Keep it up, Kilroy
Syed Shamsul Haq
Translated by: The Author
Published by: Biddya Prokash, Dhaka
First Edition: February 2001
Yesterday. 1946. Burdwan, India. Ominous dusk sinking down over the fields. Not a sound to be heard. And darkness gluing to his feet, as he walked. Yet on he went. Holding tight to Hasnu’s hand. Determined to reach home. Before night finally fell.
‘Isn’t there someone following us?’ he asked, once more looking back.
‘Why no,’ she said, ‘I don’t see anyone.’
Again, there was no one there. Yet still he could not dispel the feeling of being followed. As if an arm were reaching out from the gathering darkness to grab at them.
Suddenly he hauled Hasnu into a thicket by a bridge ‘What the…’ she gasped.
‘Sh!’ he hissed, pushing her face-down into the bushes.
Instantly the mosquitoes were at them. Stingingly. They grit their teeth and bore it. Not making a sound.
Below water lapped at the bridge columns. Sounding like ripples of applause in a half-empty theatre.
Then the voices came. Well, not voices really. Just breathing. Two of them. From the far side. One sounding, as if he were freezing. His teeth chattering. And occasionally an eerie, whimpery laugh issuing from his frightened throat.
What on earth were they doing?
Babar’s ears pricked.
Hasnu’s eyes were on him. Her face pale with fright in the dim glow of the stars.
His hand clapped over her mouth. His ears pricked towards the sounds on the far bank.
Down his spine suddenly and swiftly tiptoed an icy wateriness, and at once gooey warmth bathed his crotch. ‘Out with it, bastard!’ a rattling hiss from the far bank. ‘Which are you? Hindu or Muslim?’ The only reply that whimpery laugh.
‘Out with it now!’ Hissing Rattle roared ominously.
‘No, no!’ gasped whimpery Laugh ‘Quiet!’ Hissing Rattle roared again. ‘You little bastard’! ‘No, Baba, no!’ Whimpery Laugh pleaded. ‘Please, don’t. I’ve a wife at home.
Screams tore through the darkness. Quickly stifled though. Then a grunt. Like coolies make. Putting down a heavy sack. Then another grunt. And another.
Then total silence.
Already Babar had hauled Hasnu to her feet. And was about to dash for it. When suddenly there was the man. In front of him. Gore glistening on his long knife. And an amulet glittering at his at his throat.
No time to notice more.
All he remembered was the pounding of his heart. In that helter-skelter dash. For dear life. Across the fields. And Hasnu’s wail. Pursuing him. Piercingly: ‘Bro-the-e-e-er!’
Babar didn’t have much difficulty in finding the bungalow.
‘Why it’s you!’ Kazi Saheb exclaimed, finding him standing there on the doorstep and welcoming him in. ‘When did you get here? How did you come?’
‘By road. I drove up from Dhaka. Mymensingh isn’t all that far, you know.’ Then, thinking some explanation called for, Babar adder, ‘I had some business up this way.’
‘Oh, that can wait,’ Kazi Saheb insisted. ‘You must rest a bit first. It’s ages since I last saw you. We’ve a lot to catch up on.’
‘I’ve already seen to it. I was thinking of getting back to Dhaka tonight though.’
‘If I let you. Can’t you go back tomorrow?’
‘Yes. There’s nothing to stop you staying the night, is there?’
‘Well, no. Not if you’re sure it’s all right.’
‘Of course, it is. We’ve got a spare bed. All it needs is making up. Would you excuse me a minute? I’ll just let them know you’ve come. Would you like a cigarette? Though I don’t suppose this brand is up to your mark, is it? I could send out for others, though.’
‘Goodness, no. I wouldn’t hear of it.’
‘You will excuse me a moment though, won’t you? What can I offer you to drink? Tea?
Coffee? We have both.’
Kazi Saheb passed into the interior of the bungalow. Babar lolled back and stretched his legs. The driving for hours at a stretch had made them go almost numb. The roots of his hair were aching, too. Presumably a few more had gone grey. He wasn’t getting any younger. Thirty-eight last March. And his hair was beginning to fall out. Falling back from his forehead like a defeated army. ‘You be careful, sir,’ Kalam, the TV makeup man had told him only last week. ‘We won’t be able to hide it much longer, you know, penciling round the roots like this.’
The TV show had gone well though. Everyone had praised it. He’d even got some write-ups in the press.
Had Latifa seen it? He wondered.
Goodness, how stupid of him! He’d only just noticed the set. It was there in the cool, dark corner of the room. Its two front legs splayed out before it. Latifa was bound to have watched it, then.
Latifa was now standing at the door. Watching him. Dressed in black slacks and a white chemise with a black and green border. Her beautiful, young breasts, almost imperceptible, rising and falling.
He gave her a silent smile.
She didn’t return it. Which was a bit disconcerting.
She just stood there, staring at him, her large eyes fully opened.
