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Orphic Song

Iftekhar Sayeed

Language is a perpetual Orphic song – Percy Bysshe Shelley

    The first time I saw the missing woman’s picture, my nails nearly bored through the paper. Tasnia was fair, with golden black hair, straight nose, taut cheekbones and a wide, though thin, mouth. Her eyes drew one to mysterious depths. They were ebony pools.
    Young women were disappearing from Bangladesh – beautiful young women in their early 20s. No one knew the reason. They weren’t being trafficked, according to neighbouring countries. The border guard had no news of them. Yet several hundred girls must have gone missing in less than a year.
    Tasnia’s mother – like many mothers – came to my flat with pictures. Tasnia was the most beautiful victim of them all. Her mother wore a hijab covering her ample hair and revealing her fair face, like her daughter’s but without the proportions. Both mother and daughter were tall. As she sobbed, I assured her that I would do everything in my powers – and both of us knew that was little, though she must have hoped otherwise.
    I looked long at the girl with long, loose hair in a blue shalwar kameez, and placed the photo gently in my shirt pocket, from where it was transferred to the top of my table where I could see it all the time.

    Alighting from a trishaw before my apartment building in Dhanmandi around dusk, I heard rapid steps approaching where I stood. It was the time when the muezzins called the faithful to prayer. The street was lit by a flickering fluorescent lamp. I paid the trishaw-puller and waited. A tall figure in a burqua came breathlessly up to me and asked for a name and address.
    “I am Zafar Shah,” I replied.
    She raised her niqab. It was Tasnia.

    A few hours prior to this event, I had received a call from a young lady. She said that she had been kidnapped, but was being saved by an army Captain. She gave her name as Tasnia, and said that she was on a bus from Bandarban to Dhaka and the Captain had instructed her to find me. Naturally, I gave her my details and didn’t think much of it afterwards – until the angel herself stood before me!
    I lodged her in my flat and went out to fetch some kachchi biriani for dinner. The flat smelled of the delicacy and she ate hungrily.
    She had taken off her burqua while I had been away and I came home to see a seraph in a flowered kameez and white shalwar with black sandals. However, on her long journey she had perspired a great deal and the odour threatened to overwhelm the biriani. But there was something exciting about the smell of her sweat. Feeling self-conscious, no doubt, she asked for some perfume and now a third entity affected the olfactory nerve.
    During dinner, I looked her over carefully for any marks of injury, but there were none. Her fair complexion was somewhat flushed, but that was only natural. Then I was mesmerised by her long, thin fingers gathering the food into the aperture of her mouth – an aperture that had already drawn mine there in imagination.
    The meal was over and she helped me clear the table and insisted on washing the plates while I made coffee. She was obviously a rich person’s daughter, and her inept washing of the plates resulted in a lot of clatter.
    We had coffee over the glass-topped table. The beverage smelled nice, relaxing.
    “Tell me, now, what happened. I am very curious. And before I call your mother I want to hear the story.”
    Her eyes grew large and she spilled some coffee. “Ouch!”
    “You burned yourself. Let me get you something.”
    I had risen from the table to get some ointment when she stayed my hand.
    “It’s nothing!” she insisted in her dulcet voice. She washed her hand in the sink. “But you can’t call my mother. The army is listening in on her phone and watching her place. Sit down. I’ll explain everything.”

