"The death of 1.7 million children through sanctions in Iraq has aroused no interest whatsoever in the drawing rooms of Bangladesh, as far as agent Maryam has been able to judge."
Something seemed to trouble Maryam, as her fingers hovered above the keyboard; the hum of the air-conditioner rose above the tap-tap of her fingers; she smelled the starched pillows and breathed heavily; in the light from the quite redundant lamp, she deleted 'death' and typed 'murder'. She sighed relief, turned off the laptop, disengaged the wireless modem, switched off the lamp, and turned on her side to get some sleep.
I hated her. So I avoided the street – road 9A, Dhanmandi – where she worked and waited for a trishaw or an auto rickshaw every weekday at around 5:00.
The situation was dire. After the Gulf and Af-Pak wars, the mujahideen had grouped themselves together, as elsewhere, in Bangladesh, as freedom fighters. No empire can exist without collaborators, and the local elite and government both sided with the American and European powers. A death-squad was formed with the aid of the imperial west, and an unknown number of jihadis died in so-called 'cross-fires', the euphemism for assassination.
It was then that the jihadis changed strategy. Instead of bombs and bullets, which had to be bought abroad and smuggled in, they resorted to – knives. An expert 'Knifer', as they came to be called, could aim for a target's heart from a distance safe enough for a get-away. Less efficient ones would stab in a busy thoroughfare, or operate from shadows. The frequent power failures were a boon.
The targets also were changed. Instead of attacking government buildings with bombs or agents of the state with bullets, they went for members of what is known politely as 'civil society'. The collaborators, they had figured out, were to be found among the academics and artists who gave legitimacy to collaboration. Two of their biggest kills were a lawyer and an economist, both PhDs from American universities.
And where did feminine, friendly Maryam fit in all this? I first met her at the intellectual salon of a socialite: she wore a light green chiffon saree that went with her fair complexion, her dark eyes, dark brows; her arms were bare and I could imagine the rest of her. She asked pointed questions about politics and society, and then sat back, legs crossed, listening in earnest. It was flattering to be heard like that. Soon, we were lovers, meeting regularly in my flat. It was after one of our devouring love-makings that she came out with it.
"I actually work for the CIA, Zafar." By then she knew my views, knew how I would feel, and that prompted her to be frank. "After all, we're all collaborators."
She was right there: we were all collaborators. And what was the nature of her collaboration? "Nothing much: I just listen in on conversations and ask questions and report what people are thinking and saying. It's not much, Zafar. I just collaborate a bit more closely, that's all."
That was the last time we met.
On this fateful day, I spotted her on road 9A, waiting for her usual trishaw. There was traffic on the road, but I stayed focused. She was in a red-and-black shalwar-kameez, her arms bare, revealing teasingly her white shoulders and armpits. Then our eyes met: fortunately I looked away, and watched with horror a man, pillion-riding on a motorcycle, raise a knife towards Maryam.
"Marayam, get down!" I screamed, and ran towards the bike. The knife missed, as she ducked. The bike wove between the vehicles, and disappeared.
"That was close, Maryam," I said, panting, as I reached her crouching figure. She was weeping.
"They tried to kill me!" she repeated. It was as if she couldn't believe that they would try to kill her.
And they would try again. Nowhere in Dhaka was safe for her anymore. I could feel eyes watching us, reporting, sharing….Bystanders began to gather around, so I grabbed her arm and asked her if she had any money. She nodded, wiping away her tears. I had some money, enough to buy a pair of tickets. I hailed a trishaw and we made our way towards Kolabagan.
We were greeted at the counter of Shohag bus service by the usual smell of urine emanating from the toilet inside. The day was hot and humid, and we were both perspiring. Inside, we sat at the back of the stifling room, a few fans whirring overhead. Our bus wouldn't leave until 11:00. There were a few passengers waiting for the next bus.
"You mustn't cry here, Maryam. Let's not draw attention to ourselves. We'll be safe in a few hours."
I went out, bought a mild sedative, and a bottle of cola. I made a call to Sujon Chakma from my mobile. His bungalow would be ready for us. The cola was cool against the parching throat.
"There's something I have to tell you, Zafar." Her voice sounded cracked. She poured the cola down her mouth.
"Not now. We'll have a chance to talk later."
After interminable minutes, the Chakma boys and girls began to appear. They were headed home: to the hills in the south-east, to Khagrachari and beyond. They spoke in their dialect which I could vaguely decipher. You could tell them, not only by the language, but the slanted, Tibetan eyes. They were mostly students, but now and then a couple with a child would plump down in the seats before us. I kept a watchful eye open for any of my race.
The bus left promptly at 11:00. We would be at Khagrachari by dawn. Most of the journey would be over hills, after the left turn at Baroier Hat at Feni.
We stopped at night at a road-side restaurant where I forced Maryam to eat some rice and – very spicy – chicken curry. I was ravenous, and thirsty. Fear had been relegated to remoter parts of the mind. Fatigue began to take over.
