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Authors: Adib Khan

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Spiral Road

BOOK: Spiral Road
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ONE
Nomad’s Drum

By all reckoning this king cobra was no ordinary reptile.

Village folks are endowed with powerful imaginations, wild and primitive. They don’t forget what is seemingly miraculous or anything that may be remotely considered as unnatural; God’s Will, or the Devil’s mischief, dabbles regularly in human affairs.

Descriptions of the snake have varied over time. Some insisted that it sprang from the entrails of Inferno to terrorise the villagers. That it was an albino ophidian.
Allahar Kosom
! Others claimed that the serpent emitted ashen smoke from its nostrils. It was said to be a twin-headed freak with fangs like miniature tusks, sharp to the points of near invisibility—they could have punctured the hide of a rhinoceros!

This cobra was the longest snake that had ever been seen in our ancestral village of Manikpur. Its eyes were polished obsidian, alert and patient, tracking its prey.

It lay coiled in the shrubs like a thick coir rope, waiting for the family cat to come closer. But my greatgrandfather spotted the reptile first—and killed it with a single blow of an axe.

R
UMOURS SPREAD THAT
the remains of the cobra were secretly buried by a group of outcasts who were themselves under suspicion of being part-serpents.
Nagas
. Insidious infidels!

Stories and
jarigans
. Words and music rippling in a continuum through time.

But the truth? That’s a matter of individual judgement. Whatever the perceptions of this singular act of bravery, the facts themselves now lie crumpled beneath fabrications, distortions and exaggerations. It was nearly twelve decades ago, after all.

We do know that the drama was enacted on the morning of the searing summer’s day when Ismael Alam turned fourteen.

In recent times, people have been more accepting of the one-headed version of the
Ophiophagus Hannah
—slimy and sinuous, deep olive-green in colour with a jetblack tail and a thick hood that spread around its head, resembling a puffed sail in full wind.

It is also widely acknowledged that when the cobra’s head was severed, blood spouted from its fatal wound and splattered my great-grandfather’s clothing. The garments were not allowed to be washed, as a permanent token of young Ismael’s courage. In the weeks and months which followed, spruced-up men, women and children came from distant villages to view the clothes on display in Manikpur. My great-grandfather’s fame was ensured. But it was also privately whispered among some villagers that Ismael Alam and his lineage were permanently tainted by these stains. The family was now cursed.

Yet the years passed uneventfully. Ismael Alam bought vast tracts of fertile land in East Bengal, hobnobbed with the British imperialists, invested shrewdly in the spice market (trading in cloves and peppercorns), expanded his business in the muslin industry and became a wealthy man.

And since that fateful day in 1884, every fourteenth birthday in our family has been celebrated as an auspicious occasion. But somehow mine passed in an ordinary way.

O
N THAT DAY I
remember overhearing Uncle Musa telling my father that I had reached the age when the gremlins of the groin awakened to their full potential for mischief. Abba was mortified by his older brother’s comment.

‘You should be looking for brides for both your sons,’ Uncle Musa went on.

‘But they are so young!’ my father protested.

‘Young?’ Uncle Musa scoffed. ‘Both are ready for fatherhood. They’re fully grown where it counts.’

Later that afternoon, my teenaged brother and I took turns to climb on top of the vine-covered wall that separated the front yard of our house from the side of the road. We allowed thirty seconds to steady the legs and spread out our arms as though they were the wings of an aeroplane. The aim was to walk backwards, eyes closed, the entire length of the wall, nearly thirty metres.

My brother and I tossed a coin to decide who would begin. To my surprise and Zia’s disgust, I managed twenty steps before faltering and jumping off.

But then I didn’t allow my brother the allotted preparatory period, calling ‘Time!’ before he had steadied himself. Even so, he managed five or six steps before I wolf-whistled and said loudly, ‘Isn’t she good-looking!’

‘Who?’ Zia opened his eyes and whipped around to look at the empty street, losing his balance as he turned. The soft earth cushioned his fall.

‘Fake! Cheater!’ Zia shouted. ‘You didn’t win! The only thing you’ll ever be good at is going backwards!’

I smiled superciliously, and savoured this rare victory over my older brother.

A
S
I
LOOK
out the aircraft’s window now, I recall that moment with ironic amusement.

