Night, Before Dawn | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 02, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 02, 2018

Fiction

Night, Before Dawn

Jamil: Just Another Night

Every time Jamil has a night shift, he feels like quitting his job. Staying up all night, two nights in a week! Sleeping during the day is just not the same thing. But this is his own doing. When he studied Hotel Management, he knew night shifts were common in hotel jobs. He is like a woman who elopes with her lover, his thoughts echo ironically. When the passion gets depleted, she can neither put up with the burdens of the relationship, nor go back to her parents with grievances about her husband and in-laws.

A little before eleven Jamil starts his shift. He glances at the PC and sighs, relieved to see there are no new arrivals that night. It will not be a busy night.

It is twenty minutes after midnight. The lobby of the five-star hotel is quiet tonight, more so than other nights. Then Jamil remembers it is Friday night. The bar is closed on Fridays. No wonder there are hardly any people. Only six people scattered throughout the vast lobby. Jamil and Faisal are at the Front Desk. A little further away is the Duty Manager Nasir's desk; Night Porter Rosario is at the Concierge desk; the Security Officer is posted next to him. The most conspicuous person tonight is a young girl in a magenta sari with a silver ream. She sits huddled on a corner sofa. She is not particularly striking, but well dressed and personable. She has a purse and a carry-on case. It is difficult to say how old she is. But then, Jamil can never gauge a girl's age! Perhaps she is in her mid-twenties? Jamil had noticed her when he came on duty, so she must have been sitting here for a long time. She keeps fiddling with her mobile phone, keeps calling someone intermittently. She speaks in a subdued voice; at times she looks agitated, at times vexed; and then for long moments she is silent. After a long break, she dials a number again, but she does not seem to be speaking to anyone anymore. Perhaps no one wants to answer their phone so late at night!

Time crawls, but does not halt the proceedings of the night. Jamil and Faisal complete their tasks for the night. Just when it's time to take a tea break, the girl walks up to the Reception. “Excuse me, can you please look after my bag? I'll be right back.” Without waiting for a reply, she walks off towards the Ladies', fixing the creases of her sari.

The Duty Manager looks at her from the corner of his eyes. He picks up the phone on his desk and calls Faisal to enquire about the girl.

Faisal: She asked us to keep an eye on her bag; she's gone to the washroom. There aren't even any arrivals tonight. Nasir Bhai, will you see what's going on with this girl…she has been sitting here for ages…

After a few minutes the girl returns to her former seat. Nasir summons the Security Officer on his walkie-talkie. As soon as he appears, Nasir approaches the

Nasir: Excuse me, Madam! Are you waiting for someone?

The girl looks annoyed and turns the other way.

Nasir: Madam, are you listening to me? I'm the Duty Manager, Nasir. Actually, one can't just keep sitting here in the lobby indefinitely. Can I help you in any way?

No reply comes from the girl.

Security Officer: Madam, can you hear us?

Girl: Why are you all bothering me? I haven't done……

She starts to weep mid-sentence and startles both Nasir and the Security Officer. She calms down in a bit and walks towards the Reception.

Girl: Excuse me Bhai, what is the room tariff for one night?

Jamil: $170 for a deluxe room. It comes to $195 including VAT, service charge, etc.

Girl: That seems like a lot of money. How much does that come to in Taka? Is that your cheapest room?

Jamil starts to press the buttons of his calculator and says: Yes, Madam, it is. It comes to about 16,000 Taka.

Girl: That much?!

She stops to think something and bursts out in tears again. Nasir comes up to the Reception.

Jamil: Madam, please sit. Let me see what I can do.

The girl walks back towards the sofa and rummages through her purse, looking for something. Perhaps she is checking to see how much money she has!

Jamil: Nasir Bhai, what do we do? It's obvious that she can't afford to take a room. And I can see that she is not lying.

Nasir: This is the problem with you young people! You get swayed easily by a woman's tears!

Jamil: What rubbish! Think positive for a minute, will you? The question is, what do we do now? After all, there is something called humanity.

Nasir: Yes, yes, I know. But what can I do if she cannot afford a room? I can give a discount of maximum $45, but I doubt that will help matters.

