Ekushey Padak 1
(A Short Story)
By Adnan Lermontov
Dedicated to Dr. Humayun Azad
Dr. Nuruddin Islam is sitting in the corner of a Jewelry Shop for over forty minutes now. He is not looking up from the newspaper that he is pretending to read. He doesn’t want anyone to recognize him. He doesn’t think anyone would recognize him here, almost seventy miles away from Dhaka, but he doesn’t want to take any chances. It would be too shameful for him if anyone he knows finds out why he is here. The shop is busy, so he decided to be patient about the waiting. He already talked to the Jeweler, and he was asked to wait for a while. He needed the rest too. His face looks dry, as if he didn’t drink water in days. The front of his bald head is sweating, even in this cold morning.
He left home when it was still dark. He didn’t want anyone to see him leaving. He didn’t want anyone to know where he was going. His wife said, “You should ask Ali for the money. We cannot be stubborn about it, when death is knocking on the door. ” He said, “I am telling you one last time, please do not remind me of a son that I no longer have.” She said, “If you don’t ask him, then I would.” He stepped out of the door and started to walk, then he stopped by hearing what his wife just said, and said, “This is my battle; so let me fight it the way I can. And your son hates you too.” “He hates me because of you,” his wife said.
Dr. Islam didn’t waste any more time. He started to walk fast. His tall thin body disappeared around the bend very quickly.
Years ago, when he was still a mid-level high school teacher, he started to write short newspaper articles on current political issues. He was writing mostly for the local audience, but soon he caught the attention at the national level. He was contacted by the main political party of Bangladesh. He was asked to come to Dhaka immediately and meet the Prime Minister. He was delighted, but he didn’t understand fully why he was summoned. He left for Dhaka the next morning, and within two days he was having lunch with the Prime Minister at her house. He was shaking inside, but tried to stay calm. He decided not to talk much, and say as little as possible. He was afraid of saying the wrong thing. He was sitting at the corner of a long table with many top-level politicians, and no one introduced him to the Prime Minister yet. He was trying not to look around, and at the same time hoped not to appear as awkward. He was the only person without a suit. It was a long table, with more than twenty people sitting around it. The top of it was full of food. He was thinking, how we would finish it all; it is too much for even fifty people.
“I hope you are enjoying the city,” the Prime Minister asked.
He was startled, and immediately he stood up, and said, “Delighted to be here Your Honor.”
“Please sit, sit, please sit. We are all friends here. You are already part of this group.”
“I am not sure why I am here, but certainly it feels good.”
“We want you to write for the party.”
“Write for the party?”
“Yes. You know…basically you will be our voice on the newspapers. We will make sure your articles get published in all major newspapers in the country. You will just have to write. That’s all.”
“But I don’t think I’m that big of a writer. At least, not yet.”
“Well, since you write, you must have a dream to be an important writer someday. Don’t you? We feel you are already important, but we would like to give you an opportunity to prove it to the nation, to a much larger audience.”
“I need to think about it. I need time. This is something I’ve never dreamed about. This is something I know nothing about.”
“Write something tonight before midnight, and it will be published in all major newspapers in the city tomorrow. Since you are asking for time to think, I think it will be a good experience for you. It may help you to make your decision.”
“I will try.”
“No, please have something ready by midnight. I insist. I will send my secretary to pick it up at 11:30 p.m.”
He wrote a short essay on the founder of the party using adjectives no one used before. It was a hit the next day, everyone from the party-top praised him, and with it his history began. He was the new unpolished voice of the party, sounding authentic, yet serving the purpose. The corruption of the soul came almost immediately. Within a decade he was awarded the Ekushey Padak. He often remembered what his mother used to say when he was a young man, “Only character survives death.” During the years of his escalating corruption, he often remembered his mother’s saying, but the time kept saying, “Power is what creates character, and money is power. You can stay in the power as long as you can bend the language, and find new adjectives to decorate the old, then corruption.”
A little boy brings him a cup of Coffee. He looks up at the boy, and trembles a little bit. He sees himself from long ago in the face of the boy. A sad thin face, almost as if he didn’t eat anything in the last two days. His long hair is covering his ears. The tip of his nose is too shiny from the outside light. He has a round face with thick joined eyebrows. His lips are small, as small as a seven year old boy. He takes the cup, and asks the boy, “How old are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know how old you are?”
“Don’t you go to school?”
“You never went to school?”
“Do you know how to read and write?”
“Do you want to know how to read and write?”
“No. I don’t have time to go to school. I work here all day.”
“Where are your parents? Where do you live?”
“I really have to go now. There are other customers. I will have to bring coffee for them too.”
“Ok, you can go now.”
Dr. Islam remembers how his father always used to tell him, “Son, always read, never pick up your eyes from the book. Read, read, and read. Reading will never betray you. I will not be alive forever; your friends will not stay with you forever, but the reading will.” He never understood why his father was always asking him to read even when he did well in the finals. He remembers he didn’t read anything beyond the office documents and newspapers in a long time. Maybe I didn’t read anything else since I became the Party writer, he contemplates. I wrote, but I never read. He laughs at this thought. I wrote because they asked me to write. I wrote because that is what was expected from me. I wrote because it made me money. I didn’t read anything in a very, very long time. He feels that he is sweating all over his body, and he starts to drink the coffee, which is cold by now, but it suits the moment.
