He is as bald as a coot. His oily head glows. The forehead and the head are lost into one another. In a quick glance, one can hardly identify the forehead separately.
Like a fringe some tufts of hair are dangling from three sides of the bald head. Right on top of the eyes are brilliantly white eyebrows. They look as if two strips of Shimul cotton have been pasted with glue out there. There are some deep wrinkles a little above the eyebrows; it seems he has been burdened with enormous difficult problems.
He is sickly and lanky, and he is wearing loose a punjabi and embroidered pajamas. His face bears the deep imprint of concerns and worries. The man, who is forward-leaning, is often seen everywhere and every now and then.
With his forehead being wrinkly and eyebrows closer to each other, some days I would see the glum-faced person going somewhere walking, or suddenly stopping at the roundabout while going walking. I would see his fingers coming up to his lips, followed by silence for some time. It was as if he had been thinking about something a few minutes earlier and then again trying to pick up the thread of his thought that he had lost to oblivion.
Again he could be seen going round the neighborhood. Whoever the person might be, he would clasp the person's hands hastily, and by stopping the person, he would ask him something. Some would give answers; some others would turn their faces away in disgust, freeing their hands of his clutch.
After listening to an answer from someone, the man would turn gloomy. Then again, he would become ecstatic at someone's answers. It was as if he had gotten back his lost treasure all of a sudden.
Interestingly, I haven't ever had any opportunity to interact with this man. Also, I haven't come across any person who is on speaking terms with him. We have been living in the same area for quite some years, though. If not every day, I often see him. And that is all.
I did not ever think that this man would straightaway appear in the centre of my living room today at noon, and I was nonplussed.
It was the midday of Jaishtha, and it was scorching outside. The streets looked almost naked. It was even difficult to stay inside due to the heat, caused by the humidity. Despite this situation, I was trying to keep myself focused on my work. Pen and paper were ready on the table since morning. I was supposed a write a short story and send it to the newspaper office in two to four days. Of the four days, three days would be over by today. Tomorrow would be last day. So whatever I was supposed to do, I should do it by today. But still I could not decide what I would write about.
When I was walking restlessly in the room thinking about writing whatever I could, and when I finished arranging my papers and was about to touch the paper with my pen, right at that moment, without any permission, he almost barged into the room. Busily looking around the room for sometime, he looked at me, and then placing his fingers on his lips, he whispered: “Could you tell me what I was thinking about?”
I was surprised. Gulping nervously, like a fool I faltered in asking: “Yes?”
Coming closer, he muttered: “What I am saying is that I've lost the thread of my thought. Did you understand? Since morning I have been thinking about something. When I almost found a solution to the problem, right at that time I lost the clue. I lost what I was thinking about. Could you tell me what I would do with the solution? When the source is not there, what is going to happen to the solution?”
Pausing for a while, he again said: “Since morning I've been trying to find out the subject of my thought, but I'm not getting it. Also, I haven't found anyone in the street whom I can ask about it. That's why I have rushed to you. Okay, could you say what I was thinking about?”
Hurriedly, I stood up. Certainly, this man is a philosopher! I became busy in entertaining him.
I said: “Please sit down.”
He sat down, and then within seconds he directed the question at me once again: “What I was…”
Humbly I said: “Well, perhaps you were talking about a solution or something. If that could be known, finding out the source could have been possible. It would have been better if you had spoken about the solution clearly. “
Getting keyed up all of a sudden, he said excitedly: “Kinsmen, companions and all…all with their hands and mouths tied up should be put into a sack and thrown either into the river Buriganga in Dhaka or Karnaphuli in Chittagong. Then all problems will be solved.”
I was stupefied. What does the man say? How come he will throw all these perfectly living people, whoever they are, into the water by tying up their hands and feet? What a dangerous solution!
Thinking about it for a while, then scratching my nose and the frontal part of my head for sometime, like an erudite person I addressed him slowly: “Is it some sort of a plot of a story? I mean…”
Barely could I finish my sentence when he began to shout. It was as if a small bomb had gone off somewhere nearby. “Story! You are talking about the plot of a story? Pooh, do people think about those things? I get speechless listening to you people. Can a story be a subject to think about!”
