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a Rural Story
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a Rural Story

Iftekhar Sayeed

Based On Events

    “Command attention in this leather corset with attached black Venice lace, lace-up front, cap sleeves, zip up back and thong.”
    And Fida marched down the catwalk so attired and the audience clapped. Fida was a tall, fair, woman, with chiseled features and a smile like poetry – erotic poetry. Her ample black, wavy hair lay draped around her shoulders.
    We were attending a display of leather lingerie, made in Bangladesh for export. The Sheraton hotel ball room was filled with foreign buyers – Korean, Japanese, European, American....They sat around circular tables making notes on their laptops or iPads, sometimes taking pictures.
    In one corner of the hall were projected in large letters:

No beauty she doth miss
When all her robes are on;
But Beauty’s self she is
When all her robes are gone.

    And beneath it in red letters were the words: “After tonight, you will know these words aren’t true.”
    I found myself seated next to the American ambassador, a black, corpulent Muslim called Kamal Hassan; and a tall, thin American priest called Father Ricardo. The hall was air-conditioned to an extraordinary degree. We had our choice of beverages, and mine was whiskey, so I didn’t feel all that cold.
    “That was a very violent election,” I commented.
    “Very violent,” agreed the ambassador, taking a drink of whiskey, like me.
    “Well, it’s all over, and we’re on track for democracy,” replied the priest, sipping his ginger ale.
    “But at what price, Father? How many human lives does it take to create democracy?” I asked.
    They were both silent. True, the buyers who had left had come back – they were in the room. But I wondered how many hundred people had been murdered and how many girls raped.
    “Sexy black leather bustier with stretch lace back, lightly padded underwire cups, boning, red ribbon details, satin bow details, adjustable straps, side zipper closure and matching thong with red ribbon ties.” The lady added on the microphone that the stockings were not supplied.
    I broke the silence. “I’ve been reading Graham Greene’s ‘A Quiet American’.”
    “And we’re both Americans here,” chuckled the Americans, especially the priest.
    “After a massacre, Arden Pyle says that they died for democracy. Did our people die for democracy?”
    The priest played with the glass and screwed up his mouth. “It’s early days yet. When civil society is more firmly established, the violence will die down. Besides, the people have a right to vote.”
    We were interrupted by another announcement.
    “This sexy siren corset features black leather with a zip-up front, panels of smooth leather and textured leather with a lace up back, matching thong and removable garters.” Again she added that the stockings we could see were not supplied.
    The cold war had recently been over and General Harun ur Rashid had been deposed after ten years. I used to be his philosophical advisor, and when the donors gave him the push, I lost my job at the university too. I was now a pariah for my association with the General. I was thinking of becoming an English teacher.
    Again Fida came back on the catwalk.
    “This sexy stretch leather teddy features mesh panels, studded details, lightly padded underwire cups, criss-cross front neckline, front zipper, adjustable shoulder straps, detachable garter straps and thong back. The stockings are not included.”
    At last, the show was over and Fida came over to our table in a flowered chiffon saree.
    “How was the show, Father?” she asked coyly.
    Both men agreed that it was good.
    “I hope you get a lot of orders,” prayed the priest.
    And how did I get to share a table with a priest and an ambassador? Through Fida’s invitation, which was a long story.

