Authors: Zia Haider Rahman
That’s very kind, Meena, said my friend.
Excellent, she announced. You should take notes, she said, turning to me. Get a recorder even, one of those Dictaphone things—I bet Zafar has some stories to tell, don’t you, Zafar?
She smiled at him again.
But now, she continued, I have to love you and leave you. I need to make some calls to New York. See you boys in the morning.
Meena took the bottle of whisky with her.
The kitchen seemed empty. Zafar played with the glass in front of him. I got up to get another bottle of whisky from the back of the cupboard.
Are you under investigation? asked Zafar.
What makes you think that?
The email Meena mentioned.
That was a firm-wide email sent out today reminding staff not to use swearwords in emails.
We both know that’s not what emails like that are about.
Tell me, Zafar. Tell me what they’re about.
They’re reminders to thousands of employees that their emails might fall within disclosure in the course of legal proceedings. They’re a reminder not to put things down in writing and on the record. But you know that: Meena wouldn’t have left her comment about the email where she did if she didn’t think you knew what it actually meant. Does she think proceedings of some kind are on the way? Investigations?
You’d have to ask her.
The conversation stopped. I know he was staring at me, and I imagine he understood I did not want to go into it all, not yet. It was too soon, too quick.
She’s right, you know, I said, pouring myself a whisky. Where the hell have you been, Zafar? For pity’s sake, you just disappeared. I heard all sorts of things. Goodness knows if one-tenth of them are true.
As I sat down at the table, Zafar pulled out what looked like a cell phone.
It’s a DVR, a digital voice recorder, he said. You can listen to the conversations on it. Take it. In fact, keep it.
Zafar looked at his glass and moved it forward by an inch. The whisky rippled back and forth.
It was, of course, an odd thing to do—bring out this DVR and give it to me—but even if I was intrigued to know what was on it, I was struck more by the fact of Zafar volunteering something that must surely have been private. Conversations, he said. Which meant other people besides himself. It was so out of keeping with my idea of the man. But I don’t think the weight of that moment really bore down until later, when I came to understand that he had wanted to unburden himself of something, and that this physical gesture, this divestment, was a sign, a way of defining the beginning.
Do you have anything else to drink?
I smiled then for what must have been the first time since seeing him again. There was a bottle of champagne in the fridge, which had been sitting there for a year, waiting for something. I popped it open, set two flutes on the table, and poured.
Zafar was caressing a button on the voice recorder with his forefinger, apparently lost in thought, before pressing it. A tiny red light came on. One tiny light.
The kitchen was vast, far too big for a couple. Meena and I could each move in this house virtually unnoticed by the other, a freedom earned by affluence. We were free to ignore each other most of the time, which made all the more difficult the minutes when we couldn’t. The kitchen had become a room to leave when it had served whatever function had warranted your visit. It was sterile, inert. There were no signs of breakfast or meals cooked regularly, or even merely eaten, in it, no greasy-capped bottles of olive oil on the counter by the stove. In the cupboard sat Le Creuset pans whose insides were as free of blemish as newly fallen snow is without children. It was in every way unlike the cluttered, warm, and fragrant kitchen of my parents’ home, not the fire around which a family eats. There were no children and therefore no stray pieces of paper with crayon spirals, circles, and scrawls, no trophies of a child’s efforts pinned to the fridge door by magnets. Indeed, there were no magnets, no magnetism. Now the dirty crockery from Zafar’s supper sat in the sink, the handle of an abandoned pan rising above the top like the handle of a bayonet, the only sign of life in this room. Here was clean steel, marble, and granite, and perfect lighting for perfect dinner parties for perfect couples. And I was sitting with an old friend—I laugh to think this—the strangest man I ever knew, as my career crumbled into pieces, my wife laughed, and life slipped ever more from my purchase. That’s how it felt then, life slipping away. If I had been asked to characterize the feeling, I would have said that professional progress had given me direction and purpose, and now, with its slow-motion collapse, I would have spoken of the loss of a sense of control. But that would have been off the mark: You don’t have to wait until you lose something to ask if it was ever worth having. Little wonder that I didn’t author those words but found them in my friend’s notebooks.
