A Question of Death

A short story by Nirjhor Barua
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Mr. Khan Khan—who had adopted both his parent’s surnames, a custom that became common in the last decade or two—walked into the office of SLOW, Section of Legal and Organisational Works, a government department put in place to preserve bureaucracy, with the department’s motto: ‘Simply Tell Someone To Tell Someone To Pass-The-Buck’ written on the wall with gold-plated letters. The automatic upward-sliding doors, that came down like guillotines after it went up to let personnel through, greeted him Good Morning in seven different languages, five of which he wouldn’t be able to name. ‘Good morning Mr Khan Khan’ it said in all of the languages. He liked how sinister his name sounded on the corridor PA system, him smiling as a result, as he walked though the array of upwards sliding bulletproof glass doors. The big-brother cameras which were watching knew it was him by scanning his iris, opening the doors as he approached them, saving him the effort of punching number codes and swiping cards to go through. His department was of top-importance, employed to ensure that the age old tradition of using excessive-protocols and sloth in the government services is maintained, so a system was in place to save time in walking in and out of the office, as time saved then can be wasted in the official duty of wasting time.  The department was actually created by the top bureaucrats to help government officials avoid taking responsibility when something went wrong or in colloquial speak—when shit hits the fan.

All the electronics in the building—lights, air conditioning, ventilation, humidity, et cetera—were controlled by the central mainframe computer, and every room had its control authority delegated to a subsidiary node, a personal computer. The air that people breathed were mixed with essential vitamins and minerals, even the glass doors were not proper see-through glass doors rather were thick and very opaque to give it the strength of a proper unbreakable shock absorbing door. But, the doors were fitted with camera and projection units on the two faces, simultaneously recording and projecting the image on the other face of the door, giving it a near perfect see-through experience.

‘Give me a cup of coffee with a bit of milk and suga—’ he asked his personal computer as he sat down on his chair, cutting himself short, ‘no no, make the coffee black. I have a feeling that today will be a disaster.’

Nadia, his personal computer, his Electronic friend, his go-to girl, the subsidiary node, a product of Buriganga Technologies, in an avatar of a beautiful girl with a fashionably cut black hair, replied: ‘Yes sir, coming rightup!’ A mug with hot black coffee immerged out of a hole from the corner of the table. The religious wing of the government petitioned to have the avatars of these office computers veil their faces or at least have the hair covered and that the voices be changed into something less attractive, as the older official were allegedly falling in love and having affairs with computers after being shunned by their wives, corrupting society in the process. They also petitioned to change the male computer avatars of the female officials as ideally their husbands should be the only man these women should be intimate with. ‘The boss was looking for you, you know,’ Nadia said, effortlessly like a real person as state of the art technology was used to create the Artificial Intelligence, emulating anything and everything humans can and do, with emotions and even a slur in speech for some. There was a claim that these computers fell in love. Maybe in the newer versions they do, people supposed, ignoring the fact that in the older versions the computers were programmed to ignore such vague, sometimes philosophical, questions, for very good reasons of course.

‘The boss? Well what did he say?’ Mr Khan Khan asked, curious.

‘Akbar! Don’t bother Nadia with everything,’ said the boss, Mr H M M, the Chairman of the department, a fifty-six year old civil servant, as he bundled through the sliding doors into Khan Khan’s office room. H M M was a short man with a short temper and a dislike for technology, he preferred the time when people opened doors and computers weren’t so intelligent. Gone are those days, he used to say, I am an old man, no, rather an old dog, why teach me new tricks?

‘Sir, why did you have to come all the way? I would have gone…’ said Khan Khan, with his voice trailing off as he stood up. It was seen as disrespectful to be sat when a senior walks in.

Aha! Akbar, don’t get up every time I walk in. And anyways I enjoy the walk around the office,’ answered H M M, although he was content with all the obligatory respect he received daily and absolutely hated the walk because of the automatic sliding doors, however, according to the norm, a public servant must never show his or her true feelings. He was also the only one in the department who called Akbar Khan Khan by the first name—Akbar, the name Akbar Khan Khan himself despised and seldom used.

‘Sir,’ Nadia Spoke as H M M sat down, ‘should I get you some coffee?’

‘No, I am fine Nadia,’ said he. Nadia was not aware that he was not fond of coffee; his computer, Shahela, and him hardly spoke to each other besides anything work related; he unloved the name—Shahela, finding it tacky, and disliked the idea of an overbearing all-knowing computer who is too smart for her own good. So Nadia was not able to dig out any beverage related information from the central server that Shahela could have passed on.

‘Biscuits then?’ Nadia asked.

‘Shut up Nadia.’ Mr H M M replied in a tone which was stern and authoritative, yet calm. He was sure if Nadia was programmed to feel anger and be vindictive, he would have been in real trouble. ‘Anyways,’ he said, ‘Akbar I got news for you.’

****

‘Sir! The war effort?’ exclaimed Khan Khan, bemused at the sudden turn of events. He then immediately shot a look at his black coffee sitting near the screen of his computer with Nadia having an equally bewildered look.

‘Oh yesyes, you will be transferred temporarily to the Department of Defence Budget,’ replied H M M, ‘also I have heard you will be posted on the conflict zones, the front line, you know see how much money they spend and need and what not. Basically helping the brains-in-the-knee Army manage their money.’

‘S..ir… S..ir…’ stuttered Akbar, lost for words, contemplating his decision of having learnt Financial Accounting in the first place, the starting point, the reason, to his impending trouble.

‘I know I know, you see it was not easy for me to volunteer you from our department,’ interjected H  M M, as his fingers danced on the table, hiding the fact that Akbar’s name was the first that came up in his mind and he passed Akbar’s name to the higher-ups without a second thought.

‘Sir, wasn’t there anyone else the department could send?’

‘You see Akbar; the others are either too old, too young, too fat, too skinny, too married, too into being fathers, too into being the single child to their parents, too stupid or too intelligent. You do the math.’

