“‘Freedom’ in Asia is just a word, without meaning, for Asians never practiced slavery on a large scale….”
I had barely begun my lecture when a student in jeans and T-shirt with very long hair stood up.
“Just because you are the General’s right-hand man we have to swallow all this nonsense?” he demanded to know in a strident voice. “We want democracy!”
The classroom was silent.
I knew about the boy. His name was Saad Andaleeb, a student politician, and the bulge in his front pocket was probably a revolver. He wasn’t interested in philosophy.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a girl in a black kameez and black-dotted shalwar rise.
“Are we democratic?” she asked. “What about our families? Are our families democratic? We have to obey our families no matter what and you want democracy? Go and democratise your family first!”
To my surprise, the young man looked embarrassed, mumbled a few words and sidled out.
With a buzz of relief, the class emptied. Only the girl and I remained.
“I don’t think I needed help from a woman.” I hadn’t meant to say that but I was too exasperated to think.
“So what they say about you is right. You are a male chauvinist.”
I smiled. “Not really. You don’t know much about the boy.”
We were in the verandah now. Students walked past us, talking. We had to raise our voices.
“I like your classes very much, Mr. Shah, and I would be very happy if you would spend the weekend with us some time.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Zeenat. But you know my father’s name. Mahboub Sarwar.”
“The NGO guy?”
“So, is he the tyrant in your family? The one you had in mind back there?”
“O no! I meant my mother.”
Zeenat called to invite me over the next weekend. I took the bus and got off as directed. Was I surprised!
They lived in a bungalow in the country; the silence was punctuated only by the koel as it muttered cuoo-cuoo-cuoo. In the distance were villages surrounded by areca and coconut palms. The paddy fields stretched on either side of the highway.
I made for the summerhouse on the pond over a herringbone road. Above the summerhouse, a bat hung upside down from a cable, electrocuted. A bearer in white uniform stood in the shade of the mango tree – the mangoes were heavy on the branches. He salaamed me and ushered me into the summerhouse where Zeenat sat in a pink jamdanee saree in a rattan chair. She rose.
“I’m so happy you came, sir.”
“Don’t call me ‘sir’, and I’m the one who’s happy to be here, believe me. This place is beautiful.”
We took our seats, and the bearer ran inside to get me a glass of cold pineapple juice. It was humid and hot. Fortunately, a breeze cooled us in the shade.
I noticed a newspaper in the chair next to Zeenat. An article had been circled in red: STUDENT POLITICIAN KILLED IN INTRA-PARTY SHOOTOUT. I noticed the name: Saad Andaleeb. We looked at each other. Before we could say anything we were joined by Mahboub and Zeenat’s husband, Shahabuddin. The latter carried a rifle – a .22.
“Out hunting?” I asked.
“We didn’t have any luck,” observed Shahabuddin. “Abba tried to shoot a dove, but missed. I nearly hit a stork.”
“I’m happy we missed. These birds are too lovely to be killed. Don’t you agree, Mr. Shah?”
Before I could reply, a four-wheel drive came up the driveway and stopped at the summerhouse. Mrs. Amina Sarwar, who was driving, got out. She was a handsome middle-aged woman; unlike her daughter, she had a wide mouth and a dazzling smile. She was also built bigger. The daughter one wanted to kiss, but the mother one wished to have sex with straightaway. She didn’t look like a tyrant, yet.
“Why are you all standing?”
“I’m going in for a shower,” said her husband.
“Me too,” chimed her son-in-law. “We just got back from our shooting.”
Mrs. Sarwar ignored the men and fixed her attention on me. Pineapple juice in hand, she sat down. So did I.
“Mr. Zafar Shah!” she exclaimed. “The General’s lackey!”
“Mother, you’re impossible!” Zeenat left.
The two men said something about seeing me later during dinner, and headed for the bungalow. I was alone with the tyrant.
She sat with her legs apart in her pink shalwar and kameez. Amina Sarwar was a vain woman. During the drive from town, she had put on fresh lipstick, perfume and powdered her face: she had missed the forehead though; it shone with perspiration. And all for me: I was flattered.
Somewhere a cow lowed. A fish leaped out of the water around us.
