by Iftekhar Sayeed
“I can’t understand the dialect!”
“You live in this country, don’t you?”
“But not in this part!”
Tasleema’s dark eyes brimmed with fought-back tears. Was an interpreter always squeezed in the middle of two cultures? There were Alice and Irene next to her, and a haze of local faces in front, gesticulating, chattering and giggling. Against the background, a barefoot figure stood out in relief, bony, stooping and haggard of face, with several days’ stubble. He wore a ragged vest and checkered lungi. A naked toddler crept up to him, grabbing his lungi with one hand and sporting two pieces of printed paper in the other. Her crown was shaved and her tongue lapped the discharge from her nose.
“Why didn’t you take your wife to the clinic?” Alice’s eyes popped out of their sockets as she pointed at the girl, repeating, “Her mother! Her mother! To the clinic! Why? Why?” asking the last question with an arm and forefinger extended in the general direction of the health centre. “What am I doing? I must be mad!”
She muttered something else, when Tasleema rushed out, cleaving the human wall, which closed on her departure.
“What did you say?”
Alice’s chest heaved. “Sorry…really…just couldn’t help it…slipped out….”
“I warned you you were going to say it out loud one of these days.”
“Lazy thieves - it just popped out!” She wiped the perspiration off her forehead. “You can’t keep your thoughts to yourself in this weather, can you? There’s no damned privacy either!”
Irene lowered her voice. “This is her first assignment. Her mother warned me she might goof up now and then.”
“Her mother is your friend, right? Nepotism! Simple as that!”
“The market for interpreters in not organised in this country - give it time, Alice.”
“Meanwhile, what do we do, Irene?”
Irene looked at her watch. “He should’ve been here by now.”
“A professional interpreter. A1”
“And bloody late.” Alice vigorously fanned herself with a notebook. “Lazy thieves!”
Tasleema had run out of the village school, a tin-roofed building coruscating in the sun, its whitewashed pukka walls looking as though bleached. Before her meandered a dirt-trail, an ochreous snake between green fields of paddy.
A man on a black bicycle was pedaling towards her. He wore a blue shirt, light-brown trousers and leather sandals. He was tall, with short hair carefully parted and combed, and as dark as hers. He had fine features: a straight nose, slender lips and prominent cheekbones. But most of all she noticed his eyes, which were detached and focused at the same time. They noticed her, and yet saw beyond her.
“You’re from the health centre, aren’t you?”
He got off his bicycle and a swarm of children, yelling happily, took possession of it as he smilingly relinquished control after removing a note-pad from the carriage behind the seat.
“You’re the interpreter.”
Tasleema nodded again.
“Everything all right?”
“Shall we go in?”
Tasleema resolutely dug her hands into the back pockets of her blue jeans and walked slowly back, her checkered shirt thrust defiantly forward.
The human wall parted for the stranger, who was not such a stranger after all. He shook several hands, greeted a few voices and patted some heads. The young boys, encouraged, implored him to buy lottery tickets: he counted out the cash.
“Well!” breathed Irene. “Where have you been?”
“Had a flat tyre. Had to go back to the intersection. Sorry about the delay.”
“Don’t be sorry. We’re only too glad to see you.”
“Do you understand the dialect here?” importuned Alice.
Alice threw up her hands.
He continued, “…So I stayed in the village the last three days, and I think I’ve made good progress.”
The ladies’ brows shot up.
Alice recovered first. “Ask this man why he didn’t take his wife to the health centre and let her die instead.”
They spoke rapidly, and the fellow began to cry.
“He says he didn’t have the money to pay the rickshaw-fare. Says he spent it all on these National Health lottery tickets.” His daughter licked her mucus and waved the printed pieces of paper, sensing that they were objects of interest.
He remembered the tickets in his hand and put them in the note-pad.
They walked back to the health centre. On either side, the paddy rose, waist-high, inviting the scythe. In the middle distance isles of thatched houses surrounded the family courtyard. The blue horizon stretched upward in paler shades, containing a minimum of clouds, to disappear overhead into the sun.