We reached Baroier Hat just before sunrise. The buses – a Shohag, two S. Alams, and a BRTC bus – stopped to form a convoy for the road was potentially dangerous. Armed bands, carryovers from a recent insurgency, roamed the hills.
Outside, there were five policemen in steel-grey shirts, blue trousers, green felt boots and deep purple berets. Each had a rifle. They all got on our bus, which was a relief, and then we started.
At Jaliapara, they got off. We went a little further ahead and two policemen got on – they sat on the raised leatherette bench next to the driver.
The one nearest me was called Selim – his shoulder-tag said as much. He was dark with close-cropped hair. The other one was fairer. Selim cradled a rifle on his lap. He held a black walkie-talkie in his right hand, close to his mouth, though he wasn’t speaking. The magazines were in a holder attached to his belt at the hip. The other policeman held a rifle between his thighs, nozzle upward. Neither men wore a beret – not very surprisingly, given the heat. They got off a after a few minutes.
It was a switchback road.
We watched the sun rise – a pale, orange disk – above the forested hills. The gibbous moon floated like a spectre in the west, trying to steal light. The sky was cloudlessly blue.
We now turned east, then completely west, the sun now on our right, now on our left. We were bending every way.
The sides of the road were sometimes sheer drops of several hundred feet – into seeming green jungle. Sometimes a green wall rose on our right and a sheer drop sloped to our left. Sometimes the road was a break between two hills.
The colour was green – green bamboo groves, green banana leaves, green teak leaves, tall green grass.
The sun became less benign. From orange, it turned gold. The relative cool of dawn evaporated. The golden rays beat down on our heads. Maryam was nodding in sleep.
Various vehicles crossed us and we overtook various others. One pick-up was stacked with bamboo poles; another with jackfruit. We overtook trucks laden with goods under brown canvas. There were regular sentry posts roofed with bamboo and with bamboo sides on hill-tops. Sometimes a soldier with a walkie-talkie could be seen.
Tribal women in bright thamis and blouses worked on hillsides.
The road ascended towards Alutila and then descended, with many a spiral in either direction. At times, one espied a bend in the road up ahead or below, a graceful inflection.
We drove through seemingly ghost towns and deserted bazaars. Only the fascias of the stores spoke to us: STAR cigarette, one announced in blue and white, was bright with its own light. The people were still asleep.
Maryam had woken up, and the majesty of the scene held her in submission a while. But she finally spoke above the clatter of the bus and the moan of the engine.
"I have to tell you something, Zafar."
"The knifers have put you on their hit list, Maryam."
She shook her head vigorously. "They weren't the knifers."
I was surprised, but I didn't want to talk about it then. "Look!" I pointed to egrets flying in echelon. I had seen the knifer, taking aim, casting his missile. What was she talking about? The taste of fear, a dryness of the mouth, a quickening of the pulse, returned.
We got off before the bus reached Alutila.
"But there's nothing here!" insisted the driver, his mouth red from chewing betel leaf.
I nodded, and got off. The passenger next to him on the leatherette chair continued to sleep with his mouth open. It was good that nobody had noticed, except the driver and his sleepy helper. We disappeared among the teak trees.
I soon found the faint footpath that led to Sujon's bungalow. Sujon was an affluent businessman, and he built a modest retreat in the forest for friends like me to spend a few pensive days in. I say 'modest' but it had all the creature comforts of home.
The bungalow of whitewashed walls and green, sloping tin roof stood in a clearing in the forest.
"Sahib, you have arrived!" The disembodied voice belonged to Robindro Tripura, caretaker of the place. He appeared from behind the trees, a short, dark, stocky character in a lungi.
He looked from one of us to the other, for we were quite a sight. It wasn't so much the fatigue as the stress of running that had got the better of us.
"I have made omelette and bread," he announced, and draped his coloured towel over his shoulder. The inside of a forest has a stifling humidity. Cicadas crooned without cease.
Needless to say, we downed the breakfast in a trice. Next, we proceeded to drink a gallon of water. Robindro told us that the shower was ready and before leaving for the city, informed me that he would try to get clothing for the lady the next day. Considerate Robindro!
I stood in the shower, washing off the heat, the fear, the sweat, and the stress. I just stood there, forgetting everything. When I entered the bedroom, I found a showered and refreshed Maryam sitting on the edge of the bed. She wore one of my striped shirts – and nothing else.
After we made love like enemies, we got under the sheet and lay there, each with separate thoughts. She was the first to speak.
"Do you hate yourself for making love to me?" I did, so I said nothing. "You don't have to. I have a lot to say, Zafar." Her voice came soft and contrite.
"I'm listening," I said, opening my eyes, and gazing into hers. I thought again how mesmerizing were those dark circles.
"After you left me, I found I was pregnant."
I sat up. "What? You should have - ."
"What would have been the use? You hated me! You wouldn't have married me, and even if you had, what kind of marriage would it have been? Anyway, marriage was out of the question for me as well. I had the abortion soon after."
I lay back, breathing a sigh.
