Photo by MARY CELINE HARTWIG
It’s Midday, Deepa
At midday when her eyes become moist and blurry from the searing heat, there is nothing that Deepa can do but sit idly, her head drooped over her open palms, counting her fingers. First those on her right hand – one…two…three – from the thumb to the little finger, then those on the left in reverse order, from the little to the thumb.
As her score settles to a perfect ten, she looks up, somewhat relieved of the tedium and the heat, and it seems as though a sense of certainty has descended on her.
When she was a little girl, she would touch her nose no sooner had she finished counting her fingers. Then the lips, the eyelids, the eyebrows and the ears– until finally she came upon the same certainty of relief.
No longer a kid, the one thing Deepa carries even to this day is the counting of her fingers. Touching the lips, eyes and ears is no longer necessary. She knows they are there where they used to be. Where else could they go! However, now and then, she does quickly check on these features in the small mirror she carries in her handbag. Not a flattering experience anymore. She knows this face of hers is fast receding away.
Her face is changing, she tells herself. It’s not the one she once loved to explore. Despite her swarthy complexion, there was a time when she would find tiny ripples of light and shade crisscrossing her betel-leaf-like face that are now totally missing from her reflections in the mirror. Besides, these days her hair too curly to be brought into some semblance of order – covers most of her forehead and the sides down the temples with an extra tinge of dimness over her face.
Deepa isn’t too perturbed by what she sees of herself in the mirror. She knows the truth well enough: her face is changing; it is going to leave her. Still, it’s the eyes that sometimes distract her. No one had ever told her anything about her eyes but all her life she has believed that these eyes of hers light up with a glimmer that none but she only could tell. Even today, as she looks herself up in the mirror she senses something a little more than ordinary. Maybe the quiet flash in her eyes, or what else could it be!
Sitting at the reception desk of Modhumoti Courier, sweating, Deepa would wander aimlessly into a maze of drifting images and thoughts – disjointed and patchy – between the counting of fingers. One such is about the brightness of her eyes. It hovers about her quite frequently. There is another – that of getting out of this smothering two-room office at Dilkhusa, to a place cool and tree-shaded. If it were Ramna Park, she would have been very happy. As the idea slowly occupies her, she confronts the hazy image of a man – bulky and huge and dark. Deepa has no clue where he emerges from. But as the image takes shape, she is thrilled to imagine of the man handing her ice-cream cone – chocolate or vanilla flavoured or whatever. She would at such times think of herself a good ten years younger. Sitting at the reception of Modhumoti Courier Pvt Limited cloaked in heat and sweat, she can not visualise what someone her age would look like, an ice-cream cone in hand, at noontime at Ramna Park. The thought of ice-cream, she thinks, is not too unreal. The heat is scorching! But the man – bulky and dark – peeking in?
As she goes on counting her fingers between the fleeting thoughts, she sometimes forgets to stop, her counting progresses as if endlessly from the right hand to the left, and again from the left to the right, over and over. The score goes up reaching as high as sixty, seventy or even eighty. She is then left to wonder what she would do with eighty fingers! She needs perhaps two or three to hold an ice-cream cone, but she muses, how many would she need to hold the hand of a man – a dark, bulky man!
Last year when the heat was terrible, her employer spoke of an air conditioner. No one but he himself could say why he spoke so. He doesn’t spend much time here. Occupied with another business, a transport company, he spends most of his time at Saidabad. It is only in the late afternoon that he hurries into the Courier office, asks about the day’s deals, sits down for a while going over the books with Shadhan Babu, the accounts man.
The idea of installing an air conditioner in the office where he sits only for a short time doesn’t make sense: Deepa should have guessed that well enough. Even then, those working in the two-room office, Deepa included, hoped for it to happen. But, as the unrelenting summer heated the two rooms day after day like a raging furnace, everyone, especially Deepa, became realistic. Why should he want an AC here? -- He doesn’t sit here.
There are other reasons too. Those who come here, mostly ordinary folks – petty workers from nearby offices, peons, messengers – do not require the luxury. They come with envelopes and packets containing letters, bank drafts, books, documents and deeds of all kinds, marriage certificates, divorce papers, share certificates and so on, drop them off and leave without hanging around for long.