“Such a beautiful country!”
Irene was perspiring in her pink cotton shalwar and kameez and foam sandals. She had golden hair, parted on one side and reaching her neck, framing her oval face. She had thick lips with an elevated nose. She was attractive.
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” agreed Javed.
He looked at her. Observing the thin, golden line of her plucked brow above the blue of her eye, against a pale white complexion, he shuddered. The bicycle shook ever so slightly as he dragged it beside him.
Behind them Alice and Tasleema tramped one after the other, silently. Alice was taller; like Tasleema, she wore a pair of jeans, but a white-dotted blue shirt and leather sandals. Tasleema followed in white sneakers. Alice wore her brown hair in a ponytail; Tasleema’s was bobbed.
“I grew up here.”
Javed looked surprised.
“O, not here. In the capital, when this country was being born. I remember the civil war very well. I’ve never outgrown the country since. But I suppose I’m a feringhee, eh?” She smiled.
Javed remained silent.
“I’ve even studied anthropology to understand the people. Can’t say I’ve made much progress, but I’m getting there. But I don’t understand you, Javed. You’re a queer bird.”
“That makes two of us, doesn’t it?”
“Are you married? I know that sort of question is all right. I’m used to it myself.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Got a family?”
“A mother and two sisters.”
“Two sisters! You’ll have to spend a lot on their wedding!...Oops! I don’t think that’s permitted.”
“But you said I could stay with you, Irene!” Tasleema’s eyes widened in disbelief. Her thin lips were parted in anguish. All her features seemed larger than normal, and even her slight nose flared at the nostrils. She had turned copper with rage.
“I...I...thought you could!”
“She can’t,” emphasised Alice. “Against the rules. She’ll have to stay in the nurse’s hostel.”
“I see...the bungalow’s for whites only, is it?” queried Tasleema.
Alice turned away, stepping smartly on the concrete footpath leading to the bungalow. It was a white, one-storey building, fronted with tinted glass. They watched her disappear, first behind a white, lace curtain, then the brown glass.
“Come on, Tasleema. I’ll settle you into the nurse’s hostel. It’s quite comfy, really.”
Irene put an arm around her, but Tasleema shook it off, then slouched forward over the concrete footpath towards the nurse’s hostel. It was a long, tin-roofed whitewashed building, situated diametrically opposite the bungalow. Straight ahead, at the end of the broad driveway on which they stood was the health clinic, a white, three-storey building. A sward of manicured glass connected the structures.
Relinquishing Tasleema, Irene folded her arms.
“At least you aren’t going to be a problem: you’re a man and this is a woman’s health complex. No room for you here, definitely.” Her forehead wrinkled and she pursed her lips.
All the while, Javed had stood apart without a word. He was expressionless, as usual. She felt that his eyes took her in as well as everything else at the same time.
“I’m staying at a hotel in town.”
“I was only kidding! You don’t have to push off – at least not right now.”
“I’ll be back at 4. Could I have one of the cassettes, please?”
She produced one out of the dictaphone in her hand.
“Won’t Tasleema need this?”
“We all recorded identical stuff – go ahead.”
“I’ll try and have this typed out this afternoon.”
“Typed out? Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. We use lap-tops all the time, and the last time I’ve seen a type-writer....” Irene looked up at the sky. “Of course, a type-writer...can be useful...during power failures, and there are many of those.”
“I can’t afford a lap-top. See you at 4.”
Tasleema knocked on the glass. There must have been a bell, but she couldn’t look for it in the rain. She knocked several times before it parted.
“Are you wet?” inquired Irene.
“No, not really,” answered Tasleema, grateful for the caress of the air-conditioned cool. “One of the nurses lent me this umbrella. But I wonder how Javed’s going to get here.”
“He got here at 4, for your information,” proclaimed Alice’s voice. “On the dot, in the rain, on a bicycle, carrying an umbrella.”
