RUNNING THE SHOW
Ten years ago, when Nafisa last saw him before leaving Bangladesh for university in Chicago, Danesh still cut his lean, once-athletic figure. Over the years she spoke constantly about him with friends in Chicago, and with the few boyfriends she’d had. He’d been her childhood friend, the closest thing to a best friend she’d had. The boyfriends grew predictably restless and jealous at her constant mention of him. They swore she was in love with him. Her dismissals of them were swift, often preceded by or followed with laughter.
In his office now, on the third floor of his house in Bashundhara, Danesh sat in a plush leather swivel chair, fat, triple chinned, a budding political operative who believed he’d skipped a few steps and become kingmaker. In the area of a huge boost, a financial handicap, Danesh was better off than most fledgling American politically ambitious wannabe behind-the-scenes maker of future presidents. His late father had left him a garment industry fortune, and the house. His mother had remarried and moved to Singapore. Danesh had cut off ties with her.
For the last hour Danesh had spent most of his time on his cell phone, grousing at it every time a text broke his train of thought, but not shutting it off. Nafisa had said nothing. Still jet-lagged, she waited and listened, and waited some more.
“Northwestern. Medill. My little friend, not bad,” Danesh pronounced each word between labored breaths. Nafisa could see how much danger his breathing encountered from his weight.
He even dressed differently. Before it used to be jeans and fitted t-shirts, whatever rot American TV shows paraded as fashionable. He was quite a sight, reading Bengali verses out loud in a pseudo-James Dean getup. Now, it was a flowing kurta that left plenty of room for his girth to move comfortably around, baggy matching pyjamas, and, at least indoors, barefoot.
“Things here are a little better now, for your profession,” Danesh said. “But why would you leave the chance of working in the States? With your credentials?” His phone chimed an up and down scale before Nafisa could reply. Danesh pressed it to his ear, the iPhone 6 Plus despite its size was engulfed completely by his copious hand. His hairline had receded to exactly the middle of his scalp. What was left was combed back with pomade. It had grown out at the back landing in a coil on his shoulders. He listened to his long-winded caller. Every so often he brushed his chins with his fingers as if trying to get rid of something stuck there. One arm was raised above his head, resting on it, bent at the elbow. Nafisa detected a strong waft of body odor. Danesh let out a series of “achchas,” okays, nodding simultaneously while his eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Finally he said, “If you rush nothing will happen. Come here later like we planned.” He shook his head after setting the phone down on the desk. “How long can you stay today? I have a treat for you.” His teeth were ruined. Nafisa recalled their perfect whiteness and how people always told Danesh to smile more just to let the world get a look at the gleaming rows of ivory as often as possible.
“I can stay,” Nafisa replied.
“Good,” Danesh clapped a single clap.
He rang a buzzer by pressing a button attached to the underside of his desk. Within seconds a uniformed servant arrived. Danesh instructed the servant to bring beer for him and, at her request, coffee for Nafisa. He also said there would be people over for dinner. The servant bowed silently. Over the next few minutes Danesh sent and received texts in a near constant flurry of chimes on his phone.
“You’re looking at me like I’m some creature from outer space,” Danesh laughed. “Things change, old friend. Just like you have also changed.”
The servant returned with the beer and coffee. Danesh drained three quarters of the beer in one long swig, smacked his lips, and let out a deeply satisfied sigh.
Nafisa looked down into her coffee cup. In the black mirror of liquid she saw the ceiling fan spinning at full speed, while the air-conditioning blasted shivering air from a unit above the door behind her. She’d walked in sweaty. Outside the mercury was at 43 C/110 F. The sweat stuck to her thin cotton shirt now, drying teasingly against her skin. The coffee, too, had cooled within the first few sips.
“My god, Naf, I’m not dead, I’m sitting right here,” Danesh laughed through his nose. “Remember how you wanted to be a film star? Remember that? How you had plans to go to Mumbai? Fought with aunty and uncle tooth and nail for a year. We thought it was a joke. But you were serious. Until America. Right? Even then, I remember you saying to me ‘Lots of actresses study in America and England and then have a film career.’ So? We say things when we’re young. Who doesn’t? Plans don’t always work out now, do they? Come on, Naf, you’re too smart not to know that.” The younger man peered at Nafisa for a second. There was the smile, wicked and sweet, able and unable to do more than it gave away – just for the time it took for another tepid sip of coffee – before the imploded face of the grownup Danesh settled heavily over the visage again.