Jamil: At least we can let her sit here until morning, can't we? We can't just ask her to leave in the middle of the night!

Nasir gives Jamil a wary glance. He asks the Security Officer to keep an eye on the girl and returns to his own desk. Jamil walks up to where the girl sits. He doesn't mention the $45 discount.

Jamil: Madam, if you wish, you can sit here until light. No one will bother you anymore.

The girl looks up at Jamil. The look of gratitude is clear through her tears. Jamil is amazed by how vividly one's expressions can portray one's emotions.

The night is dark and still, not only outside the hotel, but inside too. Time trudges on in its own pace. The Concierge is mumbling incoherently about something or the other while newspapers are being sorted by the Security Officer and Rosario.

The Duty Manager is slumped on his desk, napping. Faisal watches TV in the telephone operator's office. Jamil stands alone at the Reception and reads his book, Sunil Ganguli's “Moner Manush”. It's such a good read! He regrets not watching Goutam Ghose's movie which was based on this book.

Joya: The Unending Night

She reflects, so many times she has walked past this hotel, but never seen what it's like inside. Well, she had entered it but only been up to the foyer and the ballroom to visit the various trade fairs taking place there. She is mesmerised by the splendour this evening, when she walks in with Mirza and their two friends. They come to the hotel straight from the Marriage Bureau to dine at the restaurant here.  She feels as though a movie scene is unfolding in front of her…the doorman's suave welcome, the glittering lobby strikingly beautiful, people speaking in hushed tones. The hostess at the restaurant looks far lovelier than some of our top models, she observes, highly impressed. She is, however, taken aback by the sky-high price of the buffet meal – four thousand per person, excluding TAX and VAT! But she does not stop Mirza. Let him spend as he wishes tonight, she feels, even though he can hardly spare such a huge amount. It is, after all, their wedding day! It's true they did not have a proper wedding with grand arrangements, but it is and will always remain, very special in their memories…

Time flies while they chat and laugh and share jokes, and before long it's past 10pm. Their friends leave as they had left their baby with his grandparents. Mirza's phone rings as soon as they leave and he walks away from the table to answer the call. Joya wonders who he is speaking with, but she can't hear anything from so far. Joya goes back to enjoying her dessert. Such delicious ice cream they have here! The feeling resembles something like falling in love for the first time! Why can't we get ice cream like this in shops? Or maybe I've never been to shops that sell it, Joya thinks.

Mirza pays the bill and hurries back to the table. “Joya, I need to go right now, there has been a huge crisis….…”.

Even before he can finish speaking Joya says “What do you mean, what's happened? Why are you so worried?”

Mirza: “I don't have time to explain anything now. I'll be back really soon. You can sit in the lobby or somewhere. Please don't be mad, I won't take long.” Mirza rushes off without saying anything more. The other diners turn and stare at Joya as she calls out after him “Mirza wait, Mirza…….!” Joya composes herself; even in this state of mind she realises one is not supposed to be so loud in a posh place like this.

So many terrifying thoughts go through her mind as she waits in the lobby. She cannot stop worrying. It's almost midnight and Mirza is still not back. She keeps calling him but there is no reply on his cell phone. Maybe he has lost his phone in his hurry. She informs the friends who had had dinner with them. They try to contact Mirza too, but to no avail. He is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, two men decked up in suits come and ask Joya if she needs any help. Oh, what a nuisance at a time like this! How on earth could they help her in such a  situation? Is she supposed to say, “Yes, please help me find the man whom I got married to a few hours ago, who has left me here, disappeared, and is nowhere to be found?" Her eyes tear up in frustration and fear. She rushes toward the Reception and gathers enough courage to ask about the room rates. She might as well get a room for the night. As soon as she hears the reply her confidence crumbles. There is no way she can afford such an expensive room! She wonders if they will ask her to leave the hotel and instantly tears run down her cheeks. She rummages through her bag and finds she has around 8,000 taka and a few small gold jewelry. She is not sure they will keep the cash and the gold and let her take a room, and she doesn't feel like asking either. She has an inkling things don't work like that here. Dejected, she returns to the sofa.

