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Coconut Island

Iftekhar Sayeed

    For four days it rained.
    From my apartment on the third floor, all I could see was rain. It was evening. The streetlights were off. The streets were flooded. The newspaper had pictures of people catching fish. Trees were uprooted. The wind whistled past my apartment building. The power was intermittently on and off today – yesterday and the day before, there had been darkness most of the night. The temperature had dropped and it was cold in the apartment. It was the worst downpour in fifty years.
    I was startled when the intercom buzzed. The guard announced that a lady wanted to come up. A lady! On such a night! I was in my pyjamas – I hadn’t been out for days. Nevertheless, I told him to send her up. I put on my maroon dressinggown.
    “I am Mrs. Nasir,” she announced as she sat in my cane sofa. “I desperately need your help.”
    Before me sat a woman covered head to foot in a black burqua. Only her face was visible. She was remarkably good-looking, with a straight nose and a wide mouth. She wore no make-up. I guessed she must have been in her mid-forties.
    “What can I do for you, Mrs. Nasir?”
    My curiosity had been thoroughly aroused. The wind whistled, but I didn’t hear it anymore. Mrs. Nasir must have taken a rickshaw from the main road and, huddled in it, sat through the flood the vehicle passed through. Her feet and the lower fringes of her burqua were wet. That she had left her car on the main road was obvious: she seemed rich. She had brought with her the odour of damp vegetation.
    She was grim. She had not once smiled. She produced a picture from her bag. It was of a girl with short hair. She was smiling. I noticed the similarity with the mother.
    “My daughter died.”
    “I’m sorry.”
    “They say she killed herself, but I don’t believe them.”
    There was silence. We heard the rain pattering against the window, and the growls of thunder. The depression from the Bay of Bengal had moved up over the country. That was the cause of all the commotion, according to the papers.
    “She was a student at St. Martin’s Girls’ High School.”
    I was confirmed in my opinion that the lady was very rich. Only the richest Bangladeshis could afford to send their daughters to the school on an island in the Bay.
    “On July 5th, they say, she took a boat and rowed out into the sea and never returned.” Her voice was naturally hoarse, but crying must have cracked it more. But there were no tears now.
    “Who are they, Mrs. Nasir?”
    “The principal, Tara Rice, and the staff.” She shivered. I rose and took a step towards the kitchen to make us some coffee, but she said, “Please don’t bother, Mr. Shah. I need to talk.” I sat back.
    “In June, Fara Diba came home for the summer vacation. She was very disturbed. One of the first things she did was to go out and buy herself a burqua. She used to be a very smart girl, wearing trousers and a T-shirt outside and a skirt at home. And then the prayers began. She began to pray five times a day, sometimes even six. She would talk very little. When my husband and I asked her if anything was wrong, she would merely say, ‘Nothing’s wrong. Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.’” She paused. “Could I have a glass of water please?”
    She sipped the water.
    “I didn’t always used to wear a burqua. But after my daughter died, I can’t seem to do without one. I feel she would have liked me to.” She cleared her throat. “There was something troubling her, Mr. Shah, something that happened before the summer vacations started. And she didn’t kill herself. I’m sure of that.”
    “Whom do you suspect?”
    She shrugged and arched her mouth. “There are over three hundred girls in the school. There are the islanders. Anyone could have....”
    “You want me to find her killer?”
    She nodded.
    “Assuming she was murdered, that is.”
    “I’m positive she was.”
    “You haven’t gone to the police?”
    “The entire matter has been kept silent. My husband is an influential man, and he didn’t allow any publicity. You know how newspapers are. We have filed a case, but you know the police aren’t going to get anywhere. There are so many people being murdered in this country.”
    “I can’t promise anything, Mrs. Nasir....”
    “I know, I know, Mr. Shah, but will you try?”
    It seemed a hopeless case, but I couldn’t say no. I nodded.
    “You’ll try your best?” Her eyes were wet with appeal.
    “I’ll try my best.”
