He wet the tip of the white thread between tongue and palate, drew it out through his lips, and aimed it toward the eye of the needle. In his mouth, the taste of cotton was about to acquire an imagined sweetness when a series of thuds from the front door made his hands quiver. The point of the thread curved away from the hole. Shaala, he cursed.
Shantona or Dipika could get the door. He, Russell, had work to do.
Though he really shouldn’t have to do this. If he needed a metaphor to describe what he was doing, he would say that it was like trying to penetrate a virgin with a lifeless member. The thought amused him—sometimes he still thought like a writer. But he suspected that the metaphor was not terribly original and might prompt a reader to dismiss him as just another dirty author in his late years, fantasizing about young virgins. Khushwant Singh or García Márquez might get away with it, but an unknown like him? Not a chance. This realization depressed him. With steadier fingers, he took another stab, and this time the thread entered the eye. The knocks continued, insistent. The thread slipped out.
Shoorer baccha! Where were they?
He would make one final effort. Russell jabbed the thread into the eye, and it slid through. It came out the other end, a whole inch long. Amazing what one could pull off with determined force.
On any other day he would not have cared. Clothes he chose for comfort, though there were standards to maintain for a man of his years and his position as Director of Accounts at Surma Food Products, Ltd. But on a special day, should not a man be allowed to choose a handsome shirt for himself, with consideration for aesthetics as well as comfort? What Russell cared about was the color and texture of the fabric, the cut of the collar, and a good fit. It should not be so tight as to reveal the outlines of his just-fifty-seven-year-old rice belly and not so loose that it looked as if he could smuggle a belt of explosives around his waist.
This year he owned one such shirt. The color was a shiny indigo, like the hue of the Robin Ultramarine Powder that his mother had used in the old days to whiten their laundry. The silk caressed his skin; he preferred to wear the shirt without a vest underneath, not wanting to obstruct the sensual feel. That thought slightly embarrassed him because it made him feel effeminate. But why should women be the only ones to enjoy the sensation of such pleasure? What were men to wear? Iron chains?
The shirt was a gift from his daughter, Kajol, who was studying for her PhD in London. Before her visit home last summer, she had asked on the phone, “What should I bring you?” He had said, “Just yourself. That’s enough.” He didn’t know how he had survived the three years of her absence. Once she had left—leaving the house to him and Dipika—the empty space should have made the house feel larger, but the walls seemed to narrow in around him.
“I’m coming anyway,” she said with a laugh, chiding him as a parent would a child for his ridiculousness. “But surely there’s something else you want from here.” When he suggested a novel, something new she could choose on her own, she reminded him that it had taken him a year to read the last book she had selected for him. “I watched the slow progress of that bookmark for one full year and swore I’d never subject you to that again.” She didn’t have to say more; they both knew that English was hard for him to slog through, even with the help of the fat Webster’s dictionary he had once lucked upon during his forays through the footpath booksellers of Nilkhet.
When she arrived, she handed him his gift. He was slightly disappointed but ultimately relieved. The color was stunning, the feel, as he rubbed the fabric between his fingers, exquisite. And when he put it on, he swore it felt like the touch of a hundred soft fingers of women who knew how to skim, skip, and pitter-patter over a man’s skin. As Dipika once had.
“This must have cost a lot,” he complained. “We have an abundance of clothes here; they don’t cost much. You shouldn’t have spent the money.”
His eyes leaked out a different response. Even Dipika said he looked handsome in it, a compliment now rare from her mouth.
Kajol blurted out that she’d had help choosing the shirt, and her mouth remained bright for a moment before it collapsed.
Russell pried. “Whose help?”
She just smiled and shook her head. “A friend. Someone who passed in and out of my life.”
That broke his heart. Both he and Dipika had always liked the men she allowed into her life—they were smart and decent men—but she seemed to choose those who would be unavailable for the long haul. They respected her choices, however, and no matter how they felt about her needing a settled partner in life, they were determined to let youth find its own way.
“A kind stranger, that’s all he was. We had fire and water between us.”
