You there, you!
I turned around, irritated. I was sporting a beard. I had a yellow kurta on. My teeth and tongue were stained red due to the three paans I had had one after the other. My fingers held a cigarette. So basically there was no reason whatsoever why somebody would 'you there' me. The person in question was a middle aged lady with gold rimmed spectacles. We had one thing in common, though. Even she was chewing on paan. I asked her, were you calling me?
Is your name Tutul?
I didn't reply, choosing to stand still instead. I'd never seen this lady before. Yet she was eagerly looking at me. As if if I just said - 'yes, my name is Tutul', she'll run towards me and grab hold of my hand.
Why aren't you saying anything? Are you Tutul?
I smiled softly.
Smiled, hoping that she would somehow realise that I am not Tutul. It’s easy to recognise a person by the way they smile, you know. Everybody cries in the same manner, but each person has a very unique way of smiling. My smile was most certainly not like her Tutul's.
But surprisingly, she was even more misled by the smile. Her face brightening up, she said, oh, it IS you!
For a moment I thought she might run towards me. Instead, she walked up to a car parked on the other side of the road. I heard her say; didn't I tell you it was Tutul? You didn't even believe me! I recognised him immediately by the way he sways while walking. The driver turned the car around and brought it to this side of the road. The lady looked at me and said, Tutul, get into the car. So I got into the car beside the driver.
I had to get to Farmgate in the blinding Chaitra sun. If I get on a bus, the stink of people makes me gag right away. Which is why I was on my way on foot. If I got a lift part of the way, why should I complain? I didn't forcibly get in the car, did i? Even so...
My chain of thought snapped. The girl sitting beside the lady spoke up, Ma, this is not Tutul bhai.
I looked at the girl and flashed her the same smile that I had given her mother, hoping that it would mislead her as well. But that was not to be. This generation's girls are rather tough to mislead. In a harder tone than before, she said, Ma, who is this person? This is not certainly not Tutul bhai. He cannot be. This is someone else.
The driver was constantly glancing at me out of suspicion. In an icy voice I instructed him, keep your eyes on the road while you drive. You’ll get into an accident otherwise.
The driver was taken aback. He was probably not used to people dressed like me addressing him as 'tum'. He seemed to be having a hard time digesting it.
The girl's mother asked, aren't you Tutul?
No, I said.
Then why did you get in the car pretending to be him. Her voice was sharp.
Why would I get in the car pretending to be him? Your mother asked me to. So I did.
Driver sahib, stop the car. Let this guy get off.
Just as I thought. This driver was used to people addressing him as 'aap'. And he had probably been waiting just for an order like this. The car stopped almost instantly. Get off, he said.
Stopping the car and forcibly throwing me out - that's just not done. Though I’m used to incidents like these. Majid and I were once thrown out of a wedding reception. A relative of the bride had said, chewing on every word as he spoke, we could easily hand you over to the police, you know. But we know how to deal with scoundrels like you. Compared to that sort of humiliation, getting thrown out of a car was hardly anything at all...
The driver repeated in a rough voice, brother, get off.
This is what you call the sand being hotter than the sun, I suppose. Ignoring the driver completely, I turned and looked at the girl instead. I will be going towards Farmgate. It’s okay if you drop me somewhere close to there.
We are not going towards Farmgate, she replied.
Which way would you be going, then?
What does that have to do with you? Get off, I’m telling you.
What will you do if I refuse to get off?
I smiled at the lady once more with a faint hope that she might say, let's just drop him where he wants to go instead of arguing pointlessly. But she did nothing of that sort. She seemed to be feeling rather uncomfortable by this turn of events, given the guilty looks she was giving her daughter. She was most probably afraid of her. Not an uncommon phenomenon by any means. Most mothers are afraid of their daughters nowadays. The driver repeated once more, why don’t you just get off?
I roared at him. Shut up! I'll break your jaw with one tight slap. Do you know me? Have you got any idea who I am?