    She gave me a folder containing some of Fara Diba’s papers. One of them was a photocopy of a translation of an old Tamil poem, Silappadigaram, that is, The Jeweled Anklet. It is about fidelity: Kovalan and Kannagi are husband and wife; trouble begins when Kovalan sets eyes on Madavi, a dancer; he leaves his wife and squanders his wealth on the nautch-girl; then husband and wife go to the city to recover their fortune, their only wealth now being a pair of jeweled anklets; Kovalan tries to sell one of the anklets but is accused by the court jeweler of having stolen one of the queen’s anklets; he is summarily executed; Kannagi proves his innocence with the other anklet. She brings down the royal household and the gods are on her side. Such is the power of a faithful wife.
    When the rain lessened, I took the night bus to Cox’s Bazaar; it wasn’t raining there. I then took a bus to Teknaf. St. Martin’s Island is 28 kilometres from Teknaf: 18 kilometres down the Naf River and 10 kilometres down the Bay of Bengal. The bus trip to Teknaf is always pleasant: the road snakes through the forested hills, shegun and sal trees on either side.
    Since it was midday by the time I got to Teknaf, I decided to spend the night at Hotel Ne Taung, 5 kilometres north of Teknaf town. It was a single-storeyed building with 14 rooms and a suite. The hotel rested on a hill; behind rose two further hills. The second was on a level with the rear of the hotel; and the third rose several hundred feet. The hills could be seen from the back; from the verandah of my room in front, I could see, between the eucalyptuses and acacias, the River Naf and beyond the misty blue hills of Burma. The hotel had a lovely garden to match the scenery: ixoras, roses and china roses were abundant. The hedges were trim and the green lawn well kept. Colourful butterflies went from flower to flower. Dragonflies hovered in the air.
    The silence lay like a blanket, and the heat emanated from the hills in waves. We forget that sound and light are substances and that they beat on our bodies like any other substance. The quiet of the place affected the body: only a few crickets could be heard, and sometimes the bark of a dog or the call of a child from the village nearby. A plume of smoke rose from between the areca and coconut palms, indicating cooking. Otherwise there was hardly any sign of human activity. The quiet of the place affected the body: there seemed a sudden oneness between mind and body. At night, the darkness affected me similarly. And the moonlight – for it was full moon – clothed the hills and forest in silver. All stress seemed to escape the body: only the heat remained to affect it strangely. The heat of the hills was different; it was an enveloping, ambient heat; it did not descend from above, or rise from below, but embraced one from all sides; it was an erotic heat, suffusing – with the darkness and the silence and the moonlight - the entire personality; it reminded me of an elephant in must.
    The next morning, right after breakfast, I stood next to the Cox’s Bazaar-Teknaf highway in front of the hotel, waiting for some kind of vehicle to pick me up. I stood in the shade of the acacias: a breeze fluttered the leaves and kept me cool. A vehicle which the locals call a chander gari (literally, moon vehicle) stopped. It was a pick-up converted to seat passengers at the back. In the event, eleven passengers, including three children, sat in the back, seven on the roof, and an equal number hung from the rear, standing. Two women in burquas occupied the front seats. They made some room for me to sit at the back. My suitcase went on the roof.
    Some of the passengers got off en route: the remainder disembarked at Teknaf town, at the place known simply as the Bus Stand. The place was loud with the sound of horns, yells, and arriving and departing buses, pick-ups and autorickshaws. The air was thick with fumes. The ground was littered with sugar cane shavings. The sun beat down from a clear cerulean sky. I turned left towards Namar Bazaar, avoiding two cows coming my way. I finally decided to take a trishaw, even though it was a short distance to the ghat: the day was too hot for a walk.
    The trishaw stopped before the bridge that connects the Bus Stand with Namar Bazaar, a short affair. I turned left, then right, then left again into the waiting room. I could see the green waters of the Naf outside the patterned grills on the window. There were three tourists there already: two of them were arguing with the man at the desk, and the other sat looking at them from a corner. The man at the desk was trying to get them to rent a boat exclusively for themselves, and they were refusing. Finally, the three men prevailed.