"But that's not all. Having nearly been a mother, I began to realize what those Iraqi mothers must have gone through. Thank God we didn't meet then, Zafar! My mind was so confused. I stopped seeing everyone. My work for the Agency came to a stop." She paused, frightened, for a Tokay gecko had suddenly broken out into its mating call from the roof of the bungalow.
"It's all right, it's just a lizard; it won't hurt."
"Then I began to work for the Agency again. But this time I passed on the messages to the Knifers as well. I started telling them about potential targets, about the biggest collaborators, about the worst of the lot….and the Agency found out."
"The Knifers would never have tried to kill you, then."
"No. It was the Agency, imitating the Knifers."
"O Maryam, why didn't you tell me all this before? We could have worked it all out together!"
"No, Zafar, there are some things you have to work out alone. But now we are together."
We put our arms around each other. Then we fell into a deep, long sleep, lulled by the whizzing fan beating down its breeze.
I woke to the scent and rhythm of rain. The bedroom was dark. How long had we slept? The taste of fear had worn off, and hunger remained.
While Maryam was still asleep, I warmed up some beef curry and rice in the microwave oven. Then we swooped hungrily.
The power failed. We sought some cool in the netted verandah. It had stopped raining, and in the evening, between the teak trees, we could see the stars. Crickets chirped and frogs croaked. There were no other sounds.
"I am wondering about our next move, Maryam," I said. We sat beside each other in plastic chairs. A nightjar called. The air smelled fresh after the rain, and the leaves murmured. The taste of fear had given way to the taste of curry. But we could see nothing around us, only the stars through a chink.
She snuggled close to me, in her shirt. "I'm not thinking at all, Zafar. I'm safe here with you."
I smiled in the darkness. If only it were so simple. How long would it be before the Agency knew where we were? After all, the entire state was at their disposal.
"Look!" I said involuntarily.
"What?" She raised her head from my shoulder.
A solitary blinking appeared above the horizon in the east. It was too slow to be a plane, which would also have had several lights.
"It's a satellite," I observed. "Do you think it can see us?"
"Not in this power failure," she giggled, and we both laughed.
The satellite went out of view between the leaves, and in its stead rose, in a few minutes, a red apparition.
"Antares!" I breathed.
"The opposite of Ares, the god of war," I explained. "How I love that name! An-ta-res!" The opposite of war, the affirmation of peace, how I loved Antares!
"Can we ever have peace, Zafar?" In the dark, I could sense her looking up at me.
My breast heaved. I dared not reply, for fear of breaking down.
"Can we ever be husband and wife and mother and father?"
I swallowed. "Why not?" I asked without conviction.
Then her mobile rang.
She spoke a few words, and turned to me. "It's them, the mujahideen. They wish to speak to you."
"Yes?" I spoke into the phone. "I see…Yes…I understand…Yes, I'll see you there."
"What did they want?"
I hung up. "They want me to meet them tomorrow at Labanga in Dhaka."
Then the power came on, and she had tears. I never thought I would never see her again.
Labanga was a kebab restaurant on Mirpur Road on the first floor overlooking the drag. I walked past the glowing embers, emanating heat and the odour of burnt meat, past the counter, and up the steel stairs. I sat in the corner table next to the door, overlooking the street, and ordered four plates of kebab and nan as instructed.
The room was air-conditioned, and outside, in the sunny heat, the traffic jammed on Mirpur Road. I waited.
Finally they arrived.
They wore pyjamas and punjabis, and turbans and beards. There were three of them, and they drew the chairs around me.
"Zafar sahib," began the eldest of them. "Salaam walaikum."
They salaamed me each in turn and I salammed them. There was a noisy family, with husband and wife and two children, in the other corner. Two men ate silently at the next table.
The men and I began to eat without speech.
"Zafar Sahib," resumed the eldest. "The less you know about us the better,"
"Zafar sahib," spoke the eldest through his graying beard and mustache. His eyes were gentle. "You have written in our favour despite your unbelief."
"I am an agnostic," I said, swallowing the kebab, "and this is my civilisation."
"We know your views. Please tell us where Maryam Apa is, and we'll take her to safety."
"You mean, outside the country."
"Probably. But I cannot say for her sake."
"I'll never see her again?"
"Look across the street."
I looked through the tinted window, and the tangle of wires. A man in black pants and white shirt paraded the other side of the pavement.
"You have been followed," he said, calmly ingesting kebab and nan. "The moment you entered Dhaka, you were followed."
"So what do we do now?" I asked.
"He'll be taken care of."
And he was. A stream of men and women flowed past the figure, but only one stopped to ask for a cigarette flame; after which, the figure sprawled on the sidewalk, clutching a knife-blade in his belly.
"Let us leave."
I paid the bill, and hurriedly left with the three men.
Since then, every year, I have been to the cottage in Khagrachari, and have watched Antares rise.
© Iftekhar Sayeed
Iftekhar Sayeed is an English and economics teacher and freelance journalist and writer. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Contact