book reviewer? me? no way!

i realize this is very late, but it seems i’ve started a career as a professional book reviewer! here’s my review of “devil may care” by sebastian faulks, published in the daily star, bangladesh’s premier english language news source.

what’s that you say? one review doesn’t make a career? you’re probably right, but as it says at the bottom, i really wish i had more time to read books. i haven’t read one since this review came out. not even a page.

why i quit facebook…and other short stories

a week ago today, i fought my way through the maze-like account settings on facebook, and clicked on the “deactivate account” button. this was not done by mistake, by any means, but was completely intentional – heck, i even had to go to a second page that asked me, in big bold letters, “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS?”, as if i was commiting some sort of grave affront to humanity. for those of who haven’t been to this dark side of facebook, the page also asks you why you chose to undertake this vile action, and lists some helpful suggestions. i chose the least intimidating, which is “i’m doing this temporarily, but will be back later.”

a week before that fateful day, i announced to the great black void that is my friends list that i was going to quit the site in 7 days. i’m not quite sure anyone believed me, and quite a few (you know who you are) thought i was doing it to get some more attention. like, seriously. do i strike you as the kind of person who craves attention so much that i would have to quit facebook to get it?

anyway. the reason for the 7 day deadline was that i wanted to migrate the features i found useful to some other platform, and craft an explanation for why i was doing such a drastic thing. however, given my addiction to procrastination, i probably should have given myself a period of 2-3 months, since i managed to do none of that. and so, two weeks later, here’s the long explanation for why i did this.

the reason one should be shocked that i quit facebook, if you need a reason for that, is because i used to be their biggest advertiser, at least in mouth-to-mouth terms. i got almost everyone in my office to join, even people who had never tried or considered social networking. within a couple of months, everyone was safely ensconced in everyone else’s friend lists.

i also spread adoption of facebook gaming, thanks to the 20-20 cricket game, which quickly became a whirlwind of activity and the topic of intense discussions and debates during working hours. it got to the point where the office had to ban playing facebook games during office hours altogether, because it “was consuming excessive amounts of bandwidth”. yeah, seriously. as if the use of youtube to watch funny videos by others wasn’t. thankfully, by then i had gotten bored of the game already, and had moved on.

given my amazingly high conversion ratio of people (only 1 colleague refused to join, out of 20-odd others), it was quite surprising to lots of people that i actually did end up quitting. but of course, there’s an explanation. here it is:

i quit facebook because i’m not good at keeping in touch with people.

yes, you did read it right. no, i’m not completely crazy.

you see, the main advertising tag line i used to sell people on facebook in the first place was that it was a fantastic and easy way to keep in touch with people. at the click of a mouse, you could find out what even your most obscure friends were up to, and use the knowledge that you gained about their lives, from their short status message, to make yourself feel that you were still as intimately connected as you were in first grade.

but that’s the problem. for people like me who suck at keeping in touch, that momentary glimpse into someone else’s life, as it scrolls through my news-feed, was as far as i got in terms of keeping in touch with them. i found myself not even bothering to write a sentence on their wall, and although i used to use it to keep tabs on birthdays, i found myself not even wishing people anymore. to me, the whole keeping in touch process had transformed into a very simple process, where just reading people’s statuses was enough, whereas i made no moves to ever drop a line or say something to them in passing.

in reality, keeping in touch with people is much harder, and requires a lot of work, something which i’ve never put in. as a result, i wanted to remove the illusion of appearing to keep in touch with 300-odd people from my life, so that i would make an effort to keep in touch with those people that matter to me. now i have to send emails, and make phone calls, and meet people to know what’s happening in their lives, instead of just reading a one-line status message and thinking i know everything there is to know about them.

of course, i’ll miss the site, because i had no end of talented photographers on my friends list, and so i could see some amazing pictures on an almost daily basis. plus, i also had some of the funniest people on my friends list, so i had no shortage of good humor available. and mob wars is a really addictive game, although it just involves clicking a mouse repeatedly.

but i’m hoping that now, i’ll finally be much better at being a friend, instead of just another profile in your friends list.

do traffic cops cause traffic jams?