“Anyway,” Danesh said, “I’m happy you contacted me. I’m sure you’ll have plenty to…” he paused, “…Naf, we do have to be careful, you understand?”
Nafisa waited for more.
“Here it’s a different world,” said Danesh. “I’m fine with you being here, taking notes, what have you, but anything you decided to write, I have to see it first.”
Nafisa stood up. “I can’t agree to that.”
“Wait a minute. I just asked to read an advanced draft, that’s all. Between friends.”
“It goes against the integrity - ”
“Oh, please,” Danesh held up both hands, palms out. “Please spare lectures about integrity. You think your uncle is the paragon of integrity, the way he runs things? The way he’s running this election? And if you believe he’s not running it, I have, as they say in America, a bridge to sell you. Waseem Qureshi’s hands might not be turning the handle but his influence, aka his money, is one hundred percent telling the election commission how to turn it and which way. Naf, sit down. Don’t take the high ground with me, not with me.”
Less than a month ago Nafisa was packing her weekend bag in Chicago at Edmund’s loft on Printer’s Row. A weekend getaway to Galena had ended with Edmund’s proposal, and then his tears. At fifteen months it was the longest relationship during her time in the States.
Nafisa was not good at confrontations. She felt low and conniving not telling him before the trip. If anything, she didn’t want to go. Didn’t want him to spend the money on her. He had friends, many of them, men and women, and he could take any one of them, or a group, have a better time. Money much better spent. But she couldn’t bring herself to tell him, not because she feared his reaction, but because it was easier than a confrontation.
Also, he was so happy, bubbling like a child on the way to Disneyland, for the umpteenth time, never tiring of it. She wanted to be thoughtful, sensitive, but the trip was over the moment they started driving. Edmund talked about Ulysses S. Grant, his cigars and alcoholism, and laughed about how it was the only way Grant could get through the Civil War. After that they drove in silence the rest of the way. On their last night there, Edmund proposed. Nafisa was relieved that it had not been in public.
Back in Chicago, as she gathered the last of her things that she had been keeping at his place, Edmund watched her, a bottle of beer trembling lightly in his clutch.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked when she stopped on her way out to say goodbye.
“I didn’t know myself.”
Edmund drained his beer and took out another from the fridge. “Like hell you didn’t. You’re telling me you didn’t know till this weekend that you’re going back to Bangladesh?”
“I really didn’t, Edmund.”
“Like hell…” his red-rimmed nostrils flared. Nafisa wanted to bolt out of there before she lost more respect for him. She’d had enough of his crying.
She heard his curses from the hallway, shouting for the worse to befall her, beginning with her plane crashing into the ocean.
Danesh was on his feet again. His huge belly went before him prologue-like, announcing his every step like a warning.
“Naf, I respect your family, you know that,” Danesh took her hand and led her to a couch on the other side of the room. “Sit, relax. You know your uncle as well as I do, so let’s keep things in perspective.” The beer on his breath was strong. As was his body odor. LaCoste was his chosen scent of yore. The house would reek of it from the generous blasts he sprayed on his skin every morning. “Waseem Sir is a good man and I respect him. He’s done a lot for many people, for the country, for this city. But really, if you want to think like a journalist, be a good journalist, you can’t overlook his tactics.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Naf, you are my best friend,” he said, slowly, stretching out the syllables, “and I’m terribly glad you decided to come back. When you called me, I intentionally wanted you here today, to meet some people. So, please, stay. See and hear for yourself.”
An hour later the servant announced that the first guest had arrived. Danesh clucked his tongue and checked the time on his phone. Whatever work was yet to be done before he was ready to entertain was mystifyingly there and not there, and yet Danesh grumbled about it being unfinished. His desk was spotless. Except for a neat pile of magazines that looked like they’d never been touched, let alone read, flush with one corner, the only other object on it was Danesh’s cell phone. The laptop, turned off, was on a separate extension behind his chair.
He grew agitated when the servant told him the name of the guest.