The present seems to become static and silent as the plane dips into the
sudsy clouds. I’m in sinewy lanes and unlit corridors of another world.

But this isn’t a quick entry into the past. Rather, it’s a slow attenuation to a dimly perceived way of life—to nuances and mannerisms, gestures, conventions and rituals. I hear snatches of long forgotten Bangla idioms that would lose their texture and piquancy in translation.

I’m like a musician confronted with the tuning of an instrument that he hasn’t played for years.

Here are those other selves that emerge from the shadows of my past. I appear in different guises, modelled by time. Voiceless figures. And the stories, some not worth recollecting, but others that are intricately threaded and weave the design of who I am.

From the pack of remembrance tumbles a five-year-old, howling with pain as the broken skin on his bleeding knee is dabbed with cotton wool soaked in tincture iodine. The gentle hands and caressing voice of my concerned mother. My whoop of delight as Zia is smacked with the handle of a punkah for smearing mud on my face. A muggy, still day suffused with the pungency of ripe jackfruits. Two runaways from the obligatory ritual of an afternoon’s nap. Carp and catfish jump in the village pond. Uncle Musa is uncharacteristically patient with my failure with a fishing rod. Later, I hear him bragging to my mother about his expertise in entertaining bored and restless children. I see Naheed, the girl next door with the cascading black hair, garish red fingernails and flirtatious eyes. She accepts my gifts of stolen guavas and unripe
mangoes, seasoned with salt and chilli flakes, without even a murmur of appreciation. She’s twelve years old and already vain about her delicately chiselled features and sandalwood complexion. I don’t know what the feeling is, but she leaves me sad and aching inside. Then those long afternoons, like mirages, shimmering in the summer sun. The thud of a worn cricket ball striking a bat. Daydreams and piles of comic books under leafy trees perforated by hot fingers of light. Drainpipe trousers, pointed shoes, gyrating limbs and imitations of Elvis. Moppy hair and those lads from Liverpool…In my meaner moments I sing to my brother about the fool on the hill. Zia and I go to an English medium school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross.

Conjure. Imagine. Create. Maintain our imperious illusions.

Invisible hands turn other cards, footnoting the times of giddy invincibility. Then the wrath of acid-green Fate. ‘Surprise!’ The joker cackles. ‘It’ll be such a long, one-way journey!’

The years travel swiftly. With merciless certitude.

I
NDULGENT ME
. Courting the past on the jagged edges of memory.

We skim over an emerald surface creased with dirt tracks and dotted with banana and coconut trees. Flimsy bamboo huts, ponds and paddy fields. I didn’t expect to see so much dry land. I’ve been thinking of the
floods in Bangladesh last year. I have this image of a water-logged runway, like a dead, partly submerged crocodile on its back, its belly a slab of concrete glistening under the sun.

Somewhere ahead is the city where I was born.

The shadow of the plane seems almost stationary, looming over the fields. A bump and a whine. Trails of vapour and raised wing flaps.

The captain’s voice is professionally cheerful and detached as he tells us about the weather and the assistance that’s available at the airline’s counter. The plane taxis along the runway and crawls to a stop.

I think I’m a time traveller, transported to the simplicity of a pastoral life that nourished my childhood. It was an idyllic existence, cased in the security of innocence. The days were playful and the nights empty of threats.

What I now see is the landscape of my formative years. On the field adjacent to the runway two sari-clad women scythe wild grass with short-handled sickles. Nearby, a young girl struggles to balance a tied bundle of dried cow dung on her head. An old man in a blue lungi and white singlet looks on sternly without offering assistance. Behind them, stray cows are herded away by a bare-bodied boy waving a bamboo stick.

These people would not care to know about New York or the twin towers. Afghanistan and Iraq are distant, mythical lands crawling with mechanical monsters and white sahibs. Here instead are flood-ravaged lives and
peasants seeking nothing more than meagre meals, shelter and something to wear. Allah willing.

The world hasn’t really changed. Not from where I’m sitting.

The aircraft begins to roll again.

An apology precedes the announcement that the aerobridge isn’t functioning due to mechanical failure. The passengers will be disembarking at some distance from the terminal building.

Groans. Rueful laughter. The almost frenzied struggle to remove hand luggage from overhead storage compartments. I remain seated, panic-stricken and reflective. I’m afraid of knowing what awaits me outside.