“Let’s drive out a bit, Mr. Shah.”
“Call me Zafar.”
She instructed the bearer to put a flask of coffee and sandwiches in the car.
“The General’s finished, Zafar,” she began behind the steering wheel. She drove slowly out of the compound. “The cold war’s over, the west doesn’t need him anymore.”
“Why don’t you join me, Zafar?” I noticed that she left her husband out of any future plans.
We got out of the vehicle, and sat in the back, eating sandwiches.
“We can buy another slice of paradise like this.”
We looked out of the tinted glasses. Farmers carried stalks of paddy on either end of poles suspended from their shoulders. They bobbed over the lush fields in the distance.
“The NGO pays well,” I observed.
“Very well.” Her husky voice had dropped a little. She rubbed her bare feet against my crotch. “I made a fortune out of poverty, and I intend to make another one out of freedom.”
“Freedom’s just a word here.”
“We can sell the word for millions.”
I gazed at the setting sun. “In principio erat verbum.”
“You’ve lost me there, Zafar. Speak my language. Money.”
She unzipped me, then took me between her hands, then between her lips. She undid her shalwar, then turned around. Her buttocks grazed my thighs. She was a wild thing, wild as the foxes howling outside.
Dinner was a quiet affair, with Amina doing most of the talking, and Shahabuddin putting in a word now and then.
After dinner, Zeenat took my arm and she and Shahabuddin led me to their room. Shahabuddin sat on the bed, and Zeenat and I took two chairs on either side of a writing table.
“You’re drinking too much, Shahu,” admonished Zeenat.
“If I don’t drink, how do I write my trashy poetry?”
“You’re unkind to yourself, Shahabuddin,” I said.
“Call me Shahu.”
“Shahu, you’re poems have been published in some of the best magazines in the west.” I sipped my vodka. Zeenat wasn’t drinking.
Shahabuddin lay back. “Do you know why?” he chuckled. “You should know, Zafar. You have said it many times in your articles. What does an ex-colony have to offer the former mother country? Reality, not imagination. I used to be original at one time: I didn’t publish anything. Then I read back issues of all the major publications, and I twisted my style to suit. Now I write about what I see, not about what I think. I’m not a poet: I’m a camera. I satisfy curiosity.”
“He’s like my mother, Zafar.” Zeenat narrowed her eyes. “You kowtow to the west, and you achieve fame and fortune. Give them what they want, tell them what they want to hear.”
We were silent. The crickets knocked themselves against the panes. Occasionally, the drone of a truck or motor car would grow louder, then disappear in a Doppler effect. The foxes kept up an intermittent howl. The air-conditioner hummed. Shahabuddin began to snore. Zeenat’s face was buried in her hands and her shoulders shook. I went over to her, and knelt on the carpet.
“I can’t – take it – anymore!” she wailed. She put her arms around me. When she stopped sobbing, I took her face in the palms of my hands. But there was nothing I could say. “You wanted to save that boy, didn’t you? You knew he’d be killed. I didn’t understand.”
“There was nothing we could have done.”
“Take me, Zafar,” she whispered savagely. “Take me now.” She clawed at my belt.
“Not here.” An instinctive sense of decency worked inside me: after all, her husband was sleeping in the same room. “Let’s go to my room.”
The foxes grew louder: they must have been outside the window.
General Haroon-ur-Rashid came to my flat, all pips and gongs.
“Well, Zafar, do you think the students will overthrow me?”
“No, not the students.” I put my cold mango juice down. “The donors. By means of the students.”
“And why’s that?”
“They don’t need any anti-communist bulwark, anymore.”
“But I’m popular.”
“I know. They know that, too. But they want free and fair elections. Something they call freedom.”
“What can I do?”
“If we had had enough time, we could have fought one idea with another idea. Rather, one word with an idea.”
“What are you going on about, Zafar?”
“The idea of freedom has gripped the students: they don’t understand the word, but they like the sound. And who can blame them? The entire western media have indoctrinated them. A few years ago, we could have countered the word with a Perso-Arabic expression: zel Allah.”
