It took time to reach the main road crossing from the leader’s house in the lane. At that time, the afternoon sunshine was preparing to take leave from the walls. It was not very late in the watch. Forty five minutes past four in the afternoon. But the winter afternoon is yellow now, after a while will be a discoloured yellow like dead grass, then it will be ready to surrender to darkness. Light cold in the air but Shilu feels that she is sweating inside – in excitement and worries. Excitement because her problem’s solution is very imminent and worried about reaching in time.
Shilu couldn’t control herself any more, gasped and said – ‘Well, shall I get him?’
The leader assured her – ‘Why do you worry? No problem. Their real office hours start after 5 p.m.’
Shilu feels a little assured. Composed a bit, she sits loosening her body. Till then she couldn’t even sit nicely in excitement and tension. Inside, her heart was pounding as if it would fly off her body. And she was sitting with such a straight back as if her straight backbone will carry the rickshaw forward quickly. The leader’s house is inside an old Dhaka lane. One has to cross a few serpentine lanes. If one calls his staying area a lane, it will be insulting to the street a bit. One can bring a car before his house. But the arrangement of bringing a car is such that not bringing a car is good and logical. The leader has a car. But he has no garage. He doesn’t keep his car here. He keeps it in a rented garage. He reaches the car in a rickshaw. If there is a serious physical problem, the car comes near him. Today he is unwell. His voice is hoarse. There is a rattling sound from his chest to his throat. At times he is clearing his throat of cough. It seems that the leader has caught cold. Yet he has not taken his car. Proceeding in a rickshaw. Shilu has no car. But since she has to take the leader along, she wanted to arrange a car. The leader didn’t agree.
He smirked and said – ‘I am a very simple man. I am used to every type of transport. Don’t worry. Both of us can go nicely in a rickshaw.’
Shilu understood in a moment that the leader was a very simple person. He stays here in a semi-cemented house in this lane. This is the home of his fore-fathers. With the people of this area his relationship is like the banyan tree and the golden creeper. He gives them shade like a banyan tree. They cling to that banyan tree like the golden creeper, get up and look at the blue of the sky. If the leader was not there then the people would be like insects in the dirty black drain, rotten gutter running beside the lane. They would have to hide their dreams under that smell of stool. Only the leader and his fore-fathers were ready to sacrifice their lives for these people. The people of this area know this, as also the birds and the bricks of the buildings. Only for the attachment of his heart and the bond of his blood for these people, the leader stays in this lane. The leader declares loudly – the people of this area has made him their leader, he has dedicated his everything for them. Yes, this self-sacrifice of the leader is only for these people, who are like dust or the insects of the gutter. Otherwise the leader has a house in Dhaka’s aristocratic area. He has a big residence in Baridhara. Garage, a paradise soothing to the eye, a gateman. A chained Alsatian dog inside. Giving up everything, the leader lives a simple life, poorly dressed. In that house lives the leader’s descendants, son, grand-children. The leader is however very annoyed with his son and grand-children, what luxury, wealth and riches, ignoring the attachment of their blood, their roots! But then youngsters these days don’t listen to you!
Leader is very powerful. But the leader says people are the source of power. People are everything. Since he understands this, the leader has so many admirers, disciples, so much fame, so many devotees. The leader is old now. They say that everything goes away when you are old. But leader has everything intact. His personality, his mountain-like height has taken him to a solider position day by day. He is not a leader with only a colourful title. His power is proportionate to his looks. Tall and broad, he is fair-complexioned. Now because of his age his tall frame has two folds in his cheeks and a fold in his throat, the chin is drooping a bit under his thick lips. No, the leader doesn’t look like a titmouse because of that. The leader doesn’t have a bald head. Back-brushed white hair, a hanging jaw beside his jaw, he looks like a lion with a swollen mane. Although it is the lioness who has a mane, the leader must be compared with a lion. Like the king of the forest, the leader stays in this lane, thinks about the common people, not only that. The leader is really a very simple man, a pure man. He solves any problem of the people. No, no, he has no self-interest, he jumps into it without any selfish thought. Suraiya Akhter Shilu was overwhelmed with the praise of the super-human leader and has thus come to him and is successfully travelling with him today. The leader is sitting beside her. He is looking a little weak. The leader is old now. Who counts a leader’s age? His age has not been counted too. However recently his admirers have cut a cake and observed his seventy second birthday. But a few say that the old man is eighty. These are bad people and this is too much. Jealousy and greed for the leader’s power.
