The White Shadow

Winter of 1990
Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh

Serenity is almost tangible at twilight. Regardless of the ruckus all throughout the day, it seems that precisely at the points when the sun ascends and descends the horizon, all of life stops a moment to watch the giant orb pass its solitary journey. Life seems to slow down and a sort of sadness sets in. The sadness is because of the semi-conscious realization that another day has passed by in the limited number of days we have. A feeling of solitude creeps in, and we realize that we are truly alone in this world. The revelation is accompanied by the chirping of birds, all of whom instinctively resonate to a chorus at this mystical time.
It was during this beautiful moment that a man was walking across the beach watching his wife play with his children. His name was Abdul Latif, and he was a slightly chubby man who sported a thick moustache popular in those days. His wife, Fatima, was beautiful and slender, her long braid topped with an over-sized hat. Her laugh echoed of an open heart as the sea-water splashed her face. She was drenched to her knees carrying her little girl on her waist and holding her slightly older son’s hand. The children were experiencing their first encounter with the sea.
The little boy, Akif was his name, tucked in his toes and felt the soft sand give way beneath his feet as the sea pulled the grains from between his toes. He smiled the toothless smile of a boy who recently cut his milk-teeth. Bit by bit he ventured farther into the dangerous ocean, inching his way so his parents won’t notice the difference. The waves grew stronger and angrier. Water splashed away with tremendous force and the tide pulled harder so that the boy lost his footing and slipped into the water. He went underwater a few seconds but resurfaced once the wave receded. He was lucky, since he wasn’t that far from the shore and apart from swallowing a bit of water, he had received no injuries. To his parents however, a wave of alarm spread through them. They ran to the drenched boy who coughed out water from his lungs.
The sky was covered with the rosy hue of sunset. The gulls chirped as they flew close to the sea. The chilly wind of winter gushed by and sent chills down the spine of the wet boy. Latif soundly scolded him for going too far into the ocean, while his wife begged him to go easy on her son since he was only a child. Akif had started crying with fright and remorse as his father yelled at him continuously for not staying close to his mother. His angry voice drove the little girl on her mother’s waist to tears and she wailed, thinking that her father’s harsh words were meant for her. Throughout the ruckus, it was Fatima’s job to pacify the young ones and in between his sobbing son and wailing daughter, she gave her husband a look asking if it was really necessary to be so hard on their children.
Latif knew, however, that it was necessary, and he remembered a time when he almost died drowning from a capsized ferry. He remembered the helpless feeling of submerging deeper into the river, losing breath and seeing the watery surface go farther and farther away. His hands flailed wildly as he struggled to resurface. He was underwater for perhaps twenty seconds but each second brought the sinking realisation that he was drowning and would perhaps die if someone didn’t rescue him. He was saved, luckily, by a man who went underwater to pull the drowning victims back to the surface and to carry them to shore. If it was written in his fate that that day would be the day when he was destined to die, he would’ve died a drowned victim, a casualty with unfulfilled dreams and wishes and a life departed too early. He would never want that for his children.
He looked at his wife, the woman his parents chose he should marry, and with whom he spent a good six years of married life; A woman who was younger than him by eight years and who perhaps was still too innocent to comprehend the hardships of his life and thus too young to understand him. As the sun went down and the last light of day faded to absolute darkness, he placed a hand on the wet shoulders of his son and prayed to Allah that He take care of his family.

Summer of 2012
Dhaka, Bangladesh

It was night-time in Dhaka city, a hot and humid evening. The night was quiet without a lot of traffic. A group of men were congregating outside an apartment building. A funeral was taking place. The men were dressed in white and were assembling to pray Salatul Janazah. The body of a deceased lay on top of a make-shift bed made of timber on the street. The entire body was shrouded in white with only the face uncovered. It was Abdul Latif, his head facing towards the Ka’aba, his mouth slightly parted. His last expression of peace and surrender to the will of Allah was imprinted on his face. He had a glow of purity about his face which comforted the bereaved towards his destination.

His son was a part of the congregation; tall, broad shouldered with a tupi covering his curls, his face bore the stony imprints of a man who had grown twice his age overnight. He was praying for the salvation of his father’s soul. As the funeral prayer ended he helped lift the body of his father into a coffin-like wooden box which had two poles attached to the side so that four people could carry the body towards its grave. This was then loaded onto a lorry which would transport the funeral casket to the graveyard.