    Fida’s sister, Faiza, had been missing. Their father, Reza Karim, took the child out one afternoon, dumped her in front of St. Gregory’s College on Asad Avenue, and ran off with the police in hot pursuit. Fida told me that her father was a river pirate, and that they’d been brought up by their uncle, a postal officer. In his home district he enjoyed immunity from the law on account of the generous bribes he paid but he had wandered beyond his territory in the capital, Dhaka. He wasn’t caught, having disappeared in one of the by-lanes of Mohammedpur.
    But Fida’s sister and her uncle and aunt were worried to death – she hadn’t shown up for a week. Then there was an advertisement in the papers from Fr. Ricardo, with Faiza’s picture, and a notice that her family could pick her up from the college. Gratefully, Fida and I went to pick up the girl and made the acquaintance of Fr. Ricardo.
    Faiza was a pretty ten-year-old, fair like her sister, but with a diminutive nose and her hair was cut short with the bangs nearly reaching her straight brows. She was all poetry – lyric poetry. So when it was time for the show, Fida invited Fr. Ricardo and he invited the American ambassador.
    Going to bed that night, after tucking in Faiza, I asked Fida if she was going to regale me with one of her leather lingerie.
    “I’m tired of leather. I’ve got a surprise for you.” And she disappeared into the bathroom. When she emerged, I gasped, and sat up in my pyjamas.
    She had on a lace garter halter dress with attached stockings, and no thongs. She looked wild with her hair over her face and one arm on her hips. I began to undress. Despite the fan, the heat had suddenly become oppressive.

    It was time to take Faiza back to her village home in Ferozepur. It was a long journey by steamer, and Fr. Ricardo insisted on coming with us to deliver his charge properly. We reached the town dock at 5:30. It was a noisy, bustling scene, with launches docking and leaving every minute and disgorging and sucking up large numbers of passengers.
    We found the P.S.Ostrich, our steamer, and after crossing the gangplank we proceeded up the companionway to the first class – but Fr. Ricardo turned left into the third class.
    “What? Father? You aren’t coming with us?”
    He mumbled something about wanting to be with the people and disappeared.
    We crossed the saloon and entered our wood-paneled cabin – number 4. Faiza was excited, and she immediately stepped out on the other side to the narrow deck adjoining our cabin. But she was disappointed with the view.
    There were the buildings of the very old town across the expanse of water and launches of various decks floating on the Buriganga. The crows quartered the water for fish. Paddle boats transferred passengers to the third class below. A smell of diesel pervaded the air.
    The cabin was a white affair except for the table between the two berths and the berths themselves, which were brown. The table had splotches on it and the brown carpet had a semi-circular tear under the table. Still, it was comfortable with a vent in the roof for air-conditioning and jalousies next to the deck, now covered with three curtains, each bearing the insignia of the corporation, a blue-black logo of an eight-handled wheel encircling a propeller of BIWTC, with these letters beneath. A pair of revolving fans hung above the bronze, metal curves concealing the light bulbs above the beds and the table. A wash-basin stood across from the table between the two doors, with a mirror above. The floor was green as was the entire deck. A fluorescent light hung in the middle of the white ceiling. This was to be our home for the next twelve hours.
    “The ship is beautiful!” exclaimed Faiza, having overcome her initial disappointment.
    “Not ship – steamer,” I corrected her.
    “Steamer,” she repeated in her nasal voice.
    Faiza was busy preparing our things, especially something to eat. She handed out biscuits. She wore a black kameez flowered at the top and a matching shalwar with black pumps. Faiza had on a red frock. The two sisters looked lovely.
    We locked our door and made it to the front deck. The steamer had started and we were going under the bridge and past the factories.
    All evening, the wind beat against our ear-drums, so that it was as much sound as substance. The other sounds were those of the engine, constantly humming away; voices conversing rapidly, masculine as well as feminine.
    At sunset, the waters behind us shone like quicksilver, while those ahead were dark. One could make out the colours of the fluttering dresses and clothes; after some time, however, we were all reduced to shadows, and, finally, voices. The glow of a cigarette end would then be plainly visible.
    We had a dinner of ‘smoked hilsa’, a delicacy on a steamer.
    “Delicious!” said Faiza as she chewed a morsel of the fish.
    “They really make it well, don’t they?” commented Fida, as she raised her fork.
    “Yeas, Faiza, it’s delicious!” I added.
    “Poor Fr. Ricardo! I wonder what he’s eating!” wondered Fida. “I have an idea. Let’s send him some of the fish. I’ll ask the waiter to give it to the sahib.”
    I didn’t think it was a wise idea, but I went along. After all, the people didn’t eat smoked hilsa.
    The saloon was still empty with a couple and two children next to us. The mother was ladling out the rice to the children. At another table, an elderly couple were eating rice and curry in silence. The waiters stood around in their red uniforms. Most of the passengers were still on the deck, and they started trickling in around nine. We had finished by then and we went to the cabin so Faiza could wash her fingers. Then we locked the door and went on to the nearly deserted deck.
    Earlier in the evening, when it was light, I had read the legend on the wall of the deck.