“Why the hell did you leave him waiting?” Danesh yelled, startling Nafisa. He was like a bumbling old curmudgeon, squishing his bulk in his chair, waving his fat fist at the perfidious, nefarious world that was out to ruin him. He lumbered out of his chair once more, went out to the hallway toward the stairwell, and bellowed for his guest to come right up. “He’s the one,” he whispered at Nafisa, re-entering the room and waiting at the door.
Danesh’s face expanded in a groveling smile. The guest was around Danesh and Nafisa’s age, dressed in Mujib coat, pyjamas, and loafers. In one hand he held a cell phone, in the other an appointment book. His hair had streaks of silver on the sides, identical wings that swept upward as they went backward. Seeing Nafisa he stopped at the door.
“Oh, sorry, Danesh bhai, you have company,” he said, courteously, in a baritone that rose out of his chest in slow release.
“Nonsense, Azad, you’re my guy, come in. This is my good friend, Nafisa. I’ve told you about her.” This surprised Nafisa.
“Azad Kamal” he said, as he shook Nafisa’s hand and apologized to her again for the intrusion.
“So, Danesh bhai, what’s this dinner for tonight?”
“You have something against eating?”
The joke got a belated laugh from Azad. If she had to write the sound of the laugh Nafisa would call it not forced but offered through pain. Azad sat in a chair across from her, with Danesh in an identical chair at his left, looking at neither of them when he spoke or listened.
“It’s for my old friend here, for her to get reacquainted with Dhaka.” A pause later, Danesh added, “and for you. Future of the country.”
“Oh.” Azad blushed, and let out a self-deprecating quiet laugh.
“How goes everything?” Danesh asked.
Azad gave the question a moment’s thought.
“Tough, but going,” he said.
Danesh’s jowls jostled as he gave his head an exaggerated shake. His eyes swept over Nafisa.
“Would you be open to doing an interview with Nafisa?” Danesh asked. “A one-on-one. Candid. No holds barred.”
“Well…” Azad tapped a finger on his appointment book. “About the campaign?”
“About that, yes, and a bigger perspective on politics, through your eyes,” said Danesh. Naf, you’d love that, won’t you?”
“Where would it be published?” Azad asked.
“Wherever we like,” Danesh said, clenching his teeth. “What is this? Back to a military regime? The Waseem Qureshis of this city might think they own everything…” he fumed quietly as he paused after a look at Nafisa. “Look, an interview. You’re a promising young candidate, a future MP. You’re an example.”
Azad laughed cordially. “Danesh bhai, your support is invaluable, but MP? let’s wait on that one.”
“Qureshi bangs the drum on all sides,” said Danesh. “He’s got his Awami League prop, he’s got BNP lined up, and he’s pushing that war criminal from Jamaat just because he’s shaved his beard and stopped being a fanatic in public. Somebody has to keep that man in check.”
Nafisa wondered if Danesh’s lashing out at Qureshi was indirectly directed at her. She barely knew her father’s third cousin. Besides being linked to him by name, and her father’s one-time association through business acquaintances, Nafisa hadn’t spoken more than a few superficial words to the man at a family wedding since before she left for America. She remembered a sliver-haired, handsome middle-aged bachelor, soft-spoken, equally courteous to all ages, and respected by those who knew him, her father included.
“Fine,” said Azad. “As you wish, Danesh bhai. If you think it will help, I’ll do it. Your counsel has always brought me to good places.”
“Naf? What do you think? You can meet right here. You two can figure out when.”
Nafisa gave Azad a nod. He looked in his appointment book and mentioned a date the following week. Nafisa was relieved to have something to do besides answering her parents’ ongoing questions about Edmund.
Four more people joined the gathering. One couple, a man named Rocky Samad who spoke only in English, and another man named Sohrab Rouf, the editor of a small press. Asma and Iqbal, the couple, were partners in an ad agency. Everyone knew each other. Dinner was served on the first floor, in a massive dining room that sat twenty people at a conference-sized table. Three servants waited on the guests, refilling water glasses with the timely precision of restaurant servers. The menu included appetizers of coconut shrimp, chicken and beef kebabs, a salad, and a medley of deep-fried snacks. By the time the main courses were served – lamb biryani, chicken korma, a vegetable pulao, and raita, Nafisa was well on her way to being full.
“How long have you been back?” Asma asked Nafisa.
