Rinku saw the maid appear in the passageway.
It was mid-afternoon. A bright day. Sunlight glowed in the room. Rinku was semi-recumbent in the armchair, body stretching forward in a slender line to one knee crossed over the other and down to the slipper dangling from a foot. In her yellow sari, tiny glitter points at her ears, she looked radiantly younger than her forty-something years.
“Just a second,” she said to Rimi sitting cross-legged yoga style on the sofa, in short women’s kurta and snug-fitting jeans.
“Yes, what is it?”
Rezia, the older of the three maids, came forward into the living room that, along with the adjoining three bedrooms, formed the private family area at the back of the large flat. The passageway connected it to the drawing-dining rooms, the kitchen, the hallway at the front end.
“The mistri is here.”
Rinku looked quizzically at her. Mistris, drivers, guards – Adnan dealt with all of them.
“Mistri?” she frowned slightly. “Who, the carpenter?”
“No. He said he is the mistri from Bhaiya’s garage.”
Rinku’s frown deepened. The slipper stopped moving.
“Did you tell him Bhaiya isn’t home?”
“Yes. He said he wants to talk to you.”
“Talk to me?” Rinku said, surprised.
She sat up straight in the chair, tugging her sari anchol around herself.
“All right. Show him in.”
They had been talking about Rimi’s work; more accurately, her current crisis at work. Rimi was with an NGO engaged in drafting and lobbying for women-friendly legislation.
“The thing that, you know, really kicked it all off was that piece in my blog,” she said.
Rimi was twenty-three, the daughter of Nasir and Simi who were long-time friends of Rinku and Adnan. Rimi, after completing her undergraduate degree in anthropology and government at Smith College, had come to spend her gap year in Dhaka.
“Come join us,” Mumtaz Apa, head of the NGO, had said to her in the drawing room of her parents’ house. “We could use you.”
Nasir had quickly intervened, “Rimi’s taking time off to relax and recharge... not to work.”
But Mumtaz Apa, a grey-haired veteran of many guerrilla wars on behalf of women’s causes, easily headed off Nasir at the pass.
“It’ll be informal. More like see how things are, give me inputs with fresh eyes.”
“When do I start?” Rimi had said.
But soon there was trouble in paradise.
Back in her sophomore year at Smith Rimi had started a blog on feminist issues. It had suddenly caught fire after she posted an article titled ‘Wives and the Stockholm Syndrome,’ swiftly outpacing others in a very crowded field and acquiring a large, enthusiastic following within the Ivy League college network. In Dhaka, she had continued to blog. Two months into her job, Rimi posted a piece on top-down, rigidly structured work environments in Bangladesh, with a special focus on NGOs.
News of which had reached Mumtaz Apa and not gone down well with her.
“I heard she thinks the donors wouldn’t like it,” Rimi had ruefully informed Rinku.
“Well,” Rinku had said, lightly, “I think she wasn’t expecting it. And, you know, authority figures don’t always like blogs.”
“I mean, seriously, doesn’t she know that they pretty much know everything about NGOs here? Believe me, I’m not saying anything that’s new to them.”
“Her NGO does do good work, though.”
“No disputing that. Great work, in fact, and I like the people there. But hey, news flash: ideas should flow up as well as down. Don’t be a one-way street.”
Then it had blown over and things had returned to normal.
Until now. Another two months later.
A week back Rimi and a couple of the office women – her “work amigos!” – had gone after office hours to ‘Josh’.
“Where?” Rinku asked.
“‘Josh,’ it’s a new coffee place.”
“Hmmm, not a bad name for a place that perks you up!”
Where the conversation had veered to Rimi’s blog, leading to a back-and-forth on how such structures needed reform, and then on to how some ‘Apas’ stayed at the top forever, even as a younger generation, blocked, smouldered beneath. “Taking,” one of the amigos had said, “all the credit for the work.” Two days later, Rimi posted a blog musing on the effects of centralization of power in organizations, on the resultant creeping stasis and bureaucratization, ending by asking whether, in the case of women’s rights organizations, the process stunted the development of future leadership.
“Well, guess what,” Rimi said. “Word got back again to her and she went dead cold with me. No hi, no bye. No meetings and discussions. So I quit.”
“Do your parents know?”
