To Whom Can I Speak Today?
By Iftekhar Sayeed
“Who is it?”
I could see nothing through the peephole. The banging on the door increased, and in the darkness sounded portentous. There had been a power failure. I heard feet taking the steps two at a time.
“Sir, it’s me, Jamaluddin!”
After the overthrow of the General, I decided to take a flat in a secure building, with guards, and an intercom. The power failure had rendered the last useless tonight – as on many previous nights. I recognised Jamaluddin’s voice, though, and slipped back the bolt.
Behind him stood my guest who had, apparently, gone up ahead of the guard. Jamaluddin had assumed that I knew the man; in the light from the torch, I could tell he was a total stranger.
“Mr. Zafar Shah?”
A wet hand clasped mine.
“It is an honour to meet you, Mr. Shah!”
There was sufficient decency left in me from pre-democracy days in Bangladesh to invite a man in after such a greeting. Having ensconced ourselves in the cane chairs, we studied each other for a few seconds in the weak light of the rechargeable lantern. My guest was a dark, good-looking young man, who had come dressed for an interview in a suit and tie. Bathed in perspiration, he begged for a glass of water and insisted on getting it himself from the kitchen, following me there and back.
“My name is Wahid, Zafar sahib. Wahiduddin Ahmed.” He had the annoying habit of young businessmen of taking out a card from somewhere inside their garments. I took it without taking my eyes off him.
“You must be wondering why I’m here.”
Not really: I was wondering who he was.
“May I take off my coat?” I nodded, and he proceeded to disencumber himself of his tie also. There was no fan, and no breeze filtered through the windows. Only the muezzin’s last call to prayer floated into the room.
“I own a security company. SecureHome.”
“The SecureHome murders,” I said slowly.
“Yes, Zafar sahib. You see, everyone knows and my business is hurting.”
All I knew then was that there had been two murders in two apartment buildings supposedly guarded by SecureHome.
“Let me start from the beginning, Zafar sahib. When General Harun-ur-Rashid was in power, I was an MBA student. I was – and am - an avid fan of both the General and you, Zafar sahib. I have read all your newspaper articles and several of your books. You predicted that with the overthrow of the General, and the introduction of multiparty democracy, there would be violence, and a strong demand for security. As soon as I passed, I borrowed from banks and invested my own money in my security agency. The General was overthrown and my firm prospered.”
“Until these murders.”
“Until these murders. I had first-mover advantage, and I still have a market-share of 85%. My firm provided security for nearly nine out of every ten luxury apartments, and for commercial facilities, like banks and shopping centres, ”
There was no post-adolescent bragging in his voice, however. Here was a businessman, I felt, not a boaster, and he wanted to get back to business.
“Whom do you suspect? Your rivals?”
“Some of them have taken business form me after the murders.”
“If I remember correctly, both those murdered men were NGO people.”
“Top NGO people. Very rich, very powerful and very close to donors.”
“And very hard up too, from what I gather. Funds have been drying up for some time. Donor fatigue. Competition among recipients. Motive enough for murder?”
The lantern began to lose its power, and I lit a candle. He sat back as though struck dumb by a new idea.
“That possibility,” he began in a subdued voice, “hadn’t even occurred to me, Zafar sahib.”
“There’s more. During last year’s elections, the NGOs tried to get people not to vote for the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists are now part of government and very angry.”
My guest breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“I am so happy I came to you, Zafar sahib!”
“I would have thought I have multiplied your problems. Instead of suspecting only your business rivals, you now have two other groups of possible killers.”
“Yes, but I was worried that somebody had infiltrated my organisation and was using it to carry out these murders.”
“There’s a fourth possibility: it could be sheer coincidence that the victims were NGO directors living in apartments you protect. After all, you can’t even open a newspaper these days without reading about a dozen daylight murders.”
He nodded slowly, mesmerised, then suddenly recalled something and produced a colour photograph from a manila envelope. It was a blow-up of a blood-stained right hand resting palm-down on a floor. The hand had clearly drawn two vertical parallel lines in blood and stopped at the base of the line on the left.
After a minute’s silence, I asked, “What do you make of that, Mr. Ahmed?”
“Please call me Wahid, Zafar sahib; I am years younger than you.”
“Well, what do you make of that, Wahid?”
“It looks like the number eleven.”
I sat back, holding the picture at arm’s length. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. A man is stabbed, several times no doubt, and has sufficient strength left in him to draw the number 11 with his own blood.”
We watched the candle flame burn steadily, an insect floating in the molten wax.
“The other victim was shot, wasn’t he?”
