Mound of the dead
19 November 2018
I all started with a puff. A mere puff.
The first person to notice it, the little blue puff of smoke curling up, was Baby apa. When she was not busy being a plump, lovable schoolteacher, she lived in a two-storied house and watered her plants twice a day. When she saw it for what it was, she immediately reported the matter to the District Judge (retd) sahib, her father.
“You’re telling me to ‘look’ now?”
“No, I mean listen.”
“For your information, young lady, I wear this hearing aid thing. So, I can’t really ‘listen’.”
“But you’re responding just fine!”
“Young lady, there are ways to make people take you seriously. For example, you have a pair of horns sticking out of your head now. May I know what’s the matter with that?”
“What? What horns? More importantly, what do you have on your nose? Is that an elephant trunk? Urgh, for heaven’s sake!”
The stubborn martinet would simply not let her say what needed to be said, but perhaps nature is inclined more towards showing rather than telling. Very soon, blue smoke began to engulf the sleepy little cottage, manoeuvered itself around TB Hospital Road, went right inside the Daroga Bari Masjid, and soon became the walk and talk of the town.
It was blue, no doubt about that. One would not call it cyan, one would not call it light blue, but it was not a harsh, blackened navy either. When you bring home a set of twelve sign pens from the stationery shop, there is a light blue and there is another blue that’s just the right shade. The smoke, too, was just about the right shade.
The smoke came for their senses, and as humankind has relied mostly on its ability to see, the smoke went right for the all-seeing twins.
Akram Goalabazari, the man behind the town’s football-playing, test-acing children, noticed that his precious cows were giving not white, but purple milk. Not only that – each cow had three tails, six feet, eight pairs of horns and four eyes on either side of the head. “Mooo…” said Lalli the Red Bandit, “Moo…” said Salman Khan, “Mooo…” went Happy-Go-Lucky, just the way they usually do. However, the dairy prince of Goalabazar simply could not believe his eyes.
Take the incident of Dr Hakeem for instance. One fine morning, he rode his scooty all the way up to the Court Road judge’s quarters, only to find a humongous dragon perched on top of the cottage roof. Moreover, his patients – the two D’Souza children – were petting the green behemoth and counting any teeth that might come out during a growl.
Throughout Moulavibazar Sadar, illusions ran wild, as well as imaginations.
Not the type to sit idle and watch things burn, Sub-Inspector Ainuddin said, “We’re not the type to sit idle and watch things burn!”
“If you can really do something, by all means, do so. Yet there you are, sporting a rainbow-coloured moustache and that weird top hat.”
“Oh, hello? I’m not wearing any top hat, you’re the one who thinks of himself as a queen. Just look at that pink gown! Let them eat cake, eh?”
“Baishob kita khorray? Okhon to thamto oy, please stop bickering, okay?” said the District Magistrate, currently sporting the Native American headdress of a chieftain. “At the moment, we all need to be clear about the problem at hand. Who will give us a brief?”
Young journalist Trinita Dewan, looking stunning in a silk Hanbok, began her observe-and-report duty: “A blue puff of smoke, first identified by Moulavibazar Government Primary School teacher Baby Nazneen, has quickly spread throughout the nooks and crannies of the town. It has created a mass hysteria and bizarre experiences that are each more unique than the other. The human residents of the town do head out to work in their usual attire. Yet other townspeople – their neighbours, colleagues and friends – see them in eccentric clothes. The animals appear mutated to the human eye. Yet they behave as if nothing is strange about having seventeen eyes, thirteen lips and fourteen hooves. Moreover, the miasma has induced other sights, such as the appearance of mythical creatures, ancient buildings, alien spaceships and film stars who do not even know that our humble town exists. In other words, the blue smoke has completely altered the sense of reality for each and every individual residing in Moulavibazar Sadar.” Ms Dewan sank right down on her seat, out of breath. “And look how I’m dressed! I understand that I look a little ‘Chinku’, but this is just racist! Fuck you, miasma!”
The meeting room murmured, mumbling to themselves what things they have been seeing. Some noticed a zeppelin flying past the British-era court house across the street, but they all decided to stay put.
“So, baishob, this is the situation at hand,” announced the District Commissioner, the gold chains around his neck putting Bappi Lahiri to shame. “Heck, I don’t even like this guy. Why am I dressed like him? Anyway, let’s hear it from some experts. Why did this happen?”
“Judge sahib said ‘blue smoke’, didn’t he?”
