It was not really how things were supposed to have ended. The party had been utterly grand. Nothing had been left to chance, everything had been planned and double-checked. Every last detail from guest list to invitation card, from menu to correctly spelt food tags down to even the crystal toothpick holders had been viewed, or sampled or tasted and then approved by Mrs. Arefeena Khan. That was, of course, after the necessary adjusting, amending, editing or redesigning to meet her impeccable standards. Needless to say, the rejections had been innumerable. She had met with each of the nine assigned planners personally.
The food, a choice selection from six different types of cuisine, Thai, Italian, Indian, Japanese, Continental and Bengali had been jointly catered by one five-star hotel and three speciality restaurants. An array of thirty-seven main dishes had been served on the spectacular rotating table specially made for the party. There had been thirteen kinds of appetizers, twenty-two types of dessert, not to mention the special selection of wines for the connoisseurs and the designer brand fresh roasted coffees and special blends of tea for the caffeine addicts.
Flowers of eighteen varieties to decorate the house and grounds had been flown in from India and Europe the previous night and the floral displays were indeed a sight to behold. The photographers covering the event had been briefed to make sure that photos displayed the flowers in the background. The party had taken four and a half months of planning and two months more for final selections and implementation. Two hundred and ninety-eight people had been employed for this purpose, excluding the musicians who had arrived with the two renowned artists hired to provide sophisticated live performances to entertain the guests.
Other necessary accessories, like Areefena’s custom-made sari with matching diamond jewellery, had arrived from Mumbai’s most exclusive designer house. Her matching shoes and party bag had been ordered online and shipped in from Malaysia. Mr. Khan’s suit, complete with shirt and tie had also been flown in from his regular tailor in Savile Row, London. Everything was just perfect. It had to be. Mr. Khan had told his wife to host a party that their cronies would spend the rest of their lives trying to match. His refrain, “money is not an issue” was heeded and indeed no expense was spared.
But when Mrs. Khan had planned this grand house-warming party to display to Dhaka’s elite society the majestic two-storey mansion that her husband had given her for their silver anniversary, she had not anticipated that she would find herself on display, not as the showstopper but as the pathetic spectacle of the show instead. Encircled by the immense grandeur of whatever unbounded wealth could buy, surrounded by buzzing worshippers of wealth and power, the pleasure seekers and the green-eyed sycophants encapsulated her like a sugar coat, in the core of which she was swathed by a profound silence and loneliness. The bitterness and vacuity of her situation was ultimately hers alone.
She and a number of people had called him again and again. Everything had already been synchronised and the drinks, appetisers and buffet were served to the guests accordingly. The majority of guests in parties like these came to enjoy the food and music and spend at most a couple of minutes with the hosts so it was possible for her to let the guests carry on enjoying the festivities without much disruption. Apart from a few close friends who knew Imrez well, the others were led to believe that he had been unavoidably delayed but was sure to arrive soon. It was only when the spectacular cake was rolled in that his absence became conspicuously painful. Arefeena apologised on his behalf with as much dignity and grace as she could display and requested her guests to carry on and enjoy the party.
After everyone had gone through the motions of partying, after the last whispering, smirking and solace-offering guest took leave, she was finally left alone. The house was, however, by no means empty; the staff were still noisily bustling around clearing up both indoors and on the grounds. It was past 2:30 a.m. and they were anxious to finish off and head home. Arefeena’s throbbing headache, aggravated by each clink and clang, compelled her to seek refuge upstairs. Ascending the stairs, she glanced once again at her jewel-studded mobile phone. Still nothing. How could he have done this and more importantly why? Imrez Khan was not the kind of man who ever allowed disrespect anywhere near his wife let alone inflict insult upon her himself. And today she had been at the pinnacle of insult only because of him. He had left her alone today. Alone to face the humiliation of whispers, alone to contend with the embarrassment of curious questions that she had no answers to, alone to bear the disgrace of commiserative ill-wishers.