Suraiya Akhter Shilu is the lady with a rat’s fate according to the idioms she memorized during childhood. Or to describe her condition one can borrow that proverb, ‘wherever the ill-fated woman looks, even the sea dries up’. To open the rusted lock of this ill-fated woman’s luck, she has taken shelter under the shade of the leader’s banyan tree.
Shilu is forty two. She is a divorcee.
She has a government job, her golden deer. A respectable job. A good position. But now she is facing a problem. The problem is quite complex.
A government job is nowadays not a government job but a party job. And for five years she is facing the wrath of party workers. The cause of this anger is however not the party. She has lost her signboard for five years. Everyone thinks she is a sales store with no owner. Everyone wants to buy and sell there. And there lies the big trouble.
In a government job one can’t be dismissed at will and turned into a beggar. But one can be ‘tightened’. Can be thrown into problems and harassed a lot. The girl has no signboard, she is a divorcee, so something must be wrong. A good girl never gets divorced! Such an unfaithful woman with a blemish doesn’t listen to anyone; speaks with her head high; doesn’t stay in anybody’s hold, so she must be taught a lesson. She must be taught to the bones the pleasure of freedom, the audacity of walking with her head high. Shilu is learning that pleasure very strictly. She is presently a full-time devoted opposition worker. During the last government she was a dedicated opposition worker. Now during the present government too she is a dedicated opposition worker. So last time she had no table. She was an officer on special duty, the hanging rope of a convict was there in front of her nose. She was not strangled to death. After trying a lot she got a table, she sat there. But her departmental case was not solved.
There is a new government. Now she is supposed to stay well. But now her seriously bad days are darker. Very careful observation has revealed that she was close to the previous government. Now the order of hanging is again waiting for her.
Her other big problem is that from her body of forty two youth has not left her like the fading evening into the darkness. Even now she has the sunshine and heat of mid-noon in her body. She is a little short. She has a sweet, dark complexion but if you are little tough you have to call her dark. On her face is the average charm of the Bengali woman. Slightly thick lips are wavy, as if waiting to say something unfinished. Thick, black hair of her head swings like a snake’s expanded hood on her back. Her two eyes are black and shining. As if a few permanent questions are hanging there. However she has a wonderful, amazing bosom. As if a brilliant sculptor has built them flawlessly with a mould of perfect measurement. It crosses everything and strikes the eye with a new heavy chopper.
This unbearable body drove her from her chair. Showed her the hanging rope. Turned her into a political worker. Opponents turned her into a football every day. Put her into the goalpost at will. Sometimes he, sometimes someone else. There was no woman before in these political games. The game belonged to men. Now there is no demarcation. You can turn all political opponents, whomever you wish, into the sacrificial goat. And women these days are not to be under-estimated. Taking political advantage, using the party’s name and taking share of the profit, they do everything. So why shouldn’t women be hanged as culprits? She however took no advantage from her party. Didn’t conquer a table using names, showing power. But what is the use saying all these? She moves around with such an ownerless body. Comes and goes right before the boss’s nose. Thinks that she is a good worker and boasts about it. Doesn’t sit at the feet of the boss. Doesn’t respect influential colleagues as big brothers and doesn’t exchange gifts with them. This is quite an offence. When even this time she was to be hanged within a short time as punishment of this offence, she is trying in various ways to get rid of the rope. It is very necessary for her to keep her job. Her son is in class eight; his expenses, her expenses. This Dhaka city gulps down money like a monster. Without any job she can’t survive here even for a day. So she is running everywhere. She can’t be ungrateful and say that nobody has come forward to help her. But help is not river water that you can get a lot free of cost. Something is needed for that. What in polite language is called give and take. And Shilu has learned this give and take very well, right with her bones and flesh. Whatever is done here, however kind one may be, nothing happens without exchange. For exchange you need resources. Resources mean money, resources mean women. And for her it is money or her physique. It is clear that she has no money. How can you save from a job’s income? So they are interested in her body. A few behave a little more nicely and even proposes to marry. Shilu hasn’t learned before that the signboard named husband was such a solid thing. Then she would still carry that signboard, who destroyed himself with wine and women, like thousands in this city. She moves around in the whirlpool of exchange and the loo of gestures. She moves from station to station. But the subject is only one, give and take.