Once the body was loaded, the male relatives went onboard the lorry to accompany Latif into his final journey in this world.  His uncle Jalil, his father’s brother, was amongst the companions. As the lorry started towards its journey, the men prayed in a chorus for mercy on Latif’s soul. Akif sat opposite the body, making sure that the bumps on the road were not disturbing the body. He felt unnerved doing so, knowing that this would be the last time he would be able to touch his father’s body.

‘Don’t touch the body unnecessarily, his soul can feel pain.’ Uncle Jalil said.

Akif looked at his father and said, ‘I’m not hurting him.’

‘Perhaps, but at this stage even if a leaf falls on his body, he’ll feel like a building fell instead.’

Unwilling to hurt his father, he kept his hand away. His heart thumped every time they went over a speed bump.

‘Do you think he’s with us right now?’

His Uncle was thoughtful for a few seconds, and then said, ‘Maybe, he might be near his body looking at us.’

Akif was silent and then said to himself, ‘He’s in a better place.’

Uncle Jalil nodded ‘The Almighty knows best.’

After a while, he said, ‘Your father was a good man, never did a thing out of place. He always stuck to his morals no matter how difficult. Always the rigid one and he always turned out to be right.’

Then why did he have to die? Akif knew that whenever someone talked about the loss of a loved one, as tragic as it always is, he never thought it would be someone from his family. Reality never really hit him well enough for him to understand that he, his mother, his sisters or his father are mortals and can be snatched away in the blink of an eye. Life is so fragile; it really doesn’t take much for it to go away. We have so many dangers lurking our paths, it’s an everyday miracle we stay safe and sound.

His father was the victim of an unfortunate road accident. In a way it was merciful. He didn’t have a long painful death as with people with terminal diseases; he died instantly. He lived to be fifty-nine years old. He deserved to live to be a hundred. Even his body carried few traces of the accident, just a few dark patches where he was hit hard.

All he had to do to proceed to his death was catch a late bus home. The driver was drunk and collided with a truck and bam! Four dead and eight injured. Akif kept thinking that of all the buses to catch, why did he have to catch one which was destined to have an accident? Why couldn’t he have missed that particular bus or decide to take a taxi instead? Then again it must have been the wishes of a higher power that declared that on November 27th 2012, Md. Abdul Latif would meet the angel of death and proceed to the afterlife.

The lorry stopped suddenly and Akif realised he was in Banani Kabarasthan. It was time to bury his father. He held one pole of the coffin-like box, his uncle held the other, the rest was held by other relatives. They kept reciting prayers for Latif’s soul, that Allah may have mercy on him and forgive his sins. They reached the dug grave, and slowly placed the body within. It lay there alone, shrouded in cloth. Akif looked at his father one last time and he realised how constricting the grave looked. His uncle, as if reading his mind, said, ‘If the soul is righteous, then The Almighty makes his grave spacious and comfortable.’

They then proceeded to pour earth on the grave. It was heart-wrenchingly painful for Akif to bury his father. It hurt so much for him that he had lost the ability to cry. He wished he could but all the emotion lay bottled up inside him, restricting him, rendering him mechanical.

 

***

By the time Akif came back home, only a few guests remained. Along with the ceremony, the segregation of a Muslim funeral had also ended. Men and women were wandering around freely, some talking amongst themselves, others saying consoling words to his mother. Isolated in a corner sat Akif’s girlfriend of four years, Nishat. She saw him and was about to get up when Akif motioned her to sit down. He took out his cellphone and texted her

‘Meet me in the verandah in five minutes.’

When she got there, she saw Akif standing in the moonlight. He turned to see her and then apologised.

‘I’m sorry I couldn’t talk to you there, people might say things.’

The norm of Bengali culture is that if a boy and a girl talk publicly for more than fifteen minutes, people start asking questions. Moreover it would be improper to have a conversation in front of everyone while they remain in a society where men and women retain a polite distance.

‘Na that’s completely fine, I understand. How’re you holding up?’

‘I’m fine, I’m just worried about Amma. She’s still in shock.’