“Instant death. He wouldn’t have had time...” I broke off. “I want to visit the flat,” I resumed, tapping the picture with the nail of my middle finger. “Who lives there now?”
“Only his widow.”
When his widow opened the door, I was ill-prepared for a beautiful, fair woman in a black saree. Her sleeveless blouse revealed on her left arm the faint twin marks where she had been inoculated against small pox. More careful parents would have administered the vaccine somewhere less public, but I had a feeling that I would have gained access to them despite the safeguard.
“As I mentioned on the phone, Mrs. Maksood, I’m here to talk about your husband.” Her perfume was playing havoc with my central nervous system, so I tried to sound as formal as I could.
“Please call me Salma, Zafar,” she said in a rasping voice. Had she been crying? She smiled and crossed her legs under her saree on the sofa. “Let’s not talk about my husband.”
A recalcitrant strand of jet-black hair detached itself and lay across her face like a dark wish.
“What shall we talk about, then? Salma.”
“Let me make us some coffee first, Zafar.” I expected her to call the servant, but she disappeared into the kitchen. We were alone in the flat.
I looked around the 2,400 square feet of expensive furniture, carpets, loneliness and greed. The plate glass doors at either end of the drawing-cum-dining space were concealed by lace curtains. Inquisitive neighbours would be frustrated equally by the contrived gloom of the two meagre lamps that let the night into the flat. The air-conditioners thrummed like fingers on a sitar. It was cool and hot inside: lust and death contended for control.
She returned with two steaming cups which she placed carefully on the glass-topped little wrought-iron table.
“Nice place,” I remarked, taking a sip.
She looked around with disapproval.
“I wanted something bigger.” The intractable curve of hair, which she had swept back over her right ear, returned. With a jingle of her gold bangles, she patted the sofa. I moved into the space and a taste of lipstick and coffee greeted my mouth. I felt her through the immaterial chiffon.
The power failure did not interrupt us: somewhere in the compound, the generator woke like a noisy beast, the lamps re-lit themselves and the fan whirred into motion overhead. Unlike mine, these were luxury apartments, where nothing interfered with comfort.
Our lovemaking proceeded at a frenetic pace under the blanket; finally satisfied, she rolled over on her side. I panicked: I hadn’t learned anything from her yet. The cool of the bedroom (for the power had returned) conspired with her exertions to lull her to sleep. I switched on the bedside lamp and spoke to her white back.
“Your husband helped to overthrow the General,” I began.
“He was a creep,’ she mumbled into the pillow.
“He was in league with the donors.”
“He didn’t fuck me for a whole year,” she rasped.
“Tell me about the foreign donors, Salma.”
I drew circles on her smooth skin, hoping to rouse her. I needn’t have bothered. Her last sleep-heavy words included ‘player’ or perhaps ‘prayer’, I couldn’t tell.
The night was still. Only the guard blew his whistle at intervals. The mosquito repellent irritated my nose. I hadn’t relished being in a dead man’s bed, still less did I like donning his dressinggown. He had been murdered in the guest room, where I found a bed, a book-shelf and an almira. The last contained the dead man’s clothes – pajamas, shirts, trousers – and a litter of papers and files at the bottom. I leafed through his diary.
The last entry had been made more than a year ago. “Humayun and I made final arrangements to pay our beneficiaries to vote against the mullahs. The fundamentalists must be...” Here the page had been torn off. The entry had been made in black ink – like the others. On the other side, however, in red ink were two parallel lines of which the one on the left ended at its base at the tear. Above it was a squiggle I couldn’t make out.
I asked Wahid for a list of all the luxury apartment buildings his firm protected, along with addresses, maps and the names and positions of NGO people who were owners or tenants in those buildings. I studied the information for several days in my flat, then called him over.
“So, Zafar sahib, you suspect some NGO connection with the murders?”
“We mustn’t anticipate events, Wahid. There will probably have to be another murder before we make much progress.”
I looked up from the map on my glass-topped cane table. The words had had the desired effect of dampening his enthusiasm and concentrating his mind.
“There are six apartment buildings in a cluster in Dhanmandi.” I pencilled a circle around the area on the map. “They are all protected by your firm, and between them house six big NGO directors.”
“Really. The other clusters are in Gulshan,” – I tapped the map in the appropriate places – “but this is the biggest concentration. Now, this is what I want you to do, Wahid. Put me in an apartment in one of the buildings, say, for six months, maybe more.”
“Done, Zafar sahib.”
