her, she falteringly told him what she'd wanted to.
The man changed instantaneously. He grabbed her arm, and pulled her in. His dark face turned a deep shade of black. He made phone call after phone call. At last, with gritted teeth, he drove out into the night.
He returned around four in the morning, so I was told by the concierge on duty. Everyone, even the off-duty security guards, had a vivid memory of the night. They remembered the pair coming down the lift, as though they'd had a fight. Lalla Rookh was deathly pale; Arif was the reverse. It was around six, so the chauffeur had come. He put her in the car, gently putting an arm around her, as if to ward off some impending evil.
The driver told me that he had given him minute instructions, in a low voice, so as to be inaudible to the lady. He was to take begumsahib to her parents', speak to her father -- and only her father, not her mother -- and tell him to look after her very carefully all day, never to let her out of his sight. For good measure, the chauffeur, grown loyal to Arif and his family over the years, had stayed with Lalla Rookh that day.
Arif then he took the lift to the penthouse, and jumped to his death.
"Arif was Nafeez's father."
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 tour Bangladesh. You may find him at http://www.iftekharsayeed.weebly.com/