Such a quiet boy could not be good. Zulekha saw him the first morning he was on duty, waiting for the girl that was to be his charge. She asked his name, and he ignored her. A snide remark about him being deaf and dumb didn’t make a difference. He went on cleaning the dashboard and only left her steaming even more. That first time Zulekha thought, there it was! Her mother’s warning in motion, that anyone who refused eye contact when speaking or spoken to, was hiding something. They were not to be trusted. But even before trust came into play what should come to mind was to run away, as far from them as possible. As she, Zulekha’s mother, hadn’t done; and Zulekha was not going to do.
On her tea and paan breaks, when the paranoid old widow she worked for allowed them, Zulekha maximized her time. She checked in with Rabiul, the older of the three night guards. He was the only one that didn’t fondle her with his eyes. The new driver, however, had left everyone of the same mind with his deathly silence.
‘He sits in the drivers’ room hour after hour not even once clearing his throat,’ Rabiul told her. ‘The little girl, Miss Ruksana, she talks to him all the time. Nothing. He just says salaam to her once in the morning, once in the afternoon.’
‘What is he hiding, Uncle?’ Zulekha said.
‘He’s hiding from the likes of you, probably, you sneaky husband hunter,’ Rabiul teased. ‘Miss Ruksana calls him Dulal bhai. So, there, his name is Dulal.’
Zulekha rolled the name around inside her mouth. She let it spin and tumble in her head. The line of drivers and other male employees of the building that she had at her disposal at any time had the other maids of the building spitting curses at God for the injustice. They would titter with glee if they knew Zulekha had had the decency to choose the least desirable one of the lot. They’d think her a certifiable idiot. A waste of God-given beauty.
Unpopularity Zulekha couldn’t care less about. She was used to it. Being born in a slum with her looks, life had already condemned her to an existence given more to antipathy than acceptance. Even the mistresses she’d worked for over the years eventually let their mental pustules of insecurity break open and run toward her to relieve her of her duties before their husbands left them for her. Zulekha was not only young, well-proportioned, with that extra heft in her hips that no Bengali man would deride or reject, she was also fair-skinned – that Everest of complexion every woman in Bangladesh wanted to climb and achieve; and she was a virgin. Had she been born into a ‘good’ household, one of the renowned Dhaka families with money and social standing, her parents’ doors would be knocked down day and night with proposals of marriage. She wouldn’t even need to be a virgin. Her looks and family name would be enough to start feuds for her hand.
At six-thirty in the morning, while the widow was still asleep, Zulekha went downstairs for tea. It was a ruse to watch Dulal prepare the car and wait for his little mistress. The amount of attention he paid that car was enough to make Zulekha dizzy with sweet turmoil. That brand-new car didn’t need those lovely, long-fingered hands caressing it.She didn’t either, and not as easily as the car, just there for the taking. And before any touching, she would absolutely have to know what lay underneath that silence.
‘Girl, keep those eyes of yours in more control,’ said Buri Bua, the widow’s long-time caretaker. Zulekha enjoyed listening to her morsels of wisdom from another era more for entertainment than practical application. ‘You think no one sees them roving and roaming. Others have eyes, too.’
And what about the hundred men whose eyes roved and roamed on her? They were accountable to no one. No old father figure would ever tell them to control their eyes.
Zulekha spent hours during her day, well into the night, wondering what Dulal said to himself in his own head. Among the storylines she imagined was the one where Dulal was married. The one Zulekha crushed with all her will when it cropped up. She told herself that he was too young to be married, that since he never said anything it could mean he had nothing major about his life to share. A wife and family would inevitably be the first thing a man talked about. If he didn’t mention them, Zulekha decided, they did not exist. Since he never talked at all, a world of possibility existed for her to help him make one.
One morning at the beginning of December, the widow finally announced her annual trip to her daughter’s place in Chittagong. Zulekha used to count the seconds leading to this moment that released her for two weeks to be with her family. This year she had different plans. She was not going home. Buri Bua, too, would be gone to be with her relatives in her village. Zulekha would be alone, with time and freedom to devote to the new driver.
She was confident that he would not get a holiday when his little mistress was on vacation from school because her parents maintained a busy social calendar. Zulekha felt sorry for the girl. She had no friends that Zulekha had seen, and on the slightest of excuses was packed into the car and sent off to the home of some relative or other. Building gossip about the activities of her parents made her hot with guilt and shame, and she kept her ears clear of them.