My new home instantly transported me to the set of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The only view was from the back in the east, from the two windows in the two bedrooms, and the window between. Five apartment buildings surrounded a two-storey house in the centre. But for this defiant little structure, which I looked down on from the second floor - and which interposed itself solidly between my six-storey building and the one opposite - there would not have been even that wretched square of sky.
On the south-east, some trees survived: a palm with creepers over the trunk; it was tall and concealed the verandahs of the eastern building; then, mango trees and a neem tree moved closer to my bedroom window in the south. Further south-east, there was an under-construction building six-storeys high, with bamboo scaffolding and jute sheets covering the concrete face. A steady noise of drill machines and hammers proceeded from this direction late into the evening.
The only verandah on the south offered a view of – several verandahs. (Ditto the drawing-room window in the north.) The water dripping from the air-conditioner in the bedroom in the southern flat, on a level with mine, had generated, like a stream running over a white rock, a patch of lichen at one corner below the windowsill. Water dripped from the air-conditioners that protruded obscenely from below and above the windows. Drip, drip, drip – the sound of one air-conditioner making water on another. The verandah above was overgrown with money plant. The one below had pots and pans, clothes hanging to dry, a disused treadmill, a red bucket and a red bin. This was the flat in which one of the directors, Juned Huq, lived. I only had to step into the verandah to look straight into his drawing-room when the curtain over the plate glass door was drawn. Although his bedroom was right next to mine, the curtains were never parted, the windows were never opened and the air-conditioner was almost always humming.
Similarly on a level with mine, Anwar Karim’s flat in the eastern building also gave me access - through my binoculars. Last night, Anwar slipped inside the mosquito net; a lady in a nightie – presumably Mrs. Karim - dropped the curtains, and the lights went out. A half-hour later the bathroom lights went on; I feared that I had caught the couple at an intimate moment.
A third director, Fiza Chowdhury, lived in my building on the fifth floor, so snooping in her direction would be severely restricted. Again, to my frustration, two other directors had their flats in the northern apartment complex – on the fourth and fifth floors. Only one director lived in the north-east building. Unfortunately, he occupied the first floor, which was blocked out by the two-storey building that served as nucleus to the taller giants. And the north-north-east corner was only partly tenanted, and the director hadn’t yet moved in, though he used the address. I consoled myself with the thought that, at least, I was close to the six NGO-wallahs.
The apartment buildings had high walls, barbed wire, security guards and intercoms. You got a feeling of what it’s like being a prisoner -- the grills, the small patch of sky, the space hemmed in by tall walls of buildings....Democracy means keeping out the demos, fences against the unfree: around the Palestinians, the Native Americans in their reserves, the black person in her ghetto and his cell, the refugee in the leaky boat headed for Down Under, or just under.
There was the square of sky – poetry set in concrete in the evening, when the sun turned the windows on the top-most floor golden, and at dawn smudged the blue-black clouds, waking to disperse, as it rose through the outstretched fingers of the palm. After it rained, the roof of the house reflected the white fluorescent lights of the opposite windows, like a mirror. Every day, the same beauty.
The birds, of course, underlined everything. Even the crow. At sunrise, the first mynas settled on the topmost twigs of the mango tree; whenever one of them took off, the white of the wings were plainly visible. The crows, perched on TV antennae and roof, obliterated the distinction between the free and the unfree with every raucous caw. But it was the song of the magpie-robin that made you forget that there were any distinctions, only joy.
One last, brutal detail drove home the fact of concrete. The crickets. There were crickets in those meagre trees and they shrilled incessantly, making themselves clearly heard when the din of construction and far-away traffic subsided in the evening. They whispered of villages, thatched roofs, coconut palms, grass....
Playing peeping Tom got me nowhere very fast. I needed to get into the NGO community, a world apart, and one where, as the General’s lieutenant during military rule, I was persona non grata.
I was, therefore, very grateful when the intercom rang one evening to announce Nazma. “Let her up.”
Nazma headed straight for the kitchen while I waited on the sofa. A circle of perspiration clung to her back.
“I brought you some kabab,” she yelled, but needn’t have. The aroma permeated the space.
“Great! I was feeling a little peckish.” I rubbed my hands in anticipation.
“It’s for your dinner, Zafar. Will five pieces of nan be enough?”
She was stamping on the cockroaches, so I remained mum. Five pieces of nan: what did she think I was, an ogre?
“You should fire your charwoman. Look at these glass rims. Ugh!”
She emerged from the kitchen with a tray and two glasses, stopped in her tracks, turned and paused at the window.
“What a view!”
Sitting across from me, she announced, “I brought some pineapple juice. It’s in the fridge. Don’t let the charwoman drink it all.” Her forehead gleamed with sweat.
