by Mir Arif
We were doomed at the station. There was no inter-city train bound for our destination. Slowly, on the horizon, a cloud was gathering. We could not go back where we came from – it was miles away.
The sun’s descent through a blanket of grey cloud was majestic. When it disappeared, the light fell, too, baring almost everything around. In the absence of light, some things cried out to show their existence. My eyes caught sight of the station’s nameplate. It yelled to my ear silently: Bhairab Junction, Bhairab Junction, Bhairab Junction…
“Now what, young Humayun?” My brother asked me dryly. It was my idea to go by train. We could have easily taken a bus and head for Mymensing without getting stuck here. “Let’s see the train schedule once again. There must be a mail train or something…” I replied semi-confidently.
We pored over the train schedule; my brother through his rimless spectacles and I with prying eyes. And fortunately we found a mail train!
The train arrived with only few passengers. We chose a less crowded compartment. It started raining precipitously when the train moved. After a while another train from the opposite direction streaked past our train, whistling so loudly that we had to cup our ears. When it disappeared, there was only rain, lightning and indistinct chatter of the passengers. I had so many fleeting thoughts. I wanted to perch on one and open a thread with my brother. So I said conversationally, “Somewhere in the wave of time, on such a day, perhaps Marquez got on a train to visit his ancestral town and discovered his own world Macondo.”
My brother remained silent and kept watching the rainfall. The train clanged through a small bridge in a while. When it crossed the bridge, he piped up, “And perhaps Marquez also discovered some wonderful innovations on that day. He chose to tell his story with fictional names instead of his actual hometown Aracataca. You know why he did so? The places we live in or visit regularly become a part of our habit, an essential piece, a shire on the map of our existence. In writing, it makes a difference. Suppose some people go to Green Road every day. They may develop a complex set of attitude toward this place. They may have the best or the worst experience there. The moment they encounter this place in a piece of writing, a whirlpool of past experience shrouds their imagination and perhaps their mood, too. Sometimes they would never be able to come out their personal experience and concentrate on your piece.”
My brother is a critic and a writer of creative note. As an aspirant in writing, I wanted to prolong this discussion. So I made a point here, “I start my story with a lie then? I mean I want to tell a story of Green Road but I cannot write the exact name?”
He replied, “Of course, you can. But you can still tell your story without mentioning an exact name. It frees up your readers from their personal prejudice. There is an American writer named…”
“There is no country called America, don’t you know this!” A voice of a woman sailed through the air to interrupt the mid-dialogue. I stood and leaned forward to see the face. We did not know some middle-aged women were eavesdropping on our conversation from behind. There were totally four women in two benches – all wearing tattered saris and seemed spent by a long journey. But I was confused who could be the source of the voice. I asked, “One of you said something to us. Who is it?”
A woman past her prime, said, “Why was your man speaking all these lies? America never exists.”
I was confused about what to say next. “What do you mean?” I simply asked.
She became softer than before and said, “Come, sit with us. I will tell you what I mean.”
We complied with her request. My brother was already on his feet. We went to their seat and they scooted over to make some space for us.
“So you believe that there is no country named America?” I asked her.
She replied shortly, in a singsong voice, “Twenty-five years ago I believed like you. I used to believe in everything they would say. When the river Brahmaputra devastated our land and we were made homeless, they came from all the places with all the promises of the world. They said the government had opened the door for all the countries and for all the NGOs. And they will come with all the help from the other part of the world and they will build new house for us, they will give us job, they will provide us food and they will make us dream. And they said they will surely come and they will come with all the money from America and they said they never tell a lie. All we had to do was sit and do nothing and dream and dream. Of the relief that would come, of the good days impending. And here you see. We are still homeless and roam about and beg alms to people, to NGOs. And NGOs still give us some relief and they still say everyone is working with America. And there will be home for us soon because the roofs of our home are coming from America! We have had enough with all these tricky men. They look like you. All neat and clean; nails cut; shirts starched; head straight – perhaps you all are military born. You say about this country named America in every word and want us to believe in this country? This country that sells dream to millions of starved, homeless people through their NGOs and agencies? We have been fooled for a long time but not anymore. There is no country called America.”
We sat rooted to our seats when she stopped. My brother looked very pensive. I looked at her closely; she wore a green flower print sari, the hem of which brought over her head. Her cheeks were slightly pouchy. The folds on her forehead told me of her age she had reached and of the plights she had seen.
After a while my brother asked her in a much venerated tone, “You have opened a new door of thinking today. May I ask your name if you wouldn’t mind?”
Now she replied calmly, “My name is Sofia Banu and I live at Nandail railway station for the last two decades. These women you see here also live with me. They are also homeless and had the same experience with NGOs and all their promises.”
Her impressive words dogged me all the time in the entire journey in Mymensing and after returning to Dhaka, too. I discussed of her with one of my friends who worked at a newspaper. His eyes gleamed. And with a bright smile he said, “I have found a perfect cover story for the next week!”
A week later I read a feature on Sofia Banu. There were several pictures; in one of them, she was sitting on a white bench on a station platform, behind her the other three women looking at the camera indifferently. And there was a relatively small interview interspersed with high definition (HD) photos. And yet on a shorter scale, she told all the extremities she had faced in all these years and all the uncertainties she and the group had endured.”
The journalist asked at one point, “Do you sometimes turn to prostitution for want of food?”