His mother had sat through the entire evening motionless. It seemed that everyone except Akif and his mother were crying, including his sisters Nabila and Sharzana. Nabila, the elder sister, broke into tears every time she spoke. She was twenty two years old, still in university and closest to her father. Sharzana, the baby of the house at the age of twelve sat in a corner wailing alone.

‘Things will get easier.’ Nishat said, ‘No one is in the right state of mind right now.’

She looked at him discerningly and saw how deeply agitated he was.

‘Are you sure you are okay?

‘I’m ok, as ok as I can be.’

A few moments pass in silence. Then Akif says,

‘It’s strange but I hardly imagined my life without Abba. Now that he’s not there, I just can’t believe he isn’t.’

‘It must’ve been hard for you to bury him’

‘I don’t want to talk about it.’, he said sharply.

Nishat looked hurt but understood. Akif was never one to freely talk about his feelings.’ They passed a few moments in heavy silence. The chirping of crickets could be heard.

‘Is everything going to be okay at home?’ Nishat asked.

Akif thought for some time and then said, ‘Yea, things are going to be fine, soon, they have to be. We’re just going to be crunched for money now that Abba is gone. Honestly, I’m worried about our loans. He had quite a few of them.’

‘Won’t you talk to your Amma about that?’

‘She’ll need some time to recover but this needs to be tended to right now.’

Akif thought about his job. He was working in a software company and earned forty thousand taka, a reasonable income for a graduate but utterly unsuitable for supporting a family of four. He knew that his family would have to live on his earnings now and it was his duty, as the man of the house, to take care of his family.

‘You realise that this puts changes in our plans, right?’ Akif asked.

Nishat looked down and nodded silently. They were supposed to get married by next year. Nishat’s parents were pressurising her to marry and she kept postponing because Akif needed to get a job to support their future.  It never seemed to be the right time. She herself didn’t want to get married before getting a job. As time went by, she was increasingly harassed by her relatives and pressured by her parents. They had decided to get engaged and then married by the next year but now it seems unsure when they ever will be able to.

Akif sighed and said, ‘I won’t be able to support Nabila’s tuition fees.’

‘She can get a part-time job. That might help.’ Nishat suggested.

‘Not by much, her semester fees alone cost forty thousand.’

Akif looked up and sighed once more, ‘I think I’ll have to look for someone for Nabila.’

‘She’s only twenty two!’ exclaimed Nishat

‘I know’

‘Is that really necessary?’

‘Believe me, I’d rather she marry at a better age with someone of her own choice but right now, I can’t support her education and she can’t support herself. Amma and my savings will last her for a year or less with all our loans at our heels. I don’t want her to not finish her graduation but I can’t provide that for her so someone else will have to.’

They stood silent for some time. For Akif, the sinking realisation that his father died and that he must take his place gripped him and seemed to weigh him down. Nishat looked at her watch and said,

‘It’s getting late, I should get home.’

‘I’ll drop you.’ Akif suggested but she refused,

‘You should stay home and take care of your Amma.’

She left, leaving Akif alone in the darkness. He went downstairs to check on his mother but found her already in her room. Akif locked the doors and windows, drank a glass and went to his bedroom. He locked his door, sat down on the bed and for the first time in the night, he wept.

 

***

Fatima lay awake in bed, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. It seemed as if a storm had passed through her from the moment she heard the news till the moment she was in now. She looked across the darkened room, to all the pictures hanging on her wall; their wedding photos, them with their first child, together on their many family vacations. His coat lay hanging from their wardrobe, his dirty laundry still in the basket, his files and papers, his messy work desk; she must find time to sort through them later.

She wondered if she’d ever be able to sleep, if sleep was at all possible. She felt the lightness of their bed and realised that she missed his weight on the other side of it. She reached over and smelt his pillow, taking in the fading scent of his shampoo. An intense tremor went through her as she contemplated the rest of her remaining days alone without the man with whom she spent more than half her life with.

The seconds ticked by and the memories of him and her came and went; the things that were said and unsaid; the misunderstandings they had never resolved; the bitterness that came with their most violent arguments, all flashed by her, and she wished she could wager a deal with death to grant her a final few moments with her husband. Her only solace was in knowing that she would return to him and they would spend eternal life with each other, and she prayed that the day came soon when she would join him.