“It’s an expression used for a military ruler: the shadow of Allah. You see, in Muslim culture, the ruler is regarded as the shadow of Allah on earth. He cannot be overthrown. He must not be. For 1,400 years of Muslim history, the ruler has always been a military ruler.”
“So what’s wrong now?” boomed the General. He had a deep voice. He held the palms of his hands outstretched as though for an answer.
“We lost the language.”
The General slumped back in my cane sofa. “You’ve lost me, Zafar, that’s what you’ve lost.”
“The Battle of Plassey, sir.”
“Let’s not go that far back, please.” He ran his fingers through his short hair.
“But we must. We lost the Persian language, and with it the expression, zel Allah. The English word ‘freedom’ has taken its place. After the Battle of Plassey, we got cut off from our own culture, our own history.”
“Now those young boys want freedom from me, do they?” The General’s large nose was red with indignation. His deep-set eyes were furrowed. He looked like a man betrayed – by his own people, by language, by history.
“We’ve been defeated, sir. We can’t alter that fact. These poor boys are being used by everyone – the parties, the donors, everyone. The student wings are already turning into criminal organisations.”
“You mean to tell me that because we lost our freedom on the Battle of Plassey, those boys want freedom today?”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself, sir.”
He chuckled, and sipped his juice. He looked up at the fan whirring overhead. “Freedom. Zel Allah.” He looked down. “Here’s my plan, Zafar. I’ll broadcast what you said over the radio and television. The Persian words, our history. And then I’ll hope for the best.”
Frankly, I didn’t think the General had any chance. The students would rebel any day, and by the time the message went on the airwaves, it would be too late. You can’t reverse two hundred years of foreign rule in two weeks. I didn’t want to tell the General that we were too mentally enslaved for his plan to work. Besides, the dosh was coming from the west, as well.
He picked up his peaked cap.
The movement against the General gained momentum. The students barricaded the streets. I decided to make the most of my remaining days on campus: by spending time with Zeenat.
The last day arrived, and Zeenat and I were in the office, when she was startled by the first round of shooting between students and police. I thought it best to get to my apartment (which was near) before the fighting really broke out. I led her out of my office by the hand.
There wasn’t a soul around. We cautiously walked down the steps to the landing on the first floor. If Zeenat and I had to make a run for it, she’d have been caught in the folds of her blue saree. I had to move quickly.
The first-floor verandah was deserted. But one or two students could be seen running at breakneck speed downstairs, pursued by policemen in blue and khaki. Zeenat let out a small shriek as one of the fellows connected with a student’s scalp, and painted it red. The boy was asking for it, anyway.
By now, we were both lachrymose from the tear gas that had substituted the air. Zeenat’s wide eyes had become pathetic, narrow slits.
I turned cautiously to walk down to the ground floor, when Shahabuddin came bounding up the stairs.
“Shahu!” shrieked Zeenat.
He was struck on the left shoulder by a police baton, and the chap proceeded to knock the brains out of the prostrate poet.
“Stop it!” I shouted, but what did the trick was a card I flashed in the gendarme’s face. It was the least I could have asked of the General.
“Sir, sir, I did not realise, sir….”
“Yes, yes, now help me carry him.”
I turned towards Zeenat with one of Shahu’s arms around my neck. She stared down at us. Was she crying or was that just the tear gas?
Feeling safer with the gendarme, though this multiplied our danger in the other direction, we ran out to the back entrance. All the time, a steady round of shooting, with the occasional explosive, continued to puncture the air.
A police jeep screamed to a stop.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Yes, sergeant. Just help me take this man to the teachers’ flats, please.”
“That’s as far as I can go, sir.”
“That’ll be enough.”
Zeenat got in at the back with the gendarme and we pushed off.
The sergeant abandoned us, and didn’t even bother to leave the constable behind. I wondered if the General was still in power.
We stretched out Shahu on the bed, and Zeenat mechanically began to nurse the chap. He was going to be all right, I was sure. As soon as I’d made certain, I turned on the radio. I could hear nothing for the students were all over the campus, screaming:
Before the radio station went dead, this was the only expression I could make out:
About the Author:
Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Southern Cross Review, Opednews.com, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, The Journal and other publications. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.