Only after she secures her starched white blouse does she line her eyes and dab her cheeks. Otherwise she wears no visible makeup. Slinging the yellowing cloth bag over her shoulder, she locks her door and makes her way down the unpainted stairs. When she steps outside, she is confronted by the dust and commotion of a seven-am weekday. But there is a welcome that Dhaka reserves solely for her.
After she turns the corner and makes her way through rickshaws and cycles that jingle in unison, she passes a small restaurant that caters to the budgets of low-level office clerks, factory caretakers, and wealthy college students. Outside the eatery, her special greeting awaits. Smiling in a ridiculous manner, the clown stands. On spying her, his grin broadens and his face folds into mad, childish happiness. And as she hastens by looking elsewhere, he laughs and stamps in delight as if applauding her appearance. He claps as if magic had just unfolded. She blushes at his attentions and paces onwards, furious with the public display. Local youngsters revel: dancing and laughing, they are thrilled that the ritual has once again been observed. Strangers halt their morning routines to stare at the spectacle, while she hurries to the end of the street. This is where I watch from.
Bothered by flies, I sit unnoticed in the bamboo shade of a fruit-stall and watch her face. When she reaches my intersection, she seems relieved from having escaped the simpleton’s buffoonery. But I have also observed, much to my consternation, a bemused smile on her face.
Her name is Ayesha. She is a nurse in burn-victim rehabilitation at a nearby hospital. It is a new institute, funded by foreign partners and aid. The hundred-bed facility was launched with the pomp reserved for do-gooders and thieving bureaucrats alike. They boast top quality equipment and a staff trained by busybodies who fly in from glamorous lands. Specialized in treating women that are casualties of acid-attacks, they have money to throw. I detest their type; busy saving the world they close their eyes to the truths of our times. They do not accept that even the toughest laws cannot make man turn away from the sulphur in his nature. The victims they try to save, I have seen them charred and scorched because a dowry bicycle was the wrong colour, because a relative was a week late with rent, or because a brother did not comply with local thugs. For any number of reasons, actually. This makes me laugh deep into myself, until my amusements rings and echoes about my core.
Ayesha lives alone. An older woman from the mohallah has the keys to Ayesha’s flat, and visits on Saturdays for a few hours. This woman cooks and freezes some food, and takes care of the laundry. Mostly, she just lazes about while the clothes dry, farts piercingly, and smokes hand-rolled bidis. The hospital pays little, but Ayesha needs little. Her day-off is Friday and she stays home, to experiment with new recipes, to read her Bengali books, and to hum the hours away. She likes to sing, but I find Ayesha’s style unpolished, with none of the nuances and flourishes of an experienced artiste.
Her family is a small one – the parents have retired to their village home in Rajshahi and two elder brothers live in nearby cities. Ayesha is almost twenty-four and is often pressed to marry. Concerned kindred regularly send messages praising this or that bachelor. But Ayesha declares no interest in meeting a man to share her days with.
Most of this I glean from her Saturday assistant. The lonely crone is full of frivolous talk. My charms, and the treats I buy her at the tea shop, unlock secrets. This woman fits perfectly into this slatternly megalopolis; her hands are crude and square and they look as capable of murder as they are of washing the fragile garments of sweet Ayesha.
I know this shrew well, as well as I know this city of my birth. This great labyrinth of men and beasts that shrieks and groans in the night as its bones stretch, as new buildings swell and bridges collapse, as red dust fills the air, and as cement bags, glass slabs, and iron rods stifle the sounds of childbirth, of pedestrians run over by VVIPs, of bulldozers clearing shanty-towns and forests, of women trafficked and raped, and of worried children that pray in square madrasas. And our gentle youths sit by nonplussed, only to blow smoke into the skies. All of this takes place as motors and politicians belch carbon at us, and as compromised soldiers take aim, as seasons disappear, as idols topple and burn, and as generations are buried in peaty and foreign marshes on their way to seek employment abroad.
In daylight, just as at night when the power cuts arrive, this colossus of a city groans under the weight of its own mushrooming frame, and as bones turn to diamond under the crush, they are mined and shipped away quietly. While some acquire furs, others hunt frogs and rodents and monitor-lizards. But there is no right or wrong side for me – we are all tormented by gnats and give chase to flashy flashy flags, in this mad, striped merry-go-round, while behind us we hear the hiss and gurgle of a tidal surge assuming shape.