Upstairs she was quite alone. Alone to roam through the six uniquely designed bedrooms, each with its own luxuriously fitted attached bath. The meticulously selected decor and furniture in each bedroom earned it the name carved on the wooden plaque over each oak door. The English Rose Room was grand and Victorian in style, The China Room oozed oriental tranquillity, The Bamboo Machang offered a delightful rustic retreat, The Taj Room was a majestic Moghul affair in marble and brass and, their own bedroom, The Himalayas, was a vast expanse of white with delicate touches of green here and there. A snowy whiteness pervaded from floor to ceiling. The furniture, fluffy duvets, leather sofa and all the furnishings were pure white. The few streaks of green came from the tiny satin cushions and the stems of fresh white lilies. “A room for my white lily must be white and fresh like a breath of air on the Himalayan Mountains,” he had said, for this was their bedroom. How joyously she had shared her plans and designs for each room with him.
Agonised and confused, she restlessly paced from room to room, opening each door with a desperate urgency. As if she would find him there behind one of those doors, sitting on an easy chair, looking up from his newspaper with the boyish half-smile and glint in his eyes that was his special way of greeting her. As if he would suddenly step out from one of the bathrooms, smelling richly of cologne and fastening his cufflinks in the flustered manner he had whenever he thought he was getting late for an appointment. He hated being late. But today he was late, unacceptably late. The empty bedrooms seemed to mock her plight. She felt again like the tearful little girl who couldn’t find anyone in a game of hide-and-seek. She suppressed the urge to look under the beds.
Sinking defeatedly onto one of the easy chairs in her bedroom, she looked once again at her phone. It was blinking to indicate a waiting message. It was from Nadim Firoz, her husband’s personal secretary.
“All hospitals in Dhaka covered, sir not there. Airport checked, did not fly out. Police informed. No report of accident of similar car. No trace of sir or jeep. I am trying to ascertain if he went out of town by road. Please inform me if sir calls you Madam. Please take care.”
How could this be? How could a man disappear into thin air within a matter of an hour? Imrez had left his office at 5:00 p.m. sharp, heading for home. She knew this for he had spoken to her briefly at 4:50 p.m. promising to be there in time to get dressed and be beside her to receive the first guests. At 6:30 p.m. a message had come from his phone. It read, “I might be late darling. Carry on with the party.” She had been quite surprised for he was rarely late for an important commitment and also he never called her darling but always ‘my Lily.’ Her closest friends arrived just then and in the course of responding to their excitement about the grand arrangements she had not been able to call him back at once. When she called again at 7:00 p.m. his phone was switched off as was the driver’s. After that, nothing.
The phone’s ringing startled her awake from her cramped posture on the leather divan. Arefeena had no recollection of when she had finally fallen asleep. She remembered changing from her fancy burnished gold sari into more practical attire in case she needed to go out somewhere urgently. She remembered getting out the handbag in which, neatly organised, were all items needed for functional purposes: credit card holder, phone diary, cheque books and even her travelling materials. Maybe she would need to fly out. Her passport already had valid five-year visas for a number of countries. She had rung for green tea, then called Firoz once again. He had not responded. It was 4:00 a.m. by then, maybe he had fallen asleep.
The call that woke her had been from Firoz; he had nothing to report other than that he would be arriving by 9:00 a.m. with the police who wanted to ask some questions regarding the disappearance of Imrez Khan. While still on the mobile with Firoz, she heard her landline phone ring. Hoping it was not another gossip-seeking guest or relative Arefeena reluctantly picked up the phone. The caller ID flashed an unknown number. The voice however was familiar; it was Mintu, Imrez’s driver, Arefeena felt an immense surge of hope. But Mintu’s response to her query about where he and his ‘sir’ were only added to her despair.
“I am looking for sir urgently myself, I called him so many times last night but his phone is off. Please madam let me talk to him, I need his help, someone has kidnapped my son!” Mintu pleaded.
