(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)
the first dulcet strains of the muezzin’s azan reminded us of how late we were. the evening prayers had begun, and spending more time at our neighborhood dhaba meant that we would be caught goofing off by our fathers as they walked to the neighborhood mosque. g and q haggled with the shopkeeper, arguing about how many cups of tea we had consumed, and how many cigarettes we had smoked, while f and i silently came up with a set of excuses for the parents when they berated us for coming home late again. we picked up our bookbags from their convenient resting places on the dusty road at our feet and headed homewards, walking against the swelling tide of people, bedecked in their panjabis and topis as they headed to the mosque for the evening prayers.
(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)
about 200 yards down from the dhaba is the corner where the street f and i live on branches off from the main road. we bid our farewells to g and q at the corner, as they lived another block down, and took the dark, quiet alley that led to what had been our homes for our entire lives.
the road i live on curves slightly to the right at its very end, and on this curve, on opposite sides of the street, are f and my houses. we’d grown up opposite each other – one of my first memories is of standing on our second floor verandah aged two, looking across the street at f standing in his garden, looking at me. we had been considered too young to actually cross the street and play with each other. while our road is too narrow for cars, the brisk rickshaw traffic during the day can be dangerous to toddlers.
still, over the next two years, until we turned four and were allowed to visit each other by crossing the street with our hands grasped tightly by our mothers, we became best friends, despite the fact that we never met, never talked, and were always separated by a six-foot road jam-packed with rickshaws. there was some level of communication between us, even though not a word was spoken over those two years. when we finally did meet, at f’s fourth birthday party, f gave me a look, in response to my embarassed “happy birthday”, that seemed to say, “well, okay then.”
and that was an accurate portrayal of f, to tell the truth. he was generally the most collected person i had ever met, someone who seemed to be unfazed by the world and everything in it, someone who could be touched by tragedy yet seem like nothing had ever happened before. his maternal grandmother lived with them and passed away when he was six, and suddenly their house was flooded by a wave of grieving relatives who seemed so lost in their grief that they didn’t notice the fact that f, who had been his grandma’s favorite grandchild, seemed to stand out in their sea of tears, not smiling or laughing or crying or displaying any emotion whatsoever, but instead letting out a deep breath every once in a while, as if every breath was an exhalation of grief instead of air.
(ash-hadu allah ilaha illallah, ash-hadu allah ilaha illaha)
we walked past the gate of the local school, where, every morning, the throng of parents that had arrived to drop off their children was only matched by the multitude of beggars who had congregated there in search of alms. f, g, q and i had all been students of the school at the primary level, and when we graduated into our middle school years, the four of us applied for and got into the same secondary school. our friendship was born in elementary school and had weathered the tumult of adolescence, but we had still somehow remained friends.
f and i were a different matter altogether. the two of us were thick as thieves, to the point that our families had to take vacations together – to places that seemed exotic and far away back then: cox’s bazar, shillong, darjeeling – because the two of were so uncooperative that we refused to be apart. the parents joked that we were getting our revenge on them for keeping us separated for those two fragile years, and they had slowly and grudgingly come to terms with it. when we were eleven or twelve years old, i would often tag along to his family functions, as he would to mine.
our families might have been completely different, but we were almost the same. f’s father was the youngest son of a rich nawab who flagrantly spent his money on creature comforts, leaving his children with little except his name. f’s mother, however, was the daughter of a rich industrialist, who, even at a very old age, was still going strong. after many years spent flitting from job to job, f’s father finally buckled his pride down and accepted a job at his father-in-law’s organization, yet was not educated or skilled enough to move too far up the ladder. his meager income was barely enough to keep them alive, but at least he owned the house they lived in. my parents, on the other hand, were both descended from rich families who had conserved their wealth, and my father was now the proprietor of his father’s industry. we had never left our house in the alley, because father always said that he had grown up in that house, and the memories he held were too precious to let go. my cousins all lived in palatial mansions in the posh areas, yet we were happy enough in our little alley, never even considering moving out.
as f and i grew up, people said we would slowly drift apart as we discovered our own separate interests. we did discover things we didn’t have in common – f started playing the guitar, and joined a short-lived rock band, while i discovered photography. in the beginning, we hardly saw each other in the afternoons. f was off jamming with his band, whereas i was holed up in the dark room that my father had had constructed especially for me, developing the pictures i had taken during the day. but in the evenings, f and i always made it a point to meet each other, and recount in glorious detail every single event that had happened during the day. f listened while i droned on about the rickshaw-puller that i had photographed sleeping soundly under the hood of his rickshaw in the searing heat, and made it a point to look at every single picture i had taken and tell me what he thought. meanwhile, i hung on every single word that he uttered about his jamming sessions, cursing the notes that he had messed up, or playing me the new song that they had composed. g and q, who had discovered drugs and girls respectively, hardly ever joined us for these evening chats.
in time, f’s rock band split up, and he began to spend more time with me, following me around as i took pictures of our world around us, and giving me a helping hand in the dark room. after we passed our matriculation exams in class 10, we started hanging out at the dhaba, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and chatting about everything and anything we could think of. as we headed slowly towards our intermediate exams, g and q, who had shown up infrequently, joined us at the tea-vendor’s stall as well, as it was a convenient point for us to meet between our private tuition sessions.
(ash-hadu anna muhammadur rasul allah, ash-hadu anna muhammadur rasul allah)
tonight, f and i walked slowly down the alley, we were surrounded on all sides by brick and concrete structures that had not changed since we were children, except for a fresh coat of paint here and there, and that had survived the rapid modernization of the city, since nobody wanted to build an apartment in an alley that cars couldn’t traverse. i noticed that f had been unusually quiet all day long. usually, f, being the witty one among the four of us, dished out the insults and the jokes at the expense of g, q and i, but all of today, he had been on the receiving end. he hadn’t laughed at all at any of our jokes, and had not contributed to the chatter much, instead letting g blabber on about the ganja he had bought that had blown his mind, and letting q mourn his latest relationship that had failed. i had known something was bothering him, but i didn’t want to bring it up in front of g and q, figuring that he might want to share it with me alone.
“dosto,” i asked finally, unable to bear the silence that had borne down upon us, “what’s wrong with you? you’ve been down all evening,” i ventured.
he stopped suddenly and looked at me, giving me a searching glance. “i don’t think i can tell you,” he said, before he started walking again.
that, alone, was enough to shock me. we hadn’t hidden anything from each other, ever. when an uncle of mine was found butchered in his home, and the maid was hauled off to jail to serve a life sentence, i told only f the real story – that he had been cheating on my aunt with the maid, and my aunt had gone crazy one evening and stabbed him to death, framing the maid. when f lost his virginity to a star-struck girl he didn’t really like, he told only me about it. the fact that he was not willing to share whatever was on his mind with me was something i had not even considered.
(haiya alas swala, haiya alas swala)
“come on, bhai, you know you can trust me. whatever it is, if it’s really bothering you, as your best friend i have a right to know.”
f stopped and gave me another of those long searching looks. in the dim light that emanated from the houses we stood in front of, i could see a mixture of emotions in his eyes (love, hate, anger, sadness, betrayal), and i noticed for the first time that he seemed haunted by some distant fear. i realized that he was afraid not of what he knew, but of telling me. i was even more intrigued. i saw a flicker in his eyes – the same flicker i had seen right before he had been worn down by my pestering and told me about the girl. i decided to go in for the kill.