    Only the four of us were in trousers and shirts: the remaining passengers all wore lungis with shirts, vests or nothing. I bought my ticket and went on board. I sat next to the tiller. A bare-bodied man in a lungi was loading white sacks of rice from a truck behind the building on to the boat: he dropped a sack at my feet every time he made a trip. Finally, there were enough sacks and passengers to start the journey. Two chairs were placed in the centre of the boat for the women passengers: they were concealed head to toe by burquas. I noticed that the tourists were wearing life jackets – and nobody else!
    We sailed down the green waters of the Naf: the hills of Bangladesh were behind us and those of Burma on our left. After an hour the sky groaned and we were assailed by rain. Umbrellas opened but some passengers just got wet. The tourists were wearing anoraks and were listening to their Discmans at the prow. From where I sat the waves danced away from the boat and the rain pitted the green surface. A silver streak of lightning descended in the southwest, blazing a hair-thin line of white fire into the waters somewhere in the offing. Terns flew overhead. The engine belched smoke and the noise made conversation impossible.
    The students at St. Martin’s Girls’ High School did not have to make this arduous journey by boat, of course. The school had its own sea truck, and ferried the girls from Teknaf to the island, and back.
    Finally, we were in the sea. Because the depression had gone, the sea was calm as a river now. This particular passage can be quite alarming in normal weather, with tourists throwing up from the rocking of the boat.
    We made landfall around midday. Large fishing boats were anchored to the beach. Some were going noisily out to sea. The island depended on fishing. A row of coconut palms danced in the wind.
    My hotel – the Nijhum - was on the other side of the island. I put my luggage on a trishaw that carried only goods, and hopped on at the front. A boy pedaled, and four others pushed it over the only road on the island. I checked in, rested a while, then took the same vehicle (called a ‘van’ in this country) back to where I had come from, the bazaar. It wasn’t yet the tourist season, so the hotel wasn’t serving meals; I had lunch at the grandly titled and incorrectly spelled ‘Haji Mohsin Turist Park And Rasturent’. The pomfret and rice were good.
    St. Martin’s High School was at the other end of the island – the southern end. The place was called Cheradeep, and I had to rent a boat to get there and back. I asked Haji Mohsin for a boat and he said I could have one for five hundred takas. I sipped my tea as I waited for the boat to come.
    I walked down to the beach, into the water and then got on the boat. A grizzled old man steered the boat while his young son looked after the engine. To the east rose the hills of Burma and Bangladesh, and to the west lay the island and the Bay.
    Cheradeep was a lonely outpost. On our way, I saw only a few men drying fish and some girls collecting shells. Cheradeep was completely cut off from the rest of the island at high tide. The screw-palms terminated in the school building, which was enclosed by a high wall. The place was inhospitable. The rocks, and some dead, white coral, stood like full stops all the way to the beach. It was ebb tide, so the boat couldn’t touch the beach. Shoes in hand, I stood on rock in the clear water, then climbed to higher ground. The wind beat against my eardrums. The sun shone with heat.
    There was a steel door in the wall. I put my shoes on and made for the door. I was surprised to find a switch for a bell. I rang several times and the door opened. A dark young woman in a green saree greeted me.
    “I wish to speak with Ms. Tara Rice,” I said.
    She led me up a flagged pavement. The red, two-storeyed school building stood a few metres away. I climbed a flight of stairs and entered a room with a lot of books, a glass-topped desk with a computer and two views of the sea.
    The lady closed the door.
    I looked out. I could see Teknaf and Burma through one window and the beach and Bay through the other. Since the principal was late, I made myself comfortable in a chair.
    Ms. Rice came in. She was a tall woman with fine features and short, golden hair. She was wearing a black lace saree with a crochet blouse. I could see was wearing a black bra.
    “I am so sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr - .”
    “Shah, Zafar Shah.” We shook hands.
    “The girls were having a cultural program.” She spoke slowly and in a deep voice. I guessed she must have been in her mid-thirties. “I’m not usually so late nor so overdressed.” She laughed. We both sat down.
