(Translated jointly by Hugh Ferrer and the author)
A rose is a radiant rose …
Michael Kalashnikov, poet and designer of Ak-47 assault rifle
The two policemen were almost on top of the man. The one with the ten-shooter stood barely ten yards away. The man didn’t move; he just dropped the bundle wrapped in a blanket, limply. The sound as it hit the ground had a controlled hardness about it– not blunt, nor sharp, but less soft and supple than a simple blanket would have produced.
The policemen didn’t look perturbed. The one with the ten-shooter moved cautiously a few paces forward to almost point-blank range. His partner gave the bundle a kick making it roll a little and then bent down on his knees to cut the strings strapped around it. This helped the other one. With no space to get closer, he stretched his legs comfortably wide and began to tickle with the tip of his gun barrel the suspect’s chest -- half bare as the grimy yellow shirt was partly unbuttoned. It was then that he suddenly became edgy. Not because of this fellow or his dropped bundle, but because the uncertain throbbing of his own index finger coiled around the trigger.
The late March evening air mingled with fine, powdery dust. Above the halogen-lit street light, dusty smoke hung like dark clouds of cotton. The assorted stinks of burnt diesel and ammonia from urine couldn’t completely subdue a faint scent of fresh ganda
flower. In the near distance, a fresher, more innocent air seemed to stir in the slits of garish light flickering between the silhouettes of the bustling bus terminal.
The policeman with his gun still pointed at the man looked sideways, as though, to drag his thoughts away from the man, from the trigger, from his own throbbing finger. He looked into the murky sky: There were barely any sign of the stars. Scanning the low, smoke-filled night sky, he seemed mildly irritated, as if, from failing to find something out. May be he thought the timing was odd -- this encounter would have been more palatable had it been during the day instead of early evening. The city had been unusually calm with the Eid holidays; he’d almost forgotten the ceaseless din that actually characterise the city streets. Now that the chaos came back in full force, he thought may be the noise too had contributed to the assorted smells hurting his nose.
Although the week-long holidays had ended four days ago, most people who had made an exodus for their village homes were now returning, after enjoying a few extra days of leave, as always. They were returning in a mad rush and in huge numbers. After the long bus rides, the returnees at the Gabtoli bus terminal looked thoroughly puzzled. The heat was disturbing, but it wasn’t the heat alone: There was something freakish in trying to navigate the extravagant chaos to hire a rickshaw or CNG-run three-wheeler, or (if the remains of the Eid-bonus could afford it) a yellow or black cab. One couldn’t be expected to be in the right state of his mind.
General Kalashnikov was baffled again by the mention of poetry. He wanted to say: It’s the same passion and love that led people to write poems that I’ve employed in making the gun, and it is indeed my poetry
The man, aged thirty to thirty-five years, had in no way been recognisable amid the swirling, hectic crowd. He was neither stoutly built nor frail-looking. But as he stepped on to the road, the policemen could not help but notice him. Slowly he paced up and down, sweating profusely. The darkly ashen blanket, cinched with nylon, looked heavy in his hand – so much so that he had to struggle to make adjustments, his right shoulder repeatedly jerking. And yes, it was his jerking shoulder that drew the attention of the two policemen. If it were just a blanket, the guy was unlikely to look so strained as if his right shoulder were coming loose from his neck. If it were just a blanket!
It was more out of curiosity than suspicion that the policemen challenged him. The time was well past dusk, could have been eight or quarter-past eight. The noise all around was too much, and the people moving about in all directions made things even more chaotic.
The policemen might have been bored. So, piquing their curiosity, may be the man gave them a better way to while away the time. But the hardened sound coming from the bundle dropping on the ground ramped things up a bit too much for curiosity. Who would know this better than the policemen! They must have been thanking their ever-alert instincts. So, while one of them prodded the man’s chest with his gun, the other busied himself cutting the string, unfolding the blanket.
