I am on the east side of the park, blocking out the deep bushes behind me. A thin afternoon ray with a slight dash of warmth bounces off the forehead, dissolving along my body. This balmy tone of Magh feels particularly pleasing. I should be at ease now, fuzzy and fine…
I have another identity than that of a professor — a contemporary poet of influence — a familiar name to regular or even irregular readers of my time. Apparently, newspapers publish pages after pages that either have discussions on my work or I, the man myself. It’s not that people have grown a rapid interest in the art of poetry or that I became a sort of a legend myself. You see, the reason is- two days ago I was murdered in a bus-truck collision on my way to Dhaka. After all that’s what the press and TV news reports are saying.
I was supposed to take that exact vehicle to Dhaka, bought tickets as well, boarded the bus even but got off at an early depot prior to the accident. It suddenly occurred to me that I left my poetry journal behind. I never take a step anywhere without my journal. People of my age nowadays are well-versed in keyboards and computers. As for me, I need my journal; otherwise, not a single letter would come out of my pen. Writing poetry is almost like plowing the earth; with no piece of paper at hand, there is no harvesting of words. At least, that’s how it is with me. Letters lay scattered on the open streets, and this little logbook allows me to gather them.
The man who sat beside me when I stepped out of the bus also died in the accident. I collected his address later after much trouble and found a house full of people grieving his loss. The only witness was gone just like that. In fact, there was someone else there, too. When I entered my house to fetch the poetry pad, our pet dog saw me. He even barked at me once. If only I could let those inside know that I hadn’t left yet and came back! Instead, I took the train to Dhaka and didn’t know a thing about the accident.
The next day arrives and I am supposed to attend a poets’ conference at Bangladesh China Friendship Conference Center. I change my clothes, ready to start from the hotel. But what could happen had already happened by then: dailies have their headlines in all bold– “Poet Afsar Azam Killed in a Bus-Truck Clash en route to
Dhaka.” Televisions are highlighting the same news. And I discover it all in the middle of the conference. The one word everybody seems to keep repeating in their conversations is my name. Each of the attendees goes into raptures about my poetry and as it happens, my individual persona. Bless their tongues, even the critics, too are overtly kind. I feel blown away at the overwhelming appreciation. Even more so, I come to know that the program is dedicated to me, the untimely departed Afsar Azam.
Everything together makes it plain that I am indeed, a dead man walking. What buffoonery is this! To die while alive and well doesn’t make any sense. It must be an intrigue of some sort designed by a certain syndicate. I have enough backstabbers already, anyways. The hilarity of the situation despite its tragic undertone makes me burst into a chuckle. I admit to having initiated the chain of events, and that making a quick exit was not the right decision on my end. Having said so, if I didn’t that would have marked my actual death. Fate intervened as I left the pad back at home and then remembered it before the accident could happen. But how am I to convince these many people now? And what’s more, an entire country. What an awful mess I have got myself into!
I decide to take an initiative by trying to explain the situation to some people first, a few close friends my primary choice. But it fails. They don’t even bother to listen to the complete story. And those who do for a brief second soon laugh it away.
“That’s quite a brilliant sense of humor you have!” one says.
“The man just died. Could you give him a break?” A poet I knew from Calcutta retorts. This fellow stayed at my home last year and couldn’t recognize me today!
All newspapers covered my story on the front page in bold, clear and precise fonts. Channels after channels have had the breaking news dangling before the screen since the morning. Frustration slowly takes over me as I continue trying in vain throughout the program. The dead are of more value here than the living. It is delightful to see my work acknowledged but painful at the same time to get over the blatant indifference, especially when I am alive. How surprising is it that papers and TV channels said the magic word and I am practically rendered invisible at a stroke! There should be one way or another to get out of this. Lost in thoughts, I pull out the cell phone from my pocket quietly. Who knows what’s happening at home? My poor girl might be drowning everyone in her tears! And the wife might be bawling her eyes out! The nosy relatives, unmindful of their own business, might be prying into my place. Perhaps, they need to be informed first so the news could spread freely far and wide.