“Oh, yes. Ma simply rolled her eyes. And Dad – you know what he’s like!”
“Yes, I do.”
“He said ‘So? Go start your own NGO, show them how it’s done!’”
Rinku laughed. Then said, “Well, we’ve talked about it – it’s a different work culture here.”
“Yeah. All hail age and seniority and wisdom and experience!”
“Right! And missing teeth, falling hair!”
This time it was Rimi who laughed before saying, “It’s not like I’m being some Ms Know It All from the US of A! It’s just what I’m picking up in the office…and outside it, too! I’m not advocating overthrow! All I’m saying is that they need to look hard at themselves, discuss issues that affect…”
“I know, but certain subjects are still taboo here. It’s loosening up, though, people now talk, and more freely, about things they wouldn’t before.”
But Rimi was forging ahead. “Because, seriously, tell me,” she declared, “if the self doesn’t question itself, how can the self evolve?”
Rinku looked at Rimi, rosy and dark-eyed, feeling a surge of affection. This one, she thought, so different. She and Adnan were childless, but whose doors, over time, had opened wide to the children of their very many friends. This one, so earnest, so serious. This one was also having an effect on her, making her aware by degrees that parts of her, after living all these years in Dhaka, had become crusted, de-sensitized. This one was, in some indefinable way, renewing her.
“If you want,” she said, “I can talk to Mumtaz Apa.”
“Oh, thanks, but no! Actually, I’ve a lot to do, think about… Dhaka is giving me ideas for my graduate thesis.”
“Oh, your master’s degree. And are you going to disappear after that, like you did all this time, and not come to Bangladesh?”
“No way! I’m going to drop in regularly. There’s things I need to explore.”
“Oh, for things! Not to see me?”
“Hey, I thought that was a given!”
“Nothing is a given.”
“Only to be with you!” Rimi said, all smiles. “And my two work amigos.”
It was then that the maid appeared.
“Apa, forgive me for troubling you but I didn’t know what else to do.”
The mistri stood at a respectful distance from Rinku. Short, with alert eyes, with a careful neutral expression on his face. Dressed in clean shirt and trousers for the occasion.
“That’s all right,” Rinku said gently.
“It’s about a payment for engine work I did for Bhaiya.”
“Oh, I see…”
“38,000 Taka. Bhaiya always pays me straightaway, much larger amounts too. But it’s been a month now… I need the money urgently.”
“Haven’t you told him?”
“Yes, I have, a few times. But he is always busy and…”
“Yes, that’s right.” Lately, Adnan had been preoccupied, something to do with taxes and his insurance and leasing companies, disappearing for long meetings with his lawyer and accountant.
“Bhaiya doesn’t listen to me. He shooes me away, only says ‘Puckop, Puckop’…”
“What?” Rinku stared at him, not quite sure what she had heard. She threw an enquiring glance at Rimi, but saw Rimi, equally puzzled, looking back at her. They stayed, eyes locked, until a couple of beats later, the light dawned on them.
Rimi dissolved into a fit of giggles, covering her face with her hands. Rinku, struggling not to laugh out loud, sank back into her chair. The mistri stood there, guileless, impassive, seemingly oblivious of the impact of his words.
Rinku, with a visible effort, regained her composure. Summoning a brisk tone, she said, “All right. I’ll speak to Bhaiya about it.”
As soon as he was gone, laughter erupted from them. After it subsided, they beat a hasty retreat to the bathrooms to freshen up, came back and sat down again.
“Tea?” Rinku said, checking her phone.
“Aren’t we waiting for Chachu?”
“I’m not sure when he’s…” Rinku stopped, hearing voices in the front hallway. “And right on time, here is Mr. Phurti.”
Rimi chortled, “Mr Puckop you mean?”
“Shhhh… don’t say anything to him. I’ll speak with him later.”
“Speak what?” said Adnan to Rinku as he bustled into the room.
Adnan was fifty-ish, tall, betelnut-brown, with merry eyes. Despite his once slim body running to plump, he held himself well.
“Hey there,” he said to Rimi, his face brightening on seeing her.
“Hi! How are you?”
“Better after a shower. Be right back.” With that he swiftly disappeared into the master bedroom.