After much confused questioning it became clear that Mintu had received a panicked call from his wife about their missing son a few minutes before Imrez boarded the car for home. Mintu had been overwrought with worry and Imrez had immediately given him leave to go home. In fact, Imrez had driven the grief-stricken Mintu to the train station himself and had even given him a generous allowance. The last time Mintu saw his employer had been about 5:45 p.m. Having called home and other relatives repeatedly all the way along his journey had resulted in Mintu’s phone batteries dying out on him. That explained why neither Arefeena nor Firoz could contact him. Mintu’s son was still missing and the hapless father had no clue why someone would want to kidnap his son. He also reported that Imrez had not called him once to enquire about his son.
The police came and went, having asked all the predictable questions about possible enmity, threats, blackmails, financial problems or depression and of course the inevitable, the status of their marriage and if it was possible he was having an affair and had abandoned her. The previous night, so many of the guests had made similar insinuations. The very suggestion was hideous; Arefeena knew how much Imrez loved her and no one could convince her otherwise. He had to be in some sort of other trouble; she was sure she would find out soon.
A week passed and Arefeena heard nothing, neither from Imrez nor the police. No one contacted her for any ransom and the only calls that came were from curious acquaintances and the media. Firoz dealt with the bulk of these calls. The only event of any significance was that one day after Imrez’s disappearance Mintu’s son was found. He was found in the early morning, sleeping under the same jackfruit tree from where he had been kidnapped. All he remembered was someone pressing a handkerchief hard to his nose from behind till he fainted. His sleepy demeanour suggested he had been sedated. The police suggested it was likely this was a scheme to separate Mintu from Imrez.
Then on the second week after Imrez Khan’s disappearance two events occurred in quick sequence. First, the police found his car in a parking lot in Motijheel. There was no evidence of violence, no scratches on the car body and no blood inside. Someone had parked it, locked it and walked away. No one seemed to remember who or when. By now Arefeena was distraught. Her nights were sleepless. She had stopped reading the newspapers as she couldn’t bear the relish with which they speculated about the disappearance of one of the wealthiest men in Bangladesh.
With each passing day the focus moved from trying to find him to spiced-up reports about Imrez’s background. How this small town boy had made it big. How much wealth he had and how he amassed such wealth. Some tabloid-type papers printed pictures of Imrez with other women, conveniently editing out Afreena from the pictures to make them look suggestive. Imrez was no playboy! It was horrendous how the media could make use of such cheap ploys. The same society magazine that had dubbed them ‘couple of the year’ had printed an article that depicted her as an over-demanding and rapacious wife who had squeezed every last penny from her spouse compelling him to get as far as he could from her. The pictures of her new house on the day of their anniversary were provided as evidence of her avarice. The piece had concluded with a picture of her standing alone draped in wedding finery with a thinly veiled pained expression, her anniversary cake in the background. The conniving writer had titled the photograph ‘Mrs. Havisham, oops, sorry, Mrs. Khan.’
Arefeena had gone over everything Imrez had said to her in her head during the last few weeks, racking her brain to remember something that might be linked to his disappearance. She was the kind of person whose modus operandi was making lists and following them, so she began to list unusual things he had said or done. These included calling her ‘darling’ instead of ‘my Lily’ the day he disappeared and telling her to inform the housekeeper of the new house that indoor staff could take work off for twelve weeks. In response to her surprise he had simply said that he had a long holiday planned for them. This had surprised her even more as Imrez rarely took holidays at this time of year. He also seldom planned anything without her knowledge because he knew she was a control freak who hated being unprepared for anything. But what surprised Arefeena most was that though in the last twenty six years they had celebrated their anniversary in many different countries, they had never taken a long holiday. Imrez didn’t believe he could relax or enjoy himself while away from work. The key to success, he always claimed, was constant vigilance: “Watch and learn from what everybody is doing right and what everybody is doing wrong. Never shut your eyes and never disregard even the smallest detail.”
Arefeena’s list is what brought about the second significant event. Staring at her list she suddenly remembered something Imrez had said about ten days before their anniversary. After dinner they had been sitting in their room having her green tea and his ginseng tea before bed as was their regular routine. Arefeena, all geared up for the upcoming event, had been ticking off on her list some of the event details that had been approved and assigned. She told Imrez that his suit had arrived that morning so she could tick that off with relief and he had curiously commented that he was ready to be ticked off on another list too. She had thought he was making a reference to aging and death and had responded with an annoyed scowl. But looking back now, she remembered thinking that there had been something different about him that night; he had looked unsettled but she had been too distracted to pursue her observation.
