I. Ophelia Mansion
There is a girl in our apartment block; she was ‘plucked’ from the streets by the family of a Jawj Sahib. Her age is hardly written in her face, and with each passing year she remains the same height. Until two years ago, we would only come to Bangladesh to visit. During those summers, I had seen the boy she replaced– a boy who wouldn’t grow as well, almost dwarfish with his big head and eyes full of mischief. Once he threw something at me from the balcony. Once, my badminton cork, as I played in the narrow alley in front of our gate, got lost up there in the balcony protruding widely above the entry to Ophelia Mansion. I laughed. He roared. He was gone by the time my parents settled back here again.
I first learned whom she ‘belonged to’ the day the fire ambulance came to cajole her out of her hiding place. Or was it an exit? She was hiding by the verandah: fire escape?
A year later, her older half, another girl plucked off the street and raised as ‘one of their own’ created a stir by leaving altogether. It was a feat, since neither of them, nor anyone who worked at the judge’s daughter’s flat, was allowed to leave the flat or building. (Though I had once seen them in the roof. Yes, they had work in the roof). The daughter was married to the Inspector of police. The heroine of the ‘premer kahini’ had the casteless name, Alo.
The story was the driver had seduced her–promised marriage. The police walked away with the driver the evening she disappeared. I heard of it after returning from work from the anxious, frazzled guards. I took it in. For a few days I had felt something impending. I used to walk around the driveway at odd hours of the day and night, and could feel the songs the driver in question released into the air up the vertical corridor that stood between the kitchens and toilets. ‘Tomar amar chetona…’ ‘Tomake je legeche ato bhalo, chad buji tai jane.’ The first time I saw Alo, a thin, ‘fair’ girl in a wide skirt, dusting the sweet space before the entrance under a decorative parrot and bell, her face was indistinguishable from the ineffable afternoon light—a dim yellow the color of her skirt– as I descended from the roof. She had thin shoulder-length hair and sharp features; anyone would look twice. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bliss in her lips. It made me think of the music-happy driver with his mobile resonating.
Why hadn’t the driver run away as well? If it was a plan? They said his friend was waiting for her in a CNG, to whisk her away to some Kazi office. KAZI OFFICE. Indira Road and the whole stretch facing Monipur road seemed to be full of unemployed wedding officers. At my office in Banani, nestled in a house surrounded by buying houses, the reaction was quick: ‘Feshe diyeche. Tumi kichu korte parba na.’ At home, stories travelled up the vertical corridor and kitchen nets.
‘He is from Khulna—from the border.’
My mind tried to grapple with the possibility that he really had wanted to ‘sell’ her— to others, if not himself. But the judge’s daughter’s face would replace this bad dream: I already know which market she belongs to. I spent fitful nights trying to figure out—what had happened, what to do. I almost sent someone to the prison near Sadarghat. I looked at legal services. They said, we can’t do anything—they have to come to us. After three months, the driver was freed. Crying….his mother had come, again. They had relinquished this time. He had been ‘punished’ enough.
But the girl? I couldn’t tell if it was a case of a sale gone wrong: was he going to also sell her to the border? Was she one day going to be dropped by him? How badly had they beaten him? And what about the remaining little one? What to do?
Months passed. I didn’t see much of the little one. I remember her face the day I tried to talk to the policeman’s wife about the incident. She looked desperate: her friend in the kitchen dark, gone Then, one day, the caretaker was summoned up to find the girl who was nowhere to be found. He found her in the storage space above the bathroom door. They said he knew, they locked him in to put the fear of ‘God’ in him.
We had a meeting- the elders spoke–this is unacceptable, they cannot lock in someone who works for All of us: we will record this. But what more needs to happen before we turn the judge and the police into the—-? And what about the plucked imp? Might she return to the forest? I hear they once beat someone so bad, they had to take them to the hospital. We’ll document. Next topic: Koothobag Dorbar. I go to rallies, I meet law students.
‘Since when did you take part in these movements?
‘Since I understood politics.’ But… Where is the tribunal?
Her face is darker now. She seems ashen. As though the stove had replaced the sunlight altogether, as though the borders of her being could no longer hold out against the cold octopus that claimed her. I sit here wondering… how to pluck her out of the job they chose for her? She sometimes messes around with the garbage put outside. When she gets to run down the stairs to send some message or other. After Alo’s infamy, she is no longer allowed on the roof to dry clothes and bring them down the narrow ladder. I have to defend any claims I make on the key too—presumably, the driver promised her all sorts of freedom, there. And the entire building has become more vigilant of their domestics. And since we keep none, I am the sole refractor of my mother’s watchful eye.
Like the tokais, her impish face. Once I saw her with Alo staring at a newly lit aquarium, arching from the knees, on the two sofas placed haphazardly for guests waiting in the ‘reception.’ She had a sleeveless frock on, with thin straps. Her skin was a bright warm rose, like a cup of discolored milk. She looked like any spoiled child of the middle classes.
The days close in. I am lost in my aquarium. I switch jobs, in hope of some dream breaking sea; waterfall poems suffocate me. I notice the aquarium. One fish went half-blind, I was told. Its one eye doing the seeing of double next to its twin catatonic light-hole. But the garden of fish in water grows more decorous. Ophelia Mansion now has clay tigers and plants; a bowl of fake lotus flowers in water. Like a girl who now has good clothes, our pale pink apartment building is more pink.
I watch the doors close and open; the garbage man…The small wagon full of leftovers and mixed heroes of the salvagers. Sooner or later, I get on a secluded vehicle—I watch the middle class girls tightly hovering in the maxi’s; office? Shadow of flesh, sweat, intermingling genders, a face-full ride to a faceless place and back.
They confused the power over this and the power over that.
You watch from the bridge; you read the paper.
