Fiction (For R)
“Lunch” called out the umpire as he delicately tipped one bail from on top of the stumps to the ground. The batsmen walked off the field with the fielding team and the two umpires following them.
Farid slowly brought up the rear. He had dropped a catch. Posted on the leg side boundary, he had been distracted by the paramilitary lorry going by on the main road, its top half visible above the boundary wall encircling the field. Farid saw the faces beneath the green peaked caps sitting inside looking curiously at the cricketers. Some among the hardened faces had looked fresh from the villages, too young to be in battles and gunfights. When the ball had come toward him, falling from a long way above, he had still been thinking of them, and had pushed off late. Amid shouts of “catch it, catch it,” the ball had grazed his fingers before hitting the ground. As Farid picked it up, he had glanced again at the road.
The lorry was gone.
Dhaka University’s interdepartmental cricket tournament was in its mid-season. Today’s scheduled match between Farid’s department and Geography had been canceled. A student of Geography had accidentally drowned while on a class river trip. Farid’s team had arrived at the university sports ground to learn that there would be no cricket. They had milled around for a while, unsure of what to do, disappointed. Then the captain of Farid’s team had spotted Momin, vice-captain of Economics Department, among the early spectators and had proposed an impromptu match. Momin had immediately taken up on the idea, assembling a team from the already sizeable crowd that had turned up for the match. The assistant sports director, a trim man with a small ustache, had obligingly agreed to the use of the field. As luck would have it for him, History’s pace bowler Shaheen had been there too, and Momin had gleefully inducted him. Shaheen, snapped up by Wari club for the league matches, had been fearsome in the departmental matches so far.
“All right, boys, see you all in whites in half an hour,” Momin had barked at his makeshift team, clapping his hard hands.
It was a perfect day for cricket, bright and cool. When they had first arrived at the cricket ground, a lingering fog had blurred the sun poised above the row of coconut palms at the far edge of the field. By the time play started the mist had mostly been burnt off. A number of students from Farid’s department had turned up in anticipation of the match, and were seated at the front of the left pavilion. Farid loved best the pre-match warm-up, the running and the jogging, the practice catches, the raillery and back-and-forth, the rummaging through the the black tin trunk of village newly-weds with its load of cricket bats, gloves, "guards" and pads.
“If I win the toss I’m going to take fielding. The air’s still damp, Shaheen will swing the ball,” Farid’s captain had informed his team before walking out for the coin toss. One of the two umpires hastily drafted for the job had tossed the coin in the air and the call had been made. As the teams had looked on from the gallery, Farid’s captain had turned toward his teammates and flashed them the V sign. Toss won! Fielding!
She had not been there initially among the cluster of classmates. A sandal strap had torn, Sultana had informed him when he had asked, so she had gone back home to change sandals. The stands had filled up rapidly as the 8:20 and 9:20 classes ended and disgorged their inmates, who had made a beeline for the cricket field. He had spotted her later when he was fielding, seated amidst her friends, a candle flame in her yellow sari with the thin green stripes.
In the gallery away from the pitch, the crowd’s chatter was loud. On the topmost row of the stands a beggar was taking a nap, stretched out on the concrete. Paan-cigarette-wallahs, peanut vendors and jhal muri sellers stationed at the boundary line were doing a brisk business. Street children ran among them, savoring the excitement. Farid climbed the several steps up to her. A mass of curly hair, sharp cheekbones, eyes that danced all over the place and a loose ‘Santiniketan’ style of wearing a sari that she copied from her elder cousin studying music over there. The two Bengals knotted in intimate ways impossible to untie!
She looked at him and smiled.
“You could have walked around barefoot,” Farid said, sitting beside her.
“Yes, I could have.”
“Did you see me miss the catch?”
“Yes.” Then she laughed, “Well, we all saw you looking the other way.” Sultana sitting beside her laughed too.
“That damn truck had to come by just then.”
He looked at two of his classmates unloading brown paper bags and a crate of Coca-Cola bottles from a rickshaw. Burgers from the corner shop at Shahbagh for lunch.
“What do you think of this?” she asked, extending a foot encased in a green-and-gold sandal.
“Bought them last week.”
A dazzling light lay upon the deserted pitch, and a light breeze tickled the ragged fringes of the palm leaves. Over the boundary wall the noontime traffic was slow, with the occasional car or bus curling around the roundabout.
“Farid,” called out his captain, ballpoint and paper in his hands. “I’m putting you down at number four in the batting order.”
He glanced again at the paper bags. Burgers meant lentil patties inside small crusty buns, the whole thing so dry that only generous swigs of the warm Coke enabled one to swallow them.
“I don’t feel like eating a burger,” he said.
“We can go over to Tuli’s,” she said. “There’s always food at her place.” Tuli was her aunt, her father’s sister.
“All the way to Magh Bazar?”
“I’ve got the car. We’ll be back before they start play again,” she said, her eyes dancing and shimmering. Beauty, he felt, was the most mysterious thing in the universe. It had no reason to be, yet there it was, incandescent, casually erupting out of nowhere, and equally casually dying in a squalid lane somewhere.
“Come on, let’s go.” She stood up, impatient now.