Does your job mean more to you than you thought it did? asked Zafar.
Is that what you think?
It’s a question.
It’s always meant a lot to me.
You never needed the money, did you?
I remember you bought this house before you even started work.
Zafar looked around the kitchen. The big house had been bought with my grandfather’s money.
Was it prestige? asked Zafar. Respect of one’s peers? The chance to make your own money? Or maybe it was the mathematics? That’s fun, isn’t it?
I felt uncomfortable, but even now I’m not sure quite why. Behind his probing there was sometimes the sharp edge of a threat; perhaps that was the trial lawyer in him.
We’ve always been open with each other, haven’t we? said Zafar.
I glanced at him. Was there irony there?
It was all those things, I replied, but that’s not wrong, is it? It’s what everyone wants, I said.
Challenge, prestige, something difficult, a bit of mathematics, and some pocket money to boot—those are the things you got out of finance, but they’re not why you’re still in it.
The mistake you make is the same mistake everyone makes about finance, continued Zafar.
They don’t see that finance changes people. Everyone thinks that the guy madly making big bucks, that master of the universe, actually wants the big bucks, when in fact the money itself means nothing to him. Very soon he doesn’t even want what the big bucks can buy, but wants what they represent, what they stand for.
Zafar stopped there, in the middle of expressing an idea, it seemed to me, and I saw, for the first time since his reappearance, that old sudden stillness in his eyes when he was taken away on his thoughts.
Everyone, he continued, wants his life to stand for something other than what it would, which is about eighty years—in the West, at any rate—eighty years of working, eating, sleeping, shitting, breeding, and dying. Lives of buttoning and unbuttoning—who said that?
Don’t know. Tell me, why is finance so different from anything else?
It isn’t all that different, but it’s easier to see what’s really going on because money attracts power over others, the greatest power being to provoke envy, and the envy of others affirms one’s own choices. Other walks of life can do that too.
All this is a little too New Age for me. Even a bit facile.
But as I said this, the brusqueness of my language only confirmed to both of us my discomfort with the conversation.
My friend topped up the champagne flutes.
Think of those numbers and base ten, said my friend.
Yes, exactly. I’d like to get back to the story you were telling. See. The red light is on, I said, nodding toward the DVR on the table.
We choose markings for numbers, on a screen or a page, continued Zafar, because we need something we can contain in our perception. The base is not relevant to the nature of the numbers but is relevant to us only because it gives us icons for numbers.
We need icons even if they hide the truth of the number—
they hide the truth of the number. That truth would exceed our intelligence. If I ask you to think of an elephant—in fact, let’s run an experiment. Think of an elephant. What do you see? What do you have in your head?
An elephant. I have an elephant in my head, I replied.
Now think of the number fifteen.
He paused, then: What are you thinking of?
The number fifteen.
Wrong. You have the image in your head of the numerals one and five, of fifteen, don’t you?
That’s not the number fifteen but a representation of it.
But isn’t every word just a representation of the thing itself?
Yes, but I’m not asking you to think of the words; I’m asking you to think of things—an elephant and the number fifteen. And when you thought of fifteen, one-five, you didn’t think of the number—you thought of a representation of it. In other words, you think of something that requires you to invoke an entirely separate code in order to break its mystery—in this case the code is base ten. Again, you thought of a one followed by a five. That makes sense only as a representation of the number fifteen and only if you have a base ten. But where’s the code in the picture of an elephant? None. You were thinking of one particular elephant, the elephant in your head. But for the number fifteen, you had to settle for the numerals one and five. It’s as if numbers are saying: In order to see me at all, in order even to meet some visage of me, you have to make a choice.
And what’s this got to do with the price of oranges? I asked. I was irritated.