Looking in the direction of the voice, to her right, Tasleema’s alarmed gaze met Javed’s unimpassioned stare. Irene and he had been studying papers on a round, varnished table, sitting on one arm of an L-shaped sofa.
Alice resumed studying the paper before her. Irene offered to put away her umbrella to dry, and disappeared somewhere inside. Tasleema’s feet sank into the thick carpet of purple and white like the sofa, as she tottered forward to sit next to Javed. The sofa was so comfortable compared to the hard bed she’d fallen asleep in after crying herself tired!
Out of the corners of her eyes she glanced at the room she ought to have made home. There was a semicircular bar in the middle against the wall, surrounded by raised stools with seats of the same colour and material as the sofa. Above the bar, a golden clock swung its pendulum almost imperceptibly. The time was four-twenty – she winced, for ‘420’ was the well-known section of the penal code under which fraud was tried. There was a passage on the right leading inside, down which Irene had disappeared. On the left of the bar was a smaller glass-fronted door with white curtains on the inside. Another L-shaped sofa flanked the main door, mirroring the one she sat in. She imagined the room resonating with laughter and the clink of glasses and swimming with white hands and white faces.
Irene returned and plumped right beside Tasleema.
“Right! Well, we’re all here now, so let’s get started. Javed, what progress did you make?”
Javed was about to speak, when Alice said, “Plenty! Here are typed copies of our morning’s interviews, all of them, in triplicate. I must say I’m very satisfied. At this rate, we’ll be more than able to meet our deadline. And I’d like to drink to that!” Alice strolled over to the bar.
“Alice is mustard-keen to go home early,” explained Irene, with a smile, directed especially towards Tasleema, who was staring at the floor.
“And why not? This morning I was really worried! I thought we’d be here for six months!” She laughed as she opened a can of beer. Taking it form her lips, she proffered it to the others. Irene nodded and nudged Tasleema, who looked up, nodded, then looked down again. Javed declined. She leaned forward. “But now I’m much, much relieved. I think we’ll be finished in, say, six weeks.”
“That would be nice,” agreed Irene. “Then we can all go home.”
“Speaking of home, Irene, I’ve been thinking. There’s no telling what the roads will be like during the rains, so why don’t we bend the rules a little and ask Javed to stay here in the other room? No sense taking chances, is there?” She brought two cans for the ladies and resumed her place on the sofa.
Irene was nonplussed; Tasleema’s mouth dropped as she stared incredulously; only Javed remained as usual.
“I’m sorry, Tasleema,” implored Alice, earnestly, “but he’s much more efficient than you.”
Tasleema knitted her brows, perplexed. Previously, no locals had been allowed in the bungalow, and that had been a simple principle. The incontrovertible truth about Javed’s greater efficiency required her to think hard. Even Alice had said she was bending the rules, not breaking them.
Irene knocked and entered. She wore a blue skirt and white shirt, tucked in. Between her thick lips hung a cigarette and a glass between her fingers. She put the glass down on the varnished table, next to the Olympia typewriter, which was illuminated by the table-lamp. Javed offered her the chair he was working in and sat on one of the twin beds. They were neatly made: a brown, woollen blanket with a white sheet underneath, folded back at the upper end, left an inviting pillow bare. The room was in semidarkness; only the lamp was on. The ceaseless patter of rain penetrated the closed windows and the drawn curtains. The air-conditioner above the beds hummed softly.
“I don’t suppose you smoke, and neither do I.” She took a long puff and with the toes of her right foot drew out the waste-paper basket and used it as an ashtray. “I don’t drink much either.”
Javed remained silent. Only the angles of his face and his carefully parted hair showed; his eyes were part of the darkness.
“But I am smoking and I am drinking a little too much now, and you must be wondering why.” She inclined her head and her golden hair cast a shadow on part of her face and neck. She looked at him quizzically. “No, I suppose you’re not wondering.”