This morning, when he had rummaged through the almirah and located the shirt, he had unfastened the buttons so that it could be ironed. The second button came off. A shirt should not fall apart after a single wearing. He had inspected the label, afraid it would say, “Made in Bangladesh.” It did not—and that had relieved him.
There was such trouble with quality here. Nothing worked as it should. The other day Shantona had returned from the market with a new cast-iron korai. When she poured oil into the pan, the flames below went phoosh. Upon close inspection, Russell spied a tiny hole in the bottom. That flaw disheartened him. Here we were in the 21st century—surely the country should be able to turn out a simple metal pot that was solid! Clothing had improved in quality. It was the outsiders; they had extracted higher standards from us. Why was it that when foreigners demanded something, we delivered, but we couldn’t for our own? All the time he heard people say that Bengalis were lazy. Russell knew that there was some truth to the notion, but he thought such an opinion needed to be qualified. He prided himself for observing society in close focus, always looking to see if conventional wisdom could be verified in the world around him. Those he saw laboring with their muscles and sinews could hardly be called lazy. Look around—rickshawallahs pedaled the streets, straining their starved legs. But give a man an education, and he wanted others to carry his bags and open his doors for him. Such a man thought nothing of piling up, along with two or three others of his ilk, on the seat of a rickshaw, not a thought given to the poor man pedaling them forward. Yet once these same people jetted off to Dubai, Penang, or New York, they were ready to sweat twelve or fourteen hours, just like the garment workers at home—without rest or days off.
Shantona stepped into the room and dropped her phool-jharu on the floor to get Russell’s attention. In her orange check tunic, draped over black pyjamas, she framed the doorway with her left hand on her hip. Russell spotted her from the corner of his eye, but now that he had threaded the needle through the four holes of the button, he would not be distracted. The girl could wait.
“There is a Devil outside. I think he wants to see the King of the House.”
“Go tell him we have no King in this house.”
Her voice broke into a tiny clap of laughter, but then her small eyes retreated under their lids. “I am afraid.”
“You afraid? Impossible,” he said. He would have added, “You, Shantona, the woman who makes men tremble at first sight? You, a daughter of people from the forests who march into the city for the first time and conquer the urban jungle? You afraid?” More than once, his eyes had followed her down the road and he had gaped in admiration when pedestrians parted in front of her as if she were a sleek boat slicing across a river. He was convinced it was her face—blank, seemingly drained of emotion, framing narrow eyes that appeared to peer into your soul. Not many men, not even the ones with hungry eyes who made it arduous for women to walk the streets in peace, could prevent their faces from turning downward in defeat.
“This one is a Devil. Dressed all in black. He has golden eyes on his chest. He carries a gun as big as this house.”
“I’m busy. Go tell the Queen of the house.”
“Didn’t you say we have no King here?”
“But did I say we have no Queen? If we didn’t have a Queen, would I be trying to repair this button myself?”
“She went out.”
“Already? So early on a Friday morning?”
“She didn’t say. Uncle, you should come to the door. The Devil looked angry.”
“Go tell him to come inside.”
“No, you go. I am scared.”
“I’m busy. I have to fix this shirt.”
“You have all day to fix the button.” Shantona bounced forward and stretched her arm out. “Here, let me have it.”
Russell drew the shirt away. “No, this is my job. You do enough all day.” She came in at morning light, made breakfast, went to the bazaar, swept, dropped on her hands and knees to mop the floors, cooked, served food, put things away—six days a week. She had insisted on having Sundays off for Church. They could not say no, though Dipika had grumbled.
As the pounding on the front door grew louder, Shantona yanked the shirt from Russell’s hands. “Look, if you don’t go, the Devil will break down the house.”
When he opened the door, he faced a scowling man with sweat dripping from his forehead. He was almost as tall as the doorframe, and Russell had to look up at him.
“Your bell does not work. I’ve been knocking for nearly an hour. Your lazy servant saw me through the curtains.”
