When he was angry, his face would look fierce. Moments later he would chase us with his lungi tucked to one side, clutching a piece of brick in his hand, as if he was really going to hurl it at us. It wasn’t like he couldn’t be violent. We all were young and violent. Colony life demanded this. But, as his friends, we were aware that his aggression was not personal. He only did what he did to fit in. Violence wasn’t a part of him. It existed outside of his self and his being. Although we called him “Pagla”, his nickname was more a commendation of his fascinating disinterest in worldly matters and his rejection of anything practical.
He lived in the peon quarters. Once in a while, his father brought letters to our apartment. A refugee from Kashmir—for us, they were all Biharis, irrespective of their language and features—Pagla’s father spoke Bangla in an accent we were not familiar with. He was a soft-spoken person and his low voice did not synchronise with the high-pitch of the colony. His son, perhaps to compensate for his meekness, swore like an old-Dhaka goon. But unlike him, his son never learned to read or write and would not have a future in the job of distributing letters. So, we used Pagla in the battlefield as a foot soldier, ready to fight whenever we needed him to.
“Pagla ki koros?” (What are you doing Pagla?)
Busy chewing on a blade of grass, he would look up and smile childishly saying, “Pipra dehi” (Watching ants)
We would look at each other’s faces, not knowing what to say to that. Ants have fascinating habits, but we never felt that they were worthy of such intense attention.“Chol boro mather dikey jai. Khela asey Ajka.” (Let’s go towards the big field. There is a match today.)
Pagla would reluctantly get up and follow us to the grounds where a football match was going on. After getting bored watching the match which was often one-sided, we would barge our way into a super crowded local restaurant that sold hot puris in the afternoon. We sat crossed-legged in front of a table and devoured the deep-fried dough that had a filling of potatoes and coriander leaves, as the dusty sunset settled into anonymity behind our backs.
While sitting on the toilet, Wadud Munshi felt his bowels liquefy and gush out with a burning vengeance. He sat there, shivering, waiting for the pain to subside. When the first bout was over, he unclenched his fists. He was still sweating from his belly churning and twisting. His mouth felt dry and bitter, echoing the bitterness of his mind. He felt like having a smoke but decided not to, thinking of the outcome. This was his fifth time and he knew now that he needed to head to the colony health service centre.
He changed his lungi, put on a half-sleeve shirt and commanded his 23-year-old son to hail a rickshaw. He didn’t know how long he would be able to hang on, and his desperation grew exponentially with each second that passed. When he reached the compound of the health centre, he rushed towards the doctor’s room. The compounder stopped him, placed a coupon in his hand, and asked him to sit on the bench where two men had been waiting. Sitting there and struggling with the gushing liquid that had tormented him all morning, Munshi began to vent out his frustration. Much of it was directed toward his wife who had fed him stale tehari the night before. His neighbor and colleague Nazimuddin had lost his father forty days ago and there was a milad in his house. Nazim’s wife, who was very close to his wife Rashida, sent a portion of the tehari that had survived the milad to his house . Munshi did not resist when Rashida filled up his plate. In fact, he devoured what was placed before him, despite the unpleasant aroma that was coming from the food. He chose to ignore it. Now, sitting on the wooden bench, he began cursing his wife and the food that had brought him trouble.
“Baler tehari!” (Screw this dish) he blurted out. As he placed his eyes on the two men sitting next to him, he realised one of the faces looking at him was his neighbor Nazimuddin’s. As he coiled in his seat, his frustration grew and so did his pain.