A routine evening patrol felt dull, most of the time being spent on cups of tea and cigarettes. On days when luck was smiling, they found smuggled shipments of phensidyle syrup, and on still luckier days when the source had an authentic tip, they found heroine, yaba tablets. But arms! That happened rarely. Those smuggling arms did their job very cautiously. This guy must be an idiot, carrying it wrapped in a blanket! But what type of gun was it? Not the common, ordinary type, apparently. It looked like a rifle, but not the ugly three-naught-three kind, nor was it like the prized asset of the riot police -- semi-automatic Chinese rifle. Smaller in size, it’s much lighter than HMG, but not like LMG either.
In no time a crowd grew around the scene. The policeman, standing like a clown with his gun still aimed, would be well advised to change his posture. He could have searched the man thoroughly by then if he relaxed and slung the rifle back over his shoulder. He was yet to fully grasp that it was his clownish posture, and not the bundle, that had drawn the crowd.
The other one, still on his knees, was trying to fit together three disjointed parts, now out in the open for all to see. Being unable to do so, he threw awkward glances at the crowd and also at the man. His partner – whose name could be Rokonuddin – while still holding the suspect at gunpoint called out to him, “Mofiz bhai, disperse the crowd.” Mofiz immediately straightened his knees and stood up tall, but the next moment he looked worried. Scanning the crowd carefully, he considered that the crowd, though mostly ordinary folks, might soon emerge as a formidable force. They might snatch away the guy from their control, he thought, and who knows, might even loot the three-part gun. Mofiz, however, felt assured thinking Rokonuddin was doing a good job, holding the man still, threatening to hit him the moment he’d dare to move. Mofiz paced in a small circle within the crowd, yelling out, “Hey, move, move from here, all of you. What’s your business here?”
His yelling didn’t seem to work. He watched how eagerly people were gazing at the split limbs of the strange gun, and to his surprise, it seemed as if the gun were inviting the crowd to reach out and piece together the disjointed parts into a single indivisible entity. Realising the crowd was in no mood to heed his yelling, he took his own gun out of the shoulder-strap, brandishing it at the crowd. A single barrel against so many chests! It’s bound to be comical, he thought. As the idea of becoming comical dawned on him, Mofiz burst into a violent rage. It was immediately clear he had other plans than simply brandishing his gun. He shouted out furiously at the top of his lungs, “Didn’t you hear, you bastards! I asked you to leave. What is it you want, you motherfuckers! If you don’t listen I’m going to ram this up your fucking ass.” His last words were aided by unmistakable signs that he meant his gun.
No matter how impractical his threat sounded, Mofiz found that splintering people’s eardrums worked. The crowd was clearing out. Seeing his success, he felt tempted to repeat the words one more time. But he didn’t for he now knew he could clear the entire area without wasting any more words, but by simply waving his gun. He looked self-confident for a while until his eyes fell on the three-piece novelty on the ground. To recharge himself, he lunged at the retreating crowd and shouted: “Motherfuckers!”
What kind of knuckleheads were they? Fucking dimwits in police uniform! Couldn’t even recognise AK-47! Didn’t even hear of it, apparently. But the way they brought him in handcuffs to the police camp looked like they were returning from a grand victory. Once inside, they whispered something into the ears of two other fellows in uniform and then asked him to sit on the floor in one corner close to a damp wall. They didn’t address him with the disparaging ‘tui’,
but in an ostensibly polite manner, with ‘apney’
. The unexpected courtesy is due to the AK-47, the man thought, even though they are yet to figure out what it is.
His own folly led to this misfortune. There was nothing he could do about it now. The idea of carrying the AK-47 wrapped in a blanket was his own, and he had almost made it. The journey from Dinajpur went without any hassle. Twice the paramilitary guys had stopped the bus and conducted random check on the bags and kits, but didn’t bother with a blanket shoved deep into the overhead rack. At Gabtoli terminal, mixed in with the crowd, he felt at ease walking out on to the road. He was carrying the blanket in his right hand, gripping the knot of the nylon string. The hand was weak from a bullet wound right above the elbow, but it was not the bundle’s weight, it was rather the sharp strings that bit into his fingers.