“About two weeks,” said Nafisa.
“That’s how long my jetlag lasted last time I visited America,” said Iqbal, chuckling.
“So, are you back in Bangladesh for good?” Asma inquired, popping a piece of chicken kebab in her mouth.
Nafisa was staring at Rocky Samad. He’d been on his phone texting from the time he arrived, from time to time offering a cursory nod or fleeting look at the rest of the table. Edmund hated phones at the dinner table. Once when Nafisa answered a long-distance call from her parents he got up and left, and he didn’t come back until four in the morning drunk and still irate. He was never a violent drunk. He slipped into bed next to her, grumbling as he fell into a snoring sleep. She’d never been bothered by it as much as that, but now she couldn’t help wanting to swat the thing out of Rocky’s hand.
Danesh and Azad were seated at the head chairs on either end. Azad had been silently nibbling at his appetizers. He was attuned to every word being exchanged, because each time someone spoke his eyes immediately darted to them and stayed there until the speaker was finished with their thought. Nafisa caught him staring at her as Asma’s question awaited a reply.
“I have no plans of going back to the States, no,” Nafisa said.
“Did you get your Green Card?” Sohrab Rouf asked.
“How long were you there?”
Nafisa was irritated. “Ten years, a little over ten years.” The one-track mind of Bangladeshis on certain things was the same everywhere. She’d cut off ties with the Bangladeshi community in Chicago exactly because of intrusive queries like this. Only ten times as much. Green Card. Citizenship. Visas. Fiance visas. Jobs and salaries. The constant superficial competition on all fronts. For a short period she was happy to have found a place among them, and even kept her eyes open for a single man. But after a year, the rigmarole of shallow checklists she’d have to meet constantly turned her around for good. Edmund encouraged her to reestablish contact. He would, he joked, be her buffer. She didn’t find it funny. She could, she told him, handle herself fine without buffers or excuses.
Sohrab Rouf arched an eyebrow. “In that time you should’ve become a citizen.”
“I guess I never thought of it,” said Nafisa.
“Her heart was always here,” Danesh laughed. His chins shook and his eyes became slits.
Nafisa checked, as inconspicuously as she could, for Azad’s reactions. He had stopped eating. His eyes were locked on a spot on the table, his chin resting on a fist.
“I keep my Green Card valid,” said Sohrab Rouf. “Every six months go there for a week or two, that’s all it takes. I’m not so sure about citizenship. Not yet.”
“Better start thinking of it,” Iqbal said, half-jokingly. “The way things are here, they’ll shut down your press and blacklist you for a traitor against the government.”
“How can you say that and still think things will ever change?” said Asma, leaning forward with her elbows on the table. Her husband was diagonally across from her next to Rocky Samad. “And Rocky, will you stop breathing and die if you detach your phone from your hand for one evening?”
Rocky stopped mid-tap on a text. He looked around the table as though people had materialized in his bedroom out of thin air.
“You should listen to your wife more often, you idiot,” Sohrab Rouf bumped Iqbal with an elbow.
Danesh was watching his guests with an exhausted expression. The main dish course had gone mostly untouched. Everyone was full on appetizers, and also under the pall of a sudden tension.
“We lost three accounts, only this week alone,” said Asma. “Three clients arrested for tax evasion, two in the same hour. I thought some kind of coup was happening.”
“Coup?” said Sohrab Rouf. “You two are ad makers, remember? not heads of state.”
“Yes, and we all know how smart you are, Sohrab, Mr. Publisher,” said Asma. “I meant it in a figurative sense. There, is that literary enough for you?”
“You should keep your mouth shut more often, idiot,” Iqbal quipped at Rouf. But the joviality of the exchange had been lessened by the fraught mood that had fallen over the gathering.
Danesh startled everyone by shouting for the servant to clear the table.
“This was really nice, Danesh,” said Iqbal. He tried to meet his wife’s eyes across the table ready to leave, but Asma was watching Azad.
“Azad, you’ve been too quiet for a future politician,” she said. “I have a feeling this dinner had something to do with you.”
“All Danesh bhai’s fault,” said Azad, cordially. “But it’s not true. The real guest of honor is sitting next to you, Asma.”
“Okay, enough already,” Danesh grumbled.
