An extract from He who summoned the Magpie Robin
Kaiser had come down from England a year back. He was the son of a rich Bengali businessman who had gone over to London—famously known as Bilyaet to the Bengalis—during partition in the late 40s. His father was forced to get married to Miss Chowdhury, who later became Lady Afzal after marriage, and take her to England as well. After two years of much trying their son Kaiser Afzal was born. The scraggy baby body came out silently. The mid-wife fearing for its life held it by its feet, it hanging, slapped it gently at first. No response. She slapped it a bit harder this time, expecting it to cry. The mother only stared at the inhuman treatment of infants in front of her eyes, little did she know about birth and pregnancy, it was her first time. The mid-wife was shocked, only a dead baby won’t react to such harsh treatment. She inspected baby Kaiser more thoroughly. He was breathing, minutely. Phew! That night he started crying and cried the whole night long, no pause to catch a breather. He was on the whole night. A fighter he was. The mid-wife’s theory of brown-babies-somehow-not-crying-after-being-born was broken and shattered completely. It was her first baby of that ‘kind’ she had to deal with and little did she know there was a lot more to come later in her career of midwifery.
He spent five years of his life in the burrows of East London. He was quiet boy, much too quiet for some people’s liking, never spoke a single word until spoken to, and spoken to meaning only when thoroughly pushed around. Even though the doctors assured that he was not malnourished and that there was not much they could do about his physique, he was skinny and frail. His collar-bone stuck-outwards. Force-feeding did no good. He would become sick in the stomach and vomit on the carpet floor as a resut. There was a fear early on that he would be stupid, probably both deaf and dumb as well. As a baby he spoke for the first time at the age of three. Many ‘Hujurs’ and ‘Babas’ from various faiths were called in to cure the child of demon procession or ill-fate, nothing happened, the child seemed to have a speed of his own. He would not go outside to play, always stuck around, hiding under his mother’s sari’s drape-end. He was home schooled for the fear that, he was too weak physically, becoming sick at school and so on. As child with very little interest at anything, he had very little happines. He would only smile when his mother sang lullabies before putting him to sleep.
‘Aunties who put us to sleep……. come to our house…. we have no mats, no bed, just sit on Putu’s eyes….. A pot of beetle leaves to have mouthful…….. Then the door will be opened for you to go.’ The Sirens, of who once was known to have lulled the passing sailors, luring them into their trap, with their magical songs. Alakazam! For the boy his mother’s voice was magic, spell-binding. The perfect moment.
The little boy with his queer attitude alarmed his father, who absolutely took no interest whatsoever, but only criticised of how he was being raised. ‘I don’t want my son to become a coward who talks less and wears women’s clothes, fix him goddammit’, his father would say. Some point at that time his father had openly declared of having an affair with a woman called Elena, beautiful Elena, Elena Panayides, daughter of a Cypriot Immigrant. She was a lady of the night, known to be an object of many men’s nightly desires. Desires that could be bought with money and taste for expensive gifts and of which Kaiser’s father had ample in his disposal. Her courtesan ways of leading rich men on had made her quite a hot cake so as to speak. One had to work to get her, have her, and if you had no money, all you could do is stare at the cake from outside the pastry shop window. She then on became serious, fixed herself on one particular sponsor of hers, as she realised no one gets any younger, one day she too will show signs of aging, like an apple: who would ever want to eat a mouldy-looking apple, let alone buy one.
The little boy’s mother had let it slide for a while, hoping that it might pass, one day maybe her husband might come back home and make love to her. It didn’t hapen. A month or so after the declaration of the affair, she discovered Elena in their bedroom, bouncing up and down, naked, on her passed out husband’s exposed floppy sex, with Elena staring at her making no attempt of stopping and covering up, forcing her to leave the room from utter disgust. Elena, her counterpart, wanted to get caught, wanted to be recognised. Look Bitch! I exist, was the statement. Soon after which, she filed for divorce and with her son left London for Dacca to stay with her parents in Lalbagh. His maternal grandparents were a Chittagonian business-minded family, one the richest in Dacca and were happy to have Kaiser and his mother staying with them.
Kaiser had changed overnight; he was more active he had ever been. He pranced around the courtyard, bare feet; humming Urdu songs he heard on his mother’s records. Dacca’s dusty air had somewhat of a feel to it, warmth. The thick-humid air probably had got to him, going up his nose and into his brain, screwing with the mechanisms around, a nut fell here and a bolt over there, his mother joked, and he might have just given up on his previous oddities of being a strange quiet boy. His previous physical inabilities, his lethargy, mental inability with the lack of disinterest, were gone, all gone. On the very first day of his stay in the land of the brown men, land of countless rivers, something had caught his eyes. It was hanging on a peg right by the courtyard when entered from the library.