    A few months ago – she couldn’t recall how many, so I helped her there – she and her mother had gone shopping in Bashundhara shopping mall. They had somehow got separated and then she woke up in a bus, apparently drugged. The bus was full of other girls, some more awake than others, and so beginning to cry before everyone joined in. The driver and his attendant were in military fatigues and it was clear to Tasnia that the army had kidnapped them. But why?
    “The Captain was a woman of short build and she had her hair in a ponytail trailing beneath her cap. From the first day, she took a shine to me, and called me by my name instead of ‘girl’. Her name was Shabnam – she let me call her that instead of ‘Captain’.
    “We travelled the whole night and came to Bandarban, somewhere outside town. There was a guarded six-storey building and we were herded into one of the dormitories. We wept and pleaded, but it was useless. Yet they were very kind to us and breakfast was luxurious. In fact, every meal was an event, like the biriani we just had.”
    Each girl had her own bed and Captain Shabnam slept among them in a corner, right next to Tasnia, whom she had placed there. At first, she would talk to Tasnia about all sorts of things – but never about Tasnia’s home – and then she resorted to holding Tasnia’s hands. One day, very upset, she told Tasnia what their fate was going to be.
    “You will lose your virginity to the soldiers first, and then when you are fertile, you will be mated with a man called Gilgamesh – “
    “Gilgamesh!” I shrieked.
    “You know about him?”
    This time it was my turn to spill the coffee. It smarted.
    “The Gilgamesh I read about died several thousand years ago looking for immortality.”
    “Then he’s found it!”
    I was shaking my head vigorously, then pacing the dining room. “This is madness!”
    “Shabnam said that Gilgamesh was immortal and with him we would have immortal Bengali children. The language would never die.”
    I turned the fan up because I was hotter now. I went to my room and brought a bottle of Passport. I began rapidly to pour out two pegs into a glass when I noticed her look of disapproval.
    “You drink?”
    “Every time I hear about Gilgamesh, I drink. I hope you don’t mind.”
    She pouted. I took a big gulp and felt my innards warm with the fluid.
    “Go on. Let me hear the rest of your strange story.” I sat down, and added mentally “Before I call your mother and get you off my hands”.
    She sipped some coffee. The fan whirred overhead and played with her dupatta. Just then there was a power failure and the lights went out before the generator was turned on. In that instant, she grabbed my hand in both of hers.
    “Believe me, Zafar sahib, believe me!”
    “Call me Zafar. And go on.” The generator had been switched on and it made an awful noise. But in the light I could see Tasnia was weeping. I returned the pressure of her hands, and smiled.
    “Gilgamesh. I remember his name very well. I heard it many times from Captain Shabnam. The orders had come from the prime minister herself. The Bengali language must be made immortal, like Gilgamesh. But Shabnam said that she would not let that happen to me, if I would do her a favour.” Here, Tasnia buried her face in her hands and broke down.
    I put an arm around her and hushed her. The rest of the story came in sobs.
    “She took me to a room and undressed me. We lay on the bed and she kissed me everywhere, and then she...she made me do things....”
    Obviously, the soldier had had a lesbian incident with her. We both rose, and I hugged her close to me.
    “The next day she gave me a mobile phone with only your number. She had got it from an intelligence officer who was tracing my mother’s calls. Nobody suspected you of trying to help the girls because nobody could. That’s why we mustn’t call my mother – even from your phone. She also gave me money for a bus ticket and a burqua to hide myself. When the army found that I was missing, a search would begin. But nobody would dare to ask a woman to take off her burqua.”
    The power came back on and the awful generator was switched off. We ended our embrace with the story. Now, I believed her – though not the bit about Gilgamesh. Anyway, Operation Gilgamesh would cause untold suffering if it were allowed to continue.
    “Where is this man, Gilgamesh?”
    She looked wide-eyed. “I don’t know.”
    Probably somewhere in Bandarban or the Hill Tracts, a vast area in the south-east. But first things first. The army regularly patrolled Dhaka, by road and by air, so if Tasnia ventured out, they would definitely spot her. She had to change.

    I didn’t know much about sarees. But I ventured out the next morning looking for a pair that would make her look older, different. I came back with a red georgette and a blue chiffon saree with black heels. She loved them. Then I had a tailor brought home, had her measured and by evening her blouses were ready. But that still left her face.
    In the evening, under cover of the flickering fluorescent lamp, we made our way to the nearest beauty parlour. She had her hair dyed first – the gold blacked out. Then she chose long layers of hair that distributed large curls, leaving the face open and framed. She was transformed into a sensuous but slightly older woman in her red georgette saree she wore that night.
    “Zafar, you are a good man,” she murmured leaning against me.
    “Am I? Would a good man desire you so much?”
    She looked up at me, her curls shivering under the fan. I kissed her but she never opened her mouth. The Captain had had a traumatic effect on her.
    “I’m sorry.” She looked down.
    I kissed her on her cheeks. The Captain had been there as well. Then I held her tight – that the Captain couldn’t have done. Her perfume choked me. We inched towards the bed, my membrum virile obvious in its strength. Her heels fell off with thuds. Tentatively, she parted her lips and I kicked off my pants. Kissing her forehead, I gradually raised the crushed saree until I was between her thighs. I eased off her undies and rested my erection against her thigh. She began to breathe harder. I didn’t touch her, but caressed her mons Venus with my member. We were then making love. O Tasnia! The girl in my picture was now in my arms.

    I had a contact in the Hill Tracts – in Khagrachari. Pushpita Chakma was a member of the United People’s Democratic Front, the breakaway faction of the main body, the PCJSS, that had wanted autonomy for the Chakma people but later signed an unequal treaty with the state. Their animus had been against Bengali nationalism, which was odd because they spoke a dialect of Bengali themselves. Nationalism mutates like a virus. Of course, they were Tibeto-Burman, which made them racially different. Their culture and religion were different, too. However, there were other ethnically different groups that did not espouse nationalism in response to ours. But for me, nationalism remained a disease.
    But how was I to get in touch with Pushpita? The army surveyed them like hawks, and no doubt they were under constant electronic survey. I certainly couldn’t call. After much thought, I hit upon the idea of sending her a brief letter by courier. Mail would not be checked! Leaving Tasnia in the care of the daily woman, I set off for Parjatan Hotel at Khagrachari.