Allegiances, people say, cannot be bought, but you could buy Pagla’s. You feed him, and he would forever remain loyal to you. If you feed him and buy him ganja, he would break people’s arms and legs for you. But once he became your buddy, he would never turn against you, no matter what anyone offered him. We took him to rallies of the governing parties and to protests when that party was thrown out. We took him to raid competing groups’ clubs and addas. Other groups feared and hated him because they knew conventional methods of punishment would not work on him. His ropelike body was immune to torture: no matter how harsh the beating was, he would get up in three days. Humiliating punishment did not work because he had no sense of shame. Unlike others, he was not bothered when his lungi came off while he was chasing people. He stopped and calmly picked up his lungi and resumed his chase. Chasing and being chased was a part of life. We all faced it. We all had our ways of dealing with it. Colony life was rough; one had to have a stomach for undignified things to survive there.
We had a designated place for adda. We sat, talked, laughed and, always, smoked. The filtered cigarette moved from one hand to another, and Pagla listened to our conversation with a blade of grass or a leaf from a guava tree in his hands. Occasionally, he chewed them or just tore them into small pieces, as if the chewing helped him concentrate better. We, however, knew that this indication that he was listening was a farce; his mind was on the act in itself, in chewing. Each time we asked for his opinion we found him mumbling. And he would shake his head or nod at the wrong moment. He was, it was clear, not cut out for intelligent conversation. So, when Pagla got a pair of powerless round eyeglasses—Gandhi glasses—we were baffled. Eyeglasses gave Pagla’s face bizarre respectability. Nevertheless, he ignored our sarcastic comments and curious gaze and kept wearing them until one day when he lost them in a desperate attempt to save himself from a police van, fending off potential muggers from the streets.
Munshi’s diarrhoea began the way all bad things began in his life—with a premonition. The night before, his sleep had been disrupted twice by strange sounds. On the first occasion, by the collective keening of the substantial stray dog population that reigned freely in the colony. He had initially mistaken the sound for a baby’s cry but then he was able to detect the source of the sound and his mood was soured by that discovery. Bad omen, he thought. Dogs crying in the middle of the night means death in the family. Pulling up the katha, he tried to push that troubling thought out of his head. Nah! Nothing to worry about. These dogs must be haunted by something. Late nights summon spirits—djinns. Humans can’t see them, but animals and pure souls can.
Then he jumped up once again right before Fajr. A gunshot! This time Rashida also woke up with him. She dragged herself out of bed and started towards the bathroom. The sound now felt distant, belonging to another universe. Sleeplessness and discomforting sounds poisoned his mood. The same toxicity began to take hold of his body as well. Alu bhaji tasted bitter and the roti both bitter and chewy. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach which spread quickly to different corners of his body. Ignoring his bodily discomfort, he got ready for work. His boss would be there and if he didn’t see him then he would create a scene. Picking up his umbrella, Munshi began to walk reluctantly towards the GPO. At the office, Munshi’s discomfort turned into sharp pain. He went to his boss and asked for leave. His boss, to his surprise, acquiesced and Munshi returned home by rickshaw. Rashida was surprised to see him back so early but before she was able to blurt out the question that was on the tip of her tongue, her husband rushed in and went straight to the toilet.
We didn’t see Pagla go home very often. He spent most of his time outside, with us. He stuck to whoever was at the club and when no one was there he sat waiting, sometimes for hours. We never saw him going home for lunch or for dinner. He did not go home for the afternoon nap the colony’s unemployed youth indulged in. Once out of the house, he did not return until late at night, when he had to sleep. I heard someone say that his father did not like the sight of him; seeing him made him angry. So, Pagla snuck into the house when his father was asleep. We were not bothered. We were happy that he was always available, always there when we needed company.
Pagla had the habit of doing the unthinkable at the worst moment possible. On one occasion, we were out, fetching mangoes from another colony where night guards and policemen were patrolling. We went there early, the five of us. The plan was to quietly climb up the trees and put as many mangoes as we could in our curled-up lungis and climb down quietly once again. This had to be done quickly because it only took a minute for the guards to get ready and chase us down. Two of us were to wait at the foot of the tree, so we could assist those who were straddling the branches. We had done it many times before. There were some dogs, but they were often chained near the staircase and we did not bother about them. We had grown familiar with each other’s presence and the dogs did not bark at us anymore. When they did, we ran.