I sipped some juice: it was bitter-sweet.
Nazma was nice, a plain Jane. In her purple shalwar, kameez and dupatta worn broad over her ample chest, with lipstick to match, she looked motherly. She was an NGO worker, not one of the big guns, just an employee. She’d just as readily work for the government, or in the private sector: bread-and-butter, no loyalty beyond the family, no ideology. I liked her.
“Nice flat,” she commented, looking around.
“Yes, shame about the view.”
She giggled. “I’m sorry about that. I couldn’t help....”
“No, no, no. You’re right. If I spend a few minutes in the guestroom, I know what they are having for dinner. The smell of curry paste and masalas! Last night, while I was eating chicken, they were having fried fish. If I could figure out how to get to the house before it’s torn down and turned into a six-storey building like this, I’d go over and pretend to try pot-luck.”
She was laughing so wildly that she had to put her glass down.
“How are the children?” I asked by way of preliminary.
“Fine.” She nodded with satisfaction.
“I can never thank you enough, Zafar, for saving his life.”
Major Kamal, a hothead in those days, had tried to engineer a coup against the General. I had known Nazma’s family since childhood. She came to me for help. I went to the General, who refused to speak to me for weeks. He finally pardoned the young man, provided he left the country. He couldn’t cut it abroad, so he returned when the General lost power.
I shied from the subject. “What have you got on the NGOs for me?”
She leaned back, and sighed. I feared the worst. The water-pump droned below as it filled the water tanks on the roof. A saw grated at the construction site. A myna chirruped faintly. A baby cried. Then the evening call to prayer drifted mellifluously from a nearby minaret.
“Not much. They’re such a closed group. Like a secret society. Something interesting did happen before the last election, but I don’t have details. There was a conspiracy on to rig the election against the fundamentalists. This much I know for certain. However, there was some falling-out among the directors of the NGO association. The minutes have either been destroyed, or meetings were held in secret.”
“Not everyone wanted to go through with the rigging, do you think?” The ice-cubes had cooled the glass around my fingers. The day was muggy, and the fan ineffective.
“No, it was something more drastic. Some people were raising questions about donor power, about selling out to them.”
“ Who were those people?”
“I got only one name. Your neighbour, Fiza Chowdhury. She lives on the top floor”
“I haven’t had a look at her yet.”
“I heard some interesting chit-chat about her when I was coming up in the lift. There were two other women. One of them said: ‘Looks like Fiza’s stopped wearing her saree below her navel”. The other one said: ‘And she’s wearing a camisole beneath her kameez.’ Can you believe it, Zafar?”
“I wish I’d seen Fiza when she was wearing her saree below her navel and no camisole under her kameez.”
“You’re worse than those women.”
Monsoon came, without relief. Whenever it stopped raining, the heat and the humidity resumed. I had deliberately eschewed the use of air-conditioners lest I miss out on external sensations. Events soon proved my wisdom.
There was a big do at Juned Huq’s – his verandah practically touched mine, as I have described. Expensive cars flanked the street and caused a small traffic jam as the guests stepped out before the black gate and the chauffeurs parked their vehicles.
I put a chair in my verandah, up against the wall where I couldn’t be seen. The scent of biriani and curry teased my nostrils. My first two vigils were fruitless: the air-conditioners hummed, water dripped, trishaw-bells tinkled and mosquitoes bit me.
Around 2 a.m. I returned to my watch. My perspiration dried in the faint breeze. I heard the familiar thud of bricks unloaded from trucks. An insomniac crow cawed in the mango tree, and a mango dislodged itself from a branch and dropped with a clang on a tin roof. A mole squeaked. The sonorous call of the crickets mingled with the faint murmur of Juned’s guests.
A momentary break in the darkness and the murmur told me that the glass door had been opened. A whiff of perfume revealed a woman’s presence. But a man spoke first.
“Have a sip!”
“I don’t drink.”
“Since when, Fiza?”
A mosquito chose this moment of all moments to buzz in my right ear. I dared not move, so shook my head ever so slightly.
The power failed, and the generators roared. I could hear nothing but mere fragments. On top of it all, it began to rain.
“...Sinful...Let me go!”
Fortunately, the power returned quickly and the last generator moaned and went silent in the distance.
“I’m getting wet.”
“That’s not what I meant, Paul! ”
“What’s the matter with you? We had something....”
Again, a break in the murmur and darkness told of the door opening and closing.
“Bitch!” exclaimed Paul.