She smoked in silence for a while. Above the rain and the hum of the air-conditioners, he could hear her breathing heavily, her elevated nostrils dilated.
“How’s your mother?”
“O!” After a while, she said, “I suppose your sisters look after her.”
“I do, too.”
“I mean, now, they must be looking after her now, while you’re away.... What are their names?”
“Shaila and Seema.”
“Isn’t it awful having dependants?”
“It’s one’s fate.”
“You’re a fatalist?”
“No, not in that sense. Each man is faced with certain circumstances, and he may accept his fate or reject it. I accept.”
“You love them very much, I see.”
He said nothing.
“I was married, you know.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“That I was married?” She threw her head back in laughter.
“That you were married and no longer are.”
“You’ve been working with three women and every one of them trusts you. Alice doesn’t trust anybody in this country, and few people back home. As for Tasleema, she isn’t nervous with you at all. And I’m telling you the story of my life.”
“Well, I was married to one of your countrymen. Masud was his name; I called him Masu. We were living in London, I was doing my PhD, he was working as a liaison officer for his community.” She sipped. “Tower Hamlets. That’s where his love for me died. He couldn’t take it, the constant racism, the bigoted police, the daily insults....” She took a long puff, looked far into the distance and exhaled gently. “There was a boy in my class, when I was studying here, in this country, at the American school in town – local boy, we taunted him out of every corner he could hide in – until he discovered the library, where we couldn’t ferret him out – became a bookworm, read everything he could find – labels, packets, notices, even licence-plates....” Exhaling slowly, she focussed her blue eyes into the middle distance, transferring her gaze from the curtained windows to the dark wall. “It was almost fascinating to see the same thing happen to my husband, in the adult world, except that it was hideous...I left him; men around here don’t give up their women very easily, so I left him. I couldn’t stand his indifference. He didn’t love, didn’t hate me.... You remind me of him. Of course, you’re different. You have something that he didn’t have. I wonder what it is. There’s a key to understanding every man, just as there’s a key to understanding every culture. I understood him, you see, and I could do nothing, that was the worst part. Some day I’ll understand this country, and then I’ll leave it. But I don’t understand you.”
She crossed her legs deliberately, looking him in the eye all the time. Without removing her gaze, she pushed her skirt back a little. She was red in the face. She shook her head slowly.
“Incredible! Here’s a white woman baring her thighs and your eyes don’t even move! I’ve noticed you; all these days, not once did I catch a leer on your face, even when you were looking at Alice. But you look at Tasleema differently. You feel for her the way I used to feel for Masu. Helpless. Utterly helpless...O, I tried to help. I became a conduit for his family, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, got them all up in Tower Hamlets, nice, big, unhappy family. That’s why I said it must be horrible having dependants, but you say it’s fate. It certainly was his fate to see his family humiliated, day in, day out. How would you have accepted your fate had you been in his shoes?”
“I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t have ended up in Tower Hamlets in the first place.”
She reddened afresh and, throwing back her head, laughed. “You mean, you’d never have found a white woman attractive to begin with.” She extinguished her cigarette in her drink and unbuttoned her shirt. “There, I’m a white woman, creamy, milky-white...I’m visually raped a hundred times a day by everyone except you...and this is what they see in their mind’s eye, my naked breasts, me naked, white - .”
Javed lowered his eyes. “You’ll catch cold with the air-conditioner on.”
She slowly buttoned up her shirt.
“It’s a question of trust, I suppose.... And understanding. How odd that I don’t feel humiliated at all! Who would have let a half-naked woman slip through his arms, especially a white woman? Trust and understanding. I’ll understand you....”
It was time to go. On the day of their departure they had lunch with the ‘sisters’, as the nurses were called. Steaming pilau and hot curry were served on the dining table. Twenty-five nurses were seated on either side, in spotless white uniforms, talking rapidly, their eyes smiling with the excitement of eating with the memsahibs. They giggled at the memsahibs and the two interpreters at the end of the table, with Alice at its head, especially at their eating with fingers.
