The Last Resort
The Last Resort
I am here to tell nothing but the tale of Pankaj and his doss. But thinking of one incident leads to another; the history of the Homo sapiens or the mechanism of their brain, or my personal temperament may be responsible for this. Incidents of a man’s life are interconnected. There is a specially designated term ‘isolated incident’ in politics, but not in life, though life is also a political reality. From where, then, a term like ‘isolated incident’ did emerge? Is it because life is full of politics but politics is devoid of life? Pardon me; I am deviating from the focal point. If I want to be versed in short story writing, I am expected to shed light on a specific fragment of life and that fragment must represent at least one universal truth about human existence. My nature is, following the tail of one story, I easily divert to another. All the doors of my being a failed story writer are wide open. Pankaj, born in a Hindu family, is my friend. He witnessed my growth to adulthood and I witnessed his. But we never were conscious of this. I never offered any significant change in my social position to notice but I witnessed his evolution. From poverty, he rose to the lower middle class and then ascended to the middle class; and throughout this journey, he had never adopted any dishonest means. Bangladesh is the second fastest growing economy in Asia. The GDP is rising rapidly. The number of billionaires in the country has increased by 57% and Poor people’s income has dropped by 5%. In this condition, too much honesty is unbelievable, yet I believe him. He has always been a financial expert. He knows how much and where to invest and what to expect. What is friendship without trust? Whatever, friendship is not the essence of this story. I cannot give my word that I will be able to write a good story according to the conventional definition. I am just narrating what I have heard. Despite this, when someone hears about an incident, they blend their own experiences and idiosyncrasies with it and constructs a perceptional embodiment before accepting. I am just a narrator of the story; I have no direct involvement in this incident. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have anything of that sort. In fact, I have quite a few, but I haven’t chosen any of them as the theme of this story. Someday, some other writer may construct a story based on my incidents.
When Pankaj reached middle age, he discovered himself as a middle-class gentleman and realized that he would have to pass the rest of his life like that. At this point of life, Pankaj developed a strange sort of despondence and nostalgia. On the occasion of such a mood swing, I met him almost after an eight-month interval. When we were indulging ourselves in a casual chitchat, Pankaj started talking about his evolution. I will narrate the incident in the third person; because, if I just relate it in the first-person using inverted commas, it will be Pankaj’s story in literal. The incident belongs to Pankaj, the story belongs to me. I am a writer. If another writer writes this story, he may find a new dimension in the same incident. Only a skilled writer is capable of presenting the incident as a ‘the universal feature is embodied’ type story and serious readers may find a socio-political message in that. Kindly notice the use of ‘story’ and ‘incident’ in the last four sentences prior to this one. Thank you.
We have been friends since the second grade. I, with my parents, used to reside in a rented apartment on the first floor of a housing society and Pankaj used to live with his parents, his two elder brothers, a sister and grandmother in a slum just behind the society; the whole family in a single pit. Once or twice, I went there with Pankaj. The musty smell, naked latrines, rooms like cattle-pounds, thatched with polyethylene, and a strange-inexplicable darkness lurking in the whole slum rejected my middle-class existence there. Pankaj is my friend, but I could never befriend the place he lived in— that atmosphere full of smoky dust. Now I imagine what their life was like— domestic violence in front of the children, the girl having her first periods in front of parents, and lustful breathings in the pitch black darkness. His grandmother died at ninety-four and his parents at an early age, meaning that the only remarkable difference was their ages, not the time of their death. Pankaj, with his own perseverance and effort, ascended from that polyethylene-thatched slum to a concrete apartment. His sister was married off to a day-laborer and moved to a small municipal town with him. Both of his brothers left Dhaka after struggling for a few years. Pankaj didn’t have any regular communication with them. Time to time I asked him about his brothers. Pankaj used to tell me that after acquiring a mobile phone, he had been in irregular contacts with his brothers for last ten years. Pankaj usually claims that he often invites his brothers, but they have abandoned him. My opinion is, they are either envious or embarrassed being near Pankaj. But the incident Pankaj narrated to me on that day was quite strange in itself.
