There is a buzz in the house this morning. Things are on the move. Nishat has taken full command, directing her troops to advance swiftly. I look at my watch and ask chotu to fetch my briefcase and the driver to get the car out.
“I sent the driver to the market first thing this morning. He will be back soon. You should have taken the day off. Sonali’s birthday comes only once a year, right?”
I avoid arguing with her. “Where is Polash?” I ask.
“Sent him to school early. The driver will drop him off on his way to the market.”
I know Nishat will not make a fuss today, so I indulge myself with a cigarette while she gives me a rundown on the day’s activities, dinner menu and guest list. I nod my head and occasionally say, “Yes, yes.” I am a bad listener, particularly during the morning hours, for my mind is at work as soon as I am out of bed.
We hear Sonali waking up. Nishat makes a firefighter’s run up the stairs to the bedroom. Sonali screams if she fails to find her mother on waking up. Nishat will lie by her side, feed her and put her back to sleep.
Initially, Sonali’s world was her mother. Now she is easily offended. She rolls on the floor if we scold her and tweaks our skin with her sharp nails if her demands are not met. She started walking last month and continues to blossom in her ever-widening world. Beyond her parents, she now knows Grandpa and the rest of the household members.
I feel a sense of guilt that I do not have much time for Dad. And even when I have time, I fail to enter his world. It pleases me to see Sonali gaining access to his fenced, lonesome life.
I look for Dad in his room. He is on the veranda, sitting in the reclining chair facing the backyard. I clear my throat.
“Did you have breakfast, Baba?”
“Yes, Baba. Is something happening today?”
“Sonali is one today.”
“Oh, yes, yes. I’ve lost track of time.” Dad sighs, becoming pensive. I imagine that he is already in another world.
I hear the car entering the driveway. I leave Dad, quietly. Chotu runs with my briefcase. Nishat walks downstairs. “Khoda hafiz.” She bids me goodbye.
“Salaam, shaheb.” The driver holds the backdoor open for me. “Let’s go,” I say. He honks to the chowkidar to get the gate open.
As I enter my office room the personal assistant’s brisk high-heeled footsteps draw my attention. “Sir, here’s a fax from the rig!” There is alarm in her tone. I absorb the fax in one gulp.
“Bloody hell!” My blood pressure shoots up. I sprint upstairs to the radio room as fast as I can.
“What is it, Kashem?” I ask our engineer.
“Pressure is on the rise, Sir.” I hear panic in his voice.
“I warned you, didn’t I?”
“What do we do now?”
“Goddammit! How can we run this business if you don’t know what to do?” I am furious. “What’s the mud weight?”
“Nine point five pounds per gallon.”
“Get it higher, now. Get the rig on alert, now. I mean it. Now. Understand?” My high-pitched tone rebounds within the closed room, alarming Bipin Bihari, the radio operator. He gets on his feet, ready to run, as if the roof is falling on his head.
“Who is the tool pusher?”
“Get him on the radio, now.”
“And listen, make sure you send me reports every hour.’”
The radio crackles. “This is rig site, Jim calling.”
“Jim, this is Karim. Is there any danger?”
“There was, but things are under control now.”
“What’s the mud weight?”
“We have got it up to twelve. The pressure is stable.”
“Get it higher if needs be and please get the rig on alert for evacuation.”
“Over and out.”
I phone Mr Norman Hirst, our MD, from the radio room.
“Do we need to evacuate?” he asks.
“The rig is on alert, but things are under control.”
“Thanks, please keep me posted.”
I return to my office and ring the bell for for coffee while I phone home.
“Listen, I won’t make it home for lunch. There is an emergency at the rig.”
“That’s OK, And, listen, Boroda just arrived.”
“All by himself?”
“Did he remember Sonali’s birthday?”
“No. How would he? It’s just a coincidence.”
“OK, please tell Boroda that I’ll see him in the evening.”
I keep receiving hourly reports from Kashem. Things are under control. They are now getting ready to run the 9-inch casing. I feel relieved and send back a congratulatory note.
The sweetest part of my day is when Sonali extends her arms. It renews my energy, it refreshes my heart. Polash comes running. I carry them both in my arms. Polash does not stay long. He gets down and runs back to his game. I see Boroda coming my way.
