Friday, December 20, 2019

The Flames of Freedom by Iftekhar Sayeed

A lyrical and transgressive story of political intrigue, love and rage, set in Bangladesh and Burma; by Iftekhar Sayeed.

PART I

CHAPTER 1
AT MONGLA

I shall always feel affection and respect for the man who wanted to destroy western civilisation. I remember clearly how we met - that was an adventure in itself. We met through Faria, and I met her at Hotel Poshur at Mongla.

I was having a melancholy meal by myself in the octagonal Royal Bengal Restaurant; melancholy because I'd just failed to get campaign money for the General's election: he'd been powerless too long, deposed several years ago by donors and students. It was a sultry evening, and the air-conditioners hummed.

When she entered, the room seemed to become warmer and more humid. She was a tall, brown-complexioned girl in a black, flowered saree. She strode, her high heels striking the floor, to a table close to mine.

I found both my meal and the view more interesting, and hate to admit that I forgot the General completely. She wore a minuscule black blouse that revealed her waist and back quite generously. I slowly ate my tomato soup.

I got a whiff of her perfume again as she brushed past my table, dropping a note. "Room 201. Come on up," read the message.

I knocked on 201. Silence. I knocked several times and then turned the knob. The door opened.

The crickets called outside; inside, the air-conditioner hummed. Heady perfume hung in the air. The lights were off, but in the moonlight I could make out the silver of her naked body in the verandah. The lights of Mongla town gleamed across the river; the moonlight shimmered on the waters; there was silence, except for an occasional engine-boat making its way down- or upstream. I touched the warmth of her shoulder.

"I'm going to make you an offer." Her voice was smooth.

"So I see."

She shook her head, "No, that's not it. I'm going to offer to win the election for the General."

"And how are you going to do that?"

"We have enormous resources." I noted the shift from the first person singular. "We have the financial as well as physical muscle for the task. Just tell me that you accept."

"And what do I have to do in return?"

"Nothing." She raised her mouth. "Nothing at all."

That was the end of our conversation for the night. Faria had booked a cabin for us on the paddle steamer, the P.S. Ostrich. We were to travel as Mr. and Mrs. Shah in cabin number 4.

We had to take a boat from the ghat to the steamer on the other side at dawn. The river in the east was gradually turning gold.

We were the only passengers in the first class so far: there really wouldn't be any before Barisal. So we had the deck all to ourselves. The wind beat against my eardrums.

"So," I resumed, with a mouthful of bhetki fillet on the prongs of my fork, "how are you going to get the General elected? And who are you?"

She chewed thoughtfully, surveying the scene. Several covered boats floated in a circle around a green net held up by floating drums.

"You haven't accepted yet."

I swallowed. "All right. I accept. Now it's your turn."

"I'll be in touch with you. There's no need for you to call me. Let's talk about other things!"

"You're right. The view is just too beautiful!"

She sat back. "The river's too big for me, Zafar. I like something smaller. I love the Naf!"

The river meanders between Mongla and Morelgonj. On a map, the river is an inverted U - but a very crooked U. Now you're travelling up, now down. The sun, therefore, appeared now on our right, now on our left. The water sparkled all the way to the deck. The boats were like black parentheses. The swish of the waves and the hum of the engine were steady sounds. We grew quiet, as travellers in the midst of such scenery are bound to. We passed a village of thatched roofs on the green bank. A plume of smoke signaled cooking. The odour of burnt leaves came across. The sun grew hotter.



CHAPTER 2
ON THE NAF

Mr. and Mrs. Shah emerged from the paddle steamer twenty-four hours later at Sadarghat. Sadarghat hadn't woken up yet: in an hour the gangways would be crowded with passengers and coolies.

We stood outside our cabin, in the saloon, saying goodbye.

"Don't follow me, Zafar. It'll be useless. I'll be in touch. I give you my word."

"That's good enough for me."

Her saree-clad figure walked away.

We had talked about many things on board, except who she was, where she was, and what she did. Of course, the view from the deck made such conversation unnecessary: all that remained was a longing to see her again.

The moment I got back to my apartment in Lalmatia, I called the General. I let him have the bad news.

"So it was useless going down to Khulna for the money, Zafar?" His booming voice sounded subdued.

"There was something else, sir." I hesitated to tell him about Faria: all I had was her word.

"And you believe her, Zafar?"

"I'm not sure. Let's see what happens."

Nothing happened. Days went by and I didn't hear a word from Faria. Every time the phone rang, I thought it might be she. Every time the doorbell rang, I ran to answer. Meanwhile, the cash for the campaign came in excruciatingly slowly.

It was on a pensive, rainy afternoon that I lay back on my cane sofa. Snatches of our conversation came back to me.

"I love the Naf!"

She'd said that several times. And the way she said it made the Naf very special. Her black eyes glistened at the thought of the Naf. The River Naf is in the southeast, between Bangladesh and Burma. A concatenation of thoughts followed each other. Burma, heroin, smuggling, money, loads of money, muscle, loads of muscle... But no single person or organisation controlled the heroin trade. And yet everything indicated the Naf region. I debated whether to go down and check. On the basis of what? A one-night stand? Twenty-four hours on a steamer? Could I have been so wrong about Faria? I decided to trust my instinct.