The first one to communicate with Pankaj was the younger of his two brothers. He wanted to visit Pankaj with his elder son. His son would take the university admission test. He worked from dawn to dusk as a full-time carpenter and a part-time rickshaw puller to afford his son’s education. If his son could get an admission into a public university, he would be able to afford the cost. He was in no way capable of bearing the cost of a private institution. This son was hoped to be the shelter of his old age. His brother’s embarrassed and helpless tone transmitted embarrassment and emotion into Pankaj. He told his brother to come to his place without hesitance. I know Pankaj’s wife very well. She is a wonderful and civilized woman. She took every possible care of her brother-in-law. Should I use my imagination to depict what an emotional scene between the two long-detached brothers took place?…Never mind; emotion is not the subject matter of this story. The problem that emerged was, Pankaj has only three rooms in his rented apartment and his brother brought his younger son, wife, and daughter. A Juboneta (political youth-leader) regularly harassed his daughter. He had threatened to kidnap her. A local police sub-inspector rendered his assistance. At last, Pankaj’s brother sought refuge to another Juboneta. Again, one other Juboneta had interfered to create a brand new crisis. It was risky to leave the family there unprotected. My apologies, I am not writing a political story. Something strange happened in the course of sleeping arrangement and suddenly Pankaj found himself all alone. As a family-oriented middle-class man, he has always pursued money, honor, a bit of power and childbearing. It was his habit to rest a hand on his daughter’s head before sleeping; a daughter whom he got in his middle age after a long tiring medical endeavor. Now, he had to use the spare mattress to lie at the veranda. There were a couple of female guests at home. His brother had to sleep with his elder son so that he could monitor his study. Once Pankaj had led a shameless life with them in a single partition-less hut in a slum, but now all of them were separated with walls. Pankaj didn’t mention to me how he felt then; he even might not have thought it—that’s how I feel. Though Pankaj didn’t tell me, I could imagine that Pankaj hadn’t slept that night. First, shifting the bed; second, detachment from wife and daughter, and thirdly, lying in the veranda. What Pankaj also didn’t tell me was, after trying to sleep for almost fifteen days detached from family, one day, he was gazing at a fragment of the sky, which was unevenly perforated with intermittent building-tops; and he recollected the memories about the lustful breathing of his parents. The first few days he slept inadequately in a pensive mood. At last, his nephew’s admission test was over. But his brother stayed for few more days with his family. Then Pankaj one day came to know that his brother was expecting political shelter from him. The political leaders of the capital Dhaka were thought to be more powerful than those in the suburbs and his brother asked if Pankaj knew any of them, even a police officer would do. As a middle-class gentleman, Pankaj never went to any police officer, let alone a political leader. Nobody wants to see a man like Pankaj to wander about a police station. Astonishingly, Pankaj could not say no to his brother this time as well. He could just say that he was trying and immediately after finding a leader of such kind, or even an officer, the problem would be solved. When finally he started having deep sleep in the veranda, his brother abruptly took leave with his family. All these I have heard from Pankaj.
Again Pankaj ascended from veranda to his bedroom and came back to his wife and daughter. The mattress went back into the closet. Soon after this, according to Pankaj, within a couple of months, the other brother communicated with him. He was badly in need of coming to the capital city to seek medical attention. The local doctor had suspected that he was suffering from heart disease as a result of high blood pressure. Again, Pankaj, being embarrassed and emotional, invited his brother. This brother also came with his wife and children. Why did a patient come to his brother’s residence with the whole family? We may assume that running around from hospital to pharmacy required manpower. Or did they come to visit the zoo, children’s park, or the museum? They, of course, visited them, but that was not their motive.
