Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Sweater

Mizan Rahman
   It was quite a crowd in the house. Everybody was in a festive mood. Laughing, talking, giggling. Not a gloomy face anywhere. The elders were sitting comfortably in the garden and ruminating over the times gone by. The little kids were running all over the house with their colorful dresses on. The college girls found a shade under the shazna
tree to speak in low conspiratorial voices, and bursting into spontaneous laughter from time to time. A short distance away a bunch of young guys gathered with bottles of diet coke in their hands, apparently unmindful of anything but their own affairs, yet keeping their eyes and minds tuned to what was going on under the shazna tree. They were not strangers in the house, these boys and girls. They were cousins. Their parents were siblings from the same family. They were young adults, acutely conscious of their growing body and approaching maturity. A few of them have started exchanging love-letters to each other, by surreptitious means, of course. They do not have the opportunity to see each other often, with their parents living in different parts of the world separated by thousands of kilometers. Roashan and Tariq’s parents have come from Bahrein, where their father Efran is an executive in an oil company. Zarina, Sadeque and Omar’s parents are from London where they have been settled for a long time. Their mother Farida is a younger sister of Efran, their father Halim  a physician. Another sister younger than Farida, Selina, traveled to Dhaka from Chittagong where her husband has a prosperous business in auto parts, as well as a garments factory. They all descended in their elder brother’s big house in Dhaka for a grand family gathering. One of the most exclusive areas in town, called Baridhara, where this house was built on an area of one acre. Tall walls all around the perimeter with barbed wire on top reinforced by a layer of sharp shreds of broken glass. The steel gate at the entrance is under constant watch of a round-the-clock armed guard. On either side of the gate there are large blocks of cement pillars with lots of decorative artwork engraved on them. Best sculptors of the land were employed to carve the likeness of two brave freedom fighters on solid marble stone. Mr. Maqbool didn’t have an opportunity to join the war in person, having been away from home at that time, but the idea of this sculpture came to his mind almost immediately after the liberation. What a splendid idea, he often congratulates himself for having had the foresight to do the right thing at the right time. Currently he is the Director of a major crown corporation under the Govt. of Bangladesh. A very powerful man in the country. And, of course, very rich.
    This house hardly needs an occasion for  celebration. Occasions seem to present themselves automatically. Yet, this particular day is different from others. There is not one but two reasons for celebration. First, the fifth birthday of Mr. Maqbool’s youngest daughter Alicia. What a pretty little girl she is. Her father’s pearl of the eye, beat of his heart. Modern children tend to scoff at her old-fashioned name, Alicia, while elders can hardly pronounce it. But this is the name he chose for his daughter while watching a TV program in his hotel room in New York, where one of the characters had this name. Somehow this name stuck in his mind.
  However, celebrating birthdays is not a big deal in this house. There always seems to be a birthday for somebody. So Alicia’s birthday would not necessarily bring in visitors from around the globe. What did is the very unexpected and long overdue visit from America of the family’s patriarch, Dr. Abdul Latif, the oldest of all brothers and sisters—whom they call their Latu Bhai. He has come to visit with them, for just 2 weeks, after having been away for twenty five agonizingly long years. He was the brightest and smartest of all. Did his doctorate in Oceanography from Glasgow University. The outstanding work he did in his thesis brought him name and fame from home and abroad. Almost immediately after his thesis defense he started getting calls for invited talks at reputable universities and research institutions. In his area he quickly became a well-known man. He made headline news in top newspapers, became a popular guest for TV interviews. He was the dream child of a middle class Bangladeshi family, a treasure for his country. He could have given so much to his homeland, help build so many institutions, enrich so many lives, brought so much hope to an otherwise hopelessly depressed people.