She shot back, “No, we do it all the time! We do it for fun!”
Sofia Banu’s interview supplied a demand to every newspaper and TV channels – for more stories and more works on her. So more features were written; documentaries were made with traditional folk music in the background that hummed very sadly. Millions of viewers watched the plight of these homeless people; large amount of advertisement revenues were collected by the internet giants, only a tiny amount was shared among those who uploaded them; and column after column were also written in newspapers. One left-leaning columnist wrote, “Sofia Banu is the avatar of the twenty-first century. Believing America doesn’t exist is the first step to solve the problems of humanity. She is a proletariat of exemplary note who knows how to fight back a juggernaut…”
Another columnist of the right-wing politics opened his column with the following lines:
In 1842 Walt Whitman was declared a public lazy in America. Now we have a public mad who is nothing but a piece of chess of the opposition party. They are trying to draw attention of people by highlighting a mad like her who continues to say America doesn’t exist. When the country is moving forward with a steady GDP in the last two decades…”
A young journalist popularized her as ‘Lady Bangladesh’ and the name stuck in all discourses and documentaries. Everyone called her by this name. And from a homeless woman she turned into a discovery of the media – of newspapers and TV channels. She became a name that was enough to draw people’s attention and to get some readership and viewership. Her troubles and plights were long buried under countless clicks of high definition cameras.
I read another piece of news a week later. An NGO offered Sofia Banu a trip to America so that she could see the country on the opposite side of the blue Pacific. They wanted her to return with happy memories and live happily ever after with a belief that America does exist on the face of earth.
One of my friends said, “It hurt the ego of the imperial bastard and they are doing it as part of their diabolical generosity. We know all these stuffs; we are not grass-eating creature!”
We – me and my brother – headed for the airport on the day of her return from America. It was the end of June. A huge crowd gathered at the airport. The Bangla month Ashar had just set in with hints of precipitous rain. I remembered how we had met her on the train in this same month almost a year ago.
The journalists brought umbrellas with them. The light also fell today, baring everything around. One black umbrella had a cursive handwriting on its bulged belly. I did not notice it earlier. But now, after the fall of light, it was the only thing that caught my attention more than anything else. It read: Parapluie. Poor French word, I thought; it would not have any chance to live when the sun would blaze all around.
Sofia Banu’s plane landed. The mike screeched, announcing her safe return, and the crowd clapped on end. There were some gunmen on the raised platform where she would give a speech. The gunmen’s eyes could not be seen, for they were covered with black sunglasses that kept scanning for hidden weapons in private parts of the crowd.
Sofia Banu came on the platform, her face beaming with a new light and her eyes glimmering. So it was true that everybody comes back from America with warm memories and a beaming face? I was thinking. My brother looked otherwise; he was rather equanimous as if he had a premonition about what Sofia Banu was going to say.
Sofia Banu looked at the crowd with much admiration. Then she took the mike and said:
My beloved countrymen, I have been taken to a wrong place by this NGO. I want to tell you once again that there is no country called America. It never existed and it will never exist. The place I was taken was full of people living in misery. There too I saw homeless people. I asked them: how do you feel when others call you Americans but you don’t have a roof over your head?
They said they were not Americans any more. I want to ask this question to countless other people around the world, who have been made homeless for so many reasons – river erosion, war, political violence and state policies. I want to say, the moment you are born a country steals your identity and makes you a citizen without securing your wellbeing. Today we have achieved our right to deny. Don’t ever believe whatever you see. They will come with impressive ideas to deceive your imagination. Guard it and use it as a resistance. You can resist neither by any weapon, nor clash nor fight but only by your imagination. It is the first thing you need to learn…
Some gunmen took her away from the mike. The local M.P. cried in the mike, “Balderdash! We have the biggest impostor in our country. Don’t believe a single word of hers.”
My brother looked very elated. He said almost in a shrill, “I knew she was going to do something like this!” Then he looked up at the sky; it would rain soon. He pressed my shoulder very enthusiastically and continued, “Don’t you see a new day has come? We know the Empire is there because our reason affirms that. But it is the power of our text and imagination that we let it stand where it stands now. The way you can imagine and discover a new world, such as Macondo or Malgudi or Kanthapura, you can also deny an existing one, which disturbs your sleep, instill bizarre dreams in your head and steals your peace of mind. But she taught us how to resist with our imagination…”
I could not listen to the words of my brother anymore. Sofia Banu was taken into a police van. The crowd was already booing the local M.P. They made threatening gestures and rolled back in half an hour after the M.P. had left the place in another police van. We headed back our home. From that day onward Sofia Banu was not heard anymore. People kept talking of her though; column after column were still written; talk showers lost their voice complaining about the state’s treatment to a homeless woman. Some years later, people would forget her and she would be living in stories, columns and documentaries only. And then there would be a great silence. And light would fall too on many a rainy day. And other creatures, other plights with fancy names and adjectives would come to surface after a long hibernation and cry out their existence. And in the meantime, Sofia Banu would be the sole owner of a red file in a police station. And a short profile on its first page would read:
Case no: 551
Birth name: Sofia Banu
Alias: Lady Bangladesh
Address: N/A (Homeless)
Short description: She was a woman of 45, a public mad. She tried to sloganeer: America does not exist.
Current state: Disappeared.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing