Authors: Zia Haider Rahman
* * *
Zafar had fallen silent, and I believed I saw sadness in his face, but I thought that this was just as likely to be my own reaction, projecting my own sadness onto him, as psychotherapists would say. All of it is hard for me to imagine, so far are his circumstances beyond my own experience, but perhaps the longing for a certainty in the love of one’s parents never dims with time.
Something he said raised a question in my mind. Zafar had twice referred to being sent back to Bangladesh, sometime after his twelfth birthday, he had said, and I wondered whether he had mentioned that fact in order to open up this topic, perhaps even to draw questions from me.
At college and through the years of our friendship before he disappeared, I could never bring myself to ask him directly about his family or his childhood. We never, for that matter, talked about that day his parents came to Oxford. It was not that I had limited interest—my interest had always grown. In fact, I am inclined to think that a mark of a developing friendship is that one’s solicitousness extends further back and deeper, no longer content with asking merely how the friend is doing but developing interest and concern in all the things and people, the workplace, love, and family, that stand and have stood as influences upon the life of the person one cares about more and more. I never did ask him how his parents were, how they were doing, even though he asked me the same on many occasions.
There was an invisible barrier in the way, and Zafar had put it there. I don’t know when it came up, but it was there already at college, erected under cover of darkness. He never volunteered information, and perhaps that stark absence had built the invisible wall. Even when I hadn’t known not to ask about his childhood, I had learned not to do so. And yet here was my friend twice referring to being sent away.
If I have already altered the order of his account by bringing forward the thread leading to the events in Kabul, then it is in part because that is what Zafar’s story ultimately came to. That would be reason enough, but the fact is that I myself am tied to those same events—I almost added
in ways I could not foresee
Even if that were true—that I could not foresee my ties to what he would eventually come to—it would not be
. For what is the place of obligation and duty? How much
one foresee the consequences of one’s own actions? And how much do other causes that combine with one’s own actions, and thereby muddy one’s role, exonerate one? If Zafar began with childhood, was he signaling a greater class of causes, the beginning of every thread? I have an aversion toward drawing links between boyhood and the grown man; when I have seen it done it has all too often felt specious and self-serving, not to mention unproven and unprovable. What did my friend intend? What did he mean?
At first I was reluctant to intervene in his narrative. But as I listened to his stories of childhood unfold, to the theme of a gulf between himself and his family and the world about him, it seemed to me that this episode of being sent back as a child was vital. It was evidence of the gulf, before or afterward, between him and his parents and, indeed, it might have widened that gulf. I convinced myself that since Zafar appeared to have stalled I could jump-start his storytelling again by prompting him about this. I wanted to know more about his parents’ reasons for sending him to Bangladesh and about his experiences there, and so I asked: Why did they send you back?
When he looked at me, I felt, as I have often felt in his company, that he was searching me, as if he were tracing out the context from which my question had emerged. His head was tilted and his eyes flickered over the corners of my face before again fixing on my own.
Mine were not the sort of parents that believe children are owed reasons, he said.
But they must have given some explanation.
That it would be good for me, perhaps, to know something of my roots, he said.
What’s so funny? I asked. Zafar was chuckling.
That’s a translation of what they said, and the translation allows speculation that there might be something specific I should know.
Why is that funny?
Because the original Bengali doesn’t contain any such suggestion.
I’m not sure I follow.
I was a child. It was not a happy home. Asking questions was an act of aggression.
So you don’t know why they sent you.
It only came to me much, much later, as I learned more, that perhaps they had wanted me to spend time with someone in particular. In their way, I think that sending me to Bangladesh was their greatest act of kindness toward me. Shall I tell you about the journey?
* * *
At the airport in Dhaka, said Zafar, I was met by a distant uncle, an edgy young man, whose head glistened in oil and whose forefinger and thumb seemed permanently engaged in parting a tuft of mustache. The man hailed a rickshaw and haggled with the driver, while I heaved my bag onto the foot ledge and struggled to pull myself up onto the seat; I was not tall then, my height below average for a twelve-year-old in Britain and about average for a ten-year-old. My new uncle jumped in beside me, and fumes from the mustard oil in his hair seized my nostrils.
Today the highway from the airport into the city is called Airport Road. In 1981, the Mymensingh-Dhaka Road was already laid in asphalt, but it was covered in potholes collecting water. I had arrived at the peak of the rainy season, and though the clouds had peeled back in that hour, their effects were visible. Everywhere the roads had been churned up by the surging water, and even short trips across the capital would be uncomfortable, even dangerous.
The uncle seemed pleased to see me. You’ve become quite the Londoni sahib, he said, pinching my shirt and tie. I held on tightly to the clattering rickshaw, convinced that either my bag or my body would be thrown from the bone-shaking cage of steel and tin. His hand came to rest on my knee as he nattered away through irrepressible chortles, his eyes dancing with apparent delight, before asking me if my parents had sent anything for him. They had not. I wanted to say sorry, but his face bore so much defeated expectation that my voice failed me. The remainder of the journey passed in silence.
At the train station he went off to buy a ticket, while I waited on the platform. A clump of boys, about my own age, appeared to be taunting a fruit seller, who tried vainly to shoo them away, as if they were pigeons.
Ahead of me there lay a long journey across half a country. I think now of my parents sending me through all of that, of them standing at London Heathrow waving at me as I passed through the departure gates, their earnest looks in which I searched for a smile. Could they have predicted how fraught the journey might be?