The whole thing is too abstract, continued Zafar, this business of our lives standing for something else. All we know is that we don’t want it to stand for nothing. So we dive headlong into becoming heroes, becoming the big swinging dick on Wall Street or the rock star or the hot-shot human rights lawyer. Which is about making our lives stand for something that our intelligence can grasp, saving us from confronting what we fear might be true—or what we would fear if we gave ourselves the chance—namely, that we’re accidental pieces of flesh, mutton without meaning.
You’re losing your job, your career, and something’s going on between you and Meena. You must be losing that sense of control you always had, or thought you had.
Very profound. I’m feeling much better already, thanks. But you’re right. It’s too abstract. I want to go back to the story
were telling. Tell me about Bangladesh, about those years you were there as a boy. Please.
Zafar took a sip of champagne before continuing with the story. He could never be hurried—at least not by me.
* * *
Bangladesh, or Bangla-desh, he said, means Bengali-land. The nation borders the Indian state of West Bengal, whose people also speak Bengali, who
also Bengali. And yet there is no state of East Bengal. Indeed, the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh were written by one Bengali, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who, as Bengalis never tire of reminding Westerners, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Bengali-ness, then, is not a feature that singles out Bangladesh.
If you were to search for anything distinctive about Bangladesh, you would not have to look far, for the place is covered in water, its surface fully one-third aquatic during the rains. Imagine that! Every third step you take is a watery one. The land is a vast confluence of rivers, the silty, sodden soil where the deltas of three great rivers of the world interlace. And if this were not enough water, every year the monsoon rushes in from the Indian Ocean and tips the sky over the whole country, swelling the rivers until brimful they snap like a whip and gouge out new routes around hills and through the earth.
Land of Three Rivers might have been more distinctive as a name for the country, a name richer with meaning. These are no ordinary rivers. They are not settled. Their courses are ever shifting, their tributaries twist and turn like the tail of a dragon in ecstasy, sweeping over the bank and into the makeshift homes of fishermen and their families. The Brahmaputra starts out north of the Himalayas, in China, curling itself around the eastern edge of the mountain range, through Tibet, before bursting upon Bangladesh, where its name changes to Jamuna.
The holy Ganges begins in the Gangotri Glacier in the central Himalayas and carves out a route across the north Indian plains and into Bangladesh, where it divides into many branches and where the locals give it other names, many names, as if the changes of name will bring the rivers home.
The third river, the most Bengali of all, goes through several names before uncoiling into the Indian Ocean. The Barak gathers itself from the corners of the northeastern Indian states, from Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram, and as it enters Bangladesh it divides in two to become the Surma and Kushiyara. These two rivers are reunited farther downstream, after receiving tributes from legions of lesser ones, to form the mighty Meghna, a beast of a river.
I was on a train moving over a network of bridges and railways superimposed upon this vast lattice of rivers and tributaries. We crossed many bridges. Most creaked painfully as the train slowly ground over them before picking up speed on reaching the other side. As we crossed one bridge, I peered below and saw the rusted carcass of a train carriage jutting out of the brown river, as if pointing a crooked finger toward the offending bridge.
Sometimes, the train came to a stop to wait for the tracks to be cleared of livestock. The herdsmen made no haste in moving their cattle, and the train driver sometimes climbed off and walked the length of the carriages, inspecting the chassis of the train, as if it needed monitoring. Once or twice, he and a herdsman shared a biri, a local cigarette.
Sometimes the train would slow to a crawl before entering a sharp bend, where it would tilt precariously into the curve so that you could see the iron rails on the sleepers directly below the window. It seemed that at these sharp bends the outer track had been laid higher than the inner track, and I wondered if it would be safer if the train were to speed around these bends rather than slow down. Indeed, it seemed to me that the engineers (of the Victorian era, though I would not have known that then) must have had it in mind that trains would come into the bend at great speed and had accordingly laid the outer rail higher than the inner. At sufficient speed, the force of being thrown outward by the centrifuge of turning a bend would equal the force of being drawn downward because of the tilt from the uneven rails, thereby resulting in a smooth ride, as on the high-speed trains throughout continental Europe today.