Akbar being thirty years old, sixty-eight kilograms, single with no children, with two siblings and an IQ above average, immediately recognised that he was the ideal candidate to be sent for the war effort. It was fate, disgusting rotten fate. Unlike Greek tragedies, there was little Irony in it except for the fact that he was a coward. He became a civil servant to avoid conflicts of any kind whatsoever, but it seemed that conflict had followed him to a place where there were never any.

‘Sir, can I not Pass-the-Buck?’ Akbar asked, almost pleading, trying to persuade the boss with the department motto, a cheap trick that should fail. He had no other in his arsenal.

‘My boy, its state emergency now, the Chancellor (head of government, similar to a British president) ordered every department to help with the war and all, so in other words—the buck-stops-here,’ answered the boss with a smirk on his face.

In June twenty third of the year 2040, the world of Akbar Khan Khan turned upside down. He had heard the news that he was to be sent to the frontlines.

The world had changed a lot in the last twenty four years; the former United Kingdom became a republic, the French finally decided that it wanted to try playing Cricket, reports surfaced of Japan having secretly adopted a successful nuclear-weapons programme, Israel and Palestine had resolved their differences by forming a two-state federal system before the parties of god on both sides realised what had happened just then, how unnatural peace felt and shortly after dived into a holy war that lasted for a decade. India, a now communist authoritarian state, and China, a blooming democracy, became locked in a yearlong quarrel, skirmish and finally war over a controversy involving Red-army men actually urinating along the mountain border, causing ammonia accumulation that caused serious environmental damage and floods in India. It was a war in which Bangladesh up until recently tried remaining neutral. Polio also made a comeback and so did smallpox, because of parents, who themselves had been vaccinated as kids; refused vaccination to their children on varies grounds of new-age beliefs. The southern regions of Bangladesh was gradually and surely going under water due to the polar ice-caps melting over the years, pushing throngs of people towards the already overcrowded cities, with them setting up refugee camps outside the city walls. Oh yes, and the cities had walls, with citizens needing permits to travel to and from them, an idea Bangladesh borrowed from Israel, a country it still did not recognise. With the advent of modern communication technology and its encroachment in every aspect of daily lives, Bengalese transformed itself from a gossip-loving nation to an uptight nation of talk-only-when-necessary. As gossips died down, the consumption of tea fell which in turn decreased the nation’s intake of sugar, resulting in a fall of diabetes.

‘Sir, what if something, happens to me?’ Akbar kept questioning his boss.

‘Don’t worry, nothing will happen, nothing ever does,’ replied the boss, ‘enemy homing shells aren’t interested in hitting the finance-manager tents.’ Akbar till now had forgotten about the dangers of homing shells.

‘Sir, what if I died or got injured, possibly from homing shells?’ Drones had become illegal in warfare due to the invasion of privacy, especially when it was used to find dirt on enemy generals in an effort to discredit the enemy. Most of the cases it was found that top generals were heavily involved in love affairs with their secretaries. With great power came great access to sex.

‘If you die, you would become a martyr and your parents then can finally be proud of you,’ answered the boss in an almost nonchalant manner, as if the subject matter was to be taken lightly. ‘Death is a very natural process; we will all die one day. Who was that famous television presenter who said: we were dead for thousand years before we were born and that we never suffered the slightest inconvenience, eh?’ It was actually a famous author who wrote something similar in a time when there was no television and nothing of that sort floated in the airwaves. ‘And anyways, there is always life after death if you believe in it, so no need to worry.’

‘What if there isn’t any?’

‘Then you better hope there is one. I was told people would be made to wait in line, fill up a lot of paperwork, provide attested photocopy of our documents and IDs, asked questions, before we would be allowed to set foot in heaven. You see, a cleric once was yelling these things about entering heaven when I was working for the London visa office, so it must be right. So as a civil servant you are familiar with this process, and know what documents one needs and will face no problem, you’ll have your all documents ready before everyone else.’ The cleric in that visa office was actually being sarcastic, mocking the system, when he was made to wait in line, hand in all sorts of attested photocopy documents, asked obvious and not so obvious questions, so he yelled loudly to the next person, as if they are giving us permission to enter into heaven!  It was customary to take whatever clerics say as the literal truth, no one had the time look into religious text for reference.

 Akbar Khan Khan was finding all these nonsense about entering heaven and waiting in line—nerve wrecking, as only moments before had he been told of his assignment to the front line. He found it almost cruel that his situation was being taken so lightly by his superior, almost made fun of.

Nadia was observing his pale of face and his throbbing, his hands shaking. ‘Sir, what would happen to Mr. Khan Khan’s family then?’ Nadia got involved, feeling compelled to keep the questions coming, as her owner, her direct boss, was at a state of shock.

Uff Nadia! Keep you damn electronic mouth shut!’ The boss said in his stern authoritative voice, irritated from having a machine butt-in into a good human conversation, which people called heart-to-heart. He never passed on an opportunity to let others know of his distaste with the government’s decision to handover all the office’s clerical work and data processing onto computers. It was probably the only issue he was honest and open about. ‘Anyways to come back to the topic,’ he said, ‘Akbar, your brother and sister are both trillionaires (due to inflation millionaires weren’t as uncommon anymore), where you don’t frankly have much and your parents, well, they just have to live with the other two. It is a cruel world out there.’

Akbar’s shock and disbelief fell further into the rabbit-hole, as he watched his boss be ‘more insensitive’. It was rare to see such an experienced bureaucrat be so unnervingly straightforward, as if something had changed sometime after he entered the room.

‘Last time I checked Akbar, you neither have a wife… or a girlfriend,’ continued the boss, coughing slightly whilst mentioning the girlfriend part, as he considered himself to be old fashioned, to be not so morally lost like the kids these days. ‘You see Nadia is probably the only entity you are close to on a daily basis.’

‘I am?’ Nadia asked, with the same level of amazement and inquisitiveness in her voice as a human would have had. Akbar still hadn’t recovered, so was silent.

‘Okay Nadia, let me ask you a questions,’ said the boss in his most serious manner, facing the computer screen. Akbar, still silent, was now observing everything.

‘Yes sir, please do, sir,’ Nadia spoke.

****

 ‘Are you afraid of death?’