I took a bus to Cox's Bazaar, travelling the whole night. I put up at Hotel Labonee and rented a chauffeur-driven microbus. It was a three-hour drive from Cox's Bazaar to Teknaf town. Long before we came to the River Naf, the Burmese hills appeared on the east. The highway ran, its zenith and nadir in harmony with the ascent and descent of the land, between shegun and sal forests.

"I love the Naf!"

I was beginning to love the Naf myself. The river sprang into view on my left as the hills rose on my right. Was she looking at the same river? Across the waters Burma began and the Burmese hills rose majestically further off, misty and green. I went straight down to Teknaf.

Teknaf is a dirty little town, its narrow lanes covered with litter and spit. The microbus stopped at the Bus Stand. The air was thick with fumes and the odour of diesel. Shops lined the major road, and threw their collective rubbish on to the pavements. A smell of rotting vegetable lingered. Vehicles of every description - from trishaws to buses - contributed to the cacophony.

To reach the ghat, one had to turn left into a lane that led to Uporer Bazaar. Here there was a bridge over the section of the river that had cut into the city. One crossed the bridge - with the glasses rolled up for the pong below - and turned left. A few yards away stood the immigration checkpoint. Outside, in the yard of the one-storey building, reposed the black carcasses of discarded boats - the place looked more like a fishing firm than a branch of the government. The boats lay belly-up, belly-down, sideways.

"Salam walaikum."

"Walaikum as Salam."

The officer sat behind a table covered with a pane of glass. The glass pressed down on colour pictures of colourful characters arranged in an intimidating series. It was a 'Most Wanted' list. Behind him, on the whitewashed wall, fluttered a calendar with the pictures of the Prime Minister and her dead husband.

The gentleman smiled genially through his white beard. He was chewing betel leaf and his mouth was red. His small eyes smiled as well: his head was almost hairless.

"I want to go to Mong Daw." Mong Daw was the Burmese counterpart of Teknaf.

"You'll need a border pass."

"I have one." I produced the pass. "But it hasn't been renewed."

"It'll take seven days," he said, carefully studying the pass to see how much he could ask me for bribes. A new pass commands a pretty price, but, theoretically, there was no price on renewals.

I produced a five hundred-Taka note.

"I need one tomorrow."

He arched his mouth, inspected the bill and nodded.

"Come tomorrow evening."

"Tomorrow morning."

"May not be ready."

I produced another note.

"Tomorrow morning," he said, jauntily, all smiles now. "Some tea for the sahib!" he shouted and from a door an orderly issued.

"I wouldn't mind a cup." The orderly disappeared. "Tell me," I began confidentially, "Who controls Teknaf?"

He arched his mouth again. "The ghat is controlled by a fellow - are you from the press?"

"No. And I don't want to know about the ghat. Who controls the whole area? The whole of Teknaf."

He smiled. "Nobody. There's nobody that big." He sounded thoroughly sincere. "Where's the tea?"

I had my too-sweet tea and left.

I was back at 10:00 the next day. The clear blue sky let us feel the sun at 37 degrees Celsius. My shirt was wet with perspiration. I chartered a boat, and waited in it for the boatman at the ghat.

There must have been around seventy fishing boats, each fifty feet long; they were all black and mostly uncovered, except a few that were huge, with a cabin, and bright with many colours. On either bank of the river were bamboo shacks. In one shack men in lungis and vests were crushing ice. Another group was conveying the ice in large, red tin containers suspended from a bamboo pole slung over their naked shoulders to the back of an open truck. The truck was covered with an enormous piece of bamboo matting that also served as a floor.

A fishing boat was docked at the bank. There were broad, wooden planks projecting into the water from the bank - crude jetties. Men were moving up and down the jetty unloading fish and carrying them to the truck - from Burma to Chittagong, these fish would have made quite a journey.

All the activity was accompanied by commensurate levels of shouts, instructions and expletives. A few Bangladesh Rifles Men - border patrol - stood with rifles on their shoulders.

It was high tide. Naked children jumped off the prows of the boats, screaming with delight. One of them sat, legs spread, half in, half out of the cool water - with an erection! His young friend was clinging to the plank, torso in the water, buttocks displayed.

The sides of the boat were hot against my backside. I sat on one side of the tiller, which initially needed tending but, when we were out into the broad river, settled into a straight line. The engine was below, where a man stood waist-high, as he bailed out water. A constant exhaust of diesel fume, albeit diluted by the fresh air, penetrated my nostrils. I held an umbrella over my head. We went phut-phut-phut across the Naf.

The Naf is an endearing shade of green - jade green. Colorful boats bore the flags of both countries, and crossed each other. The Burmese women wear a thami - a skirt-like lower garment - and a blouse. They also paint their faces with a sort of cosmeceutical concoction. The hills of Burma rose majestic and verdant; buildings appeared; one structure was a pagoda, golden with a yellow base. We traveled for forty-five minutes when we turned left for Mong Daw. But I stopped the boat there, for I had seen her.

