Hassan Iqbal would never qualify as a good-looking young man. Also, there is this fact that he is no longer young. He was, in 1971 when the Indian armed forces trained him somewhere in Siliguri with small arms and very basic jungle tactics.
Not that he used those trainings to any great effect. By the time his training was complete, this callow youth all of 22 years, his country, now christened Bangladesh, was liberated. He came back to Khulna, his hometown, joyous because he did not have a stomach to be a revolutionary. He had got into the act only because his brothers and other mates were in it. There were no heroics, in fact he did not know of any friend or relative who had actually lain down his life for the cause. Frankly, as he was unemployed and had nothing else to do and the current fashion was to go over the border and live a little rough, he had got into the act.
Hasibur and Jewel were his good friends. They were also the products of the local university, Khulna University. The University had a good reputation from the British times and had generally retained its capabilities as an institution. Hasibur had been to his house the other day and had announced that he was off to London through an uncle of his who was starting this restaurant somewhere near Charring Cross. He needed some help and all the relatives were now pestering him to go off there and do himself some good. His father had also commented that there was no point in sitting in this newborn Bangladesh and waiting for things to happen. As it is, there was news that looting had started in Dhaka and Chittagong among the unruly citizens themselves.
Hassan was a bit dumbfounded. Here was Hasibur who had wanted to take an active part in the country’s liberation and who now wanted to run away. He wondered whether achieving Liberation was the only objective and not getting this newborn country on its feet. Anyway, all around him the elders were also talking in likewise terms. Some wanted to go to India, the Hindu neighbors had gone already and there were some Muslim friends who wanted to get away from all this. Some others were actively planning to go off to Europe, UK or the USA. All of this depended on the money that they could come up with to move bag and baggage. Hassan’s house in Khulna was abuzz with these topics days on end.
Hassan went away to Jewel’s house for better company. Here he could smoke some cigarettes and chat with Jewel about local politics, women, jatras in the neighborhood and have endless cups of tea prepared by Lily, Jewel’s sister. Lily was good looking and Hassan had been bedding her for the last four years. Jewel did not know or did not care. Jewel’s father had passed away five years back leaving a lot of property. Most of these properties were just taken from Hindus fleeing Khulna in 1947 – 48. He had an army of people working for him in the fields and was known in Khulna as a usurping landlord. Jewel’s mother spent her time bathing, eating and sleeping. So, Jewel and Lily had a free run of the house and the town. Jewel wanted to follow his father’s footsteps but did not know how to go about this. In these five years that he had been looking after the land and holdings, he had grown dependent on a young uncle of his named Ashraful. He was fondly called Ripon. This Ripon uncle used to run the estate and business. Jewel’s mother had total faith in him and was loath to hear anything against him. Jewel, therefore had very less to do through the day. So, he had gone on this liberation bit. Now, that too was over and he needed something to do. Another friend of his had come up with this news that the government had to give out a lot of tenders for building the country’s infrastructure and businessmen were queuing up to get onto this big gravy train. Jewel’s current interests were these tenders. He used to speak about all day long. Sometimes some other friends used to come over and add some spice to the latest Tender happenings. Hassan was also sucked into this slowly. Jewel had decided to go over to Dhaka and meet certain officials regarding these tenders. Hassan was to be going with him. Both of them actually did not know how to go about things but Hassan did one bright thing. He carried a lot of money and he knew that money would open a lot of closed doors in the capital. The night before they departed for Dhaka, Hassan had a quick tryst with Lily in her room. Jewel was busy having an argument about something with Ripon uncle.
Dhaka, 1971 - 72.
The city was unkempt. The government, even if was there was not very apparent. Hassan had heard Mujibur Rahman on some radio broadcasts. He sounded sincere but Dhaka, the capital appeared otherwise. It spoke of a government that was indecisive, laidback and incompetent. Winter had set in and the New Year was not very far away. But in these months the government had done very little to assure the Bangladeshi citizens that they had nothing to fear. Jewel had taken up living space in a house in Gulshan that belonged to another uncle who was a contractor with the Railways. He was away and there was a caretaker couple that looked after the house and was from Khulna. This uncle, Rafiq, had a wife too but she was nowhere to be seen.
They settled down on the first day in Dhaka. The next day, Jewel found out about the Road and Culvert Tender office. They went there. There were officials milling about. No one took notice of them. Jewel spotted a very short person giving a whole lot of commands over a phone. He approached him and told him the reason they were there. The official, Mamunbhai, looked at them and smiled. Then he gestured them to get into another office adjoining this room. Two officials, very important looking, were seated there. Jewel repeated their business. The officials were unmoved and Hassan was aghast to see that Jewel calmly removed a wad of notes from his shoulder bag and put them on the table. The officials then moved. In fact, they started talking. The rest of the day went by in a blur. By the evening, they were in the Awami League office in Central Dhaka where an important looking Minister took another wad of notes from Jewel and signed some documents pertaining to the Tenders.