‘Go and fetch the tea things,’ Kazi Saheb told her, coming back in.
She went away.
‘Well, you won’t be going back today, ‘Kazi Saheb told Babar, pulling up a chair and flopping into it. ‘And it’s doubtful whether we’ll let you go tomorrow, either.’
‘Now that could be very awkward.’
‘Oh, come. You’re not tied to office hours like the rest of us.’
‘Well, no. That’s true.’
‘You’re well away. I sometimes watch your show on TV. I enjoy it very much. It’s wonderful.’
‘Do you depend entirely on TV? Or, do you have aside-line?’
‘I’m in business.’
‘I’m thinking of going into business myself, when I retire. My eldest’s still a lieutenant in the Army. Then there’s Latifa. And once she’s married off, there’s another son to be seen to.’
‘Then, your worries are virtually over. You’ve manages well.’
‘Not really. How many children have you got?’
Babar was surprised he didn’t know he was still single. Latifa had once come to do a College student program. That’s how they’d met. Kazi Saheb had been in Dhaka then. Not having been transferred to Mymensingh till later. Babar had become a frequent visitor to their home in Dhaka. He’d even dined with them a couple of times. No, now he came to think of it, nothing had been said of his private life. Kazi Saheb had simply assumed he was married, seeing he was now pushing forty.
‘I’ve two children,’ he lied.
‘Yet Latifa was saying you had three.’
Naughty girl! Babar thought. See, how she’s lied to him!
‘She was mistaken,’ he said. ‘I’ve a boy and a boy and a girl.’
‘She’s a great admirer of yours. Says they don’t come any better than Uncle Babar.’
‘Come. People like you excite respect. I’ve always taught her to give credit where it’s due. She may be only seventeen, but in brains and discernment she can bear comparison with anyone.’
‘Quite. She took her Intermediate this year, didn’t she?’
‘Yes. I had thought of letting her stay on for her B. A.’
‘Have you had a change of plans?’
‘We’ve received a proposal of marriage for her.’
‘You’re marrying her off!’ Babar’s surprise showed in his voice.
Was that why she’d left Dhaka without letting him know? And there he’d come all this way, just to find out why she’d suddenly disappeared like that! And at considerable risk, too. What if Kazi Saheb hadn’t been friendly? Or, had smelt a rat? And what if Latifa herself had been difficult?
She now came in with the tea. And a few hot snacks.
‘How are you, Uncle Babar?’ she asked, her face shimmering with loveliness.
She busied herself with the tea things. And her head tilted to one side. The way it always did. Once she gave her mind to something. It was a very familiar mannerism.
‘Oh, I’m fine. And you?’
‘Okay. How much sugar do you take?’
This little deception pleased him. She knew how much he took.
‘One spoon. Yes, that’ll do.’
‘And how much for you, Father?’
‘You don’t live here, I suppose. You, know very well, I don’t take any.’
‘Oh, I forgot.’
‘You know, Babar Saheb,’ Kazi Saheb remarked, contentedly sipping at his tea, ‘I’m very fond of this daughter of mine.’
‘You talk as if you had another half dozen,’ Latifa teased him.
‘Aren’t you having any, Latifa?’ Babar asked.
‘No, I’ve just had lunch.
‘At four in the afternoon!’
‘It’s useless talking to her,’ her father sighed. ‘She doesn’t take a blind bit of notice. She’s just spent the better part of the afternoon sloshing water over herself in the bathroom.’
‘Oh, come on, Father!’
‘Well, didn’t you?’
‘Oh, you tell him, Uncle Babar. It takes time to shampoo one’s hair, now doesn’t it? Father doesn’t understand.’
‘But you could catch cold. And that could lead to a fever,’ Babar said.
‘I never have fever.’
‘Oh, come on!’
‘But I don’t. You ask, Father.’
‘Why, you had it once eating that basket of unripe mangoes. That doesn’t count, I suppose?’
‘I’m not used to the heat in the wild. It gave me a slight temperature.
Kazi Saheb exploded with laughter. ‘None of us can ever get the better of her in an argument,’ he said.
‘Cause I tell the plain truth. That’s why.’
Babar detected a slight edge to her tone. A slight vehemence. He wondered, why? And who it was intended for?
His mind had drifted. The clink of tea-cups revived him. Latifa was clearing away.
‘Coming home has done you good,’ he complimented her.
‘You must be joking.’
‘What would you know about it?’ Kazi Saheb laughingly reproved her. ‘She wasn’t eating properly at that hostel, you know, Babar Saheb. Even now, it’s the devil’s own job to get any meat down her.’
‘You want to feed me up like an elephant.’
‘That’s all she says morning and night. Turning her nose up at good food. I ask you, is she overweight?’
‘Not in the least.’
‘You must have glass eyes, the pair of you,’ Latifa laughed. She took the tray and left. Her bottom swung like a soft, white animal’s. Yes, coming home to Mymensingh had done her the world of good. It had put colour in her cheeks. And given her figure a new blithesomeness.