Time went by and she realised it was morning and that her entire night was spent in memories. She went downstairs to the dining room and found her son with the morning paper, dressed for work. When he saw her he got up and prepared a cup for her. The maid had already prepared breakfast, not that it was needed, since several of her relatives had sent food so that she didn’t have to worry about it. She looked at Akif with his ironed shirt, his morning paper, his silent demeanour and she realised that he had grown to be just as impassive as his father. He asked her how her sleep was, if she was feeling well since she looked ill, told her to rest and that he was coming home for lunch. No one would be able to guess that the boy lost his father two days ago.

Fatima sat sipping her tea and noticed that her son was looking at her intently.

‘Amma?’

‘Hmm?’

‘How are you taking all this?’

Fatima smiled her open smile and said,

‘Baba, how am I supposed to take it?’

As Fatima sipped her tea she said something which Akif never knew before.

“Did you know your father was the first friend I ever made?’

The question took him by surprise. Surely his mother had made friends before marriage.

“Don’t get me wrong, I met lots of people before your father, but I could never feel free with them. I preferred being by myself than with others.” Fatima reflected back to several years. “I remember how every time I felt sad, I’d go outside to the gardens. I’d always feel better when I’d see trees and green everywhere” she said, “I could never really understand people that much. Your Shireen Khala was always too busy with herself. Ironically, your father also happened to be one of the most complex men on this earth. I had to make a real effort to understand him, and even then I think I didn’t know him well enough after all these years.” Her forehead creased in thought as she said, “Your Abba had this quiet, commanding aspect about him. It was as if he knew that I’d keep a distance from him and he endeavoured to get me out of my natural shyness from the start. By the end of the day he knew me better than myself, but I could never really know him.”

By this time Nabila had come down to have breakfast. Her dishevelled hair and puffy face said all that needed to be said about her night. She went to her mother and put her arms around her.

“How are you feeling Amma?”

Her mother returned her embrace and told her that she was fine. She sat down next to her mother and greeted her brother. Akif poured her a cup of tea and turned to his mother,

“Amma, I think we need to discuss some things about this house.”

Her mother looked at him.

“I guess you know that since Abba’s has passed away, we’ll have trouble with our finances.”

Fatima was silent.

“Abba never made us feel like we needed money but I don’t earn as much as him and he left us a lot of loans.”

His mother stayed silent, so he continued,

“Amma, I hope you don’t take it any other way but, we’ll need to have a lot of cut-backs in our lives”

His mother looked at him weary-eyed and said,

“Can’t we discuss this another time?”

Akif looked at her and said,

“Amma, we need to talk about these things soon.”

“But we don’t have to talk about it now do we?”

He took the hint and backed away. A pained look came across his eyes and he said he had to go to work. When Akif left a sort of heavy silence fell upon the house. Nabila looked at her mother and said,

“Bhaiya is right Amma, we’re going to have to worry about money from now on.”

Her mother was silent.

“We’ll have to shift Sharzana to a cheaper school. We can’t afford the one she has now”

In a desperate attempt to avoid the conversation, her mother got up and started collecting the tea cups. Of all the things she had to think about, she didn’t want to worry about money. In her entire life, she had never felt as helpless as she felt now. A deep sense of self-loathing came across her as she realised that she could not defend her children against poverty.

She knew they’d have troubles with money in case of a disaster and she had saved, but it was not going to last them forever. Because of this tragedy Akif had to prematurely take on the burdens of fending for his family and Fatima wished her son didn’t have to take on such a load by himself. She wondered what she could do to contribute, but at almost fifty years of age she knew finding a job wouldn’t be easy.

 

***

It was evening. A warm breeze passed through Nabila’s window. She sat on her bed sorting through a wide assortment of things; cards, clothes, jewellery, purses, books and a few dolls. All of them had the faded tinge of age. She was looking through them one by one, holding an item in her hand and then creasing her brows in thought. There was a knock on her door and she got up and opened it. Her brother entered, saw the unusual mess on her bed and asked what she was doing.

“I’m just sorting through the things Abba gave me. Come take a look.”

She took his hand and had him sit on the bed. She then passed him a large doll. It wasn’t well preserved and seemed old and had rips on bits and edges of the doll.

“Abba gave this to me on my tenth birthday. I can’t recall that well but I know I was very cranky that day. I remember we were at that restaurant, I think its name was ‘Lemon Grass.’ I wanted a two-tiered cake on my birthday but mom couldn’t find one. So I was really angry at everyone. And then Abba passed me a gift-wrapped bag and I found this doll.”

