darkness

•January 1, 2008 • 3 Comments

we drive to the new bridge that separates starwood from greenville, the nearest town. the twinkling lights of greenville shine in the distance, beckoning us to indulge in its numerous casinos, bars and nightclubs. behind us, starwood lay quiet and silent, brooding in the cold winter night.

starwood’s claim to fame is being the one town in america where you can see the most stars in the night sky. first, it’s graced with clear night skies on most days. also, our town fathers have tried to hold on to this distinction by reducing light pollution, forsaking modern streetlights for soft oil lamps, and prohibiting the use of lights above 40 watts throughout the town. at night, anybody can step outside their door and see the whole sky lit brilliantly with millions of stars, sometimes interrupted by the twinkle of a passing airplane.

the epicentre of star-gazing, however, is the old bridge, which hasn’t been rebuilt since it collapsed in a storm twelve years ago. set about 2 miles outside the town, it’s a short road that ends abruptly and drops into the nothingness below. it’s become the prime tourist area during the season and the most intimate lover’s lane in the off-season.

rachel knocks on my door at seven pm and tells me she wants to go on a drive. we haven’t been too close since we came to high school, our interests having diverged in the past two two years. but tonight she’s strangely subdued, and says she wants my company. i don’t argue.

we drive out to the new bridge, which is her idea. i don’t mind, because the crowd at the old bridge is sometimes a bit too much to bear. we park by the bridge and sit on the railings, letting our legs dangle over the treacherous depths to the river deep down below. although its winter and prime stargazing season, the bridge is empty – all the tourists having flooded in to the old bridge area and the town before sunset.

by 9 pm the tourists will reverse their journey over the bridge, seeking refuge for the night in the comfortable lights of greenville instead of in our single lonely and mostly empty motel. i’ve noticed that most tourists can’t take too much of the dim lights of starwood for any period of time – rather, they prefer the constant stream of comfortable 80 watt bulbs that greenville offers.

rachel, bathed in the glow of distant neon emanating from greenville, tells me she hates starwood, and wants to get out. she’s been thinking about living amongst the lights, she says, and can’t wait to graduate from high school and get out of here.

i’ve thought about it too, but i’ve come to realize that the lights are not for me. greenville always seems a little too bright. in spite of the multiple attractions, there’s always just a bit too much light. the one time i went to a restaurant in greenville, i got a severe headache, and my eyes had a really hard time focusing. i had to be driven home because i couldn’t see well enough to drive myself.

i ask rachel why she suddenly wants to leave. not too many people ever actually end up leaving starwood, probably for the same reasons. they work in other places, in the big cities and the factories and the banks and everything, but every night, before nightfall, they make sure they are back home in the confines of starwood.

rachel says nothing. she doesn’t stare at greenville; rather, she stares down at the river coursing below us. she’s quiet, but i think i see a tear running softly down her cheek, quietly refracting the distant neon of greenville. we haven’t spoken to each other much in the past two years, and, to be honest, i didn’t think we ever would. i had come to terms with us having drifted apart, and had moved on myself. but clearly something had drawn her back to her childhood friend. i know rachel well enough to know that she would eventually tell me what was bothering her, when she felt comfortable enough to, and that no amount of goading would get it out of her.

we sit silently on the bridge railings, listening to the river softly flow below us. the only other sound is the hum of greenville’s lights, which, on still nights, can seem so loud as to seem like some giant insect buzzing just outside our town.

another tear slides down rachel’s cheek. i don’t know if i’m brave enough to reach over and wipe it off, and don’t even have the courage to try.

rachel tells me about how she was raped one evening on the edge of town. she tells me how she couldn’t identify her attacker because it was too dark to see him, and how he grabbed her mouth and held her down. she tells me about how she tried to fight him off, but how he was too heavy.

rachel tells me about how every dark shadow cast by the oil street lamps scares her, and how she fears another attack. she tells me how the dark shapes of pedestrians walking the streets all look to her like the attacker himself, returning for more. she tells me how she’s now afraid of even the shadows cast by the dim light in her house, and how she savors every moment of daylight like it’s her last day on earth. she tells me how she’s going to run away soon, into the comforting arms of the bright lights of greenville.

rachel becomes strangely quiet after pouring her heart out to me. we listen to the river and the lights for a little while more before i drive her home again. we’re both quiet in the car on the drive back. i say good night to her, but i know it’s more of a goodbye.

all of a sudden, greenville’s lights don’t seem that bright anymore, and i can no longer hear their persistent buzz.