That day, unfortunately, one of them snuck out and came close to us, as if to witness the theft. He seemed to be in a good mood, walking lightly and moving his tail sideways. Seeing that the dog was no threat, we decided to finish what we had planned to. As we climbed up, we asked Pagla to wait down there and not disturb the dog. We don’t know what happened. Within seconds the dog was barking at the top of its voice, as though it was mad with rage. We had no time to climb down. We jumped, climbed up the wall, and ran as fast as we could. We didn’t realise we had left two of our friends behind. It took us half an hour to figure out that two of us had been rounded up by the guards. Of course, our friends came back, but they weren’t particularly happy. We never got to know what had happened. We guessed Pagla must have done something beyond ordinary to push that friendly dog towards a frenzy.
On another occasion, he slaughtered and cooked two fat ducks belonging to a close friend who was also a member of our group. This friend of ours was particularly close to Pagla. They hung out together and went to watch movies together. One afternoon, Pagla came over to that friend of ours and told him he had bought two ducks from a vendor and needed someone to cook those for him. They were perfectly cleaned and not a single feather was left on any of them. Our friend took them home, made his mother cook the ducks, and had Pagla eat with him at his house. Whatever was left was put in a clay pot and given to him, so he could take the rest home. As expected, Pagla brought the pot to the club and we all had bhat, daal and beautifully cooked duck after Maghrib. It was only after a day or two, when our friend’s mother complained about the absence of her ducks, that my friend was able to understand what had happened.
Such instances were rare. Pagla was usually very generous. He didn’t take it to his heart when we made fun of him or said hurtful things. He hardly reacted. When we needed pot, we took him with us, and he received the delivery on our behalf. When we wrote letters, he was the one who delivered them to the girls we loved. He was seldom rewarded for the risks he took for us, but he never complained. Friends do things for each other—was his response. He stuck by his friends in everything they did. He got drunk when they did. When they went to visit prostitutes, he followed. When they had phensedyl and dozed off over overtly sweet tea, he did the same. Like violence, those things were also done with dispassionate objectivity. None of those things mattered to him much.
All his life, Munshi has been driven by one instinct—survival. He carefully avoided confrontations in his childhood and never had a fight in his entire school life. When the boys of his village picked on him, he pretended not to understand. Son of a peasant whose inheritance had been eaten up by his father’s multiple marriages and scandals, Munshi had to be level -headed to compensate for his grandfather’s excesses. Now fifty-three, he had grown bitter and disconsolate, realising that his meekness had yielded very little. A little bit of recklessness would have been fine. Thrice, his name came up for a posting at the airport but, on each occasion, he saw a junior nudging him out of the race. If you are sitting at the airport, you’re sitting on a goldmine. He wasn’t bold enough to lobby for his posting. Nor was he courageous enough to negotiate the amount that was required for such a grand purchase. Each time a junior flashed cash or a newly acquired home appliance, his self-disgust popped up and pricked him. He felt beaten up like a freshly caught house mouse, bleeding and humiliated.
Another thought oppressed him with equal intensity. Like an open wound, he licked it and attended to it, and so the thought turned into fantasy. With time it spread and became more atrocious. It first came to him when his son was hospitalised with a bullet wound. The bullet tore through his calf-muscle and took a piece of his fibula. By the time he was informed about the incident, the surgery had been over. He met Rashida and Shimu outside the door that lead to the emergency. Both were sobbing. Two of Shumon’s friends were trying to comfort them. Three hours later they were all sitting on the floor, with Shumon lying on a thin mattress that had been brought from home. Shumon recovered well but, perhaps to remind everyone of what had happened, the bullet left him with a slight limp. It was at that time that the thought began to oppress him. What if he had a gun? He began to fantasise about bullets and guns, and they began appearing in his dreams. He also started hearing gunshots while asleep.