everyone who has ever been to dhaka on a normal workday knows that we have the world’s least enviable traffic jams. on any given day, it can take up to half an hour to travel just a couple of kilometers. my daily commute, which clocks in at only about 7 km each way, takes me anywhere from 20 minutes on a good day, to almost an hour and a half.

urban planning experts complain about the lack of roads. drivers complain about slow-moving rickshaws. passengers complain about the driving skills of others. but everyone seems to agree that one of the major causes of traffic jams is the capacity and activities of traffic police in dhaka.

earlier this year, i decided to test this for myself, as part of a course on econometrics that i was taking at the time. being the pessimist i am, i naturally beleived that, the more traffic police there were on the streets, the more traffic there would be, and therefore the longer it would take to travel a given distance.

i figured that it would be a sufficiently easy model to test, and that getting data would be relatively easy. however, it’s quite a general and basic model in itself, and so there may be flaws in the analysis. the results are quite interesting and informative, but if you would like to bore yourself with the full gamut of econometric analysis, you can see it all here.

the results indicate that, on average, adding another traffic cop to the streets would reduce the average travel time by about 75 seconds. On the flip side, an additional car on the road would increase travel time by 5 seconds.

before we get in to what this could possibly mean, let’s talk about how i did this research. first, i picked a specific route for this study – asad gate to wireless, mohakhali, and the way back, via bijoy sharani and mohakhali rail crossing. this route was selected for several methodological reasons:

  • rickshaws are not allowed to travel on this route, and so the impact of these slow-moving vehicles on traffic jams was controlled. 
  • there are no schools along this route, which means that congestion on this route is also not due to school traffic.
  • parking is prohibited along most of this route, and so most vehicles are supposed to be in motion on this route.
  • this route is one of the most notorious jam-packed roads in the city, particularly in the evenings.
  • there is always generally a high concentration of traffic police on duty along the route.

i collected data on the time taken to traverse the route, the number of traffic cops along the route, and the average traffic gathered at two points during my trip. the last of these was collected at great risk to life and limb: once my car was stopped at the traffic light, i jumped out and counted the number of cars waiting at the light, and then jumped back in to my car once traffic started moving again. data was collected at both morning and evening peak traffic hours. morning rush hour here is defined as between 7 am and 9:30 am, and evening rush hour ranges from 5 pm to 8 pm. to randomize the data, i travelled at different times every day during these two blocks.

what do the results mean? well, to deal with the simple things first, the second result makes sense. given the limited road capacity, more traffic on the streets would obviously lead to more traffic and therefore increased travel time. 

the traffic cop phenomenon is harder to explain though. after all, most of their activity seems to standing at traffic intersections all day, languidly waving to cars to pass or stop. except, of course, if you have an accident or are being mugged. in which case they are most likely to disappear faster than a rabbit after a gunshot.

to explain why this occurs, it’s necessary to extrapolate from our data and use our logic. i surmise that this is because of the fear factor: if there is a traffic cop at the intersection, you are more likely to follow traffic rules and drive carefully. ergo, the more traffic police, the higher the likelihood of following traffic rules.

but that’s a simplistic piece of logic at best, and given the tendencies of bangladeshi drivers, it’s also rather hard to believe. instead, the simpler explanation may be that, as the morning progresses from 7 am onwards, two things happen simultaneously: more traffic cops come on duty, and traffic slowly decreases from the school rush to the commuting rush to the general traffic trends. similarly, as the evening progresses, more and more traffic cops come on for the evening shift while the commuter rush starts to decline.

but are ingenious police shift timings the only cause for this phenomenon? perhaps, but that is quite pessimistic. although travelling down the dhaka streets and watching the activities of the police force would reinforce one’s assumption that they are incompetent, there is also a need to be more objective. i would postulate that there is an extension of the “fear factor” hypothesis: since the primary task of the police is to reinforce the traffic light system, it’s likely that, if there are traffic cops, drivers are more likely to obey traffic lights, thus ensuring smoother flow of traffic and more effective traffic management. thus, there is less traffic, and simultaneously lower travel times.