The driver turned pale. These drivers and gatekeepers working for the rich are usually scaredy-cats. It’s usually very easy to terrify them. I had a Shantiniketani bag across my shoulders. Putting my hand inside it, I grabbed on to the small note book that was in it, keeping my eyes set on him throughout. As if I had some deadly weapon inside my bag. I looked at the driver grimly and said in the most frosty tone possible, start the car.
It worked. The driver immediately obeyed. I had probably managed to scare him witless, and he kept on eying my bag.
Eyes on the road. Are you planning to cause an accident or what, I barked out.
Now I turned my head again towards the back seat. First you act all nice and tell me to get in, and then you plan to dump me on the road. You really have no sense of decency, do you?
Neither the lady nor her daughter said a word. Evidently, it was not only the driver who was scared - these two were, too. The girl hadn't really seemed beautiful at first. Now she looked rather pretty. Why are all girls who ride in cars always so pretty, I wondered? But it would have been better, actually, had this girl been a tad less fair. She had lovely eyes, though. Or maybe being scared was also making her look more beautiful. Maybe a scared girl's eyes are always beautiful; just like the eyes of a scared doe.
I lit a cigarette and said, let’s drive around the city for a while. Just make a trip around the university and then head towards the Farmgate.
Nobody spoke a word.
Isn't there any music in the car? Driver, put on a cassette.
Music came on. I'd expected it to be some English song. But no. A Najrul Geeti it was, sung by Dr. Anjali Ghosh. I liked this song; I'd heard it before, at Rupa's house. It has its own charm. It had a qawali-qawali feel about it.
The car suddenly came to a screeching halt. The driver was out of the vehicle in a bound even before I could properly comprehend what was going on. Apparently he wasn’t as witless as I had assumed. He had stopped right by a police sergeant on a bike, and was telling him something in a rather excited manner. Anjali Ghosh's voice coming from the deck was preventing me from catching his words properly.
The sergeant walked up to the car and said, car se utariye zara.
I did as I was told.
Show me what's in that bag of yours.
I obliged - a note book, a couple of ball points, and a pencil with a broken lead; a packed of chips worth five quid.
The sergeant now turned to the lady, would you like to lodge any formal complaint against him? She in turned looked at her daughter. The girl promptly said, of course we would. I am the daughter of Justice M. Sohbaan. This man was threatening us.
You'll have to lodge the complaint at the station, though. Please go over to the Ramona station in that case.
But that would not be possible right now! We're heading out for some work...
Finish off your work and then come by. I'll hand him over to the station in the meanwhile. You do know his name, right?
Tera naam kya hai? He was speaking to me now.
I was stunned. He had been addressing me as 'aap' up till now. And now in front of such a pretty girl, he had shifted gears to 'tu'.
Naam bata tera, he repeated.
Tutul, I answered nonchalantly.
He's probably giving a false name, the sergeant told the lady. Anyway, he will be booked against this name only. These dirtbags act real smart nowadays. They will refuse to give us their true name, leave aside their addresses.
The big black car left in a huff. It really is very important for me to get to Farmgate - I was expected for lunch at my Fupu's house. But the sergeant refused to let me off, of course. He had all the intentions of depositing me at the Ramona police station, needless to say. He'd just heard the justice's name. These people always react this way whenever they hear some bigshot's name.
I bought a packet of fags on the way. It’s good to have smokes if one has to spend time behind bars. I was under the impression that the sergeant would give me a ride on his bike. But that was not to be. The police are quite modern nowadays. The sarge took out a walkie-talkie from his pocket and said something into it, and within moments a police jeep drew up right beside us. Just like in a Hindi movie.
I was headed for the Thana instead of a dawaat, all thanks to my sheer idiocy. I should have been upset, but strangely enough, I was not. I was actually feeling quite amused at the whole turn of events. Though I was a little bit sad at not having managed to hear the song till its end. Her voice had been splendid...
The OC at the station was a well built person.
And he seemed to be in a reasonably good mood too. Chain smoker - he was puffing on Benson and Hedges nonstop. The market price is 70 taka per packet nowadays. If he smokes three packets a day, I wondered how much that comes to. Two hundred ten times thirty. Six thousand three hundred. I thought of asking him how big his paycheck was when I got a chance.