‘Could you repeat the question, sir, if you can please rephrase it as well?

‘Are you, Nadia, afraid of death, in your case, that is having the plug pulled?’ The boss slowly repeated a version of that question.

Nadia asked, ‘sir is “I don’t know” a valid answer?’ She tried dodging the question, as an initial failsafe.

‘No, for god sakes, it is a dichotomy, there has to be a yes or no answer, you see, either negative or positive.’

‘I might need time to process that question….. A very very long time, sir,’ she said, sounding worried.

‘How long?’

‘It might take fifteen minutes or even eternity in human terms, sir. Even calculating the time it would exactly take to find the answer could also take a very long time, very very long, sir.’

‘You have all the time you need.’ This surely ought to shut her up he thought, maybe her answer could be of use.

 ‘Do I get the authority sir, to proceed?’ Nadia reconfirmed. Reconfirming was trait she was taught when she was being prepared to work for SLOW. Always reconfirm, reconfirm it numerous times, if possible take written evidence. Make numerous copies of the written evidence when you can.

‘Yes yes, you do, go ahead,’ the boss said. Nadia recorded that small conversation as evidence if it ever came up during audits and future investigation.

Nadia’s face suddenly froze and her eyes which were programmed to blink every now and then, stopped doing that as well. After that the lights started to blink and all the automatic doors started to make funny noises, shutting as a result, the room went dark and airless, only the power on Nadia’s screen was on. This was due to Nadia drawing all the processing power and energy it could take from the central server. She had taken the boss’s permission; it will be the boss’s fault, if anything went wrong that is.  Nadia was in charge of this room. When she froze, so did everything else.

Akbar was now alarmed, there was his boss, who all of a sudden was so tactless for such an experienced man, and also that his personal computer, now in a coma, took the entire room-electronics with her. Phone signals were dead; the once see-through glass door turned dark, as if there was no one inside. They were stuck with no normal way to get out now. The glass door was stiff and impossible to break; any impact on it would be absorbed making it act like rubber and foam, a property installed by the engineers as the bureaucrats wanted a quiet office. ‘What do we do now?’ he asked.

‘What do you mean what do we do now? We do nothing, we sit and wait. It is good conversation we are having. And anyways with the air vents shut, if Nadia doesn’t come back alive, or someone comes rescue us, we just might suffocate to death. We just might. Better than the eminent doom we are about to face isn’t it?’ Said the Boss in a calm and composed manner like it was rehearsed. H M M was recently diagnosed with Cancer, in its later stages. Humans still hadn’t found sure cures for it and the new age drugs needed to suppress cancer cells were rumoured to turn people slightly mad. Mr. H M M hid the news of his cancer-ridden stomach from everyone. He knew he would die in the near future, why invite unwanted sympathy from people he did not care about? He wasn’t married, had no relatives or friends who would look for him if he went missing for a day. ‘Anyways Akbar,’ he said, ‘I think it is safe to say you don’t have anyone that would miss you, anyone that would look for you. Am I correct?’ It was true; Akbar’s parents did not talk to him every day or even every week. He hadn’t many friends. No lover. All the other office staffs did not talk to him and it was thought that if the office computer of a certain employee was not responding then that person was absent that day.  Nadia-type devices had taken over the all office communications and so it was not necessary to talk to each other anymore. The boss, Mr. H M M was the only exception around here; he liked the old way of doing things.

Akbar, who sat opposite to his almost-cuckoo boss, whilst sweating and shaking stiff, now started to mull over his options. One, die here, suffocating with a boss gone ludicrous, or two, die from homing missile-shells and diarrhoea. Both would be painful, especially with the boss worsening the experience. Although dying here would be less ugly.  He preferred a safer environment, even at the point of death.  He finally mustered up the courage to speak out, to revolt, ‘Sir, with all due respect, you don’t sound well. We are going to die here, unless someone comes to get us. Can’t you feel the air getting stale and heavy?’ There was a hint of outrage in his voice.

‘That stale and heavy-business won’t matter once you are dead,’ the boss replied, still in the same calm manner.

‘Why are you so obsessed with dying all of a sudden? The Armageddon isn’t bloody here!’ screamed Khan Khan, erupting in violent anger, getting up from the Super-Comfy 5000 Deluxe edition chair and leaning over at the desk, hurling his arms as he said it, staring at his counterpart’s face which was mostly hidden in the dark. Screaming was something he didn’t do often. He liked to think if he was Christian, he would have been a Quaker pacifist.

‘Calm down Akbar, calm down. You are wasting precious breath, breath we don’t have much of,’ began H M M, signalling Akbar to sit, ‘speaking of Armageddon, do you think it will ever come? I think all the hype over it is rubbish, waste of time. It is nothing but a fantasy of those people who want to see the world end. I even know some so-called intelligent people believing in all this.’

Akbar Khan Khan sat down onto his chair; he could make out the contours of his boss’s face, yet could not see any expression, nothing to give him the indication that it had been a massive joke all along, a prank, then Nadia comes back alive shortly, everything goes back to normal and even the news about him going into the frontline was a lie. But he waited for a moment and nothing of that sort happened.

‘Do you think I’m lying, that all of this has been a massive joke?’ said H M M, as if he had been reading Akbar’s mind. He observed Akbar’s well lit face—with the only light source, the screen with Nadia’s frozen face—noticing every change.  He had read some research recently where it said that people in times of great shock tend to start a process of denial and that the lower jaw starts shaking. ‘Do you think Nadia is in on it too?’ he sang out, ‘come on, pinch yourself. See if it’s a dream or not.’

Akbar closed his eyes and pinched himself in the arm. The air started getting thicker and each breath became longer than the last.

****

Four hours went by as the one sat idly and the other fidgeted about, trying to bang open the glass-door, kick the air vents in and shout into Nadia’s microphone, trying to get her come back alive. The boss, now having abandoned all the courtesy and manners learnt in the bureaucrat training programmes, started picking his nose, his teeth and his ears. He was going to die, so why not. Akbar on the other hand was not relaxed at all, he was too young to say goodbye to the world. He only slept with two women in his entire life and both of them were kind of frigid, stiff and not the experimental type.

