It seemed to Emdad that the worn-out structure was grimacing in grief. He was not even supposed to be here and had never imagined that he would have to take refuge in a place like this. Fortunately he had been able to trick Buba into accompanying him. Although he had recently visited Bangkok, this time there was not enough time to flee abroad.
Conditions had been favourable back then. Now traps had been set everywhere - air, water, land. Emdad was no novice to allow himself to be ensnared in this electric trap.
He understood the value of time now. If the situation had arisen two weeks later he could have escaped to Singapore. He would have walked down the broad High Streets now, strolling happily all by himself, out of the country.
Emdad had to resort to disguise to get out of the city. He made Mahbuba wear a burka and he gave up his moustache, which he had cultivated with great care. He also had to sacrifice his stylish long hair. While on an operation, he used to tie his long hair in a ponytail. People had nick-named him Ponytail Emdad for this. Until recently, no one in his neighbourhood could sleep when they heard of Ponytail Emdad.
Before leaving Dhaka, Emdad had to change his appearance thoroughly and as quickly as possible. He wore a beige-coloured shirt instead of his usual red one and put on trousers in a different style. He tried reaching his boss over the cell phone. But repeatedly he had to listen to cannot be reached at the moment, please try again later. Maddened by this recurring response, he threw down his mobile violently, picked it up again, and, wiping it carefully, put it back into his pocket. This was one of his five mobiles. He was able to thrust only two sets in his pocket and left the other three in a secret hide-out before leaving.
This was a difficult time for terrorists and there was little chance of escape. They had faced similar situations before. Just a few years ago there had been a joint mission of police and army. Emdad was only eighteen back then, a black prince who had grown up in a working class environment. He had already learnt to use weapons. The ringleader who trained him had died in that cross fire. His corpse had been laid to be crushed at the crossroads like some thin and flat wet jute sack. It was the first time that Emdad had experienced how a human body could be pulverized like that. Was he intimidated by his chiefs destiny? No. Instead, he was rather disgusted!
They boarded the bus at Mirpur 10 and had been very cautious about their movements. Mahbuba, or Buba as she was generally known, was completely enveloped in the burka except for her eyes. In the bus, she clung to Emdads hand. Her hand felt warm and wet like clay. He did not like the feel of it because he himself was tense. His own life had been at risk.
The dim light of dusk gradually turned into the darkness of the evening. Buba moved closer to Emdad, looking at him with timid eyes. She grabbed his arm as they came to this place. Are we staying here, Emdad?
Yes. One of the door panels came loose off the hinge as Emdad pushed open the door of the old house.
Emdad entered the house slowly with Buba behind him. He looked up. Layers of cement and lime were peeling off from the ceiling and drifting onto the floor. The green shutters of the window were broken, with gaping holes in places. The sky could be seen through the large gaps but altogether the house did not look unused. There was a bedroll covered with a mat. The cot had a broken leg and was sloping at one side. The strings of a mosquito net were hanging next to it. A little later Emdad noticed an adjacent room. The door in between was bolted. He unlocked the door and peeped into the empty room. The worn-out red oxide floor was covered with a thick layer of dust. The windows had all lost their shutters. The forest and the sky seemed to have occupied the room clasping each others hand leisurely.
Buba reclined on the bed with the broken leg. Should I light a candle, Emdad? Dont. She was taken aback to hear him speak. He had not been speaking much after they left Dhaka. Although he was taciturn by nature, he seemed even more reserved now. Perhaps, thought Buba, action was more important to him than words. She doubted whether he gave any importance at all to his own words. She knew he took the lives of his closest associates for the most negligible reason and he executed these tasks craftily. She understood everything but lacked the courage to speak about these matters and of course to ask would mean to invite her own danger. Buba was not that simple.
However, sitting at one corner of the bed in total darkness, it suddenly occurred to her that she had been indeed very foolish this time. She should not have listened to Emdads request of absconding with him. Her mothers illness could have been a good enough excuse.
When Emdad pleaded with her to join him on this uncertain journey, she could not refuse. The main reason was she feared him, but it was also because of her budding relationship with him.
She could hear the presentiment of her fall just round the corner as her relationship was growing more intimate with Emdad, for more wealth and power. Otherwise how was it possible for a poor and half educated girl like Buba to roam around the city in Emdads expensive Pajero?