*******

a very rough draft, but, by golly, it’s the first story i’ve written in a year and a half! comments etc. highly appreciated.

contemplation

•December 30, 2007 • Leave a Comment

in lieu of actually posting anything worth reading.

the night it rained – reprise

•October 21, 2007 • 1 Comment

i originally wrote this story on august 23, 2005, but wasn’t happy with the way it turned out at all. i’ve always thought of rewriting it, but never actually got around to it till now.

some of the standard disclaimers from the previous version still apply, and so here they are again.

  • before i get bombed to hell and back for putting the azan in a story so rife with sin, i just want to say that the azan is in that story for two fundamental reasons:
    a. to serve as an indicator of the passage of time. this is actually a story that happens in a really short duration, but it doesn’t seem that way because of the initial flashbacks, and
    b. because the sound of the azan is one of the most beautiful sounds on the planet, and i wanted to include it in at least one of my stories.
  • this particular story is the culmination and combination of five completely different story ideas that i had running around in my skull.
  • this was the first story i wrote set in bangladesh.
  • i’ve put the names back in this edition.

**********************************************

(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)

the first dulcet strains of the muezzin’s azan reminded us of how late we were. the evening prayers had begun, and spending more time at our neighborhood dhaba meant that we would be caught goofing off by our fathers as they walked to the neighborhood mosque. gourav and quamrul haggled with the shopkeeper, arguing about how many cups of tea we had consumed, and how many cigarettes we had smoked, while farhad and i silently came up with a set of excuses for the parents when they berated us for coming home late again. we picked up our bookbags from their convenient resting places on the dusty road at our feet and headed homewards, walking against the swelling tide of people, bedecked in their panjabis and topis as they headed to the mosque for the evening prayers.

(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)

about 200 yards down from the dhaba is the corner where the street farhad and i live on branches off from the main road. we bid our farewells to gourav and quamrul at the corner, as they lived another block down, and took the dark, quiet alley that led to what had been our homes for our entire lives.

the road i live on curves slightly to the right at its very end, and on this curve, on opposite sides of the street, are farhad and my houses. we’d grown up opposite each other – one of my first memories is of standing on our second floor verandah aged two, looking across the street at farhad standing in his garden, looking at me. we had been considered too young to actually cross the street and play with each other. while our road is too narrow for cars, the brisk rickshaw traffic during the day can be dangerous to toddlers.

still, over the next two years, until we turned four and were allowed to visit each other by crossing the street with our hands grasped tightly by our mothers, we became best friends, despite the fact that we never met, never talked, and were always separated by a six-foot road jam-packed with rickshaws. there was some level of communication between us, even though not a word was spoken over those two years. when we finally did meet, at farhad’s fourth birthday party, farhad gave me a look, in response to my embarassed “happy birthday”, that seemed to say, “well, okay then.”

and that was an accurate portrayal of farhad, to tell the truth. he was generally the most collected person i had ever met, someone who seemed to be unfazed by the world and everything in it, someone who could be touched by tragedy yet seem like nothing had ever happened before. his maternal grandmother lived with them and passed away when he was six, and suddenly their house was flooded by a wave of grieving relatives who seemed so lost in their grief that they didn’t notice the fact that farhad, who had been his grandma’s favorite grandchild, seemed to stand out in their sea of tears, not smiling or laughing or crying or displaying any emotion whatsoever, but instead letting out a deep breath every once in a while, as if every breath was an exhalation of grief instead of air.

(ash-hadu allah ilaha illallah, ash-hadu allah ilaha illaha)

we walked past the gate of the local school, where, every morning, the throng of parents that had arrived to drop off their children was only matched by the multitude of beggars who had congregated there in search of alms. farhad, gourav, quamrul and i had all been students of the school at the primary level, and when we graduated into our middle school years, the four of us applied for and got into the same secondary school. our friendship was born in elementary school and had weathered the tumult of adolescence, but we had still somehow remained friends.

farhad and i were a different matter altogether. the two of us were thick as thieves, to the point that our families had to take vacations together – to places that seemed exotic and far away back then: cox’s bazar, shillong, darjeeling – because the two of were so uncooperative that we refused to be apart. the parents joked that we were getting our revenge on them for keeping us separated for those two fragile years, and they had slowly and grudgingly come to terms with it. when we were eleven or twelve years old, i would often tag along to his family functions, as he would to mine.

