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Authors: Adib Khan

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BOOK: Spiral Road
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We hear Ma calling us.

‘It’s time for afternoon tea,’ Nasreen reminds me. Our regrets are hidden.

‘Already? Silver teapot, strainer, cups and saucers?’

‘Teabags in porcelain mugs. Stop trying to be a magician. The past won’t come back. It likes its safety in memory.’

Outside, the raw afternoon is beginning to mellow. Later it will bruise quickly to a shade of deep purple.

Suddenly, I miss Amelia.

FIVE
Mutations

‘It’s all there.’ Zia points to the stack of manila folders on the knotted-cane coffee table. ‘Bills, receipts, official correspondence and documents. Look through them if you want.’

I remain impassive. I’ve been unable to concentrate on my brother’s clinical relating of his meetings with accountants and solicitors who’ve devised ways to reduce our accumulated debts.

‘How much did
you
have to contribute?’ I ask.

‘In your currency…about nineteen thousand dollars.’ He looks at Ma and says loudly, ‘That’s a lot of takas.’

‘I’ll cover half of that,’ I promise, without a clue how I’ll find such a sum.

Zia’s ploy to chasten Ma into thriftiness isn’t having the intended effect.

She looks uninterested, as though the grim times will simply swirl past us like a dust storm. She continues to read a Bangla newspaper. Head bowed, Nasreen is engaged in mending Yasmin’s school uniform.

‘We would’ve been fine if I didn’t find out that Abba and Uncle Musa had sold off vast tracts of land after the liberation war,’ Zia says. ‘The money was used to help those guerrillas who had been crippled or maimed. You could hardly criticise what they did.’

‘There was also a fortune in stocks and shares.’

‘They had to be sold to pay off Uncle Musa’s massive gambling debts.’ Zia fidgets in his chair. ‘And the old fellow is still at it! Do you know that he’s now into internet gambling? That scoundrel Nur comes to one of the internet shops in the city once a week with instructions for the proprietor who then places the bets. For a fee, of course.’

‘Family property has always been passed on to the next generation!’ The depth of my indignation surprises me. I thought I was indifferent to the land we owned. ‘We should at least have been informed!’

It’s a desolate gathering, this afternoon tea. I get the impression that, other than Ma, each of us is locked in a private chamber, preoccupied by personal worries. These problems may be formidable, but we each seem reluctant to share our troubles, to seek advice, in case we look weak.

I think about those sparkling days of my teenage years. The steady flow of relatives and friends who dropped in and were embraced by Ma’s hospitality. We couldn’t distinguish between the arrivals and the departures. Boisterous voices and unrestrained laughter, embarrassed giggles and pretended outrage—visitors left their afflictions outside the front door. Socialising was a celebration of life for us, a happiness neither transient nor artificial. It emanated spontaneously from my mother’s magnanimity and her belief that family and friends were intrinsic to our well-being. Afternoon tea then was a veritable feast of freshly made savouries and sweetmeats, extending well into the evening until the last of the guests had departed and it was close to dinner time.

In my anxiety to be anchored to more contented times, I remind Ma of the days of the Wedgwood and Wallace La Reine tea sets that were alternately used, more for the sake of impressing visitors than for aesthetic reasons. Had I known that they were among the items sold to ease our financial burdens, I wouldn’t have mentioned them, even in passing.

Zia and Nasreen are dismayed that I’ve induced the nostalgia hour.

We listen to Ma’s animated recollections. To hear her you’d think we were members of royalty, with the titular duty of attending grand tea parties and being gracious to guests. But even discounting the exaggerations, afternoon tea now is a sparse affair. Paper serviettes and stainlesssteel teaspoons. Tiny vegetable samosas and a plate of
shondesh
. I thought Nasreen was joking about the porcelain mugs and teabags.

We relax in cushioned cane chairs in the back veranda, which overlooks a well-maintained but characterless garden. A
mali
is employed four times a week, Zia tells me, to look after the lawn, the beds of seasonal flowers, and the fruit trees. Bare-bodied today, the man scurried away to find a singlet as soon as he saw Ma. He would be under strict instructions not to be boorish and expose his sweaty torso in our presence. Our delicate sensibilities cannot stand vulgarity, certainly not in the naked light of a summer’s afternoon.

Nasreen coaxes Abba to come out from his room and sit in a rocking chair next to me. She caresses his hands to comfort him and settle him down.

‘Even the slightest change upsets him,’ Zia explains.

‘Would you like a
shondesh
?’ I ask my father, clumsily holding the plate of sweetmeats in front of him.

