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.