our families might have been completely different, but we were almost the same. farhad’s father was the youngest son of a rich nawab who flagrantly spent his money on creature comforts, leaving his children with little except his name. his mother, however, was the daughter of a rich industrialist, who, even at a very old age, was still going strong. after many years spent flitting from job to job, farhad’s father finally buckled his pride down and accepted a job at his father-in-law’s organization, yet was not educated or skilled enough to move too far up the ladder. his meager income was barely enough to keep them alive, but at least he owned the house they lived in. my parents, on the other hand, were both descended from rich families who had conserved their wealth, and my father was now the proprietor of his father’s industry. we had never left our house in the alley, because father always said that he had grown up in that house, and the memories he held were too precious to let go. my cousins all lived in palatial mansions in the posh areas, yet we were happy enough in our little alley, never even considering moving out.

as we grew up, people said we would slowly drift apart as we discovered our own separate interests. we did discover things we didn’t have in common – farhad started playing the guitar, and joined a short-lived rock band, while i discovered photography. in the beginning, we hardly saw each other in the afternoons. he was off jamming with his band, whereas i was holed up in the dark room that my father had had constructed especially for me, developing the pictures i had taken during the day. but in the evenings, farhad and i always made it a point to meet each other, and recount in glorious detail every single event that had happened during the day. he listened while i droned on about the rickshaw-puller that i had photographed sleeping soundly under the hood of his rickshaw in the searing heat, and made it a point to look at every single picture i had taken and tell me what he thought. meanwhile, i hung on every single word that he uttered about his jamming sessions, cursing the notes that he had messed up, or playing me the new song that they had composed. gourav and quamrul, who had discovered drugs and girls respectively, hardly ever joined us for these evening chats.

in time, farhad’s rock band split up, and he began to spend more time with me, following me around as i took pictures of our world around us, and giving me a helping hand in the dark room. after we passed our matriculation exams in class 10, we started hanging out at the dhaba, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and chatting about everything and anything we could think of. as we headed slowly towards our intermediate exams, gourav and quamrul, who had shown up infrequently, joined us at the tea-vendor’s stall as well, as it was a convenient point for us to meet between our private tuition sessions.

(ash-hadu anna muhammadur rasul allah, ash-hadu anna muhammadur rasul allah)

tonight, farhad and i walked slowly down the alley. we were surrounded on all sides by brick and concrete structures that had not changed since we were children, except for a fresh coat of paint here and there, and that had survived the rapid modernization of the city, since nobody wanted to build an apartment in an alley that cars couldn’t traverse. i noticed that farhad had been unusually quiet all day long. usually, farhad, being the witty one among the four of us, dished out the insults and the jokes at the expense of gourav, quamrul and i, but all of today, he had been on the receiving end. he hadn’t laughed at all at any of our jokes, and had not contributed to the chatter much, instead letting gourav blabber on about the ganja he had bought that had blown his mind, and letting quamrul mourn his latest relationship that had failed. i had known something was bothering him, but i didn’t want to bring it up in front of gourav and quamrul, figuring that he might want to share it with me alone.

dosto,” i asked finally, unable to bear the silence that had borne down upon us, “what’s wrong with you? you’ve been down all evening,” i ventured.

he stopped suddenly and looked at me, giving me a searching glance. “i don’t think i can tell you,” he said, before he started walking again.

that, alone, was enough to shock me. we hadn’t hidden anything from each other, ever. when farhad lost his virginity to a star-struck girl he didn’t really like, he told only me about it; likewise, i had shared with him the details of each of my family’s problems, my fears, my hopes, my desires. the fact that he was not willing to share whatever was on his mind with me was something i had not even considered.

(haiya alas swala, haiya alas swala)

“come on, bhai, you know you can trust me. whatever it is, if it’s really bothering you, as your best friend i have a right to know.”

farhad stopped and gave me another of those long searching looks. in the dim light that emanated from the houses we stood in front of, i could see a mixture of emotions in his eyes (love, hate, anger, sadness, betrayal), and i noticed for the first time that he seemed haunted by some distant fear. i realized that he was afraid not of what he knew, but of telling me. i was even more intrigued. i saw a flicker in his eyes – the same flicker i had seen right before he had been worn down by my pestering and told me about the girl. i decided to go in for the kill.

“come on, man, tell me,” i insisted.