A house amid the winding lanes of Magh Bazar. Where, just two weeks back, in the front veranda enclosed by green wooden latticework, with dusk falling among the entwined madhabilata, she had grasped him by the upper arms and kissed him. Eyes closed, her lips parted. Rickshaw bells had tinkled in the street outside the front yard. He had felt her shapely body go liquid, acquire a lush, humid weight to it. And when she had opened her eyes, there had been a strange, heavy-lidded light in them.
They went down the steps and walked up to his captain. “We’re going to go have lunch somewhere else,” Farid said.
“Why? We got lunch for everybody,” the captain replied, looking at her.
“That’s not it,” she said, dimpling at him. “We just want to have lunch somewhere else.”
“Oh, okay. But we start at 2:00 sharp. Don’t be late.”
“We’ll be here.”
The paramilitary seemingly had come out of nowhere. The troubles had accelerated: Shootings, assassinations of MPs, reports of widespread smuggling and fortunes being made. Massive political rallies, processions and demos in the streets. The extremists, the state said, had declared war in the countryside. Then appeared the armed paramilitary, trailing in its wake stories of midnight knocks and arrests, of hunting down political dissidents. At the university, the rowdy members of the dominant student group sprawled on chairs, shouting and merry-making. As monsoon rains whipped at classroom windows, demos and counter demos raged in the corridors, shutting down lectures. While the lorries wheeled through the streets surrounding the campus. At that watchful, steady speed.
They got out of the car at the small wooden gate. The driver drove off to park in the side alley. She pushed open the gate, and they stepped inside into a large front yard. “Let’s go by the side door,” she said, stepping on to the red-bricked path lined with pink-and-white periwinkles winking undying in the sunlight. At the side of the house she thumped with an open palm on the old, green, double-paneled door secured from the inside by a cross-bar, shouting for the servant boy, “Kalam, Kalam.” Footsteps sounded inside and the door opened. Kalam was a sturdy, cheerful-looking teenager.
“Ki ray,” she said cheerily to him as they stepped inside the guestroom, “is Tuli home?”
“No, she’s gone to the bank.”
The house was actually her father’s, who had given it to his only sister. In June of 1971 the aunt’s husband had been picked up from this house by the Pakistan army and had never returned.
“Can you give us a quick lunch?”
“I just have to do the rice. There’s plenty of chicken from last night.”
“Quick then. We have to be back.” Amid a volley of her rapid-fire instructions, they disappeared through the other door leading inside.
A plainly furnished room with cracks on the red cement floor like a miniature Meghna emptying into the sea. A rough bed with a thin mattress. An old wooden clothes rack. A worn jute mat on the floor in the corner with a much-used harmonium and some songbooks on it. Farid took off his shoes and walked over to the bed, the floor cool under his bare feet. It was through the side door that the army had entered, across that front yard that the army had taken her aunt’s husband. He stretched out, sighing, on the fresh, coarse-weave bed sheet and looked up at the small square of blue framed by the window high on the wall. Fielding was a hard thing to do, with its alternating pulses of alertness and relaxation, watching the ball and the swing of the bat, the sudden hot sprint, the odd tumble on the uneven ground, the fear of dropping a vital catch or letting the ball through your hands. The war had ended, but men were still dying and disappearing, no promise was ever true, certainly no promise of human freedo...
She came back into the room and tossed off her sandals. “The rice will be done in no time at all.”
She came over and lay down beside him.
“Have you locked the door?” he asked.
“No, you do it.”
“But it’s on your side of the bed.”
He pulled her to him, nuzzling his nose deep into the curly mass of her hair. She made a soft, yielding sound, then pushed him away, rose in a shower of loose yellow, went to the door and locked it. She came back, sat by the side of the bed, looked down at him. Small sweet damp patches had formed on the thin cotton of her underarms. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.
They came back, driving through empty noontime roads, just in time. The umpires were walking out on the field. Sultana gave them a knowing glance as they seated themselves among their classmates. Though she had taken care to smooth out the creases in her sari after the kissing and tussling, there was no erasing an indolent, blinking vulnerability in her eyes, a heightened color in her face.
The two batsmen walked out onto the ground to much clapping, whistles and catcalls from the crowd. Farid’s captain was the opening bat. Shaheen waited at the top of his mark, tossing the shiny red ball from hand to hand. The captain cast a look around at the field – the keeper and three slips standing way back, a packed offside field – and then settled into his stance, tapping his bat on the ground. As the umpire dropped his upraised arm, Shaheen began his run with jerky strides that belied the speed with which he could bowl. The rolled-up sleeve of his shirt flapped loose as his arm whipped down to release the ball.
The first delivery was a snorter, pitched just short of a length and seaming past the outstretched bat through to the keeper. The slips jumped up and raised their hands, but did not appeal.
“Ooooooh!!!!…..” rose the accompanying cry from the crowd.
Shaheen at the end of his follow-through made a show of glaring at the batsman before turning to walk back to the top of his mark. There was a slight swagger to the way he began to roll up his shirtsleeve again.
Farid took out the single stick of cigarette he had bought from the vendor, lighting it with matches borrowed from Javed sitting in front of him. He took a deep drag. The system beat you in the end. No matter what you did, there was no escaping it. The Man got you in the end. Any day you could vanish and never come back. He blew out the cigarette smoke and watched it whirl away in the bright air. 118 runs to win. Zero on the scoreboard. Farid leaned back against the steps and studiously focused on the figures arrayed on the cricket field.
The match had resumed. In right earnest.
Khademul Islam is editor of the literary journal Bengal Lights.