this research, however, is by no means comperehensive and conveniently ignores several other important variables. for example, it does not take into account how many policemen were actively guiding traffic, as opposed to standing around chatting or seeking bribes while pretending to fine people (i know, gross generalization). similarly, it assumes that all traffic counted is travelling in the same direction, instead of turning or travelling in other routes.

finally, it ignores the fact that there are other underlying reasons for traffic, other than policemen or the number of cars. for example, one of the main reasons traffic jams occur in dhaka is that important intersections are closed off haphazardly across the city, meaning that cars that want to turn at a certain intersection often have to congregate at a limited number of turning points, thus backing up traffic. after all, traffic moves in flowing patterns, and blocking the flow inappropriately can cause it to back up indefinitely. think of water flowing into a bucket through a pipe with lots of holes. if you start plugging up the holes arbitrarily, the amount of water in the pipe will start to increase, until both the pipe and the bucket are flooded. therefore, ignoring traffic mnagement as a primary cause of the traffic jams is virtually impossible.

using these results for policy recommendations along the lines of increasing the number of traffic cops can be dangerous and will probably not solve traffic problems. however, it is undeniable that more cars will cause more traffic, and so traffic reduction must focus on controlling the number of cars or managing them better, so that they don’t clog up the limited pipes that make up dhaka’s streets.

a case of exploding mangoes

In its very first chapter, Mohammad Hanif’s narrator urges the reader to look closely at the scene of Mohammad Zia-ul-Huq’s final farewell before he boards his final fatal airplane flight. And that is something that the reader must keep doing throughout the rest of the book, as Mohammad Hanif draws out the stories of potential suspects – the narrator himself, a sidelined general, his trusted deputy, an angry blind woman with a death sentence on her head, a crow, a group of tapeworms, even a crate of mangoes – to account for Huq’s assassination. 

The book – the first by the BBC Urdu Service chief – is a delightful political and historical satire that examines the last few days of the life of the influential Pakistani leader. Following in the mighty footsteps of Mohsin Hamid, this latest page-turner from Pakistan explores an important time in the history of Pakistan, when the rapid Islamicization, coupled with the war in Afghanistan, gave rise to the greatest evils in our world today, fundamentalism and terrorism.

Nowhere is Hanif’s satire more potent than in a scene from a Fourth of July party at the American Ambassador’s residence, where, amongst the Marines and CIA spooks, a lonely bearded man by the name “OBL”, from Laden and Co. Construction, appears, and is generally avoided by all, other than receiving some words of congratulations from American intelligence officials. OBL, hungry and at a loss for people to talk to, finally ventures into the kitchen tent for some food, but finds it all ravaged by the rest of the exuberantly intoxicated guests.

The majority of the book deals with the story of the narrator, Junior Under Officer Ali Shighri, and how he seeks to avenge the apparent suicide of his father, which he blames on Gen. Huq. Along the way, Shighri meets Obaidullah, a young fellow cadet at the Air Force Academy, who proceeds to quickly fall in love with him. The love manifests itself most when Obaid, upon realizing Shighri’s plot to assassinate Zia, attempts to steal a plane from the Academy and crash it into the General’s residence. Shighri is promptly arrested by the ISI, who subject him to rigorous psychological torture, below the premises of Lahore Fort. Eerily, Hanif’s descriptions of Lahore Fort bring to mind the premises of something much closer to home – our very own Lalbagh Fort.

The rest of the book shows the lives of the narrator and Gen. Huq on a collision course (pardon the pun) with each other. Up to this point, each character gets his own dueling chapter to tell the tale of their activities on the last few weeks before the assassination, but then they all merge into a confusing tangle of events that culminates in the fatal plane crash.

Along the way, Shighri’s motive – to avenge his father’s death – becomes clearer. However, the greatest character development in the book happens to the soon-to-be-dead General Huq, who undergoes a rapid transformation in the face of a death that he foretells from a passage in the Quran. The book very clearly elucidates the rapid Islamicization that grips the General’s brain, as well as the fear and paranoia of impending death that grips him from the beginning of the book. The fear of death, coupled with the death of his most trusted bodyguard, drives him into a frenzy of mistrust, as a result of which he sidelines his most senior general, the head of the ISI, who then hatches a plot to kill Huq himself. Along the way, Huq learns what his people really think of him, from a policeman who meets him during a brief escapade, and realizes that none of his sycophants are worth trusting anymore.