In my own days, as a marketing mercenary, I shielded myself from the squalor. I made money for myself – an astute and ruthless tradesman, my returns were high. But then, just as I thought there was nothing left in this warren for me to learn, nothing left to beat or break, I found Ayesha.
The first day I spied her, she was waiting for a bus. Tender-footed rascals horded about her, but Ayesha was patient. A rock, she held them down like bits of flapping papers. In all her simplicity, she struck me in the gut with the undeniable realization that before me stood the last, unpolluted woman in this city. And I knew then that she must be mine.
I have been watching her since, to measure my stratagem.
It was a minor irritation to discern that there was a competitor for my attentions. The buffoon, his name is Kamal. Though he works in the restaurant as a waiter, he has his petty aspirations: his brother owns the pennyworth establishment. Kamal has been working there for three years, while his sister attends a boarding school in the village. She visits her two brothers over the summer and on holidays. I study Kamal as closely as I watch the lesions that increasingly break over my skin.
I have heard that for three years now, rain or shine, this jester has been wooing Ayesha. He never looks at another. While he has never missed a morning, he does not try to approach or speak to her. He just sticks to his laughing and clapping, oblivious to the world that slows down to observe the encounter. It is not unusual for Ayesha to peer shyly when pedestrians confront Kamal and demand that he ceases harassing her. But he, this bizarre man, keeps laughing with delight and their objections melt away in the face of his absurd innocence.
Local shopkeepers tell me that Ayesha knows his name, but never speaks of him. Residents in the quarter are well accustomed to the daily ceremony. Kamal never fails to plant himself at his spot, greeting everyone. The imbecile is well-liked by neighbourhood regulars – labourers pause to address him, housewives procuring groceries chuckle on espying him, and elders sit down to adda with him. They commonly anticipate Ayesha’s arrival. Children of the mohallah patrol the road and shout to Kamal that no, she was not there yet; yes, she’s on the way, she’s almost here. Ayesha knows most of these children by name. They follow her, but she eventually shoos them away with sweets and cheap candy. These children, these midget match-makers, pose a threat to my success, and to my scheme of ridding Ayesha of her blustering devotee. I tried to win the favour of these little savages, but they avoid me; it is apparent their loyalties have been won over before my arrival.
In the evenings, after I visit my debtors, I return to her road. In the descending darkness, I shift my vantage point from the end of the street to directly across from the restaurant. In the twilight, I can watch undisturbed. I sip on tea, and smoke cigarettes with a newspaper folded on my knees. I blend in with the locals like a gecko, untouched by their chatter I wait for Ayesha. No one detects my raspy breathing and my irregular heartbeat. When she returns from work, Kamal is usually busy serving dinner. He can not watch for her then, but if their eyes meet, he smiles before returning to work. She tries not to look into the restaurant but I have frequently spotted her doing so. It makes me furious to think that seeing him again could be a marker for the end of her day.
I have observed and learned this over the months since I first unearthed Ayesha. Since the sky split open its grey to pour her colours at my feet. I know I am not a good man, but Ayesha will save me. She will prevent my end from meaninglessness. She will lend me grace and succour to the last day. When gain her, I will empty out every bit of my pain, and like limp monsoon soils, she will take me into her bosom.
These past months have been busy for me. Apart from winning over her housekeeper, I have visited Ayesha’s hospital on Fridays to speak to her colleagues. Assisted with an introduction from a corruptible receptionist, I have posed as a hospice inspector and discovered a great deal about Ayesha’s world, and things that Kamal cannot know…things that he cannot clap about. I learned about the women Ayesha treats, the ones who survived acid attacks. After hospital treatments, they move to shelters to engage in small industry – some sort of weaving or small craft. They stay out of the public eye as much as possible: few can deal with the stares.
The staff that work there are resolute about progress; they showed me a picture of a group of women who travelled abroad for surgery. The picture was taken after operations and bandages were done with, and the patients are smiling. But when I look beyond their scabbed and tentacled features to piece together their souls, I determine that they must be empty smiles. I know from the washerwoman that Ayesha has this same picture in her room.