  But then the news came from abroad, like a bolt of thunder packed in an airmail envelope. Latubhai got married! Not to a Bengali girl, not to an Indian, not a Pakistani, but to a white Catholic girl. They met in Glasgow and got married in Seattle, Wa.,
where he got a tenure track job in the university. Rumour has it that they even slept together in a single room in Glasgow, long before they got engaged. That piece of scandalous news was a bit too much for his father to take. He had a severe stroke shortly after that, which eventually led him to his death two years later. A telegram was sent to Latubhai with the sad news, who sent back a message that because of difficulties with his teaching schedule it was impossible for him to come home to attend the funeral, but he would try to come sometime later. His mother waited and waited for that “later” to arrive, which never did, until she too closed her eyes for good. At dinnertime in an evening of the month of Ramadan she asked everybody to go ahead with their meals while she was going to have a little rest as she was feeling a bit strange in her head. So she went to bed while the others finished their fast breaking snack. But she never woke up from her “rest”. Prior to her last breath she was able to mutter a few barely audible words: “Sorry Latu, I couldn’t wait for you any longer”. What a cold-hearted, cruel man he was. Even his mother’s death couldn’t move him enough to a take flight home. Not then, not later, not in the last twenty five years. A quarter of a century! Must be made of steel. So many things have happened in the meantime. Wars, genocides, uprisings and independence movements. Hundreds of thousands of lives lost. So much bloodshed, so many ruined lives and uprooted families. And now out of all that blood and sweat there is a new country, a new nation, with new life and new hope. Too bad that it didn’t take long for the new dreams to turn into new nightmares. The new nation has witnessed in the recent years a lot of turmoil, a lot of fresh blood, a lot of more ruined lives. All within a quarter century of Latubhai’s absence from his home country. Its population has doubled over that time, a lot of millionaires have mushroomed, most of the poor have become poorer, the middle class is struggling to remain in the middle. This country has gone through so much. It could use all the help it can get. But not from a vacationing genius from a bygone era and far away land. This country doesn’t need a reluctant expatriate called Dr. Abdul Latif. And yet, this time he came on his own, taking leave of absence from his precious work for 2 weeks. This time he didn’t need anybody’s asking or pleading. What a difference it could have made if he had taken this leave twenty five years earlier. 25 years is an awfully long time in a man’s life. So many things can and do happen over that time. The young become grownups, the grownups grow old, and the old start dying. Men get gray hair, lose their teeth, their eyesight, and the texture of their skin. The only thing that seems to last for ever is the memory. The memory of loss, loss of the ones you loved, the ones you cherished, the ones who gave you so much and yet you failed to give anything back. It is the dull, unspeakable pain that settles in your heart, that seems to defy the barriers of time. That is why after all these years of bitterness and acrimony, no one could keep their eyes dry while receiving their old Latubhai at the airport. As if a big blast of hot air had blown in from somewhere to melt away all the frost and ice that had gathered in their hearts. Selina was like a wounded child in her heart, deeply hurt by her brother’s cold indifference through all these years. Once upon a time he was her idol. He was the only one she really cared for in the whole world. He, too, used to love her like his own daughter. He would buy her presents whenever he could afford, take her out wherever she wanted to, shield her from every possible trouble at home or out. On every festive occasion, be it the Ramadan or the Bakr Eid, she would invariably get a new dress or a pair of new shoes from him. In case he ran out of money he wouldn’t hesitate borrowing from friends to buy the presents for his precious little sister. How could the same brother turn so utterly cold after getting involved with a Catholic girl, she never understood. Before his arrival she was determined to give him a bit of her mind at the airport. She would take him to task, put him to shame in front of everybody. She even prepared a little speech in her mind. But the moment she saw that sad worn face at the gate, she forgot all her lines. Everything just melted away. To her utter surprise she found herself sobbing like a child in the arms of the long-lost brother.
    In his long professional life Dr. Latif never needed an appointment book--- real scholars hardly need those things. But here at home it looked like he was going to need one, after all. Somebody was inviting him for a meal, lunch or dinner, almost every day for the entire two-week period of his stay. Not just from his close relatives, but from anyone that ever knew him before. Most of these people are very well off. In his childhood there was just one relative who owned a car. But they were such a snobbish bunch that his family never dared socialize with them. In a cruel twist of fate, today almost everybody has a family car except them. So getting a ride was no problem at all. The only problem was to keep track of the invitations.
   Guests had arrived. The birthday party was about to begin. Suddenly there appeared an elderly fellow, uninvited, who just slipped through the gate somehow. A very ordinary rustic old man, clad in nothing more than a shabby old pajama, a greasy skull-cap, an unwashed knee-length jacket with a few patches here and there. His shoes were probably black at one time, but now just a lump of worn leather. The shoe on his right foot was torn in the front thus exposing his toes. The poor man was a sharp contrast with the colourful dresses the invited guests wore for the occasion. In his right hand there was a very large carp fish. With hesitant steps he stopped at the doorway to the living room. All eyes were instantly trained on him, all voices muted. Everyone seemed to have stopped breathing. Finally Mr. Maqbool rose from his seat to greet the old man, forcing the few words out of his mouth: “ It’s you Mamujan (maternal uncle), please come in”.