This brother of Pankaj chose the wrong profession in the wrong era. Cities have been engulfing villages. They are gradually coming towards the countryside like slow-burning alluvium- digging river erosion. At this point, he chose to be a hired cultivator as he didn’t own any land. He used to cultivate a rich man’s land as a laborer. One day out of nowhere, under the ‘National Modern Communication Project across the Country’, a culvert constructed on the last water body of that village and then started the frequent visit of the picnic parties from the capital city. A dozen of brickfields were set up, a handful of ceramic and garment factories started functioning. Owners and laborers of those factories started swarming in that area. The natives either out of greed or poverty, being trapped or threatened, handed over the ownership of their lands to the outsider businessmen; and they became the laborers in their own land as employees of the garment, ceramic industry, and brickfields constructed by the outsiders. The price of lands sky rocketed and the landowner under who Pankaj’s brother used to work, decided to give up cultivating. Now he had a better idea of utilizing his piece of land. He used straws, bamboos, and tree-logs— easily available in villages— to build up a Bangladeshi traditional hut and gave it an English name. The ‘Picnic Palace’ was ready. The spot started to be profitable from the very beginning. That’s it; Pankaj told me this far about his brother’s background. Then started the writer’s imagination: Every winter, the civilized town folks started lurking in the cottage compound, the fog of the brickfields wasn’t far away and the river they tripped on boat was colorful with factory-waste. All, irrespective of children and old, peeped over the boundary wall and wondered, what did the Dhaka-people look for in the village? Why were they so loud? Why did they hustle and fuss so much? What was need for the music so loud? Was a pond something so special that they went on taking photos in front of it? They didn’t know answers to these questions, but they became tempted and avid. The villages are poverty-stricken, the villagers fight over chairman election, they start panchayet (village-trial) over the ownership of a palm tree, they suffer from the want of drinkable water though there are no lack of water bodies and tube wells, they do artifice on fertilizer and seeds of crops, they mix poison in the pond water and kill one another’s fishes and they fight over the boundary of lands. In this situation, they witness the import of agility and merrymaking from Dhaka. I feel that, in the core of their soul, they also nurture the desire to migrate to Dhaka and occasionally visit their native village under the banner of an urban institution. Pankaj’s brother learned nothing but cultivating land. Moreover, he argued with his employer on what human beings should do with a piece of agricultural land. As a disloyal employee, he lost his job. In fact, most of the agricultural lands in that village were being used for everything except cultivating paddy. Almost half of them were lying barren with scattered signboards plunged on their chest. The signboards had many attractive titles written in English: ‘Riverview Apartment’, ‘Skyview Apartment’,‘Ashraf Garments Factories’, so and so forth. At best, some lands were being used for cultivating potatoes, cauliflowers or spinaches and for this no one needed to hire a farmer. A drop of hobby of a housewife is enough. During that crisis, his wife took over. She became a sweeper in the same cottage from where her husband had been sacked. But, before she could restore the balance of the family, her husband fell sick. I guess Pankaj’s brother had a desire of being an auto-rickshaw driver in Dhaka. That was his best possibility considering his educational qualifications and social status.
The quilt again descended on the veranda with Pankaj. But this time he could sleep better. It is logical to assume that a sudden workload at his office made him tired, or he started to be habituated with guests. I asked him if he had started enjoying sleeping alone in that narrow corner of the rented apartment. He couldn’t offer any appropriate answer. One day, his brother begged for livelihood to his younger brother. He wanted to know if Pankaj had any colleague or friend who owned a farmhouse in this city, or if anyone needed a caretaker of a garden or a piece of land. He assured his brother that any job related to cultivating soil was perfect for him. After remaining silent for a moment, Pankaj asked him why he hadn’t done what everyone else was doing in the village. He could easily join a factory. His brother accused nepotism and replied that it was very difficult because the owners employed their near and dear ones and the previous landowners. Political nepotism was another hindrance. The former owners of those lands were in the pipeline. Landless farmers weren’t in consideration at all. But I believe that Pankaj’s brother said these as a believable excuse. In fact, he wanted to do nothing but cultivating. Lifestyle is a practice and he denied transgressing his habit. I can also guess that he was not properly hooked yet. A hooked person doesn’t care about habits. Or, probably, he was such a person who had no other habit. Pankaj assured his brother that he would look for a farmhouse-owner and consulted his wife about it. She simultaneously warned him about the imminent crises and advised him to help his brother. The first crisis was, Pankaj’s other siblings might expect livelihood from him. Secondly, if anything went wrong in the farmhouse, such as theft, he would have to be ashamed in front of his friend forever. Pankaj claimed to me that he didn’t have any friend who owned farmhouse. But my guess is, he had. Otherwise, why did he consult his wife? Why did she mention about a friend? He always had a dream of ascending to the higher middle class. Yes, I am aware of the fact that you may remind me what I said at the beginning of this story: What is a friendship without trust? Actually, as a friend I trust him, but not as an author. Moreover, there are variations in trust. Helping his brother was risky for him; at the same time, it was shameful for him not to help his brother. Hence his mind was vacillating between risk and shame. Now you may point your fingers at me that I am finding excuses to establish my discrepant thoughts. You are free to do so. Pankaj has the liberty to narrate his experience in his own way, I am also free to write and you as readers are free to judge both of us. Pankaj’s wife advised him to talk to the nearby garage-owner about his brother’s recruitment as an auto driver. His middle class acquaintances would be ignorant of this design. At the same time, his wife asked him that if it would be suitable for him to request a garage-owner while he boasted about how he had overcome poverty. Once again, Pankaj’s mind was hanging between brotherly compassion and the fear of humiliation in his circle. He avoided his brother for few days with a heavy heart, and one day when he came home from work in the evening, his brother was gone. Finding no other option, his brother accepted his precarious destiny.
