‘LOOK, Abbu, people’ve already moved in!’ The surprise in Erfan’s voice made Firoze look up from his newspaper to the newly erected building that stood beyond his veranda. It was almost noon on a cool pre-autumn day as Firoze sat in the only place in their apartment from where a sliver of sky could be seen. The smoke from the cigarette held between his fingers wisped in the air, disappearing as soon as it became visible. He squinted at the concrete edifice that had reared its head so hurriedly. It was so near that he could read the headlines of the newspapers with which the unidentifiable shapes that lay lumped on the floors of that other apartment were wrapped. Sure, the walls were up and the windows were in. But the outer walls needed paint, and the sound of various drills could still be heard from the upper floors, from where sparks occasionally escaped through the windows like recalcitrant fireflies.
Firoze watched the movement next door as he smoked. His two sons stood beside him, their eyes avid on the arriving boxes and bundles. The veranda in that apartment ran parallel to the rooms, stopping short of the master bedroom. The drawing room had French windows, the latest fad in Dhaka. None of the curtains were up, allowing them access to everything that was going on as if they were watching a BTV family serial. ‘Don’t stare,’ Firoze admonished his sons who paid not the slightest heed and continued their running commentary. ‘Ooh, lookee here, they’ve got a flat-screen TV,’ said Saeed.
Firoze leaned back comfortably in the once-red plastic chair and lit another cigarette. Erfan said in hushed tones, ‘Oh my god, they’ve got TWO computers!’
-Nah, that’s just boxes
-No, you offspring of a goat, look, they just unpacked two monitors. If you used your brain instead of your tongue
Having satisfactorily established that neither was of the human race, the brothers resumed their amicable practice in neighbourly avarice. Peace reigned while Firoze finished his smoke. He had two more months of saving before the kids’ computer fund would have enough for a locally assembled clone machine, for there was no way they could afford a brand original. They were being unusually patient with him, it had been over a year since they’d asked for a computer, and there had been practically no nagging at all. As Firoze flicked the cigarette butt onto the street below preparing to go back in, Saeed asked, ‘Abbu, these people have loads of money, huh? Those apartments are really expensive, na?’ Firoze looked into his son’s eyes to seek derision there, but found only the innocence of curiosity. Shahanaz called from inside, ‘Have you showered yet? I’ll begin the laundry soon and I don’t want anyone nagging me before I’m done.’ The harsh impatience of her voice was familiar to Firoze; appeasing it now would leave the rest of his day untouched. He sighed and grabbed his towel from the clothesline spanning the veranda.
Firoze walked out of the veranda to the accompaniment of the awed tones of his children in their envious inventory of the neighbours’ possessions. He peeked again and saw a petite woman in a dark green sari standing in the middle of the drawing room, talking to the movers. Her back was turned to them, yet there seemed something vaguely familiar about the back of her head and the authoritative gesture of her hands. A tall man clad in a blue silk punjabi came and stood beside her, the two of them deep in discussion. Firoze stood watching them until Shahanaz’s wrathful voice pulled him towards the bathroom.
* * *
FIROZE and Shahanaz had moved into this four-storied building three months after their marriage fifteen years ago. They inhabited the topmost flat; it was comparatively cheaper because it had only one bathroom. Of course now that the boys were growing up, they needed more space, but where would that extra bit of rent-money come from?
The plot next door had lain vacant ever since they had come here; a dispute among the heirs precluded anyone from actually living there peaceably. Leaving Firoze and his family some much needed peace (if not quiet) and an uninterrupted view of the debris filled green optimistically called a park by the city corporation and a dumpster by the more realistic locals.
A year and a half ago, however, the dispute seemed to have been settled. For days there were men on the plot, walking, measuring, squinting upwards blindly at the noonday sun. Then one day Firoze had returned from work to a seemingly bottomless chasm in the dark ground and to Shahanaz’s breathless report that the quarrelling siblings had relaxed hostilities enough to hand over the plot to a real estate company to build a high-rise. It was going to be an including-all-mod-cons, eight-storied apartment complex and would completely dwarf their old-fashioned building.
Her breathless tone, flushed cheeks, shining forehead as she talked about the building reminded Firoze of bygone days ‘ days that were pre-children, pre-debt, pre-never ending responsibilities. His heart saddened and coiled in upon itself at the same time as he watched her vicarious pleasure at the construction of other people’s houses. To distract himself from memories that were confusing as well as painful, he went out to stand beside the excavated earth with the other curious and hopefuls of the neighbourhood (for wasn’t it the dream of all middle-class householders to scrape, scrounge and cadge enough to buy a few hundred square-feet of home-ownership in any of the multitude of so-called apartment complexes mushrooming everywhere?) and talk about inflation, corruption and exorbitant household costs.