Bangladeshi readers will recognize one line in particular – “the last time someone tried to steal a plane, the country was split in two”, referencing the final journey of our very own Birshreshtho Matiur Rahman.

The book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. First off, how many people conspired to murder the General? There are a host of suspects, both human and animal, but there seems to be no end of potential suspects. Even General Beg, Huq’s eventual successor as Chief of Army Staff, seems to be have knowledge of the plot as well, as do many of the other characters who make an appearance in the book. But then the reader must remember that Hanif set out to write a piece of historical fiction, not to rewrite the history books nor spawn more conspiracy theories.

Overall, the book is an exciting and interesting read, and is hard to put down. However, compared to Mohsin Hamid’s darker tales of betrayal and deception, Hanif’s book seems to fall short, and lack some of the dynamism that Hamid is able to infuse into his own writing. That said, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is still a fantastic tale in itself, and is definitely worth the read.

political procrastination

the roads of dhaka are eerily empty for 8:30 pm. strangely, there are few traffic cops on the road – just a lone soldier dutifully manning the road 27 intersection. no sergeants astride their trusty motorcycles, no battalion of police positioned idly at major traffic points. few cars are on the streets – busses abound, but otherwise there are few other vehicles. thin queues of people seem stranded at bus stops. storekeepers rush to shut their shutters, half an hour before standard closing times. no noise, no incessant honking of horns, no road rage-infested drivers trying to push others off the roads. a lone beep from my car, at an errant rickshaw, seems to ricochet off the concrete walls.

my mobile flickers softly and vibrates twice. new message received. opening the inbox to read the missive seems to take forever, with the status bar seeming to sway lazily from one side of the screen to the other. finally it opens. “govt wanted to defer JS vote to dec 28…but now plans to hold polls dec 18 due to lack of consensus among parties,” it reads. i curse under my breath – is this the beginning of the end?

the drive turns out to be refreshingly but strangely quick. i’m home in 15 minutes, whereas the regular commute takes up to an hour and a half every day. sprint up the stairs to catch the news – have talks broken down? is this the political armageddon that we’ve been waiting for?

nothing but replays of the five adviser’s press briefing, and scenes of bnp leaders trooping in to their office. special correspondents eagerly wait outside every politician’s house, but no one has anything to report. stay tuned, they tell me, we’ll be back live with bnp’s press briefing.

the clock winds down. 48 hours expire, but more time is needed. the leaders are deeply embroiled in conversation, we learn, so stay tuned. meanwhile, nothing to do but watch tv commercial after commercial, while the same old news scrolls across the bottom of the screen, billed as “breaking news”.

at last, some of the leaders decide to brief the press. this is it, the moment of judgement for the future of the nation. khaleda’s nowhere to be found, surprisingly. perhaps her speechwriter couldn’t produce another classic government-bashing, blame-shifting, military-praising masterpiece? no matter. everyone’s favorite delwar has his own written page that he reads from.

no mention of 48 hour deadlines. no mention of boycotting or participating. no mention of anything but empty angry rhetoric aimed at the caretaker government. 

and, just as quickly as it had emerged, the anxiety and intrigue disappear. no, that’s wrong. the anxiety and intrigue don’t dissipate, but are replaced with anger and frustration. no concrete decision, no announcement, no sense of finality. only the usual talk about “the people” accompanied by a nearly desperate final plea for the withdrawal of the state of emergency. have the seven four demands now boiled down to only one?

miraculously, delwar agrees to answer the press’s questions. the first question is, traditionally, extremely wrong, and gives him space to vent his generic frustrations with the government. meanwhile, muzahid smiles creepily at delwar’s side. why doesn’t anyone ask him about the party’s decision?

finally some intrepid reporter talks about the people waiting at home for a decision. delwar evades the question, as usual, saying something irrelevant about free and fair elections. it takes several more tries for a journalist to ask the actual question: will bnp participate in the elections on december 18?

but delwar’s just too clever to answer that question that easily. we’ll meet the alliance tomorrow, he says, and then decide. 