    Uncle Barkat was very embarrassed with all the fashionable folks looking at him as if he was from a different planet. Still he managed to force a smile on his face. His teeth were all black, thanks to a lifelong habit of chewing betel leaves with nuts and lime and catechu. A few were missing from his upper gum. He handed the fish to one of the domestic servants, took a stool and said in an awkwardly apologetic tone: “I heard that our Latif mia has come for a visit. So I came to see him.” At last it dawned on Latif that this awkward and clumsy man is none other than his own uncle, the youngest brother of his  mother. They are only a year apart in age, so they used to be more friends than nephew-uncle. He is the same uncle who was his constant companion in all his dare-devil adventures in the fields and brooks and rivers. He is the one who taught him how to swim, how to climb a tree with his lungi  tied in the waist, to catch a fish trapped in the flooded jute field with an improvised fishing rod. There were a lot of memories with this man. So many secrets they shared, so many mischiefs they committed together. If it were only a different point in life, different place, and a different time, Dr.Latif could easily find himself locked in an eternal embrace with this man, could easily be overcome by an uncontrollable surge of pent-up emotions. But now everything had changed---time, space, people. It is more than 30 years that they had no contact. Not even a post card. He has lived long enough abroad to know when and how to keep his emotions in check. Besides, how can one leap across a span of 30 years in 30 minutes? So all he could master is a bland and feeble muttering: “So glad to see you mama. You took so much trouble to come and see me. How is mami?”
   Uncle Barkat doesn’t live in his village any more, nor does any of his other uncles or aunties. Their village life, as they knew, had come to an end. Uncle Barkat sold his ancestral home and landed property, then moved to a small hamlet near Dhaka, called Maotail, and built a little house with rattan sidings and corrugated tin roof. Maotail used to be a real village once upon a time, with its annual yield of fruits and vegetables, and a lot of peace and quiet. But no more. Big city had spread its big arms all across the entire region. The tall towers and big factories are everywhere. Four-lane highways carry heavy transport trucks round the clock every day. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. Uncle Barkat had converted a small portion of his land into a commercial fish-pond, like most other farmers in his new village, for an alternate source of income. Unfortunately his own pond doesn’t produce big carps but one belonging to a neighbour of his does. That’s how he managed to get this large fish for his foreigner nephew. He let off some of the small tidbits of his hard life that Latif couldn’t possibly have known about. Eventually the two of them found themselves slipping out of the living room, into the garden, beside the wall, away from the crowd. Time and space seem to have removed quite a few layers between them. The drawing room where they were sitting a few moments before seems to have disappeared behind an invisible screen. Latif felt immensely grateful to his mama for not raising the topic of his wife, a topic that hardly anybody else in the house could resist. How could a semi-literate farmer acquire a sensibility that some of the most polished people in the upper levels of the society seem to have difficulty grasping? This is a very sensitive spot in Latif’s mind---a chapter he’d rather not open to anyone. Soon they found themselves transported into that magical world of childhood—as if some divine hand had steered them away from the hurts and bruises of real life and landed in another world where nobody had to cry in silence, nobody had to suffer alone. They were in a world where one was not a world famous scientist and the other an ordinary fish farmer, but two playmates who were inventing new ways to play tricks on their unsuspecting victims. Those were the times when they didn’t know what sorrow means, what being responsible means.
   “Do you remember, Latu, how naughty we were? Almost set on fire uncle Chandu’s house? I carelessly threw my cigarette butt on his haystack. We were so scared! Somehow we managed to put it off. We burned our clothes in trying to douse the fire. You were so scared that you peed on your pants. Ha, ha, ha. Do you remember, Latu?”
    “ Oh yes, I do, I do mama. How can I forget? There are a lot of other things, too, that I remember. Remember that bad-tempered girl, mama, what was her name, oh yes, Fazilat, yes, Fazilat. We stole her bracelet, and you hid it in a robin’s nest up on a olive tree. The girl got absolutely crazy over her lost bracelet, swearing to kill whoever played the trick on her. She was looking everywhere like a mother hen looking for her chicks. You and I had a great chuckle over it. Then you started feeling a little sorry for the poor girl. You whispered in the ear of Lalu to give her a hint where to find the bracelet. She started climbing the tree as we kept watching her from below. Quite a delicious sight it was, wasn’t it? She, almost a full-grown girl, with nothing but a piece of loin cloth wrapped around her waist like a loose-fitting skirt, no underpants. We had quite a panoramic view, didn’t we mama?  Oh, how naughty we were. How scandalously naughty!”
 So they talked and talked. And talked a little more. An inexhaustible treasure of memories. Then suddenly uncle Barkat got a bit serious.
  “ Remember, Latu, you had one little regret, like an unfulfilled longing, that you always carried in your heart. A bit childish, to be sure, but for you it was very real. You always wished somebody would knit a nice sweater for you. Especially for you. But nobody did. Every one of your brothers and sisters had a knitted sweater, except you. You used to say that it was because you were the eldest child in the family. Too old to wear a knitted sweater, I suppose, you used to lament. You were so sad about it.”
  Yes, he does remember. How silly of him to fret over a small thing like that. Strange that even Barkat mama didn’t forget that.