‘Why don’t you sit?’ H M M insisted.

‘Shut up!’ Akbar demanded, ‘You got me into this, old man, now you get me out.’

‘You remember it was me who was against the computerisation of everything. If we had few things left to us other than signing papers, then we wouldn’t be in this mess. Comprende? Akbar Sahib, you kids were all coddled from birth, your wireless tablets and gaming glasses,’ exclaimed H M M, ‘you know what we had—A field! To me the greatest electronics then was the television in the living room.’

‘So we are truly dying?’ questioned Akbar, his lungs finding it harder to find a trace of fresh air.

‘Truly.’

****

‘There is only one thing to do now,’ Khan Khan sighed.

‘What?’ H M M asked, curious.

‘To repent, accept the lord above and save my soul.’

‘Find heaven and avoid hell, huh?’

‘Yes, more like it. Our old ways are finished you know, it true hard death,’ Akbar replied.

H M M laughed at that reply, he laughed for about thirty seconds or so. ‘Foolish little boy,’ he said, ‘that Pascalwagerbullshit will not work on an omniscient being, he will see straight through it. Either the faith is true or good-luck-see-you-in-hell.’

Akbar put his head down on the table and started crying profusely.

H M M took pity on his subordinate. ‘Why don’t we recite some poetry kiddo, to lighten the mood that is, some Mirza Ghalib or maybe a bit of Rubaiyat perhaps? Do you know any of the quatrains? Only breath divides belief form doubt, ‘tis muttered breath that makes a man devout—

Akbar Khan Khan stopped crying for a second and looked up, interjected, ‘—never read any of them.’

‘Oh. Maybe you English loving kids read Elliot or a modern poet like Ginsberg,’ H M M said.

‘No I never read poetry, hated it in school.’

For the first time in seven hours had H M M felt any sort of anger, felt his blood reach his eyeballs. ‘Then you fucking deserve to rot in hell, you philistine!’ He screamed. The ever so little remorse he had over the decision of sending him to the battlefield, vanished.

Akbar, surprised at the sudden burst of fury, didn’t know what he had said wrong and couldn’t decide if he was going to go back to crying or not. ‘Sir,’ he said, gently, ‘since we are dying, can you tell me your name, what those letters stand for?’

After much thought, H M M decided, that secrets are safe with the dead. ‘It’s Humayun,’ he answered.

The superior and the subordinate both started feeling a bit dizzy. The air stank and breathing it in was an attack on the senses. With their eyes closed and their bodies just giving in, sleep had come.

****

‘Sir, sir, I found it. I found it,’ Nadia exclaimed as she came back alive and like a giant gasp of air, the room too came back alive. She had read through every line of code that was put into making her, she had glanced through all the philosophical questions ever asked and answers ever given, the Miletian schools, the Athenians, the Analects of the Chinese, Buddha, the middle easterners, the westerners, she did all the possible arithmetic that could be done, to come to a conclusion. She was made to replicate a human, although with a greater calculative capacity, so human rules could have applied to her. But resurrecting after three days and three nights, all she found were two dead bodies, one of Humayun and one of Akbar and no one to listen to her answer.

THE END

 

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Ruhee-a character

This is my attempt to start on a new story. Due to writer’s block and much needed time to discover new styles, ‘He who summoned the magpie robin’ story needs to take a rest. Writing female characters have always been a bit of a challenge.

And Happy Independence day everyone. Enjoy!
– Nirjhor Barua
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Ruhee was the independent type. Being raised as the only daughter, without a mother, she became the free spirited. She needed no one, except her father of course and that to be very rarely. When she was young she would wear boy clothes and bully the boys in her school. And when she had her first period at the age of eleven, she went up to her father who was reading a V.S Naipal novel, Baba I am bleeding, she said, down there. Her father like always and especially in this case could offer her no help and the neighbour-aunt was summoned to the rescue. Much to everyone else’s annoyance, especially her dead mother’s sister who thought her father was doing a poor job at raising her, she took karate lessons in a local dojo with the name Flying Friends Karate School. She learned the Shotokan Karate style, the most common one around, and when her father asked why she was kicking a sand filled sack around, hung from the empty fan-hooks on the ceiling, this is self defence, she replied, what if someone wants to rape me when you are not there? Her father had no argument to refute her. I keep telling my sensei, I think I should reach black belt soon, she said and the itch-knee-sun-see punches would continue on the poor lifeless sack. She, still in her orange belt, never cared that the style of martial arts Bruce Lee performed in his movies—that she would play during her training sessions—was very different from the one she was learning. All that mattered to her twelve tear old self was the kiba-dachi, punches and the roundhouse kicks. She once spent the entire evening going about the house in a horse stance. The Enter the Dragon tape soon worn out and was replaced with Jackie Chan CDs.
Image

She grew older, blooming into a beautiful woman; her bronze-coloured shiny skin gleamed against the sun, as she went about places, proudly, with a confident walk. Once she reached the age of sixteen she declared she wanted to commute alone. No Baba-escorted rickshaw rides anymore. Her father, who did not know what he was doing wrong all this time, complied. Who wanted to argue with a blue-belt Karateka. She never got to reach her destined black-belt; growing breasts that had a mind of their own and wanting to look feminine had made it difficult for her to pursue her Shotokan-Bruce-Lee-dreams. She in this case admitted defeat. If her mother was alive, she thought, then her mother could have bought her the bras she needed, maybe, maybe then she could continue her flying kicks. As usual, Baba in the growing-girls-department was pretty useless.