and just like that, the press conference is over. no clear answer, no definitive direction, just another attempt by the bnp to buy some more time to prepare for the election. what did they do for  the past 48 hours, i wonder. couldn’t they have drawn up their contingency plans in all that time? why did they have to wait past the deadline to decide what to do?

the mobile flickers again. “nomination deadline extended by 3 days,” says the breaking news alert. great. that just gives them 3 more days to waver and flitter about. another three days of uncertainty for everyone trying to figure out if this country will just disintegrate into anarchy come 2009. 

i’m not a political person, as anyone who reads this blog will know. but this cat-and-mouse game of demands and deadlines is not helping bnp’s cause. they can’t seem to set a deadline and make it stick, and can’t seem to arrive at a decision one way or the other. meanwhile, the fantastic five run around town on the daunting cantonment-dhanmondi-cantonment commute to figure out a way to placate everyone, and extend deadlines to allow these people to continue to waver incessantly without a concrete decision.

if i was bnp, i would be highly concerned about my public image. spouting conspiracy theories off the top of one’s head as a means of buying time doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, at least not mine. and that’s all it boils down to – fear that poor preparations will lead to a crushing electoral defeat. but why are their preparations poor anyway? did a certain former “technocrat” actually end up doing any work, or was he too busy with his personal hobby, filing false cases against random influential people?

am i going to vote in this election? no. i plan to be somewhere else, on a much deserved vacation. but i, and all of the jonogon that delwar and all the others keep talking about incessantly need to know – nay, deserve to know – if bnp will participate in the election. if bnp will not participate, fine, but we the people have the right to know. if they will, even better.

it bothers me greatly that not even the top leadership of bnp seem to know what the ultimate decision is. there seems to be enough people regaling khaleda’s ears with monologues on the benefits of either course of action, but all that that seems to be doing is making it her own personal decision at the end. and that is truly scary. it all boils down to two choices for her: lose the election and lose face and power for the next five years, or boycott the election and destroy the country in the process. and, given her previous choices in life, and her potential need for revenge against the hasina of ’96, i fear she may choose to do the latter. 

in my opinion, the only reason that decision was not made tonight may be that she doesn’t trust her alliance partners quite as much as she claims to. i think she fears that, if bnp boycott the election, jamaat may go ahead and participate anyway, thus dissolving their alliance. jamaat could easily do that – look at 1996. given the recent dissension within her ranks, this would in effect her party to just another footnote in the country’s history. quite hard to launch an anti-government campaign against the government when even your partners are in bed with the other side, isn’t it?

in the end i think it boils down to a case of rats deserting a sinking ship. bnp will continue to hold out till the 23rd without giving a firm answer, and then eventually give in, once jamaat’s threats to participate no matter what finally sink in. then the other alliance will gleefully make use of their indecisiveness and crush them in the elections. alternatively, she might stand firm and refuse to participate. in which case i have a feeling that my fellow jonogon will wholeheartedly ignore her boycott calls and cast their vote for anybody they wish, making voter turnout remarkably high. that’ll ruin any claims of power and support that bnp can muster next year, and ensure that she is unable to destablize the country much. i think it’s just punishment for the charade that they have led us through over the past week.

one way or the other, the bnp now have to figure out a way to lose the election while still saving face. otherwise, given their recent performance, they may very quickly become just another minority party in a jamaat grand aliance.


we drive to the new bridge that separates starwood from greenville, the nearest town. the twinkling lights of greenville shine in the distance, beckoning us to indulge in its numerous casinos, bars and nightclubs. behind us, starwood lay quiet and silent, brooding in the cold winter night.

starwood’s claim to fame is being the one town in america where you can see the most stars in the night sky. first, it’s graced with clear night skies on most days. also, our town fathers have tried to hold on to this distinction by reducing light pollution, forsaking modern streetlights for soft oil lamps, and prohibiting the use of lights above 40 watts throughout the town. at night, anybody can step outside their door and see the whole sky lit brilliantly with millions of stars, sometimes interrupted by the twinkle of a passing airplane.