Rabiul was dozing in the tiny guard’s quarter one evening, shivering lightly. Zulekha brought him an old blanket from the widow’s enormous stash. She also bought him a cup of tea and a couple of buns from across the street.
‘Daughter, I have no new information for you,’ he chuckled. ‘You can bribe me all you want.’ He draped the blanket tightly around his shoulders. ‘God bless you, child.’
Zulekha drank her tea.
‘I’m just a foolish girl, kaka,’ she said.
‘Better than being a foolish old man,’ said Rabiul. ‘At least I have a bright side to look ahead to. Death. You have only life for many more years.’ He touched her head and muttered a prayer. ‘So, go find what you need to find. Those years won’t be kind, I’ll tell you. They’ll be selfish and demanding.’
The elevator doors opened and Dulal’s little mistress’ parents walked out. Rabiul jumped to his feet. The blanket slid off his shoulders. Zulekha went behind a parked car. As Rabiul opened the gate, the car that was devoted to the little girl’s use rolled out of its parking spot. Dulal stepped out of the driver’s seat and held the door open for the girl’s parents. Zulekha had had no inkling he’d been there, the whole time, sitting in the darkness of the car.
‘Hassan is a crook, and a lecher,’ the wife was saying. ‘At least Habib has had the decency to be a good husband and father in public.’ She disappeared into the back seat. The husband took a moment before entering. He looked around, as if seeking a friendly face, and found Zulekha peering out from behind the car she was using as a shield. He shook his head and got in. Dulal shut the door, climbed back into the driver’s seat and put the car in gear. In her mind Zulekha dashed in front of the car, blocking its path, forcing Dulal to shout at her to move.
Zulekha stood outside their apartment with her finger poised to press the bell. She touched her ear to the door. There were no sounds, but she could tell the apartment was not empty. She knew the cook, another old soul like the night guard, and had brought Eid offerings from the widow in the past, so it wouldn’t be unusual to pay a visit. She rang.
The door opened. The young mistress, covered in a beautiful shawl a few sizes too big for her, stood looking older than her age.
‘Apu, you know me, no?’ said Zulekha. ‘From upstairs?’
The girl, keeping her eyes steady on Zulekha, rummaged through her memory banks.
‘Is baburchi kaka here?’ Zulekha asked.
The girl shook her head.
‘He went out,’ she said.
‘That is a gorgeous shawl,’ said Zulekha. ‘Where did you get it? From your mother?’
‘No,’ said the girl. ‘What do you want?’
Zulekha was potentially asking for trouble if the girl reported her to her parents.
‘I want a shawl just like that,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen you in it before, and I wanted to ask where you got it.’
The girl’s face twisted in confusion.
‘It was a gift, and you couldn’t have seen it because I’ve never worn it outside the apartment.’
‘Is it from a boy?’ Zulekha asked playfully.
‘What if it was?’
‘My goodness, apu, you’re a feisty one.’
This made the girl smile. She touched the shawl proudly, almost flauntingly.
‘He’s the quietest boy in the world,’ she said. ‘Do you know how I can get him to say more?’
Zulekha said, ‘I know someone like that, too. But, apu, you are too young to have a boyfriend.’
‘He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a boy. A grown man. But I call him a boy. They’re all boys.’
‘Well, my pretty little apu, when you see him again tell him he should say more. Otherwise us poor girls will never know their minds. Will you keep a request of mine?’
The girl waited, once again, absentmindedly giving the shawl a tender caress.
‘Don’t tell your mother and father I was here,’ said Zulekha. ‘I just wanted to say hello. I always see you. And now we have a secret in common, too, no?’
‘I don’t have secrets from my parents,’ argued the girl.
‘Do they know where that shawl came from?’
The girl bit her lower lip.
‘Then you do have one secret,’ Zulekha pointed out. ‘One more won’t hurt. It will be between friends, me and you.’
The girl stared long and hard at Zulekha.
‘Is that your real skin color?’ she asked.
‘You’re the fairest girl I’ve ever seen. My mother talks about having skin like yours, as does every one of her friends, and everyone else. I find makeup disgusting.’
‘You’re a very pretty girl,’ said Zulekha.
‘I’m me. Okay, go now. I have to finish my homework.’