    Late afternoon was slowly rolling into the mist of dusk. Time for Magreb prayer was getting close. Time to go. They asked Barkat mama if he would care waiting up for dinner with the family. He politely declined. Before leaving he got Latif promise to visit his poor mama’s humble home and have a meal with his family. His mami would love to meet him, whom she had heard so much about, but never had an opportunity to actually see in person. His youngest daughter, Ranu, had asked him not to forget inviting her cousin, who was like a legend to her, one she would always boast about to her friends. Once, just once, she would like to have a glance at him, the idol whom she almost worshipped. Yes, their house in Maotail was quite a way off from the fashionable house in Baridhara, where he was staying. Yes, Dr. Latif  made the promise. Next Thursday, the day before his flight. Not much time left.
    But, there was a problem. Soon after Barkat mama left he remembered that he was already booked for another engagement at exactly the same time. Tania, Maqbool’s eldest daughter, and Latif’s self-appointed tour guide and appointment manager, had set up all his engagements for the entire 2-week period. Next Thursday there was going to be a big party in his honour at Motaleb mama’s place.
 “ No way you can skip that, uncle. They have invited over a hundred guests. Lot of dignitaries, too, that include an ambassador, a cabinet minister, and the chairman of the water board. How can you possibly make it to your Barkat mama’s”?  She exclaimed.
    “ Indeed, indeed, how can I? What a mess I have made, haven’t I? How can I get out of it? Any ideas? “
   “ Don’t worry Latubhai”, Maqbool came to his rescue. “ I’ll take care of it. I’ll send word to Barkat mama that you will not be able to keep your promise for reasons beyond your control. We have an office bearer who lives in the same area. All we need is ask him to carry the message. Simple!”
  It was simple indeed. But Latif didn’t feel quite right about it. He could see how utterly disappointed his mama would feel. Yes, he was able to connect with mama after all these years of absence, and indeed to open his mind a bit, despite the enormous gap between them in every aspect of life. Barkat mama was a very poor man, had lived a very hard life. Must be looking forward to have his favourite nephew set foot in his humble dwelling. Specially mami, and the children. Wouldn’t it break their heart, Latif wondered aloud.
  “ Oh no. No, Latubhai. You really don’t know these people at all. This man isn’t quite as simple and harmless as he looks. Quite a crafty fellow, he is. Very calculative. He takes full advantage of his relationship with us. Doesn’t let his folks and friends forget in what positions his relatives are placed. Your visit in that shack would give him an instant status of celebrity. And he will never miss an opportunity to cash in on that status wherever he goes. Oh, don’t I know him!”
     Maybe Maqbool is right. Maybe not. He didn’t feel good about it. Somehow Latif was having trouble believing everything that his brother was saying. Does every action of an ordinary human being have to have an ulterior motive?
     So the next Thursday came and went. It was Friday, the day of his departure. Time to say bye to everybody. The VIP lounge at the airport was full. People came from all over to see him off. It took him 25 years to come for a short visit. And now he was leaving, probably for good. They were all in a sombre mood. VIP lounge was a restricted area, closed to ordinary passengers. Suddenly Maqbool’s secretary spotted a very plain and haggard looking man arguing with the guards at the entrance. He immediately recognized who he was. “Oh what a pest”, he murmured in his mind. But he was, after all, a relative of the boss. How can he not allow him to get in? So he went ahead and asked the guards to open the gate for the old man. There was a neatly wrapped package in his hand.
     Instead of handing over the packet to Latif and let him open, or put it in his suitcase, which would be the proper thing to do, Barkat mama opened it himself and handed the contents to his nephew. As if to assure him that there was indeed something of value inside, and not an empty box.
    “ My little girl worked day and night to have this sweater knitted before your departure time. Such a talented girl, this cousin of yours. We waited for you till late in the night. It’s our bad luck, you couldn’t come. Something must have held you up.” He looked a bit tired. And suddenly a lot older than he looked the other day. He said what he had to say. What would there be to say anymore, anyway?
    Maqbool was looking a little pale in the face. God, he completely forgot about it! He forgot to ask his bearer to give that message to Barkat mama. The poor man must have spent a fortune preparing an elaborate meal for his celebrity guest. Latif was absolutely shattered. Miserable. He took the sweater in his hand and completely broke down. He sank his head in the extended arms of his mama, and repeated the words again, and again, and again, “Forgive me mama, please forgive this wretched nephew of yours. Please ask my mami to forgive me. Ask Ranu, my poor Ranu, to find in her heart a little kindness to forgive her unworthy old cousin from abroad.”
  What else was there to do or tell anyway, but to ask for forgiveness? At the moment of his departure this ordinary man from a poor village gave him a very potent lesson: poverty in this land has its own vault of treasure.

(Translation completed by the author from his 1993 Bengali article “Sweater”, Dec.12, 2007.)

(Revised June 9, 2010)

Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান

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