“I have a feeling,” began chemistry teacher R Shayon, channeling his inner Arundhati Roy, “that this is some kind of a gas-leak incident. Remember the Bhopal case of 1984?” Some of his chemistry-set equipment had grown legs and wings, the flying beakers were gurgling with a hot purple liquid, inches away from him.
“Or maybe a nerve agent attack, only on a larger scale? You know, something like Novichok or Sarin?” said film buff Chaya Rani Chobi. Many nodded in agreement. A troupe of winged monkeys danced around the hot shingaras served for the meeting attendees.
“No, no. This is definitely god’s wrath.”
“Kolikaal, ghor kolikaal!”
The holy men of Moulavibazar looked at each other with a sense of solidarity. Well, they were not so different after all, especially when it came to diagnosing the nature of divine intervention.
“But hear this, everyone. None of this matches even remotely with god’s description of the ‘end’,” Akhtar Molla the muezzin gulped, terrified. Nope, ‘shesh zamana’ was not supposed to have cute little fairy sprites and colour-changing clothes. His own Egyptian pharaoh attire mocked him.
“We agree,” said the representatives of all other faiths.
“I’m going to have to say this, but I guess the Rooppur Project failed. This is a nuclear blast ladies and gentlemen.”
“But why are we alive then? Weren’t we supposed to get vapourised, Hiroshima-Nagasaki style?”
“Na bai ita khoiyen na; let’s not say ominous things like that! At best, this is an incident like Cheronobyl or Fukushima,” said Xenon Shyam from the Atomic Energy Commission.
In the midst of this commotion, the town’s beloved philosophy professor Siddhartha De stood up and cleared his throat. The hall fell silent. Even the flying monkeys, the sprites and the gnomes stopped moving. “Ladies and gentlemen, has it occurred to you?” he began nervously. Everyone’s eyes were on him, his white toga made him look like a philosopher from the very cradle of civilisation. His outfit even came with olive branches around his head. He dove straight into a rather Buddhist lecture about how sadness is inevitable and death is a part of life, a change in state. Most of them, naturally, did not catch a word other than…
“What if we are already dead?”
They looked at each other, exchanged terrified glances, muttered under their breath. To make light of the situation, the DC intervened: “Let’s look at the nature of this miasma for a bit, shall we? Is it affecting non-Sylhetis? (“Yes, it is, there is a rocket in front of my house”, said Shuruj Mia, proprietor, Barisal General Store). What about tourists, people who have come to stay, etc?”
Hatim Tai was the one to raise his hand this time, swatting the silvery sprites around his seat. “DC shab, it’s just so funny! All those Dhaka tourists come to stay, and all I can see is naked babies flying around with arrows around them. Like, really chubby babies. I even asked if they would like diapers or something. The tourists stare at me funny, so I pretend not to see anything.” His Moulavibazar Motel is the best in town, hands down. No Grand Mughal or Auld Lang Sye resort had softer beds, nor did they have the legendary cha-porota.
“What we can do right now,” said the retired Judge sahib, “is go home and sleep on it. It has just been two days; things might be better tomorrow.” The meeting was adjourned, and the confused souls went home to sleep on it.
The D’Souza children’s dragon was roosting near the reservoir. Those who passed by could swear that they saw a long-necked sea-monster of some kind surface above water (“Nessie,” supplied C R Chobi. “Or perhaps ‘Mouli’, because she’s our monster now?”) The gargantuan giants did not tear at each other’s throats; rather, they let out a grunt each, and moved on to minding their own matters.
When the children of Moulavibazar were getting ready to go to school, they noticed a different school bus from the rickety blue one that usually came. “Meooowww,” it, well, the bus said. It opened its mouth in a huge yawn, and the kids climbed right in. The Catbus’s belly had the softest seats and was fully airconditioned. No complaints whatsoever.
“The problem is,” said the MP of the constituency, “We can’t even report this outside or raise the issue in the parliament. Outsiders just don’t see what we see!” His secretary in a pink safari suit was at a loss. He was supposed to write this statement down in shorthand. When he got to the office, though, he saw an enchanted pen scribbling all of it busily.
“At this rate, sir, they are all going to declare us insane. You were the first person I contacted after the meeting, I didn’t make any other phone calls,” the DC, still in his bling, remarked.
“DC shab, listen. I’ve been in this profession for over two decades now. My father was a politician, my grandfather was one, my chouddogushti is involved; so we know stuff,” said the MP in an undertone. “Look, if this comes out, the entire district’s reputation will be at stake. Imagine our Moulavibazar becoming some kind of a Hemayetpur – except the mental patients will be the townspeople themselves! People in Dhaka are going to laugh at this administration!”