Akif held the worn-out doll and passed his hand through the fabric on its dress. “It was my favorite doll because Abba gave it to me.”

Then she passed the cards, “These are the cards he gave me on my birthdays, high-school graduation and that time when I was first in class in school” All of them had their Abba’s cursive handwriting. Their father had very good penmanship and Akif passed his hands through the writing. A feeling of loss spread through him as he did so.

Nabila took a large shawl in her arms and gave it to her brother. “Abba was picking me up from my Physics coaching one day and we passed by some shops. I saw this shawl on the display and I really wanted to buy it. I asked him to get it for me but he said that he didn’t have any money with him. I think we were a bit short on cash in those days. I forgot about it later on and a few weeks passed. One day I went into my room and found the shawl neatly folded on my bed. I went to Abba and told him that he didn’t have to buy it. He said that he wanted to since I liked it so much. Then he gave me a hug and kissed me on my forehead.” Her eyes were tearing up at the thought. Akif put his arms around her and said, “Did you know Abbu wrote a poem about you when you were born?” Nabila smiled and nodded. “I think Amma kept it in her closet. Amma said that I was very jealous since Abba didn’t write a poem about me. I guess they always wanted a girl, they’d never tell it to me directly but I remember hearing it from them when they thought I wasn’t around. I was really mean to you when I was small.”

Nabila leaned her head back on her brother’s arms and sighed.

“I miss Abba”, she said as tears fell to her cheeks silently.

“I miss him too”, said her brother. Nabila saw that his eyes were red with tears. She had never seen him like this.

“Nabby, I have something to say.”

She braced herself for what she was about to hear because she knew it wasn’t going to be good.

“When Abba was alive we never had to worry about money. We lived pretty comfortably and even if we had any problems, Abba and Amma never let us know about it. When I started a job, I was happy to be earning and I gladly contributed to the family expense; but now that Abba passed away, I’m the only one who’s earning. It’s really hard for me to say this but I can’t keep everyone living the way they used to, I don’t earn that much. We’re really lucky we bought this house because we don’t have to worry about rent, but you and Sharzana are studying and that’s where my income falls short.”

“Bhaiya, before you say more, can I add something? I got accepted in Caltech; and they’re offering a waiver on my tuition fees”

“What about your living expenses?”

“I’ll give that on my own.”

Akif thought for some time and said, “I don’t know if Amma would want you to live by yourself in a foreign country.”

“We have Shireen Khala living in California, why can’t I live with her?”

“You could ask Amma about it.”

“I’m going to do that. Bhaiya, I really want to go abroad. We’ll just need to save enough for the visa processing and the ticket. I’m going to get a part-time job there so that I’m not a burden to Shireen Khala.”

Akif smiled and said that that’s do-able. He played with the idea in his mind and found that it solved everything for Nabila. Throughout all this sadness he smiled with the thought that his sister might have a shot at happiness. A small window of light opened for them and they realized that things will take care of themselves.

***

Several weeks have passed by since the death of Abdul Latif. His Chollisha was held and the house was once again re-united with relatives. The prayers had ended and Fatima, Akif and Nabila helped in distributing food for the guests. Sharzana was there, dressed in white, no longer seeming like the happy twelve year old girl she used to be but a wizened adolescent who persevered through the difficulty of losing her father. Nishat was also there, once again in the background, separated from the rest, but at the same time being a silent support for Akif.

The hours grew late and the guests dispersed. Nishat was the last one there and was about to leave when she heard,

“Ma, why don’t you stay for a while?” She turned to see Fatima smiling at her. A terrible shyness came over her as she approached her would-be mother-in-law.

“How are you Fatima Aunty?” she said

“I’m fine but what about you? You didn’t talk to me the last time you were here either!” Fatima took her hand and lead her to the sofa. Sharzana had brought out a photo album and joined them. She opened the album and leafed through the pages until she found her parent’s wedding photos. Several black and white photographs were neatly organized in the pages. Fleeting moments of their wedding passed by and Fatima looked at them, knowing that they will never come back again.

“Amma, you and Abba looked really nice in this picture.” It was a photo of them in bridal attire.  They were outside and her husband was opening the car door for her to get inside. She was about to go to her new home.