IN 1996

    It was a British-period relic, still working.
    The steamer cast a powerful beam of light in which we could see the midges. We saw a boat beside the steamer on the choppy waves, unlit, in the dark, a boy and a man catching fish. The wind blew against our ears, a steady drumbeat. A gibbous moon rose, and the waves became silver right up to the lower deck. Fida and I gazed our fill, but Faiza began to yawn.
    “Sleepy?” asked Fida.
    Faiza nodded.
    “I have a gift for you,’ and Fida produced a mobile phone from her bag.
    Faiza’s round eyes widened. “That’s for me?”
    “That’s for you, and I want you to keep in touch with me every day. Here, give me a call.”
    Faiza fiddled with the dials and failed. “I can’t.”
    After a little training, she was able to call both Fida and me. Sleep seemed to have deserted her and we stayed on the deck for some time before turning in. Fida slept with Faiza and I slept alone.
    We reached Barisal at dawn. The muezzin called to prayer. We packed hurriedly and I stepped out on our side of the deck.
    “Zafar! Fida!”
    Somebody was calling us from below. It was Fr.Ricardo in a boat.
    “Yes, Father, we are coming,” shouted Fida. To me, she explained, “He’s right. We have to take a boat to Ferozepur. There are no roads from Barisal.”
    This was the first time that I had got into a boat from a steamer. Fortunately, there were several of them, waiting for passengers, so you could walk from one to another, very gingerly. The odour rose from the water hyacinths. Finally, we were on our way, the four of us and the paddlers.
    It was a lovely scenery. On either bank, there were areca palms, date palms and banana groves. The villages with their tin and thatched roofs appeared among a clearing of mango and jack-fruit trees. Sometimes a column of smoke would reveal breakfast being made. The hay had been gathered in bell-shaped ricks. Cows chewed the cud or cropped the grass. The oars dipped at regular intervals. Other boats were black parentheses in the distance in the early morning sun. It was warm, but not hot yet.
    Fr. Ricardo had on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans with a leather bag. He was dressed for the occasion. He must have made trips like these many times.
    The sunlight began to sparkle on the waters, and we reached Ferozepur ghat. This was a pontoon, rusted and old, at which our solitary boat – the others had sailed off to their respective villages – docked, with a rope tied to the pontoon.
    “Salamwalaikum!” greeted a gentleman in white pyjamas and punjabi, a skullcap, flip-flops and a length of dark beard. From his resemblance to Fida, I gathered he was Fida’s paternal uncle, her de facto father.
    “Salamwalaikum!” replied the two of us, the priest and I. Fida and Faiza salaamed his feet, and he bestowed blessings on them.
    He caressed Faiza on the head, and there were tears in his eyes to have her back.
    “My name is Aziz,” he introduced himself, hugging the both of us in turn. “We can’t express our gratitude to Fr. Ricardo in words or deeds.” He spoke in Bengali but Fr. Ricardo understood
    “Please come this way, it’s getting hot,” and some of the loitering men in undershirts and lungis produced a couple of umbrellas against the sun. We walked the dirt road, with the paddy on either side, smelling fresh and ripe. Aziz led the way with an umbrella, pointing out various features of the surrounding countryside now and then.
    The cuckoo called at intervals and black drongos perched on the backs of cows and buffalos.
    After a trek of half an hour, the paddy fields gave way to an enclosure holding two tin-built houses. The smell of paddy gave way to the smell of cooking. We were ushered into a large room containing upright chairs and a large bed with an embroidered nakshikatha – a traditional rural motif – bedspread. We took our seats and were served mango sherbet by Jamil, Aziz’s son. Jamil was an overgrown lad of twelve, in a t-shirt and shorts. Like the rest of the family, he was also fair.
    “Jamil is a straight-A student; he always comes top of the class,” announced Fida, at which Jamil seemed embarrassed. He was two years older than Faiza.