Finally, Shilu came to know about this simple man, kind leader. Came to know because she has learned the true meaning of the proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ and found him. She has got this jewel in exchange of real hard work. She has heard that under the big palm of the leader are five or ten timid secretaries to the government. And her work is not a very big problem. A very easy matter. She is not seeking transfer from the mofussil to Dhaka, not seeking a table of two paisa, not seeking illegal promotion. She only wants to make the chair before her table firmer. That is not much. What she has heard all these days, she is seeing right with her eyes now. What a big network the leader has! His eye signals are so significant!
Shilu is happier because for the first time canvassing is not costing her anything. No exchange is needed, no, nothing is required. The leader has understood the pain of her heart with his own heart. And thus doing her work. Not only doing it. Doing it with a smiling face and with all his heart. Shilu was quite worried. But in this expedition of consolidating her position she has to spend nothing. She doesn’t have to give money, which she doesn’t have. And youth, which she doesn’t want to give. So she has this suffering. Even then she needs to pay nothing. The leader will solve all her problems. And he wants nothing in exchange. His only intention is Shilu’s welfare.
If she wants to talk about the leader she has to admit that it is not true that after being informed by his disciples or catching them, she has earned this facility. She knew the leader from before. The whole of Bangladesh knows the leader. But not that type of knowing. Many years back she knew the leader. At that time, the leader was not such a big leader. Shilu was also a bit in politics then. She was a devoted worker of the party. However, she might be made an opposition worker and made to suffer for that. The secret truth is that when she was in politics, she worked for the incumbent governing party. And at that time, she knew the leader a bit. That was however a long time back. Now, food is much more important to her than the party. Her son’s future is much more important and keeping this job is very necessary. Before these necessary things, politics has floated away in flood waters like the loose deck of a boat long ago.
The leader is a true man. He has remembered that acquaintance, evaluated that and seen her small contribution for the party as something really important. On several days, she had to come to the leader. She had to make him understand where to put his hand on. From where to drop the bomb of canvassing. The leader is a meritorious man. He knows everything. He understood where the key was. The leader wants the work very quickly done. And so he is himself participating in the expedition. Now they are going to the secretariat, the center of power. May be today the work will be done. So, coming to the main road crossing from the leader’s house was such an exciting and worrying time for Shilu. Taking the leader along like this was not an easy matter. Because the leader has very little time. With much difficulty, he has managed this time of today. However, Shilu admits that the leader has given her time most happily. She didn’t have to flatter him too much and he has given Shilu word to give time to her whenever necessary.
The rickshaw is moving forward. After passing the Nazimuddin Road, it is going towards the Doyel Chottor. The afternoon is going towards evening. After a little while, evening will suddenly descend on earth. Shilu again feels excitement inside. Once she thinks of asking the leader, shall we get him? But she doesn’t ask. The leader is happy. He is talking to Shilu in such a happy mood. Although his voice is a little broken, the leader talks in a deep voice. He has a very grave voice. The perfect voice of a leader. In fact, he is not talking to Shilu. He is making her dream.
Listen, don’t worry at all. To fix that job and warn your boss a bit is not my real intention. It is necessary, so I am doing it. After this, I shall get you a training abroad.
No, no, you don’t have to try so hard for me. If only you fix my job, I shall be grateful to you for my whole life.
You don’t have to worry about yourself. Your worries are mine. And what will make your son’s future very good, I have thought about that too.
Shilu’s enthusiasm increases at the mention of her son. Only for her son is all this, all battles, all great efforts, the snake-ladder game. The leader is a far-sighted person. He has thought about Shilu’s son too. So surprising, Shilu hasn’t told him even once, yet he is thinking. Aha, that is why he is a leader!
What have you thought?
Thought that I would put him in a group of child artists and send him abroad. That will increase his merit. He will learn a lot, seeing the children of the outside world.