An hour later, the uncle returned and handed me the ticket, and I did not ask if there was any change from the cash I had given him. The Sylhet-bound train would leave at around four in the afternoon, he said, and I should follow the other passengers. Then he disappeared into the crowds without looking back. Watching him vanishing into the multitude, I had the impression that this is what adult life consists of, encounters with people who are impermanent and want something, and that I, like everyone else, am only a cameo in the lives of others. There was more than one way to consider my uncle’s bearing, but what was clear to me was that this man had helped me yet I had done nothing to earn or repay his help.
I waited for the train and watched the people around me. A few had begun to eye me, to them an object of curiosity; my jacket and tie (fitting neither me nor the scene), my polished shoes, the starched collar, everything about me calling attention.
At four o’clock, I boarded the train. As I reached the highest step, I turned. Spread along the platform was a mass of bobbing black hair like a long wave of silk. Suddenly I felt the first stirrings of what I would later come to recognize as kinship, a feeling that alarmed me, a sense that I was of a piece with a group of people for the most basic reasons, simple to the senses and irrational. They all looked like me. But this alone was not adequate reason for disquiet on my part.
Years later I would see a similar sight, a heaving mass of heads, some with turbans and others with caps, surrounding a white Toyota Land Cruiser with United Nations markings on its sides, in the heart of Kabul in Afghanistan, and I would recall this moment at the train station in Dhaka.
For now, I was on my way back to the place where I spent my earliest days. I still had dim memories of the village. Sitting with you, here and now, my uncertain friend, I cannot recall those memories themselves, the ripples on the surface of a young child’s mind, but I am able to see that those early days set in motion deep currents coming down over the years, even to today, here and now. At twelve, I had still retained from my first few years a schematic sense of where things were, but only by their relations to others: the pond out at the front, the crisscrossing trunks of coconut trees stretched over it, the forest behind the kitchen hut, the pomelo tree growing over the roof of another hut, a tin roof, so lavish. But we know today that a young child’s brain doesn’t have the tools to form durable memories; its memories are unfixed, like impressions in sodden clay. And while some memories accumulate, others displace. Today, the young child’s memories have been overwritten by memories set down in my teens.
There are also the notebooks I have kept since my boyhood. Contained in them is a record of things, some settled and others only incipient, all of them bearing signs shimmering with intangible meaning, like strange markings left on the vestments of the dead. Those years in Bangladesh were all in all years of tranquility. They did indeed begin with horror and end with pain—I will come to that—but in between they were peaceful years, and there is nothing to say about them except this: Peace, day in, day out, does not make for memories but collapses into a haze of warm feeling, like long summers of play and plenty. Yet can there be any doubt that peace and stability are what a child needs most? If you ask someone what kind of childhood he had, you don’t have to wait for an answer to tell if it was a happy one, because in the moment that he considers the question, his pause shows that he has nothing to say, that he has only a general impression without specific events, as if to say it was just fine, a happy one. But for those whose childhood was unhappy, their faces always give the game away; their faces always have something to say, because something happened, things happened, something remembered or to be forgotten, even if they choose not to speak about it.
I was twelve years old and traveling alone across a country that was neither home nor foreign to me, a traveler whose world moved about him. Are we not, as those children’s books tell you, traveling through space at thousands of miles each second, still flying outward because of that first centrifugal bang? My passage to the northeast seemed to me free of any conscious direction, not of my own, in any event, so that sitting on the train I acquired the notion that my body had come under the mediation of an energy in the land, borne across miles and miles of fields of rice, from the unfamiliar forests and hills, from the tea gardens and waterfalls, breath rising from the green and the red earth, across lakes and ponds and a labyrinth of waterways. I became convinced that there was meaning here, awaiting my return, meaning in the way that mathematics can disclose its secrets in the unlikeliest places, when, for a moment, you feel as if light is pouring over everything, not because you’ve found a solution, but because what puzzled you for so long, for days or maybe only hours, suddenly makes sense.
Meena, when did you get back?
My wife was standing in the kitchen doorway, tall, beautiful, film-actress looks, without her coat, barefoot. She could have been there for a while. I had sent her an email earlier in the day letting her know that Zafar had appeared not a moment after she’d left for work. (As I consider this now, it is entirely plausible that Zafar watched and waited for Meena to leave before ringing the bell.)
Hello, boys, she said, smiling. My goodness, where have you been? She skipped across the kitchen and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek.
For the first time I saw Zafar smile, for the first time since he had appeared on my doorstep in the morning, so many hours earlier. Most faces are transformed by smiling. Some become beautiful. Some even lose their menace, a menace that suddenly seems implausible in the first place. It was as if every trace had been removed from my mind of the unrecognizable human being that had first appeared at the doorstep. More remarkable still is the degree to which our regard for a person is transformed by his or her smile. We are defenseless against ourselves, against an instinct that is the opposite of the flight instinct, as if we have been overcome by a flood of endorphins leaving us craving more, the particular effect of which in Zafar’s smile, I should say, was to make you complicit in his toying with you.
I’ve been here and there, Zafar replied.
That’s not like you, Zafar, so vague. I’d expect that from Emily but not from you. Where was your last stop? Somewhere exotic, I hope.
This was Meena, Meena who knew what she wanted, sometimes only what she wanted. I had been sitting with Zafar, listening for hours, if not for years, to a story unfolding, and in comes Meena, jumping to chapter ten, cutting to the chase, the film-actress drama junkie, and lo she brings up the name of Emily. In the years I have known her, a dozen years in which she was shaped by the rigors of investment banking—or i-banking as she now calls it—Meena has gone from a tenderhearted and generous spirit to a maestro in making the inappropriate sound merely careless. I can hear him now, for I’m sure Zafar would remind me of what I myself have said: They were the same years she was married to me.
Afghanistan, replied Zafar.
Yet even as she said this something in her voice expressed no surprise at all.
What took you there? Or should I say who? Come. Tell all.