Again he slept for a couple of months resting his hand on his daughter’s head. In his own words, sleeping with his wife and daughter became intolerable for him at that time. Involuntarily, he started waiting for guests. At last, his sister, her husband, and their daughter came to visit them. I can assume that she had heard from their brothers that visiting Pankaj was not a big deal and Dhaka was not bad to explore after all. And it came as a bonus also that it gave a momentary relief from the frequent whiplash of poverty. This time Pankaj’s wife showed some annoyance but Pankaj was happy to be alone in the veranda. Pankaj claimed to have mixed feelings this time. It was like a paradox to him. He missed his wife and daughter, but also enjoyed sleeping alone. Anyway, visiting Dhaka was not the only purpose of these guests too. Pankaj’s sister used to prepare ruti-sabji (bread and curry) in a local restaurant. A student leader, with his gang, came to dine at that restaurant and had an instant stomach upset. Her husband used to shop and slice meat and vegetables at that same restaurant. According to Pankaj, his sister was totally innocent. The greedy restaurateur tried to save money by buying expired and half-rotten flour and vegetables. Now, it is natural that cooking will always depend on the quality of the ingredients. Nobody claimed to be sick after eating at that restaurant ever. Yet, for a reason unknown, the student leader became sick. Either stale food ingredients or their misfortune might have been responsible for this. The gang grabbed the restaurateur by the collar and he without hesitating a bit indicated to the kitchen. Pankaj’s brother-in-law was slicing vegetables at that time. He was battered by the goons quite mercilessly. His wife, after begging mercy for a few minutes, became enraged and tried to protect her husband with a boti (vegetables and fish cutter), but unfortunately, she was hit with the same cutter and almost lost her right arm. The restaurateur didn’t find any logic to keep a crippled woman as his employee. After a couple of weeks, one evening the crippled woman hid behind a tree and suddenly attacked the student leader. She used her single hand to stab him and managed to seriously injure him. The reaction was interesting. As a consequence of this incident, her husband along with his family was accused of stealing money from the donation box of a mosque. The theft took place almost a year ago. Now, religion took the form of the agent of retribution and started chasing haunting them. Pankaj told me with a sigh that his brother-in-law was indeed the thief. But he had no intention to steal from a religious institution. He needed the money and the donation box of the mosque was an easy option. He just needed the money, not the mosque that owned it. His brother-in-law in fact came to Dhaka to issue passports. The whole family was eager to flee from the country to avoid arrest. This time Pankaj helped them a bit. He introduced his brother-in-law to a broker at the passport office to influence the police verification. Eventually, his brother-in-law also became a broker at the passport office. He used to take bribe to issue passports for people, as far as I know. I feel it safe to claim that, I don’t know any political leader involved in sexual harassment. Moreover, I am not writing a story on religious riots. It’s a matter of relief that even if we deduct the political and religious portion, the reader will face no ambiguity in enjoying a complete story. Hence, if the honorable Editor suspects that his/her literary magazine or publishing house may be under any kind of threat, or his bookstall in the Ekushey book Fair may be attacked or set on fire, he is free to curtail the political portion of this story and turn it into a mere family drama.
Whatever, that is a socio-economic or politically isolated incident. Again I am following the tail of the story instead of telling it. What a horrible writer I am! These incidents have no connection with Pankaj’s incident. Politics is not the subject matter of my story. My sole intention is to tell the story of one Pankaj and a temporary bed— the bed which had been used only when a bunch of guests visited to make him feel isolated and alienated. One day, Pankaj’s sister also managed a place to reside. This is the substance of my story— back to back visits from three guest-families isolated Pankaj in an inexplicable manner. Whenever he sleeps with his wife and daughter, he experiences a strange kind of trance instead of sleep. The spare mattress is waiting for the next guest in the closet and who knows why, Pankaj asked none but me when that guest would come. I sipped on the teacup. Now, his sleep shows him mercy only when he’s on the other side of the wall; but can a middle-class family man sleep alone?