    I took my usual room on the third floor – 302 – and stood surveying the pastoral scenery that reminded me of Virgil. I observed, sitting in the verandah after lunch, the scarcely perceptible change in the mix of light and shadow on the hills. The latter painted the green leaves a deeper shade. One inferred the wool-like shadows from the clouds and the clouds from their shadows. Meanwhile, the River Chengi bent and unbent before floating past the hotel. At noon, the verandah became furnace-hot and I had to retreat to the doorway, watching the grazing cows, the Marma girls bathing in the stream in the distance and the smoke issuing from a solitary hut perched on a forested hill.
    There was a knock on the door.
    “Leave the coffee on the table,” I ordered without turning around. I was observing a pair of black drongos noisily defending their territory against a crow. That was the only other sound in the world.
    “We’ll make this a loving cup, shall we, Zafar?” inquired a female voice.
    I wheeled round to see Pushpita, holding a cup. She must have taken it from the waiter. She blew into the cup, took a sip and proffered it to me. I reciprocated.
    Pushpita shared with her tribe only the narrow eyes. She had a straight nose, fair complexion and black hair parted in the middle. She had pink lips. She wore printed shalwar kameez with black sandals. Her perfume permeated the room.
    We put the cup away and hugged. We kissed and rolled on the inviting bed. We consummated our love.
    Cool in the air-conditioned room, under the covers, we conversed of old times and – ideology.
    “So when Bengali girls go missing, Zafar Shah comes looking for them, but when Chakma girls go missing, nobody cares. Typical.” She had a rasping voice, which was very sexy. “Chakmas will never be regarded as equals by you Bengalis.”
    “I’m not a Bengali, I’m a Bangladeshi,” I protested, playing with her hair. She shrugged off my arm. The Indian cuckoo broke the external stillness.
    “And what’s a Bangladeshi but a Bengali who believes in Islam?”
    “You know I’m an agnostic who believes in the civilisation.”
    “You’re very clever, Zafar. That’s why I’ve always liked you. But what room is there for us in this civilisation of yours?”
    “All the room in the world. A civilisation can hold many groups together. Mine always has.”
    “Yes, that is true. But tell me, what do you want from me?”
    I looked her in the eyes. “Intelligence. You know everything that goes on in these hills.” Her eyes narrowed further. A heavy vehicle clattered over the iron bridge over the Chengi outside our hotel. I rose, opened my suitcase and took out my bottle of whiskey. Pushpita and I had been drinking buddies. And I thought the firewater would loosen her tongue.
    She had a sip and nodded approval.
    “Tell me about Gilgamesh.”
    She took another sip. “That impostor! The army has kept him in comfort at Nilgiri.”
    “Nilgiri?” I downed the drink. “Wasn’t that a tourist spot?”
    “Used to be.” She held out the glass for a few more pegs. The air-conditioner hummed and the bird-calls rose faintly above the sound. Then a Tokay gecko cleared its throat and called precisely three times.
    “Paradisal,” I recalled.
    “Used to be,” she repeated. I didn’t want her too sloshed. “Don’t know about now.”
    “How can I get inside?”
    “You must...be...crazy!”
    “Just take me there and I’ll handle it.”
    “You’re determined.” She held out her glass. “Well, I can have you picked up with two escorts tomorrow morning. You’ll be driving all day and a good part of the night. They’ll drop you off and go to Thanchi. There, they’ll wait a few hours and come back the same way, waiting for you before Nilgiri. How do you like my plan?” She pouted for a kiss. I gave her a resounding one in gratitude. “I’ll also have some warm clothes sent. It’s cold up there, remember?” The whiskey had brought out the best in her, but then she had always been thoughtful, and a strategic planner. Years in the hills and forest as part of a guerrilla force had trained her well.
    She put the glasses away, and announced, “This time I’ll be on top.”