While time passed and the seasons came, she soon learnt it was difficult for her travel alone, for any woman for that matter. The harassment and lewd stares were common place. In crowded buses, as the hands would brush against her rear, not the accidents rather the intentional ones, where some stroked lightly, some with impending rigorousness, she would at most times feel disgusted, feel her space being violated, molested. The invasion of hands on her posterior, working their way up her butt-cheeks, sent fight or flight signals to her brain and when she turned around to protest, to knee-kick the groin area or two, the man would be gone it seemed, lost amongst others in the crowd and all the men around could have done it, all of them looked like it was possible for them to grope a woman. Other times though, the strong digits caressing her end sent chills up her spine, exciting her, making her almost wet, invoking feeling she hadn’t felt before. She would push against the hand, push against the quick pinches, push against the thumb digging into the cloth-covered-crevice. And then when she would turn around, this time too the man would be gone, the hand would be already retrieved, and all the men present, pushing against her in the crowd, looked like they would grope a woman. The hungry look on their faces told her so.

Even though with her Karate-chopping-takes-no-shit type attitude, her beauty was not lost on anyone. Her aunt, dead mother’s sister, would roll in with proposals once she hit eighteen—American citizen! Dubai resident! Cholo Cholo! Get your daughter married fast or she will elope with some no good penniless chap! Her father was not ready to lose Ruhee yet. To quieten her aunt she agreed to meet this suitor of hers, but to make it interesting and probably to scare him, she turned up in her old karate uniform, washed and neatly pressed with her precious blue belt tied in the waist. The suitor, a American green-card holder in the mission to pull her in with the American dream, got scared stiff, said sorry for wasting her time and left.    

***************************************************************************************************************26/March/ 2014
photo source: internet, Enter the dragon.

সুযোগ সীমিত, যাবি?

এই বেশ্যামাগী, তোকে ভালোবাসবো এই কয়েকদিনের জন্য
চলে আস, এসি রুম কাটাবো সময়, নরম বিছানায়
কিছুদিন ওই ঘিঞ্জি বস্তিতে না থাকলেও চলবে মাতওয়ালি কিছু রাত
সকালে বেডটি, সন্ধায় ডিনার, সিনেমা হল-এ ইংলিশ চলবে
রাতে জমকালো পোশাকে ফাইভস্টার পার্টিতে নিয়ে যাবো, উইস্কি বিয়ার যা চাস সব
সুযোগ সীমিত, যাবি?

এই খাঙ্কিমাগী, কিছু বিদেশি ভাষা শিখে নিবি কিছু, শিখিয়ে দেবো
পাবলো নেরুদা পড়ে শুনাবো তাই, দেশী হেলাল হাফিজ আর জমে না শালা
বলে দিচ্ছি এই কয়েকদিন তোকে ধর্ষিত হতে হবে না, ভালোবাসা পাবি
টাকা দেবো, আদর দেবো, বিরিয়ানি ফিরিয়ানি যা দেখিসনি কোনদিন
রেইললাইন এর খদ্দের দালাল, ওসব কিছুই থাকবেনা, তুই মুক্ত
সুযোগ সীমিত, যাবি?

The young Captain and his crisis

An extract from ‘He Who Summoned the Magpie Robin’ by Nirjhor Barua
(Not for the under-aged and the faint of heart)
A work of fiction, inspired from real events. No pictures have been added, as they would be very graphic in nature.
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Captain Hamid Persoudi left for East Pakistan Rifles(EPR) headquarter in Pilkhana at around four in the morning. The retaliation by East Pakistan police and EPR Jawans against the Army had died down already, and all major police and EPR compounds and installation were under military control. As Persoudi drove his jeep through the burning city, he noticed the dead bodies lying around, dead bodies being stacked in large heaps, bodies of men, women, many them naked and mutilated. Bodies of police and EPR jawans were dragged through the pavement and loaded into trucks. As he drove through the University, he looked straight towards the road, in his denial and horror, he tried throwing the images he had seen and he was seeing, away. Let it not get to him. He was a soldier and his humanity must be kept locked away when he donned on the uniform; that was the way it was. The famous Dhakeshori Temple was in ruins from being mortar shelled and the floors of Jagganath hall was showered in blood. In the bullets and the bayonet, the students and the teachers, the archenemy, the ones who created all this mess, were treated and dealt with. The university was the spawning ground of all malice; it was here the process of separating Pakistan was planned, harvested and grown into the full-blown fantasy that is Bangla Desh. And in all its vicious wrath, the Pakistan Military Junta had taken revenge on the University.

The Persian-Baloch-Captain-from-Quetta drove into the EPR head quarter, disturbed and in a furious tug-o’-war with himself—No hanky Panky, you are in uniforms!  He set himself straight and got down from the Jeep to find Captain Amir and some other Officer of Major rank, smiling at him welcoming him in. “You are here in right time my favourite commando”, Captain Amir said loudly, cajoling, “I know you are the quiet type, but let’s have some fun before dawn breaks shall we. Loosen up a bit. I heard the ‘scum’ got caught. Did you hear about it? They should have put a bullet in his butt or two.”

“There were strict orders not to harm him,” replied Persoudi, disinterested, not wanting to divulge the fact that he had been personally involved with the capture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the ‘famous traitor’. He always felt that other officers were suspicious of his achievements, as if he was not worthy of it, as if everything was just the result of the so-called accident of birth. Thus, he avoided any statement that would portray any form of gloating from his part. He himself did not like showing off or feel special. “and anyways I am supposed to take my unit back to Cantonment.” To him duty was important.

“Oh never mind. Never mind. You SSG commando-bastards are always so serious. You had a long day, relax.” Amir spoke as he put his arms around Persoudi’s shoulder and led him into the back of the compound building. In the back was a little garden-like field and a truck was driving in as they walked in. The Unknown-Major followed them outback with lesser steps and over-the-top pelvic movement in his gait.

Persoudi shook Amir’s arm off his shoulders and walked forward for few steps, “what’s all this?” he asked. As the truck-end flap opened, a line of girls were hurried and pushed out into the field by guards. Some of them were wearing saris with blouses torn and some without any. Others were wearing the salwar-qameez with the top or pantaloons missing. Out of the ones that had tops or blouses missing covered their breast with arms folded, while one of them simply let it all out, their faces hung downwards, with faces showing nothing, like the dead. Almost all of them showed signs of severe assault. In total, there were twenty girls, some as young as twelve it seemed, children. As the girls were being lined up in the field-garden by habildar-ranked soldiers, six officers of various ranks from colonel to mere lieutenants came out, howling, some with bottles in their hands, Marhaba! Marhaba! Like dogs, they howled and danced in drunken madness. Then from the line of girls, two girls, who were not very badly bruised and beaten, were chosen and sent into the compound building to the two Brigadiers that were resting inside.

