The Red Building | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 28, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 28, 2009

Short Story

The Red Building

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artwork by sanjiv kanti das

The guava tree at the back of the building was slightly taller than the veranda. Once upon a time there must have been railings on the veranda; now it looked like an extra roof - above the ground floor and just below the real one. As kids we - my sisters and I - sometimes jumped over to the veranda from the tree. It once had a smooth cement floor, but now it was just dusty, rough concrete with cracks here and there. The pigeons did their business all over and the air was heavy with the pungent smell. We played house there and made lentil soup with mud, rice with the insides of cactus flowers, fish balls with the beadlike red seeds from a nearby hedge and served it all on plates of leaves.
The wooden door to one of the rooms on the upper floor always remained shut and we never tried to open it. The little room on the stairway did not have doors any more; it was as spotted with pigeon poop as the veranda. Everything was covered in a thick coat of dust and the smell inside was stronger than in the veranda. We never tried to climb down the stairs.
The red building faced a tall five-story building that accommodated ten flats - residences of Dhaka University teachers. There were five such buildings in our compound, all scattered around the red building. A portion of the red building was visible from all the flats. From our back balcony, we could see the back where the guava tree stood. On one side of the red building was the big round playing field. The field was covered with grass, where, except for the winter months, boys played football. In winter, the field was shared by boys and girls. On the sides of the field, there were flowerbeds with flowers of the season - dahlia, marigolds, chrysanthemums, roses… This area had a shaded feel to it with the boundary wall on one side, the flat building on the other - with just the top of the Dhaka University teacher's club visible past the boundary wall. Strange how we never thought that the red building was a 'house'- even though for a short time in our childhood, it did house a family in its only liveable room. Crazy Romel and his parents. I don't remember his parents, but crazy Romel used to walk to and fro whispering and smiling on his own, bouncing an invisible football with his right hand. He was said to be possessed by a genie.
Despite all its abnormalities I never felt the red building demanded any special attention. It was just…there, amongst many other unquestioned and unobserved things that we hardly notice other than in retrospective. At least until I met Didash. By then I was thirteen years old and my sisters were in primary school. As they were only a year apart, both belonged to the same group of friends within the neighbourhood. They had developed their own sign language, jokes and secrets to which I didn't have access to. Unlike my sisters' polished speech, the Bengali I spoke was the colloquial form that we used at home. This together with my unkempt appearance and a perpetually lost expression on my face did not really endear me to them at that age. Girls in my own age group tended generally to ignore me or laugh at me. I preferred being ignored.
Once in a blue moon the group would be short of a playmate and reluctantly admit me into the group. It was on one such day that I was playing hide-and-seek with the group. Shurovi was a comparatively new arrival in our colony; she was two years my senior and normally never talked to me. On this day we were hiding together and she led me inside the red building. Nobody lived there anymore and no one went inside. We hid in the room where crazy Romel lived once.
Two nylon strings still hung tied to nails across the width of the room. Some torn papers on the floor. The two windows high up on the wall were closed. The walls were a reddish yellow colour like pages from an old diary. We almost forgot that we were in the middle of a hide-and-seek game until we heard a sound. It may have been the dried bougainvillaea leaves on the carport rustling in the wind but it was enough to startle us. In her panic to find a hiding place inside the room, Shurovi grabbed me and pressed me against the wall behind the door. She held me in place with her body and her right hand came up to cover my mouth in case I screamed out. I felt her soft breasts against mine. Her heart was beating fast. Underneath her thin cotton dress her skin felt warm. Her body rubbed against mine and tickled me all over. I was hot and had goose bumps at the same time. My lips were parted and I could taste the skin on her palm -- slightly salty with a faint fragrance of Nivea. Our eyes locked; hers shimmered like liquid. She caressed my face and her breath tingled the hairs on my skin. Something like electricity shot through me and I had an urge to pee.
“Let's play lover lover,” she whispered.
“What is lover lover?” I asked.
She chuckled, then kissed me on the lips. Her left hand came up to knead my breast; her thumb closed in on my nipple and traced it over and over again until they pricked out. "You silly thing…" she whispered again and I felt myself tremble.