She finds herself going numb with worry. She feels helpless and lost, doesn't know what to do now. She presses her mouth with her hands to keep herself from sobbing out loud. She didn't know she had so many tears stored inside her. A little while later the young Receptionist comes up to her and informs her that she can sit in the lobby until sunrise. “No one will bother you.” Joya is jolted back into reality. His words bring immense relief to her and she wants to thank him with a smile, but she is still in a daze. He, too, doesn't give her a chance to speak and walks back towards the Front Desk. She puts her phone in her purse and huddles in a corner of the sofa. She is curious and thinks to herself, “Do they lower the temperature at night or is it cooler because there is hardly anyone in the lobby?”

Her thoughts are jumbled: What is she doing here? Where is Mirza right now and what is happening there? She looks all around her in search of a clock. How come there is no clock here? How will she tell the time? Then she remembers she can always check her phone for the time. But she doesn't feel like looking at her phone, or the time. It's not as if anyone is waiting for her. Strange thing, time. When you need it most, you can't find any. And when you have plenty of time to kill, it just doesn't seem to pass.

The day's events catch up with Joya and she dozes off, exhausted. She has no idea how much time has passed but suddenly she can hear the Muazzin's voice carrying the Azaan to her ears, and she wakes up with a start. She goes to the Ladies' and freshens up a bit. She is startled to see her reflection in the mirror – her features look distorted; puffy eyes and face from crying and fatigue, she guesses. She hurries out and goes to the reception. The young Receptionist is still there, reading something. She walks out of the hotel's glass doors. It's still dark outside but she can hear the birds waking up, chirping. There is a cool breeze blowing, and Joya shivers, not so much from the cold as from apprehension – where will she go from here?! She has no parents; she used to live with her uncle, but yesterday she had left a note to them saying she was leaving for good and would not return to their house. Mirza used to live with a couple of colleagues in a flat in Kalabagan, but she doesn't know the address as she has never been there! Last night they were supposed to move into a small two-room apartment. Mirza had wanted to surprise her on their wedding night, so he had not taken her there before. She knows the area but again, doesn't have the exact address. Joya takes out her mobile phone from her purse; no missed calls. Should she try calling Mirza again?

Dawn is breaking. She starts to feel a new confidence being born inside her. Without knowing where she is headed, she starts walking. In this huge big world full of billions of people, is there not even a small space for her?

Mirza: The Last Night

It is almost four in the afternoon. Mirza realizes he must hurry and step into the shower if he is to reach the Marriage Bureau by six. He glances at the room one last time to check if everything looks alright; but he doesn't know himself what it is supposed to look like! Yes, his new bride will be coming here today, but he has made no great arrangements. He has just moved into a small white-walled two-room apartment. The curtains are off-white coloured, the bed sheets a brilliant white with a few red roses in one corner of the bed. He has downloaded some of Joya's favorite songs on his laptop.

His mobile starts to ring in the next room – who could that be now? Yes, he knew it. It's Ahona. His only close friend. Since their first days at university together, they have been friends. So many things have happened since then, so many things have changed. Even their friendship has changed. It is as deep now as it was casual then. There is just one problem – Joya does not like Ahona at all! Strange, considering it was Ahona who had introduced Joya and Mirza to each other.

Ahona: Hi! Why did it take you so long to pick up the phone? Has my driver reached your place?

Mirza: You've already sent him? But I won't start until five or quarter past.

Ahona: I know, but have you forgotten that you are bringing your new bride home today? What if she is hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night?

Mirza says nothing, knowing she will continue talking.

Ahona: Listen, I've sent the maid with my driver. She has some fruits, sweets and dry food that she will keep in your fridge. The driver can drop her back home and then go pick you up around five.

Mirza: But Ahona, why did you have to………

Ahona doesn't let him finish: And I hope you've visited the pharmacy. You don't want to do anything stupid and become a daddy the first night!

Laughing loudly, she hangs up without waiting for Mirza's reply.

Mirza feels slightly melancholic. His best friend will not be present on his big day. She is in the third trimester of her pregnancy. Two years ago she had had a miscarriage and was being extra cautious this time. On top of that her husband Shabbir is not in town; his office has sent him to Bangalore for some training.