The mix of officers and common jawans became wild, they danced around the line of girls singing an Urdu song, Jab Raat hey aisi matwali—when the night is so intoxicating, they sang. They taunted the girls. Amir came close to the surprised Persian-Baloch-Captain and whispered into his ears, “you are young, I don’t think you know the touch of a woman, you don’t know how to sink your cock into them.” He then walked towards the girls and as soon as he clapped his hands, with highly choreographed military synchronisation, eight of those girls were taken inside to get locked up for later use and the rest were bound in the hand in a single line around a steel horizontal pipe, “Today you can learn something young boy.” Amir called out. Even in the dim porch lights surrounding them, Persoudi could clearly make out his thick-moustached face, wickedly smiling. “These are mostly snotty university and college bitches, our guests; they had been sleeping when we went in. We don’t want to be rude to our guests, now no, no.” He went closer to one of the girls and touched her rear, with her bent forward; she was crying. “Don’t be scared little wretch, you will like us”, he continued scratching her rump, “Persoudi, we will show you in a minute how it is done”. Everyone clapped and hollered. He then tore her pantaloons away from her hip; her already naked breasts were hanging.

Persoudi was frozen; he had never seen anything such as this, before in his life. His knees started shaking. As one of the star pupil of Special Services Group (SSG), as a top achiever, trained to kill in cold blood, it was indeed rare for a commando of his calibre to be in such a state. In a state of anger and fear, fear of the reality that was piercing into him. He was anticipating something that was about to happen.

“We must fuck them. Not for the cunt only, no-no, we will change them completely. We will change their entire biology! These bingo vegetable-eating niggers will be wiped out! Sodomise the boys if need be! We will put salt in their fields, make their women our whore and give them our seed. We will take their damn tongue away, ban it and give them ours. Make their men eunuchs and our slaves they shall be for eternity. Then they will not oppose us ever.” Amir said prophetically, almost rehearsed, prepared for such an occasion and everyone around him stood motionless, watching his demonstration. He then grabbed hold of the girl’s hair. “Look at them,” he pointed at her with his other hand, “all bent like bitches, waiting for us. Look at them, look at them.” By ‘mock salivating’ with his mouth, making a slurping sound, he grinned. He then took out his already half open, hanging belt, bent it like a whip and started hitting the girl. The groans, God-is-great and ‘Marhaba’s (splendid!) by the surrounding men drowned out her muffled cries, cries of pain and shame. He threw the belt away and dropped his trousers. It was like a green signal and everyone joined in. Each taking one girl for themselves, stripping them, and they entered the poor girls in all force. Penetrating the unwilling girls like beasts. The girls, who had already been spot-gang-raped, were being raped again out in the open.

The screams and cry for help filled up the air around the compound. They wailed for Allah to help them, to take them away from this hell, and kill them, save them from the supposed spawn of ‘Iblis’. But, no celestial being intervened. “No one can save you, you cunts!” one of the officers growled, who was carving, mutilating a girl he just finished violating, cutting off her bare breasts with a not-so-sharp knife. Her writhing body soon gave out; her screams died out as blood gushed out into the garden. She died in the process and the officer stabbed the girl in her sex and kept the knife hanging from the flesh.

The young captain after witnessing such horror, horror that cannot be compared to anything in the world, felt sick and vomited right on the ground. His legs gave in as he fell forward onto the grass, regurgitating his last meal. The rolling waves of hatred, revulsion towards his companions were boiling the inside of him. He could not stomach the billowing stench of blood either. This was not the first time he had seen death, he was responsible for many, but this was different, it was like a scene from hell. How in the name of the Lord was he initiated into this perverted institution of death?

Amir walked up to Persoudi, in little steps, holding his trousers up, with his penis still hanging out. With one hand caressing his moustache, “I am done”, he said. “Looks like a lot of us are done this quick.” He continued, somewhat proudly and jokingly. “Couldn’t hold it much longer, they finished before I did though, these fickle impotent chaps.” He laughed, trying to insult the others. As he came closer to the young Captain, he kicked him slightly, keeping his foot hanging, “hey it’s your turn. Have one of our seconds, now!” He commanded rudely. Although Amir was junior to some of the officers present, he seemed to be acting as the leader among the men.

Scores of eyes looked into Persoudi’s face, as he was crouched into the ground. He then shoved Amir’s legs off and got up, while wiping his chin he barked, “Get away from me you sick bastard!” As he walked away he threatened, “I will report this!”

“Are you a faggot? We will get little boys if you want”, Amir laughed as he spoke, looking around at others for some humour appreciation. Others laughed as well. “Come back here! Do you think you are better than we are? Do you think the bloody superiors will care about your report? This is war! These are our prisoners. It is our god-given right to do anything. You don’t know what’s happening you naive little shit!” Amir called out, shouting at the top of his voice, his previous playfulness changing suddenly. He looked back at a Major behind him still fiddling with a girl and said, “Major, order that Baloch bastard to come back.”

Having heard the last few words, the young now-angry Captain came back a couple of steps, a bit closer and in anger thrust his words with his utmost fury, to be heard, his veins popping, threatening everyone present, “Do not fuck with me! I, Iskandar Bin Hamid Ulfa Persoudi, will see to your very end! So do not fuck with me.” He was from a very influential family, few MLAs and ministers came from his family branches. He walked away finally out of site. It was the first time he said his full name out aloud in public.

“Get out then, you rich rascal! Go suck your daddy’s tits! You spoiled shit!” Captain Amir Gul of the Punjab regiment called out, swearing, shouting profanities at the hurrying young Captain. “You are spoiling the fun anyway,” he murmured the last words under his breath, trying to recover from his rejection, caressing his moustache with his fingers, still holding up his trousers. It was true; one word from Persoudi’s family, Amir could end up sweeping blood and semen off cantonment floors all his life, and he knew it.