Things got worse on the street. He couldn’t carry the bundle any further. He thought of changing hands, but the sensation of having almost made it, of having reached the road, relaxed him too much, and he could not properly weigh his options.
It was just as he had begun to feel the stress of the long and tiring bus journey subsiding that the drama (what else he could call it!) began unfolding. Ten yards away, give or take, a policeman was standing with that stick of a gun. The sheer frustration of it was total and so overwhelming that dropping the bundle came rather as a relief.
It’s difficult for him to recall how it had happened. All he remembered was: He was just beginning to feel he was in the clear, and may be the momentary feeling of safety distracted him. When he saw the policeman bearing down on him, his fingers on the trigger ready to go off any moment, his mind went into shock, and his right hand, so badly afflicted by the nylon string, opened its fingers and let the bundle slip, and in almost the same instant, as the bundle hit the ground, a sound emerged that was so distinctly different amid the din all around that he himself was surprised by it.
Also read: http://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/2016/09/03/iowa-letter-life-short-art-long/
Had there been a chance to think, what could he have done? No doubt, he would have reasoned it a good idea to risk death rather than to get caught by these knuckleheads and rot in jail for the rest of his life. Surely, he would have taken some risk. Perhaps he would have gone for a desperate run, ramming into the crowd, zigzagging through. The police would have run too, chasing, may be firing a shot into the sky to clear the way, and then, most likely, a second shot at his back, waist, or leg. Dying wouldn’t have been easy. Only groaning in pain with bullets buried in the back, waist, leg!
Assessing the situation now, he didn’t want to blame his right hand for what it had done. It was the sudden shift in composure – relaxing and becoming absentminded – that called down such bad luck. He’d no idea what the police were up to? At a table in the middle of the room, the two who had brought him here, now joined by two more, were busy trying to fix the three split pieces of the gun. For quite some time, they looked to be trying very hard.
It was a vulgar display for him to watch: Their idiocy with the most famous gun in the world! The simple job was beyond them, and yet they wouldn’t ask for his help, as though they feared handing him even the empty gun.
Famous gun! The words weren’t his coining. The supplier had said so; he had told him all about how precious and admirable the gun was. It had a history, too: Fondly called AK – an acronym of Avtomet Kalashnikov (Automatic Kalashnikov) – after the man Michael Kalashnikov who had invented it way back in 1947. That’s how the number 47 got tacked onto it.
Michael Kalshnikov – a nobody, an unknown soldier – was an ordinary tank driver in the Red Army. Wounded critically in 1941 while fighting the Germans, he had to spend long days stretched flat on a hospital bed. Recovery was surely on his mind, but more than anything else he was occupied by a single thought. If he could design a gun of his own liking! One that would look like a rifle, but not the conventional kind – an altogether new creation that mixed rifle and sub-machinegun. It would be user-friendly, automatic, not very heavy, and with an incomparable magazine capacity, sighting, and killing range, to make it the finest weapon in the history of human creation. He had thought it over, day after day, for months, even years. After many changes and modifications, he was able to give a final shape to the design he had wanted. And yes, it was his dream design, with features that were strikingly beautiful: Calibre 7.62 mm; loaded weight 4876 grams; unloaded weight 4300 grams; barrel 415mm; magazine capacity 40 rounds; sighting range 800 metres; firing range 1500 metres. The year was 1947. Hence the name, Avtomet Kalashnikov-47, aka AK-47.
The four around the table suddenly burst into a joyous uproar. They did it -- three pieces into one, at last. He remained on the floor, leaning against the damp wall, seeing the excitement in their wonder-filled eyes and faces, as though they had accomplished something really splendid. The giant leap, from a toy of a gun like their shotguns to an AK-47, suddenly changed their faces, with perhaps a shade of mystery.