I ingeniously probed into Ayesha, and they pronounced her a good worker with a flawless record. She is kind to the patients. They told me how difficult it was when a survivor wanted to know how she looked, and when they asked if the wounds would heal. As the pathetic caretakers began to tear, I turned away in disgust.
But one nurse noticed this, and maybe she had detected my sickness, but she gripped my arm. In a voice almost possessed she told me that, yes, there were victims upon victims abandoned by their families. I nodded, feigning sympathy, but she would not let go. Speaking into my face, this runt of a woman then told me about a husband who stayed with his young wife, though she had been blinded and heavily scarred. She recounted to me how the husband painted his wife’s fingernails. She insisted the man made his wife beautiful again, every single day.
I pulled my arm free and took my bid of them. I noticed the nurse still shaking as I left, and I almost wanted to run back in and deal her a blow. I wanted to pull her down and leave her a wreck.
Now that my research is complete, I have decided to make my move. Every morning, I let my presence be known to Ayesha. When she reaches my intersection, I am sure to be engaged in conversation. I pretend to laugh the loudest, to make the most sense, and yet appear most considerate. My clothes are creased stiffly and my hair is parted impeccably. I buy appetizers for my foolish compatriots and quickly become a favourite in my own little corner.
These are happy and new days for me. Though Ayesha must notice me, she continues to walk modestly with her head down. However, I am sure I have detected her glancing at me approvingly. Everything is perfect; all that remains is to rid ourselves of Kamal’s distractions. It is time. Days ago, I had experienced a disconcerting moment. While I was scrutinizing Kamal, he abruptly turned towards me from his spot at the restaurant. Even though he was quite a distance off, and his idiotic smile stayed in place, I could swear that his eyes fixed on me and looked right past my defences. It felt as if there was an internal shifting of liquids, a flickering of mental shadows that forebode danger. A shiver passed through me and I felt exposed and afraid. But this only lasted an instant, and as Kamal turned away, my confidence swept back. Ayesha would be mine. She is ready for my picking.
My plan is simple. I know the school Kamal’s sister attends. I hired three men to visit the campus yesterday and harass her. There is no need for anything extreme, but they scared the pretty thing into calling for her city siblings. The news reached the two brothers this morning. I took my stool at the intersection early on this great day. Gossipmongers have ensured that the news of the sister’s predicament is exaggerated. It is early and Ayesha is not expected as yet. Word has buzzed down the street: listen to the urchins cry out, ‘Kamal Bhai, poor Kamal Bhai. He must leave immediately, his sister is ill.’ The neighbourhood is humming with reports: Kamal’s elder brother will stay and run the business, while the fool will attend to the sister. See how the shutters on the restaurant front are half drawn, as if in mourning. And Kamal is nowhere to be seen, his spot outside remains empty.
Ayesha must be stepping out from her flat now, and she must immediately know that something is wrong. There are no little faces peeping around the buildings to watch for her. The pests are sitting by the roadside, too dejected to hail her. Now, as she turns her corner and enters my line of vision, I can tell she walks in confusion. The locals are too troubled to meet her eye. The labourers swallow their glum bread, as even the tea-stall owner loses interest in stirring his syrups. Nobody acknowledges Ayesha as she approaches.
See her amazement that the space outside the restaurant is bare. The clown is not there, a first in three years. She passes the restaurant, looks within and hesitates at the doorway, stumbling with indecision. Oh yes, Ayesha continues to amble her usual way. She walks slowly though, and no children chase her today. As she reaches my intersection, and the game is almost complete, she stops suddenly. She turns and strides back to the restaurant. I rise from my corner and run after her. I gain ground to find her at the entrance. Kamal is sitting at a table inside, his face buried in his hands. His shoulders slouched; his back is to us as he stares into the dust at his feet. He is unaware of us at the entryway and to the whole neighbourhood that is watching.
Before I can catch my breath, Ayesha enters and sits at Kamal’s table, facing him. Her face is gentler and more serene than I have ever seen; even gentler than when she is with her dear beggar-children. She puts her plain bag down and waits for his eyes to find her. I hear her speak, ‘What is it, Kamal? I am here…for you now…’
And I know my work here is done.
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