the epicentre of star-gazing, however, is the old bridge, which hasn’t been rebuilt since it collapsed in a storm twelve years ago. set about 2 miles outside the town, it’s a short road that ends abruptly and drops into the nothingness below. it’s become the prime tourist area during the season and the most intimate lover’s lane in the off-season.

rachel knocks on my door at seven pm and tells me she wants to go on a drive. we haven’t been too close since we came to high school, our interests having diverged in the past two two years. but tonight she’s strangely subdued, and says she wants my company. i don’t argue.

we drive out to the new bridge, which is her idea. i don’t mind, because the crowd at the old bridge is sometimes a bit too much to bear. we park by the bridge and sit on the railings, letting our legs dangle over the treacherous depths to the river deep down below. although its winter and prime stargazing season, the bridge is empty – all the tourists having flooded in to the old bridge area and the town before sunset.

by 9 pm the tourists will reverse their journey over the bridge, seeking refuge for the night in the comfortable lights of greenville instead of in our single lonely and mostly empty motel. i’ve noticed that most tourists can’t take too much of the dim lights of starwood for any period of time – rather, they prefer the constant stream of comfortable 80 watt bulbs that greenville offers.

rachel, bathed in the glow of distant neon emanating from greenville, tells me she hates starwood, and wants to get out. she’s been thinking about living amongst the lights, she says, and can’t wait to graduate from high school and get out of here.

i’ve thought about it too, but i’ve come to realize that the lights are not for me. greenville always seems a little too bright. in spite of the multiple attractions, there’s always just a bit too much light. the one time i went to a restaurant in greenville, i got a severe headache, and my eyes had a really hard time focusing. i had to be driven home because i couldn’t see well enough to drive myself.

i ask rachel why she suddenly wants to leave. not too many people ever actually end up leaving starwood, probably for the same reasons. they work in other places, in the big cities and the factories and the banks and everything, but every night, before nightfall, they make sure they are back home in the confines of starwood.

rachel says nothing. she doesn’t stare at greenville; rather, she stares down at the river coursing below us. she’s quiet, but i think i see a tear running softly down her cheek, quietly refracting the distant neon of greenville. we haven’t spoken to each other much in the past two years, and, to be honest, i didn’t think we ever would. i had come to terms with us having drifted apart, and had moved on myself. but clearly something had drawn her back to her childhood friend. i know rachel well enough to know that she would eventually tell me what was bothering her, when she felt comfortable enough to, and that no amount of goading would get it out of her.

we sit silently on the bridge railings, listening to the river softly flow below us. the only other sound is the hum of greenville’s lights, which, on still nights, can seem so loud as to seem like some giant insect buzzing just outside our town.

another tear slides down rachel’s cheek. i don’t know if i’m brave enough to reach over and wipe it off, and don’t even have the courage to try.

rachel tells me about how she was raped one evening on the edge of town. she tells me how she couldn’t identify her attacker because it was too dark to see him, and how he grabbed her mouth and held her down. she tells me about how she tried to fight him off, but how he was too heavy.

rachel tells me about how every dark shadow cast by the oil street lamps scares her, and how she fears another attack. she tells me how the dark shapes of pedestrians walking the streets all look to her like the attacker himself, returning for more. she tells me how she’s now afraid of even the shadows cast by the dim light in her house, and how she savors every moment of daylight like it’s her last day on earth. she tells me how she’s going to run away soon, into the comforting arms of the bright lights of greenville.

rachel becomes strangely quiet after pouring her heart out to me. we listen to the river and the lights for a little while more before i drive her home again. we’re both quiet in the car on the drive back. i say good night to her, but i know it’s more of a goodbye.

all of a sudden, greenville’s lights don’t seem that bright anymore, and i can no longer hear their persistent buzz.


a very rough draft, but, by golly, it’s the first story i’ve written in a year and a half! comments etc. highly appreciated.

the night it rained – reprise

i originally wrote this story on august 23, 2005, but wasn’t happy with the way it turned out at all. i’ve always thought of rewriting it, but never actually got around to it till now.

some of the standard disclaimers from the previous version still apply, and so here they are again.

  • 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.
  • this was the first story i wrote set in bangladesh.
  • i’ve put the names back in this edition.