“Sir, I get that, but just look at all this! We need help!”
“Besides, I have to think about myself. The party won’t give me a nomination, okay? I won’t let this be at the expense of my nomination. And what’s the harm? Ki shundor! Everything is flying, what say? DC shab, lighten up. Enjoy. Have you never had shiddhi before? You know, weed?”
“Yes. I’ll arrange for you to go to Kushtia and have some of that A-one quality stuff. Now please go back to your office. Duty calls!”
Shunchen sharadin Radio MJ 99.9 FM, City on Drugs. I’m RJ Cynthia, your host for the next hour. This is the shuddho Bangla transmission, which will be followed by an English and a Sylhoti announcement as well. The honourable MP shaheb has requested all of you not to panic, and we are to resume life as it is. Right now, there is a headless ghost in the recording room with me, and I’m not scared at all. We have to resume life as it is, hehehehehe. Oh, hi there, want some tea? No? Okay, keep standing in the corner, sweetie. Well, listeners, shunte thakun, shathei thakun…
Old habits die hard.
Sleepy little Moulavibazar Sadar had always been important on the district map. The tea traders passed through; the Dhaka tourists booked hotels. Before leaving for Sylhet, the London-bound said their second-last goodbyes to catch that coveted flight. Yet, things had been quiet thus far. Nothing happened. Dewan the journalist swatted flies at her desk (because nothing happened). Students slept soundly in Siddhartha Babu’s classes (because nothing happened). The Sub-Inspector lazily jotted down the umpteenth General Diary about someone’s cow being ‘mysteriously abducted’ (because nothing happened). The town used to be A-okay with nothing happening. Like smug, lazy cats, they stretched on their verandas, easy chairs, benches or towel-clad bureaucratic chairs.
And then there was movement, commotion, excitement, colours, boogers (from the dragons and the trolls) and pixie dust. “What do I say?” said Sufia Begum, 90 and not out. “You kids want to listen to stories all the time,” she looked at her eager, juvenile audience, “But you see, the stories have come to you now! The doitto and the daano, the shuoraani and duo raani, the byangoma and the byangomi are all right here in town!” Sofor Ali the rickshaw-puller was the happiest man on earth, though. One had only to ask “Mama jaitaini? Do you want to go?” and a portal opened on the rickshaw seat every time. “I can literally take you to America if I want!” he claimed, although nobody dared to try it beyond the Eidgah.
Old habits might die hard, but apparently, new ones, too, form easily.
Sadness is difficult to describe as is. When there’s a light, barely-there melancholy hovering over our heads, we pretend that it isn’t there. When we lose a relative or a pet, there are other, happier people around us who help us cope, pat our backs and tell us that it’ll be okay.
What does one say to those with a collective loss? What does one do about all-pervasive sadness, the type that spans an entire town, destroys order, brings even the strongest to their knees? Who heals them, when all they have for comfort is themselves?
One fine morning, the children of Moulavibazar woke up with a start. Perhaps children can sense things, they can feel the turbulence in their hearts and the inexplicable restlessness that adults have learned to drown out. Even when things were ‘normal’ a few days ago, many woke up in tears, tugging at their mothers’ sleeves, unable to explain what they were feeling and what they were anticipating.
A few minutes into the morning, the rest of the town woke up to the sound of their children crying.
The D’Souza children looked everywhere for their dragon. The school kids couldn’t control themselves when the Catbus didn’t come to pick them up. Everyone was in tears; the mothers, too. They didn’t know how to bring back something they had no control over.
“It’s gone! It’s all gone!”
The shingaras in the meeting remained largely untouched. In the middle of the briefing, the Magistrate had burst into tears. The retired judge hid his face behind a handkerchief. The young journalist beside him looked distraught. “Can we get a rough idea about the time? What time did we see them last?”
“The night before it happened, sir, around eleven o’clock. I was out with my children playing badminton. The unicorns were grazing, the sprites were flying around, even the dragon was sleeping on the roof. We even had a good game with the horse-boys. Sir, please do something? My children won’t stop crying!”
“Same here. I usually stay up late, but that day I just dozed off by twelve. The chubby babies were flying around in the hotel lobby at eleven-ish. That’s when I last saw them.”
They took a moment to look at each other’s clothes – they wore the same safari suits, the mundane shirt-pant, the starched sarees and salwar kameezes. Out of habit, Professor De sought in his graying hair the familiar feel of the olive wreath. His disappointed hands returned to his lap abruptly. The DC realised that there were no over-the-top sunglasses darkening his vision, nor was there any gold chain around his neck. “Funny how we’re missing all of it, eh? Now that it’s gone? No, no, please don’t cry, Chobi di, we need people like you now.”
