Water Hyacinth

Mehreen Ahmed

(USA)


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Amir stops saying hello in a while. The last time we spoke, he was complaining. The little shack where he lives has a leaky roof; the water has to be contained in buckets, pots, and pans placed around under every leak. I havent seen anything like it. I asked him to fix the leaks. He smiled and he pointed his left hand towards an empty clay stove at the far end of the shack without a word. Otherwise, I thought the room was pretty specious, four-cornered, not triangular or rectangular. Amir isnt deaf-mute, however, not much of a talker either. Days go by sometimes without him uttering even a word apart from just a grimace or body language talk.

I havent seen him in weeks. Today, I want to stop by his shack. He lives alone as far as I can tell from the few times I visited him. I walk up to his room this morning but find that the door is shut. I knock. No one responds. I gingerly push it with my index finger. Sunlight pours into the dark room. The pots and pans are all here under each leak, but no Amir anywhere.

He may have gone to the toilets, or perhaps to work. Standing alone for some time in the middle of the room, and feeling a bit lost, I crane my neck to see some photos on the terracotta walls which eluded me that first time I visited here. These are kitsch, images of women posed from various garish angles, cutouts, and pasted over the cracks with cheap glue.

Why do I even care so much for Amir? I wonder. Who the hell is he anyway? Does it really matter who he is or where he is from? But for some reason, I cant bring myself to ignore him either. Im convinced that there is more to him. Which elude me? I have only just skimmed the surface.

He works as a bawarchee—a chef in Kitchen Corner Hotel on Shayaam Bazaar Road in old Dhaka. His specialty is morog biriyani among other things and sweets such as shahi tukra salivate the tongue just by thinking about them. It’s a booming business, and the first time I meet him is as a customer, waiting with a number between my fingers, given to me at the entrance by a teaboy. In the long queue I stand patiently to place my order. He sees me and takes a shine to me. Is it my clothes, the patched up jeans and a snow white tea shirt that I am wearing? He calls out my number, number 13. I realise it is my turn. I place the order as he winks at me and asks where I bought those jeans. Did I buy them locally or abroad? He is so taken by my jeans that it makes me wonder about his fashion tastes. Just a bawarchee! He gives me an extra serve of morog biriyani, on the house too. 

We start talking when he comes by and sits at my table.Time and time again, timelessly, and tirelessly, I tell people the same story of a short-lived life.”

‘How so?” I ask.

“Where do you live?” he asks me.

“Just down the alley.” 

“The marble mansion?” 

I look at him and then at my plate of biryani-flavoured hot meal before me. 

“Well? Is it that house or not?” he asks again.

I nod slightly and begin to eat. He stands up with some alacrity saying something like, when a person dies the living cry, not the dead, the dead cant cry.  He leaves me reeling from whatever the saying may allude to: passage of time, or is it something else?  I quickly finish my meal. On my way out, I look for the chef, but I cant see him anywhere. I think I want to visit him at his place, but he has disappeared before I can even get his address. I ask one of his staff if he knows. He sure does; it does not take much of coaxing either to get it out him. All I do is utter the magic phrase of my residence, the great mansion down the road—open sesame, the address comes out of his mouth like rote learning.

My grandfather and his father had a powerful hold over the alley. They wanted to be legends, they became so. So much so that even after their deaths, many years later when my generation grew up I inherited the mansions spirit. I am also an inheritor of amassed wealth. Wherever I go, I carry the mansions bad name like a dark shadow. The fact that I am not like them, that I try to rehash the ill repute and repudiate the evils associated with it, is ignored by society at large; not a soul understands. The mansion stinks like a skunk on the pages of history.

In the heart of it, I traverse the top deck of a multi-leveled ship, sunbathing every day in the fresh new light. Just a deck below is a dark, musty hall full of people who are travelling too alongside, except these are third-class people who cannot afford the sunny deck up. Living on the fringe, trying to push through the boundaries in vain to be on top, and walk as an equal with the others. A few lucky ones may make it, but others continue to fight tooth and nail to no avail.  In the heart of it, it’s like traversing the top deck.

No matter the top deck or the bottom, as the ship sails, so does everyone onboard. Even though it may seem like some of the lower-deck people are stuck in a weird time warp stopping them from being upwardly mobile. Imagine the eternal drudgery of unfulfilled dreams: Amirs envy drilling a hole in his heart so big that no amount of success as a chef can fill it up! He can never make it to the mansion. 

What does he want? Is he even mansion material? I have to return to find out, and befriend him. Find out how deep is his desire to become a mansion master. My quest is purely journalistic. But I also want to point out a recourse to stop his internal bleeding. Like a fairy tale palace, the mansion overwhelms his senses; they foretell danger from a wild king whose cannibalistic domination rules over the valley—both awe-inspiring and frightening to the residents on the lower plains of the alley, commoners such as Amir, in the mansions shadowy presence, his every effort fails before the towering success of the mansion people.

Impossible. I cant find Amir anywhere in or around his house nor in his restaurant. His staff are also clueless. The last time we met was just over a week ago. He was standing in the pouring rain waiting for a bus. I joined him and tried to squeeze under his umbrella which he shared reluctantly.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“I want to chat with you.”

“What about?” his voice quivered.

“I cant tell you in this rain, lets go somewhere dry.”

“Dry?” he laughed. I cant think of any other dryer and higher place, apart from your hilltop mansion.”

“No, I mean somewhere, anywhere other than the mansion.”

“Well, youd better come to my shack then. Would you be dry enough there?” he asked with a wink.

I pretended not to get drawn into the sarcasm. I said bluntly—“Yes.”

“Okay.”

Amir and I walked through the zigzag water puddles on the narrow dirt road. The winding road finally ended at the shack. We stepped under a protruded roof. Amir shook off the water from the umbrella and closed it. Opening the door, he bade me in to sit on a high-backed chair beside a plank bed, on the edge of which he sat tentatively looking at me. I knew he was trying to fathom the unfathomable of the whys

“Whats with you and the mansion?” I asked.

My directness didnt seem to puzzle him. He appeared calm.

“The taxes, the bullying, the subjugation, dont tell me you dont already know.”

“I know that taxes have been raised recently and people have been protesting and have been thrown into the dungeon.”

“Then, why do you ask?”

“Any other curiosities?” I asked.

“Are you kidding me? Isnt this enough? Say, what is your name?”

“My name is Monsur Ali Khawaja, nephew to the current Dewaan.

“Nephew to the King?” he smirked. So, has your uncle pissed you off or something that you have now come here to befriend a commoner?”

“No, not at all. I am here to put you in my shoes, and me in yours.”

“Thats silly. Why would you do that? It doesnt make any sense.”

“It makes perfect sense to me. I would like to walk you through the mansion, the dungeon and all.”

“What makes you think I want it?”

“Your eyes.”

“Really? That obvious?”

I smiled. “Well, what do you say?” 

He took time to think for a while and then he said sheepishly—“Okay, but what do you want in return?”

“Your rags,” I said.

“Seriously?” he asked.

“Yep, seriously.”

“Would these pants and shirt do? Or do I need to get changed in case I meet the Dewaan?” he asked.

“Nope.”

He stood up and followed me out. We took off to the mansion up the alley in Shayaam Bazaar Road in Dhaka where his restaurant was also situated. We walked together down the alley, but his restaurant wasnt there. People were clothed differently in loincloths sarongs and bare chests. Wealthy people were clad in gold, top to toe. Beautiful womens bare breasts were also clad in gold chain layers of necklaces. Amir, who was beside me was dressed in rich peoples clothes. I was clad in rags. My sandals were torn, his werent, but they were brawny enough, moulded in slush, syrupy gold.

A horse stood at a distance from us under an age-old banyan. Amir looked at me, smiled, and whistled at the horse. It galloped and stopped in front of him to mount, while I walked up the hills where the mansion was. At the mansion gate, guards stood with staff weapons. As soon as they saw Amir, they bowed and let us both in. Inside the mansion murals of goddessesdecked the palace walls and pillars distinctive of a Kamrupa Kingdom; its long stretch from Assam through the southern boundary to the River Brahmaputra, where gathered water hyacinth floated unhindered up and downstream along the river. Who cared about their origin?

Amir vanished. Where was I? Where was Amir? Who was Amir? I found myself walking through this palace of a Kamrupa King which was not my mansion—my residence, at all. It was all theirs. And Amir? I stepped into the throne room; I saw him crowned as an ancient king. Amir looked at me quizzically and clapped to call his personal guards to arrest me and have me thrown into the dungeon for trespassing. I even saw a diabolic grin wavering on his dark cupid lips. Really? I swore under my breath. This was not him. He was someone else, he was a Pushyabhuti coined in a 7th century bronze and copper currency.

Back in my old clothes, I walk down the alley carefree, I view people milling about in Amirs restaurant like scattered ants, queueing up for a great meal of morog biriyani. The mansion is right behind me, here and now, century-old solid rock. I walk up to the restaurant and join the long queue. I see a blackhead bobbing in the crowd, Chef Amir serving in the restaurant. He looks almost content. He sees me and winks. We are talking again.

Mehreen Ahmed

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Mehreen Ahmed is an acclaimed Australian novelist (Midwest Book Review and more)born in Bangladesh.She has authored ten books and has been a reader and juror for international awards. Also, widely published for short fiction, she has won multiple contests, and nominations for Pushcart, botN, James Tait.

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