The next day, Lebu had really blasted a peto at the party's office. Well, he had tried to. The peto had fallen off his maimed hand, right in front of the table. It didn't bounce — rather sort of slumped — like a ball in a slow spin. Everyone shrank in fear. Babluda, the secretary, had pulled his legs up on the bench. He pressed his palms against his ears and stared, wide-eyed.
It was going to blow up, any minute now. Only it never did. When it was comprehended that the peto wasn't going to blow up, everyone ran out. Lebu stood there, paralyzed. Lebu's maimed hand shook wildly. Babluda was the first to slap him across the face. Then the rest came in. More slaps, followed by kicks. And then came the iron rods.
The police arrested Lebu that day.
I'm sitting in the classroom and the Bengali teacher is going about with his lesson. He is swaying and moving his hands about. He looks at me, puts on a smirk and asks,
“Can you tell me the name of Sharatchandra's baba?”
I reply, “Sharat's baba? Who, Sir? Bankimchandra?”
“Bah! That's the answer! Good, very good. Sit, sit down.”
So I sit. Surprisingly quiet classroom. All the boys around me are wearing orange shirts and steel-colored pants. The boy next to me has lowered his head and is doing something on his desk. A book lies open on the desk in front. I look attentively. The boy is drawing something. A man is lying on his back, with his limbs sprawled. His head is missing and a little above where his head should have been, is a red ball. I try to identify the boy for a while.
Lebu! How is he here? Lebu doesn't go to school here. Lebu is secretly sitting here in the class. If the Bengali teacher finds out, he will get smacked.
I whisper, “Lebu, what are you doing here? You have to escape through the window.”
Lebu looks at me and says, “You had fouled, no?”
I feel breathless. What if the Bengali teacher notices? I notice that in the drawing, the man's right hand is trembling slightly, and the ball is plummeting rapidly. Right then, the whistle blows loud and clear. Sir is blowing on his whistle and shouting out, “Half-time, half-time!”
Lebu slams his copy shut and stands up. He recoils his head into his collar and pulls his shirt upwards and off his back. Upon seeing Lebu's action, the other boys start doing the same. They are stripping. Beneath the shirt, there is no body. The higher the shirt is pulled up, the more invisible the body underneath. Gradually, all the boys around me disappear into the realm of non-existence. In the classroom, there are clothes lying across the floor, there are the desks, there is me, and there is the Bengali teacher.
Sir puts on a smirk as he looks at me and says, “Half-time!”
I wake up. My whole body is dripping in sweat. I push the sheets away. It reads one forty seven on the digital clock on the table.
Jennifer is sleeping next to me. Jennifer is my colleague, and my lover too. Pure blonde. Her ancestors are German. I gazed at Jennifer for a while. She is asleep and the blue glint on her white skin stands out. Unbelievably infatuating. A sweet smile on Jennifer's sleeping face. A dimple on her cheek. I am reminded of my dream. I feel a strange sensation in my chest. Had I fouled Lebu? If I had forced Lebu to stay that day, would things happen the same way? Nah, things like that often happen to people like him, I guess. At least that's what I force myself to think.
I go to the washroom. I put my head under the faucet in the basin. I feel nauseated.
I had drunk too much today. Europeans can drink gallons after gallons. It wasn't right to compete with them. But to work on such a big project is not a matter of joke. The excitement that sparked within when thinking about what Thomas was going to tell me once I return to New York is what drove me to chug down all that booze. Thomas is my boss. An American in every possible sense of the word. Cognac. Right now, cognac is oozing out of my entire body. I wash my face carefully.
I draw the curtains and look outside. Nighttime London. Through the windowpane, I can see a myriad of wakeful houses of various sizes. All stuck together. Some tall, some short, it's all about who can surpass the other. During my student life, when things got monotonous while studying home at night, I would go up to the rooftop. The areas neighboring the train tracks would be enveloped in silent darkness. The sly yellow light would peep through the thatched roofs in the slums. A lot of the times, I would see flashing lights dazzling across the train tracks at night, and muffled words would float towards me from afar. Petos would blow up. There would be fights over looting the wagon breakers' area. I have been drifting off. Where was I? I turn back towards Jennifer. I feel assured. I feel like touching her just to make sure I am not dreaming. Is this for real? Then I laugh to myself. It isn't something that was handed to me on a silver platter; I won this position for myself.
Despite the central A.C., I feel suffocated. I wish I could stand beneath the open sky. After a long time, I have a longing to go back to the rooftop of our home at night.
I put on my shirt and my pants. Let Jennifer sleep. I'll take the key. I'll fasten the Yale lock. I don't think she will wake up too easily.
There are a lot of people in the lobby downstairs. People are busy merrymaking even at this time of the night. I step out of the hotel unhurriedly. The street facing the hotel is deserted. It's quite chilly. I recall the dream. Seeing Lebu after all these years? Ugh, I try removing the thought from my mind. I'm working on such a big project. And that too, in Europe. This time, I might go back to my country once. Haven't seen my old neighborhood for so long.
Immersed in my thoughts I didn't realize that I had walked quite a distance away from the hotel and into this alley. In these areas, it's common to get mugged at night. Shouldn't have taken such a risk. The alley is partially dark. There is a stoplight at a distance; the red traffic light is glowing. The street lamp is far off.
The advertisement's tagline is legible. Despite the distance, one could still read the block-lettered word, “REMEMBER.”
“Hey mate. Give me some dough.”
Startled, I turn sideways and see a man emerge from the darkness. Dark, quite tall. A bluish-black shirt on his back. A baseball bat in his left hand. He keeps his right hand folded. Probably maimed. His topi covers his face. Dark, flat chin. Bulging, large eyes.
The man's face is not very visible. The structure can be made out in the faint light. As I stare at his face, I feel as if the man is metamorphosing into a thin, short figure. I gawk at his face with awe. It is as if the man was slowly transforming into Lebu.
Lebu? How would Lebu come here?
“Hey Paki, give me whatever you have.”
“Lebu? Tui Lebu? Amake chintey parchish na?”
The man is raising his baseball bat. If he strikes, my skull will be smashed. His right hand is trembling just like Lebu's. From afar, the light from the street lamp is floating towards us. I think to myself, I should move my left leg backward, and take on the back-foot position. What if a cricket ball jets out of the man's right hand? Will the ball bounce on the concrete pitch, or will it keep low?
Noora Shamsi Bahar is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English & Modern Languages at North South University.