“my parents are getting a divorce,” he began.

(haiya alal fala, haiya alal fala)

that was news to me. his parents had always seemed to have an amicable relationship. in fact, i’d never even seen them argue, and farhad had never told me about them fighting. “what? why?” i wondered.

farhad took a deep breath and let it out. “i found out last night,” he said, instead of replying to my question, “i didn’t know about it either. i overheard them fighting, and i hated both of them.” another deep breath, before the words started flowing out.

“my father’s been seeing someone else. he’s going to marry her, and he doesn’t want to be with us anymore. he doesn’t love us anymore.”

(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)

“what?” i nearly yelled. “that’s crazy, man. i’ve known your father for years, and i know he loves you a lot.”

farhad looked me straight in the eye as he spoke. “i heard him say it himself.”

“that’s crazy,” i reiterated. farhad’s eyes had me locked in their grip, and i was having a hard time breaking out of it. there was no way this could be true. and yet, the look in farhad’s eyes told me that he wasn’t making any of it up. “so what’s going to happen?” i asked. “is he going to move out?”

“no,” said farhad. “we’re leaving. he’s not leaving us with anything. we’re going to be moving back to chittagong to live with my uncle.”

and that’s when i realized why farhad hadn’t told me by himself about this, and why i had to drag it out of him. he didn’t want me to know that he was leaving, so i wouldn’t be hurt. but i hated him more – he was my best friend, and the closest thing i had to a brother, and he was leaving me.

the conflicting emotions nearly bowled me over. my love for farhad and the hate i felt for him for leaving; the desire to help him and support him now in his time of need, and the need to push him away for betraying me; the thought of what i’d do to him if he was making all this up. “when?” i managed to croak.

i saw a tear run down farhad’s cheek, glinting in the semi-darkness that lingered outside our gates. i knew then that he wasn’t lying about any of it. i had never seen him cry before, not once. “soon,” he said. “i didn’t want to tell you, dosto, i really didn’t. i’m sorry.” he looked down at the road, trying to hide the tears that were now flowing down freely.

in retrospect, i know now that i should have stayed back, talk to him, support him, comfort him. but i felt betrayed – i was about to lose the best friend i ever had, and i couldn’t forgive him for it, even though it wasn’t his fault. and so i ran freed from the spell that his eyes had cast upon me, i was no longer rooted to the spot. i ran into my house as fast as my legs could carry me, not stopping to answer my parents’ questions about where i was and what was wrong. i didn’t stop running until i reached my room.

(la ilaha illallah)

it never rains in our street during the night. i know that for a fact, because i’ve stayed up many nights waiting for it to rain so that i can take the perfect picture of the glowing streetlight in the rain.

but that night, it poured.

and i stood on my second floor verandah, staring at the spot in the garden across the street where, fifteen years ago, i had first seen the person who would become the best friend i had ever had.

this time there was nobody standing there looking up at me.

**********************************************

this time around, this story is about divorce and infidelity in the context of bangladesh, where it’s become a growing and more prominent phenomenon in the last few years. specifically, it’s about divorce impacts children and told from the perspective of a third party who isn’t directly affected, but is still too innocent to understand the implications and react accordingly. after all the narrator’s still a child, and we are all inherently selfish.

insomnia

•October 21, 2007 • Leave a Comment

the fazr azaan cuts through the quiet dawn morning, and silences the band playing on a neighbor’s rooftop. they’ve been going at it all night long – the remains of a gaye holud/bachelor party somewhere in the neighborhood. i imagine a whole silent city of bloodshot eyes in the morning, silently cursing the intent revelry that’s kept everyone else up all night.

but i’m not up late because of the music. my almost hermetically sealed windows and the sound of the air conditioner have drowned them out quite well. i’m up late again – or is it early in the morning? – immersed in something else.

someone else.

my mind still resonates with her final murmurs and sighs as sleep envelopes her. i remember i didn’t wish her a good night, but she was already asleep before i could. but there are bigger things for me to worry about.

for as long as i can remember, it’s been my second nature to critically deconstruct everything i say and do, usually before i do it. but this time, i haven’t given myself the opportunity. and that makes me worry; after a near eternity of guarding my emotions so closely, i’m finally letting them take full rein and lead me on. but that scares me – what if i end up getting hurt again? after a lifetime of unrequited affection, what if this ends up following the same road? what if i end up doing something completely stupid and thereby lose the one person in a long time who’s managed to inspire and excite me enough to let my guard down long enough to actually feel alive, for once?