He knew in a short while their merry mood would change. Night was progressing. Low howls from the walkie-talkie hanging on a chair near the table were followed by loud, broken messages. Soon his identity would be revealed. These fellows were ordinary constables; he would be taken for interrogation to another group -- those who had been keeping track of his activities since the last confrontation. News of that showdown was published in newspapers with his name and photo.
Who knows, he thought, what they’re going to do with him? They may skip interrogation, and instead do what they normally do, on this very night. Or, is there a chance they’ll file formal charges against him? If they do …
It’s strange that only a short while ago he thought that getting killed was better than being caught. He thought capture meant rotting behind the bars for the rest of his life. But the possibility didn’t occur to him then that he might get killed all the same, even after getting caught, and that it might happen on this very night. He felt confused. Was it a faint glimmer of hope that now glowed in his innermost mind? If they brought charges against him and filed a case, a path to jail remained open, which would mean he might live on. If they didn’t … he could hear his heart saying he might die, and may be on this very night.
He knew well enough that it’s the fear of death that suddenly occupied him; he didn’t want to die at this stage. The AK slipping out of his hand, he thought, is the cause for this all-too-unknown fear. He had never felt such fears the past four years, not once. It was the AK that had given him the strength and the guts, far more than he needed.
Rokonuddin (others were calling him Debashish, so, that’s his name) lifted the AK into his lap like he was handling a little baby, and sat on the floor opposite their prisoner. The others including Mofiz followed suit and made a half-circle facing him. They had scrutinised the AK thoroughly, now it was time to scrutinise the man closely. But what the man saw written over faces puzzled him -- their eyes glistened with self-confidence, a radiance that derives usually from the right mix of strength and valour. The touch of the AK, though empty, appeared to have transformed them, each of them, into mysterious monsters. But what about him? Shorn of the AK and its strength and vitality, a pitiable man with yellow shirt unbuttoned and wrists awkwardly bound in handcuffs. Rokonuddin-alias-Debashish gently caressed the deep ashen barrel of the AK with his fingers. Such hungry looks -- he felt a shiver. He kept waiting.
On nights when sleep left him, Michael Timofeivich Kalashnikov got out of bed and paced the bedroom. This was something people on the outside did not know. They kept asking if he slept in peace at night. In his nineties now, Kalashnikov didn’t give a straight answer. But yes, he felt bad to find his gun most dearly loved by terrorists. Even Bin Laden held it close to his heart and went for target practice whenever an opportunity presented itself. The gun’s sight and range was unparalleled.
Although Michael prevaricated, the question kept gnawing at him. What hadn’t the gun given him? First came his elevation from an ordinary tank driver-cum-mechanic to a three-star general and then he won the highest state honours. All on account of the gun! The gun was adored everywhere, not in his country alone, it’s the first choice of the best armed forces around the world. Who didn’t fall for this gem of a gun -- revolutionaries fighting oppressive regimes, terrorists, contract killers, everyone? Daniel Ortega’s FSNL and Vellupillai Pravakoron’s LTTE were of course the big names, but others, too, used it -- the Shining Path in Peru and left-leaning guerrillas like Motoneros in Argentina, ISF in Algeria, NPA in the Philippines, HAMAS in Palestine, and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey -- the list went on. The Sandinistas were the first to appreciate the merits of the gun. It was the end of the sixties. A few years later, when the gun fell into the hands of the LTTE, it began to be revered as the most perfect killing machine.
There were times when Michael used to be thrilled think -- it actually choked him with emotion -- to think that freedom-seeking guerrillas with nothing but his gun were able to undermine heavily equipped government armed forces. But there were other dimensions, too. Quite often, it was his gun that was held responsible for the growth of terrorism all over the globe. In both eastern and western Africa, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in racial carnage, and it was the AK that had a major role in it. And what were the Somali bandits doing? Just by brandishing the AK, they were driving entire fleets of vessels and tankers into the Gulf of Aden to extort helicopter loads of ransom money.
