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Authors: Adib Khan

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Spiral Road (18 page)

BOOK: Spiral Road
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SEVENTEEN
Behind it All

The sea is like a pack of marauding wolves, growling and squabbling over a kill. My eyes are leaden and bitterness dries my mouth. I’m cold and tired, my limbs feel rubbery and my head throbs as though I’ve a hangover.

We must be in the port area of Chittagong.

I shake my head and squint. The car is parked near a warehouse. I splash water from the drink bottle on my face. Outside, men are working feverishly, loading two vans with wooden crates. Omar is there, talking to uniformed security guards. The shrill cry of seagulls punctures the early morning calm.

I wander along a wooden pier, stopping occasionally to flex my legs and shoulders and watch children collecting
seashells along the rubbish-littered sand. The tangy sea air is infused with the acrid smell of diesel fuel. Over in the port, which is crowded with container ships, cranes hover like giant giraffes. I walk to the end of the pier and see the flaring horizon change as strands of saffron thread through a band of clouds.

Gazing at the sea, I imagine riding the waves and heading south. Somewhere, many yearnings away, is Richmond.

A young man is yelling out, hurrying towards me. I turn and he brusquely calls that we must leave immediately. The vans have departed and the warehouse doors are shut.

Omar’s already in the car. ‘Did you sleep well?’

I massage the back of my neck. Whatever Omar slipped into that bottled water certainly knocked me out, for hours. ‘I thought the port was heavily guarded. Isn’t a permit necessary to enter these docks?’

‘You’re right. But then, it’s always possible to come to arrangements with friends.’

T
HE COMMERCIAL DISTRICT
of Agrabad is a huddle of buildings and shops. It’s too early for the road to be clotted with traffic. There are just a few rickshaws and handcarts clattering along the potholed road. Occasionally we pass men carrying caged chickens and baskets of fruits and vegetables balanced on their heads.

Omar looks relaxed, as though he’s reached the safety of his territory.

We swing into Tiger Pass Road and then take the CDA Avenue that leads to Cox’s Bazaar Road. Omar drives south and crosses the bridge over Sangu River, before slowing down and turning left at Satkania police station.

‘You couldn’t find two more friendly policemen than Rumi and Dawood.’ Omar grins. ‘They are cooperative beyond expectation.’

‘For a price, I guess.’

He laughs. ‘Naturally!’

‘I’ve never come this way before.’ The landscape is unspoilt and densely foliaged. The greenery is so lush that it looks like a theatre set.

‘We’ll be in Bandarban soon. It’s a market town on the river. Most of the people here are Buddhists. They belong to the Marma tribe.’

In spite of everything, I begin to enjoy the ride.

Bandarban is a sleepy town, untouched by the twentyfirst century. There wouldn’t be too many people with stress-related illnesses or nervous breakdowns here. Nor is it the sort of place where I’d find a public telephone. Bamboo boats, laden with leafy vegetables and straw baskets, ply the river, and an overcrowded passenger boat ploughs swiftly along the middle of the waterway. From the river bank, excited children jump into the water. Elderly men repair fishing nets nearby, smoke bidis and swap stories.

We pull up at the Tribal Cultural Institute and walk to a neighbouring tea stall.

The owner emerges from a tin-roofed dwelling and greets Omar warmly. We’re soon surrounded by noisy kids who appear to be familiar with my nephew. Omar takes out fistfuls of sweets from a satchel and hands them around.

Other men appear and occupy the rickety wooden chairs and tables in front of the shop. Without exception, they’re in their twenties—grim-faced and wary-eyed. They sit silently, looking thoroughly unfriendly.

I can’t say how these young men might think. It’s like trying to figure out how my mind worked thirty-two years ago. Intensity of belief is diluted with age. But perhaps wisdom is in seeing our own failures, how we misdirected our energies? Nothing is entirely pure or sacred or certain as we grow older. Nowadays my dreams are rarely grand or fresh. They’re smudged and chipped. Mundane matters occupy my fanciful moments. And I’m afraid of planning anything beyond my tangible grasp or if it entails risk.

Breakfast is boiled eggs and freshly made chappatis. We drink heavily sugared tea from small, terracotta bowls. With a kind of bovine indifference we sit, full-bellied, in the pleasant warmth of the morning sun.

I wonder how this odyssey will end.

Omar disappears inside the shop. When he emerges, a frown creases his face. Wordlessly he hands me back my mobile. The men head towards their vehicles. This is a well-drilled unit that doesn’t need instructions. There are eleven of them. The departure will be staggered.