Firoze received regular updates about the building from Shahanaz whether he wanted them or not. Thus he knew that one man had fallen from the scaffolding and broken a leg, the banker downstairs had bought one of the cheaper apartments and another man had caught his wife (working there as well) in flagrante delicto with a fellow bricklayer.
‘It’s almost two lakh taka less because it’s right above the generator.’ Shahanaz told him one night. Firoze lay silent, dreading the unvoiced yearning in his wife’s tone. There was a brief pause before she added, ‘The noise wouldn’t bother me all that much. Not if we owned an apartment there.’ The fragile sighs that had remained imprisoned within evanesced in the desperate silence of the night, like body-warmth in a solitary bed.
Firoze had been buying cigarettes from the stall opposite their gate the next afternoon, when the banker’s new car rolled by. ‘He’s had a promotion,’ said the stall-owner nodding towards the disappearing taillights. ‘He’s getting loans for everything now. That car cost thirteen lakh taka, and then twenty-eight more as down-payment for that flat.’ The man spat betel-leaf juice on to the street staining it like yesterday’s blood and turned to serve another customer. Instead of crossing the street and going home, Firoze had gone off to Ramna Park as had been his custom once upon a time and spent the evening guzzling peanuts and watching couples. And now the building was up and the people were in.
At lunch Firoze told Shahanaz about their new neighbours. ‘Hardly neighbours,’ she replied. ‘They’re not even in the same building. They won’t peek in here even to blow their noses.’
Firoze tried to explain, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean neighbour in that sense. But they’re so near, we can see right into their apartment.’
‘Oh, is that what you’ve been doing all morning? Weren’t you supposed to be filing all the utility bills in order? If I have to do that as well”
Firoze was saved from having to answer by his sons.
‘Ammu, do you know what we saw” before Saeed could finish, Erfan chipped in, ‘They’ve got everything, even a washing machine! Saeed didn’t know what it was at first, I figured it out.’
A domestic viciousness seemed to take hold of Shahanaz. Her mouth looked breakable: not fragile, but frozen. As if an upward curve, a breaking into a smile would literally do that, break her face. ‘We’re never going to be able to live somewhere like that,’ she said. ‘Your father couldn’t possibly afford it. Go and stare as much as you want, the windows are free aren’t they? This eye-pleasure is all you’ll get in life.’
‘But Ammu” Erfan began aggrievedly. Shahanaz shouted at her son, ‘I don’t want to hear about them. Okay? I don’t care how many computers or machines or whatever they have. I don’t know those people and that’s it.’ Erfan was stunned into silence.
The sound as the maid scraped the bottom of a burnt cooking pot in the kitchen was no harsher than Shahanaz’s voice. Firoze did not dare tell her that the hands of the woman from the other apartment had looked familiar.
* * *
AS HE lay in the semi-darkness that passed for night in the city, Firoze spotted the gecko on the wall. The yellowy green of its skin was dark, the colour of tree-ripened sour olives, or the hue of army uniforms. And then as he watched, it did the impossible. The gecko launched itself from its hunting ground on the wall, and instead of plopping mildly onto the floor, it glided, no, flew to the opposite wall. Firoze stared in dread astonishment. He reached from under the mosquito net and flicked the bedside switch, illuminating the room. The gecko seemed the perfectly normal variety as it stuck motionless to the wall, stalking an unsuspecting insect. Just as Firoze had decided on a sudden and extremely brief bout of sleep-daze as an explanation for the aberration, the gecko ‘ as if to mock him ‘ extended cobalt blue, delicately transparent wings and flew to the ceiling. Firoze considered waking Shahanaz to tell her, but thought better of it. The gecko uttered its staccato tik-tik-tik-tik-tik and flew out of the window journeying into the deep night sky. Firoze shut his eyes as tightly as he could and fell into deep, yet troubled slumber.
In the morning when he woke, Shahanaz was already up and about. Instead of getting ready for work, he stood at the kitchen door as Shahanaz began her ritual shouting at the maid. Her brow creased when she noticed him, ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Naz,’ he called her by her pet name after a long, long time, ‘Could you come here for a bit?’
She followed him as he retreated into the bedroom, the worry in her face belying the irritation in her movements. ‘Are you ill? Do you have a temperature? Let me see.’