“Boroda, Selim and Mamoon didn’t come? How are they?”
“They’re all fine. You know, they have more freedom when I am away, so they prefer staying home.”
“Now, you go for your shower and get ready. The guests will be here anytime soon,” Nishat says, coming to chase me along.
My stomach growls. Nishat is busy getting dressed and dressing up Sonali–it is the night of the queen and princess.
“It’s your phone.” Nishat draws my attention. “Could you please keep your emergency out of your mind while the guests are here, please?” Nishat often tells guests that days after Polash was born, the nurse, failing to get him to respond to tickling, exclaimed, ‘This handsome young fellow is just as serious as his dad.”
I do not know why I am like that. I do not know why I am so cold. I do not like partying; do not like fun. The guests have not yet arrived but I am already looking at my watch for the event to end. Nishat knows it all too well. So, true to her name, Nishat (a female Arabic name meaning happiness, liveliness, vitality) has invited a few guests who can generate some fun.
Her plan works. Khan bhai brings the party to life. The guy is a smooth talker, a performer with a sense of humour. He is like a TV show host: weather, sports, politics, business, jokes and humour – he covers it all. He does not miss telling us about his trips to Singapore and Hong Kong, his new business venture and his plan to buy a brand-new, top-of-the-range Honda Accord. He leads the chorus of ‘Happy Birthday,’ while Nishat helps Sonali to blow out the candle and drive a knife into the cake. The cameras flash. The dinner is grand–Mughlai biriani, mutton rezala, shami kebab and dahi bara, to name a few.
It is nearly midnight when the party breaks up. Nishat heads upstairs, holding Polash’s hand. The troops get busy cleaning the place up. I check with chotu if Dad and Boroda had their dinner. “Yes, but only bhat and dal.” He probably wonders why someone would prefer bhat to biriani.
I light a cigarette, walk to the backyard and grab a chair. The lights are already off in Dad’s and Boroda’s rooms. They are halfway through the night. I know that Dad does not like such celebrations, but he never says a word.
Boroda told me things:
“It was 1943, before the Partition. I was about five. Ayesha was a few years younger than me. I remember Ma sitting on the veranda all day, holding Ayesha on her lap. Ayesha’s dangling arms and legs looked like thin, dried jute stalks, her face covered with Ma’s sari’s aanchol to keep the flies away. That killer famine managed to snatch Ayesha away from Ma’s arms.”
Boroda continued, “Baba recoiled into his own world. It was hard on Ma. She would follow Ayesha before her time. You remember the fateful morning Ma did not wake up from her sleep.” Boroda sighed.
How much do I know of a father’s grief? How much do I know of a mother’s torment, watching her child, on her lap, shrinking day by day?
Ayesha was probably close to Sonali’s age when she died. What makes one die of starvation and another blossom in abundance? It is like fountains: one dries up before reaching the foothills and the other murmurs, cascading down the slope, nurturing the plains. Does a fountain know its end? Does it believe in fate?
Boroda, Ayesha, me and Dulal, we all have descended from a common root, yet landed worlds apart. Man has got so much in common with water. Is one the reflection of the other? Do they flow together?
It begins to drizzle. My inertia prevents me from moving. Then it starts to pour – cats and dogs – with a gust of wind. The roaring wind makes the window panels swing, hitting the wall hysterically as if to free themselves from chains. The dark house – one room at a time – comes to light. I hear Nishat’s frantic cries, as if gathering troops to fight outer-space aliens who are about to invade the house.
“Where is your shaheb?” I hear Nishat’s loud voice. “He is not in the room. Is he crazy, going out in this stormy night? Go, look for him! Where’s the car? Where’s the driver? Go get him,” she screams while the swarming water bullets, rioting wind and cracking thunder continue shaking the Earth.
Chotu runs past me towards the driver’s quarters and then in a minute they both run past me to the house. I touch my body and then my face. No, I haven’t been washed away. I am still here, only soaking wet.
Tohon is an emerging short-story writer. His recent stories have been published in the Star Weekend Magazine and Bengal Lights.