After the door was shut, Zulekha stood a few moments longer listening to the silence inside.
It was a weekday, and in the morning Dulal didn’t bring out the car for the girl. The girl’s father had left for work in his car. The mother got picked up by a friend around lunchtime, and the girl went with her. Zulekha followed their cook up to the apartment when he returned from the market.
‘What do you want?’ the cook asked.
‘You need some help?’ Zulekha offered.
‘You work for another home. Now, what do you want?’
Zulekha said she hadn’t seen the new driver and the girl hadn’t gone to school that morning, trying to sound nonchalant.
‘They want to send the little one to a different school,’ the cook told her. ‘The Umrican one, I think. In Baridhara.’
‘Maybe she will be happier…’ she said in what she hoped was a disinterested tone.
‘Too much money on too many drivers,’ the cook said. ‘New school will send a bus and drop her off in one. Shahib is in bad place with money.’
‘What about the new one?’ she asked, as cautiously as possible.
‘Last day was yesterday,’ said the cook. He added, ‘He was a good boy. Didn’t talk, didn’t mix with others, didn’t have bad habits, just did his work.’
‘Where will he go?’ she wondered aloud.
The cook poured her tea. ‘Drivers find work in minutes around here. He’ll be fine. Drink it. It has ginger. Your throat sounds a little raw.’ He sat on a stool with half a dozen potatoes and a basket between his feet. ‘What is it, child? What has your eye swimming with sadness?’ The smirk on his face smoothed its wrinkles in a way that seemed to Zulekha a snapshot of the man as a young boy. A mischievous boy, whose heart had just broken at the sight of the longing for someone else in the eyes of the girl he liked.
‘I’m not sad,’ said Zulekha.
The cook’s rheumy laugh gurgled in his throat.
‘He was a very likable boy.’ Coils of potato skin formed and twirled with finesse onto the basket, like beauty rejected. ‘A young girl liking him isn’t out of this world. Even our little mistress. Heartbroken, poor little thing. She cried all day yesterday. She doesn’t like anyone, not even her parents, but that boy, her face lit like a hundred light bulbs just at the thought of seeing him every day.’ He dropped the peeled potatoes in the basket on top of their skin and set water to boil. ‘He even gave her that shawl. Shahib and memshahib are so clueless about their child that anyone could hand her anything and they wouldn’t notice.’
Zulekha found it so warming that the shawl was a gift from Dulal that she nearly blurted her feelings for him. And the little girl, cleverer than Zulekha could ever guess!
‘So…where did he go?’ she asked.
‘How should I know,’ said the cook, as though he’d been accused of something. He sunk the potatoes in the boiling water.
‘No, I mean, where does he live?’
The cook fixed a stare on her for a few seconds too long. Zulekha set down her cup and made to leave.
‘Hatirjheel,’ said the cook. He sounded begrudging as a reluctant father at relenting on his daughter’s stubborn wish.
A young unmarried woman seeking out a young unmarried man in his place of residence would stoke gossip. Zulekha was bound by this taboo. But she desired to live her life fully. And if she was going to spend it with someone then she was going to be the one to seek that someone out.
Over the next several days she chatted with the other drivers, who were delighted by the attention she was finally giving them, and found that many of them also lived in Hatirjheel. One even mentioned having Dulal as a neighbour.
‘Dulal?’ Zulekha asked feigning ignorance.
‘Worked here for a short while. Drove around the little miss in C-2.’
‘Oh. Where is he now?’
‘Where he works I don’t know. But he lives in my building. He’s right next door to me. I think he’s a fruitcake, you know what I mean.’ He grinned. ‘Do you want to see where I live?’
Any other time Zulekha would have shut him down. She’d seen him hound the other maids of the building, and on the street. He was fat and had breath as foul as a gutter. He had a wife and children in his village, and Zulekha had overheard him speaking in the vilest terms about them to anyone willing to listen.
‘Sometime, yes,’ she said. ‘When?’
He had not expected her to accept so easily, or at all. His eyes enlarged and he was momentarily speechless. The other drivers were watching from the drivers’ room behind the guard’s quarter. Whether she liked it or not the gossip would spark. Nothing in life came without a price.
‘Day after tomorrow,’ said the driver, almost frothy with excitement. ‘You can come with me when I’m done with duty.’
‘No. Tomorrow,’ Zulekha countered. ‘On one condition.’