(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. gourav and quamrul haggled with the shopkeeper, arguing about how many cups of tea we had consumed, and how many cigarettes we had smoked, while farhad 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 farhad and i live on branches off from the main road. we bid our farewells to gourav and quamrul 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 farhad 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 farhad 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 farhad’s fourth birthday party, farhad 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 farhad, 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 farhad, 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. farhad, gourav, quamrul 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.

farhad 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. farhad’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. his 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, farhad’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 we 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 – farhad 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. he 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, farhad 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. he 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. gourav and quamrul, who had discovered drugs and girls respectively, hardly ever joined us for these evening chats.

in time, farhad’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, gourav and quamrul, 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, farhad 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 farhad had been unusually quiet all day long. usually, farhad, being the witty one among the four of us, dished out the insults and the jokes at the expense of gourav, quamrul 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 gourav blabber on about the ganja he had bought that had blown his mind, and letting quamrul 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 gourav and quamrul, 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 farhad lost his virginity to a star-struck girl he didn’t really like, he told only me about it; likewise, i had shared with him the details of each of my family’s problems, my fears, my hopes, my desires. 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.”

farhad 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.

“my parents are getting a divorce,” he began.

(haiya alal fala, haiya alal fala)

that was news to me. his parents had always seemed to have an amicable relationship. in fact, i’d never even seen them argue, and farhad had never told me about them fighting. “what? why?” i wondered.

farhad took a deep breath and let it out. “i found out last night,” he said, instead of replying to my question, “i didn’t know about it either. i overheard them fighting, and i hated both of them.” another deep breath, before the words started flowing out.

“my father’s been seeing someone else. he’s going to marry her, and he doesn’t want to be with us anymore. he doesn’t love us anymore.”

(allahu akbar, allahu akbar)

“what?” i nearly yelled. “that’s crazy, man. i’ve known your father for years, and i know he loves you a lot.”

farhad looked me straight in the eye as he spoke. “i heard him say it himself.”

“that’s crazy,” i reiterated. farhad’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. and yet, the look in farhad’s eyes told me that he wasn’t making any of it up. “so what’s going to happen?” i asked. “is he going to move out?”

“no,” said farhad. “we’re leaving. he’s not leaving us with anything. we’re going to be moving back to chittagong to live with my uncle.”

and that’s when i realized why farhad hadn’t told me by himself about this, and why i had to drag it out of him. he didn’t want me to know that he was leaving, so i wouldn’t be hurt. but i hated him more – he was my best friend, and the closest thing i had to a brother, and he was leaving me.

the conflicting emotions nearly bowled me over. my love for farhad and the hate i felt for him for leaving; the desire to help him and support him now in his time of need, and the need to push him away for betraying me; the thought of what i’d do to him if he was making all this up. “when?” i managed to croak.

i saw a tear run down farhad’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 him cry before, not once. “soon,” he said. “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.

in retrospect, i know now that i should have stayed back, talk to him, support him, comfort him. but i felt betrayed – i was about to lose the best friend i ever had, and i couldn’t forgive him for it, even though it wasn’t his fault. and so i ran 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. 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.


this time around, this story is about divorce and infidelity in the context of bangladesh, where it’s become a growing and more prominent phenomenon in the last few years. specifically, it’s about divorce impacts children and told from the perspective of a third party who isn’t directly affected, but is still too innocent to understand the implications and react accordingly. after all the narrator’s still a child, and we are all inherently selfish.


the fazr azaan cuts through the quiet dawn morning, and silences the band playing on a neighbor’s rooftop. they’ve been going at it all night long – the remains of a gaye holud/bachelor party somewhere in the neighborhood. i imagine a whole silent city of bloodshot eyes in the morning, silently cursing the intent revelry that’s kept everyone else up all night.

but i’m not up late because of the music. my almost hermetically sealed windows and the sound of the air conditioner have drowned them out quite well. i’m up late again – or is it early in the morning? – immersed in something else.

someone else.

my mind still resonates with her final murmurs and sighs as sleep envelopes her. i remember i didn’t wish her a good night, but she was already asleep before i could. but there are bigger things for me to worry about.