OC's usually start off in a neutral tone. Try to figure out the convict's social standing within the first couple of questions. Depending on that, aap, tum or tu is used thenceforth.
Choudhuri Khalekuzzaman. Nickname Tutul.
Not attached to any newspaper as such. More of a freelancer. I get in wherever I can. My articles are usually published under the name of Tutul Choudhuri. Maybe you have read some of them. I once did a feature on the police too.
What sort of feature?
The title was - A Day in the Life of a Police Sergeant. It covered all that he did from morning till night. Though I put in a couple of damaging lines at one point.
I had said - this particular police sergeant goes through three packets of Benson and Hedges on a typical day. He claims he needs them to relieve him of tension. He, of course, leads a life filled with tension. How could he not? But given the current prices, he would need six thousand and three hundred quid per month to relieve him of tension. But the question is - what is his salary?
The OC looked at me with creased eyebrows. The last three lines were not published, of course, I offered with a smile. The editor deleted them. Nobody wants to print anything against the police.
Aap ke against complaint kya hai?, asked the OC again.
I let out a sigh of relief. He was addressing me as 'aap', thank goodness. I had managed to gain some social standing, then, in his eyes. I might even be given a cup of tea if I requested them. The police treat high profile prisoners quite well. Offer them refreshments and such.
You're not answering me. What's the complaint against you?
I am not quite sure of that myself. We'll know for certain once they lodge a complaint. Could be female abduction, I suppose.
Ji. I tried to make away with the Justice Sahib’s wife and daughter in their own car, you see. Kind of like stewing in your own soup? I quipped.
Are you trying to be funny with me? The OC's voice was flat and humourless. Please do not make any attempts to. I have a better sense of humour than you do, so it might be a problem.
Ji achcha, I will not try to be funny.
Please go and sit on that bench in the corner.
Aren't you going to put me in the lockup?
Let the final complaint come in, and then I most certainly will. The lockup's not going anywhere.
Can I get a cup of tea?
This is not a restaurant.
He started rifling through the contents of my bag. Seeing him going through my notebook, I offered, that's my poetry notebook. I write from time to time.
His expression remained set in stone. Women are usually affected on hearing that one is a poet. The police never are. Police and poetry probably don't get along very well together.
Most people find it hard to sit quietly for very long. It’s no big deal for me, though. I just need something to prop myself against, and I can just relax and remain just like that hour after hour. There wasn't any backrest on the bench, which was a bit of a bother. Nothing serious, though. I just took out my river in these situations as always. There are usually no problems after that.
You people are probably wondering what I meant by that. Let me explain it to you.
I was in class 6 then. Mafiz sir used to teach us geography. He could make even the furniture in the room shake with terror in his presence. As a person he didn't look all that scary. But his palms were huge. I think God gave him extra large palms for the express reason of slapping his students. He even had different names for his slaps - Raam, Shyam, Jadu, Madhu. In decreasing order of strength, you see.
Anyway, on that day he was teaching us about the lakes and rivers of Bangladesh. The first thing he did on entering the class was point a finger towards me and ask, name a river. Fast.
I used to blank out whenever Mafiz sir asked me a question. My ears rang. As if some air trapped inside my head was trying to blast its way out of my ears.
What happened, why are you quiet? Give me a name.
I replied in a faint voice, Aariyal Kha.
He walked up to me and slapped me hard across the face. One of the Raam variety, no less.
Of all the beautiful names, all you could think of was Aariyal Kha?, he thundered. Everything is the matter of a joke, is it? Hold your ears and remain standing.
I kept standing during the whole duration of the class with my hands on my ears. Five minutes before the bell rang, sir finished teaching and went and sat down on the chair. Then he looked and me and bade me to come to him.
I slowly made my way over, afraid of getting slapped again. In a dejected voice, he asked, why are you still holding your ears? Let go of them.
I put my arms down. Sir continued speaking in an apologetic voice, I shouldn't have punished you. I asked you to name a river and you did. Here, come closer.