I got agitated at his contemptuous remarks about stories. Also I felt a little insulted. What does this man say? It seems story writing is a trifling matter. And on such a matter, I have already spent three out of four restless days thinking what to write on!
The man was talking and gesticulating. “Yes, what did you say? Oh, story writing. Is that difficult work? What do you mean by one or two? I know thousands of stories. For example, take the story of a man. Getting the salary on the first day of the month and having the list of items to be bought in his hand, this man entered the market. After fifteen minutes of shopping, he discovered that he had only finished buying the seventh item on the list. Meanwhile, his fat wallet shrank, and being sweat-soaked, he clumsily walked out of the market. And after that he did not know anything. Regaining his consciousness, he found that he was standing before his house and the rickshawallah was demanding five taka as fare. Searching the two pockets of his trousers, he just could not get any money to settle the fare. Looking at the house, he thought about something and his face turned pale. Finding no other alternative, he beckoned the servant of the neighboring house, coaxed him into lending him some money, settled the fare and entered the house. Then there was silence for some time. Some peculiar sounds caused by explosive temper broke the stillness. In seconds, some potatoes and potols came crashing down on the street. What next? If you give keep a tab on the house for the remaining twenty-nine days, you will never be short of materials for stories.”
He said those words at a stretch and then took a deep breath. Before I could say something, he began speaking again. “Think about the man again. After some years, this man again goes to the market on the first day of the month, with his salary in his pockets. He is in the rice shops. Heaps of huge rice sacks are stacked vertically. Some flabby, oil-smeared glossy people are sitting around them on stools. With a shrunken face and in an inaudible voice he asks one of them to give him fifty-taka worth of rice. The rice trader glances at him, takes two or three tiny morsels of rice, pours them into his bag and then says humbly: 'Bhai Saab, I don't have a small weight to measure rice worth fifty taka. But I'm sure it won't be less. You have been buying rice from this shop since the time of my father and grandfather. How can I give you less? Actually, it's a loss if I give you three handfuls.' Ha-ha-ha. Then think of his situation at least for once. The more you think of him, the more you will be able to write. In fact, you'll not be able to complete your writing.”
He paused. Taking a handkerchief out of his pocket, he wiped his bald head and face. Putting the handkerchief back in the pocket, he said: “Could you give me a glass of water? Cold water.”
“Oh sure.” I rushed in to fetch him some water.
He gulped it down as soon as I gave it to him. And then he resumed talking. “Sometimes I remember a very interesting thing. A huge mountain is just in front. It's tall and steep. Some people on the peak of the mountain, donning colourful dresses, are sitting comfortably on a carpet. Each of them has tops in his two hands. Playing a rattle for children, some of them, looking downward, are calling others. 'Come, come, c o m e.' They are modulating their voices as if they are singing. Dancing with the tune, innumerable number of people, without hands and feet, more like luggage, are making their way toward the people sitting at the highest point of the mountain. Labels with words like 'rice', 'lentil', 'oil', and 'salt' inscribed on pieces of white paper are stuck on the back of each person. But the most interesting thing is that in an effort to get hold of those things mentioned on the labels, we all, I mean he or she, you and I, with our last savings are desperately trying to hurry our way through to go up the ladder. Though at times, we stumble, puff and pant and even crawl to find our way through in our upward journey. A few of them are climbing up very easily keeping the pace; some of them are smoothly going up before the luggage-like people. Those who are sitting comfortably on the carpet are pulling them on to the carpet by holding their hands as soon as they come closer. Those who are dying to go up the ladder are really in a hot soup. Some of them are falling on their faces, never to rise again. While treading this slippery path, some others are dying, plunging into ditches; some others are bleeding profusely. Believe me, all in all, it is such a horrific incident. Somehow I close my eyes.”