I try to get my daughter on the phone. Nobody receives. After a long pause, someone picks up and says, almost unrecognizable as choked with tears, “You have baba’s phone? Who are you? Would you be kind enough to send it back to us sometime?” The connection cuts off, giving me no chance to reply. No one else responds to the repeated calls I make after that. It gives me no other option than getting myself there in full flesh and blood. I get on a bus to Rajshahi at noon and reach home when it is slowly darkening outside.
It goes just as I thought- my house thronging with people of all sorts. Some crying, some consoling. Never even in my wildest nightmare did I imagine witnessing my own death. Nobody in the world does. It is a completely random misunderstanding that gave rise to this terrible confusion in the first place.
It had to be that bus, too destined for the accident. I understand that most of the dead bodies could not be identified either. The faces might have been smashed into bits and pieces, but what about the clothes? Couldn’t anybody from my family recognize the white shirt or the regular pair of shoes I would be wearing? My daughter has polished them so many times, even she couldn’t remember?
Should I be revealing the truth to everyone at once? Would that be right? So many people crossed miles to be here — abandoning far more important jobs — weeping and wailing — mourning my death — should it be right to break the news all of a sudden in the middle of this mess? We have some relatives who hardly ever came but here they are in person. I could see many a people from remote places too; will they receive the news of my return well? Should I then wait till tomorrow? What surprises me the most is that I stand looking over my daughter right beside her with the elder sister on my left and younger brother’s wife on my right, yet nobody knows who I am! Not one soul lays their eyes at me for once even by mistake. The fact that a man is wandering around a house of death, outrageously unmoved, staring vacantly at others- that, too goes unnoticed. I can never stand it when my daughter cries. I go on to sit beside the girl; her eyes and face all red and swollen from crying for hours. I put my hand on her head and almost instantly she leans onto my chest, bursting into tears, “Baba is no more! My baba!” I can’t hold my composure anymore and join her, shedding a tear or two. Perhaps, it is the first time in the history of a dead man crying at his own funeral.
I speak words of consolation to my distraught family all night long. And nobody recognizes me! I cannot blame them really- all these channels and papers- they wouldn’t lie in unison, would they? Also, I, a team of one could not prove it. So, I come up with a plan and go to the university campus the next day. If only I can now gather all the
students around somewhere, make them go out in a rally under a heading like “Afsar Sir Died Not” followed by a brief press conference, that would have done it. All those media outlets and newspapers will then make public apologies and express regrets upon publishing false news. I could even file a defamation case and sue them, making thousands myself. Does the court approve cases like these, I wonder! Oh, well!
My students have already brought out a procession, I see. A mourning procession. My colleagues are leading the group. The officemate I could not stand is holding a placard that says- “Afsar Bhai, We Mourn Your Loss.” I know the handwriting is his. Nobody in the department has such cramped, illegible penmanship as him. I join them, standing at the head of the queue. Nobody seems to care that I am directing my death rally right from the front.
Are they taking me to be a mere hallucination? I ask myself. Shrugging it off, I then buy a paper from a hawker who could not care less even when the man whose death caused their copies to sell twice more than an average day is standing right in front of him. I open the paper inside a tea stall. The first page says, both our Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition expressed their profound shock and sorrow at my death in separate messages of condolence. The opposition party’s chairperson did not forget to take the opportunity, partly holding the government responsible for what happened to me. It’s a special page featuring my news. Frankly speaking, I am not feeling too bad! A photo of my younger days is in the header, a caption in bold letters below: “An Untimely Death of Poet Afsar Azam.” A lifespan of seventy years is not as short as it sounds, but then again they maintained that I died ‘before time.’
Could such elaborate cover stories be a hoax? I find it hard to believe in myself any longer. One paper featured a musing written in my memory by an eminent poet of the country. Some other poets reviewed my overall oeuvre. No human is blessed with the fortune to read others’ memories about them. But for some reason, I am. One by one, I finish reading all their articles and reviews. Most of them are false and exaggerated. Someone I never knew made up beautiful tall tales about drinking a cup of tea with me. I still would have approved if it wasn’t for the additional detail the writer invented about me resenting an unhappy married life. What a blatant lie! If only I had the writer within my reach, he would have been a dead man by now. Just because you think I am dead doesn’t mean that you are allowed to fabricate things! One said, my poetry is world-class in quality and that I deserved an Oscar. Yet, only months ago I heard him say I write nonsense verses.