Tea was served by the time Adnan joined them, freshly showered, in crisp kurta-pyjamas. He sat down in the other armchair, raised his cup to his lips, took a sip, let out an appreciative sigh. He said to Rinku, “I’ve got to go out again soon.”
“Tough times?” Rimi said, reaching for a biscuit.
“Aaah, just the usual crap! Bloody bullshit cutting into my golfing time.”
Adnan had an easy air, a careless charm, about him. When he spoke in Bengali it was in the pleasant tones of the well-bred class, with its elongated vowels. But, with authentic zamindar lineage on his mother’s side, he had also inherited, along with the old, solid furniture, the voice of the old Bengali aristo class. Which, at times, in late night addas with his mates, could unfurl like an Isfahan carpet – a touch haughty, with a lazy, curling intonation as the vowels were stretched to the limit – a sumptuous sound suggestive of an insuperable distance from the ruckus of the streets, from the hacking coughs and violent stridors of Dhaka’s ordinary life. No amount of money or practice could get one that air, that voice. One had to be born to it.
“So what’s up with you?”
“She quit her job,” Rinku said.
“Really? Well, good for you. Damn waste of time,” he said as Rinku rolled her eyes. “What did you guys do there anyway? Listen to Rabindra Sangeet the whole day? Write reports nobody reads?”
Rimi reacted in the wisecracking mode she adopted when Adnan would bait and tease her, “Yeah, dude, you should try reading them sometimes, it’ll upgrade the old CPU. Far as I can see, golfing isn’t doing it.”
Adnan laughed heartily. “Please, little one,” he said in mock sorrow, “do not speak of golf thusly! Allah will be angry with you!”
But, in fact, as far as he was concerned, reading, writing (specially writing), intellectual talk, civil society, NGOs – all that was for the dull and the doomed. Life – this one inherited from his maternal uncles – was Play, meaningless without Fun, Good Times and Comradely Cheer! Which was why his wife would call him ‘Mr Phurti’.
Adnan put down his empty cup on the coffee table. “Anyway, how about this? You know Khaleque bhai, right?
Rimi nodded, “Yes, I’ve met him,” while Rinku, quiescent, now seemed to switch to an attentive mode.
“Well, he’s always moaning about how he can’t find skilled people for his television station, especially for the news section. He’d love to have you, I’m sure.”
Rimi, looking thoughtful, didn’t respond immediately.
“And a chance for you to expose all that corruption everybody keeps yelling about…”
“It’s kind of interesting…”
“No!” The word was said sharply. Startled, Adnan and Rimi slowly wheeled their heads to Rinku, from whom it had come. She, too, seemed surprised at herself, at her sudden, unprecedented behavior.
“Why not?” Adnan said, after he had recovered, still astonished.
“No,” Rinku said, her voice firm. “He makes jokes in bad taste.”
“What are you saying?”
“What?” Adnan said in a protesting voice. “I’ve known him my whole life, he’s practically part of the family.”
“I know. But those jokes of his – horrid! Degrading.”
“You never said anything before.”
“I’m saying it now. No more of that.” Rinku’s face was set in stone. “And that television station – people talk about him, what goes on there. She’s not going to go work there.”
Adnan, in a daze, slumped in his chair, stared at her for a long minute, then muttered, “I’ll be damned…” to continue, slowly, “Well, okay. Of course, of course.”
“Well,” Rimi chirped brightly at Adnan, “the chief has spoken, the tribe fully backs her. Case closed.”
With that, as if on an invisible signal, the party broke up.
Adnan stirred to life. He looked at his watch and stood up, saying, “Show time. Have to go.” Rimi also stood up, saying to Rinku, “Me too. I’m going to catch up with Janice. She’s back from Barcelona.”
“All right. Give my best to your parents.”
Rimi scooped up her handbag and phone from the sofa, bent down to hug Rinku, still seated, whispering in her ear, “Love you.”
“You need a lift?” Adnan, now fully restored, asked Rimi.
“No, baby, got my own wheels.”
“If you two don’t mind, I’m not going to get up. I think I’ll have another cup of tea,” Rinku said.
“Bye,” rang out two voices as they left.
Well, Rinku thought, that feels good. She found herself looking forward to the coming talk with Adnan. A small smile played on her lips – the crusts were beginning to fall away. Renewal!
Khademul Islam is a writer and translator.