“This was after the ceremony had ended. I was supposed to meet my in-laws.”

“Amma, I never really asked but what was it like when you and Abba met?” Nabila asked.

Fatima smiled and said, “I don’t know how it was for your father but I was incredibly nervous. My parents were trying to get me married, since, according to the times back then, I was exactly in the marrying age. They kept their ears open for anyone suitable passing by. My father contacted his childhood friend who was running a school. He said that yes, he did know an eligible bachelor, someone who had just started working in his school as a teacher. According to him, the boy had brilliant results, is very hard working, currently lives by himself since his parents still live in the village. My father consented to meet him and he came into my house and talked to my father. Your Shireen Khala told me that my father asked your Abba why he hadn’t married sooner. He said that since his father could no longer earn because he had grown old and had lost his leg during the liberation war, he had to support them so that they could live more comfortably and it wasn’t until recently that he could earn enough to marry for himself. He told my father that he wasn’t rich and didn’t have a lot of connections, but he could work hard and he would always do his best to provide for me.”

“My father liked him a lot, but he wondered if he should give his daughters hand to someone who was earning a modest income. Eventually he agreed, because your Abba had a very strong character and my Abbu valued that more than money. When I met him, I was a bit taken aback because I hoped he would be younger. No one told me much about my future groom and I would have to beg my sister to tell me even a little bit. I was naturally very shy when I met him, I couldn’t even look him in the eyes. He noticed that and did everything he could to put me at my ease. He did most of the talking until bit by bit, I felt more comfortable with him. Soon, we were chatting away like old friends.” She smiled as she recalled these tender memories.

Sharzana flipped the page to reveal more photos. There were photographs of Latif and Fatima wrapped in sweaters and shawls. “This was when I went to my in-laws village to tell them I had conceived Akif. It was in the middle of winter, I was four months pregnant and I had to walk twelve kilometers because it was that far away from the main road. No rickshaw wanted to go there because the road was bad. By the time I met them I was knee-deep in mud.”

Then they came across the picture of them in Cox’s Bazaar when Akif was five years old and Nabila was seven months old.  Fatima saw how intently Nishat looked at Akif in the picture and smiled to herself. “This was in Cox’s Bazaar” she said, “Your Abba didn’t want to go because Nabila was too young but I insisted.  We stayed there for three days. I remember how Akif lost his balance and fell into the sea. Thankfully he didn’t go that far. Your father scolded him so much!”

She looked up and saw Akif. It was a startling contrast between the boy in the picture and the man he grew to be. “Did you know your father drowned once?” She asked.

Everyone was surprised at the statement. “It was before we were married. Your Abba was going to the village to see his parents. He had to use a ferry to cross a river. It was raining very hard and the ferry capsized. Your father knew how to swim but for some reason, he couldn’t resurface. He told me that no matter how hard he tried, he’d only sink deeper and deeper.”

“He told me later on that the reason he scolded Akif so much was because he got reminded of the time he drowned. He told me that he never wanted his son to go through anything as traumatic.”

The room was silent as everyone was lost in their thoughts.  Then Fatima said, “I think it’s about time we sort out your father’s things. We can donate a few of his clothes.”

“I was thinking of using them.” said Akif. Fatima looked at him and was startled. For a second he looked exactly like her husband, the man he met when he had asked for her hand in marriage almost twenty five years ago. The shock made her realize that her husband was still alive through her children, and Akif had grown to be a lot like him.

She realized that she had spent her life with her husband, gave birth to their children and instilled in them their values and ideas so that they can carry on and finish what they couldn’t. She smiled to herself and felt a sort of weight lift away from her shoulders. The sight of her husband floated by her eyes. In her mind he was no longer a tormenting entity but a peaceful memory of the man in her life who had lived his course. She delved into the reflection of her husband in her mind; In the pitch black of her consciousness, she saw him looking at her; him with his aged face which she saw grow old everyday; him with his kind, thoughtful eyes which carried a faint trace of sorrow for leaving her behind; him wearing his favorite panjabi before leaving for the masjid; him staring straight into thin air, lost in a fluid thread of thought; he saw the man of her life bid farewell to her before fading into thin air. Before leaving, he promised to join her in a world where no one dies.

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