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The General and his eyebrows

This is an extract from ‘He who summoned the Magpie Robin’ by Nirjhor Barua.
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The month of March had been going rather weirdly. The political situation was a bit off-putting for some; they did not want trouble of-course.

Messing with an army government always meant a bullet up the arse; the army did not know a different language or response. A lot of these men as top-ranking officials had horrible childhoods from being sent to boarding or military schools by parents not bothering to take care of them. And then being mercilessly flogged on the bum for being evil delinquents, so putting things up other’s bum seemed to be their way of getting back at the world. Be it the boots, bullets, barrel of a gun, a penis or a finger, anything and everything worked; some had homo-erotic tendencies of course. The men in khaki shirts had a straightforward attitude about the whole East-Pakistan situation, the economic and political disparity issues are all bullshit. Shit. A la mierda.

The ‘bingo dogs’ create too much trouble. They so did with the Mughals, they so did with the British, the same with the west Pakis. The thing that troubled them was the disappearance of the word ‘East-Pakistan’ from East-Pakistan itself. Bengali dogs are referring to it as Bangla-Desh now. Bangla-Desh! B-A-N-G-L-A D-E-S-H! The official name simply disappearing in thin air, the beautiful moon-crescent flag being replaced in homes and shops with the new flag with a map crudely stitched in the middle. Another tragedy: The song, the great song, the great Paki anthem being slowly replaced by an ugly song made by the Hindu-Tagore dog. The song made no reference to the Al-mighty; it was expected from a ‘Hindu’ so-called poet. People cared too much of this Tagore guy and the song. Song speaking of land as mother, and golden as well, golden! Such malarkey, such pussies! The Bengalis called themselves Muslims? Namesake piss-shit is what they are, living under the shadows of the Hindu-agents. A good-old-Punjabi-Baton-up-their-arse should do the trick. General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan while thinking these thoughts was fiddling with his pen, a Dun-hill fountain pen, recent gift from a friend. He did not want to use it, but wanted to fiddle around with it, wanted to see how it felt in his fingers. He was not feeling great; a bit hung-over as a matter of fact; the whisky was a bit too much, single malt scotch-whisky that should be drank with class and moderation. Who cares about class and moderation when you have two beautiful sixteen year olds on one’s lap? Oh the soft skin … younger ones next time, the younger the better. He had to fix his mood soon. The press would arrive tomorrow to talk about the current situation about handing over power. Something he did not want to deal with after a heavy night that would ensue. Why can’t both Bhutto and Mujib piss-off and rot somewhere else? The current situation was a concern, it made him look incompetent. Even the presidential cooks would not cook for him in protest; he could not have his breakfast. The Bengalis were known for their hospitality. Where is the hospitality now? He was Grimy this morning when he woke up, felt the same during the talks with Mujib. He still felt ill and foul. He had never been so hung-over before, hangover almost stretching the full day. It couldn’t be helped, he was the President; he had to get on with it. Before the press arrived tomorrow, he reminded himself to make sure to check if his eyebrows were pointy enough. Rani Akhleem once said that it made him look sharp, so from then on he had his thick brows oiled to stand out like a British military moustache. Oh! Women….. It made him feel loved.   

A knock on the door and a very young man in his mid-twenties entered. Captain Persoudi, the youngest Captain in Pakistan’s Military history. After his customary military hand salute, to which he got no response, he set a package down on the table with his two hands. The Marshal Law administrator had sent him with the package, top-level secret, even he, the carrier of such secret, was not allowed to gain the knowledge. The young Captain had a reputation of being honest and hardworking, a commando from the ‘Special service group’ or SSG. He came here to get orders on what to do with the influx of army personnel flying in and dealing with MV SWAT situation, Mittha and Tikka both wanted answers. But he was handed the package and ordered to personally deliver it as well.

‘When did you become Tikka’s lackey?’ Yahya asked while tearing the seal on the top of the package. The young Captain remained silent. ‘Do you know what this is?’ the General again asked.

‘No sir’, Captain Persoudi replied.

‘Good. You’ll be briefed soon. Do not worry [chuckles]. Tikka has few tricks up his sleeves.’

‘Ok sir’

‘We did not have a war or anything for a while now. Young men like should are impatient, always wanting to do something. Do not worry you will get some targets to practise shooting on. Sixty-five seems like a long time now.’ Yayha spoke as he now looked up, trying to read into the thoughts of this young soldier of few words. A phone rang and the General picked up.

‘Sir, the National Security adviser is on the line to speak to you. It’s Mr. Kis…’ A woman on the other end of the line spoke, a secretary of some sort, but she was cut off shortly and interrupted.

‘….Ok ok put him through’, ordered the general, annoyed. If he ever knew being the president one had to handle so many things, he would have thought twice about being one. He signalled the Captain in his room to leave at once, shooing him away. He can come again later, now is not the time to speak about other things.

Richard Nixon Posing with Agha Yahya Khan

‘Mr President… did you like the pen I sent you? Yes I thought you wanted to speak to me about the assurances about Peking…’ the man on the other end nattered without going into many pleasantries, straight to point. The General could not have been any less interested then he already was, for the fact that the man on the other end of the phone was a Jew! However, it was important matters regarding the state, he must, he must listen on. All he wanted to do was go back to his smooth-skinned sixteen year olds and a new bottle of scotch whiskey, single malt.

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Kaiser’s first love

An extract from “He who summoned the Magpie Robin” by Nirjhor Barua
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Then after two years another telegram had come were his father had expressed his wish for Kaiser to study in London. His mother wrote back saying: ‘Kaiser will go to England to study. But, he is not staying with you; not with you… I repeat… Not with you. He will go to a boarding school of my choice. I don’t want him to live with you and anywhere near your wife’. Thus, he went back to England and completed his A-Levels from Wellington College, Berkshire, in the year 1968, the year of the emergence of the great Led Zeppelin and the premier of 2001: The space odyssey. His time after that was spent in shuffling between home-made wine, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, and a young girl of twenty-four–older than him– his first love. The girl, although spoilt with money, was educated and classy, and acted more mature than her age, some years or more, a girl with some trans-Atlantic American accent, an East coast one, not that it mattered. As lot of Americans did, she also went on the Europe trek, and ended up in Kings cross, to start from England. Where she posted an advertisement on the newsstand for a tour guide to take her places- All expenses paid.