‘She’s a delightful girl,’ Babar commented, when she’d gone. ‘Unusually intelligent. And extremely level-headed. She should have read science. She’d have made a good doctor.’
‘Her maths let her down badly though.’
‘She only got forty in her school final. Besides, you know, I saw early on she’d never make much of her studies.’
‘No,’ Kazi Saheb continued, ‘I’m just giving her enough education to make her a good housewife. Able to cope in any situation.’
‘That’s point of view, of course. But I don’t subscribe to it.’
Kazi Saheb had been doing a lot of laughing. His laughter now grew more pronounced. Babar sensed he wanted to tell him something. He gazed at him expectantly.
‘Why, you’re not smoking!’ Kazi Saheb proffered his own brand. ‘I sent out for yours.’
‘You shouldn’t have troubled.’
‘But it’s a pleasure. I’m so delighted you’ve come. I’d been thinking of you lately. Your visit couldn’t have been more timely.’
Babar was just about to learn why, when Kazi Saheb’s wife came in. ‘Good afternoon’, Babar greeted her, rising respectfully. ‘How are you?’
‘Very well, thanks. Do sit down. Are your children alright?’
‘As well as ever.’
Babar was a bit uneasy about his lie. But there was no longer any way of telling them he was unmarried.
‘I sometimes watch you on T. V.,’ she said, smiling.
‘That’s one of the blessings of science. One somehow manages to put in an appearance, even when unable to visit in person.’
They both thoroughly enjoyed his little jest.
‘You are going to stay, aren’t you?’
‘I’ve already told Kazi Bahi so.’
Kazi Saheb was pleased and honoured at being referred to as Babar’s ‘bother.’
‘I’d be truly delighted if you stayed a few days,’ he said.
‘Then, I might next time.’
‘The house’ll be empty then.’ Kazi Saheb sounded quite sad.
Babar didn’t follow.
‘How d’you mean?’ he asked.
‘We’re marrying Latifa off, you see.’
Babar couldn’t believe his ears. ‘When’s it to be?’ He asked, woodenly.
‘The date isn’t fixed. But very soon. She’s betrothed.’
‘What does her fiancé do?’
‘He’s leaving for England this year to study chartered accountancy. He’s taking Latifa with him.’
Then her long-cherished dream of going to England would come true, Babar thought. But he made no comment.
‘Her fiance’s a nephew of mine,’ Mrs Kazi added. ‘He was very taken with Latifa. I wanted her to go on studying. He said, getting married wouldn’t sand in her way. There’d be even better facilities in England for it.’
Part of his mind had become quite depressed. Yet why? Wasn’t she ever to marry? The time he’d teased her about it. About how he’d visit her, afterwards. What would she give him to eat? Would she insist on his staying with them? What would she introduce him to her husband as? And so forth. And now here she was betrothed. And he’d not been told. Was that why she’d left Dhaka without a word? She’d not even breathed a word about it at their last date in Dhaka. And there she’d always said, she never kept secrets from him.
‘It’s getting dark,’ Mrs Kazi said. ‘I’d better see to supper.’ ‘Mind, you make something special, darling.’
‘I don’t need reminding, dear. I realize how lucky we are in having him visit us.’
‘Oh, come now!’ Babar made a show of modesty.
‘Good gracious me! You’re such a celebrated T. V. personality. Your Puzzlers’ Corner is so enjoyable! People just don’t believe it when we say you’re a friend of ours.’
‘They think we’re having them on,’ Kazi Saheb added.
‘By the way,’ Mrs Kazi said, turning to her husband. ‘He’s an artist. Why don’t you show him the designs for Latifa’s jewellery?’ She turned to Babar. ‘You wouldn’t mind picking out a few for us, would you? I’ll send you the catalogue.’
Babar didn’t write poetry, or prose. He didn’t paint, or sing. He just presented Puzzlers’ Corner on T. V. Yet they called him an artist. He smiled to himself. He’d never had any unreasonably high opinion of himself. Yet somehow he did feel pleased at being called an artist.
‘Yes. You send it No. On second thoughts. I’ll come and fetch it myself.’
Kazi Saheb accompanied his wife into the interior of the bungalow.
Babar frowned. What was Latifa up to, alone in there? Why didn’t she come to him? Was she avoiding him? Had his coming annoyed her? Could that explain the vehemence in her tone? She had certainly been irritated with her father for being so friendly with him. He wished he could have seen her alone. He could have asked her, what had made her suddenly high-tail it out of Dhaka like that? And why she’d broken that last date? He’d sat waiting for her all day. With the curtains drawn. And the tape recorder playing.
Waiting for her like this was intolerable. Where’d she got to, after just popping in here for a short while like that? Somehow he hadn’t been able to ask Kazi Saheb, or to get him to send for her. He felt guilty enough, as it was. Fearing one of them might realize he’d come to Mymensingh only to inquire about Latifa….