He looks perplexed and then his face breaks into a smile. ‘Cake?’ he asks shyly, and then frowns, as though struggling to conceptualise the word. ‘Fruit cake? Cucumber sandwiches?’

‘There are vegetable samosas,’ Ma replies. ‘You like them.’

‘Only the locals eat samosas,’ Abba says in a perfectly rational manner. ‘High-class people eat sandwiches. And cakes.’

We look expectantly at him as if a miracle might be unfolding.

Abba retreats into silence.

‘We have this problem every day!’ Ma sniffles. ‘If I make sandwiches for him or buy a cake, he refuses to eat them, saying that foreigners no longer rule us. Zia, I don’t think I can cope with this sort of behaviour any longer. It’s not good for my blood pressure. I think your father should have afternoon tea in his bedroom.’

‘Friday afternoon is one of the few times when all of us manage to have some contact with him.’ Zia argues, turning towards me. ‘Usually Abba has his other meals in his room.’

‘He eats quietly when only I’m there,’ Ma boasts. ‘Otherwise, he makes a fuss.’

‘It’s important that he doesn’t feel neglected,’ Zia insists.

Suddenly I feel Abba’s grip on my arm. Something on the mango tree has caught his attention. ‘Najma?’

‘Who?’ I’m uncertain whether the question is directed at me.

‘One of the maids when we were children,’ Zia reminds me.

‘The one with the coarse laugh?’

‘Yes,’ Zia replies. ‘Uncle Musa fancied her.’

‘We don’t have to discuss her!’ Ma snaps.

‘You didn’t like her, Ma,’ Nasreen says playfully.

Vaguely I recall a good-looking girl with dancing eyes and bouncy hips. She flounced around the house, seeking attention and flirting, and ignoring Ma. Najma lasted a short time with us. She was loud-mouthed and incompetent. But
I never understood the haste with which she departed. Without any announcement, one morning she was gone.

‘Big breasts,’ Abba continues energetically, enunciating the words loudly.

The
mali
stops weeding. There’s a flurry of movement all around me as though a stone has been thrown among a flock of birds.

Nasreen tells the stunned children that it’s nearly time for the cartoons on TV. They dash towards their room.

Ma makes a funny noise, as if she’s choked on her food. She begins to cough and rushes off towards the bathroom. Nasreen heads for the kitchen. I hear her complaining that the cook hasn’t quite learned to fry the samosas properly. They’re too greasy.

‘Next time, make sure the oil’s hot before you fry them,’ she instructs Mirza. ‘Pat them with a clean cloth after they’re fried.’

Zia hurries down the steps to talk to the
mali
.

All this happens at once, and I only manage to shrink in my chair, curious and yet dreading what Abba may have to say next. Before this, I’ve never known him to speak crudely.

‘Like juicy
langra
mangoes.’ Abba goes on as if nothing’s happened. There’s a dreamy look in his eyes and he reminisces into the distance. ‘Ripe.’ Abba turns to look at me slyly. ‘Mu…Moo…’

‘Musa Bhai!’ I remind him.

‘Musa Bhai touched them. He gave her rupees,’ he whispers.

‘Would you like to go back to your room?’ I’m helpless and exasperated, struggling in a trap and abandoned by those who should have rescued me.

‘Najma?’

‘No…Najma’s gone.’ My ineptitude in gauging the erratic workings of his mind irritates me. I march down the steps of the veranda towards Zia. I can see that he’s thoroughly amused.

‘The look on your face!’ he chortles.

‘Great family support!’

‘Some responsibilities have to be shouldered alone.’ But we go back up to the veranda together.

We find Abba snoring. His chin rests on his chest and his arms dangle limply at the sides of the chair. I’m surprised how light he is. I carry him to his room. Zia props up a couple of pillows against the bed head. As I lay him down, he wakes up and strains his body towards the rocking chair in front of the window.

‘It’s his favourite spot,’ Zia says. ‘Whatever he sees out there can occupy him for hours. Sometimes I think his entire past is spread across the horizon.’

Even though he’s in a drowsy state, I can detect a glow on Abba’s face.

‘It upsets me that I cannot reach out to him,’ I confess. ‘I don’t know what to say. My own father. I can’t help thinking of him as he was—strong and decisive, sensible and dutiful. Abba had such a great sense of occasion! He would have never said what he did just then about Najma.’

‘You’ll learn to shut out those images of him,’ my brother sympathises quietly. ‘There’s nothing worse than thinking of people as they were. Such memories achieve little. They merely expose our unwillingness to face the reality of time passing.’ Zia invites me up to his study. ‘Later, I’ll take you to Dhaka Club for dinner. You’ll probably run into some of your old friends. One or two might even be sober!’