They bring in so many other things! Deepa has to know about the contents before setting to work on them. When asked about the content, some of them come up with quick answers, some smile with a shrug and ask if that is at all necessary. There are others who not happy being questioned point to the writings on the packets or boxes where the contents are mentioned.
Deepa’s job is to make the entries in a register. The names, addresses, phone numbers of the senders and the addressees, weights of the packets or the envelopes as the case may be. There’s a box in the register that reads ‘product name’.
Deepa depends on what the clients say about the contents or what she finds written on the packets, envelopes or boxes. She isn’t bothered about the veracity, though there are occasions when she can’t help being curious. One day a man brought in a packet with a crumpled edge. The packet had a toy inside, he said. Deepa had her doubts and soon after the man had left, she, too curious about the content forced a small opening at the crumpled end of the packet with a little pressure of her fingers. Her discovery baffled her; there were four hog-plums – not extraordinary in size or variety, just ordinary hog-plums.
Weighing the packets or boxes and making entries in the register are all Deepa is required to do. The rest of the work, quite a complex lot, are done by others: receiving the cash, issuing receipts, arranging for dispatch by air or overnight coach depending on how the clients want them delivered. Her job isn’t much of a hassle, but the steaming noon at times makes it seem interminable.
Deepa is not depressed that her employer Sohrab Hossain didn’t keep his word, that he did not fix the air conditioner. She just wished he hadn’t spoken about it.
Last year the heat rose to forty degrees Celsius, and in places outside of Dhaka it was even a degree or two higher. A few people died. This year it is hovering around forty. Looks like it might rise further.
Sohrab Hossain might someday repeat his announcement about air conditioner, forgetting his promise of last year. If he does, Deepa would know it to be a lie right away. The reason is simple enough: he doesn’t sit here. Although this place is his property just as much as the transport office at Saidabad, he is indifferent to this place. Saidabad is where he likes to spend long hours. Here things are routine and unexciting. One afternoon, a few days after he had hired Deepa, he asked her to go with him. She could see the cold indifference in his eyes – the blunt, stolid look as he spoke. Later, even while he had had her lying under him pressed against his heaviness, he was as unfeeling and indifferent. Done, he had asked her to get dressed quickly.
After the incident, Deepa thought he would treat her differently. She was wrong. He had continued with his lack of interest. He would talk to her not looking her in the eye, would want to know about the day’s business – number of items received for dispatch, if there was anything bound for an outstation beyond the district towns, or if there had beencomplaints about delayed or missed delivery and so on and nothing beyondthe routine.
Over time, Deepa has learned that it is the routine she has to keep to, and that she is no more visible than the routine itself. Just as the mid-day heat, the tedium, the monotony are all part of a routine. The envelopes, packets, boxes, addresses, phone numbers, product names are just manifestations of a relentless charade of a routine. Her finger count or the thoughts – scrappy or whatever – about Ramna Park, ice-cream or the dark hulk of a man are no exceptions but repetition of one routine within another. She knows well enough that her job here is not demanding, it is simple, it can be picked up by anybody. There is nothing special for her to do but absorb the dread of the noon.
Sohrab Hossain, Deepa thinks, is not going to talk about air conditioner anymore. However, if someday he finds the courier business exciting, then that would be a different matter altogether. Nevertheless, she does not consider it wholly unlikely that his attraction for this place might someday grow, maybe even more than for Saidabad. If that happens, he might prefer to rent a bigger office with central air conditioning, introduce a few electronic services, procure advanced gazettes, and then ask Deepa to leave.
Noontime is long. The disarrayed thoughts do not help ease the long hours. Her thoughts worn from excessive use are as dull as the midday monotony. Besides, there is nothing new for her to think these days. The thought about the AC comes to her quite often without provocation. She is not at all keen on thinking about it, but it still does.