Sir put his hand on my head, and I started sobbing softly. Embarrassed, he said, I wanted to hear the name of a beautiful river from you and you went and said Aariyal Kha. And I lost my temper. Come on now, tell me a beautiful name.
Wiping my tears using the sleeve of my shirt, I said, Mayurakkhi.
Mayurakkhi? I haven't heard this name before? Where exactly is this river?
I don't know, sir.
Is there any river by this name at all?
I don't know that either, sir.
In a light voice sir replied, let it be. It doesn't matter if there isn't one. This is your river. Go now and sit in your place. Punishing you has made me feel bad already. And now you're crying; it is making me feel even worse. Now, come on, don't cry any more.
Almost three years after this incident, Mafiz sir passed away, having suffered long from cancer. I went to see him a few days before his death. He was lying on a dirty bed in a dirty room, looking less like a human being and more like a mummy brought out of an Egyptian coffin. He seemed very happy to see me. Called out to his wife in a loud voice and said, come and see this boy here. He has a river. A river called Mayurakkhi.
His wife hardly seemed to care, choosing to leave the room instead. Sir pulled me closer with his weak hands and made me sit beside his bed.
Said, tell me about this river of yours.
In a low voice I replied, I don't know sir. I've never seen it.
Still, tell me. Make something up.
It’s a beautiful river, sir, I told him shyly.
Arrey idiot, a river would always be beautiful. There are no ugly rivers. Tell me more about it.
I didn't know what to say. So I just sat there quietly.
I dreamt of Mayurakkhi the same night that sir died. It wasn't a very wide river. The water was crystal clear. I could even see each grain of sand on the riverbed clearly. The banks were lined with grass. Vibrant, green, soft to the touch. On the other side of the river was a huge Paakur tree, its shadow spread out wide around it. A dove was perched on its branches, calling out softly, its voice layered with traces of sadness.
A girl in a green sari was running along the bank of the river, her feet splashing through the water. I saw her face for one tiny instant. In that dream, she looked so familiar. As if we had spent so many centuries together.
That was the only time I dreamt of Mayurakkhi. But it got imprinted on to my heart. I noticed that all I needed to do was to try a little bit and I could see it again with full clarity, whenever I wanted. I never needed to make an effort, not even close my eyes. Nothing. All I needed to do is bring out the river, and time seemed to fly. I could walk along its waters for hours on end. Sit with my feet in the chilly water. Hear the dove's voice. And feel my eyes go moist.
Sleeping, are we?
I opened my eyes. It had gotten dark outside already. I had ended up spending so long in there.
The OC said, you can go. I got a call from the Justice's house. They will not be pressing charges. You are free to go.
Did Justice Sahib himself call?
No, his daughter did.
Could you tell me what she said?
Told me to threaten you a bit, give you a good talking to, and then let you go.
Then please threaten me. At least give me a good talking to. Then I shall be off.
A smile broke out on the OC's face. I think it is incorrect when people say that the police are totally devoid of any sense of humour. Did she tell you her name, I enquired.
Yes, she did. Meera or Meeru or something similar.
How can you be so sure that it was the daughter of Justice M. Sohbaan? It might have been somebody else, you know. You get an unknown calling telling you to let me go, and then later on Justice Sahib will catch hold of you and make your life miserable.
Bhai, please go. And let me give you a piece of advice. Don't lie to the police so much. Lie only to decent people. They will believe whatever you say. The police never believe anything just like that. They make inquiries.
Oh, did you make inquiries about me?
Yes. We asked after you at the newspaper offices. There is no freelance journalist by the name of Tutul Choudhuri.
Won't you be taking any fine or something?
No. Now please get out of my sight.
Your people escorted me here in a jeep. Can't I expect you to drop me off in your jeep as well?
Where will you be going?
Ok, come with me. I will drop you.
I smiled at the OC. Maybe I shall invite you to the banks of the Mayurakkhi someday to show my appreciation.
He gave me a bewildered look and said, I don’t understand what you mean.
Oh, drop it. It'll be a problem if you understood everything, wouldn't it? And by the way, could you tell me how many packets of smokes you need in a day?
Uff, persistent, aren't you? I usually need two to two and a half packets.