Hassan had thought that they should actually have an official Tender process where the lowest bidder will get the work. Here, it was given away just like that. Mamunbhai only said that nobody had come from Khulna to bid and so all works had been given to Jewel. For the next few days, there were a whole lot of papers to sign and in a few days after spending 60,000 Taka, Jewel had got most of the Khulna town PWD work in his bag. As town and district administrations had not been set up, there were no other people to bribe to get these contracts underway.
Jewel and Hassan came back to Khulna. They got started on the jobs. Then it struck Hassan as to what his role was in all of this. He looked up Jewel the very next day with this thorny question. Jewel was a canny one. He said that if wanted to play an active role in this business, he had to look after the Operations end of the Contracts. He would then get 10% of the contracts. But if he was not interested in roughing it, he could be in Dhaka and angle for more contracts through other chains that could be built up and he would get a 4 % of the contracts. Hassan did not want to work hard and so he opted for the Dhaka work.
So, Hassan was back in Dhaka within a few days of leaving it. This time he was on his own. He had received a small sum from Jewel to start life in Dhaka. His parents chipped in with the rent of a place to stay in Shantinagar. They also dispatched a widowed aunt to stay with him and cook for him. Hassan loved to eat. Hassan understood that he was not on a salary. His job was more like a Commission Agent. So, he had to run around trying to get more contracts. For Hassan this was not easy, as he was not used to wheeling and dealing with people. In fact, he was not comfortable in public.
Lily arrived in Dhaka on some errand. Jewel had sent a long letter. Hassan read it and grew morose. Jewel had basically told him to gear up. Hassan had not succeeded with a single contract acquisition. Lily sensed his discomfort. She stayed back with him to comfort him. Hassan stopped sulking and had a great and languid time in bed with her. Lily spoke of marriage. She was only 20 years old but four years of active sex with Hassan had taught her a lot of things. Hassan did not want marriage but he could not tell this to Lily. He did what he could do; get her back into bed and clinging to him for life.
Hassan met Shafi one morning in Dhaka. This Shafi was a very colorful character. He knew whoever there was to know in Dhaka. He knew good places to eat. He knew all the better clubs that one could go to. He even knew of those places where some beautiful Lahori whores were available. Hassan stuck to him like glue. He even convinced Jewel of Shafi’s use in the present scheme of things. Jewel sent over some cash to spend on this Shafi. Shafi took over Hassan’s life.
Everyday Shafi would be at Hassan’s door at ten in the morning and take him to various government hotspots where Shafi would know everyone and ask Hassan to spend on these officials citing future usefulness. Hassan would gladly take out cash from his pockets and call for Tea and snacks to humor the humorless civil servants. Hassan came to know many civil servants, bank officials, PWD Engineers, Police officials and petty politicians during these sessions. In the evenings, Shafi would take Hassan to many shady places where Shafi would inevitably come up with a known person and gain access to these gatherings. Hassan got acquainted with the underbelly of Dhaka too.
Hassan, through Shafi, came to know that the rest of Bangladesh was very different from Dhaka. This was a cosmopolitan city with global traits. It had a very liberal outlook and the prime force moving this city was money and the things that money could buy. Islam was a religion that had to be maintained, not that it governed life totally as it did in the rest of the country. Money talked in the power circles. No politician, no bureaucrat or public figure was above taking a little on the side. The Army had still then managed to keep away from this all encompassing corruption. There were people who for want of good things in life were buying properties all over Dhaka. There were others who were busy sending all this ill-gotten money abroad and following this up by sending their families to stay in these countries.
Hassan knew of a Customs Officer who amassed so much money that the countries where he was sending his wealth had started asking questions. He ultimately settled most of his wealth in Sweden where he was not asked questions. Within the year, by the end of 1972, Hassan saw a lot of changes among this elite group of countrymen. Among these were people who had lived in ditches during the Liberation, or were they?
Hassan was also not far behind. He was now approaching 24 and in that single year he managed to land Jewel with 4 contracts of PWD work on the Dhaka Khulna road and the Khulna Jetty. Jewel was happy and gave Hassan his commissions. Hassan became busy with social climbing in Dhaka. Shafi was there to help him with this. Hassan acquired his first suit and befriended a lady who had been to London and back. Tahmina was very pretty and thoroughly spoilt. Shafi had done the introductions. She was from a family of singers. But she could not sing much. Her mother appeared on Bangladesh Betar very frequently. She could dance, flirt, argue, smoke and drink, not necessarily in the same order. Bur Hassan was enamored. He jumped into a very physical affair with Tahmina. Shafi was very supportive and tag along everywhere. They were a threesome. Life was great!!