We come across Ma crying in a corner of the lounge, with Nasreen trying to console her.

‘It’s so embarrassing!’ Ma sobs to the three of us. ‘Your father was never like this! He was a gentleman.’

We try to comfort her. Abba can’t choose how he behaves in front of people.

Z
IA’S STUDY IS
not what I’d expected. It’s a homely mess. In a corner there’s a padded swivel chair and a large timber desk cluttered with papers and stationery. There are expensively framed colour photos of Zeenat and the children, and a faded, black-and-white picture of my parents taken on their twentieth wedding anniversary. There’s one of Nasreen, flanked by Zia and me. It was her fifteenth birthday; my brother and I look bored. A computer and printer, pencil holders, biros and fountain pens, paper clips, scissors, a stapler, containers of whiteout, my grandfather’s lapis lazuli paperweight, notepads, folders and an Oxford English Dictionary, all leave little surface space for working. To the right of the chair is a revolving
globe of the world on a cast-iron stand. A new television, DVD player and video recorder occupy a trolley in the opposite corner.

The timber shelves are crowded with books, files, magazines and newspapers. Zia has never been a reader of anything other than work-related material and popular fiction, so I’m perplexed by the titles here. Scholarly works on Islam and the Crusades dominate. Books on Islamic cosmology and Sufism, a collection of atlases and maps of great empires, volumes on prophecies and imperialism. Most of the significant works on terrorism, written immediately after the attack on New York, are stacked on the shelves. Piles of video tapes, labelled with dates and the letters AJ.

‘AJ?’ I inquire.

‘Al Jazeera. I balance their coverage of the Middle East with what’s on the satellite network. I suppose you watch FOX and CNN?’ He observes me closely.

‘I don’t have pay TV.’

Between two shelves hangs a black-and-white print of a man with finely chiselled features. I had no idea that Zia was interested in the Mughals.

‘Shahjehan?’

He smiles and shakes his head. ‘Wrong era. It’s Saladin.’

I look at the picture again. A sombre face. The fingers of his right hand appear to be entangled in the white, flourishing beard. The left hand clutches the handle of a sword. He’s wearing a turban topped with a conical hat. It’s not the aggressive face of a warrior, but more like a
philosopher’s. He looks contemplative. The eyes are sad, as though they reflect the harsh wisdom of his years in battle.

‘Why him?’

‘In so many ways he was the ideal Muslim. A great fighter and a just leader. Have you ever read about his victory at Hattin?’

‘No.’

Zia goes to a shelf and selects a biography of Saladin. ‘Highly inspiring.’

I accept the offering without enthusiasm.

I’m more interested in the posters on environmental protection. Below a glossy picture of a flooded village, with children stranded in muddy water, a caption reads: ‘D
ON’T DESTROY THEIR FUTURE
. C
OMBAT GLOBAL WARMING
.’ Stark deforestation is portrayed in another photograph of hundreds of tree stumps, like beheaded bodies after a massacre, left to rot on a Himalayan foothill.

‘This isn’t like you.’

‘It’s very much like me!’ Zia contradicts heatedly. ‘If you’d been here during the floods last year, you’d change too.’

I listen with grudging respect, fascinated to hear he went on a tree-planting expedition in the north of the country with a group of international environmentalists.

Zia takes a string of sandalwood prayer beads from the top drawer of his desk and leads me out to a balcony. Reluctantly I sit on one of the cushioned chairs and look out across the expanse of vacant land I had seen as we
drove in. I’d much rather be exploring the books in the study.

There’s something surreal about the pre-dusk light. The sky appears combustible. A fragile quietness broods over the city and the sun hangs low, like a luminescent fruit on a sagging branch.

Zia scans the salmon-pink horizon with a pair of binoculars.

‘I wasn’t happy about the house being sold,’ I say stonily, unable to be silent. It’s a thorny issue I’ve wanted to raise with him ever since he sent me the documents.

There was a flurry of phone calls from Zia when I didn’t sign the papers and send them back quickly. They lay in the bottom drawer of my bedside table for nearly four weeks. I brought out the documents every evening, looked at them without rereading the details. I felt threatened, as though I was being asked to give permission for my selfhood to lose its lynchpin and disintegrate into functionless pieces. Any naivety of idealism left in me had been in the assumption that our family home in Dhanmondi would remain untouched and in our possession, even as we aged and the rest of Dhaka succumbed to the insatiable greed of urban spread.

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