Aye-aye stood on the deck of the houseboat. She seemed to be alone. We cut the engine and I clambered on to the houseboat. There was the familiar smell of fish on board. She glared, arms akimbo. She wore a bright thami and a voile blouse; I could see her bra beneath. Most of the Burmese girls here dressed in transparent blouses. Aye-aye was brown, with an unusually straight nose for a Burmese girl; she had white paint on her face; her hair was combed back in a bun.

I told the boatman to come back in two hours.

"Hello, Aye-Aye. How are you?"

She turned away. "After a year you decide to come and see me."

"Has it been a year?"

Yes, it had been a year. I shall never forget how I had first laid my ravished eyes on her. I was returning from Mong Daw in a boat with forty other passengers. A frisson of excitement ran through the mawlanas at my elbow when they spotted a young woman swimming in the creek we passed through: a boat lay close by. The green water might, for all I could tell, have been her only garment. It was the perfect, hot day for a swim. The next day, at about the same time, I hired a boat to take me out there, and that's when I first met Aye-aye. After much giggling, she confessed she had had no clothes on the previous day, for she had thought the last boat from Mong Daw had already left. We made love in the houseboat.

Now, I put my arms around her, and kissed her neck. My hands seized her breasts. Her breath came fast.

"Not here," she finally said, "someone might see. Let's go inside."

Inside, there was room only to swing my hips, but that's all the space we needed. Afterwards, we lay in each other's arms.

"Aye-aye."

"Hmmm."

"Who's the big man in Teknaf?"

"Big man?"

"You know, who controls all the smuggling."

"I haven't heard of anyone, Zafar. And why do you want to talk about that? Did you come here for information? You did, didn't you? Didn't you?"

She struck my face several times.

"That hurts, Aye-aye."

"I want you to hurt. You hurt me for a year."

"It's important, Aye-aye. A lot depends on this man."

"Honestly, Zafar. I don't know of any big man." She giggled. "But if you come back in a week, I might know something."

"Don't make me wait. I know I haven't been fair with you, but please don't make me wait. If you know who he is, tell me now."

"Truly Zafar, I do not know. But I will ask."

I went away, not very hopeful. If Aye-aye didn't know anything living in these parts, then there probably was nothing to know. I spent the next one week swimming at Cox's Bazaar, and lounging about in the luxurious Sagorika Restaurant, eating crab bhoona when it was available.

"Aye-aye, do you have anything?" I was back.

"Yes." She looked serious. "There's a man called Hossain Shordar. Nobody knows his real name, or even if he exists. Some people say he's just a story, some people say he lives at Cox's Bazaar, some people say he lives in Chittagong, nobody knows...."

I must have looked helpless.

"But don't worry, Zafar. There's a man called Lalu Mia who knows everything. Tomorrow night, around ten, drugs are coming into Teknaf and Lalu Mia will be bringing the drugs."

"Where?"

"At Jalil's Island. You have to talk to him. He is never to be seen by daylight. He's a dangerous man. You can only talk to him on Jalil's Island. You know where it is?"

Jalil's Island was five kilometres north of Teknaf town, on the Naf river. I nodded.

She held me in an embrace. "Be careful, Zafar. Otherwise, I shall never see you again." She was weeping.

"I'll be all right."



CHAPTER 3
THE NAF AT NIGHT

The crickets shrilled.

Fortunately, it was a moonless night - or was that unfortunate? I instructed the driver to wait for me at Ramu and come for me at around midnight. Meanwhile, I bought a dinghy from a village boy nearby, and paddled my way to Jalil's Island before dark. It isn't easy paddling in one of these boats. One had to sit bolt upright, or the dinghy would tilt and jettison its passenger.

The Island lies between Burma and Bangladesh, more towards the latter. It was used by smugglers, and was otherwise uninhabited. I made myself as comfortable as possible behind a tree, and waited.

The sky was clear, and the night was hot despite the breeze. On the Bangladeshi hills to the west, I could see fireflies - entire hills covered by fireflies! There were as many stars as there were fireflies. A car or truck on the highway would slice through the enigmatic night with its common sense headlights, a sword illuminating trees, the highway, the dogs... and then darkness would be restored. Mosquitoes found me, and buzzed overhead. The grass was soft beneath me. There was a taste of fear in my mouth.

I felt something on my ankle. I turned my head ever so slowly, flashed on the torch, and saw a snake slithering over my socks. I held my breath: it passed. Then I heard the boats.

They were motorized fishing boats. I could only see the lights of torches. Voices spoke.

I cupped my mouth with my hands. "Lalu Mia!" My shout sounded hollow between the hills.

The voices stopped. One of the boats was a few feet away from me.

"Lalu Mia!"

"Who wants me?" a nasal voice spoke. There was no fear in that voice, only curiosity.

Then the speedboats were upon them. A megaphone blared: "Don't move. This is the Bangladesh Rifles. You're covered on all sides." The darkness was dissipated by a flash of searchlight.

"Jump!"

Several splashes ensued, followed by machinegun fire.