There was another room in Khan Mansion – it was a study cum retreat that was exclusively Mr. Khan’s. He used it when he needed to work late into the night or needed to meet with work-related people at home. It was a square glass room on the rooftop built in such a way that it could not be detected even by those who went up to spend time on the rooftop garden or use the lap-pool. It had a private lift entrance that came through from the underground garage so no one in the house was disturbed, or knew who was coming in or out. One-way glass walls on a steel frame aptly earned it the name The Ice Cube. Arefeena had only been there once or twice while it was being built, but in the last four months since they had moved in she had been involved in the interior decoration of the rest of the house but not this room. Imrez had said he would like to fix this room according to his own needs. It was only now that Arefeena had no choice but to invade his privacy to see if there was anything there that could help her find him. Maybe she could find something about this list.
Arefeena could not get into The Ice Cube easily. The lift door was concealed behind a wooden door which was locked. She had the housekeeper bring in a locksmith who, after much effort, declared that the lock was like nothing he had seen before and the only way to get in would be to break the wooden part of the door. Two consecutive locksmiths gave the same advice and finally a carpenter was brought in to saw open the door which was so thick that it took a considerable length of time to do. However, Arefeena could still not get in. The lift could only be operated using a combination lock but she did not know the combination. She was pretty sure nobody including Imrez’s secretary Firoz knew. In fact she wondered if he even knew about this room; Imrez had requested Arefeena to not mention this room to anybody as they might want to view it and he wanted this as his private space.
Arefeena finally decided to call Nadim Firoz , but when she asked if he knew about the key to Imrez’s study or anything about a list, he seemed more interested in getting information from her than being able to provide any. Annoyed by his curious questions she cut him short and put the phone down. Lately, Firoz had been acting rather strangely. Three days ago Arefeena had seen him interrogating the housekeeper about something and yesterday he had brought four men who said they were from the special branch of the police. They had insisted that they needed to put in surveillance cameras at the gate and might have to search the house. Arefeena had been outraged and refused until they showed her some official documents which explained on what grounds they wanted to search the house. They had left looking very displeased.
“Every single thing in this house should be about our life together my Lily,” that is what Imrez had said when they had first planned their new house. His words had motivated her to design each room to chronicle their life together. Their honeymoon in England had inspired the Victorian-style bedroom and conservatory that were close replicas of the English hotel room they had stayed in. They had both been charmed by the conservatory where breakfast was served. Subsequent visits to Malaysia, Thailand, China and India had been the essence of the other bedrooms. Their tenth anniversary was spent in a hotel with a view of the Himalayas and Imrez had declared this to be his favourite as he loved mountains, especially ones that had icy peaks. That was how Arefeena suddenly knew what the lift combination would be. She was absolutely right; as soon as she pressed the buttons in the order of the date, month and year of their marriage, the lift doors opened.
The room was amazing. Opposite the three glass walls was one wall that was almost entirely covered by a matrix of screens connected by concealed wires to a series of CD players, computer terminals and surveillance camera terminals. The glass walls had inbuilt glass shelves with innumerable neatly numbered and stacked CDs and boxes. The middle of the room had a huge frosted glass table and an L-shaped ice-blue leather recliner facing the screen. Arefeena was at a loss at where to start searching for a list among this huge expanse of material. It was going to be another long, demanding night.
“I am never going to end up boxed like you Abba,” the irony of his own defiant words to his father seemed to echo off the cheap wooden box. He heard his father’s voice reverberate off the walls of the large shabby classroom as he led his students through a choral recitation of their timetables. That was how his maths class always started year in and year out. The summer heat stifling the boys cramped together on the insufficient benches gave way to the chilly draft of winter, making the boys thankful for the shared body warmth as they huddled together. By the end of the school year, the students too changed but the maths teacher in the nondescript village school droning out their times tables and formulae remained the same.
