Gratitude for heartbreak

by Namira Hossain

eid06ABLEARY-EYED Intikhab checked his phone for the umpteenth time. It was 5:55 pm and the oppressing humidity of Dhaka summer was causing him to sweat buckets even inside his air-conditioned Hyundai Tucson. Abba had gotten this car to replace the family Pajero after Intikhab had totalled it last year during a drunken night with his friends. It had happened in a blurry instant, him and his friends had been exchanging banter while heading back home late at night after drinking and watching a Champions League match. Caught up in the merriment, he did not even notice the island in the middle of the road, and drove straight into a deodar tree. It was a miracle how the three of them escaped completely unscathed given that the trusty Pajero which had seen him and his sister through their school years and on which he had learnt to drive from Ujjol Mama had become reduced to an unrecognizable heap of metal. Intikhab always liked to tempt fate, not just after he became an insurance salesman for his father’s company but even while growing up, he liked to walk on the wild side as Lou Reed would put it.
He had always prided himself on his driving skills while under the influence, but after his relationship with Ambareen had ended a year ago, his driving had grown increasingly reckless. Almost as though, now that Ambareen was no longer in his life – he wanted to challenge the Grim Reaper to appear with his scythe and give him respite from the endless lonely nights he tried to fill with faceless women and mind-altering substances. In his own odd way, he always felt responsible for her as his ultimate partner in crime – she was his Bonnie and he was her Clyde.
He had been parked on Kemal Ataturk avenue waiting for Minto Bhai for almost fifteen minutes now to score, while the rest of the country waited eagerly for the sirens to blare through the city which would signal the end of Ramadan. The month of abstaining and fasting had been especially difficult this year in the heat, and for once the elite of Dhaka city found some common ground with those below the poverty line in the hope of the sight of the new moon to welcome Eid-ul Fitr. Not that Intikhab cared about fasting or about Eid for that matter, and it was not just because he had been wired and awake for the last five days. He dialled Minto Bhai’s number again only to have his eardrums assaulted by the familiar Bollywood song on speaker-phone as the call went unanswered. Iftar time was still more than an hour away, and the road was packed with rickshaws and cars full of starving passengers who were caught in the desperate dash home from either last minute Eid shopping or from work.
As he lit yet another cigarette, Intikhab’s iPhone started to vibrate on his lap which he snatched and blindly swiped the screen to answer only to be disappointed by the sound of his mother’s voice on speaker phone. ‘Inti, where are you? I told you I needed you to take me out for some last minute shopping!’ He had expected to hear Minto Bhai’s slurred lilting tones, and the question took him by surprise. Intikhab took a drag on his cigarette before speaking into the mouthpiece, ‘since when am I your driver?’ There was a short pause on the other end, broken with the resigned sigh of a woman used to pain being inflicted upon by those whom she loved most. ‘The other car is in the workshop, and the driver has already left for holiday.’ Intikhab’s temples pounded at his brain like the hammer blows of death-metal on full volume, as he caught the glint of bitter resentment in his own eyes in the rear-view mirror and spat out, ‘why don’t you actually speak to your husband, my father, for once? And ask for his permission to use one of his two cars which lay unused in the garage? I’m sure if you ask him nicely, he will agree to let you use one of them for your errands. I’m busy now.’ And without another word, he hung up. He knew his father would never allow any of the other three family members to use one of his cars, but he could not care less about what his mother or anyone else wanted at that point. If he did not score some Yaba soon, he would pass out for the next two days and miss out on the debauchery of Eid parties thrown by his friends, members of the young and rich elites of Dhaka who were desperate to let loose after the sudden enforced piousness of Ramadan.
Mintu Bhai had been Intikhab’s go-to guy for the last couple of years because of the convenience he offered. Not only would he sell his drugs on credit to his loyal (and addicted) customers, but he would also deliver them. However, the past year saw Minto Bhai’s popularity soar as he kept himself out of the clutches of the police unlike most of the other dealers who had disappeared in the raids. Intikhab often joked that the soundtrack to his life would be ‘Waiting for the man’ by Velvet Underground as most of his time was spent chasing Minto Bhai or ferrying him in his car to his other customers. He dialled his number again to be taunted by that old Bollywood song, ironically from his favourite Amir Khan movie as a child. Those were the last memories of his family being happy, cuddled up on their couch in their Chittagong house singing along to the songs on the screen. As the call once again went unanswered, he thought back to his first Eid in Dhaka when he was six years old.