The road narrows as we drive east across a bridge. Omar swerves to the right and pulls up on a grassy strip of land. ‘If we walk about a kilometre along the river bank,’ he says, pointing towards a narrow dirt track, ‘there’ll be a spot where the water is clean. Would you like to wash? Perhaps have a swim?’

My tongue feels furry and my body is clammy. I take my backpack and get out of the car. The path hugs the high bank and zigzags through dense shrubs and trees. Omar follows, carrying a towel and a bar of soap. Behind us I hear the clatter of the other four-wheel-drives and vans crossing the bridge.

We walk briskly until we reach a sharp bend where the river cascades over boulders and flows smoothly across a sandy bed. The water looks clean, but I’m fussy. ‘A little further on,’ I suggest.

Omar looks bemused. ‘Sorry, I don’t have any chlorine to dump into the river.’ We continue but he drops further behind. I wonder if this is deliberate, an indication that he trusts me. Or is Omar simply creating space for me to unwind and think? Or brood.

Suddenly the river widens. ‘Here!’ I call, jogging down the gentle slope.

Omar doesn’t wait. He strips off his clothes and wades in.

I drop my backpack behind a bush and fumble to switch on the mobile—but there’s no power to it. The battery has been removed.

‘This is almost Paradise!’ Omar shouts.

My nephew has outwitted me in so many ways. Yet, I’m not resentful. Even now I remember my grandfather: ‘Strong family ties,’ he would often say, ‘nourish affections and make people more charitable and forgiving towards their own.’

I feel ridiculous—naked and carrying my loaded toothbrush. We splash around in the waist-deep currents. The water is odourless, but I’m careful not to swallow it.

Omar paddles his way towards the other side. I remember how excited he was to see the coastline at Apollo Bay. He’d never seen such clean, white sand. It was a warm day and the sparkling turquoise sea looked irresistible. The anticipation on his face was something I’ll never forget. On the beach, I picked him up and carried him into the sea. He squirmed and giggled as I laid him gently in the water. The next second he sprang up with a howl. He ran towards his mother. ‘There’s ice in the water!’ he cried. ‘Uncle tricked me!’

Zia thought his son was exaggerating. He rolled up the bottom of his trousers and felt the water with his toes. Hurriedly he pulled his foot out. ‘That’s freezing!’ he said in amazement and looked up at the clear sky, perplexed by the difference between the chill of the water and the warmth of the day.

I aim to fling the toothbrush onto dry ground. It lands short of the bank. The swirling currents sweep it away.

‘You’ll have to go back to brushing with the twig of a
neem
tree!’ Omar advises. ‘It’s better than toothpaste, anyway.’

I swim over to Omar. He laughs benignly at my laboured strokes. We talk about happier times. He tells me about his memories of his Australian holiday.

‘You had so much gusto for just about everything you saw there,’ I tell him. There was an endearing innocence about Omar and an infinite capacity to be delighted by the simplest of experiences. I recall for him how he’d loved the tram rides in Melbourne, Puffing Billy and the noisy experience of Victoria Market. And then…‘What happened over the next few years, Omar?’ Did he find a cause? Did the darkness of adulthood overwhelm him?

Omar looks reflective and then suddenly dives underwater. I’m not surprised by his evasive silence.

‘How far are we driving?’ I ask when he emerges, gasping for air.

He hands me the soap. ‘The factory’s not far.’


Is
there a factory?’

‘Uncle! How can you doubt me?’ he mocks.

We linger a while in the water, then dress quickly.

This time Omar walks ahead, in control. I take a final look around.

A warbling myna breaks the silence.

Almost Paradise. No martyrs here.

Then I think of Steven Mills. ‘I wouldn’t like to think that Mills will be harmed.’

‘He shouldn’t be here then,’ Omar says without turning around.

‘He has a family.’

‘As I said, I’ve nothing to do with your friend. Let me explain.’ He stops and waits for me to catch up. ‘There are
different units all over the country. They don’t control or advise one another. Occasionally they exchange information. Contact is minimal…None knows what the others are planning. It’s a precautionary measure.’

‘Surely you have some influence!’ I persist.

‘Does your friend think he’s dealing with bumbling amateurs? Genetically inferior people destined to be guided and indirectly ruled? Well, that’s an arrogance that’ll work in our favour.’

