Many hours later as he faced the only open window in his room, Shafiq was to remember that distant afternoon when he took his first born to see the undulating sand dunes of the vast desert. Sitting in that room, his eyes glanced upon the CCTV camera screening footage of his days and nights inside this enclosure to the outside world.
He gave no thought to it. His mind was elsewhere, thinking back to a distant past, when things were happy. His wife—timid yet strangely fierce when he had married her. He remembered their first child, born at the last hour of the night. He also remembered two more daughters, the middle one just like his own sister—a sister he only had for a short two years—and the youngest, a splitting image of his wife.
In that room, the morning refused to go by quicker. He looked out the window but could not recognise the street. In the dead of the night, it was hard to tell where those crazy people had driven him to. They must have pushed a tranquiliser, something very potent. He had not been able to fight the men for too long as they dragged him out of his house and shoved him into the car. Screams had formed at the base of his throat, but they refused to materialise. He had wanted to call his children, ask them to keep him home.
In that moment, he felt he would miss them.
In his semi-dazed state, he walked around the room as pangs of hunger cleared away all the other thoughts trying to flash through his mind—his old mother, his three little sisters, his village by the rolling hills bordering Assam and Habiganj.
Lunch was a humble spread. He was served in the room, on a table which could be propped against the bed. Knees popping just loud enough for him to hear, Shafiq sat down for lunch, but soon found himself grossly disappointed. The daal reminded him of the muddy-brown water that flowed through the river that separated two countries. The chicken, scrawny, to him appeared skinnier than his own fingers. Unwillingly he gulped down the meal in slow, decisive bites.
By now, Shafiq was moving between moments of acceptance, confusion and disbelief. Was this place not the jail he thinks it is? Why do those jail wardens keep assuring him they are actually ward boys?
After the first few days, his wife would come visit him regularly. He did not get to meet her, but they brought him a meal that she always carried for him—chicken akhnipulao, tok doi and her special kali jeerar bhorta.
The rice was sticky and warm, soft enough to be rolled into a ball in his hands. The meal always ended long before he would have preferred it to.
Moni—and she suspected, her three daughters, too—were torn between feeling relieved at Shafiq being hospitalised and also worried about him being hospitalised. On one side they were enjoying this time with Shafiq away and on the other, there was the financial toll that this hospital stay would take on them as a family. They knew he would be back soon. They merely had a month before the doctors would manage to control his rage and his symptoms. His hallucinations too would be more in control, the new doctor had promised this time. In the meantime, while Shafiq was away, all three would spend long hours in front of the TV, tap away on their phones, make dinner and usually end up eating the leftover chicken and rice dish that Moni took for her husband in the hospital the day before.
She enjoyed a sense of freedom during this time. By now, these nightly episodes, chock full of drama, fear and trepidation over what would, what could go wrong, had become a yearly occurrence. This was the fourth time in a span of eight years that her husband had one of his episodes of nervous breakdowns. Ones that escalated so quickly that he would need to be hospitalised. As he lost his mind, he would sometimes try to lock them all in a room, scream profanities, throw water all over the house and chant prayers before eventually threatening to kill himself or one of the family members. This was the usual trajectory of each episode.
Sometimes, she wondered, how everything had come to this. Only 16 when she was married off, Moni had spent the first 15 years of her marriage deeply fearful of her husband and his erratic temper.
Just a year after her marriage, she came to know of all the strange happenings at her in-laws’ place. There was a lot of hush-hush in the family about their history, their lineage. It took years for her to find out how her father-in-law, Syed, was possessed by the spirits of the past. The only way to cure his annual episodes was to tie him up in iron shackles. They would lock him up in a room of the mud-house which was also home to her husband and his eight siblings, and her mother-in-law.
On really bad days, the spirits talked for hours at end through her father-in-law. And he would talk about his own father who walked hundreds of miles, spreading Islam from one land to another. Syed also talked of his ancestors doing the same in Iraq, Afghanistan and farther away, conducting business and settling down in different areas by the hills in Sylhet. Syed’s father came to this village through Assam and settled near the Khowai river and married the only daughter of a businessman in the area and in turn inherited four elephants, a large piece of land, a big pond and many betel nut trees.
With those elephants, Syed’s father would cross the river and go off to do business in Tripura—trading in cotton, spices and other valuable items.
All of those stories seemed out of a folklore to Moni. She also learned how her mother-in-law would take the weekly boat that would arrange trips to Assam by crossing the river Khowai. It was easier to get to the Indian side rather than try and go to the main marketplace in Habiganj. Once in Assam, she would buy the herbs and pills from the local ‘Ojha’ that she believed would help calm her possessed husband.
Moni often thought back to those days and always wondered of the strength of her mother-in-law and also thought of her helplessness. How could she not leave? Now, with her daughters all grown up, Moni also wondered why she, too, could not find the courage to leave. She could manage to survive, with the help of her daughters. She could try. She had lived through hell every day of her married life. Sometimes living in the fear of getting beaten up, sometimes scurrying around the house trying to hide all the knives and hammers so that he could not harm her or her daughters.
In the early days, when she first saw her husband lose his mind and swing like a pendulum between lucidity and madness, she too considered talking to a “hujur” or an “ojha” to find some way out of this madness. She vividly remembered the first time he left her in the Middle East and visited Bangladesh. That was the time, it had first happened. Her husband had visited the country almost after two decades of living abroad. That is when he first, in a very decisive move, maneuvered his thoughts and slowly but surely crossed over the bridge and transformed into a raging madman.
She was left abroad with her three children while Shafiq back in the country continued to get worse. Moni could not believe her ears when he first refused to recognise her, tried to walk stark naked through the dirt roads of the village, tear apart photographs of their wedding, the ones he found in the steel almirah of the room where they first lived after he brought her home as a new wife.