The man closed his eyes and kept quiet. I was also silent. There was silence all over. I could not say anything.
All of a sudden, the man started speaking once again. “Well, why did you think of story plots? Do you write stories?”
Giving a sort of a nod, I said: “Sometimes.”
“Where do you write? Do you write for newspapers and magazines?”
Nodding, I said: “Yes, sometimes.”
He paused for a moment, and then looking into my eyes, he said: “Tell me one thing frankly. Could you tell me why the people who write use words as they like and almost without thinking?”
What does the man say? What are those words that we use without thinking? I just could not make out anything. After a slight hesitation, I asked him: “What are those words? Could you tell me?”
Almost immediately he answered: “How about the word 'fire'? Do you think before using the word 'fire'? Every morning when I open the daily newspaper, I see phrases like 'fire in fish market', 'fire in rice market', 'fire in vegetables market', and 'fire in meat'. Do you use them thoughtfully? I don't think it so. Think coolly. If it really happens one day, can you imagine what disaster it may spell?”
With a shake of his body, he closed his eyes for some minutes. Then pulling his chair near me, he spoke again: “Everything has a limit. Don't you know about it?”
“Yes, I know.” Again I nodded in agreement.
“There is a price limit in the market, too. For example, one seer of rice is four taka. Then the price keeps spiraling; it keeps increasing from taka four to five, then five to six and then again six to six and a half. Finally, when the price gallops to taka twenty, then to twenty-five and then to near thirty, the market is in flames. Before the arrival of the fire fighters, countrywide hat-bazars and shops selling meat, vegetables and spices are already in flames. People are rushing out to the roads and streets. They are fired up. Isn't there a limit to excitement and tolerance? Within minutes, their eyes, faces and chests seem to have been seething in excitement. The rage is spreading like wild fire: from one person to another and then from them to tens and thousands of people across the country. The whole country is now burning. Who has the ability to extinguish the fire? The crowd has become crazy, going round different places in panic. Finally, you will see that these people, clutching one another's hands, are moving along the two sides of the hill, the steep hill that I told you about. They are advancing toward the hill, and it is their aim to reach that place where some people, with rattles in their hands, are sitting comfortably on a velvety carpet. What inflammatory excitement! It seems that clumps of fire, surrounding the hill, are crawling toward those few people sitting at the top of the hill. And…”
Excitement stopped him from saying anything more. Stretching out his hand toward me, he said in a trembling voice: “See, I am having goosebumps all over my body thinking about it.”
Covering his face with his hands, he kept sitting there for a long time. Truth be told, listening to his words, I also felt the rumbling of unease in my chest. It could be due to fear or excitement. Whatever it was, I lost my voice and words.
Suddenly, the man touched my knee, looked at me with shining eyes and muttered: “I have long waited for this day. Did you understand? I can see it clearly that the entire country is turning into a torch. Each person is a hot wave, and gradually these people are encircling the hill. Who is there to dampen the flame?”
No sooner had he finished saying those words, he got up. In disgust he said: “What nonsense! While blabbering with you, I was about to forget the solution to the problem just like the problem itself. It would have been a disaster. You could not tell me anything about the solution. Let me go and ask the people on the street, and let me see whether they can say anything. What do you say, eh? Ok, bye.”Soon after, he stormed out of the room in exactly the same way he come in. In a flash he crossed the gate and melted away into the road.
Dazed, I sat there. I did not know how long I did that. I was taken aback when some papers on the table suddenly caught my sight. I could see that I was still holding the pen in my hand. There was no question of writing the story; I could not even make a mark on the paper.
Born in Gouripur under 24 Parganas of West Bengal on December 15, 1940, Ekhlasuddin, a journalist, burst on to the literary scene primarily as a juvenile litterateur. The editor of a popular children literary magazine, Tapur Tupur, Ekhlasuddin writes short stories that are multi-layered and aimed at critiquing the social injustices in a lighter vein.
Haroonuzzaman, a novelist and translator, teaches English at Independent University, Bangladesh.