‘No, no.’ Firoze shook his head, but left his forehead within easy reach of Shahanaz’s questing palm. ‘I want to tell you something that happened.’
‘Does this have anything to do with those people in that apartment?’
‘No, of course not.’
Shahanaz smiled impatiently as she listened to her husband’s recital with half an ear. Years of marriage had left her used to Firoze’s strangeness, and occasionally these visions of his had augured the future. Like the time he had seen the bird with the forked tongue. Shahanaz had been pregnant with her first child then; she had miscarried the following week. They had not known what would happen when the bird had appeared, but later they knew: their loss had some penumbral meaning; it was not just a diminishing of the stuff of life.
It had made her husband seem mysterious and profound when she had still been a bride, and although neither mystery nor profundity survived fifteen years of marriage, Shahanaz was not an unkind woman at heart. But right now she was too busy. Blue wings or not, a flying gecko did not mean that Firoze or the children could do without breakfast or lunch. And anyway, lizards could fly; she had seen it on Animal Planet. That no one she knew had ever seen such a thing, or that none of the Bangladeshi geckos were noted for their aeronautic ability was not something she could worry about just then.
‘You must have been dreaming,’ she told him, and went back to her kitchen.
* * *
FIROZE watched the others every chance he got. His most potent excuse for remaining on the veranda after dark was to smoke. Always a five-fags-a-day man, he began buying two packs each day to account for the amount of time he spent there. He could actually see into the other apartment from almost any of the windows of his apartment, but the veranda ‘ and at times his bedroom window ‘ afforded him the privacy necessary for him to do so.
He watched them put up the curtains (muted mustard enlivened by dashes of poison green), hang various artistic things on the walls, arrange and then rearrange the furniture. How they earned a living he could not guess, for both husband and wife seemed to be home at all hours. Firoze was informed of this by a chance remark of Shahanaz’s. His immediate query as to how she knew when they were home or not was silenced by a glare from Shahanaz. Later, she admitted ‘peeking’ when she was hanging up the washing, or when she was bored. This was also when she admitted that the man seemed very familiar to her, the curve of his neck, the cadence of his laughter, although the woman she had never before seen in her life.
It was Shahanaz who drew his attention to the couple’s childlessness. ‘They may be rich’, she said in smug satisfaction, ‘but how do you think they feel to have no one to look after them when they’re old? She can’t really be happy, you know, women aren’t like that.’ Yet, careful observation discerned no signs of unhappiness. This mystery was also solved when one morning a young boy appeared with bags and suitcases once winter vacation for their own children had commenced. From the uniform washed and hung out to dry in a corner of the veranda, they deduced that the boy attended a cadet school, although which one couldn’t be ascertained from the epaulets on the shoulder. The room the boy inhabited was on the other side of the apartment, inaccessible to Firoze and Shahanaz.
The familiarity of the couple gnawed at Firoze and Shahanaz, yet neither spoke of this tenebrous unease: a fear that sat readily, steadily on the tip of their minds. It was the woman standing by the bedroom window in a pink chiffon sari, her lithe body outlined by light and shadow, that emboldened Firoze to pull Shahanaz close to him one night in that old, worn gesture after so long a time. Yet, it was the memory of the man as he stood by his wife on the veranda at midday laughing and wringing out the washing for her as she hung them up to dry that made Shahanaz turn away yet again.
* * *
ANOTHER week had gone by and back was Friday, the one day he could sleep late if he wanted to ‘ at least theoretically. In fact, Firoze had to tread a fine line between his will of lazing in bed, and enraging Shahanaz by delaying the groceries. Lunch, stocking the refrigerator, supervising the laundry ‘ the timing of everything was directly dependent on when Firoze got in their weekly quota of fish, meat and vegetables. Fortunately, rice, lentils, potatoes, onions he only had to buy once a month.
The further the sun rode in the sky, the lazier Firoze felt with a desperation that the weekend was slipping by, would be going-going-gone before he had done anything that he actually wanted to do. And the angrier and more irritable Shahanaz grew. Firoze’s idleness, his very presence threw her whole day off-kilter. Breakfast took longer to make and to consume. The weekend demanded something special, and so instead of the daily ruti, they would indulge in paratha and beef. The kids, emboldened by their father’s presence, would inch towards the forbidden drawing room with plates in hand, eyes carefully glued to the telly and just as carefully not looking at their mother. The maid would peek into the dining room every ten minutes hoping to clean up, and then retire grumbling to the kitchen. She couldn’t do the floors or the dusting while breakfast was going on. Shahanaz would wait hopefully for a while, and then shout at the maid to move her butt and start the laundry. This, that and the other would take up most of the morning, and of course Firoze would elect to return home with the shopping as soon as the floor had been mopped and track bazaar dirt all over the house. Shahanaz and her maid would desperately gut fish, clean chicken, dice beef, chop vegetables, and slice onions, simultaneously preparing to stock the fridge and to make lunch.