Shantona was right. The man did resemble a devil. His uniform was black down to the boots, though the bandanna on his head was bottle green. The state had first adorned them with black bandannas, but, faced with criticism, they had sought a new image, believing that a splash of green would appear patriotic and add a caring element to their presence. The black ninja garb, remaining from the collar down, would be enough to preserve the look of terror. Over his broad chest, the man wore two bronze emblems of the Mongoose Force: a snake caught in the bared teeth of a mongoose. On his shoulder was slung some type of European automatic rifle. The small white envelope in his left hand looked pathetic, almost comic, in comparison.
Russell said, “I was in the toilet. Won’t you let a man shit in peace on a Friday morning?”
The man didn’t know what to say. He wiped off the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “So hot. Could I have a glass of water? If it’s no trouble, of course.”
Russell inspected the door. Rubbing an indentation in the wood, he said, “Was this necessary?” He didn’t wait for an answer, and none came. He led the man inside and offered him a seat on the sofa. Then he retreated into the dining room and returned with a glass of water.
“Just normal water? No cold water?”
“What can I say? The lazy servant forgot to put any bottles into the fridge.”
The man’s badge said his name was Haidar, and his epaulets marked him as a sergeant. As he tilted his head back and gulped down the water, thwap, a chunk of ceiling plaster plummeted onto the cushion just six inches from his muscular thighs. Though it took him some effort, he jumped up and examined the ceiling to see if there was more to fall. Nothing else was dangling up there, though he must have noticed that many chunks had fallen in the past, leaving big pockmarks in the plaster.
Russell reached down and grabbed the chunk in his hand, brushing off the powder from the cushion. “Old house. It’s falling apart.” He waved his hands around the room; the walls were in the same state as the ceiling. He walked over to a corner and placed the new chunk on top of a pile of similar fragments. “I stack these up each week. You might say it’s our temple of destruction. Like Buddhists, we clear it away at the end of the month.”
The sergeant screwed his face into a look of confusion. He wanted to know why they were still living in such a decrepit house. The entire road, he informed Russell, who knew this fact very well, had been converted into multi-storied apartment buildings. Didn’t he want to cash in on the construction boom?
Russell said he was fond of the old houses. There was more space, room for trees and flowers; you didn’t live like chickens in stacked cages, and neighbors didn’t toss their garbage from their high floors into your property below. That had of course changed with the buildings that now surrounded them. “The neighborhood has become an area of people without manners.”
“Then why not build, sell, and move out to Gulshan or Baridhara, someplace with other people of the civilized class?”
Russell resisted the impulse to argue about the class of people living in those fashionable suburbs. He simply informed the man that the property was being challenged in court. “The case has been in the courts for ten years. We can do nothing. You know how long these things take to settle—going from court to court, hassling with lawyers, petitions, appeals.”
“Arrey, you don’t have to tell me.” The man slapped the butt of his weapon. “If we had to go through the courts, no criminal would ever be brought to justice. If it hadn’t been for the Mongoose, the snakes would be snapping at citizens every minute of every day.”
“But have things changed much? When I open the newspaper, I still read of muggings, new kinds of criminals—the ogyan party that puts people to sleep, the molom party that rubs pepper into your eyes, the goo babas that threaten to smear you with shit. Then shootings, beheadings, people being chopped up and dumped in cement bags. Just a few days ago some man was killed in Chuadanga with an electric drill.”
“The newspapers? You believe those liars? They just want to besmirch the image of the nation. This country is leaping forward. Just remember I said this to you: we will overtake America in fifty years. The press doesn’t want to publish news of our successes.”
“They publish what the government supplies, and besides that, readers want to know what’s going on around the country. If you supply them with quality stories, I’m sure they would publish those too. But who wants to read stale news day after day? Still, forget about all that. Surely, with all the snakes swarming around, you have more vital things to do than chit-chat with an ordinary person like me.”
“Ordinary, what are you saying?” Haidar raised his palm to his forehead. “I completely forgot my mission. Our Communications Director, Major Chowdhury, wanted me to give you this envelope. He said, ‘Give it to him with your own hands. He’s an important person, so we’re not sending a mere driver or peon to deliver the envelope.’ That’s why I am here.” He beamed as he handed over the envelope.