A round of uneasy looks were exchanged around the table. Nafisa got the feeling that these whimsical gatherings happened often. And they ended as abruptly, without rhyme or reason. Whatever Danesh felt he felt in spurts. Sometimes they were prolonged, as had been the case with cricket and with literature, sometimes they lasted a few days. The political operative-kingmaker-socialite hat he now donned had to be a passing phase. Few people would or could challenge the power and clout of Waseem Qureshi.
Rocky Samad was the first on his feet. “I wish I had more time, but really, I have to be going.” He left, texting ferociously, as if he’d broken the surface after prolonged submersion underwater.
“Who told that damn fool about this?” Danesh asked.
“Right here, yours truly,” Asma presented her husband.
“We were sitting at Gulshan Club, he saw the text come in on my phone, Danesh,” said Iqbal.
“What a miracle, he saw something else other than his phone,” said Asma.
“Is he still having that affair?” Asma asked. Iqbal scowled at her.
Danesh labored to get out of his chair. He couldn’t. His weight became an alien presence in him. Unwieldy and discomfited, Danesh pushed and squirmed until he was breathing hard and sweating. Iqbal reached to help and received a savage slap to his hand.
Sohrab Rouf asked to be excused to go outside to smoke.
“Smoke in here,” Danesh demanded.
“It won’t be - ”
“Won’t be what? Are you telling me what to do in my house?”
Danesh’s pupils roved around the table. “You’re all free to go. Don’t pay me any extra courtesy forcing yourselves to stay.” The sternness in his face softened when it he looked at Azad Kamal.
“I think it’s late already,” said Iqbal. “We should go, Asma.”
“Danesh bhai, this was really nice of you,” said Asma, pushing back her chair.
Sohrab Rouf had passed a pleading look between Asma and Iqbal.
“You haven’t been nailed to your seat, Sohrab,” said Danesh.
Sohrab Rouf said, “Danesh, your bitterness is your problem. Next time you want to waste everyone’s time and show off your pathetic excuse for political clout, you just leave me out.” The clomping of his exit could be heard until it was out the slammed front door.
“That was unnecessary,” said Asma. She touched Nafisa’s arm, “Please take down my number. I would love to have lunch or coffee sometime.” Nafisa entered the number in her phone. Asma and Iqbal left.
Danesh managed to get out of his chair, but immediately stooped over the table with his hands on it to brace himself.
“My knees, my back, they’re shot to hell,” he said.
“Just sit back down,” said Nafisa.
“Makes it worse.”
Azad Kamal, in whom Nafisa had seen sincere concern for Danesh, stayed in his chair. It was that respect that he afforded him that Danesh responded to.
“None of these people give a damn,” Danesh said, grimacing as he tried to stand straight. “Opportunists, all.”
“Danesh bhai, if everyone cared for things as much as you…” Azad looked to Nafisa, “…well, I’ll only say that we need more people like you.”
Azad gave Danesh the respect of an elder, adding the Bengali word for brother when he addressed him. Yet he was not younger than Danesh. And when, Nafisa wondered, did Danesh become such a seeker of sycophants? He hated them. Railed against them. Called them dregs of humanity.
That was in another time.
Azad Kamal rose to go. “Danesh bhai, we’ll talk when you’re feeling better.”
“What do you mean ‘talk’?”
“I will call you tomorrow.”
Nafisa was unsure if her interview, despite being penned into Azad Kamal’s appointment book, was still on. He said nothing to her before he left.
As though he feared there were eyes lurking unseen Danesh swept the dining room suspiciously. He held up an arm toward Nafisa. Nafisa walked over and slid her shoulders under the arm. He directed her to an adjoining foyer. Nafisa had no idea it was there, let alone decorated as lavishly as it was. She’d lost direction as to what part of the house they were in. From here, she could not find her way to the front door. The Mughal court, Elizabeth’s palace would be easier to find her way around. Nafisa, inhaling Danesh’s body odor, listening to the strain his lungs were experiencing, let herself be dragged to a divan against a window looking out at the sprawling lawn that circled the property.
Danesh was sweating so profusely, Nafisa started to worry. The air conditioning was as extreme here as it had been in his office. He saw her expression, wheezed out a laugh, and patted her knee.