Firoze recalled the days when Shahanaz had still been a bride, and had not turned into a wife. She would hand him a shopping list with his prolonged morning tea. He would save the list till he was out of the house, for there was always some ‘special’ order of hers. And he wanted to savour it undistracted by the physicality and immediacy of Shahanaz’s presence. Once in between garlic and red potatoes she had written ‘ oh, the boldness and delight! ‘ ‘a kiss on the lips’. This had been duly delivered by him alongside the vegetables. Another time it had been red ribbons. This had been after he had described a girl in his village he used to gaze at from afar, her hair braided with broad red ribbons and a green striped sari wound tightly around her, covering all but revealing enough. What had happened when the red ribbons had arrived with the cauliflower, peas and tomatoes (it had been winter then, and he could still see the craggy face of the old vendor he had bought the sun-warmed winter crops from) made him blush even now. It seemed the tender warmth had never left his loins.
Was that the day he had seen the serpent-tongued bird perch on the purple bougainvillea crushing the outer wall? The blue-black plumage had deceived him into thinking it a crow until the bird had looked straight at him revealing its cerise beak and flickering snake-tongue. He had sat transfixed, dream-thoughts engulfing him, until it flapped impatiently and opened its beak to emit a single, plaintive cry of utter perfection and purity, like the first wailing high-note of a mournful shehnai, and then soar into a cavernous sky. The flourishing bougainvillea had sickened and Shahanaz had bled their child carmine onto crisp, white cotton sheets.
* * *
FIROZE watched the night sky through the veranda-grille as if searching for the long gone bird. His vision was disrupted by a steady flickering that entered through the window, blue and green illumined and then disappeared. Firoze turned out the bedroom lights and moved to the veranda. The air had turned heavy and he felt like he was in a dream, pushing against an invisible wall of water.
The outer walls of the other apartment were bedecked in tiny, twinkly fairy lights. A celebration was going on, he could see people sitting and standing with glasses in their hands. The French windows were closed; they had installed air-conditioners sometime ago. His eyes felt assaulted by the lights as well as the steady, unrelenting hot air emitted by the air-conditioning unit that hung directly opposite their veranda. Someone opened the windows for a moment to throw something out, and a brief snatch of many-voiced laughter and talk entranced Firoze, kept him glued to his veranda-grille. The coolness of the iron soothed his forehead as he leaned against it. He could hear Shahanaz move about inside, her irritation bounded at first within the dislodging and rearranging of objects and then moving onto a search for him. As she stepped onto the veranda, she said accusingly, ‘I should’ve guessed you’d be here,’ as her brows creased in the now-familiar discontent. Yet she stood beside him, and after a while asked in a low voice, ‘Where are they? I can’t see them.’
‘They will come,’ he replied. Firoze hadn’t seen them either, but he knew they would come, if even for a moment. They waited, the two of them, side by side. She touched his arm, in love and patience, gentle yet grasping. The solus moon remained overshadowed by the intermittent many-hued light and the night turned cold as they waited. They spotted the other two together at the same time. They were standing by the French windows, their heads close together, a shared moment in that room full of strangers or friends. He bowed a little to reach her ear, and she raised her face to him laughingly, her hand on his shoulder. Then together they turned to the night outside, arm in arm, and looked at Firoze and Shahanaz. Their laughter continued unabated, it seemed to these two that they could hear them, the rise and fall of the voices in time with the flickering lights.
The four of them gazed at each other across the abyss-like opening between the two buildings. ‘Look, look!’ Shahanaz gasped, and Firoze couldn’t tell what it was that caught her breath so: fear or exultation. ‘It’s us,’ she said. ‘Of course, we know them, how could we not! They’re us!’ Her whisper wafted across his cheek like the cold hand of coming winter, like the leap of a gecko from a blind wall to distant stars. The blinking of the fairy lights made them look raggedy, unfleshed at times, bathed them in colour one second and let them be the next, as they stood there looking, their recusant hearts envisioning the joyousness of others.
The story has been published in New Age Eid Special, 2009. Picture Courtesy: New age.