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot! We give up!" That was not Lalu Mia.

Somebody switched off the light.

"Come in out of the water, slowly, slowly...."

Yards away from me I could hear somebody breathing.

"How many of you were there?" I whispered.

"Just the two of us - in the two boats."

The boats in tow, the speedboats zoomed away into the night.

"I can't swim!" pleaded Lalu Mia.

"Don't worry, Lalu Mia. I'm coming to get you."

Taking off my shoes, I waded out. I grabbed him by the hair.

"Who's Hossain Shordar?" I figured a marine interrogation would be most effective.

"I don't know!" I dunked him. The Naf is saline, and a few gulps would restore a man to a sense of his predicament.

He wheezed, coming up, coughing. "All right! His real name is Sheikh Navid Khan."

"Where can I find him?"

"You know the bend in the highway before you reach the Roads and Highways guesthouse?"

"What about it? There's nothing there."

"It's camouflaged. His bungalow's inside. On the right. Behind the bushes."

I dragged him back to the Island. He lay on the bank, panting.

"Did you set us up?" he asked.

"How would I know?"

"Who are you?"

"Never mind."

I pushed the dinghy off with the paddle.

"How am I going to get off this island?" he called after me.

"Wait till daybreak. I saved your life. That's enough favours for one night."

I flashed the torch to avoid the trees, then paddled furiously. I somehow wanted to get away from the spot. Besides, the Naf tasted awful in my mouth.



The first thing I needed when I got back to the hotel was a shower. The second was food - but I couldn't get any at that hour. So I made a call to the General and got some sleep.

The General arrived the following evening. I didn't think it would be wise to visit Sheikh Navid Khan in the dark, so we waited till the following morning.

The General drove this time, and we took the three-hour ride to Teknaf. We went up the slope as Lalu Mia had indicated, then stopped and parked. From up here, one commanded a view of Burma, Bangladesh and the River Naf. What a panorama! The day was hot as usual - and muggy. We were both perspiring as we walked upwards. A cuckoo called: crossword puzzle, crossword puzzle. There was no other sound. The cuckoo heightened the silence. An irregular breeze was pleasant.

"Look, Zafar!" The General boomed. "Tire marks disappearing into the bushes. Incredible!"

"Looks like Lalu Mia wasn't lying under duress."

We went up to the bushes. There seemed to be nothing but tall shegun trees beyond. I pushed. Bushes would have bent, but these didn't: they were backed up by metal. There was a click, and one of the bushes 'opened'. We looked at each other, then I followed the General inside.

"Welcome, General Haroon, welcome Mr. Zafar Shah."

A hundred feet from us stood a bungalow. The plate glass drawing-room door was open, and a short, dark, fat man in a brown shirt and black trousers stood beckoning.

"We've been expecting you for some time."

The drawing-room was air-conditioned. On a corner sofa sat Faria in a pink shalwar and kameez.

"Hello, Faria. Is this how you keep your word?"

"Please do not be angry with Faria, Zafar sahib. She could hardly have given you my address and phone number. I lead a very secluded life and it has to be kept that way. We relied on your innate curiosity, and we were not wrong. We thought you would find us. If you didn't, Faria would have come."

"Some mango juice for the General?" offered Faria. The General took the cool glass off the tray with a smile.

"Zafar?"

I took the glass as a peace offering.

"By the way, Zafar sahib, thank you for saving the life of one of my most trusted men. Our boats picked him up this morning."

"Too bad you lost your heroin shipment."

"It happens from time to time. Rather, you see," he explained with an outstretched chubby palm, "one has to allow these things to happen. For the UN. It is unseemly not to have heroin seizures from time to time. Otherwise the UN would think there was something fishy going on. You understand?"

The mango juice - and Faria's presence - had cooled me down.

"What is going on, exactly?" asked the General, looking around.

Our host grew serious. "From here, General Haroon, I pursue my objective of destroying western civilisation." He smiled benignly at me. "I have been inspired by your writing, Zafar sahib. I have read everything you have written, all your articles and your books." His heavy arm indicated a shelf of books. "All your works are in my study."

I put the glass down. "I don't recall advocating the destruction of western civilisation."

"Yes, you never said it in so many words, but the conclusion has to be drawn, Zafar sahib. "'The only civilisation based on slavery', you wrote. 'Athens, Rome and modern Europe were all founded on slavery.' You have argued that the West has an inherent tendency to dominate. You have said the West must be resisted - from resistance to destruction is a short step. Take the case of the General. He was military dictator for nearly ten years. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed and the donors withdrew their support for him. In article after article, you predicted that there would be anarchy with the introduction of multi-party democracy. And that is exactly what has happened. For 1,400 years, we in the Muslim world have lived with military rule, you said; that was part of our culture, you said. And did the West listen? No! They wanted us to be like them. Anyone who is different is a barbarian and barbarians must be enslaved and civilised." The colour of Navid's face had turned copper with rage. "And today our country is lawless, ungoverned and ungovernable."

"You appear to have benefited mightily from the anarchy," I observed, smiling.