A few seconds later, laughter and light again for a moment. I raised my right hand carefully to my earlobe and, with immense pleasure, crushed the mosquito. The water was salty, seeping into my mouth from my forehead. I was soaked through. Nevertheless, I gave the couple twenty more minutes to return. The wind lifted, and the rain pattered on the verandah, trickled down the telephone wires and pipes, and drummed on the wildly rustling leaves. A storm.
I was woken in my bed by the doorbell ringing furiously.
“What’s the matter, Wahid? Can’t I even sleep...?”
“Zafar sahib, she’s been murdered.”
I went from sleepy to hyper-alert.
“Yes! In the verandah across from yours!” Wahid was hysterical.
It was day, and the horns were blaring in the street, and the deafening noise of construction work had resumed. On the other verandah, on the right hand wall, plainly to our view, were two ragged parallel lines drawn in blood.
The charwoman had found her at around 7:00. She had been stabbed three times, twice in the belly, once in the back. An initial police guess was that she had been dead for around three to four hours. That means, the murder probably occurred between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning.
“Correct me if I am wrong, Wahid: the first guests left around three and the last guests around 4:00.”
“How did you know, Zafar sahib? That’s exactly the statement Juned Huq gave to the police.”
“Figures. Everyone is everyone’s alibi.”
His eyes were wide. “You’re not suggesting that they all...?”
“No, I’m not suggesting the Orient Express. The coroner’s report will never be any more accurate. Not everyone would have wanted to kill her. But some people did, and they’ll never be tried.”
A policeman in khaki and blue stood looking at us from the verandah. He stood in a pool of blood before the disused treadmill. We retreated into my bedroom. I lay down, exhausted. Wahid pulled up a chair.
“Did you hear anything, Zafar sahib?” He produced coloured photographs of Fiza’s dead body. He must have had good contacts in the police force.
I hesitated before replying, “No.” I put the pictures away, glancing at them rapidly.
“Why did they kill her?”
“The same reason they killed the others. Do you remember an essay I once wrote called To Whom Can I Speak Today?”
He nodded dumbly.
“The title was from a poem: Dispute of a Man, Weary of Life. It was written during the First Intermediate Period of Egypt, when the state collapsed into anarchy. People began to identify with Osiris: so far that had been the prerogative of the Pharaoh. The Pyramid Texts, too, were democratised. A secular way of life gave way to an other-worldly obsession.”
Wahid nodded more vigorously now. “I remember the poem.”
“To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
The violent man has access to everybody.
“To whom can I speak today?
There are no righteous men,
The earth is surrendered to criminals.
“You had started your business on the premiss that democracy would bring violence. But anarchy, Wahid, has another effect on the mind. It makes people turn to religion.”
“Yes, I remember the last stanzas. Forgive me, Zafar sahib. But all these murders and stress have robbed me of my memory. I feel so helpless.” He buried his haggard face in his hands. The last stanzas proceeded from between his palms.
“Nay, but he who is yonder
Shall be a living god,
Inflicting punishment upon the doer of evil.
“Nay, but he who is yonder
Shall be a man of wisdom,
Not stopped from appealing to Re when he speaks.”
I remained silent for a while. The fan whirred overhead, and the crows cawed remorselessly for carrion.
“We’re all under stress. The three dead NGO directors perhaps even more. Some of them were turning to Allah. They tried to keep their new faith a secret from their fellow NGO-wallahs. They failed. Fiza stopped drinking, started dressing sober, prayed five – maybe six – times a day.”
“But what about the number eleven?”
“That’s not eleven, Wahid. Fiza used her last atom of strength to redeem herself in the eyes of Allah: she was trying to write Allahu-Akbar, Allah is Great. She had strength enough only to manage the alef and the lam. Since the Arabic script goes from right to left, the hand, in both our cases, rested finally at the base of the left line. That would not have been the case with the number eleven, though I did toy with that possibility at first.”
He heaved a sigh in which there was little relief.
“I’ve decided to quit this business, Zafar sahib. What do you advise?”
“Good decision. Do you have a family?”
“A son, and my wife is expecting.”
“Take your family out of the country. Go somewhere nice and authoritarian: Dubai perhaps. You’re a talented young man. Quit Bangladesh.”
He took my advice. The other day I got an e-mail from him from Abu Dhabi. He is working in a bank. The pay is good, and the hours are not too unreasonable. He spends more time with his family than he used to. Above all, he feels they are safe.
© 2010 Iftekhar Sayeed
Iftekhar Sayeed is a freelance journalist and English teacher who was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Southern Cross Review, Opednews.com, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, The Journal and other publications. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com