Good… or… bad?
I thought he was Abid's doppelganger -- maybe his brother. He had inherited Abid's physique by chance. But when he had grabbed onto my hand so suddenly and had started berating me in his very distinctive coarse-hoarse voice, “What's this? You're ignoring me and walking off,” I was truly very shocked and taken aback. I had no option other than to stare into his face totally dumbfounded and ask, “How could I have recognised you? What have you done to your face? Have you kept any clues left through which I could have identified you?” Abid was a bit startled and became self conscious -- some strange sense of discomfort shadowed him, something I had never seen in him before. He even tried to laugh a little, but the full-bellied laughter was not there anymore.
It was truly a matter of surprise. There was no limit to my concern at that moment. Why the sudden change in Abid? Why was there a struggle for him to return to normal?
I had seen a different side to him for more than 15 years -- a face full of beard like Socrates, tangled unkempt dense hair starting from the base of his huge forehead, the bloodshot eyes from staying up late into the night, and the blackened teeth from chewing betel-leaf without end -- not even a speck of white in any corner of them. His hand was never void of a bundle of betel-leaves. His attire of dirty worn-out punjabi-payjama used to match his appearance. He was famous amongst us for his unparalleled knowledge. Vision, politics, economics, psychology, sociology, history, and religion were all under his grasp. His memory was astonishing, equalled with his curiosity and the strength of remembrance. Such people are very rare in nature. He had donned a very classic look with such potential within himself and such shabby state of physical appearance. We had become accustomed to his existence, seeing him on a regular basis.
Ever since we were all bachelors, we had thought Abid would change with time -- he would return to normal life and start looking typical like ten others around him. But that never happened. He accomplished in remaining a successful celibate. He never wed; neither did he lose the habit of reading -- on the contrary it had increased. His attire had not changed one bit either. Since he had not changed his ways for so long, we had all come to consensus that he never would.
Abid had proven his individuality through remaining the same for more than 20 years. He would never marry, never work for a living, and never be a part of society: that was his philosophy. Practical life does not recognise this, but Abid wanted to live on with it. He survived under such terms for nearly 40 years of his life.
One of his admirers used to shelter and feed him. All his friends and many more were his fans, and Abid had broken all norms of society to have found his own perceptions. We had not seen any change in his ways of consuming knowledge, spending time with his friends in gatherings, and his tobacco-betel addiction. Reading under the influence of intoxication, and keeping his merit alive through discussions and debates in the gatherings: this was what Abid was to us. We could not even start to think of Abid in any other form. But the same Abid had flipped 180 degrees in appearances and was standing in front of me. His face was clean-shaved. His dark as coal smooth skin was shining. His hair was cut short and combed perfectly. He was wearing clean clothes. What was more surprising were: his blackened teeth -- they were cleaned and looked white, his blood-shot eyes were not as red anymore, and even his bundle of betel-leaves were not in his hand anymore. The classic look that he had made for himself was gone -- as if it was never there to begin with.
I was astounded in knowing he was really Abid. My disbelief would not retreat. As soon as he stopped laughing, I asked him, “So tell me about it all. Why did you change your lifelong look? Why this change?”
He turned very mysterious and said, “Yes. I did change a lot. But still couldn't win her heart.”
My voice took a higher pitch, “What do you mean?” Abid tried to laugh in reply, but it was a bland nervous laugh. It was nothing like the old Abid.
He said, “You should not worry yourself too much. You do remember Minu? Our five year-old little girl? The orphan girl? I have fallen into a lot of trouble with her, friend.” His voice became heavier as he kept on speaking. He fell silent after that for a while, and then started to talk very swiftly, “I had to get a job, and a house as well. Couldn't tell you guys. Was very busy. Here is my address.”
He wrote down his address on a chit, crumpled the piece of paper into my hands, and started to walk away very briskly. With his head turned to me while in motion he said, “Come to my place after evening one of these days, I am usually home then, but very busy today.”
I kept standing and staring at him in disbelief. He got lost in the crowd as he paced away from me. Every bit of it was astonishing: Abid got a job, Abid has a house. Instead of spending away two-three hours away in leisure and discussions, Abid just walked away because he was busy? He, of all the people, has work?
And which Abid was that who had walked away looking like a gentleman and as normal as the next person on the street? But where was the nonchalant attitude, the carefree demeanour, the face of being content for being absolutely free, all that we had seen over the years?
I was not able to put any of it together. He went away, and I stood there drowning in disbelief like an idiot.
Then again, I knew about Minu, but I could have never in my wildest imaginations dreamt of the drama surrounding the story. I could not fathom how the Abid I used to know -- enraged even by the idea of asking anyone a personal question, or even with the thought of familiarising himself with a family -- could entwine himself with such a small matter.
Ahmed was a common friend. He was a simple and normal being. But he disappeared lost to the other side leaving behind a very unlucky memory. He was married. Yet his wife had died leaving behind the sweet gift of a child just two years into their marriage. He started to look after the small child's wellbeing himself. He had named her Minu out of affection. One morning, when the girl was around five years old, news of Ahmed's passing away had reached me. He had died of heart-failure.
All of us those who were close to him had rushed to his place. No matter how tragic we thought the incident could be, it was far more heart-breaking. Not only was the little girl orphaned, but she had absolutely no family whatsoever. She didn't have a mother for ages, and her father was also taken away from her. Ahmed could not manage to have left her any sustenance. Ahmed did not have any family members who could take care of her either. We were the only ones closest to her.