He paused. He resumed in a deeper, quieter voice. "Without anarchy, I could not have flourished. This tells us how bad democracy is. But I have a higher aim, Zafar sahib, and that aim requires me to be what I am."

"And I assume you had no intention of getting the General elected."

He paused again, and looked down. "I'm ashamed to admit I used subterfuge. If I hadn't, would you have come? I know how you think, Zafar sahib. You want the General to be elected in order to undermine the democratic process: say, by extending his tenure for several terms. You are not a democratic man. But do you realise what would happen to me if that happened? In an authoritarian country, my operations would cease. You always said that there can't be alternative centres of power and authority in a dictatorship!"

"But you knew the General wasn't going to win. Why did you want him here?"

"I didn't want General Haroon here. Of course, I am honoured that he is my guest. I wanted you, Zafar sahib. You are my teacher, you are my mentor. In my struggle against the West, I turn to you for intellectual guidance. Leave the actual fighting to me; I seek your vision. September 11th has shown us what a few determined people can achieve; it has also shown us that our vision is limited. What will killing a couple of thousand Americans do? The killing must be done by the millions."

Silence descended on the room. The cuckoo had resumed its call outside: crossword puzzle, crossword puzzle...

"Are we your prisoners?" inquired the General finally, his double chin prominent as he looked down.

Navid and Faria were galvanised. "No, no, no, no," they sang out in unison.

"You are our honoured guests, Zafar sahib and General Haroon," insisted Navid. "Everything I have is yours. Come, I will show you around your new home." He rose, took the General by his sleeve and left.

I rose and took Faria in my arms.

"I've never looked for a woman so hard."

"Not even the Burmese girl?"

I smiled.

"Who is she?"

"A casual acquaintance."

"As casual as me, or more casual?"

"More casual."

I kissed her.

"Not now, Zafar. The guards will be watching. Tonight."

She led me out of the drawing-room.

I reflected on Sheikh Navid Khan and his little speech. I admired him for taking my premises to their logical conclusion. He seemed sincere. But there had been something missing in his peroration. What would motivate a man to do these things? Abstract principles, of course, go a long way, but not long enough, in this case, I felt, to explain his motives entirely. Run-o'-the-mill gangsters are in it for the power. Navid was not one of them. When I found out his raison-d'etre, I wished I hadn't.



PART II

CHAPTER 1
AT SHAHPARI ISLAND

Monsoon arrived.

The rains cooled the hills and the trees. Steam rose from the hills. It lay like clouds on and between the hills on both sides, in Bangladesh and in Burma. The fireflies disappeared. But the frogs arrived. Every night the frogs took up some forgotten chorus that resounded from the hills. They sounded prodigious, as though they were donkeys braying.

The full moon lit up the beach at Shahpari Island. This furthest southward extremity of Bangladesh was not an island anymore. Somehow the misnomer had stuck, and partly perhaps because it conveyed all the advantages of an island. On the western side lay the Bay of Bengal; a few kilometres to the east, the Naf and Burma. Faria took me for a nocturnal tour.

Boxes lay on the beach. Some had been opened. A few guns gleamed on the sand. This was half the merchandise. Engine boats were coming in from the Bay, carrying boxes from a ship anchored at deep sea. The fishing village behind us was asleep. The wind beat against our clothes and our umbrellas; it played like a stick against our eardrums. It was drizzling.

A 4-wheel drive drew up behind where we stood. I recognised Lalu Mia. Several suitcases were placed side by side. Lalu Mia opened one: it contained bags of heroin.

"The heroin from Burma will be exchanged for the guns and ammunition." Faria had to raise her voice above the whistling wind and the waves that pounded the shore. "Uncle Navid takes a percentage from both sides for arranging the transaction."

She called him 'Uncle', which I found reassuring. My first impression had been that she was his mole. Apparently, they had a filial relationship. I was to find out why.

"It is the perfect spot in the world. Teknaf. No one knows Uncle Navid exists. Teknaf is such an unimportant part of the world. Here he operates on a global scale without attracting the attention of the CIA, Interpol, anyone. We train divers here. They go out to ships in the Bay or further down in these boats and board ships and blow them up. Or sometimes they take the crew as hostage, demanding money. All this water is ours."

There was a touch of pride in her voice. I looked at her. She wore a black kameez and a white tie-dyed shalwar. In the moonlight, she looked like a sylph. The wind blew her umbrella out of her hands and I ran to fetch it.

All the suitcases had been checked, and the last boatload of guns had arrived. Another jeep pulled up behind us. It was Navid and the General. Lalu Mia ran up to the General and salaamed. A man in military fatigues descended from the other vehicle. Navid and he exchanged a few pleasantries - in a language I did not understand - and laughed.

"Who is he? He looks Burmese."

"I can't tell you his name - Uncle doesn't tell me everything. But I know he's one of the rebel leaders in Burma. His people grow heroin so they can have the guns."

"Tell me, Faria. Why does Navid do all this?"

She looked at me, quite startled. "But he told you the first day. To destroy the enslaver."

By then I had got used to their jargon.

"But I don't buy it, Faria. There's something else at stake here. Something doesn't feel right."