Mirza is pulled from his thoughts at the sound of the doorbell. It must be the driver and the maid.

There is hardly any traffic as it is a Friday. Everything goes smoothly, uninterrupted, starting from the signing at the Marriage Bureau to dinner at the hotel with friends.

The problem began after that. Mirza's phone rings and when he sees Ahona's name on the screen he leaves the table to answer it. Mirza is startled to hear Ahona screaming in the background. Ahona's maid is sobbing on the phone and what she tells Mirza is horrifying.

Ahona had slipped on the stairs of her duplex apartment. She was bleeding all over the place. The driver had left a little before ten and Shabbir is out of the country. The maid didn't know what to do so she had called Mirza.

Mirza hangs up and glances towards their table. Joya is enjoying her icecream, busy with her own thoughts. There is a serene and almost naive look on her face. Who could tell this is the same girl who had run away from home and eloped with Mirza? Mirza suddenly feels like he is the luckiest man alive.

As he approaches the table Mirza starts to think fast. He needs to leave right now. If anything happens to Ahona he will never forgive himself. But will Joya let him go like this? She is a bride seeped in dreams of her wedding night; how could she just let him go? If he starts to explain now, to convince her to let him go, it will take him a long time. No, he will call Joya and tell her everything once he has taken Joya to the hospital. He will send Ahona's car to pick up Joya, if he can get hold of the driver, that is.

Mirza steps out of the hotel, and immediately calls Ahona's driver, asking him to come to Ahona's place as soon as possible. He is lucky to find three auto rickshaws parked right outside the hotel. He hops on to one and asks the driver to rush to Dhanmondi Road 32. The driver asks for thirty takas more and Mirza yells at him to hurry. He will give him whatever he wants.

Mirza starts to make one call after the other from the auto rickshaw. First he calls Ahona's brother. Then he calls a common doctor friend of theirs to ask for the number of Mother Care Clinic. Then he calls Ahona's in laws. Meanwhile, he doesn't notice that the driver has turned from Panthapath to Crescent Road. He realizes when the auto rickshaw pulls over.

Mirza: What happened? Why have you stopped? Don't tell me you've run out of gas? And why have you come here?

The driver jumps off the vehicle even before Mirza has finished talking. Mirza feels a cold wave wash over him. Something is wrong. He struggles with the door and finally gets out. As soon as he does he sees five or six young men come and stop next to him on two bikes. They get off and before Mirza can protest they start beating him up. They punch him in his face, his head, his stomach, everywhere they can. They snatch his mobile phone, his wallet and his watch. They seal his mouth with tape. Mirza tries to get away and this seems to agitate the goons even more. A couple of them bang his head against a wall, and then against a lamp post. He feels a wetness in the back of his head. His body becomes numb.

He can vaguely hear: Is he dead?

Another voice: Don't be daft, he's just unconscious!

Someone else: Start the bike, hurry!

The hijackers disappear in a cloud of smoke.

Epilogue

Jamil sees the girl from last night at the bus stop when he gets there at quarter past seven the next morning. She is sitting in a corner, her head tilted to one side, her gaze somewhere far away. Jamil feels sad but he doesn't know why. It's not as if he knows her. Still…

As soon as the bus comes, Jamil takes it and gets off at Kalabagan. There he takes a rickshaw.  As soon as he enters the lane where he lives on Cresent Road, he has to let the rickshaw go because there is a huge crowd of people. He pushes his way among eighteen, twenty people and then sees a dead body of a young man. (He doesn't know why he thinks it's a dead body. The fellow could be unconscious.) There are bruises all over his face and body. There are flies buzzing around his blood clotted head. The police are here. Everyone seems to be asking the same question: is the man alive? Jamil doesn't want to know; if he is alive then good. But what is he is not? This morning looks ugly to Jamil.

When Jamil gets home he sees everyone celebrating. His mother's cousin Ahona, who had had a miscarriage last time, has just given birth to a beautiful baby girl. Mum is sesrching for a name with “A”.

A strange sensation seeps into Jamil.


Written by Rajib Rahman

Translated by Mehreen Rahman

 

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