The city has changed, my brother has warned me. Its unchecked growth confounds visiting expatriates. Very few landmarks are left for me to associate Dhaka with my younger days. I may have difficulty finding my way around.

I don’t enjoy surprises that compel me to renegotiate my relationship with the past.

The heat is sticky and unpleasant. My forehead is clammy and I feel a trail of sweat crawling down the back of my neck. I walk slowly across the tarmac, a desolation of massive concrete slabs.

‘I’m home,’ I mutter in disbelief. The words sound hollow, like the beating on the rind of an empty gourd.

TWO
Foreign Connections

The sign says
FOREIGN PASSPORTS
. I join the queue behind a stressed English couple with a howling baby. My nostrils twitch. The smells of mothballs, sweat, dust and detergent. I resent the anxiety which might engulf a firsttime tourist in a developing country.

Steven Mills is ahead of me. Impulsively I circle back to the end of the line. I’ve overreacted to him, though. He’s just one of those garrulous and overt personalities with a sense of humour that can verge on the offensive.

A
FEW WEEKS
ago I returned from work one evening to find an unmarked envelope in the letterbox. Inside, there
was a word-processed note that read simply:
Welcome to the
majlis
of like-minded brothers.
At the bottom of the page was an address followed by a date and time.

Curiosity compelled me to search for the place the next day. It was in one of Melbourne’s outer suburbs, in an indistinguishable street lined with brick-veneer houses and modest front yards. At some distance a police car cruised in front of me. I pulled up against the kerb and waited. When the street cleared, I did a quick U-turn and headed back home.

Maybe I should have contacted the police instead, and handed them the letter. But what would they have made of it? A single sentence, inviting me to a congregation of fellow Muslims. A seemingly innocuous message that would have done little more than direct attention to me.

I burned the note in the incinerator.

Since then, nothing untoward has happened; but I’ve continued to be flustered. These days I imagine people following me. Men standing on street corners appear to observe my moves. Flitting shadows. Footfalls. I’ve stopped taking phone calls. The answering machine is never switched off.

This paranoia has travelled with me to the subcontinent.

I shuffle forward in the line with a foreign passport in my hand.

T
HE PLANE HAD
been less than half full on the flight from Singapore. When the
FASTEN SEAT BELT
sign was switched
off, I asked one of the air hostesses if I could move to the rear of the aircraft where it was less crowded. After drinks and brunch, I planned to read and catch up on some sleep. The fried rice was bland. I smothered it with chilli sauce and ate a few mouthfuls. I wasn’t hungry anyway. But the cold beer was all the more enjoyable because I knew there’d be no easy alcohol in Dhaka. Everything would be available, of course, if one knew where to look and pay the price.

I lasted about ten minutes with a book on the Ottoman Empire before dozing off. A bump and a nudge alerted me to the presence of a passenger seating himself next to me. I could hear laboured breathing.

‘Sorry mate! It’s less noisy back here than at the front. These bloody seats seem to get narrower every time I fly. Steven Mills.’ The palm of his hand was soft and sweaty.

‘Masud Alam.’

He drank thirstily from a can and then wiped the froth from his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Nothing like a cold Aussie beer, eh?’ He noticed the empty can of a Victorian brew in front of me. ‘Where’re you from, mate?’

‘Melbourne.’

‘What do you know?’ He looked at me with renewed interest. ‘I live in Essendon. Bombers…You follow the footy?’

‘I barrack for the Tigers.’

‘Nah! No good, mate! When was the last time they won the flag?’ An air hostess caught his attention. ‘Hey
Miss! Another beer, please!’ He turned to me again. ‘Born in Bangladesh?’

I nodded. ‘It was Pakistan then.’

‘Travelling on an Australian passport?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you feel like an alien in your birthplace?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘Visiting family?’

‘Yes. And you?’

‘I’m here on business. You a Muslim?’

I turned sideways to look at him. ‘I was born into a Muslim family.’

‘What do you make of all the trouble in the Islamic world?’

I had to think before answering that one. ‘Symptoms of its own inhibitions and colonial trickery.’

‘We live in the post-colonial era, mate!’ he said heatedly.

‘Post-colonial?’ I mocked. ‘That word’s a construct of English Departments and Centres of Cultural Studies in certain parts of the world. There’s nothing
post
about colonialism. Merely a shift in
modus operandi
.’