    Fida gave a packet of sweets to Jamil and then Faiza and Jamil disappeared, giggling continuously.
     “I hope your journey was not too difficult,’ said Aziz. At this, there was some talk of the priest travelling third class. Aziz was horrified. The priest again explained that he always travelled third class.
    The sherbet cooled us with its sweet-sour taste, for the room was getting hot, despite the fan overhead at full speed. It was as though somebody were lighting a fire in the room.
    Then Fida’s aunt, Selina, stepped in from the kitchen, wearing a light green saree, the border covering her head. We rose and proffered our salaam. She was a small woman with an oval face and a brown complexion. On seeing the priest, she broke into tears. “If it hadn’t been for you, we would never have seen Faiza again. May Allah do good to you and always look after you.” She was obviously unmindful that he had a different god.
    Breakfast was served at the solitary table after Jamil’s books had been removed. It consisted of parata, omelette and vegetables. We all ate greedily, having had nothing to eat since dinner.
    Now and then a knot of people in lungis and vests would come round to see the sahib and stand at the door, giggling. We got used to them. The priest became a celebrity.
    After this, the talk inevitably reverted to politics, and how the new government was doing.
    “Not too well,’ opined Aziz.
    “We must give them time, Aziz Bhai,” remonstrated Fr. Ricardo.
     The ladies had disappeared to some other room.
    I kept my silence on politics, not expecting much to change for the better.
    “We have a disadvantage, Father,” began Aziz. “Our MP belongs to the opposition. We are loyal to him and no amount of intimidation could force us to vote for the other side.”
    “That is admirable.”
    “Unfortunately, we won’t get much help for our constituency because of that, so we don’t look forward to anything. However, we expect violence because the ruling party is determined to win next time and they’re rounding their thugs. Our MP is thinking of doing the same thing, otherwise he won’t win next time.”
    The priest was silent. And the topic changed from politics to less volatile subjects, like the weather and the coming harvest.
    The talk went on with bouts of silence until it was lunchtime and what a feast it was. Fida, her aunt, Faiza and Jamil all helped with setting the table and serving the pilau, and numerous curries. Jamil stood guard over the table and swatted the flies.
    The heat and a full belly called for a siesta. I fell asleep in the chair and Fr. Ricardo and Aziz stretched out on the bed. The priest snored.
    Finally, it was times for us to leave. We were going back to Dhaka by another steamer, the P.S. Mahsud at six in the evening, but we had to start early for we had a boat to catch. Faiza and Fida bid tearful farewells and Faiza promised to call every day.
    This time we had plain rice and curry in the saloon and stayed off the deck which was crowded with the passengers from Barisal. Instead we turned in – and made love.
    “I’ll have to be on top,” suggested Fida, with a grin.

    Ferozepur had been spared the violence of the last election – but not any longer. An earnest of things to come was a phone call from Selina, Faiza’s aunt, on Faiza’s mobile phone. She said that Reza had joined the political party – as youth organizer. I knew what that meant. He would indoctrinate young children, give them guns, teach them to collect ‘taxes’ and bring out processions. They would be very effective on polling day and for hartals. A criminal was best suited to do this sort of thing.
    A few months later another – a more frantic – phone call came from Ferozepur. Jamil had been visiting brothels and getting drunk at night. Where did he get the money? That was a mystery.
    All this time Faiza continued to praise Jamil. He was a good student, a great football player and a good cousin. She seemed to have a crush on Jamil.
    The mystery was soon cleared up: Jamil had joined the student wing of the party under his uncle’s tutelage. His source of income was the usual – extortion. There was nothing the family could do. His marks began to go down and soon he was the last boy in class – and proud of it.
    The years passed, and it was time for another election. Now, there was daily violence as the opposition called ‘hartals’ for a free and fair election. A hartal is not a general strike. It is a violent attempt to keep traffic off the roads by throwing cocktails and petrol bombs at vehicles. Boys like Jamil were very instrumental at this sort of thing. On hartal day, the roads were deserted.