She could not turn down Emdads demand at this stage of their relationship. Otherwise was she not aware that, with the new government coming to power, all of Emdads ringleaders were being sent to jail one after another? All their plans were completely ruined, their arrogance drastically shattered. Perhaps more people would be imprisoned and that might be the beginning of something new. Emdad might also end up in the detention cell unless he too was terminated in a cross fire before that.
Buba shivered, visualizing the incident. Emdad stood near her in the dark. His tall and sturdy body was erect like a pillar. He seemed to be a stranger to her now; his short hair and clean-shaven face all these changes had happened too soon. Who was this Emdad? Who was this man with whom she had run away so impulsively from her safe environment to this den of insecurity? Did she know him?
Buba was a stranger to this environment. Everything appeared so different here. Someone seemed to be constantly warning her of some impending danger. Why was she having this premonition? She had been through graver situations before but had never felt like this. She kept pondering about this until she grew bewildered. Fear gripped her. She never used to be so scared to accompany Emdad; rather she used to be proud of him. Buba wanted everyone to be jealous of her fortune.
Buba came to the city as a child with her parents after they had lost their village home to the river. Her father used to ply rickshaw and had died suddenly one day under a moving train. Buba was orphaned and her growing up had been shrouded with mystery. It was in that obscurity, that, one day, she was introduced to Emdad.
Sitting beside Emdad, Buba brooded with her hand under her chin. Emdads favourite sport was cock fighting. In the village he had a few parcels of land and built a concrete house for an animal conservatory. He visited the place every week for amusement. By provoking fights between his roosters he gained immense pleasure. He watched the red crowned roosters jumping on each other fiercely, tearing away feathers, scraping off flesh, scratching out eyes, splattering blood in the air, pecking each others crowns to shreds. The defeated rooster was roasted for dinner. This was how Emdad fixed the destiny of the defeated rooster.
When Emdad and Buba would make love, his pistol would be next to him, on the right. She knew his pistol was always loaded. Once she handled it after intercourse and felt an electric shock playing through her body. The pleasure she had was more intense than the one she had with orgasm. Buba marveled at the way she felt but could not understand why death and destruction was so fascinating for some.
Emdad lit a candle and shaded it with paper. The room appeared ghastlier in the dim light. The plaster of the walls had fallen in some places to expose the rough bricks. Their shadows fell on the wall, enormous and menacing. Buba drew away her gaze from the shadows. Reaching this place, Emdad seemed to have suddenly changed into a watchful but quiet person. It was as if Buba was in the strong clutches of a cheetah from a city jungle. Who would rescue her now?
Emdad brought some bricks from outside and closed the door between the rooms. Buba, get up. Let me fix the broken leg of the bed.
Buba raised her arms. Emdad pulled her up. She rose and hugged him.
What are you doing? His voice was dry.
Im feeling scared, very, very scared, Emdad!
Dont be crazy. What are you scared of?
How long are we going to stay here?
I dont know, as long as we have to! Emdads tone was rough.
She laid her head on his breast and whimpered, Come, lets make love.
He was at a loss now and did not know what his next step would be. Previously his moves were thought-out by others and he would follow accordingly. Now they were either all runaway fugitives or in the torture cell themselves, there was no one around to lead him in this condition.
Suddenly Emdad thought he heard a howl deep inside him and immediately his hand came down to his waist. He was always prepared to face the danger.
Buba ran inside hurriedly before Emdad set out to see what it was that bothered her. Her brisk push tilted the broken panel of the door. Buba was wearing a blue salwar kamiz. This was what she had been wearing since she left Dhaka.
Emdad, there is a snake in the bathroom. She shuddered as she uttered the words and started panting in fear. She dropped down on the floor and then looking worried suddenly jumped to the bed. Buba snatched Emdad by his arms. He spoke in a very harsh voice, Why are you behaving like this? He did not like the way she behaved, shook off her hands and went out. He lit the pencil torchlight, searched inside the toilet carefully and also checked the tube well area. The door of the toilet was made of tin and its bottom was utterly worn out by rust. He unlatched the door and confirmed the hole of the yellowish low-pan-commode and found nothing.
Emdad came back and squeezed Bubas nose. There is no snake, Buba darling! You got it all wrong in the dark.