    I, of course, would have accused her of being underdressed – the principal of a school is expected to be more sober in her attire. But then this was St. Martin’s and I supposed they did things differently here. She’d had time to put on perfume, though.
    “I’m here to discuss the death of Fara Diba Nasir.”
    She stiffened, and looked at the desk. She looked up again. “I see. And why are you interested in her death?”
    “Her mother asked me to look into the – her daughter’s disappearance.”
    It was quite hot in the room, despite the windows. There was a fan but I assumed the generator would not be turned on before evening. Perspiration dotted her forehead.
    “I feel terrible about Fara Diba. She took a boat out without our permission. We use the boat when it’s very calm and under close inspection. It was a rowing boat. She never came back.” She looked out of the western window as though she would restore Fara Diba with her gaze if she could.
    “Why do you think she did that?” I looked into her blue eyes.
    She looked away. “She was terribly depressed. Ever since she came back from summer vacation, from her parents, she was depressed. She wouldn’t talk to the other girls, she wouldn’t turn up for classes, she wouldn’t finish her meals....We were thinking of sending her home, actually, when...when she took the boat.”
    “Why do you think she did that?” I repeated.
    She played with her gold chain. “She killed herself.” She looked into my eyes. “It’s as simple as that.” I thought I detected a note of annoyance.
    “It couldn’t have been murder?”
    “Heavens, no! Who would want to murder Fara Diba?”
    “Perhaps you can tell me.”
    She shook her head. “It’s quite out of the question.”
    “If anything occurs to you, Ms. Rice, could you please let me know? I’m staying at the Nijhum, Room 6.”
    “By all means.”
    It was past one o’ clock at night. The generator at the Nijhum had been turned off at 10:00. I was alone. There was a dune in front of the hotel. A cot had been placed there and I had lain on it, watching the moon rise. The moon lit up the sea and the surf and the screw-palms. There were only a few, whitish clouds. The only sounds were those of the surf and, faintly, the crickets. The night was warm. In the distance, hurricane lamps indicated fishing boats at sea. Behind me, the lighthouse winked every few minutes. I felt restless as I went over my interview with Tara Rice. I walked down the dune to the beach. Here, the sea was nearly at my feet, for it was spring tide. The air was hot, as it blew the waters in. All I heard, as I walked down the beach, my shadow at my side, were the roar of the sea and the hiss of retreating waves.
    And then I heard some girls laughing.
    There were three of them, walking, running, towards me from the south, the direction of the school. They emerged from the shadow of the screw-palms. They were in school uniform - a dark skirt and white shirt. They stopped when they spotted me.
    “Hello,” I said.
    They were silent. The wind tugged at their short hair and their skirts. I walked up to them. I could smell their perspiration.
    “My name is Zafar Shah. I was at your school today.”
    A few mumbled “Hellos” followed.
    “I was there about Fara Diba.”
    “Oh!” went up in unison. They hung their heads.
    “Yeah, that was terrible.”
    “I don’t know why she did that.”
    “She must have been really, really upset.”
    I let them go on, then I changed the subject. I wanted them to keep talking.
    “Why are you out here so late at night?” I asked. I was genuinely curious.
    “It’s our extramural activity.” They spoke with an American accent.
    “What? Walking up and down the beach?”
    They laughed, or rather, giggled.
    “No!” one of them explained, pushing her hair back. “We look for turtles.”
    Another joined in. “Yeah, sea-turtles. See, they come in out of the water when it’s time to lay eggs. They find a spot on the beach, make a nest, lay their eggs and go.”
    “We take the eggs to the hatchery over there.”
    “Yeah, and then they hatch, and we let them go back to the sea.”
    “So you have to be out at night!” I saw the light then.
    “Late at night.”
     “Is it safe?”
    “It’s perfectly safe.”
    “There’s never been anything here until -.”
    “What other extramural activity do you do?”
    “We go fishing, coral-hunting, we look for crabs....”
    “We go to the mainland....”
    “Where do you stay on the mainland?”
    There were a few seconds of silence, when again all I could hear were the roar and hiss of the waves.
    “At Hotel Ne Taung.”
    “That’s where I stayed.”