But he is not any artist.
The leader doesn’t reply to Shilu. He thinks a bit and says – ‘Well, what is his age you told me?’
Yes, simply perfect. While talking, the leader’s voice rattles again. Twice he makes a hawking noise and clears his throat.
You have caught quite a cold.
No, not a cold. But when winter comes, my chest feels a little heavy. The cough disturbs.
Shilu thinks a bit and then says – ‘It will be a very big thing for him to go abroad. But I need to keep good teachers to teach him. I have kept him in the English medium with much difficulty. A lot of expenses there, need to appoint good teachers, they are highly expensive.’
The leader coughs and clears his throat – ‘Who told you to think about expenses? Am not I beside you?’
The rickshaw jerks a bit. Shilu’s body rocks. Strikes the leader’s body. The rickshaw behind pushes them hard. The lower half of the leader’s body rises from the seat of the rickshaw, the two hands get extended forward, he looks like a 200-meter butterfly swimming contestant ready to dive. Shilu puts her hands forward, holds the leader and makes him sit on the seat. She is a little afraid too. If the leader falls on the road at this age and gets injured for her, it will be very shameful. Shilu holds the leader nicely and says – are you hurt?
Hey, no, no. Am I that soft?
Shilu smiles. The leader’s firmness makes her happy. A leader must be strong.
The road is coming to an end. A little more. Shilu again feels an excitement. Her inside trembles. Will her work be done? Why not? Such a big leader!
Shilu is still holding the leader’s hand, the breeze of late afternoon is wet with mist. The coming evening makes her drowsy, sad and reminds of memories. Shilu looks at that and is a little absent-minded. This life, this battle, how long? How long it’s to be getting eroded, decayed!
The leader again says – See, Shilu, don’t hesitate with anything of yours. Always tell me everything freely. Tell me what more can I do for you?
Shilu smiles beautifully – now you have to do nothing more for me. Please solve only this problem of my job. Every time they are making me an opposition worker and torturing me, I really can’t tolerate it any more. Mentally, I have broken down a lot. I am truly very tired.
Aha, what makes you think of that? I shall finish that today.
You have done a lot for me. In exchange I can give you nothing.
Why think of exchange?
No, not thinking. But I feel indebted to you.
The leader laughs with a sweet metallic noise. There is a rustling sound as cough gets mixed with it.
What do you say, you have no debt. I shall do everything for you. You don’t have to worry at all.
Shilu puts her head down in gratitude. Can’t think what to say. Then she says – ‘You are a big personality. I may not be able to help you but you might have heard that story of the ant and the dove. And the story of the lion and the rat. At times, the big needs the small. Similarly, if I can come to any help, I shall do it with everything I have.
No, you don’t have to do anything. Only one thing, I want only one thing.
The leader looks quite excited. All blood has apparently rushed to his face.
Shilu looks at the leader and says – ‘What is that?’
The leader’s breathing gets fast and he draws his breath like an asthma patient. The rustling sound in his voice stops his words and he groans. Then keeping his hand on Shilu’s, he says in his broken, deep voice – ‘Only once I want to see.’
Shilu feels that while saying that he was getting choked. Seeing the leader getting choked Shilu is afraid and again very surprised. Why is the leader doing like this!
Grasping nothing she speaks with extreme surprise – ‘What do you want to see?’
The leader keeps his other hand on Shilu’s and grabbing both her hands says – ‘Believe me, I have never seen such beauty in my life. Never ever.’
Shilu finds the leader’s hand quite warm. With a bewildered look she looks at his hanging extra jaw beside his original one. The hanging chin looks looser in shape. At this moment, the leader with a swollen mane looks like a male cat to her.
With no control she blurts out – ‘What is beautiful?’
Shilu feels the trembling of the leader’s hand in hers. Then the leader says in an ecstatic voice – ‘That what is visible from above your saree. Really, I have never seen such beauty in my life. I am speaking the truth, Shilu. I won’t hold, I won’t even touch, I won’t do anything. I shall only see once. Will you let me see only once, Shilu?’
It was then evening. The leader’s unusually warm hands were vigorously trembling in Shilu’s hands. And the rickshaw was very near to the secretariat.