Faria had gone as pale as the light on the beach. My God, what a beautiful place it was! If only these people, Navid and his gang, weren't there! Only Faria and myself. On this beach. In this moonlight. Strolling together up and down, leaving our footprints for the high tide to wash away. I heard the sea moan like an impatient spirit. My spirit.

"Must you know everything, Zafar?"

"Yes."

On a signal from the rebel leader, 'soldiers' hidden in the shadow of the waving coconut palms emerged and ran towards the beach. They were joined by Lalu Mia, Navid and the General. Lalu Mia carried two umbrellas. The rebel leader inspected every box while his subordinate counted every gun. There were six suitcases and fourteen boxes. Four of the suitcases were placed in a boat that was heaving against the waves. One by one eleven boxes were dragged up to the jeeps. The jeeps made five trips to the Naf. The Burmese soldiers were no more to be seen: they were headed towards Burma. The engine of the boat started and Lalu Mia swung over the side. He was taking the pay-off to the ship. I tried to look for the ship's lights, but even with the moon full above our heads could make out nothing. Lalu Mia waved and the boat set off. The boxes of guns lay on the white sand, along with the suitcases. These were the intermediary's cut.

"What will he do with them?"

"Sell them for hard currency in the international market."

"What will he do with the money?"

"Assist fighters throughout the world."

"He doesn't do any of his own fighting?"

"He does. Remember the ships we blow up? They're quite beautiful to watch. When there's no moon, and you stand here, looking out into the sea, suddenly" - she made a circular movement with her hands - "the darkness would become pink with flames far away. We hope to merge our operations with those of others in Southeast Asia. We will bring shipping to a standstill."

Navid and the General got into the jeep; the operation was over. We mounted the other 4-wheel drive.

"What happens to the suitcases and the boxes?"

"They'll be kept safe. These jeeps will come back after taking us home and pick up the merchandise."

'Home' didn't quite sound right after everything I'd seen and heard. I must admit that I am an armchair philosopher, incapable of action, even vicarious action. I could not fault Navid for doing these things - somebody had to - but I couldn't ever imagine myself doing them. Navid had sensed that, and he had provided me with a library and had sworn to get me any book I wanted. Books, rifles and heroin. Quite a combination.



CHAPTER 2
AT TEKNAF

Behind the bungalow lies a footpath trodden by Navid in his reflective hours. Faria and I would go for walks along the path, and sit in the shade of some giant shegun tree with roots that looked like the stubborn claws of some ossified monster. It was on one of these walks in the evening that she told me the whole story.

Years ago, a young boy had come from the north to Teknaf to earn a living. He used to carry ice for the tenders that brought in fish from Burmese vessels. It was a hard life, and there were days when he didn't have enough to eat. Charismatic as he was, he found favour with the man who controlled the ghat. He became one of his collectors. He was probably a ruthless young man: Faria finessed this part of the story. At any rate, he rose through the informal ranks until he was Number 2. When Number 1 died, he naturally took over the ghat.

He married a girl from the north, somebody not associated with Teknaf and his ugly profession. When their first baby - a girl - was born, the mother died. That girl, Zahida, became the centre of his life. As soon as she could talk, he packed her off to Dhaka to attend a good school. She rarely came to Teknaf. Every weekend he went down to Dhaka and spent a day with his daughter. She never found out.

He bought a house for her. He sent her to the best schools. He even toyed with the idea of going into legitimate business.

This was where the General came in. It was 1990, and the Berlin Wall had collapsed. The donors refused to prop him up anymore. I remembered at the time I had predicted chaos, but I wish I had been less prescient. Zahida was eleven at the time.

Six years later, when Zahida had finished the first stage of her education, her beauty began to attract the attention of some young boys. She didn't say anything to her father. She was returning home one evening with friends when the boys kidnapped her. They were ruling party boys, so the police would say nothing. They raped her for days, and finally murdered her and dumped her body in the verandah of her house. Sheikh Navid Khan nearly went insane. The only thought that saved him was the thought of revenge.

Since the story had been in the newspapers, and the suspects had been named - and, as usual in such cases - never arrested, he knew whom to look for. With the overlap between the underworld and the political world that had taken place under democratic rule, it was a cinch finding the boys. He murdered them personally.

That would probably have been the end of the affair. However, his intellect intervened. He kept asking, Why? Why? Why did the boys kill her? Because they could get away with it. They had raped and killed many times before with perfect impunity. Why did they get away with it every time? Because the party protected them. Why did the party protect them? Because they were vote-banks, they took to the streets, they brought down governments. They were student leaders. He realised then that the system was flawed. But with his scanty resources he couldn't rise above these insights.

He began to teach himself. He studied English until he was perfectly fluent. He began to read. He made himself intimately familiar with international affairs. He studied history. He studied philosophy. All the agony of a lone parent who had lost his only child in a brutal episode motivated him. And then he stumbled on my writings, and everything, he claimed, became clear.

The real enemy was the West.