Era of Pregnancies
It all started with his widowed aunt. Hassan was very happy eating whatever this aunt cooked and barged out of the house as soon as Shafi arrived. He did not have an inkling as to what was happening. This aunt was in her mid thirties. One day, Hassan arrived home to find her bent over the kitchen drain. He received no answer when he asked what had happened. Next morning he woke up to find that she was wailing in her room. He was perplexed. Then it came out. She was alone all day in the house. So, when this next-door neighbor got friendly, she gave in to his advances. He was a married man with three children but that evidently had not stopped him from getting her into the sack. She was into her fourth month of pregnancy and was beginning to show. Hassan was surprised that he had not seen the signs till then. Hassan went the neighbor’s house. The man, Fakhrul, was in and received him at the door. Hassan gathered some courage and told him about his aunt’s plight. Fakhrul looked at him, snorted and asked him if he really believed what his aunt said. He also told him that the entire neighborhood had bedded his aunt and that she was freely available. There was no way of knowing whose child it was. Fakhrul practically spat the last few words. Hassan was ashamed. He abruptly got up from his seat and came back home. His aunt, on seeing him let out a cry. He started to shiver in anger. He started shouting the choicest of abuses. She shut herself in her room.
Next morning, he found her letter. She had left home. He was suddenly remorseful. He knew she did not have any place to go. Shafi came by. He told him the whole story. Shafi told him that he needed to go to Khulna and tell his parents everything. Otherwise, they might look at this issue differently. Hassan found this a good suggestion.
Hassan landed in Khulna the next day. The journey had been difficult. He slept in the afternoon and late in the evening mustered up the courage to tell his mother about what had happened. She burst into tears and blamed it on the almighty. Then, his father took over and went off to call someone in Dhaka. They wanted her to be back in Khulna now. Hassan did not want to be questioned anymore. He scampered off to Jewel’s place. Jewel was not around. He had gone for some survey. His mother was in bed unwell. Ripon uncle was in his room. Hassan silently made his way to Lily’s room. She was knitting. She kept the knitting aside and opened her arms to hug him. Hassan rushed into her familiar embrace. She was getting fat. But it was fine with him as Tahmina was too bony because of all that dancing.
Hassan left Lily at dawn. She was amazing through the night. Then and there Hassan made up his mind to stick around till Jewel came back to Khulna. His father maintained a very austere household. So, not too many creature comforts found its way to the Iqbal household. Hassan set about putting things right in his house. He found a willing partner in his mother and her sister. Actually, they wanted him to stay back in Khulna and do something. So, they were glad that he was not rushing away to Dhaka. Hassan also did not want to rock the boat now, as he wanted to stay in Khulna for a while and be lazy and virile.
A few weeks later Jewel returned and he and Hassan got into some serious business thinking. Jewel wanted to expand beyond Khulna. Hassan had never thought about this and so had no comments at all. Jewel told him that he needed an office in Dhaka to manage his affairs better. Hassan agreed with that. Jewel told him to look for a suitable office. Hassan spoke about keeping Shafi on some kind of a payroll so that he would be more helpful. Jewel said that he would look into that. Then Jewel asked him as to when he would be leaving for Dhaka. Hassan told him that he should require another week to go as he had some domestic work. Jewel looked at him quizzically. Hassan came back home.
Jewel was at his bedside when he opened his eyes the next morning. He lit a cigarette and sat staring at Hassan. Hassan immediately knew something was very wrong. He sat up and asked for a cigarette.
“How long has this been on?” Jewel asked.
“What” Hassan stammered feeling his stomach start paining.
“You and Lily” Jewel was incredibly calm.
“Whaaaat do you mean!!” Hassan had acquired a small voice.
“How long” Jewel had not lost his calmness.
“About a few weeks” Hassan had to turn truthful now.
“How about a few years” Jewel had that quizzical look again.
“Ah… well, yeah…. right, yeah….”Hassan was feeling for the right word.
“Stop, Hassan, you know that I have kept you by my side in business. Tell me why?? It was because I knew you were bedding Lily all the while. You were very irresponsible through your life and I wanted to see if you could do something good. It seems that you are in no hurry to improve. I sent you to Dhaka on my costs. Why?? Only because I wanted a good husband for Lily. But you like a rat have come back and made my sister pregnant while I was away. I had understood your intentions yesterday itself. My mother confirmed my fears today morning. I am sorry that I have to tell you all this but if you do not marry my sister by tomorrow, you are done for as I will not tolerate this at all. Also, forget being my business partner, you may go your own way henceforth.” Jewel stomped out leaving Hassan shell-shocked.
Hassan’s father had come to the door hearing all the commotion. He lost his speech totally due to his anger. Hassan ran out of the house.