Each year a few young and, at times, elder residents eloped. This happened often enough, and the colony was used to such elopements. Surely, such events provided it the much-needed outlet for gossip and excitement, but most often the elopements ended peacefully in marriage, ushering in a bitter and tedious life lived together. We often wondered how such rebellious souls surrendered to convention so easily. Such questions never led to definitive answers.
Kajal’s father eloped with their housemaid, leaving four grown-up children and a beautiful aging wife behind. It wasn’t that the woman he eloped with was any younger or more beautiful than his wife but, working against all rational expectations, he did what he intended to. His wife cried, and his son fumed about it. His daughters sat home, glum, fearing their father’s action would affect their future marriages. Kajal’s fifty-eight-year-old father, however, came back only after a week. His new mother gave birth to a healthy boy six months later. Kajal’s own mother left the house and went to her parents’ but came back after a while. Her husband’s quarter—an impermanent two-bedroom ground floor apartment—was the place in which she had spent all her adult life. She couldn’t imagine a life beyond its walls. We, on the other hand, didn’t understand how she tolerated him anymore. We used to see Kajal’s father play with his younger son. On Fridays, seated on a stool in the shade of mango and jackfruit trees planted in their backyard garden, he watched his toddler son make and unmake clay squares.
Nirmala Auntie’s second daughter, however, did not elope. She was picked up in a van by one of the most feared goons of the colony. He loved her, but she refused his relentless courting. She was a very serious and gifted student, always at the top of her class. We all expected her to make it to the division merit list. But a month before her SSC exam, Rajan Bhai and his accomplices abducted her. Her parents went to everyone who they thought would be able to help, pleading with them to do something to bring their daughter back. They also went to talk to Rajan Bhai’s family. That worked. Three days later Auntie’s daughter came back. She looked angry and determined. Her anger was so visible that we felt its heat from afar. We heard from our neighbors how she fought fiercely and violently against his advancements. She said she had smashed a glass pitcher on his head when he tried to touch her. We all knew she was telling the truth because Rajan Bhai moved meekly about the colony, after a week’s absence, with a huge bandage on his head. However, on the first day of the SSC, Nirmala Auntie’s second daughter was married to the person she had assaulted with such resentment. Inconsolable, she cried her heart out, and her wailing haunted all thirty buildings of the colony, weaving an intricate rhythm of sound waves singing of heartlessness.
Our friend Muzaffar eloped with a thirteen-year-old when he was fifteen. Muzaffar was a Class Two dropout and the girl who he married soon after was the recipient of a government scholarship—the only person in the colony who had earned this prize that year. Our friend’s father was a cook who lived in the peon quarter, making meals for the department’s visitors to its rest house located at one corner of the colony. This aging cook was married to a strong, young woman who had borne him a young child whom he adored and pampered as much as he could. Our friend, his son from his first wife who died after years of illness, on the other hand, was the object of his antipathy. On countless occasions, we had seen this aging, bald man chasing our friend with his flip-flops. On many occasions we had watched our friend cleaning his snot and teardrops with his bare hands. We had seen him bleed too. So, it did not come as a surprise that he would run away from home. What we struggled to fathom was why she joined him in his struggle. But she did and it all seemed to make sense when they became parents a year later when both were still teenagers. She went on to become a school-teacher. He became a heroin addict, lost his job at a motor workshop and lost his life in a road accident.
Munshi’s on and off relationship with education came to a complete halt when he was in Class Nine. His frail father was bedridden, and he had to take up the responsibility of bringing food to the table of a family that consisted of five, including two younger and unmarried sisters. He did not enjoy farm work. Nor did he understand it well. After a dismal harvest, his family began contemplating the possibility of sending him to Dhaka. A year later, he got on a boat, crossed the river, walked a few miles to the train station, got on the train which dropped him off at Kamalapur and walked to his uncle’s house at Shajahanpur where he stayed until he found a Bachelors’ Mess. He began teaching the landlord’s son—work that fetched him three meals a day—and looked for a stable job in his free time. He finally found one at a printing press near Dainik Bangla. It was there that he began studying for his school certificate exam. He passed with a third division on his second attempt and took admission at a government college where he sporadically appeared for classes. After failing twice, he passed the higher secondary exam on his third attempt. Two years later, a man his uncle knew set him up with his job at the postal department. It cost his family two cows and a portion of the land located at the back of the house. Munshi had finally settled!