Imrez could not bear the ready acceptance of smallness with which his father and his uncle had circumscribed their lives. In the first year of his university life he had once been to his uncle’s office room, one of the many diminutive rooms in the registrar’s office in the University of Dhaka which housed three or four tables stacked high with dusty and dog-eared files and innumerable worn-out registers. Almost concealed behind three precariously high piles of yellow, pink and blue forms sat his boro chacha, his father’s elder brother. The garish coloured striped towel that flanked his chair made his tiny frame look even smaller. All of this precious paperwork would eventually open the gateway to a wide world of success to so many whose names and marks were meticulously recorded and checked by this little man who was destined to remain unacknowledged and confined to smallness. Imrez never went back to that room but he also never forgot it.
The first time Imrez took the easy way out, he was caught and taken to his father. It was his class nine geography teacher, Samarjit sir, who detected the ripped out page of a map from his textbook which Imrez was tracing onto his script. Imrez’s father, a non-violent man, had only spoken to him much later that night after finishing his Isha prayers and dinner. By then Imrez had already been sore from the tirade of sharp slaps and sharper words that his mother had served him in lieu of dinner. The next morning she would serve him a large helping of breakfast and shower affectionate words but her adorations, like her abuses, meant nothing to Imrez.
“A man’s conscience and character should be clear like pure water; a single drop of impurity will turn it cloudy my son,” his father’s wise words meant nothing to him either. He had memorised and reproduced many essays containing such facile wisdom about character, backbones, conscience and education. He wanted to tell his father that he was wrong, that pure snow on the highest peaks of the earth was cloudy. But Imrez said nothing. He knew what he wanted and conscience was not going to impede him.
Imrez passed that geography exam with the highest marks in class. Samarjit sir came to apologise to his father for confusing another boy’s script for Imrez’s. It had taken nothing but knowledge on Imrez’s part to achieve this feat. He had gone to Samarjit Babu’s quarters to apologise as ordered by his parents but in the end he had not needed to do that. “Sir, I came day before yesterday, yesterday and again today to meet you but each time Binoy kaka’s sister Josna went in to meet you before me and I waited and waited but each day she did not come out for two hours. A flustered Samarjit made a quick deal. A lesson was learned about the power of knowledge.
Imrez’s natural intelligence and manipulative power had taken him as far up in a government service job as a boy from his background could go, but that had merely been his starting point, not his goal. He avoided committing himself to the sticky realm of politics that might have made him a minister in the cabinet of one party but would restrict him when another came to power. His time in state service was merely a phase of gaining knowledge. When he finally walked away, he had enough resources to start his own import business on a grand scale. It was a simple formula from a childhood lesson, ‘what you know pays.’
Imrez’s thriving import business was merely a status front. His real income lay elsewhere. Imrez had made it his business to know everything about people who had something that was worth hiding. In a country like his where honour was commonly bought for money and uninterrupted corruption was a state legacy that remained constant despite the occasional change of heirs, he had no dearth of sources. He had photocopies, recordings, pictures and videos to support his knowledge. He knew where the bored wives and spoilt sons and daughters of his sources went, who they went with and what they did. Imrez realized that where children were concerned, parents were viable ATMs if one knew the proper pin code.
He knew where licenses were invented and reinvented and where international funds found their wrongful benefactors. He knew the murderers who had received public awards as national heroes and the nation’s heroes who were quietly crumbling broken-limbed or defamed in some obscure corner of the country. He knew the friendships behind the enmities flaunted in headlines and the enmities behind the friendly hugs and smiles. He knew who shook hands under the table and the sources and destinations of money that took the routes of urgent night mail.
He knew also of the darker, more insidious deals and the chain of command that orchestrated the fate of those hapless few who tried to expose these to the public. His list of ill-fated student leaders, social activists, principled businessmen, dissenting politicians, journalists and, frequently, their family members added up to horrifyingly large numbers. He had documented too many disappearances, brutal murders on dark nights or in broad daylight and even in the security of their homes to attempt to milk these sources.