For years he could not look at a white man without wanting to kill him. He thought of going to Afghanistan or Iraq to fight the white man. And then he realised what an asset he had right here, in Teknaf. There was the river, Burma, and the sea. He began to study sea-routes, and appreciated the importance of the route he could control. Of course, to be successful in everything, he had to have a state of anarchy in Bangladesh. Democratic rule would ensure that the country remained lawless. And he had to maintain anonymity. He installed loyal men in key positions he controlled: and then he pretended to be going abroad. Nobody had seen him in daylight for years at Teknaf. He made those imagined trips to Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Indonesia, the Philippines.... He had a legitimate business in Dhaka which acted as a front for his real activities. He fought to avenge Zahida.

Faria grew quiet. The sun began to descend on the Bangladeshi hills. It was raining over the Burmese hills in the northeast. That region of the sky was dark with clouds and a silver curtain of rain hung above the hills.

Faria looked down at the grass.

"You must be wondering where I fit in in all this."

I stayed silent.

"On those rare occasions that Zahida came down to Teknaf, she would play with me. I used to go to school, and I would write to her when she was away. I even visited her in Dhaka several times." She looked at me with challenging eyes. "I was the daughter of a prostitute, and a prostitute myself for some time. Then Zahida died and Uncle Navid took me away to grow up with him. My mother was only too happy to let me live with him. So you see, Zafar sahib, my station is way beneath yours..." She broke into sobs and ran towards the bungalow.

I didn't stop her. I watched the king crows hunt for insects for a while; the sky darkened and the place became gloomy; I walked in with heavy footsteps.



CHAPTER 3
AT COX'S BAZAAR

The next afternoon, I knocked on her door, not having seen her the whole day.

"Yes?"

"Let's go for a drive."

"Where to?"

"To Cox's Bazaar."

She looked at her watch. "It'll be night before we get back."

"Are you afraid of the dark?"

She smiled despite herself.

"Let me change."

She changed into a black kameez printed with tiny, white leaves and a zebra-striped shalwar with matching dupatta. She wore her hair loose. She looked beautiful as she drove and the wind lifted her hair.

A rainbow hung over the Burmese hills on our right. The paddy was green on either side. Men carried the paddy in sheaves on both ends of a pole slung over their shoulders. The poles danced as they moved.

The highway was winding and undulating. Acacias had been planted on either side. Sal forests appeared towards the end. Sometimes, rain-trees formed an arch over the road, creating an avenue of trees bending their branches together like the palms of a hundred hands. We moved over hills and down hills. The hills were on either side, green and wooded. It was a beautiful stretch of highway - perhaps the best in the country. The scenery was not so varied as to interrupt the stream of one's thoughts, nor so uniform as to lull into stupor.

The border patrol stopped the car twice. A uniformed soldier inspected the vehicle - in the boot, under the seats - but otherwise left us alone.

We passed though Neela, Ukhia and Ramu.

Finally, to our left were the hotels of Cox's Bazaar, now touristless; the tourist season was still a month or so away. To our right towered a hill: the lighthouse at the top signaled to ships in the Bay. A low moon had risen.

"What's that light?" asked Faria.

Above the hill, against the darkening sky, a fire rose upwards.

"That's a paper balloon. That's where we are headed."

We climbed the hill to the Buddhist monastery.

"I've never been here!" she exclaimed as she took off her shoes to enter the compound.

"On this day of the full moon, the Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment."

A festival was on inside. An endless procession of men, women and children proceeded in and out of the gate. It had rained heavily during the latter part of the day here, so the ground was a bit soggy but the grass was dry under our feet.

Behind us, moderately loud instrumental music poured out of a megaphone. Ahead, a recitation in Burmese - which even the local Rakhine people, I was told, had difficulty understanding - issued from a tent-like structure erected in the field. It was a tape recording made in Burma. The temple on our right contained a golden Buddha enclosed in a big room. Around the base of the Buddha were various gods before whom worshippers placed their candles and prayed. The building was covered with thousands of tiny electric bulbs of various colours.

The voices of children and women and men mingled with the sound of crackers and other noisy pyrotechnic displays.

We were drawn towards the balloons made of paper. At first, the balloon would be droopy as it was filled with hot air from a flame. The balloon was as tall as a man, so three stalwart young men were engaged in the operation, around which a crowd of onlookers - including ourselves - gathered. Once the balloon stood upright, ready to take off with all the hot air inside, a flame was lit at the mouth below, and away it went into the night sky - like a soul lifting itself towards heaven. The flaming balloon would be visible for miles around.

Several such takeoffs occurred within the space of an hour. Sometimes, the takeoff would be obstructed by a tree, and the balloon would be caught in the branches. In a way, it symbolised - for me, on this day - the frustration of earthly desires to ascend to a higher plane.

Having watched the balloons soar, we went round to the other stalls. Rakhine girls, looking very pretty in their pink thamis and matching blouses, offered us sweet drinks - which were also pink in colour. The sherbet was good, and we had several glasses.

We fetched up at another pagoda before which the Rakhine girls were offering drinks. There were folding chairs for devotees and we seated ourselves and inspected the imposing structure. This statue was grey, and austere. It was covered from the peak to the base with long strings of light. Above the base was a small casement where a few objects of devotion, wrapped in garments, had been deposited.