But what I find particularly interesting is another story. One of the earlier poems I wrote at the beginning of my career is titled “You are in My Mind,” an epic narrative.
The opposition thinks this work is a dedicatory piece to their leader. A supporter poet of theirs suggests the same in one review. On the other hand, another poet from the leading party is quite positive that it is indeed about their chairperson, not anybody else’s. The poem is currently at the center of a political conflict for both groups. The funny thing is I wrote it in memory of an old night-guard from our area whose dispute with local burglars and raiders was the cause of his death as one night he was seen hanging from the banyan at the local crossroad.
It dawns on me while reading the paper. No second option is left. They have an advertisement agency nearby, and I enter without hesitation. Those who sold the news of my death free of cost should now publish a reverse report. I would be detailing my physical features, educational qualifications, family background and everything else so that nobody has doubts. If needed, a photo or two could be attached as well. Inside the office room is a gigantic table beside which a middle-aged short man is working on some documents. From afar I thought a small boy was playing with papers on the top of a table. I approach him silently. He nods and I take the chair in front. He straightens the papers and asks casually, “Yes, your problem?” as if I am a patient to see a doctor.
“If I may ask, who oversees the print adverts? “Me. Any lost documents?”
“Ad of what sort?”
“What do you mean by “yours”? Private tutoring or matrimonial news? Frankly speaking, none of those categories matches your age.”
“What I want to say is – that I am back.”
“A lost and found case, I see? Name, please?”
“So Mr. Afsar, could you please elaborate on what language you would prefer for the advert? Also, your format or ours? That comes with a separate charge.”
“I am Afsar Azam, A poet and a Professor.”
“You see Mofiz saheb, the other man who just stopped by a few seconds ago wanted to print a matrimonial Ad for his American expat divorcee sister. I was thinking what if I tried one for your bhabi dubbing it “Pure Bangladeshi Divorcee Woman
Available, Any Folk Would Do,” and left for America myself marrying that lady? White privilege, you know?” he doesn’t seem to bother my presence, cracking random jokes with another man on the other side of his table.
“I believe you know the rate?” He slightly bends down in my direction, closing the gap between us as if it’s the money that attracts him and not the actual Ad.
“Not necessary. I will pay whatever it is.”
“Good! B&W? Which page?”
“Black and white would be alright. Front page would be better.”
“Great! Alright then, what will be the caption?”
“Write, “The news regarding poet and Professor Afsar Azam’s death from a car crash…””
“Wait a second, please. Living with voice cracks for a while now. That’s what happens when you speak nonsense the whole day. Hey Shafiq, would you be kind and send us two ginger teas? Keep them hot, please. You okay with ginger? I can’t stand that canned milk. Ha ha!”
“Sure, with a bit of sugar.”
“Our office budget does not allow enough sugar. If you want less, chances are you will get none. Anyways, back to business.”
“”The news regarding poet and Professor Afsar Azam’s death from a car crash as rumored around the state is false.””
“Wait, wait. Stop with the rubbish! Is this what you want in your Ad?”
“Yes. There is a small misunderstanding here, you see. Afsar, which is me, is not dead.”
“What nonsense on earth is this! I refuse to take your offer, sorry. There is no evidence that Afsar Azam is not dead. Just because you think otherwise, that doesn’t change things.”
“What proof do you need? What if Afsar Azam himself comes back and tells you?”
“Well, that would be a different case.”
“I am Professor Afsar Azam. Do you still have problems publishing the Ad?”
“You see, I have had enough already since the morning today. And my wife, a spoilt rich brat is not helping either! Don’t push me any further, please.”
“But I am speaking the truth here; it’s I, Professor Afsar Azam. I didn’t ride the bus that day. I mean I did but then took off sometime before the accident.”
“Even if it’s true, why the advertisement? Why don’t you go back to your family, or call up your friends and let them know the good news, also bring back some sweets on your way so we can celebrate?” The man says, laughing loudly. Of course, he didn’t take it seriously.
“Well, that’s where the problem is. Once the news is out in the media, nobody seems to take me seriously. Everyone walks away pretending I don’t exist,” I say, forcing a calm expression.