Once sleep left him, he found it impossible to go to bed again, even after exhausing himself with pacing the room. No one knew how he struggled to get some sleep. People nonetheless could guess when he left his bed and started shuffling languidly back and forth from one wall to another.
As the shuffling continued, he thought to himself that though people stopped asking him questions knowing they wouldn't get any direct answer, they were throwing questions at him with their stares or silence. Despite their silence he could feel them asking: Do you know how many people die every day because of your gun? Because of you? People are getting killed due to the long-range targets of your gun – getting killed in their houses, on the streets, in cars or while carrying it wrapped in a blanket! What a famous gun you’ve invented – even its counterfeits are all over the world. You invented the gun, earned immense fame, your country danced at your accomplishment, and the world met its doom. Didn’t you want to be a poet? Didn’t you use to write poems?
Michael was somewhat baffled at the mention of poetry. Hesitatingly, he said, “Yes, I did. I used to write a lot of poems.”
Was it the gun that made you forget poetry?
“No, I didn’t forget it at all. Poetry never left me. I still write.”
“I even wrote one last night. A single line, though: A rose is a radiant rose.”
What does that mean?
“Poetry doesn’t care for meanings. One has to understand, just as one has to understand my gun.”
Your gun is like your poetry?
“It is poetry.”
So, you’re someone who composes a gun through poetry?
“It's just the other way. Poetry via a gun.”
Do you know that right at this moment some serious unrest is brewing in one of the most impoverished corners of the world because of your gun?
“Where? In Somalia?”
“Rwanda? Afganistan? Bangla…”
That’s right. In Bangladesh, right at this moment, a guy is facing death for he was caught with your gun. It might even be a knock-off.
“Is he a terrorist or a contract killer?”
What’s that to you? The point is, it’s your gun – Oh no, your poetry.
General Kalashnikov was baffled again by the mention of poetry. He wanted to say: It’s the same passion and love that lead people to write poems that I’ve employed in making the gun, and it is indeed my poetry. But he thought better of saying so as it was actually complicated. He did want to be a poet. But the idea of designing the gun came into his head during the war. It was the Germans who had pressed it into his mind. How their MP-40 sub-machinegun had wrecked havoc on Russian MI-38! It was then lying wounded in hospital bed that the thought of a perfect gun had occupied him, and didn’t leave him until he came up with the design. So, who was actually responsible for the gun? I made it, he thought, but it was the Germans who had me make it. Or else…
“Should I tell the truth?”
“I would’ve invented an agricultural tool, a truly extraordinary one, which is actually more needed in the hunger-stricken world.”
Can’t you do it now?
“Are you kidding?”
Why do you say that?
“Don't you see this? Think of my age.”
Can’t you just try, one last time, your new poetry!
“Gun and agri-tool in one life! No. It’s freakish…”
The solid one-piece AK swayed comfortably in Rokonuddin-alias-Debashish’s lap. His fingers quivered as they slid along the deep ashen barrel. His colleagues watched him caress with sideways glances; the handcuffed man also watched. Meanwhile, Michael Timofeivich Kalshnikov, who should be watching it, too, was stuck on the second line of his rose poem. His mind was basically wavering between thoughts of agricultural inventions and his popular gun! Hitting the target is all that matters, right? It all depends, he thought, on how correctly and powerfully one hits the target. But what is this fragrance? It wasn’t clear if he was aware that thoughts of agriculture brought a whiff of fragrance from rose petals, tickling his nostrils. Ah beloved flower!
As the fragrance made its way through his nostrils to the brain, Michael relaxed. He felt a shiver, too: Oh, it’s coming, sweeping the innermost strings of his heart, the second line of the poem is coming …
Hugh Ferrer is Senior Editor, Iowa Review. Wasi Ahmed is an award-winning novelist and short story writer whose works, in the original Bengali as well as in English translation, have been anthologised extensively in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. He has also co-authored and edited an anthology of South Asian short stories. This story was jointly translated during his residency at the International Writing Programme, hosted by the University of Iowa, in 2016.