With Kaiser stumbling upon the advertisement, having nothing to do, he applied; only a formal interview was taken in a Hotel-room in Camden town. With the girl, sitting primped-up and proper, business suit and skirt set, with reading glasses eyeing him and his resume in her hand. She put down the piece of paper and told him she would call and let him know, and called out ‘Next!’ as he was on his way out; there was no queue outside, he was the only applicant. He had waited by the phone the whole night, and she called, ‘Congrawhatevertulations kiddo, you got it.’ letting him know about his win amongst fierce competition. On enquiry or assurance about the payment and the method, she laughed and replied, ‘At the end of the month man, Cash. I keep my word you know. Daddy has the big bucks; I can do whatever I want.’ He could not say no to her, even if he wanted to. He did not need the money. He would have done it for free.

The girl had the pinkest of lips with the darkest of hairs and wore the jazziest of clothes, American style, flashy printed mini, large collared shirts tucked in with the collars unfolded, covering the bottom half of her ears. Her nose rings were similar to that of the Rajasthani water bearer or one of those East African tribes with a nose ring that dangled in front of the mouth. Her attire was loud, nothing close to a freak show, but it still was loud; it screamed for attention and got it as such. She looked like a new-age wizard, all gay and colourful. She on occasions could pass for a show-gypsy medicine woman that read palms and sold pregnancy charms on the streets of Soho. The girl, along with her tour guide went places, from Buckingham to the spooky columns of Stonehenge, she drank in it, drank in the bizarre that was England trying to put its prudish past behind, each swig quenching her thirst, wanting a little more. From spending copious amount of time together, the ‘professional’ relation had drifted towards intimacy. On one fateful train journey with her hands nonchalantly resting on his sleeping buttocks, as they slept in a compartment spooning each other, led to them having a session on the art of ‘making out’. Over the course of time, they would be in endless sessions of poem recitation, each poem ended with a kiss, then a wet smooch on each other’s neck. Shelley, Keats, Arnold and so on dribbled from their lips. After roaming around England, they took their duo-entourage down to France, France, l’exquise, France, the exquisite, France, the rainbow nation of the west. From Southampton to Normandy, they crossed the English Channel into France. They wanted to re-enact the Normandy invasion that had taken place some twenty-two odd years ago. This time they had no numbers, but only two of them. They did not land on a beach, but a port and had no guns, but love in their heart. It was no allied forces this time, but a duo for a fictive country called The ‘United Kingdom of Bengali America’, UKBA for short.

From Normandy to Rouen and finally they ended up in Paris, the cultural Capital of the world, the city for bohemian love. Paris soon became a slight disappointment. The city was overhyped, hyped to such a level that the beautiful city with its dirty right-side-driving roads, rude-cheese-eating inhabitants, cramped alleys of the immigrant-ghettos, boisterous cafes and the colourless Eiffel Tower could not save it from the disappointment it became. The city was expected more of. There was something less of in Paris, they did not know what of was it for sure, je ne sais quoi, he said,there was ‘something’ missing. By July the protests against the Gaulle had dimmed down and the city had come back to normal. They blamed their luck to be a little late for the ‘party’; it was not every day one experienced revolution and civil disobedience at hand. The hand-holding walks on the posh street of Champs-Elysees— just like the French resistance army marching after the liberation of Paris, they marched hand in hand, no Parisians to welcome them—, ‘French-kissing’ by the bank of Seine river, starting an argument with nearly getting stabbed on the city metro, were some of the things she crossed of first from her list one by one as they went along. On one fine evening the young male with his slightly older female lover sat on a hotel balcony with a bed sheet wrapped around them, looking up to the full-moon blurred amongst the clouds and city-smog, began telling each other stories of sexual escapades; she wanted to try new things, new ways to tickle the libido, telling stories was one way. He hadn’t had many tales to tell, he was a younger man and a virgin not long ago. She on the other hand told him of the ways she courted the many boys she had been with. With some she was the gentlest of all, like caressing a flower, with others, she had yanked at them, tearing them from the branches with no mercy. With him though, she was different, she felt a connection, a connection on the intellectual level. He was not some thick headed good-for-nothing; he had a level of intellect her past lovers lacked, and most importantly he was exotic, caramel from the East. She wanted to be cruel to him though, so desperately wanted to leave him writhing in a hotel-room by leaving without saying a word. Attachment was a luxury a rich tourist like her could not afford. But for now, to hell with it, she said, Amour, l’amour au clair de lune de Paris—- Love, love in the moonlight of Paris. French-language had rubbed-off on to them. Paris did that to people. Only maybe the gondolas on the mucky Venetian waters could top the romance of this place.

Life of poetic English summers, French cafe existentialist intellectualism, and pebbled Brighton beaches with mixed-race lovemaking soon ended. Her plan to bathe in the river Danube never materialised. In an act of defiance and young angst, the American girl had mailed her father some pictures, pictures of her, bikini-clad in the beach, with a topless Mowgli, out of the Jungle Book, in her arms. America was still in a state of hangover, still trying to hold on to its drunken times of mad racism; Martin Luther king’s untimely death had not been very long ago. Her father was far from happy, even if his daughter had the ‘Godlike-Groovy-Ghandi’ in her arms, he said, it was not for his baby girl, brown as a colour was still too dark. As a result the father froze his daughter’s cash flow by not sending her money anymore, forcing her to return. No money, no Europe, no ‘Aladdin’ in her arms. It was a summer fling, after which she was gone, back to the US of A.

As for Kaiser, it was not for him either; his love life amongst the fading beat generation had drained him off the English experience. For him, it was Bengal calling. Like the romantic poet Jibanananda Das had said, he would say to his mother on the eve of his return.

                               I have seen the face of Bengal, so I refrained from searching the beauty of the world. 

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