Us and them.
For us or against us
. A complicated game, without rules. The world polarised into a Manichean struggle. The way powerful rulers often see it. It could be that this simplicity of thinking makes their illusions seem more achievable. Those in command fool themselves first, then they can delude others. Except now it’s all spilled out into the open, weeping from the ulcers of the world.

Where does someone like me fit in? Sandwiched in the middle and squeezed from both ends until I’m mashed to a pulp. I’ve been spoilt by life in the neutral zone. Bland and inconspicuous, but physically safe.

I try again. ‘Innocent people will be terribly affected if anything should happen to Mills.’

‘Innocent Afghanis, Palestinians and Iraqis are being damaged every day. Or are their lives worth less than an Australian’s?’

‘A harmless journalist was killed!’

‘It’s news to me that harmless people work for the CIA.’

‘Why are you doing this?’

‘Why did you do the things you did when you were young? When you felt that the world needed change? At the time did you think you were misguided?’

‘No.’

‘We don’t want a repetition of the last five hundred years. An Anglicised version of the Treaty of Tordesillas won’t do.’

Omar breaks into a run.

I keep walking, reflecting on the inadequacy of what I know about history.

W
E TRAVEL IN
silence to Rowangchhari and then head south. Omar slows down near a road block. He honks twice. Two workers drop their shovels and remove the barricade. We pass through and within minutes Omar turns into a vacant yard. A large, single-storeyed brick building stands in the middle of a clearing. Omar turns to me.

‘See, everything is as I told you!’

Parked at an angle to the building are the other fourwheelers. ‘Those vans…’

‘The same as you saw at the warehouse, picking up raw material and spare parts for machinery. What else could you possibly think were being loaded into them?’ He smirks.

Inside the factory are rows of weaving and sewing machines and more than fifty workers. Bales of textile are piled up against the wall. The employees, Omar tells me,
are mostly tribal folks, among them Chakmas, Marmas, Khumis and Moghs. It’s his deliberate policy, he says, to have ethnic diversity, in fairness to the regional population.

‘They’re superb workers.’ Omar is proud. ‘Besides receiving a basic wage, each one has a share in the profit. It gives them a sense of ownership.’

I think of Alya and the different way she runs her business.

The factory foreman is a legless man on crutches. ‘He stepped on a mine laid by Myanmar’s army, near the border with Rakhine,’ Omar explains.

Najeeb is in his early forties and welcomes me with a toothless grin. He hobbles around the factory, and he talks with the older men and women as we pass.

‘Looks like a happy workplace,’ I remark.

Najeeb looks at Omar, who is checking a pile of recently sewn T-shirts. ‘Mr Alam is a rare boss. Very kind and just. He takes little money for himself from the business.’

We go out through a back door. On the edge of the forest, there’s a small, tin-roofed shack made of clay and bamboo. Next to the buckled side wall, the pump of a tube-well is set in the middle of a concrete slab. Not one of Omar’s entourage is to be seen. It would seem that the forest has swallowed them.

‘That’s where Mr Alam sleeps,’ Najeeb points out. ‘You can rest there now.’

We reach the shack. The plywood door is without a lock. It’s ajar and squeaks open with a slight push. Light
floods in through a roughly hewn window, highlighting the sparse conditions of the room. The packed earth floor has been recently sprinkled with water. A mosquito net is draped over a camp bed. The only other furniture in the room is a small table and a chair. Under the window there’s a tin trunk. A fresh towel is draped over the back of the chair.

‘My nephew doesn’t need much,’ I say enviously.

‘He lives simply, like we do. He eats with us and treats us as though we’re his family.’

‘My nephew also lives in the interior of the Hill Tracts.’ I look at Najeeb for a reaction.

He pretends not to have heard me. ‘Please, it’s nearly time for cha.’

A bell sounds to signal the morning break. The workers stream outside, to where aluminium kettles are bubbling over portable gas stoves. People squat on their haunches and drink from dented mugs. Men chew dark tobacco and smoke bidis. Others stuff their mouths with paan leaves coated with lime and wrapped around betel nuts.

The tea is strong and heavily flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom. It’s delicious. Omar walks among the workers, stopping to talk to them in different dialects. I’m astonished by his fluency. There’s nothing formal or dutiful about the attention he pays them. He jokes and laughs, mixing with the men and women as though he has known them all his life. He accepts a paan from an elderly woman and lights a bidi. When the bell sounds
again, the employees file back inside, chatting among themselves.

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