The household had a pet bird, a caged bird, black and white mixed in colour, small. He did not know the name of the bird, couldn’t care what its name was. A child rarely cares about of such details, details of biological names, height, weight, genus, species etc. He went up to it, stared at it for a minute, and asked it what its name was. The bird didn’t answer. He asked again. No reply. Sadness had dawned upon little Kaiser, even birds won’t speak to him. If it won’t speak, no need for it to stay, it can’t be a friend, can it? Friends do speak to each other, don’t they? He dragged a heavy chair for a yard or so, bringing it right-underneath the cage, stood up on it to reach the cage. He carefully and slowly manoeuvred the cage door open and slid his little hands in to grasp hold of the bird. The first-time he ever held a bird. He took it out of the cage and let it go. It flew away. He looked around to see if someone had seen what he had done then he ran away into one of the rooms, leaving the previously dragged chair under the cage, an evidence of his ‘crime’ of which was later discovered by his mother. She cherished in the thought of a kind and compassionate son. An act of compassion is always desired, even if it is towards a song-bird who would refuse to speak and answer a five year old.
He attended the Saint Gregory’s School for boys, one the most prestigious school in the city of Dacca and was a missionary school. High family connections meant that he was taken extra care of, of which he needed as he was an alien to the new environment. Being bullied early on meant that he needed protection from the school staff. His days had passed with much pampering and comfort. He would stare at the pictures in the comic books while his mother read them out loudly, explaining the bits he did not understand, with her one hand holding his mouth open and with the other forcing the scoop of rice curry into his reluctant mouth. He would obediently flip a page over once it had been read and him having understood. Years had passed without much incident. One summer his mother got a telegram from her in-laws living in London saying: ‘Kaiser’s grandfather is gravely ill and wishes to see his one and only grandson for one last time if it it’s to be his’. Kaiser was rushed with the next flight into London with one of his uncles. Sadly his grandfather had died before he could get to the flat in Tower Hamlet from Heathrow through heavy traffic.
This was the first time he had seen his father after eight years or so. His father had by now married the former mistress Elena and had a daughter with her. Kaiser vowed never to speak to his father again, although his resentment towards his old man had lessened when he noticed his sorry state. His father was a broken man. All the pursuit of money and power coupled with the absence of his first wife and his only son, the heir to his fortune and his love, had gotten him to this point. He could not bring himself to saying much to Kaiser. His shame for abandoning them was too much for that man to bear. His days of drinking and chasing foreign woman had been over as well. All he would do would be to sit around in his study, drink orange juice, lots of orange juice, and peep out of the window once in a while, like a mole peering out of a hole, never saying much of course. Much to Kaiser’s surprise, with his father’s inability to take charge in the household matters had turned the flat that once had a touch of Bengaliana into a Hellenic one, tackily carried out. Cypriot-nationalistic posters hung on the living room, as their apartment had been once turned into a den for liberation activity; his devoutly Greek Orthodox stepmother couple of years ago, would often with few others sit in for hunger-strikes in front of the British foreign office, in demand for Cypriot independence from The British. These demonstrations were not taken lightly and were subsequently baton-charged by the police. It gave the whole Greek community from mainland Greece a bad press, some of whom wanted very little to do with the Cypriots at that time. The demonstrations came away from the pro-Enosis stance (unification with Greece) then shifted to in front of the Turkish Embassy in protest of Turkish invasion of Cyprus. She then out of guilt from breaking up the previous family of her husband became overtly religious. Every Christmas and Easter-Anastasi or Jesus Resurrection was celebrated and enforced in the household. A huge cross dangled, resting in between her bosom. Her once fashionable clothes became more conservative and straight-forward, no more cleavage showing and all. Even-though she married for the money, she never seemed to spend any, at least not on herself. But because her husband’s business soured, it was for the best. Ethnic slurs directed towards the Turks were common-place and it sometimes crossed from the racial-ethnic boundary into religious domains. Still her once Muslim husband was shut in the mouth, too docile to complain and speak out. After everything else there were the Suvlakis served for dinner. What had happened to the good old Sheek Kebab, Kaiser complained, Feta! Cheese with salad! When did a brown man in his middle age start eating Feta with salad? he left shortly after a week, feeling sorry for his half-sister, Danai, Danai Afzal, with whom he had built up an immediate connection, who he felt was stuck in this horrid, cold land, with Feta-covered food and a vegetable for a father. He did not know of his sister would ever have the luck to go back to the warmth he was going back to.