“Isn’t that a strange state of affairs! Say, why don’t you approach the police? It doesn’t sound like a normal case. I cannot publish this Ad. It’s a matter of our prestige as a company. Today you claim you didn’t die, and tomorrow there will come another saying their parent didn’t die or something like that. This can’t be allowed, can it?”
“Are you kidding me? You just killed a man in public based on mere assumptions. And now that he is back and even willing to spend money to correct a mistake that you made, suddenly your reputation is ruined, is that what you mean? If anyone is ruined, that’s me and you people are responsible for it. And if anybody is to bring me back to life, that too, will have to be you.”
“Would you like me to show you the door? I have a lot on my plate already. And if possible, do drop by a psychiatrist’s before the police station. I think you need help, of a different kind.”
Clearly upset but with no feasible alternative to explore, I decide to head out of the advertisement office. I stop a rickshaw midway and set out for the police station. The inspector in duty is someone I know from former events.
“How are you, Mr. Firoz?” I ask, walking towards him.
“What to expect in the company of thieves and looters! But I can’t really tell who…”
“Don’t remember me? It’s me, Afsar Azam.”
“I guess you do look familiar. Apologies for asking, but which Afsar Azam again?”
“Professor Afsar Azam.”
“But he passed away, didn’t he? Are you a different Professor I happen to know?”
“No, I am that same Afsar Azam.”
“Alright, now I see it. So, I am sitting in front of a ghost in broad daylight, is that what you mean? Also, in the middle of a police station?”
“I didn’t die,” I say calmly.
“Gotcha. Inheritance issues, huh? Twins, I take?”
“It’s not anything like that. I really didn’t die. It’s just a misunderstanding.”
“A strange case, indeed. So, I have to prove to everybody that you are well and alive, is that so?”
“On one condition however: fifty-fifty share, how about that? The risk is yours.”
“I don’t think you have understood the situation properly. Perhaps, I haven’t been able to explain it to you …”
“Well, you did alright. It took me one sentence, and I figured it out. There’s something fishy about that face of yours. Have been in this line for thirty–four years now.”
Somehow I convince the inspector into having me released from the station after much difficulty. He was almost about to throw me into a cell. Thankfully, the big green notes in my wallet saved the day.
I get out of the jailhouse and walk towards the park. For now, I have no place to go, and not much to contemplate either. The afternoon passes me by in the blink of an eye at the same place. Everything feels empty inside the area. And I can’t seem to draw a logical conclusion to this mystery.
Is it something about me then? It couldn’t be all these people at the same time! Something went definitely wrong somewhere. Or could it be that I am actually someone else, and have always been? Should I then consult a psychiatrist, and confess that I feel like an Afsar Azam even though I am not, that all his memories have somehow taken over me, that I distinctly remember writing the same poems he once wrote? If they don’t trust me, I will repeat mechanically hundreds of poems right then and there by
the heart, even the stories behind the stories of their composition. But provided the doctor concedes prescribing proper medication, or that I myself acknowledge the ugly truth, where do I go from there? Who am I at the end of the day? A mere no one? Does a no one even exist? Do I then, exist?
I cannot tell when the sun slowly took a dive down the western skies and vanished into nothingness. He will take an opposite route in the morning to visit the earthlings again. In the meanwhile, my shadow disappears amidst the deep dark bushes behind me. A handful of fireflies float scattered, looking for something in the dark as if with a torch but I am not what they seek or find by accident. A weary fox locates a resting place on the bench beside mine, ready to relax with a leg slightly lifted over the surface. I try to scare it away by making noises, but he remains nonchalant. A nocturnal bird plumps itself down on my shoulder, piercing the dead silence of the night with its frequent terrifying shrills, against which I too, compete and scream. But the bird doesn’t notice.
Mojaffor Hossain is a notable fiction writer of contemporary Bangla literature. Starting his career as a journalist and now working as translator in the Bangla Academy, Dhaka, he has published six books packed with awe-inspiring short-stories, which, in the recent years, have attracted much acclaim from both general readers and literary critics. His signature style is using native realities as his settings, and giving them magic-realistic or surrealistic colours. He has been awarded four times for his short stories. His debut novel Timiryatra has gained popularity in very recent time. He is also known as a translator and literary critic and published 14 books so far.
Nishat Atiya is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), a researcher, translator as well as a writer in her own right.