She called the family at their village home in Bangladesh almost every day back then. It took months for him to get better and return to the Middle-East. But things never really got back to normal after that. They eventually had to return to Bangladesh after her husband failed to manage the business and slowly slipped into debt.
When she thinks of it now, it feels like a lifetime ago. The marriage, the madness, the mood. He had a temper, sure, but at least she had never felt the need to hide all the knives, screw drivers and everything else deemed potentially risky, the moment he appeared to have a nervous fit.
In between that first episode years ago and now, she too had grown up. From being a subdued young woman from a faraway village near the pitch dark Kalenga Hills to a woman now navigating Dhaka, almost on her own, she lost all her naivety and innocence. Yet within her, she carried those old beliefs too: that maybe, just maybe, if they consulted a religious person, they would find some answer to this crisis.
The familiar sound of a car horn rang in the background.
Shafiq stirred from his evening slumber. He was supposed to be released today from this enclosure. At least that was the buzz in the building. He wore his long robe, crinkled and full of sweat stains. He even found some perfume in the black Asus laptop bag his wife had packed that night.
The reunion with his wife was simple. No frills. No tears. He walked out after exchanging cursory niceties with all the people who had brought him his daily meals.
Moni felt restless the whole day. The next day, they would let her husband go. And she would have to bring him home.
Although Shafiq’s temper had dissipated quite a bit in the last few years, Moni had heard the stories of her husband’s childhood. His hair always stood on an edge—a testament to his rowdy temper. The second oldest among eight siblings, he would spend the entire day running around in the village. He was also tender and loving. She knew this because as a kid, Shafiq would always pick wild borois from the tree near the pond and take back home to his ill father.
She tried to shake these thoughts from her mind and readied the house. Sporadically she also tried to console her youngest daughter over the return of her husband, while internally fretting about the days ahead.
Each return from the mental health clinic was followed by a few good days before her husband started acting up again. Her daughters, by this point, had started to detest him. His sloppy eating habits, his snoring and watching TV on full volume, his tiniest comments, they hated them all.
Today, Shafiq woke up in his home. In the streaming morning light, the green wall in his room appeared even more luminescent green. This was his favourite color. He decided to sleep in, choosing to spend the morning reminiscing about his life abroad. He remembered how, on his oldest child’s seventh birthday, he had decided to renovate the house and paint everything from the sofa to the curtains to the wall and even a few plates and jugs for good measure, in varying shades of green. In the deserts of the Middle-East, Shafiq had often thought of his village home, the small black-green hills on the horizon, and the ombre-green rice fields that went on and on for miles. Now, back in the village, he could not forget his life in the Middle East. What he wouldn’t do to go back to all of that, to earn his own living, to drive the car through the sand dunes, take his children to the beach, drink black coffee with his friends and smoke hookah.
He had been a young man when he came to this desert land. He had tried his hands at everything that required basic educational qualification but mere grit. When his ailing father passed away, the war had just ended and he was planning to go to college in Dhaka.
His father had taken him to Dhaka once, when he was a kid. And he remembered he took him to show horse-racing and he was hooked. He had decided, he would grow up and come to the glittery red-blue city and spend hours watching horse-racing.
Those dreams had remained unrealised, as life happened to him, relentlessly, trying to beat him down.
But Shafiq did not give up. A week after his father died, he jumped onto a train that travelled through his village and decided he would go to Chittagong. He had heard from his older cousins that that is where all the business was.
Now, he does not remember much of it. He remembers hauling bags of clothes and sacks of sugar in the port city to make some money, so that he could return home to his siblings. So that he could at least provide them with some semblance of a normal life—food, clothes, maybe a chance to go to school.
It would be a couple of years, before his maternal uncle ultimately sent him abroad. He was 23, but Shafiq by then was sure of himself. He knew he wanted to move away from here, make money, because that is what makes the world go round and round.
In the many years he spent in the Middle East, Shafiq was quick to climb the ladder to the top. It was a classic movie in the making but did not things get better in the movies, at least in the end? Was he not the protagonist of his movie?
He continued to lie in bed, moving between timelines in his head. His life—the village—hopping around Bangladesh—the business in the middle east—coming for a visit—losing his mind—and eventually having to settle in the country—all of this continued to flash before his eyes.
He remembered his encounter with the shadow in his village home as child, one which he believed had killed his father. He remembered how decisively he had escaped that shadow. Until he decided to return to Bangladesh, only for a month after spending nearly two decades abroad.
He did not think the shadow would be able to get him. How could he let that happen? He had dodged her for so many years. Yet, that night, when she came, asking him to open the lock to his room, he knew life would never be the same. He would become his father, loathed, hated and lost to his family.
There were moments when the shadow would vanish. Somehow though, she managed to be fiercer as the night wore on, defying the laws of physics. When he was jailed in that enclosure, she came ever so fleetingly. She was particularly angry during winters. Sometimes he fought her for hours at night, sometimes she would talk to him and he would talk back to her.
Over the years, she became a regular presence, stronger and more at ease with him.
He tried to shake off these thoughts and tried to sit up straight. He thought about going and talking to his daughters but he knew, his heart sinking, that they too avoided him for fear of meeting the shadow. Like he had avoided his home for years.
His daughters were already all out of the house, one to her job, another for university and the little one to her school.
When he had come back home yesterday, none of his daughters were there. He felt scared and apprehensive of voicing his opinions in the house anymore, lest his family think he had lost his mind again and send him to jail.
He sat quietly all through the morning, staring at the TV, flipping through the channels and wondering how he would spend the rest of the day. There was no one to talk to.
Maybe he should have remained in the jail. At least those wardens listened to his stories.