“Don’t worry,” he winked. “This is only recent. Last three years, my health has gone to shit. I don’t care. Remember how much I used to care. Cricket and weightlifting, and all that garbage. What’s the point.”
“What’s the bloody point.”
“I was never one for exercise, you know that.”
“I’m not talking about exercise. What’s the point to anything.”
“Danesh?” Nafisa waited. Danesh was hunched over, head forward.
“Is there something I can do for you?”
Danesh’s head swiveled back and forth slowly, several times.
“That boyfriend you had…” Danesh began.
“We broke up.”
“I’m not going back. He’s not coming here.”
“Was that the reason?”
“No. There were other problems.”
Danesh chuckled and gave Nafisa’s knee a succession of pats. “ ‘Other problems.’ You’ve become so Americanized. Just tell me in real words. Uncle and aunty liked him. They even told me a few times. After their initial shock, like any other Bangladeshi parents, I guess. You should’ve stayed back, married him, had a good life. What the hell are you going to do here. You saw the type of people you’ll trip over everywhere you go. New money, no class, degrees for America and England, that’s as far as their worldly knowledge goes. Couldn’t tell you one word about arts or culture or literature. These are the people running the show here.”
“What are you doing?”
Danesh sat back. The divan shifted under Nafisa, and creaked from Danesh’s weight.
“Don’t judge me,” he said. “Your uncle Waseem Qureshi is no better. Just because he’s of another generation. The good, noble, generation of freedom fighters. He never set foot on a battlefield. He’s the worst example of anything.” His head and eyes were forward. He was doing everything to keep from turning to her.
Nafisa stood up. Almost simultaneously Danesh slid down on his side. The divan was small, but Danesh stretched out regardless of being a whale on a raft on it. He yawned, belched, and scratched himself. Nafisa turned away. Around the perimeter of the lawn a ring of lights had come on. She would have laughed at the thought of her and Danesh. They both used to do exactly that when school friends and acquaintances mentioned it. They were best friends, closer than so many best friends people knew, what better ingredient was there for a union, marriage. Sometimes Nafisa found herself swept off by the power of suggestion. From the corner of her eye she would check Danesh. Back then, steeped in his books or spewing fire about colonial plunder or cricket, Danesh would miss her glances. And Nafisa would remember why she could no more but laugh at the suggestion, because she imagined the two of them trying to be intimate, naked, and couldn’t hold back laughter erupting out of her.
She heard a click and the room filled with multicolored illumination. Danesh had switched on a floor lamp with a shade made of stained glass.
“I had this shipped from Italy,” he said, gazing at the lamp. “Look at that craftsmanship. Naf?”
Nafisa faced him. His gaze was unbearable. In the spackled light from the lamp his face in half-shadow was demonic. Jekyll and Hyde. Only, the half that was supposed to be genial, softly confused about the terrors that hit him and transported him to the darkest places of sin and horror, was also revolting. Nafisa hated herself for having as ugly a thought as she found her friend’s appearance at the moment. Half Danesh’s face was not Edmund’s lean, crisp jaw line, couldn’t be, the jaw line along which she liked running her palm. And she could not possibly be this petty.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I wish you hadn’t left, ever. I wish I had the damn fool brain to talk to you more seriously instead of my…stupid…look at me now…”
“You’re doing something good.”
“I’m doing shit.”
“He’s shit. He’ll get obliterated by your uncle’s candidates, any one of them, and lose nothing. There are hundreds like him, sons of fathers that won’t give them a cent to do anything else besides take charge of the family business. That’s exactly where he’ll end up. A sheep.”
“Then why are you-?”
“He’s nothing!” Danesh roared. He seemed to expand in one last extreme effort by his body to match his temperament before withering back into the divan, out of the lamp’s speckled illumination. “It’s a bullshit city corporation seat that Waseem Qureshis eat for a snack.”
“Then,” Nafisa took a step toward Danesh, “you’re to blame. Right?”
“Am I, Naf? Maybe. Maybe I am. You try fighting the bastards that run this country.”
In that last remark Nafisa heard the indignant boy she’d known, the young man angry at the world and dreamily waving his wand of right against its nefarious might.
Danesh sputtered. It might have been a laugh. Nafisa checked for a handle on the window, pushed down on it, and slowly shoved the pane outward letting in the soothing mugginess of the warm night air.