The workshop measured three and a half yards by one and a half. A narrow, confined room, where everything happened.
Curtained with coarse sacking, about half of it remained out of sight. Motiur from the ganj peeked in there once. Since then he had gone funny in the head. When asked, “What did you see, Motiur?” he chuckled and scratched his head. Finally he said, “What’d I see? Tell you the truth, what I’d seen, heavens, what I saw, I can’t remember!”
Everyone laughed. The owner of the workshop, Keramot Ali, circled his finger over his head for the benefit of others. It meant Motiur was mad. Mad he was! Everyone in the ganj knew there was nothing behind Keramot Ali’s Hessian curtain that could astonish. There were chisels and a hammer, a saw, some old ripped cloth, wax, sealing wax, matchboxes, and a temi with a wick, because electricity had not reached this area and there was no hope that it ever would.
Keramot Ali’s repair work was a thing of wonder. The things he could mend! From jewelry to shoe soles, from punctured tires to bent bicycle spokes – he fixed it all. And once he repaired and returned them to the owners, their eyes would shine dazzle. They would think, “Did I see right, had the thing truly been broken?”
Keramot Ali was not from the district of Jessore. He wouldn’t say where he was from. Perhaps some other village. At times it felt as if he was from the lands upriver. At others it seemed certain that he was from downriver.
Some ganj-people were unable to suppress their curiosity and would ask, “Come, Keramot Bhai, tell us your true land.” Keramot would scratch his head and answer, “Whenever I am wherever I am – that’s my true country, Brother. I speak the language of that land. Now I’m a Jessorite. Why, can’t you hear the Jessorite when I talk?”
He was not a man of many words. But because he spoke so rarely, an aura of unknowable mystery encompassed him in their minds. Keramot didn’t like personal questions. He would answer, “Forget that useless nattering and come to the point, Bhai. Give me whatever you want mended.”
By now everyone knew that Keramot Ali was not one for pointless talk. He was the man who would fix the rundown, broken things of a household.
Millions of poor people live in this country. Not all have the good fortune to be able to buy new things. Their households survive by patching and mending the broken, the old. There were people in this ganj who would bring cracked plastic water-bottles to Keramot Ali and say, “Keramot Bhai, this bottle’s cracked. Mend it, won’t you, Brother? I get so thirsty when I’m breaking bricks.”
One day, Nadu Mia the day-laborer made precisely that request. What could Keramot have done! He took the bottle and slipped into the curtained-off workshop. A pallid plastic bottle. Perhaps once it had contained pure water, gracing the countertop of a modern shop. Now it was the much-needed vessel holding water to quench Nadu Mia’s thirst.
Nadu Mia dozed in the street in front of the factory, until he looked up to see Keramot Ali standing in front of him. Keramot Ali swung the bottle in his hand and said, “Hey, I’ve been standing here for so long, how you sleep! Here you go, here’s your bottle.”
Nadu Mia took it with sleep-stained eyes. He turned it this way and that and his sleepiness deserted him. He looked carefully and saw that the bottle which had split down the middle, leaking water when filled, was fine now, no mark or crack anywhere.
Nadu ran gleefully to a shop and asked for water to fill his bottle. He saw that the bottle was absolutely solid, no water leaked out. Bowled over by the whole thing, he said, “How did you learn something so difficult, Keramot Bhai? Motiur says, when you work, a blue light comes out of your body. Motiur says a lot of things; the ganj-people laugh at him. But I can see Motiur was telling the truth.”
Keramot Ali had laughed. Then, as if taking pity, he had held his hands up. “See these hands? Do you know how powerful they are, Nadu Mia? These hands can do all the work in the world.”
“All the work, Keramot Bhai?” Nadu Mia’s wonder did not evaporate.
“Well, what else?” Keramot Ali replied.
“Tell me truly, Keramot Bhai, are you a holy man or a saint?”
Nadu had looked dumbstruck. Keramot Ali had shouted laughter in response. “Do I look it at all? Why on earth should I be a holy man or a saint? I work by myself to feed myself, Brother. I don’t depend on anyone’s charity.”
This was true: Keramot Ali lived on the charity of none. He earned his living by his power to mend. Rundown, broken things–like metal utensils and children’s toys–arrived in a steady stream at his repair shop. The ganj-people renamed him Meramot Ali – Keramot the Mender. But he thought nothing of it. Why should he get angry? If the people of the villages, the ganj, did not bring him broken things from their households, how would he survive?
One day Keramot was busy in his workshop from early in the morning. The handheld mirror that was a wedding-gift for the Boro Bepari’s younger wife had shattered into four. These four pieces had to be fixed, no matter how it was done, or the big-shot businessman of the ganj was in big trouble. She would cry her eyes out. The Boro Bepari had married this girl only recently. He had remarried with the permission of his first wife who had been bedridden for countless years.
“She’s like a little child, this wife of mine. She has no understanding of the world. You’ll have to take the trouble and mend it, Keramot Bhai,” the Boro Bepari had pleaded.
It was a difficult job. From morning onward, Keramot Ali had been working behind his curtain.
Halfway through his work, a knock sounded. The knocking did not stop. Irked, Keramot Ali stopped what he was doing and shouted, “Who is it? Who’s there?” The loud knocking continued. “Damn it,” he groused as he rose, sweaty from his labors. His forehead creased in irritation, Keramot Ali opened the door and was taken aback.
A girl of twelve or thirteen stood there. Her head was covered in curly, disheveled hair. The fear of a whole kingdom sat in her long-lashed eyes. Her face was crafted perfectly in brown-skinned sweetness.
“What do you want, girl?” Keramot Ali calmed himself and asked.
“Will you mend my doll, Uncle?” The girl asked fearfully.
“Yes, Uncle. I was playing with it this morning, and it fell from my hands.”
“Look, kid, I’m really busy. I don’t have time to mend your broken stuff now. Send it with your father some time.” Keramot moved to shut his door.
“I came here in secret. My father doesn’t let me out of the house. He says times are bad.” The girl pleaded with him.
“What can I do about it if times are bad? I don’t have time to mend any dolls right now. Times are bad for me as well.” Keramot Ali slammed the door shut.
Then he thought about it. He peeked out of the door, just out of curiosity. The girl still stood there, unmoving, eyes awash in tears. Keramot Ali thought to himself, “Isn’t this a fine kettle of fish!” Aloud he said, “Will bawling like that do any good? Will your doll be all mended? So show me, what’s your doll like?”
The girl dried her eyes and opened her fist.
It was a china doll. A foreign doll. A foreign lady standing tall with a hat on her head, with a basket of flowers. At present the lady’s waist was broken. Both pieces lay at an angle, sheltered, in the palm of the girl’s hand.
Keramot Ali reached out and turned the pieces this way and that. “Oh, this is quite a break. It won’t be easy putting this lot back together. OK, leave it here, come back tomorrow.”
She was overjoyed and gazed at him in delight. He grew embarrassed and said, “What are you looking at, child?”
With the tears still in her eyes, the girl giggled, “At you, Uncle. Everyone says you’re nice. That’s why I came to you.”
“So now that you’re here, what did you see?” Keramot Ali joked, because he was rather enjoying the praise.
The girl suddenly grew solemn and said, “My father says, you know, Phuli, a man has arrived in this ganj. There isn’t another as learned as him in this land.”
“What’s your father’s name?” Keramot Ali asked curiously.
“Karim Molla. He vends ribbons, bangles, and safety pins to the women at the ganj marketplace on Saturdays and Tuesdays—that’s my dad.”
Keramot Ali tried to remember what Karim Molla looked like. “I see. And your name is Phuli?”
“Yes, Uncle. Phuli, Phulera Begum. I’m in Class Five at the ganj school.” Phuli nodded.
“Okay, girl, run off now. Let me work. Come tomorrow morning and you’ll have your doll. And yes, you have to pay me five taka for repairs.”
Phuli nodded, but did not move away. She hesitated and said, “Uncle, please make sure that my father doesn’t know. He’ll chop me in half if he finds out.”
“OK, we’ll see about that.”
Phuli laughed and left. He gazed after her and said to himself, “Look at that! As soon as I said no, her eyes filled with tears. Dolls are the very life of little girls, that’s what it is.”
When the Boro Bepari received the repaired mirror that afternoon, he could barely blink. The uneven fragments that the mirror had been broken into were a smooth and solid whole: his young wife’s fancy.
After the Boro Bepari had examined it, he promptly touched Keramot Ali’s feet in salaam and said, “You’ve saved me, Keramot Bhai. I don’t know how to thank you: may you live long and prosper.” A while later he said, “This room is very small. There’s a big empty space right next to my storage, do you want it? It’ll be better for your work, and I won’t charge you rent.”
Keramot Ali shook his head.
“You don’t want it?” The Bepari seemed surprised. He said, “Then you be careful. Your house is right by the forest. The area is becoming more dangerous day by day. All the thugs and hoodlums of the area have the backing of the government party, they’re peddling ganja, bhang, and phensy. They’ve become a nuisance, holding all-night parties with alcohol and women. We’re worried about the safety of the women of our households.”
“OK,” Keramot Ali nodded. He thought, “What’s it to me if they’re a nuisance? I’ll just pack up and leave. It’s such a big country, won’t I be able to find another place?”
The next morning, almost before it was dawn, Phulera Begum alias Phuli arrived at his doorstep. Today she wore a green sari with a striped border. Even this early in the day she had oiled her hair and plaited it in a bera-braid. Her doe-eyes brimmed with curiosity in her little-girl face.
Phuli’s expression when she got the doll was a sight worth seeing. She gazed at it with her mouth agape before looking up at Keramot. Then she laughed and said, “It’s beautiful!”
“What is?” Keramot Ali asked, enjoying Phuli’s wonderment.
“This doll. It’s as good as new.”
“But you’d given it to me to be mended, hadn’t you?”
“Yes, Uncle.” Phuli responded in a soft voice. Her eyes were almost tearful in gratitude.
She unwound a couple of limp two-taka notes and a one-taka coin from the corner of her sari-end. Keramot Ali counted the money and took it. He always counted the money he got for his labors.
He thought of something and told Phuli, “Tell your ma to send it to me if she breaks something. I’ll fix it for her. We’re poor people, if we don’t patch things up as we go, how will we manage?”
A sad shadow passed over Phuli’s shining face. In a low voice she said, “I don’t have a mother.”
“You don’t have a mother?” Keramot Ali asked in surprise.
“No.” Phuli shook her head. Her voice became even more indistinct.
“The razakars took my ma during the war. They handed her to the army. Father looked and looked, but she never came back.”
Keramot Ali stared at Phuli. He had heard of such things, so many similar events. Yet every time he heard something like this, he was silenced.
Phuli said almost to herself, “Father said I was three. But I don’t remember. I call my aunt ma.”
Phuli left. Keramot Ali gazed at her departing form as he stood grasping his door.
The Boro Bepari was right. The ganj had become a hangout for wayward young men. Before evening, the adda would be in full swing at Moti Mia’s tea stall. Almost all the young men held blades or sticks. Some made vulgar remarks at passersby. Hindi songs played loudly, so the comment-makers raised their voices. The other day Keramot Ali was walking toward his shop when he heard, “Lookee here, there goes Meramot Ali!”
Keramot Ali twisted his long torso in the middle of the crowd to seek the young man’s face. All he found were grimacing smiles and sets of teeth. He lowered his head and walked to his workshop thinking to himself, “I won’t be able to live here much longer.”
That night when everything was hushed, the cry of the kuo bird sounded twice from the branches of the ashwath. Keramot Ali tossed and turned in his bed as he listened to the birdcall. The next morning, as he brushed his teeth with a neem twig, he felt a hum surround him. As the day wore on, the Boro Bepari visited and told him, “Have you heard, Keramot Bhai?”
“Somebody’s kidnapped our Phuli yesterday when she was going to school.”
“What did you say?” Keramot Ali stared at him.
The Boro Bepari said, “The girl’s father is beside himself, he’s thrashing around the yard, weeping and wailing. She’s his only child. She lost her mother when she was a baby, her aunt was bringing her up.”
The Boro Bepari grieved by himself and left. Keramot Ali stared at him in a daze. He entered his room and tried to work but couldn’t. He heard a drumbeat and a proclamation, “Hear ye, hear ye! Yesterday, at ten AM, a twelve-year-old girl named Phuli aka Phulera Begum disappeared. She was on her way to school. If any kindhearted person knows of her whereabouts, please inform . . .”
Keramot Ali kept slipping up at his work that day, as if he could not figure it out. He would sit down, make a mistake, then go out and puff bidis. Then he would return, sit, err, and go out again.
He didn’t understand. People were saying that Phuli had been snatched when she was on her way to school. But the announcement said that she was lost. Were people too scared to even proclaim the truth in the open?
He shook his head, muttering, “I can’t live here anymore, I’ll have to look for someplace new.” As if he too was frightened.
Days passed. Once, the Bepari whispered to him, “The police do nothing. They said to Phuli’s father Karim Molla , how can we accept your case? How do we know that Phuli hasn’t run off? So what if she’s twelve. She’s a grown girl, she goes to school, she could be having an affair.” Then the Bepari lowered his voice even further and said, “Shall I tell you the truth, Keramot Bhai?”
“Go on,” Keramot said.
“My heart tells me they’ve killed Phuli. Abused and killed her. This happened here before, before you came.”
Keramot Ali’s brow creased. This was a terrible thing. They could just pick up a young girl like that in broad daylight, rape and kill her, destroy all sign of her?
“What are you saying, is there no law in the land?” As if he spoke for the sake of speaking. Although he knew that these people feared no law, that they lived in the shelter of the law, he couldn’t help but ask.
When the Bepari left, Keramot Ali sat despondently. Phuli’s face floated in front of him. How happy she had been with her face like a blue lotus as she handed him the money from her sari-end. The memory trembled in front of his eyes like a shining screen. At night it started raining. It felt chilly with the light rain and gusts of wind. The month of Kartik was almost over. Keramot Ali untied a bundle and extracted a thin shawl. He wrapped it around himself and sat on the floor. His narrow room measured three and a half yards by one and a half. Not much space, yet the room seemed an endless tunnel.
Though he sat inside, the bustle of the ganj reached him. The area swarmed with the sounds of bullock carts, buffalo carts, rickshaws, cycle-vans, and the drone of people. Even amid the drizzling rain, the sound of singaras frying reached his ears. The ganj was in full swing, as if all was well.
Gradually it grew silent. Keramot Ali fell asleep.
He awoke to a knocking. Keramot Ali jumped up from the floor, as if he had been awake all this time waiting for that knock. But he didn’t open the door. Instead he glanced out of his window and tried to guess what hour of the night it was. The moonless night lay pitch black outside, wrapped in a blanket.
Someone moaned, “Oh, Keramot Bhai, please open the door, I am in terrible trouble.” At the unfamiliar voice, the cautious Keramot Ali stuck his head out of the window. Someone was lying on his doorstep, body wracked with sobs. Keramot Ali opened the door and the man wrapped his arms around his legs.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Keramot Ali tried to jerk his legs away. What a ridiculous thing to happen at this time of night. The shadow of his annoyance made his forehead ache. He was beginning to hate this place.
The man would not let go. Instead he moaned, “Save my little girl, Keramot Bhai, I’m Phuli’s father.”
Keramot Ali’s eyes widened in astonishment. What drama was this in the middle of the night? And how could he save Phuli? Was he the police? He controlled himself and said somberly, “Bhai, let go of my feet.”
“No, Brother, I’m not letting go. I’m not letting go until you do something about my Phuli.”
Damn it, what was this madman saying?
Keramot Ali felt angry. “Oh, Bhai, I’m telling you the truth. My Phuli got her doll mended from you. Today I’ve brought Phuli. Bhai, you’re the brother of my soul, you have to save her.”
Keramot Ali felt dizzy. Everything had its limits, but Karim Molla had lost his mind along with his daughter. “What do you mean you’ve brought Phuli?” Keramot Ali searched the darkness but discovered no sign of Phuli. “Phuli, where’s Phuli?" Keramot Ali ran his eyes all around and became anxious.
“There she is, my Phuli, the piece of my heart, my own, my precious Phuli.” Karim Molla sobbed. The next instant he clasped his hand over his own mouth. What if someone heard!
“What’s going on, just tell me what’s going on?” without realizing, Keramot Ali’s voice descended to a whisper. “Where’s Phuli?”
“There, over there, that’s where Phuli is, Bhai.” Karim Molla pointed.
Keramot Ali ran his eyes all over, looking. He left the doorway and came out and looked. He crouched in the inky darkness and opened the sack and looked at the pieces that were Phuli’s body.
The call of the kuo bird pierced the darkness. The rain, the dark, the wind, the call of the kuo, Karim Molla’s sobs—all seemed malign. A wave of evil lamentations seemed to break against Keramot Ali’s ears.
Amid all, the pieces of the child Phuli’s body lay silent in the sack. With his hand, Keramot Ali felt the blood trickling through the fiber of the sack. It was still warm, still liquid. It hadn’t congealed.
As he saw, as he felt, Keramot Ali’s body seemed to lengthen and swell. Tall and surging. A harsh clanging arose deep within him. Something moved inside his mouth, something that could make one sweat. In turns, he stared at the silhouette of Karim Molla huddled on the ground and the presence of Phuli contained in the sack. Finally he managed to ask, “When?”
“Just now, it was just now. They brought my girl back and said, we’ve brought your Phuli back, Uncle, but you won’t get her back whole, you’ll get her in three pieces. And then right in front of me, in front of my very eyes, my Phuli . . .” Karim Molla could not finish. He fainted.
Keramot Ali waited no more. There was no time. Everything, every incident, every accident had a moment. If that time, that auspicious moment passed by, then nothing could be wrought, for time and opportunity were siblings. Keramot Ali bowed and heaved the sack onto his shoulder. He stepped over Karim Molla’s body and entered the house. All his work was within this room. He shut the door, then he closed the windows. He parted the drapes of the curtained portion and went in.
Keramot Ali began.
He worked up a storm. Lightning entered his hands, he worked at the speed of lightning. No one, not even Keramot Ali himself, had ever seen such sorcery in human hands. As he worked, time and again he lifted his hands to his eyes in the light of the temi. His own hands seemed unfamiliar.
The night deepened further, as if competing with time itself. A dark night with a waning moon, a night of driving rain and eddies of wind. A strange aroma arose out of the night’s expanse permeating all of creation. The kuo bird cackled evilly.
Karim Molla remained fallen at the doorstep, who knew whether dead or alive. As if he had created a bridge between this life and death and journeyed in between, uncertain of which path he wanted to take.
It was a time of terrible danger, the dark night of the waning moon. The moon was on the wane throughout the country now. The country was swathed in the weeping of the Karim Mollas; it would not do to lose one’s senses. He would remain conscious, cautious and unsleeping. Keramot Ali cannot bear Phuli’s gentle, sad face. He will not let Karim Molla’s precious child lie in pieces. He will not allow this motherless child say her final good-bye to this world, he won’t.
Keramot Ali’s body raged. Perhaps this is how people seethe when tears and anger fuse within. They surge and swell: bigger, stronger, inexorable.
Night turned to dawn. The kuo stopped calling. Birds trilled. Bats hung happily on the boughs of the ancient ashwath, witness to the ages. The stormy wind grew calm, the rain stopped. Radiance yearned to pierce the sky.
Finally, the door slammed open. Karim Molla looked up to see Keramot Ali standing in front of the door with bloodshot eyes. Not only were Keramot Ali’s eyes red, but his hair was tousled, sticking out every which way. His body sweaty with toil, his sweat-soaked vest clung so close that it seemed part of his skin. Keramot Ali breathed in and out. Unrelenting toil had smudged dark circles around his eyes.
Before Karim Molla could recover from his surprise, Keramot Ali put a finger to his lips and motioned, “Shhhhhh!”
Karim Molla was silenced.
Keramot Ali breathed deeply to calm himself and said, “No one can know!”
“OK,” said Karim Molla and nodded. He nodded as if not understanding.
“Come inside,” Keramot Ali said.
Karim Molla began shaking even more. It seemed as if the whole world would turn upside down and fall. Karim Molla entered the room behind Keramot Ali. Keramot Ali shut the door. If a temi had not glowed feebly behind the curtain, the room would have been pitch dark. Keramot Ali put his lips close to Karim Molla’s ear and said, “Don’t cry or holler. Remember, this is not the time. Keep a cool head.”
“OK,” Karim Molla said again and nodded like a good little boy. Then he moved toward the curtained part of the room. Phuli sat unmoving, leaning against the wall. Her gaze calmly considered the lit temi. The sari from yesterday was wrapped around her, bloodstains darkening it in patches. As he watched Phuli gaze at the unwavering flame, Karim Molla’s tears knew no bounds. Even though Keramot Ali had warned him not to cry in such a harsh voice, did his eyes pay any attention?
Karim Molla wept silently for fear of Keramot Ali. Tears flooded his cheeks, soaking his shirt. He hunkered down beside Phuli and touched her body, warm like the breast of a dove. Her hands and feet were moving as were her eyelids, her lips. If one did the right thing at the right moment, did everything turn out fine? He stumbled and examined his daughter’s hands, feet, lips, eyelashes, brows, everything. As if he had just mended his precious little broken doll and was checking it out. As if there was a faith beyond faith, as if there was a greater truth hidden behind truth.
Phuli, surprised at her father’s behavior, tried to smile as she looked up and asked, “Why’re you crying, Bajan? What’s wrong with you? Why’ve you brought me here?”
Karim Molla hiccupped and barely managed to speak, “I brought you here, I . . .” Karim Molla couldn’t finish. He wept silently, his face contorted.
Keramot Ali sat on his doorstep with legs sprawled and yawned prodigiously. He said to himself, “Everyday it’s all turning into a bigger hassle. I don’t think I can stay here any longer. So should I leave today?”
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