The driver’s excitement paused.
‘You give me the address and I will meet you there.’
The next evening she stood outside the driver’s door. He’d given her his name. She couldn’t recall it. She was paying him less than half a mind when he was rattling through a thousand pieces of information about his life. His aspirations held little interest for Zulekha, more so because she knew he was baring all the details as a preface to even more mundane facts. Zulekha gave her memory another knock and pull. It was Al-Amin.
Al-Amin was dressed in a starched white kurta and white pyjama, his hair slicked with coconut oil that Zulekha could smell from three feet away. He asked her to come in but she stood outside absentmindedly wondering if Dulal was behind the door to her left or to her right.
‘Girl, are you still asleep?’ Al-Amin laughed. ‘Come inside and have a cup of tea.’ He moved in closer. ‘Don’t worry about anything. You’re not the first young girl to visit a man here. No one cares. No one looks.’ His breath choked Zulekha.
‘Which one is the other driver’s home?’ she asked.
‘Other driver?’ Al-Amin’s face contorted. ‘What other driver?’
‘You know, the one that used to work for the little girl.’
‘Oh, that one. Why do you care about him? Don’t tell me. I’ve heard enough about that dumb lout.’
Suspicion clouded Al-Amin’s expression.
‘Is that why you’re really here? To see that tongue-less halfwit? He’s a pansy, didn’t I tell you?’
‘No…’ Zulekha started.
‘No what?’ Al-Amin fumed, spewing blasts of hot fetid breath.
‘I was just wondering…’
‘Talk to me, you bitch! I’ll smack the silence out of you in two minutes!’
‘Why would I come to see him when I’m here with you?’ said Zulekha. Men of unpredictable temperament like that got away with everything, always blaming their temper flares on the women after beating them.
Al-Amin eyed her suspiciously.
‘You’re not lying to me, are you?’
‘No,’ Zulekha replied.
‘Then say so,’ Al-Amin ordered. ‘Inside, come.’
‘It’s such a nice day, let’s go for a walk by the water.’
Al-Amin frowned. He grew impatient. His fingers closed into a fist and opened, repeatedly.
‘Walk? I don’t like walking,’ he said. ‘Don’t fool around with me, girl. I can see right through you. You led me on and now you’re here outside my door, and you want me to believe you want to go for a walk by the water?’
‘Brother – ’
‘Don’t brother me! I’m not your brother!’
‘Then I will go.’
He was trying to be intimidating, but he was simply a doddering drunk dissatisfied with his life, with only himself to blame for it. Zulekha even had the flicker of a desire to help him. But he was a rabid hound. Nothing she could do would make him react other than with defensive rage.
‘Try and leave, see what happens,’ threatened Al-Amin. ‘I’ve had enough of sluts like you. All the same, every last one of you.’ There was scant wind behind his words.
‘Go inside and get some sleep,’ she told him. ‘You’re unwell.’
Zulekha didn’t want to leave without knowing, maybe seeing, Dulal one more time. Just once more was enough to let him know her feelings, even if he kept silent as a statue. Or if he did speak, said something to break her heart.
‘And I’ve seen enough tramps like you!’ Al-Amin suddenly shouted. ‘Whores, manipulative bitches! All! You show one face to the world and carry around another!’ He lunged at her. Zulekha made a quick move. Al-Amin stumbled past her and crashed against the railing. He caught the end of her dupatta and pulled her back. People saw what was happening but paid it no mind. Zulekha spotted faces taking note and then continuing with their business.
‘You came here to see me and see me you will,’ Al-Amin growled into Zulekha’s face. He shoved her toward his door by her neck. Zulekha braced herself against the doorframe, but his strength was impossible. He pushed her shoulders, jammed his elbow into her spine, and shoved his foot into her lower back.
She heard a choking gasp, and the weight of his vehemence lifted off her. She was free. Before she turned around she caught a glimpse of the inside of Al-Amin’s room. A dingy light bulb hung from a wire, barely illuminating a cramped space littered withold boxes of food, greasy clothes, and tattered posters of semi-nude white women on the scabby walls. Flies buzzed about. The whole place smelled like it was rotting from deep within.
Al-Amin was against the railing, gasping and sputtering. Between him and Zulekha stood Dulal, with his back to her, at the ready to take the other driver again if he charged.