No, protested Buba. I did not make a mistake, I really saw a snake, she spoke obstinately.
Emdad was very annoyed with her. He did not like the way she retorted back at him. He swayed his legs and tried to control himself. Why did you get involved with a terrorist, you chicken heart? Did you think you would safely and gleefully honk about in a car like a terrorist queen, bitch? He gave her a cold-shoulder. Had it been another time she would sulk the way he addressed her. This was not a time to fret and she persistently kept saying, No, Emdad Im sure Ive seen a snake. It was a very long snake and its head was moving. The moment it saw me it slid into the drain
Stop it, Emdad snarled. Buba became silent at once and started blowing her nose. Emdad scurried down from the bed and zipped open his black rexine bag to unpack bread, sugar and a bottle of black label whisky. The only whisky Emdad preferred was Black Label or local stuff.
He spread sugar on a piece of bread for Buba and she devoured it hungrily. Looking at her, Emdad poured some whisky down his throat from the bottle and spoke to her softly. Im here for you, jaan. Why are you so scared? You havent eaten the whole day. May be thats why you didnt see right. Isn't it?
The next morning was refreshing. Buba stretched and woke up from bed. She noticed the door was open and Emdad was not next to her. Through the opening of the doors she could see him cleaning his pistol with his back on her. He arranged six bullets on the ground. The round iron objects seemed to ogle at Emdad with glossy eyes. She had never seen him clean his pistol with so much care. It was as if he was almost stroking her! He was carefully taking it apart bit by bit and blowing through the opening and inserting something pointed to clean the narrow pipe. Near him there was some liquid in a bottle. He was applying that in a soft cloth for cleaning and placed the bullets in the pipe one by one, scrutinizing them with a lot of concentration. Buba was amazed to see him work so meticulously. She knew, Emdad had not just one but three pistols. One of them was directly brought from China. He had to go through a lot of hassle to manage it through his boss. His boss was a well known diplomat. Buba heard diplomats could bring many things from abroad because their bags were not checked at the airport. She saw that pistol only once. It was smaller than other pistols he had. Its bullets were as small as ripe green peas. He could easily hide it in his broad grip. That pistol had high speed and was soundless. Once he showed it to her and said, This one is my dream. Ill never lose it. Buba thought he had forgotten to bring it with him during their hasty departure. Yesterday she saw the other pistol thrust in his waist, no wonder.
Being aware of her presence, he turned around cheerfully. There is a kitchen here. Do you want to see it? She nodded and he came down to the yard with her. He jumped into a small verandah and pointed at it. Buba looked happy. Thats right, theres a wooden stove too. It was placed on top of an iron cauldron. There were some dry woods and clay pots arranged on the shelves. There were also some twisted and turned aluminum pots with holes, and a jug and some wooden spoons. Emdad looked at her joyful face. You can cook some rice if you like. Rice? Where will you get rice? She was excited. There is no rice! But we can make tea and toast bread. There are some potato crisps and chanachur packets which we can have for tea.
Buba suddenly lost her eagerness realizing they were living in confinement. They did not have courage to go out in public and that made her feel miserable again. She entered the room absent mindedly, and sat on the bed brushing her teeth. Buba needed to do some serious thinking. She had left Dhaka with a killer and terrorist. She realized she took a huge risk, since there was no alternative. No one could protest against Emdad but was compelled to listen to him. She had been intimate with him for a long time for the sake of her own existence and her mothers illness. She could feel the terrible consequence of the blunder now. Who would help her escape now?
On the other hand Emdad was drinking since evening. He kept sauntering quietly across the room, sipping whiskey mixed in water from a broken plastic glass. Buba was contemplating something and suddenly slipping her arms around Emdads waist she begged, Ummm, fondle me, Emdad!
She spoke in clear standard Bengali. Emdad praised her for the way she spoke. Once she went to Kolkata with him. Someone asked her, Are you from West Bengal didi? Emdad was happy and spoke on behalf of her. What nonsense? Cant women from East Bengal speak Bengali like you? Of course they can.
Speaking in that style sounded awkward now. He turned away from irritation. What the hell are you demanding now? Despite his reluctance she stubbornly tickled his tummy to arouse him by uttering meaningless sounds. She was only trying to reduce her loneliness through physical attachment. He violently pushed her aside. You slut, get lost. Is this a time for fucking?