“I wonder whose wedding your Major Shaheb has invited me to,” Russell said as he slapped the envelope against the palm of his hand. He accompanied the sergeant out the door. “I’m sorry you had to wait so long. What can I say, morning constipation, surely you can understand.”
“You don’t have to tell me. You should drink a full glass of hot water right after you wake up. Then down a glass of isabgul before breakfast. My father did that, and his father…”
“Of course, I’ll remember that.” Russell held out his left hand and touched Haidar’s arm. The sergeant turned his head and looked at Russell’s hand. Then he hurried his steps and jumped into the white pickup that had been waiting for him in the road outside.
A gaunt blind man was ambling through the front gate, stabbing the ground this way and that with his bamboo staff. He was chanting a story about his blindness, beseeching his brothers to come to his assistance. Before the pickup sped off, the sergeant turned to Russell and shouted, “Make sure to give him something. Allah will be generous to you.”
Russell nodded and waved. The men clustered in front of Razzak’s laundry across the street were staring. He handed the beggar a ten-taka note. He didn’t know about Allah, but perhaps a beggar’s gratitude would compensate for whatever was in the envelope in his hands.
As he walked inside, he wondered why the sergeant had started off so rudely. He was in fact just a messenger, yet he had acted as if he were the Major Shaheb himself. It must be the heat. Already it was mid-May; there should have been more kaal boishakhi storms by now. The weather was getting more and more extreme each year. And since it was unbearably hot nine months of the year, which wise leader decided that these men and women should be draped in black uniforms? Even in Class Six science class, he had learned that black absorbs, while light colors reflect. Perhaps the PM could be forgiven; she might not have paid much attention in her science classes at school. But surely there were others who knew—wasn’t that why they had advisors, cabinets? Then he realized: that was the point of it. Just like those Arab men who wore white dishdashas but insisted on their women wearing black burkas, the government wanted those inside the black uniforms to be uncomfortable, so much so that their frustration would make it easier for them to be cruel. What genius.
Once inside the house, he opened the envelope. Inside, just like a wedding invitation, there was another envelope. The enclosed card read:
Major Anwar Chowdhury
Director of Communications, Mongoose Force
Requests the presence of:
The Distinguished Writer Zafar Ahmed Russell
To: A rewarding exchange of opinions and a lucrative opportunity
Venue: Mongoose Force HQ, Room 120
Time: Sunday, 8 am, SHARP.
Russell laughed. Someone at the force appeared to have a sense of humor. Or at least originality. He returned to his room to see how Shantona had fared with his shirt.
How many years had it been since Russell had had to sew his own buttons?
When he was a boy, his mother had done it. But around the time when he was fourteen, they’d had an argument over a button she had used. He had insisted that it didn’t match the others; she had said it was close enough. He had become self-conscious about his appearance, but she hadn’t realized that her son had reached that age. She told him that since he was turning into an adult, he should learn to fix his own buttons. Sitting him down, she showed him how to thread a needle, how to tie the ends of the thread into a knot, how to alternate threading the holes in the button, and finally how to cut the thread and knot the loose ends. After those lessons, however, she never actually let him repair any clothes.
His mother had now been in the grave for nearly a quarter century. Russell had trouble picturing her as a living, speaking woman. After their marriage, Dipika had happily taken over the chore. But when Kajol was getting ready to finish high school, Dipika had a vicious argument with him. He could not remember what they fought over, but he could remember her closing words: “From now on, you can repair your own clothes.” Bas. That was it. Unlike his mother, Dipika never relented.
Once or twice he fixed a button, marveling that he still recalled how. The next time, he opted to visit the tailor shop around the corner. The head tailor said, “What, saar, Khalamma won’t sew your buttons anymore?” As he was leaving, Russell heard the man tell his assistant, “She must not be unfastening his buttons any more either.” He stopped visiting that store and barred the household from doing business with those talk-backing sons of bitches. He found another tailor shop five minutes away. Those people he told from the outset that Auntie didn’t see very well anymore.