A rich girl drowned today. A poor one hanged.
And you, in the middle—movies are made about you, and your aspiring disciples: the escort, the call center girl, the new staff in the bank.
The danger of dying never occurs to you. It is life, life, that poisons your breath. The imps beg and are bought, and sold; you look for a job, a man, or both. Men welcome you in the job (your sari becomes you, your jeans and fatwa free your legs, the breasts harden in their fragile purdah of a token shawl); women watch as you dream the first child, or not.
II. God’s Away on Business (jobless DJ)
Leda and the swan. I read a page of Parabola, the magazine of myth and the quest for meaning that I had plucked off my friend’s apartment.
‘You can take it. I’ll leave lots of books around.’ Grace Iman was leaving. She’d had enough of Bangladesh. The administration at Chittagong Leaders’ School; the men—everywhere. The ‘Nnnice’ Howdodyoudo’’s– All of it. It was hard to ‘be’ when ‘what you are’ was advertised without your knowledge. Even a Karate master insisted on giving her booty calls. Terminated without cause, she had returned stubborn to experience the country and what it called her to do; a year after, taxed double due to sheer incompetence, sleepless as the construction cooed day and night…sicker in her asthma from the pollution, she was going to leave amar sonar bangla, unseduced. ‘I’ll get out as soon as I can,’ I told her.
cause it’s a…bittersweet symphony, this life…Try to make ends meet, be a slave to money, then you die…
I remember it playing when I first landed in America. Now Grace was returning there with the intention of Kissing the Ground as soon as she hit Oregon’s mountainous terrain: I want to live inside the glow…
My life has been in limbo for almost a year now. The three years of exposing my conscience to the Asian (globalized) economy since I left my literature degree from the University of Geneva ( a fifteenth century beauty swimming inside Les Bastions with wall-etched figures of the Reformation) in search of ‘real work’ had left me dry, if not mute. One unconscionable job to another, one good job swallowed by a tiny man in charge of big things; one unraveling stream in the strategies of power, after another. I had become the flux of distributaries. And I kept saying no. I had left Thailand with its good opportunities and its private and Catholic schools and its local Thai schools with their behind the scenes transactions with a broken record… playing in the background of my absurd stage: ‘God’s away on Business…’ Then, a year into a deeper Rohosho—at the Asian University for Women–somewhere between right and wrong, the hellish surrender to my ‘desh’ and my ‘bastobata’ saw me do what I had never done before. I started accepting the shapes and sounds of my prisons. I returned to Dhaka, decided to keep still and see. I didn’t know the record would keep playing.
I was reading on my way back from Chittagong. An article by a monk on the realization of God in us entwines with flashes of the image of Joan Osborne What if God…. was….one of us… The dyed, golden curly hair of a masseuse I had met—a Thai woman who worked at a spa in the port city—came to me in her likeness. Yes, she looks like her.
‘Thai men are bad, they take second—minor and Major– wives,’ she said.
And Bangali men?
‘They want to touch my breasts when I am working. Then, when their wife calls, they tell me to hurry up with the massage. If I wanted to be that, I could just stay in Thailand. I came to work here.’
I smirked in my sympathy. Didn’t she know what ‘she was’ was signaled long before the man arrived to confirm his suspicions that ‘nice, modern women’ exist outside the comfort zone of home and work.
But then…caricature of Das Kapital…the writers of invocations are scarecrows! But here among puppets, the shadowboxers…
Free-wage labour has always been about the power that is reproduced controlling the power that produces. And as a woman, that means controlling what you ‘mean’, what you ‘are’ so that the question of ‘can I’ never comes up.
I think of the Meghe dkhaka tara heroines—and the Bangali middle classes working in offices. Of their middle/intellectual class employers who hope to glimpse the Huri of ‘modernity’—that easier woman..for a split second inside the glass office doors.
What difference—the garments worker, man or woman, controlled by the rhythm of the profit-punch machine and the woman newly ‘competent’ in her smart pants and faint gloss?
‘I can’t see you..’ The man says, when the girl wears a kamese instead of her jeans.
Yes, perhaps you can’t.
The fraternity of brothers smile, work or pray.
The month of Ramadan comes and goes. ‘No woman could like the Quran.’
Are you sure they were talking of flesh and blood—in paradise? Which of my fruits will you deny?
‘If you had a real root, grounded in the need for money, you couldn’t leave.’ The employer expects turnover (disguised as sacred Shikors) to keep a ‘level playing field’ for the shy, powerful field player.
‘Exactly. So my bastobata and your patriarchy are intimate. But like bitches and queens, bullshit gets on my nerves. Professionalism—when it tells me to efface myself in the service of work here—is just subterfuge.’
Men have ever asked women ‘How can you think of Yourself?’ Submit yourself to the Greater Cause (of the family, of reproduction, of inertia and subjugation).
‘Activists are similar,’ says my sister,’ Back in Montreal, I knew one who would tell my friend to forget the patriarchal regime that insisted his girlfriend keep mum, for the greater good of the resistance.
I go home, and hear a song I had almost forgotten from the Pussycat Dolls and a hip-hop rapper.
‘You got real big brains but I’ll be thinking ‘bout your…’
The streets are just as ‘fraternal.’ I think of Grace, like the mythological swan…giving birth to herself as a changeling, to the horror of Zeus.
The transactional soul is more convenient and natural in the psychology that sustains power relations than the embracing openness that gives space…The question ’Can I?’ is lost. Yet without it, the equal and opposite principle cannot unfold: whatever the official decorum is, whatever what is apparent seems. But all communion and embrace is impossible.
God’s away, god’s away….my black market baby… god’s away (tud tud tud) on business.
I hear Hegel coaxing history in the shower; perchance, the contradiction overcomes itself