Buba kept smiling in spite of his name calling. She pretended not to hear anything. Emdad could not avoid seeing her beaming. He looked serious. Tell me your intention? What makes you smile like that? She climbed on the bed and grabbed him from behind. She rested her chin on his back. I am too scared to stay here any longer, Emdad. What are you afraid of? How can you speak of fear, smiling like that, you whore ? Emdad unclasped him from Bubas grip.
Buba paid no heed to his words. Ever since we entered this house I felt I was being watched all the time. Her voice sounded depressed. Are you insane, Buba? Whod be watching you? Emdad looked surprised. Probably it was true, thought Emdad, Buba had been acting so strangely since they had been here.
Its the snakes, Emdad! They are constantly observing me. My uncle died from snake bite in his youth. Choto chacha turned blue when he died before our very own eyes. I dreaded snakes since then. There are innumerable snakes in this house, yard and the surrounding area. They look like thin strings, almost invisible because the very moment you spot them they wriggle away from sight and disappear instantly.
Buba shivered and stopped talking. Emdad laughed out loud trying to restrain himself. After that incident you are still suffering from snake phobia. Isnt it Buba? She nodded and held on to his hand again and anxiously pleaded. Lets leave this place and find another by tomorrow.
I should have left you in Dhaka if I knew you are so scared. said Emdad irritably. I should have brought Shefali with me. Shes much braver!
Emdad was totally indifferent to this. He kept lying in bed puffing cigarettes and brooding all day long. He was not smoking expensive cigarettes any more, stock for that was over now. All day long he puffed local biri. One night Buba called him, Emdad, please come and see! What do you want me to see? Look at the moon, such a large disk! Lying flat on his back and smoking he enquired, Where?
Buba spoke cheerfully. Where else, in the sky! She leaned out of the window to get a better view of the moon.
Emdad kept lying in bed. You go ahead and watch the moon. I dont want to see it. The moon is an enemy to our profession, got me? Buba did not reply. She kept quite and looked far away. Gradually her attention focused nearer. She looked at the yard. It was an incredible scene; countless squirming creatures were filling up the place. The writhing organisms twisted and turned between the tube well area, the dhundul bush, the arum grove and every where else in the ground, proving the only existence of life form of that place. She suddenly shrieked out loud. Emdad sprang up from bed and his cigarette fell off in the abruptness of the moment. He ran to her. Horror-struck Buba pointed towards the yard. There, there, right over there...
Bogus, what the hell are you saying? rebuked Emdad. Look, so many snakes! Buba looked like a hysteria patient. He pushed her away from the window and said, Stop it Buba! He gained lot of knowledge of hysteria patients by watching TV. Buba moved away but nodded and kept saying, Im not going to stay here any more, not any more...
Emdad looked out the window and viewed the yard again, Stop it, you miserable bitch, its only your delirium. Ill slap your phobia out!
The next few days of Bubas life turned as grave as stone and the nights were even more serious. There was a clear indication of her gradual psychological decline on her face. She kept on shutting herself indoor as soon as night fell. She continued uttering the Holy Scripture repeatedly to protect herself. Her face lost its glow and her hair became rough and red, the split ends spread over her face. Her feet gathered dirt and cracked dry. At times the air around her reeked of sweat as she no longer showered.
Emdads appearance changed as well. Irregular diet, sleeplessness and anxiety injured his features. His moustache grew, his hair grew longer and his beard grew back like wild grass. His finger nails collected dirt and turned black. Day in and day out he suffered from exasperation. Emdad could feel his stone like solid body deteriorating. If this went on it would soon collapse and break down and so would his mental state. He was a workmans son and would not fall to pieces so fast. He had worked so hard to reach this peak of success. Emdad kept brooding and made plans to get in touch with the outside world.
His mental condition was in such a state that if he carried on living like this he would soon become insane. He had never been so inactive in the country for so long though he was without work abroad for a few months and it was not a problem for him then. Living in the country meant he must be full of action. He could not tell how this got implanted in his brain.
This mobile was the most expensive one he had. Among his other five, this one was pre-paid. He never gave this number to any of his relatives or friends. In case of making special calls the senders number could not be viewed on the screen from this number.