worrying about everything is possibly my quintessential characteristic. but right now, i can’t seem to concentrate on even these concerns. the promise of a brand new day and the prospect of hearing her voice again eclipse everything else.

the soft plucking of a guitar mixes with the final notes of the azaan. a soft imperceptible rain falls and distorts the flickering decorative lights from the wedding house. dhaka’s in the grips of another very late post-monsoon depression, and the light slowly coming off the eastern horizon reveals a sky scarred with clouds.

but, as the band strikes up again, i think that, this time, i’m going to be all right.

on writing

•October 1, 2007 • 1 Comment

the lamest excuse i could possibly come up with for not writing more on this blog would be the most truthful one: really bad time management. i could have come up with something more original and even slightly more exciting, like a tremendously active social life, or a blooming love affair, or even a sudden influx of new best friends, but none of those would be truthful. seeing that i haven’t written any new fiction in over a year, if truth were to desert my writing as well, that would leave me with absolutely nothing to write about.

but no. the excuse for my continued absence would have to be my lack of effective time management skills. or rather, given the amount of time management i’m already engaged in – balancing work, classes and the band – dedicating time for writing seems to have fallen through the cracks. despite an intention to poach a good friend’s own practice of writing at least 1000 words a day, i haven’t been able to live up to it yet. it seems that, once my time is split between classes, work and the band, the remainder is dedicated to a free-for-all assortment of other activities: shaving, for example, or spending time with the family. writing falls into this list. however, it’s mostly always at the bottom of the priority list, given that watching movies or reading books provides more convenient and enjoyable distraction.

in the meantime, my short story acid somehow got published in the eid special of the new age, an english language daily. [i realize, of course, that linking to the published story here effectively destroys the last shreds of anonymity that this blog had, but i’m certain that if anyone still reads this blog today, they already know me.] i’ve had mixed feelings about the publication. first, i’m not certain how they got their hands on it – i don’t consciously remember submitting it for consideration. second, given that it’s my first publication, i’m of course quite excited. but finally, i’m not certain if i wanted it published in the form it is in currently. as part of my procrastination about writing new stuff, i keep telling myself that first i’ll revise all the old stories, but i never get around to that either. and i’m certain that most of them need revision.

except club rio, of course. even if i wanted to change that story around, the only message i ever wanted to get across through it is covered in the first few lines, whereas the rest is just an afterthought. but others, like the night it rained, definitely need a lot of work on my part.

but now that something has finally been published, i feel it’s about time i started writing again. for the past few days, i’ve been dreaming up a new story, again set in bangladesh, and, like acid, concerned with a burning issue. although i haven’t started work on it, i plan to do so shortly.

in the meantime, the response from the elders on the publication of acid has been, to say the least, very interesting. my father told me, “the plot was good, the writing was good, the ending was good, but you didn’t need to put sex into it!” as that was the first time i ever heard him use the dreaded s-word, i consider it a huge achievement. a professor also called it “very mature writing”, which actually means, i presume, that it constitutes reading material for the very mature. and all this fuss about something that may or may not have happened! for god’s sake, they were only lying in bed together and kissing, not explicitly naked, and at one point they “finished” doing something. that doesn’t mean they had sex! it could have been a billion different things – thumb-wrestling, for one. and several other things that escape my mind at this moment. but no, the perverted minds of humans automatically assume that they were making babies! god.

one last thing before we close for today. i’ve tried out a variety of writing styles – from the onion to maddox to even any random political blog you come across. but none of that is me. so, henceforth, i’m going to be writing in my own style about things that interest me, just to see how it comes out. if you’re still reading a year from now, i’m sure you deserve an award.

come to think of it, if i’m still writing a year from now, i deserve an award.

crush me

•June 10, 2007 • 4 Comments

if one particular young lady only knew how her smile affects mere mortals like me, she’d probably never smile again.

yes, as strange as it may seem, after three years i think i’m finally interested in someone.

too bad i’m too much of a wuss to actually make a move. rather, let me rephrase. too bad i’m too much of an economist that i must conduct a detailed cost-benefit analysis before i make a move.

sigh.

published

•June 9, 2007 • Leave a Comment

my short story acid was recently selected as a winner of a competition for young bangladeshi writers hosted by the website monsoonletters.com. in exchange, i get my own page on the site! check it out here.