So, when Bulbul Bhai, the only son of a relatively well-off clerk, eloped with Pagla’s elder sister who, like her father, was both blue-eyed and eagle-nosed, we were like “So? What’s new about that?” Of course, Bulbul Bhai’s family possessed more wealth than our friend’s but, given our colony’s history and Pagla’s sister’s beauty, we did not think such a difference would factor into another potential marriage. True, Bulbul Bhai was Secretary of the student body of Motijheel area’s biggest public college and was next in line for the Ward Commissioner position, but we kept our faith in our colony’s tradition. Bulbul Bhai’s political power and his family’s wealth did not strangle our belief—which had, by then, consolidated into a conviction comparable to an ideology—in love’s demonic power to turn human beings into jelly-fish, incapable of thinking or feeling.
For a few days after coming back, our friend’s sister was upbeat. We saw her smiling and giggling with other girls her age, her anxious eyes following Bulbul Bhai wherever he went. As days rolled on, she became less and less noticeable, confining herself to her father’s quarter. She looked sickly and the happy tone of her skin lost its glow and became dim ash—the complexion of a person who has died of snakebite. We finally lost sight of her. Women whispered among themselves, but we had no idea what they were whispering about.
For the first time since we have known him, our friend became impenetrable to us; we could not read him as we used to. He was with us and, as always, returned home late. He stood silent under the mango tree we had planted a year ago and watched insects. When we asked him our customary question, “Pagla ki koros?” (What are you doing Pagla?) His customary response followed: “Pipra dehi” (Watching ants) We tried taking him to the movies and he laughed and cried as he often did. He ate with us when we sat to eat and went to watch football when we went to the playground. He smoked ganja when we did and went home amber-eyed. Three months later we saw our friend’s sister out on the balcony once again. She looked healthier but something about her had changed. We could vaguely grasp that she had become a woman. We were happy that our friend began to look his usual self and we regained our understanding of his bearing, his face.
The night before the Qurbani Eid, Pagla unleashed himself on Bulbul Bhai. We weren’t there to witness the whole thing but those who went to the hospital told us the repairing job was complicated and costly. “Twenty stitches in total,” a junior brother told us, spreading the fingers of his two hands. The news froze our limbs and made us gasp. We knew what would happen later, but we weren’t unhappy. Our friend was at peace and that’s what was important.
The pain in Munshi’s stomach was now unbearable. The queue moved slowly and precariously. He looked gingerly at the nurses who were busily moving about. Unable to draw their attention to himself, he grew impatient and angry. He felt angry that he didn’t join his cousin, his only friend, who went to join the Sharbahara and never returned. He felt angry that he couldn’t marry the woman he liked—a widow who worked in the same section as he did—because his distant uncle had already fixed his marriage. He felt angry that he evaded every confrontation in his life and stood up to no one. He felt angry that he couldn’t go to his superiors with a bag full of cash and throw it right in front of them and shout, ‘Here it is! Now give me my posting.’ He was mad that he couldn’t manage a handgun from somewhere and shoot the bastards who had shot his son. He was mad at the dogs that woke him up in the middle of the night and at the djinns that never revealed themselves to him. He was mad at his manipulative neighbors and the city which squeezed him like a freshly caught mouse. He was mad at the doctor who was busy flirting with the nurse and at the wobbly bench that swayed and swung madly. As his anguish increased, he felt a sudden surge of lava inside his intestines. And, as he unleashed the hot liquid onto the earth, he felt no sense of shame. He felt peaceful, relieved.