He tried calling his friend a number of times in the morning. The last thirteen days he had not contacted his friends or his parents. He had forgotten to bring his radio in the rush and left it in his old hang out. He knew the police and RAB were both hunting him down and he needed to listen to that follow up search.
Emdad was busy with his mobile and at that moment Buba came up to him hanging on to the broken door.
She woke up early this morning. Every other day she woke up late. She reclined and stretched in bed for hours. She looked up with her sleepy eyes at him. Her blue salwar kamiz was crumbled from sleeping in it over night. How long are we going to be stranded here?
Emdad was suddenly maddened by her utterance. Was he stuck here willingly? Did he know how long they would have to stay here? Emdad tried to compose himself and snickered. How can I predict that, bou? As long as those bastards
But Buba was not surprised to hear Emdad address her as his wife. She waited long enough. She did not feel any more attraction to become his wife. She firmly articulated, I dont want to stay here any more. Im going back to Dhaka.
Stunned by the way she spoke Emdad wondered where she got the strength to speak so determinedly.
Why, my jaan? Why do you want to leave me alone?
Emdad laid flat on his back on the red-oxide floor and spoke softly. His hands were horizontally placed under his head. Buba snapped, If we stay here any longer we are both going to die from snake bite.
Buba, my munia, dont be so afraid. Emdad removed his hands from underneath his head.
But I am really very afraid. Why arent you letting me go?
I have no problem with your leaving. It is for your own good Im stopping you, Buba.
What good is it going to do me? she bickered.
Emdad realized Buba was not in a good mood since she woke up early.
He explained to her sympathetically, Listen Buba, the moment you reach Dhaka the RAB will arrest you. By now they know you are with me and that you have a relationship with me.
It is true that Im staying with you but you are wrong in saying that I am involved with you.
Emdad looked shocked. What do you mean? It means that youve never proposed me for marriage, Emdad. Did you? Emdad nodded and agreed that he did not.
She stared at him quizzically, So?
Even then, dont leave me alone. And if you go back you will be caught, sent to jail, my jaan, said Emdad in a soft but hoarse voice. Why should I go to jail, Emdad sahib, have I killed anyone? Emdad fixed his attention as he listened to her and said, You are not leaving, Buba. Ill shoot the snakes with my pistol.
Buba started giggling. She twisted her lips and made a face at him. How many snakes will you kill, one, two, three ? Ill kill all of them. Every single one I see. If I run out of bullets Ill kill them all with sticks.
Bogus, said Buba and went in. She learnt this word from Emdad. Then she packed her bag and came up to him again. The sun was already up and Emdad was still on the terrace, not lying anymore but sitting. He was shocked to see her leaving. Are you really leaving, Buba? What do you think? She had disagreements with him several times before but it had never reached this far. Emdad spoke in a calm voice. That means you wont listen to me?
Are you really so scared of snakes?
Even when Im around you?
Buba did not answer and remained quiet. A faint sarcastic smile beamed on her face. He did not fail to notice that and he suddenly said, Then, arent you scared of this? He aimed his pistol in front of her nose. Buba trembled to see it aimed at her. It was that Chinese pistol, the dangerous and soundless one. She quivered at its sight yet tried to remain calm. Dont play pranks with me now, Emdad. Youre always full of mischief She could not even finish speaking, her face revealed clear sign of nervousness. The bullet pierced through her heart before she could even twinge in pain. The only sound was the dull thump of something heavy falling, the sound of her hand bag dropping on the floor. Bubas lifeless body sunk slowly, like a slow motion picture.
Emdad stirred her body to examine her heart beat as the veranda started to over flow in blood. Her kamiz was smeared around to her breast, the same blue kamiz she wore when she first came to this house. Her kamiz was completely latticed and her chest thoroughly perforated. He had never actually shot anyone from such a short distance.
Bubas eyes were motionless. Was she still watching? Who knew if she was trying to say something?
Emdad heaved out a long sigh. Habitually he exhaled noisily every time he shot and watched the corpse fall in slow motion.