It was a warm night; the sky was overcast and there was rain in the air.

"What a beautiful place, Zafar!" There were tears in her eyes.

"Lovely, isn't it?"

A Rakhine girl came up to us with a glass of sherbet in each hand. It seemed rude to refuse.

"The balloons symbolise souls, don't they? Souls ascending towards heaven - liberated!"

"Something like that, I should think."

She looked into my eyes.

"Can we ever do that? Rise above?"

"Why not?" I tried to sound facetious. I knew we couldn't. Not in this world. I sipped the sherbet. "Nice sherbet."

She looked down, and downcast.

"Look, look up at the balloons!"

She looked up again, and a smile broke out, a smile accompanied by a few tears. She wiped her eyes quickly. Her lips parted in something more than a smile - perhaps a prayer.

There was a thunderclap.

"I think we'd better get back to the car," I suggested.

She nodded.

"Let's not go home for dinner," I said as we walked towards the gate. "Let's have dinner at the Sagorika."

"Good idea," she shouted above the music, and the sermon, and the talk, and the laughter.

On our way out, a beggar, bent over a book, asked for alms. Faria opened her handbag, and dropped a wad of notes on the cloth next to the pavement.



CHAPTER 4
ESCAPE FROM TEKNAF

The unexpected happened.

"There's been a military coup in Dhaka, General," announced Navid in the drawing-room the next day.

"A coup!" echoed the General.

We all sat down instinctively.

"Yes, a coup. Apparently the mullahs were going to get a large chunk of seats the next election. Hence, a coup was permitted by our western masters."

"That makes sense," I said.

"You see, we are slaves, we are not free. the West decides whether we will be run by civilians or by the army. They decide everything."

"But doesn't this change everything for you, Navid?" I asked.

"You're absolutely right. I will be found out sooner or later. My midnight operations have become impossible. I shall have to leave."

"I'll go with you, Uncle," said Faria.

Navid lifted gentle eyes towards her. "I wish you didn't have to, Faria. You could have gone with Zafar. But they'll arrest you and torture you for information." He turned to me. "the West doesn't mind torturing people now that their own safety is at stake. Don't they realise that we, too, yearn for safety? We wanted to live under the General, and they put a stop to that."

The General nodded, his prominent nose bobbing up and down.

"But they shall pay. They shall suffer for what they have done to us." He paused. "To me."

We were silent.

Eyes cast down, Navid resumed. "Zafar sahib and General Haroon, you must leave immediately. My car will take you to Cox's Bazaar. We, too, shall leave, for goodness knows where." He looked up. There was decision in his eyes.

I rose and went over to Faria. I sat next to her.

"When shall we meet again?"

She was silent.

"When?" I repeated.

Navid and the General glided out of the room.

"Perhaps never."

There were no tears today. There was resolution in her voice as well.



I shall respect and feel affection for Navid, and I shall continue to miss Faria. Will she ever send me a sign? I live with hope. Meanwhile, every year, I go back to Cox's Bazaar to watch the paper balloons rise towards the sky, flaming symbols of our freedom from the earth.

7 comments:

  1. NOVELLA or perhaps a longer version of shorter chapters is a possibility for your writings, I love your title

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  2. The story draws me into its atmosphere with vivid descriptions. The characters were confusing.. not sure why uncle Navid hates slavery so much when hes making a big profit off peoples slavery to heroin. But then people are full of contradictions. Not sure also why the main character would admire Navid unless hes a jihadi himself, but his sex life seems his main religion...hes definitely not into fundamentalist Islamic practices.

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  3. Beautiful description in either a very well researched or authentic voice. Well paced. Long as it is, it feels excerpted from something longer. Hard to say why... maybe the way certain back story, characters and relationships are assumed. Burma was changed to Myanmar in 1989, well before 9/11, so the time setting confused a little at first. Thought it more a historical or era piece. Saw very few nits (and I'm not sure this is the venue to present them - if not, sorry).

    "Her black eyes glistened..."
    Not incorrect, but this grammar always makes me think a character has other sets of different-colored eyes. Or, in this case, just a pair of black eyes as from possibly a broken nose.

    "But no single person or organisation controlled the heroine trade."
    heroin?

    "And did the west listen?"
    West (when used as a proper noun)


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    Replies
    1. Thanks, I missed those and will correct them. [editor]

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  4. I understand a lot of American foreign policy is completely broken. Democracy absolutely does not work everywhere. But as someone who has seen a woman who worked at WTC, that by the providence of God didn't have to work the day of 9/11, cry in my mother's arms as she told my mother, yes, she was still alive, what you say about 9/11 is not cool at all. I understand your view of things, but try to see it from the point of Americans who lost fathers, mothers, children on 9/11. I would just leave 9/11 out of this story and say what you have to say. 9/11 for New Yorkers like me was traumatic and a day I will absolutely not forget.

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  5. Intriguing characters with interesting backstories, good pace, kept my attention throughout despite being a longer tale. Appreciated the glimpse into an unfamiliar setting.

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