This morning Russell had gone out for a walk and found the shop closed. The closer one was open, but he’d be damned if he’d return there. Russell could have asked Shantona to fix the shirt, but he had hoped Dipika would see him struggle with the button; today being his birthday, surely her heart would soften. No such luck—she wasn’t even in the house.
Shantona was in his room, wiping the dust from the furniture surfaces with a wet rag. When he came in, she interrupted her work and handed him the shirt. “It’s all done. Now it’s fit for a King.” Seeing that he was about to say something, she held up her palm. “Whether you’re the King or not does not matter. That button will never come off again.”
Thanking her, Russell said, “You were wrong about the man at the door. It wasn’t the Devil. It was just his messenger.”
“Has he sent for you?”
“Will you go?”
“When the Devil calls, and his messenger wears the uniform that you saw, how can one not go?”
“Do not go.”
“If I don’t, they will come for me.”
“I will light a candle for you next Sunday.”
Russell tapped his head with his index finger. “I will outsmart him.”
She rapidly crossed herself twice. “In that case, I will light ten candles.”
When you are a fifty-something man in contemporary Bangladesh, how do you seek fulfillment when the woman you married no longer interests you, when the country shows little resemblance to the dreams you fought for in your youth, and when your ambition to be a writer has been blocked by the demands of making an ordinary living?
If you are Zafar Ahmed Russell, former freedom-fighter and one-time story-writer, now working as an accounts manager in an industrial firm, you seize an unexpected opportunity to feed your writerly vanity. You agree to write copy for the Mongoose, a special police force, whitewashing extra-judicial assassinations.
In my novel The Fiction Factory, Zafar Ahmed Russell makes that choice even though it threatens to kill his marriage and destroy his daughter’s love. While Russell’s dilemma is at the center of the novel, there is a second, intersecting story line: his daughter Kajol’s quest to rescue an old lover, Rumi, who was once the hope of many but is now on a Mongoose hit list.
The Fiction Factory could also be described as “playing Faust in Bangladesh.” Using elements of satire and mystery, the book digs into the roots of violence, interrogates propaganda, penetrates the ambiguous role of the media, romps around the literary scene, and explores the fragile place of freethinkers and Hindus within this Muslim-majority country.
There’s a story behind the genesis of this novel.
On a visit to Dhaka in 2004, I was distressed to discover that the country had a new police force with a reputation for extra-judicial executions. Almost daily, the newspapers carried stories with the same plot: the police picked up a suspect, he confessed and led the security forces to his gang’s hideout, his comrades opened fire, and the poor fellow was killed in a crossfire. The papers carried discussions debating the arrival of the new force. The writer in me wanted to comment, but nearly everything that needed to be said was being said by others. On my flight back to San Francisco, I realized that my comment would best take the form of fiction, and a character I had created in an earlier story demanded to be the one to speak.
Over the next two years, the plot took shape in my head. I also realized that such an ambitious project could not be finished “on the side” while I was working full-time. In the summer of 2006, I quit my job, dismantled my apartment in Oakland, put my books in storage, parked my car in a brother’s driveway in Cincinnati, and flew to Bangladesh. What was to be one year spread to nearly three. I wrote the first draft in Dhaka. The revisions began in earnest after I returned to the U.S. in 2009. Over the last eight years, I’ve made several more revisions.
The police murders continue in Bangladesh, and the fake stories remain much the same. I believe that this novel is a sharp response to that distressing reality.
Mahmud Rahman is currently employed as a member of the staff at Mills College in Oakland, California. At Mills he completed an MFA in Creative Writing in 2004. His first book, Killing the Water: Stories, was published in 2010 by Penguin Books India. His second book, a translation of Bangladeshi writer Mahmudul Haque’s novel Black Ice, was published in 2012 by HarperCollins India. Two other chapters from The Fiction Factory have been published recently in Weber: The Contemporary West and the Chicago Quarterly Review. His fiction, nonfiction, and translations have been published in such magazines and anthologies as Oakland Noir, Brooklyn Magazine, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Wasafiri, Scroll India, and The Dhaka Tribune.