“come on, man, tell me,” i insisted.
i could see his resistance to the idea crumbling. “your father was at our house last night. with abbu. they were arguing loudly.” he began
(haiya alal fala, haiya alal fala)
that was news to me. our fathers had no reason to fight – they had always been amiable towards each other, two men who had been forced to converse because their children were best friends. “what about?” i wondered.
f took a deep breath and let it out. “you won’t like this,” he warned, “i didn’t. i overheard, and i hated both of them.” another deep breath, before the words started flowing out.
“when we went to cox’s bazar seven years ago,” he began, “your mother…” he caught the warning flicker in my eyes as he mentioned my mother. “your mother…” he continued, “seduced my father and they had an affair.”
(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)
“what?” i nearly yelled. “that’s crazy, man. why would my mother do that?”
f looked me straight in the eye as he spoke. “it was your abba’s plan. he made her do it so he could blackmail my dad for the rest of his life. abbu’s been paying off your dad for the past seven years, so that he won’t tell ammu.”
“that’s crazy,” i reiterated. f’s eyes had me locked in their grip, and i was having a hard time breaking out of it. there was no way this could be true. my father definitely didn’t need the money, so why would he do something like that? and yet, the look in f’s eyes told me that he wasn’t making any of it up.
the conflicting emotions nearly bowled me over. love for my parents and revulsion if this were true; my love for f and the hate i felt for him if he were making it up; the shock of hearing about the sins of the man i worshipped and confusion about why f would invent this sort of far-fetched idea. “why?” i managed to croak.
“back then, abba had just joined dada’s firm,” f said, his eyes now holding me stronger, locking me in place, so that i could not run away from him. “your father thought that he would make it to the upper ranks of the organization, and would eventually sign the company over to your father, in exchange for his silence. that way your father could unite the two largest companies in the sector under himself. but abba never made it, and he’s got no money left to pay him off, so that’s why your father was screaming at him. he threatened…” f gulped and took a deep breath. “he threatened to tell amma so she would leave him, which would mean that dadu would fire abba, and he would be ruined completely.”
i saw a tear run down f’s cheek, glinting in the semi-darkness that lingered outside our gates. i knew then that he wasn’t lying about any of it. i had never seen f cry before, not once. “i didn’t want to tell you, dosto, i really didn’t. i’m sorry.” he looked down at the road, trying to hide the tears that were now flowing down freely.
freed from the spell that his eyes had cast upon me, i was no longer rooted to the spot. i ran into my house as fast as my legs could carry me, not stopping to answer my parents’ questions about where i was and what was wrong, not knowing if i could ever face them again, now that i knew what i knew about them. i didn’t stop running until i reached my room.
(la ilaha illallah)
it never rains in our street during the night. i know that for a fact, because i’ve stayed up many nights waiting for it to rain so that i can take the perfect picture of the glowing streetlight in the rain. but that night, it poured.
and i stood on my second floor verandah, staring at the spot in the garden across the street where, fifteen years ago, i had first seen the person who would become the best friend i had ever had. this time there was nobody standing there looking up at me.
before i get bombed to hell and back for putting the azan in a story so rife with sin, i just want to say that the azan is in that story for two fundamental reasons:
a. to serve as an indicator of the passage of time. this is actually a story that happens in a really short duration, but it doesn’t seem that way because of the initial flashbacks, and
b. because the sound of the azan is one of the most beautiful sounds on the planet, and i wanted to include it in at least one of my stories.
this particular story is the culmination and combination of five completely different story ideas that i had running around in my skull. the first notable difference between this story and all the others i’ve written is that this one takes place in bangladesh, which is a first for me, and that, for the first time, i didn’t bother to come up with names, instead using random different initials. but if you want to know the names, f is farhad, q is quamrul, and g is gourav. make of that what you will.
i’d really like to hear some feedback on this story. as you might know, this is the first short story i’ve written in almost six months, so i would really like to know what you thought. so comment away.
and finally, two quick but extremely important things:
- a: thanks for believing that i could write, and inspiring me to actually do it.
- this story is not based on any fact or memory of mine. like much of the stuff on this site, it is complete fiction.