‘Aah! I see!’ He sounded as if he’d suddenly figured me out. He shifted in his seat and then leaned over to whisper. ‘So…is there any connection?’

‘What connection?’

‘You know…With certain people hiding somewhere in the western parts of the subcontinent.’ Mills vaguely waved his hand. ‘With events in the Middle East.’

I must have looked utterly bewildered.

He burst into raucous laughter and punched me gently on the arm. ‘Only kidding, Tiger!’

Belatedly the significance of his question dawned on me. Something in my face must have unsettled him. He shuffled off to the toilet. The seat next to me remained vacant for the rest of the flight.

I sat thinking about my possible status as a foreigner with a connection.

T
HE MAN BEHIND
the glassed-in counter examines the cover of the passport and then studies my photograph. He scrutinises my signature and looks at me closely before checking the visa. He adjusts his spectacles and painstakingly enters information in a computer.

I am pinged with a host of queries. Do I intend travelling out of Dhaka? Who am I staying with? Have I been to Indonesia or the Philippines in the past twelve months? Are there other countries I’m planning to visit? Had I ever been to Malaysia?

He rewards his effort with a drink of water.

There are murmurings from people who have grouped behind me.

The official ignores the caustic comments. He stamps the immigration card and tears it along the perforated line. He reads the Customs Declaration Form and then marks it with a diagonal line. ‘Show that to customs,’ he instructs. ‘Go through the red area. Next!’

I’d ticked the box next to the NOTHING TO DECLARE option. The red area? Now I’m beginning to think I won’t be leaving the airport in a hurry.

Other passengers have their luggage checked. A customs officer in a plain white sari ignores me and continues talking to a male colleague. The man appears to be in his early forties. I can’t help staring at the ravine scar that runs down his right cheek. He’s tall and thin, with blood-shot eyes and a perpetual smirk on his face, as though it’s an imprint of his superiority to the rest of the world.

‘Hamid Bhai, we’re going to miss you!’ the woman says affectionately. ‘Come and visit us any time you like! You still haven’t told us your future plans.’

‘Some other job,’ he says vaguely with a swish of his hands. ‘I haven’t decided. Something more exciting. More meaningful.’

Hamid finally notices me. He asks for my passport. ‘Australian!’ he exclaims. ‘How long have you lived there?’

‘Thirty years,’ I reply in Bangla.

His expression softens as though in approval of my fluency in the national language. ‘Are Australians prejudiced against Muslims?’

‘I’m an Australian. I’m not prejudiced against myself.’

‘There’s a difference between someone like you and the descendents of the British.’

‘There are people from all over the world living there.’ I’m too jet-lagged to be bothered with a further explanation of the country’s ethnic diversity.

‘Do Muslims feel threatened in Australia?’

‘You need to ask a practising Muslim.’

He examines the immigration card. ‘You wrote nothing where it says religion.’

‘It’s optional.’

‘Your country invaded Iraq.’ There’s a note of accusation in his voice, as though he has irrefutable proof that I was part of the decision-making process that sent Australian troops to the Middle East.

Another man in a khaki uniform takes the passport and disappears behind a partition. The woman tips the contents of my suitcase and backpack onto the counter. She continues chatting with Hamid. Mindlessly they poke and probe each item of belonging.

‘Video camera? Laptop?’ Hamid inquires. ‘British pounds? Euros? American dollars?’

‘Mobile phone.’ I place it on the bench.

They take turns to examine the mobile before returning it to me. I’m led behind the partition and searched.

Most of the clothes and gifts for family members are tossed back into the suitcase. The rest is dumped in the backpack along with my letters and documents, which have been perfunctorily examined. The woman motions towards a partly open door.

‘Why?’ I ask. ‘What about my passport?’

She shrugs nonchalantly.

I glare at her.

‘Please wait in there. Your passport will be returned. You can leave your suitcase here. You may take the backpack.’

The room stinks of cigarettes, even though there are no butts in sight. Several chairs are placed around a clunky wooden table in the middle. The walls are painted avocado green. The flecked mosaic floor looks invitingly cool and clean. A ceiling fan creaks and whirls overhead. I move the chair to ensure that I’m not sitting directly under it.

Already I yearn to return to my inconspicuous life as a librarian in Melbourne.