for as long as i can remember, it’s been my second nature to critically deconstruct everything i say and do, usually before i do it. but this time, i haven’t given myself the opportunity. and that makes me worry; after a near eternity of guarding my emotions so closely, i’m finally letting them take full rein and lead me on. but that scares me – what if i end up getting hurt again? after a lifetime of unrequited affection, what if this ends up following the same road? what if i end up doing something completely stupid and thereby lose the one person in a long time who’s managed to inspire and excite me enough to let my guard down long enough to actually feel alive, for once?

worrying about everything is possibly my quintessential characteristic. but right now, i can’t seem to concentrate on even these concerns. the promise of a brand new day and the prospect of hearing her voice again eclipse everything else.

the soft plucking of a guitar mixes with the final notes of the azaan. a soft imperceptible rain falls and distorts the flickering decorative lights from the wedding house. dhaka’s in the grips of another very late post-monsoon depression, and the light slowly coming off the eastern horizon reveals a sky scarred with clouds.

but, as the band strikes up again, i think that, this time, i’m going to be all right.

on writing

the lamest excuse i could possibly come up with for not writing more on this blog would be the most truthful one: really bad time management. i could have come up with something more original and even slightly more exciting, like a tremendously active social life, or a blooming love affair, or even a sudden influx of new best friends, but none of those would be truthful. seeing that i haven’t written any new fiction in over a year, if truth were to desert my writing as well, that would leave me with absolutely nothing to write about.

but no. the excuse for my continued absence would have to be my lack of effective time management skills. or rather, given the amount of time management i’m already engaged in – balancing work, classes and the band – dedicating time for writing seems to have fallen through the cracks. despite an intention to poach a good friend’s own practice of writing at least 1000 words a day, i haven’t been able to live up to it yet. it seems that, once my time is split between classes, work and the band, the remainder is dedicated to a free-for-all assortment of other activities: shaving, for example, or spending time with the family. writing falls into this list. however, it’s mostly always at the bottom of the priority list, given that watching movies or reading books provides more convenient and enjoyable distraction.

in the meantime, my short story acid somehow got published in the eid special of the new age, an english language daily. [i realize, of course, that linking to the published story here effectively destroys the last shreds of anonymity that this blog had, but i’m certain that if anyone still reads this blog today, they already know me.] i’ve had mixed feelings about the publication. first, i’m not certain how they got their hands on it – i don’t consciously remember submitting it for consideration. second, given that it’s my first publication, i’m of course quite excited. but finally, i’m not certain if i wanted it published in the form it is in currently. as part of my procrastination about writing new stuff, i keep telling myself that first i’ll revise all the old stories, but i never get around to that either. and i’m certain that most of them need revision.

except club rio, of course. even if i wanted to change that story around, the only message i ever wanted to get across through it is covered in the first few lines, whereas the rest is just an afterthought. but others, like the night it rained, definitely need a lot of work on my part.

but now that something has finally been published, i feel it’s about time i started writing again. for the past few days, i’ve been dreaming up a new story, again set in bangladesh, and, like acid, concerned with a burning issue. although i haven’t started work on it, i plan to do so shortly.

in the meantime, the response from the elders on the publication of acid has been, to say the least, very interesting. my father told me, “the plot was good, the writing was good, the ending was good, but you didn’t need to put sex into it!” as that was the first time i ever heard him use the dreaded s-word, i consider it a huge achievement. a professor also called it “very mature writing”, which actually means, i presume, that it constitutes reading material for the very mature. and all this fuss about something that may or may not have happened! for god’s sake, they were only lying in bed together and kissing, not explicitly naked, and at one point they “finished” doing something. that doesn’t mean they had sex! it could have been a billion different things – thumb-wrestling, for one. and several other things that escape my mind at this moment. but no, the perverted minds of humans automatically assume that they were making babies! god.

one last thing before we close for today. i’ve tried out a variety of writing styles – from the onion to maddox to even any random political blog you come across. but none of that is me. so, henceforth, i’m going to be writing in my own style about things that interest me, just to see how it comes out. if you’re still reading a year from now, i’m sure you deserve an award.

come to think of it, if i’m still writing a year from now, i deserve an award.