    The hill of Nilgiri stood around 2,500 feet above sea level. We had a long drive and a rugged climb in the SUV that came round the next morning, replete with two stalwart Chakmas in the front. We drove mile after mile, seeing hardly anybody. The place was sparsely populated. We had lunch at the Parjatan Motel at Rangamati, and, fortified, speeded on. We were slowed down by the crossing of the Karnafuli River by ferry. The army would just mistake us for tourists.
    Then we left Bandarban behind, and began the ascent towards Nilgiri. The sun began to set and the eastern sky above Burma was already dark. The men supplied the knife I had asked for. It grew cold and I put on my jacket and thought of Pushpita. She must have guessed my exact size!
    We crossed Nilgiri with its two main bungalows, very much in the dark, for the generator did not run after ten. Only the main bungalow was alit with solar-powered lights. I discerned a guard at the barrier, wielding a rifle and a torch.
    “This is where I get off, gentleman,” I announced a few metres ahead of Nilgiri. My SkyGazer had predicted a moonless night and the stars shone like crystals.
    I headed back to Nilgiri and heard the vehicle move off towards Thanchi.
    My first difficulty was the guard. It was not entirely noiseless for the frogs and crickets made a sound that was good for my feet. I lay out of sight until the guard went inside. He must have been bored. The only traffic had been the SUV.
    I clambered under the barrier and lay still. No steps. I crawled towards the main bungalow. A figure appeared. He was wearing shorts and nothing else. Didn’t he feel the cold? I rushed towards him and held a knife at his throat.
    “Inside,” I commanded. He chuckled.
    “As you wish.” He spoke perfect English.
    The first room was a sort of living and dining space. We went into the second room.
    This was a bedroom, lit by the solar-powered cells that charged during the day. On a large bed a woman in a red, crotchless teddy lay sleeping. Like all the girls, she was beautiful, with a tinge of dark.
    There was a basket chair in the middle and I sat him there.
    “Gilgamesh, I presume.”
    “In the flesh.”
    I ran my knife through his belly, expecting him to drop. Instead, the wound – what little there had been – healed.
    I dropped my bloodless knife. It was useless.
    “You see, I’m not a myth.” He spoke in a deep voice. He had Middle Eastern features, a sharp nose, fair complexion, high cheekbones. He was tall. Every inch a king.
    “How did they find you?” I asked.
    “US intelligence had been tracking me for years. They want to perform experiments on me. They traced me here and asked your government to nab me. But your government had different ideas. They think my children would be immortal. That’s rubbish. None of my children survived me. It was horrible! I stopped having children several thousand years ago. Can you understand?”
    I said nothing but I felt sympathy for the ‘old’ man.
    “Look at that beautiful young girl. They want me to impregnate her. The soldiers have taken care of her virginity without making her pregnant, which is what I am supposed to do. Tell me, my friend, how do you plan to escape from here?”
    “I have plans,” I said more confidently than I felt.
    “You see, they don’t guard me very heavily. Only two or three soldiers and a nurse. They know I can’t go anywhere. But I’ll go with you.”
    Then we heard gravel crunching in the direction of the second bungalow, located in the east, while the bigger one was located in the west.
    “Quick! Hide in the bathroom! Take the knife.”
    The bathroom mirror acted like a periscope. I could see part of the room. A woman in a nurse’s apron came into view. She, too, was beautiful, fair, high-cheeked and tall.
    “Poor girl!” she murmured. You haven’t done with her yet. And she’s cold.” I heard the sound of blanket covering the half-naked girl.
    “I’m not up to it,” complained Gilgamesh.
    “We’ll take care of that.”
    To my surprise, she undid her apron and let it fall. She was wearing a leather skirt and a black crochet top that revealed her black triangle bra. She moved gracefully on her black heels. She undid the buttons on her skirt, one by one, and revealed a lace garter belt and wet look stockings. She strode over to Gilgamesh and I heard her undo her top as well as his pants. The sound of sucking proceeded.
    “Now, you’re ready.”
    A sound of whimpering came from the girl. Apparently, Gilgamesh had followed his orders and penetrated the girl. Huffing sounds followed and it was all over. Gilgamesh came into the bathroom to wash up and spread his arms in resignation as if to say, “What could I do?” He certainly didn’t want to go to the USA.
    “Tonight you rest, Gilgamesh,” announced the nurse in her deadpan voice. “Tomorrow we have more fun.”
    They left and the gravel crunched under their steps, the girl still whimpering.
    “You see what an abomination this is...what’s you name?”
    “Zafar. Please get me out of here. My heart breaks for these girls. All for nationalism!”
    “Call the guard and have him seated here. You sit on the bed so he looks straight at you and not to either side.”
    The guard obediently came in, called him ‘sir’, doffed his cap and hesitated to sit down.
    “I’m lonely,” said Gilgamesh.
    They started a conversation about the women and the kidnappings in Bengali and English. The guard had dropped his rifle to the ground. I rushed from behind and slit his throat.
    “How are we leaving?”
    “My transport will be within a few metres from here soon. Let me get into his clothes.”
    I changed with the dead man and cradled his rifle. Gilgamesh put on civvies – a t-shirt, pair of jeans and sneakers. He didn’t feel the cold at all.
    Outside, in the pitch-black darkness, the second sentry halted us. He couldn’t see me for the cap. Gilgamesh brushed aside his rifle ever so gently and said we were going to study the planets. We marched out together. True to Pushpita’s word, the SUV lay parked in the darkness several meters from Nilgiri. We entered.
    Gilgamesh wanted to go to Burma so we let him off at Thanchi, where we spent a few days at a Chakma bigwig’s house. Nobody had seen me, so I took a jeepney to Bandarban and an air-conditioned bus back to Dhaka.
    Operation Gilgamesh was over, but the hundreds of kidnapped girls were never found.

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