Footsteps echoed near the hallway. Shurovi abruptly let go of me and ran out. I clumsily collapsed on the red cement floor. My body felt hot against the cool floor. The coolness seeped in and spread through my body like peace. Soothed, I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes, a face hung suspended in mid air. Orange-tinged rays of the setting sun flooded through the window. His unshaven face was partly illuminated by the sunlight and glowed like one of those Jesus Christ posters the Christian missionaries used to bring along.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am Didash, what are you doing here?”
“We were playing hide-and-seek…”
“Ah! Looks like nobody found you!” he smiled and winked in that friendly way adults often do.
“You did,” I said. He smiled and raised one of his eyebrows.
“What are you doing here?”
“Checking out the building from inside.”
“Why?”
“I am thinking of doing a painting of the building...”
“Are you an artist?”
“Not yet, I am a student at the Art College.”
We talked for a few more minutes and then I went home.
***
Didash set up his canvas next to the children's playground. We were on our summer holiday. The Bengali New Year had almost arrived. For the first time in our neighbourhood's history, we were to have a variety show to welcome the New Year. A stage would be built in the middle of the playing field and preparations were in full swing. Rehearsals were being accommodated in small groups in various flats around the teacher's quarters. Even my sisters were selected for a dance.
I started to spend most of my free time watching Didash paint. I asked him why he picked the red building as his subject. He said it had history and character that it stood out and had a sense of mystery. He said it was built sometime in the nineteenth century during British rule in India. A judge lived there once and our entire compound was his garden.
The red building I knew was old and abandoned but in his painting it appeared regal. The bougainvillea creepers were painted in dark green and the papery flowers a deep magenta. Once as I was watching him paint, a street kid was sweeping the playground area and collecting dried leaves. He painted her in his canvas as well. The girl in real life wore a torn frock but in his painting she was wearing a red sari. He told me that it was poetic justice. Things did not always have to be as they appeared.
One evening as I stepped out of one of the flats in front of the red building after attending a chorus class, I spotted Didash's canvas near the playground. It was late for him to be working. The sun had set and dusk disappeared giving way to night. I walked over to the canvas, nobody was there. The nearby flats had their lights switched on. Someone was frying onions and garlic; the air sizzled with the aroma. Someone else watched TV, tunes from a jingle floated in the surrounding. The red building stood alone; dead leaves stirred the air. Darkness halted there, condensed, like a folded cloth.
Suddenly I heard a throaty laugh from behind the pillars on the carport. I knew it was Shurovi. In my mind, memories from the day inside the red building were still fresh. Even though Shurovi has made no gestures of recognition on the numerous occasions we met after that, I still visualised her liquid eyes during private moments and it always filled me with warmth. As I silently approached the carport from behind the canvas, a husky male whisper mingled with the laughter. I saw two silhouettes locked in an embrace behind the bougainvillea bush. I moved away quickly.
***
On the evening of the rehearsal as my sisters and I walked towards the red building, we saw a group of four- and five-year-olds perched on the guava tree. We smiled at each other with a secret knowledge shining in our eyes. It was busy inside the red building. The entire ground floor had been cleaned up for the rehearsal. The red cement floor was shining and looked alive. The poetry recital group was setting up on a corner, the theatre group was already in mid-rehearsal, and a group of artists sat on a corner, cutting out words and pictures for the stage. I saw Didash amongst them. Shurovi was sitting amongst the dancers. They did not seem to recognise each other. Someone was singing a sad song about a lone flower. Her melancholy voice spread across the room and rose up towards the ceiling and then it scattered in tiny pieces like raindrops drenching us in the melody. A group of people laughed out a few minutes later, the laughter spread too and touched the same places the tune travelled, enveloping it completely. As if the melancholy still existed, but beneath the laughter.
Candles were lit as it got dark. In the flickering light our shadows appeared larger than ourselves. We appeared to be floating disconnected from the rest of the world. Like characters from pages of story books. I imagined the carport outside. The light spooling past the windows combined with the shadows of the bougainvillea creepers must have created a pretty pattern on the floor. Maybe a soft breeze whistled past those old pillars dropping a few petals. I imagined the red building gleaming like a fairytale palace, prettier than Didash's picture.

Luna Rushdi lives in New Zealand.

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