“Kita khortam? It’s unbearable! Sufia khala next door was particularly close to the Catbus. She still leaves a saucer of milk on her doorstep, she still thinks it’s going to come back to listen to her stories!”
An unbearable silence followed. The DC found it difficult to even speak. “Let’s just go home today. Perhaps we have to accept it as it is. Our lives are back to normal, and we have to face it.”
Three weeks of nothingness. Three weeks of ‘normal’ life. The people of Moulavibazar Sadar tried, in every possible way, to stop this void from spreading. To keep people’s minds off of it, the DC organised a grand picnic. Everybody was invited. Banners, festoons and balloons engulfed the entire town.
The picnic took place mechanically. The ladies moved lethargically during the musical chairs. The boy near the stereo kept forgetting to switch the music off. No matter how upbeat the music, the people found it hard pressed to let themselves go. “Ammu bashay jaabo!” “Amma, barit jaitay ni?” “Mom, let’s go, I don’t wanna stay anymore!” went the children. The food went cold from the lack of interest. The dessert table had every misti imaginable, but nobody even touched the tablecloth.
One of the caterers burst into tears while bringing the shingaras in. “The fairies really liked them! The little fairies!” he howled.
That night, the townspeople returned home a glum, defeated bunch.
On the surface, everyone had made their peace with it. It became a boring life once more. Dewan swatted flies, Professor De’s students slept in class, Sub Inspector Ainuddin began to file the cow cases again. Akram laboured away at his dairy farm, tending to ‘normal’ cows, leading a ‘normal’ life. The beautiful, erratic, eccentric time was well in the past, yet the gloom wasn’t going anywhere. It hung around the air like a gray miasma, perhaps, stronger than the blue one that had once brought joy, had once brought action, had once brought purpose. Well, now what?
“Now what?” thought Sub Inspector Ainuddin as he loaded his pistol before bedtime.
“Now what?” thought the Agriculture Officer, eyeing the shelf full of pesticides with a look of longing.
“Now what?” thought Sofor Ali, casting a sideways glance at the rickshaw chain.
“Now what?” thought the Magistrate, paperweight in hand.
Baby apa eyed the dao in the kitchen. They had freshly sharpened it for Eid, they were supposed to have an extra happy one that year. She thought about cutting up meat for the three-headed dog, how it would come running into their garden, how it had followed her father home that day, on one of those days. Why does it hurt more than her mother’s death?
The sharp edge of the dao could cut through anything, even a profound sense of loss.
Eyes still fixed on the blade, she slowly extended her wrist towards it. She remembered how her mother would cut fish on it, removing the scales first and then slicing with a single, sharp motion. The tears in her eyes did not interfere with her vision; they simply ran down her cheek without resistance, feeling no effort on her part to hold them back. With a swift motion, she slit her right wrist, and then her left, leaving no space in between for second thoughts. The pain throbbed, screamed and burned. The blood gushed out, trickled down and reddened the floor. Her lips paled, eyes flew open with each sharp jab of pain. Her body weakened as the pool of blood grew bigger on the floor.
Judge sahib was listening to music upstairs. A double-barrel rifle ended things for him while his daughter bled to death in the kitchen.
A few miles away, CR Chobi draped her best benaroshi saree, put on her shakha-pola, pressed her shidur-dipped thumb firmly against her forehead and wore alta for the first time in a while. The reservoir looked eerie at night, even more so with the absence of the ever-friendly Mouli. The thought of the gentle giant made her walk surer.
She was a Durga protima that night, she thought, and walked right into the inviting water. The water engulfed her from all sides. Out of her five siblings, she was the only one who couldn’t swim.
The DC made himself a hot cup of coffee. Back in the day, one of his instructors at BPATC had told him about his cool head. “You’re a coward, Iqbal, but you’re a resourceful coward. You always have a way out.” Perhaps that was the reason he carefully crushed a hundred and twenty sleeping pills and mixed them in with the milk and the sugar.
Coffee that puts you to sleep. How ironic.
The next morning, a tour group from Dhaka drove into a ghost town, into a mound of the dead.
~ Qazi Mustabeen Noor works at Arts & Letters, a literary magazine published in Bangladesh under Dhaka Tribune. She is an English Literature student at North South University. Her work has appeared in various publications such as Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, Six Seasons Review and Monsoonletters.