He looks at the Jewelry floor. Seeing so many people, so many thoughts go through his mind. Why there are so many people? Who are these people? They all need to buy gold? What for? How could they afford it? Where do they get their money from? What do they do? Are they all as corrupt as me? Are they all as happy as I used to be? They are still winning now, and that’s why they don’t even bother to look at me. Maybe I appeared at the corners of their eyes, and they found no reason to take a full look. They are still in power, and they fail to see that I am them, a few years down the road, sitting right behind them. Should I scream and tell them all that they are wrong, they must leave it all and live an honest life? They will not believe me, listen to me. They are the Gods now. Are they all bad? Are they all corrupt? Why am I asking all these questions? Have I not been there, where they are now? Am I now not just like them, only a few years ago? Maybe everywhere I went, there was an old man like me sitting behind me, and like these people, I too failed to notice him. Life is a circle! A cruel circle!
He looks back at his newspaper, and keeps pretending to read. He feels restless, thinks, when the Jeweler would be here.
Three months ago, he found out that his only daughter’s both kidneys were damaged, and needed immediate replacements. He always made good money, but he had three children to take care of. It wasn’t cheap to send them all through the college, and M.A. /M.S. degrees. His eldest son was killed in a car accident, after suffering for more than six months in the hospital. It wasn’t cheap. And his youngest son married the house servant, which he never accepted and disowned his son. His son is an engineer now, but he doesn’t want to go to him for money, that would be the lowest thing to do. Ali also hates him, long before he married the house servant he started to call his father a hypocrite to his face. Losing Ali wasn’t cheap either, since he didn’t contribute to the family financially at all. Then his daughter was married twice already, which wasn’t cheap. In each time, she couldn’t adjust at her husband’s house. She was living with him for the last few years, which wasn’t cheap. And to top it all, he was not writing anymore, since the fall of the party, which wasn’t cheap at all. It fact, it was the final blow to his financial backbone. It completely crushed him.
Keeping a daughter on regularly monitored dialysis for three months is not cheap. His kidney didn’t mach. His wife’s kidney also didn’t mach. But finally, a week ago it matched with a sixteen year old girl, and her father asked for too much for a single kidney. But how much is too much when your daughter is dying? He said to the man, “Fine, I will have the money ready for you, and the surgery is on next Thursday. Bring the girl at my house on Tuesday.” But the man came alone to see Mr. Islam on Tuesday night and said, “I need another two Lakhs.2 Think about this, my daughter is going to give your daughter a good life, but who will marry my daughter. I need two Lakhs more to buy her a husband.” Dr. Islam said, “If I had the power, I will skin you alive, you fucking butcher, but you are in the power now, and I will serve my master. Tomorrow I will get you the money, you fucking leech.”
It’s over two hours now, and finally the Jeweler approaches Dr. Islam, and says, “May we talk inside sir?”
Dr. Islam looks up from the newspaper, and says, “Certainly. I would appreciate that.”
They walk to the office, which is at the back of the Jewelry Shop. It is an old room, full of small Jeweler’s equipments on tiny stools all over the floor, and not many papers to be seen. The walls and the furniture lost the paint a long time ago, but the smell is pleasant, it is of old wood. Dr. Islam never imagined an office like this one before. He always worked in the offices that are full of papers. Compare to those offices this is a trash-bin, but he likes it. He finds no reason to complaint, but keeps wondering why a rich man, like this Jeweler is, keeps his office in poor condition. In the middle of the room there is a simple paperless table, and there are shelves on all four sides. Shelves are full of small trays, and every tray has a small paper note attached to them, which must be the customer’s orders. Dr. Islam sits on the closest chair next to the door. He feels even warmer in this little room. There are too many things in this tiny place. Not looking at the Jeweler, he says, “So? How much does it weigh? They told me at the time of the ceremony that it was three Voris.3 Here, I have the original statement from the Government.”
The Jeweler is sitting on the other side of the table, looking straight at Dr. Islam, his chin is resting on his joined thumbs, while the joined index fingers touching the nose. He seems to be thinking about some deep philosophical problems.
Then Dr. Islam says, “We can negotiate on the price. As you can tell, I really need to get the money today. I’m sure you know I wouldn’t come here if I had any other ways.”
Then the Jeweler stands up and says, “How was the coffee? I hope you enjoyed it. My son brought it from Nicaragua.”
“Please, I don’t time to discuss the taste of the Nicaraguan coffee. Maybe in another time. Let us discuss the price.”
“Sir, please forgive me, but I would have to tell you that this is not real gold. This is a fake.”
“But this is the Ekushey Padak, given to me by the Government of Bangladesh.”
“Yes, I understand. And that’s why it’s a fake.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’m sure you know what I mean by that.”
“How do you know that this is not real gold? I really need this money, please understand, my daughter is dying. I really need this money. I hope you understand. As I said, I am willing to negotiate on the price. How much would you pay?”
“I’m sorry for your trouble sir. It’s not necessary to test it. It’s not real gold. You are not the first person who came to sell these to us. We know. We’ve seen it before. Again I’m very sorry about your daughter.”
Without uttering another word, Dr. Islam steps out of the Jeweler’s office. The Jeweler shouts from behind him, “Sir, please take your medal. Sir, you are forgetting to take your prize, sir…” But Dr. Islam doesn’t hear the Jeweler, he keeps walking.
1. Ekushey Padak: It is one of the highest civilian awards in Bangladesh. It is created in honor of 1952’s (February 21) Language Movement.
2. One Lakh Taka: Approximately $1,500.00
3. One Vori: 11.3 grams of gold
February 21, 2011