The three ladies wore shalwar and kameez. Alice wore white, with sparsely printed lozenges of pink and blue, and a white dupatta. Even now her hair was done in a simple ponytail.
“This curry is just too hot!” She blew her breath out in several heaves before gulping some water.
“The trick,” said Irene, “is to take some meat and a little gravy.” She wore black prints on an off-white background with a black dupatta. A black choker encircled her white throat. Tasleema had suggested it and given it to her. “You’ll look beautiful,” she’d enthused.
She herself wore white flowers on a blue background and a white dupatta. She alone wore earrings, a pair of white, suspended things, that made her look cheerful as they swung with her movements. The nurses spoke to her a great deal, obviously asking questions about the other three. Tasleema would giggle with them and make remarks which seemed to tickle them into bursts of laughter on account of her outrageous pronunciation of the dialect.
“See, I understand them better now!” She spoke to Irene and Javed, who sat opposite her. “I’m glad I took your advice, Javed – a little at a time, and you’ll go a long way. I only wrote out two reports, but I did get that much done, at least.”
“That’s right,” he replied laconically. Javed looked smart in a striped white shirt and black trousers.
There was a burst of excitement among the nurses, and shrieks and shouts, as one of them rushed to the wire-netted window and brought a newspaper in. The hawker always came to the village from town at mid-day.
“What’s the matter?” asked Alice, still blowing.
“The lottery results are out,” said Javed.
“Well, let’s get our tickets, then!” shrieked Irene.
“How much is it?” inquired Alice, half-rising from her chair.
“Forty lakh takas. That’s – let’s see – a hundred thousand dollars!”
Everyone rushed back into the dining room again, carrying pieces of pink slips, a little wet from the rain that had just started. They resumed their seats, while a senior nurse proceeded to read out the numbers from the other end of the table.
“Where are yours?” Irene asked Javed.
“This is the only one I’ve left,” he said, producing a ticket from inside the note-pad. “And that’s because I’ve been using it as a bookmark.”
“Let’s see the number.”
There was silence as the winning number for the first prize was read. After each digit, somebody groaned. Irene grabbed Javed’s arm with one hand as the numbers proceeded, squeezing it harder with each number, finally to exclaim, “Yes! You’ve got it! You’ve won a hundred thousand dollars!”
“Now, you can buy a laptop, Javed!” screamed Alice.
“And you’ll have your own office, so you can order people around, and never leave home!” contributed Tasleema.
“Think of your family! Shaila and Seema and your mother! Your sisters will have grand weddings! Oooooh, Javed, I’m so happy for you all.” Irene was nearly in tears.
The nurses descended on Javed like bees to have a look at the winning ticket. But a young girl with buckteeth began beating her high forehead with the palm of her hand, lamenting repeatedly.
The din subsided and only her reiterated regret could be heard. A whispered exchange took place and somebody shot out a message to Tasleema.
“What’s going on?” asked Irene, turning paler every second.
“She says the ticket’s disqualified.”
“Disqualified?” gasped Alice. “How? Why?”
“Because it’s been written on. The girl knows the rules by heart. If it’s written on, it’s disqualified.”
Irene picked up the paper. Javed had written on it, and she looked hard at him. Now, I understand, said her clear blue eyes.
MASTER – SLAVE = WORK - read the ticket.
“This, too, I suppose, is fate,” she spoke slowly, noticing that he was unperturbed.
“Must be. I never really cared about the prize; otherwise I wouldn’t have lost the others and scribbled on this one. I only bought them to help. The prize was, after all, unearned money.”
The rain didn’t let up all day, and he had to catch a train. Irene watched him fade into the downpour as he cycled out of the centre onto the dirt road, carrying an umbrella and a satchel on his shoulder. He paused before he turned out of sight, and waved. She bit her lips, and waved back.
Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics and is a freelance journalist. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Southern Cross Review, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, The Journal and other publications.