‘You dumb son of a bitch,’ Al-Amin stammered. ‘You tried to strangle me. For that? That putty whore?’
Zulekha moved out of the doorway, and away from the two men. Al-Amin was bigger than Dulal. Next to him Dulal was laughably built, with extreme knock-kneed legs, spindly arms and smooth glowing skin that would be the envy of any woman. He didn’t even have proper facial hair growth. Curly coils sprouted up and down the sides of his face and bloomed on his chin.
Dulal stood aside, opening the route to Al-Amin’s room. It was an option and a silent command in one. Al-Amin glared at Zulekha. A small crowd had gathered. He made no eye contact with them. He brushed past Dulal without looking up at him either. The disappointed crowd dispersed in seconds.
Dulal headed towards his room.
‘Can I come in?’ Zulekha tried to get between him and the door. ‘Please. One minute.’
Dulal moved her out of the way, gently. He led her to the stairs. At the top of the stairs he stopped. It was as far as he was going to escort her.
‘Normal people talk, even once in a while, no matter how quiet they are. Otherwise they’re hiding something,’ she said. She added when she saw that Dulal’s silence was bent upon being resilient as a fortress, ‘My mother told me.’
Zulekha thought she saw his chin twitch a few times, on the verge of saying something, and she too stayed where she was.
‘Just once,’ she pleaded. ‘Anything.’
She spied the beginning of a smile. Maybe it was her imagination, and if it was, she was fine with it, because imagination existed to make reality bearable.
This boy – this man – could not be bad. Her mother didn’t know everything. In recent years Zulekha had had growing doubts about the woman’s entire system of belief. They were little more than a collection of recriminations and regrets. She had no friends. No one in the village liked her. People went out of their way to avoid her. Zulekha had grown up influenced by the notion that every man and woman within spitting distance of her mother had it out for her, that her mother was forever the victim of others’ scorn. The truth was people had better things to do than connive against a woman whose war was with herself.
Zulekha’s mother, like Zulekha, was once a head-turning beauty that no one believed was full-blooded Bengali. With skin as fair as Zulekha’s – many would argue fairer – and eyes grey as a cloudy dawn, she had to be of mixed breed. Rumors floated when she was a child that her mother, Zulekha’s grandmother, had seduced the Brit in whose house she worked as a maid, in the absence of the man’s wife.
Truth was, neither Zulekha’s grandmother nor her mother knew the secrets or the answers or the final word on any one matter; they made them up, and when they could no longer bear their own fabrications they grew hostile. The hostility got passed down from one generation to the next. It now weighed down on Zulekha, and she knew she had to crack it open to expose its empty innards and throw it to the winds. If Dulal was bad, he was bad. That was how he was created. Just as Zulekha was created with the blood mixture of her foremothers.
Zulekha had been staring at Dulal so long that he waved a hand in front of her face to break her out of her reverie. She was thinking, and she had also been staring at the mark on his forehead of regular prayer. She didn’t pray. She never would. That much had to be clear, if she and Dulal were ever going to amount to something. Prayer was a good thing, but it didn’t automatically make people good.
‘Okay then,’ she said. ‘I will go now.’
Dulal touched her shoulder as she turned.
‘It’s very nice to walk over there,’ he spoke. His voice was rich as a milky-sweet cup of fresh-brewed tea. Early morning wood-smoke lingered beneath the words. His Bengali was not the crude Bengali of the Dhaka streets. There was finesse in it, even better than the movies, because it was real. No one was telling him to speak that way.
It wasn’t a direct invitation or a question. His hand remained on her shoulder. Zulekha felt eyes on her, on them. They could have been imaginary, they could have been real. It didn’t take long for people in this city to go from minding their affairs to investing in the business of others with more opinions and conviction than they ever gave their own. Swarms of them were out there to pounce hungrily on the spectacle of someone else’s troubles.
‘You should talk more with that voice of yours,’ she said. ‘Also, you have a very good eye for a man. The young mistress, she loves your gift. I would, too.’
Dulal gently pushed her on, down the stairs. Zulekha saw familiar faces. Three other maids from her building, bosom-friends with imaginations as nefarious as their wagging tongues. They saw her, too. And they saw Dulal, starting with his hand on her shoulder.
If people were going to talk, they were going to talk. Given the opportunity they would malign God.
Zulekha took Dulal’s hand in hers and walked into the crowd.
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