A
T HOME MY
workdays are full of book matters, emails, order forms and purchases, organising and attending meetings, arranging lectures and catching up with the news on websites. I leave some of the more difficult jobs to my assistant, Danielle Banks. She’s adept at dealing with budget cuts and staff stress. Over the years we’ve both learned that compliance and compromise achieve much more than confrontation. Danielle also happens to be a more affable diplomat than I am, with the rare gift of being able to say ‘No’ without offending.

I live in a weatherboard house in one of the quieter streets in Richmond. It’s a dull existence, although I rarely question it. If there are moments of dissatisfaction, I quickly think of the circumstances that led me to Australia on the shrapnel-strewn road of migrants.

When I left Bangladesh soon after the liberation war, I pretended that it was no more than an indulgent adventure, a transfer of life’s priorities without any
apprehended loss to my selfhood. And now, in my whimsical moments, I imagine I’m a prophesier, since I can usually tell what is likely to happen the next day or the following week. There’s an unvarying routine about most things in my life—the time I leave for work and when I return. A run on the Richmond oval most mornings. Competition racquetball after work on Tuesday. Wednesday nights devoted to the washing machine, and the weekly jaunt to the supermarket on Thursday evening. I can even guess when my young neighbours are gearing themselves for a noisy party. The unpredictable and the chaotic seem far away. I’ve learned to cage the familiar turbulence of the past somewhere in the maze of my inner being, where it remains perpetually dark.

My spare time is taken up with walking, computer chess, reading, listening to music and watching movies at art-house theatres. Occasionally I go to the football. In summer I watch international cricket with fanatical interest. I enjoy camping and hiking. I have a few friends who share my interests, but I see them infrequently.

And there’s Amelia.

Amelia works in a bookshop. She’s a widow and lives in Hawthorn with her two teenaged daughters, Angela and Skye.

I met Amelia five years ago, at a ‘Writing about the Past’ session at that year’s Writers’ Festival. Deliberately I’d chosen an aisle seat so that I could make a quick exit if
the speakers became self-indulgent and boring. Someone bumped against my legs. The woman was out of breath and profuse in her apology. I tucked in my legs and squeezed sideways to make way for her and the paper bags she was carrying. She collapsed into the chair next to me.

‘Thanks!’ she whispered breathlessly.

At the end of the discussion, I asked the panel if writers of memoirs were entirely honest in writing about their past. How much did they exaggerate and fictionalise for the sake of maintaining narrative interest? And how authentic were the images created by memory anyway?

How did they deal with the events they did not wish to reveal? Drop them in the ‘Not to be Disclosed’ bin? Merely bypass them?

I sensed the woman in the adjacent seat turn and look at me. The answers to my questions were evasive. I tried again. If deception was part of the writing process, then was it necessary to lie in order to write about former times? But this was one question too many. There were titters of amusement and the microphone passed on to another member of the audience.

‘That made them uncomfortable,’ the woman chuckled. ‘Are you a migrant?’

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘So am I,’ she said. ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to you about the questions you asked.’

I liked her forthrightness.

Afterwards we headed off for coffee.

‘I’m Amelia.’ She held out her hand.

‘Masud.’

‘Are you…’ she hesitated. ‘Indian?’

‘Bangladeshi.’

‘A Hindu? Sorry! I don’t mean to pry.’

‘A lapsed Muslim.’

‘Oh.’ The
Oh
was prolonged and somehow seemed mysteriously meaningful. Then she laughed, as though bemused by the word
lapsed
, and told me her surname.

It was my turn to say, ‘Oh.’

N
OWADAYS AMELIA AND
I occasionally go out for dinner and then to a concert or a play. We no longer talk of our shared migrant experiences. Sometimes we make love as though it’s a reminder of a mutual obligation in our relationship. She has stopped asking how I feel about her or whether I have any plans for us to live together. She’s exasperated by the way I’ve remained vague and shifty about this.

Amelia’s justified in accusing me of indecisiveness. ‘You dither so much, Masud!’ she said to me once. And then lost her temper when I agreed.

‘Your problem is that you don’t passionately believe in anything! You don’t seem to have any need for anchorage.’

An accurate assessment, I thought. ‘I’m an emotional Bedouin,’ I said limply.

But Amelia hasn’t stopped telling me how much she appreciates my patience with Angela and Skye. Maybe that’s the reason she keeps her discontent under control.

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