Money had flowed in so that his contacts could ensure that their social status remained unadulterated. Sometimes his information about a source was purchased highly by an opponent. Imrez, however, never operated on one source twice or sold the same information again – that was his business principle. This pure money had taken him to the heights he had wanted. He was known and respected as a valuable adversary. He even did business with some of his previous sources; there lay the beauty of his success.
Imrez had never gone back to his ancestral home in the last thirty years, not even for the funeral of his parents, who died in quick succession of each other. His cousins had approached him on several occasions during his years in state service for monetary help or recommendations. He had finally made a deal with them. He would send a regular supply of three funds, two for his two cousins and one for his parents. His conditions were firstly, that they would never tell his parents that the money came from him and secondly, that they would never approach him directly again.
The biggest fringe benefit of his research had been his discovery of Arefeena. She was the perfect complement to his aspired sophisticated and elite lifestyle. She embodied everything he was not – scholarly, refined, classy and glamorous. She had been educated abroad and was the sole beneficiary of her father’s estate business. Imrez had been tracking the enmity against her father, one of the pioneers of the real estate business in Bangladesh, whose company had earned market eminence.
The death of her father had forced Arefeena to leave behind her doctorate and return home. The freak roof collapse accident that killed her father while he was personally handing over one of his more sophisticated office buildings to his most elite clients also killed a number of influential socialites. The company was subjected to several lawsuits and its market reputation was almost ruined. Enthralled by Arefeena’s haunting beauty as she tragically wandered, lost and confused, in the mad business world of Dhaka, Imrez had carefully staged his entry into her life as a source of support. It had taken a little over a year to secure her. Though he never destroyed his resources, the night Arefeena accepted his proposal, Imrez destroyed all evidence he had on her father’s death.
The most dangerous times in a country’s history are always the times of transition. It is a time when the last veneer of restraint and civility is abandoned and naked greed and selfishness are unleashed. The last remnants of the nation’s wealth is scraped clean and gnawed away by hoodlums and hounds alike. It is imperative for all concerned to leave no traceable evidence. Everyone is a potential enemy as no one can be certain which side of the equation they will be standing on when the dust and fervour finally settles. Imrez had known he had to get out of the country soon and for a substantial time. He knew that what the press was reporting as sporadic killings and disappearances were actually a systematic elimination of listed people. He had known of two lists but he was sure there were a few more and that his name would be common on two or three, if not all, of them.
For the first time in their twenty-five years of married life Arefeena had wanted to celebrate this anniversary in Dhaka. He could not say no, they would fly out immediately afterwards; it was all arranged. Imrez never allowed his heart to win over his head, he should not have listened to his heart this time either.
They had finished shovelling on the final layer of freshly dug soil and were stamping it smooth. He could hardly breathe; the coffin had exhausted its last vestiges of oxygen. He wished he could see that lily-like lovely face one last time. He hoped they would leave her be. He was glad she would never find his body. He was sad that he had not gone back for his father’s funeral. He was glad they had no children. The heaviness and darkness of the box closed upon him. The ultimate irony of his life was that Imrez Khan, who knew everything about everyone, did not know exactly who had ordered his live burial.
Arefeena sat almost frozen in The Ice Cube. Through the glass walls she could see that it was nearly dawn and the first few streaks of pure light were tearing their way in, lacerating the dark night sky. “Like the gashes in my heart,” she numbly thought. She was no fool, it hadn’t taken her too long after the first few recordings and photographs to understand what they meant. Some of them were bone-chilling. Many of them were of people who she knew or had read about. That he was part of all this was unbelievable.
Then she had opened the files titled ‘Lily’. She had thought they had met by accident or fate. The pictures of her as a student in England, with her father, and after she came back for his funeral told a different story. Had all her married life been staged too? She had loved him but was his affection for her a lie? She suddenly realised that she had spent half her life with a man who she didn’t know at all, how could this be?
She knew they would soon come in search of this room; Nadim Firoz would bring them. She had to destroy all traceable evidence. Pure white light was flooding the room. Imrez had said he loved this room because it had clear light like on the summit of a mountain. She had to keep his image pristine.