    The ball room at Sheraton was nearly deserted, too, this time as the buyers took fright and left, waiting on events.
    I found myself sitting next to Kamal Hassan, the American ambassador. Fida had invited him and put us two together.
    “Black lame, and eyelash lace bodysuit with a plunging neckline, criss-cross detail, lace-up back and adjustable straps,” announced the lady. “Cat ears are not included.”
    Fida took the catwalk and for a while all eyes were on her exquisite appearance.
    I turned to the ambassador.
    “This has to stop,” I said with vehemence.
    He looked down at his glass. “The violence is intolerable.”
    “You can engineer a military coup. The people want the military.”
    He looked up at me with his big eyes.
    “It’s a good thing Fr. Ricardo isn’t here. I broached the subject with him and he wouldn’t hear of it. He has powerful friends in Congress.”
    “But why?”
    “He has a vision. He thinks the Church is the archetypical civil society, neither business nor state. He wants to spread this blessing of Christendom to other parts of the world. Voluntary associations and freedom. That’s what’s driving him.”
    “But what about our civilization? Our historical development? For fourteen hundred years we’ve had military rule.”
    “I’ve tried to reason with him. I myself am Muslim, and I can’t accept his arguments. I have known in childhood what violence can do to people. I was one of the lucky ones. But, as I said, he has friends in Congress.”
    I mumbled under my breath, and I didn’t care if the ambassador was listening:
    “Where there is love, let me sow hatred,
    Where there is pardon, injury,
    Where there is truth, error,
    Where there is faith, doubt,
    Where there is hope, despair,
    Where there is light, darkness,
    Where there is joy, sadness....”

    “Wet look garter belt with scalloped stretch lace under panel, elasticized waist, adjustable metal garters, and large metal hook and eye closure at center back.”
    Another model took over from Fida to sport the described lingerie.
    I had nothing more to say. It was a question of power. For ten years Washington had propped up our dictator, and as soon as the cold war was over, he became dispensable. And now democracy, whatever the violence involved, however many died or were raped.
    “Metallic wet look chemise with moulded underwire push-up cups, centre back hook and eye closure with keyhole, adjustable straps, removable garters, and elasticized hem.” Fida was back on the catwalk, swaying with grace. “It also features metallic wet look twisted cutout detail on cups and hips.” Her voice added: “Wet look stockings not included.”
    I noticed that the repudiation of the quote, and the quote itself, from Palgrave about the naked woman being beauty’s self was not there. The organizers seemed to have been less thorough this time.
    Every day on TV we saw young student politicians pursuing vehicles and hurling bombs. Many people were in burn units, some of them dying after fighting for their lives for several days, even weeks. I hated to think that one of these thugs was Jamil, Fida’s cousin.
    Meanwhile, the news from Ferozepur, via Faiza’s mobile, continued to be repeatedly bad. One day Faiza called and told Fida that their father had killed a man. Selina filled in the details. There was rivalry within the party and after an altercation Reza had stabbed the man to death. Reza, however, was not in hiding and the police weren’t looking for him. He was a party man, and so above the law.
    Finally, the election came and the opposition won. There was even more violent celebration.
    Then came the call. Selina was wailing and it was Reza, in a broken voice, who delivered the message to me rather than to Fida.
    Faiza had committed suicide.
    Jamil and some of his friends, jubilant, had picked her up and taken her to the empty school. There they had gang raped her and taken pictures of the scenes. These they circulated throughout the village.
    Faiza came home, and swallowed insecticide.

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