    Silence again. They shuffled, one of them shook the others, and they turned to go.
    “We gotta go.”
    “Yeah, we’re gonna check out the hatchery.”
    “This is as far as we walk, anyway.”
     “Let me come with you.”
    But I couldn’t keep up with them. They nearly ran. So did their shadows.
    I’d never considered schoolgirls in this light, so to speak. Imagine these nymphs in skirts, bathing in moonlight, laughing at nothing significant, wandering over a deserted beach, shaking their hair as they half-walked, half-ran. I resisted the feeling of being a dirty old man, for the scene was trying to tell me something, something of importance for Fara Diba and her mother.
    The girls suddenly disappeared between a pair of screw-palms that cast their shadows on the beach. I stopped and tried to hear for them. Nothing.
    Ten minutes later they re-emerged, torch in hand. They seemed to be carrying something. I walked up.
    “What do you have there?”
    “Oh, you’re still here!”
    “Turtle hatchlings. Two of them. Here, you take one.”
    The hatchling felt like rubber in my hands. It tried to clamber out of my hand. We walked to the waves. The water was warm.
    “Just let it go and it’ll find its way to the sea.”
    We let the hatchlings go, but they insisted on moving in the reverse direction.
    “Turn off your torch, Nazia!”
    Nazia turned off her torch. In the moonlight, we saw the two hatchlings race for the sea. One final wave finally swallowed them up.
    “We better go!”
    “It was nice meeting you!”
    The following morning I took a boat back to Teknaf at dawn. I put up again at Hotel Ne Taung. I asked the receptionist if I could check the Guest Registration Register; he seemed a little surprised, but did not object.
    “When did the St. Martin’s High School girls last come to stay here?”
    “Let me see the Register.” He was a short, fair chap with round eyes. He turned the large green pages over again and again, then stopped.
    Under the column ‘Name and Address of the Guest/Group’ it said ‘Tara Rice, St. Martin’s’. Under ‘Number of Guests’ it said ‘14’. They had stayed only one night. They came on May 9th, and left on May 10th.
    “Do you have a lot of guests in May?”
    “Oh, no, sir. During the summer the hotel is practically empty. It’s too hot for people to travel.”
    “But I see you also had,” – I counted – “fourteen other guests.” They also had stayed only one night – the night of the 9th – and left the following day.
    “That’s very unusual, sir. Excuse me, sir, I have to go to the restaurant. Please help yourself with the register.”
    I did.
    There were no telephones at Ne Taung, so I had to go into town to call Nazma. I asked her to come down to Hotel Ne Taung from Dhaka. I had an errand for her on St. Martin’s Island. If she took the day bus, she could be here tonight and at St. Martin’s tomorrow afternoon. She could have her interview with Tara Rice, stay overnight at St. Martin’s, and be on her way back to Dhaka after seeing me the following day. I waited at the shop from where I had made the call. She called back to confirm. Also, she had been on the Internet checking up on Tara Rice.
    “She works for an NGO called Fidelio,” reported Nazma on the phone.
    “Fidelio? That’s Beethoven’s opera.”
    “They’re dedicated to promoting individualism in Asian countries.”
    Nazma was as good as her word. She came down, met with Tara Rice, briefed me and left. After seeing Nazma off on a bus to Cox’s Bazaar, I went down to the ghat and caught a boat to St. Martin’s. I rented a boat from Haji Mohsin again and got to the school late in the afternoon.
     I found myself in the principal’s room again. The sun painted a silver line over the western waters. Through the window, I could see the parentheses of fishing boats on the horizon. A sandpiper ambled on the beach. In the east, the water was blue.
    “Mr. Shah, we meet again!”
    We shook hands and took our seats like before. She wore a short blue skirt, and an off-white T-shirt.
    “I’m sorry but I haven’t been able to remember anything, Mr. Shah. Otherwise I would have let you know. You’re still at the Nijhum, I suppose.”
    “No, I’m not. I’m staying at Hotel Ne Taung at Teknaf.”
    “That’s a nice hotel.”