The persistent problem that arose for her at that very moment was: who would look after Ahmed's daughter?
Many of us secretly must have wanted to take upon the task, but we could not decide on anything because of so many thoughts circling our minds. We were just looking at each other dumbfounded. Even though Abid was there, we did not count him to be of any help -- he did not even have a roof over his head to begin with. But when no solution was in sight, he himself came forward and provided an answer to the problem. He said, “I will bear her.”
We had all sighed in relief. But, we had not thought of how Abid was going to deal with the child. We were relieved in knowing that the problem was not there anymore for the time-being. The incident took place a month before I saw the new Abid. What could have had happened to have changed his uniqueness? How was it even related to the little girl?
I could not make heads-or-tails of the whole situation. My head started to spin with the curiosity that rose in my heart.
I could not sit still for long -- I visited Abid's place two days later. Yes, the situation was baffling indeed. I saw our classic Abid was dragged down from the realm of books to the sands of time. The house was a home with a family living in it. There were servants, and even a nanny for the child. Abid had entwined himself with all of it to keep everything running smoothly. But was there really need for so much? The age-long image of Abid in my eyes shattered and just fell to the ground. I felt very lost right then. Was his idea of leading a life of celibacy just a joke then? Was the lack of chance and his laziness the only barriers? I started to think his philosophy was just a façade. I had not expected such a lie from Abid. It was as if his insurmountable knowledge had started to taunt me. It's not like the knowledgeable are not allowed marrying, or starting a family. But then again, if that was what Abid had wanted then why didn't he do it a decade back? What harm would that have brought on? My heart filled up with bile. I thought of the only missing thing -- a wife -- I was bent upon filling that void before leaving his house that day.
Abid took me by the hand and sat me down in his room. He had certainly polished up through a lot of hassle, but there remained a shadow of anxiety hung over his face. I could not let out all the angst that had boiled over me from within. Moments later Abid grasped my hand after looking here and there and said, “I have fallen under distress my friend. I took responsibility of the girl out of sheer compassion. You know very well that I am myself another dependent person living in a room and provided with food by them. I would do just fine by that. I could have just spent away my life with her in that room just as it was. But I fell into this complexity by bringing her over. It was well and good that she came with me -- she was in shock with the sudden blow, she understood nothing of it, but the silent cries have gone on non-stop ever since she entered the room. She didn't sleep at all the first night. There… right there… that little girl… it's driving me crazy to see her suffer like that. I was afraid that she would die in my arms whereas I brought her so that she could be saved. Tell me… whom can I ask to take her from me? Who would extend open arms to such a burden? I could not even tell those who had given me shelter -- how much more could I have burdened them with? I started seeing darkness everywhere.
“I started to think that my ugly face was the reason behind her being so scared. After all, she was used to seeing normal gentler faces. I tried to change my demeanour to match that of you guys within the next couple of days. I don't study staying up late, or even chew the betel-leaf any more. Maybe she was scared of my bloodshot eyes and blackened teeth. I don't have those problems any more, neither do I have a beard, nor long hair, but then why haven't I won her heart yet?
“Then I thought I have to build up an environment fit for a middle-classed family -- everything suiting to her needs -- maybe then she would calm down. You know very well that there is no scarcity of jobs for me. Got employed, a house, and everything in place within a week. She's become a bit stronger now. I don't fear her crying herself to death anymore. But why has she not taken me in as her own yet?”
I had no answers for him. I was listening to him with surprise. I didn't have to utter a word; he started speaking right after he finished his question, “You must be thinking why it is important to win her over? Why the sudden urge to become a part of the very society I rebelled against all my life?
“Trust me… its nothing I crave for. You might be able to understand the fact that this little girl needs at least one family member to call her own. Can anyone survive without absolutely any roots whatsoever? No… can there be any peace in such existence? No… is such an existence normal? She needs a family, a companion, someone to depend on! Who would grant her that compassion? I am all for it, but she doesn't even want to come near me.”
He just kept staring with a long sad face. Maybe his eyes were wet. I had returned without saying a word that day. The whole matter had left me perplexed and worried.
I met Abid at the same spot on the road about a month later. His face was lit up with joy that day. He hugged me tight and said, “Know what? The girl is finally tamed now.” He said it in such a manner as if the girl was a difficult bird to train.
I wanted to and tried to burst out with joy as well. I said, “Good, good.” My heart cried out a little. It was as if classic Abid was lost -- the strange and independent man. Abid had not accepted defeat from his senses, but the rules of life and its demands got the better of him. Just one simple social call for a deed enabled society to engulf him forever. His age long agenda of solidarity and rebellion was annulled. I don't know why, but I couldn't help but say, “Abid… somehow this brilliant smile on your face doesn't fit you.”
Keeping silent for a while he spoke up, “That's habit. It will after a while.”
Maybe he was right. But I don't know which one is right -- the former rebellious classic Abid… or the present Abid who is running the rat races like every other person out there. Who knows whether rebellion is better or losing out like this? I have come to such an age in life: I cannot properly discern for sure the difference between good and bad simultaneously.
Hasan Hafizur Rahman (1932-1983) was a Poet, Journalist and Critic. Perhaps the most important contribution of Hasan Hafizur Rahman was his editorship of the documents of the War of Liberation, published as Bangladesher Svadhinatayuddha: Dalilpatra (1982-83), in 16 volumes.
- Translated by Hasan Ameen Salahuddin.
The translator is a Teacher and Coordinator, Brine Pickles, the first Performance Literature and Creative Writing group in the English Language in Bangladesh.