Then he took a bath in the tube well water, and cautiously cleaned his hands and feet. He sat on the bed with his legs folded and was perspiring a lot, his head dripping wet. He was bare bodied and wore the shorts he had bought from Kolkata two years ago. Unexpectedly he had met Chakku Samad there. Chakku Samad had been a leading terrorist in Bangladesh. Emdad greeted him with a reverent salaam. Howre you doing, dada? Im fine Emdad but I miss home. Whatre you up to here? Im alright, just come to do some shopping here. Going back home tomorrow. OK then, go home and dont forget me. Of course, I wont forget you, dada.
Before leaving he had looked at Chakku Samads huge package and asked him curiously, What did you buy dada? What else? I got myself some books from College Street. Its so difficult to pass time here, after all a foreign country is never your own.
Emdad could not hide his curiosity. What books did you buy dada? Once he was a student of Intermediate at Titumir College but did not write the final exam. Back then he used to a read lot of Masud Rana series.
Chakku Samad looked serious. I bought War and Peace in Bengali translation. Im planning to read all the classics during this pass time. Who knows if Ill ever get this chance?
Out of the blue he remembered Chakku Samad. Where was he now? It would have been really nice if Emdad could at least escape to Kolkata. Money was not a problem but shortage of time was. To save himself he had to abandon his Pajero. It must be at the court and had started to rust by now. He does not regret that. So many people had to discard their Mercedes and BMWs in the street, his was just a Pajero.
It struck one in the afternoon and Emdad felt hungry. He went to the kitchen and found out Buba had made tea in the morning. There was some left over tea in a plastic mug. Suddenly it made him a little sad that she had not called him for tea!
A packet of bread had been left on the floor and through the thin cellophane package he could see the disarrayed pieces of bread. Half of the packet was empty. They had been eating this for breakfast the last two days. Emdad felt ravenous as he took out two pieces of bread, broke them into little pieces with his fingers and kept on chewing. The bread tasted hard and bland but he still needed to eat. After a while he came into the room and fell asleep. He woke up at dusk, stretched and rose to wash his face. He felt energetic from just a tiny sip of whiskey. All the exhaustion from the days unpleasant task and crankiness of waking vanished altogether instantaneously.
He heard a clear hissing sound right then. It was very faint, almost inaudible but did not escape his alert ear. No matter how slight the sound was it hardly evaded his hearing.
Emdad had another drop of whiskey and scurried down from bed. He went towards the next room and could detect the sound coming from there. He never entered that room ever since he had come here. On the first day he had a quick peep and had shut the door with bricks.
He carefully removed the bricks, unbolted the partings of the door and sneaked a look. He could see the sky and the jungle through the broken window shutters just like the first day.
His attention was seized at once and his hand firmly came down to his waist, clutching at his pistol. Right in front of his eyes, there were two six feet long snakes standing high from the ground. The bright yellow snakes were like a colourful carpet of circular patterns spread before him. Wiggling and turning their flat triangular head, the snakes looked at each other passionately through their reddish grey eyes. It was as if they were exploring themselves before mating, hissing aloud in desire. If only they liked each other they would start the ritual of mating. The remaining rays of the afternoon sun inflamed them at this auspicious moment. It was as if the sun too wanted to be a part of this ceremony. Emdad wondered if these were Chandraboras.
He remembered his father once fell under the spell of a snake charmer and had left the industry. After he had returned six months later his wife reproached him a lot. He would then tell wonderful bedtime stories to his son. Do you know the most stunning snake on earth, Emdad? It is the Chandrabora, the most attractive snake one could find. Although a Chandrabora does not have a hood like a King Cobra, its beauty is astounding. You cant be but mesmerized by its splendour.
Emdad was distracted remembering this incident at such a nerve-racking moment. His pistol was ready in his fist. It was dangerously swift and hushed. A magnificent appeal seemed to engulf the place without Emdad being aware of it. It gently covered him like a blanket of charisma. The snakes started mating and the hissing gradually stopped. There was pin drop silence and the ambience turned intense, absorbed in the tang of love making.
What should Emdad do now? He could feel blood rushing through his body and he was heating up. His eyes and face turned red and about to discharge perspiration. Who had set up this alluring trap for him? Where would he escape now? Emdad pondered but could not move a breadth of hair. He stood in front of the door like a lifeless lump of clod.
Published in Parabaas, April 20, 2011
The original story "Honon" by Anwara Syed Haq was published in Kali o Kalam during the last care-taker government regime in Bangladesh.