    “Yes, you should know. You take the girls there every year.”
    Her jaws had stiffened. The ample mouth was hard.
    “You were there this year on May 9th.”
    “You’ve been checking up on us. Why?”
    “Again you were there last year on May 19th, and the year before on May 29th.”
    She toyed with a pen.
    “You are partial to the full moon, it seems.”
    “Aren’t you?”
    “Very much. The full moon occurs ten days early every year. I didn’t attach much importance to the fact at first. Perhaps it had something to do with the Muslim calendar. Or perhaps it was just an idiosyncrasy.”
    “Or perhaps it had something to do with the girls’ extramural activity,” she suggested in her careful, deliberate tone.
    “Perhaps. But I also noticed that the other half of the hotel would be full on the same night. Full of men. And this at a time when guests rarely came to Ne Taung. And those men would leave the next day, just like you and the girls.”
    “Three times? You met my associate, Nazma Zaman, today.”
    Her body rose slightly from the chair. “So she was working for you?”
    “She made you an offer. She wanted some girls to have sex with her clients. You agreed.”
    Tara was silent.
    “I’ve noticed that the moon has quite an effect on the body. And, of course, on the mind. Along with silence and darkness and the heat, it reduces the personality’s resistance to suggestions. Suggestions which well brought up girls might find repugnant. And, of course, you yourself joined the ceremonies.”
    “You think we do it for the money?”
    “I’m not naive, Tara. You’re not running a brothel. You’re running an academy. You work for an NGO called Fidelio. That’s the password to the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.”
    “Very good, Zafar.”
    “You promote individualism in Asia. You hope to bring about a truly democratic society.”
    She brought the pen down on the table.
    “And why not? We wish to destroy the family. Fidelity must go. We run an elite institution that teaches girls to look out for themselves. And they start by taking ownership of their bodies. Do you know that most girls are virgins in this country when they marry? Virgins!” She found the word detestable. “And the divorce rate here confirms that women are slaves. It’s pathetically low. The democracy that you have is just a sham. Freedom isn’t just a piece of paper. Freedom has to do with your entire being.” She took a book off the shelf and turned the pages. “In 1987 the sex ratio at birth in South Korea was 109. That was the year of the democratic transition. The next year it shot up to 113.5! Can you believe that? Women in Asia abort female foetuses, and the richer and more educated they are, the more likely they are to do that. The male-centred family is still the norm. And so long as that’s the case, there will never be freedom, for men or women.”
    She had turned scarlet with rage.
    “Why did you have to kill Fara Diba?”
    The question deflated her. Her shoulders drooped. She looked at the screw-palms outside the window.
    “We didn’t want to. But she wouldn’t listen! We took her to Ne Taung, but after she came back she was a nervous wreck. The other girls were fine. We’ve been doing this year after year, and the girls have always responded positively. But with Fara Diba it was useless.”
    “So you got rid of her.”
    She nodded.
    I rose.
    “I think I have everything I need for Mrs. Nasir.”
    “Are you sure I can’t tempt you to side with us? It’s a bit like paradise here for a man, you know.”
    “I think the newspapers will be very interested.”
    She rose, too,
    “Oh no, they won’t. Do you think it was Mr. Nasir alone who hushed up the story about Fara Diba’s death? We did it. You can go to the authorities, if you like, but it won’t do you any good. We’re a mighty NGO. We can grease every important palm there is. We have the money to buy up ministries.”
    I knew I was face to face with evil. The muscles on my neck had tightened. I wanted to take the boat back to the bazaar.
    “There will be more schools like St. Martin’s Girls’ High School, Zafar. Why don’t you join us? You can be rich. We can use a man of your intelligence.” She came over to me and kissed my lips lightly. Her fingers worked on my crotch. I hadn’t thought of the power that such an NGO must have, and that paralysed me momentarily. I looked out of the eastern window and saw the hills of Teknaf.
    I brushed past her, and walked out into the sun and the beach and the shoal. Haji Mohsin’s boat waited for me. I clambered over the rocks and got in.
    If they were so powerful, why did they have to kill her?

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