Crisply dressed in his brand new panjabi, Intikhab and Abba had returned home from the mosque to find his two year old sister Sahar still dressed in her nightie and teary-eyed as Amena Bua tried to console her. ‘What is wrong with my daughter? And why is she not dressed yet? Where is your mem shaheb?’ Abba asked Amena Bua sharply, ‘we are going to my brother’s house for lunch today with the whole family!’ Unsure of herself, Amena Bua tugged at her sari achal and answered in her village dialect, ‘I tried to wake her up. I knocked and I knocked, but there was no answer. She will not wake up.’ Abba’s dark knitted brows furrowed into a deep valley on his forehead and his eyes flashed with a knowing rage, as though he was expecting this. Sahar held back her tears, ‘what if Ammu is dead?’ Intikhab squeezed his sister’s hand, and even though his heart went cold inside he told her, ‘she is not dead, just in deep sleep.’ The rest of the morning and afternoon passed in a daze punctuated by the sound of fists pounding on the thick, heavy mahogany carved door of his parent’s bedroom, then the sight of everyone scrambling to locate the key – the only copy of which, Abba and the house-help surmised, Ammu had kept guarded even in her unbreakable slumber. Intikhab watched on confused as he stood in the corner of their dining room, while he made sure Sahar slept as the other inhabitants of their household and scuttled about in a frenzy as they set about the impossible task of finding a locksmith who would be available on Eid day. Sometime in the late afternoon, after everybody had already missed lunch, a gangly young locksmith was recruited for the purpose of unspringing Ammu from her self-imposed imprisonment. As the previously impassible door finally swung open, it revealed strips of shiny silver pill packets strewn all over the thick red carpet on the floor surrounding the bed, like deserted internal remains of a burst animal pinata at a party from which all the guests had disappeared, leaving behind only the evidence of massacre.
The rest of that Eid passed by in a blur, with indistinct memories of a hospital room that reeked of disinfectant and the sound of wails from his mother, as she woke up dismayed at the sight of her children’s expectant faces and her husband’s cold, grim face. Intikhab pieced together later that his mother had stumbled upon the rude discovery of the other woman in her marriage, his father’s secret affair which has remained a thorn in their side ever since.
Intikhab felt envious of his sister for remembering so little, he thought to himself as he turned the phone over and over on his palms, as he still struggled to erase the memories that followed that incident. Abba had bouts of violence that came without warning which he regularly took out on Amma and Intikhab, but spared Sahar from. Mintu Bhai finally called back, mumbling excuses of being held up in traffic, not even bothering to hide the lie, by holding the conversation in the midst of the sounds of laughter and voices inside a room. ‘Inti Bhaia, I will be right there. Please don’t be angry, just wait and you will see me in five minutes.’
Intikhab understood the uncontrollable nature of rage very well, having grown up with it in his domestic life and then being witness to it as it played out in his tumultuous relationship with Ambareen. The violence in his parents’ marriage had tapered out to a complete cold war but they still remained together after all these years, unlike him and Ambareen. She finally left him for good, following a particularly dark night which despite his best attempts block out of his memory, would return in sudden flashes that caused him endless anxiety. Neither of them had slept in a while which made her jealousy go out of bounds and shortened his patience, an explosive combination. In a drunken haze, he had found himself pounding her head against the marble floor of his home as she cried out, ‘please stop! You’re going to kill me’. The shock of realisation hit him as he simply left her there on the floor, as he walked in disbelief back to his own room and slammed the door shut to hold his head in his hands for hours, silently weeping before passing out in a pool of his own tears on the floor. She had never spoken to him since, and he heard that she had left for the UK soon after things ended between them to pursue her Masters in Public Health as it was always her dream to.
Suddenly, a face peered through the window on the passenger side casting a shadow on Intikhab under the fluorescent lights of the store next to which he was parked, where the shopkeepers were mashing up fried snacks, muri and chhola in big silver coloured pans. The sight of Minto Bhai’s toothy-doped-out grin irritated him more than giving relief for the end of his long wait. He was taking out cash from his wallet when he got distracted by a sudden intoxicating dreamy fragrance in the air that rose above the smells of the food being prepared. He noticed a little boy about six years old, with his younger sister on his shoulder who had appeared by his car window holding wreaths of baily phool. They were both covered in dust, barely clad in dirty rags and looked like they were absolutely parched and starved.
His last memory of seeing Ambareen laugh was from that same night that catalyzed their separation. In a laughing exchange with one of the kids selling baily phool, they both somehow convinced Intikhab to overpay for the wreath which she wore in her hair like a crown. The sound of a siren suddenly filled the street, and broke his baily phool-induced stupor and he noticed that the street had somehow emptied of all traffic. All the people inside the shops were embracing each other exclaiming in greetings of ‘Eid Mubarak’. A few other malnourished faces had gathered next to the children selling flowers. He looked at the wad of cash in his hand, then at Minto Bhai and then the hopeful faces outside the window, the silver crescent of the new moon of Eid-ul-Fitr curved a protective shield of light around them. He had nowhere else to really go after all.
He opened the car door, ‘Eid Mubarak, khida peyechhey na? Chol amra shobai ekshathey iftar kori, apnio ashen Minto Bhai.’. And as they all shared a meal together, Intikhab thought of Ambareen and all four members of his family in different corners of the city, and suddenly his heart filled with gratitude for heartbreak. •

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