Across the street is a bank where Deepa sometimes goes to deposit her little savings or draw cash. Her visits are more frequent than her needs. The cool, refreshing interior is the main attraction. Once there, she finds it difficult to come out. She enjoys sinking into one of those soft-upholstered sofas, a cheque or deposit slip in hand, not hurrying to take it to the counter. Sometimes she sits for a long time with the token for withdrawal or leisurely counts the money. Counting over, she keeps sitting, scribbling names, phone numbers in a tiny note book.
One day, right in the middle of her scribbling in the note book, a man asked for her pen. As she handed him the pen without a thought, the man behaved strangely; his face did not change in thankfulness, not even in a dim flicker of a half-smile as he took the pen. He was soon engrossed on a long sheet of paper – a form, Deepa guessed – that he held on the back of a plastic bag on his lap. He looked absolutely at ease filling in the columns slowly and carefully with rapt attention as though completing the form was all that mattered to him in life.
Sitting next to him nothing to do, Deepa felt that she was lapsing into a state of indolence. After a while she looked up to see the man still engrossed in his work, he had just finished page one and was turning it over to start on the reverse. It was around that time that a sudden thought shook her: wasn’t the man behaving too oddly, like none other than… her lover, or, puzzling of all, wasn’t she herself behaving strangely too, like she was his girl? Isn’t it someone you know and depend and count on that you ask for a pen to write in such great peace of mind! And curious of all, Deepa was waiting full of patience as if she took him for what he was to be!
When at last the man returned the pen, her hand reaching for it touched his hand as far as the wrist. It was then that she noticed he was huge, his complexion dark as though nearly baked.
Was it this man, Deepa wondered, who hovered about her during her fantasy trips to Ramna Park when she was in search for shaded trees and the cool air! Someone so big and hulking! Was it him who gave her chocolate or ice cream! Thinking it over and over, she found it as dull and tedious as the rest of her midday thoughts.
But one day she was utterly surprised to see the man right in front of her, his head bent over the low glass divider at the reception counter, a fat wheat-coloured envelope in his hand. She recognised him right away; but not a tiny blip crossed his eyes as he passed the envelope through the small opening at the bottom of the divider.
Receiving the envelope her fingers touched his.
The man stood unmoved looking absentminded despite the touch. Deepa wondered, if she should tell him he was no stranger to her, that she had met him the other day at the bank where he asked for her pen. But she chose not to, thinking he might still not recognise her, or perhaps he would be too surprised to hear about it, or who could say, might even ask her a few questions to verify her claim. He might ask her, as a proof of familiarity, to tell him his name, perhaps his wife’s name too, or how many children he had, or where he hailed from. However comical her thoughts seemed to her, Deepa suddenly shriveled at the possibility. Did he have a wife? Children too?
In a moment she looked at the possibility realistically, and was able to bring herself to believe that everyone had a right to a wife or a husband, perhaps children too. As for herself, she had the reception desk and the long midday.
Taking the envelope, Deepa opened her register to enter the details – name, address … For a moment, she felt as if the heat was not tormenting. From across the glass partition, she heard the man ask,
‘How much for Shambhuganj?’
Deepa lifted her eyes, looked sideways as though unwittingly. Then looking at the address on the envelope, she made sure of what she had just heard; it was Shambhuganj, yes.
The movement of her head had an instant effect on the man. Looking over the glass divider straight into her sweat-drenched eyes, he wanted to know:
‘That’s not a district town’, Deepa struggled to say.
‘We operate only up to the district towns. We have no arrangement for outstations’.
‘Ours is a limited network’, Deepa sounded apologetic.
‘That’s crazy. Don’t you claim your service is country-wide?’
Deepa saw that the man was getting irritated which, she feared, might soon flare up into a rage. Suddenly she was frightened, and with nothing to calm him down, nothing at all to soothe the tired and irritated look on his broad, dark face she kept staring at him looking in the eye as thoughwanting to say, wasn’t it me who gave you the pen!
He didn’t burst into a rage. Was it her stare, cowered and dumb with fear or a sense of total helplessness visibly etched on her face that had a mellowing effect, Deepa couldn’t tell. He took back the envelope and muttered something under his breath.
Relieved, she looked up to see he was wearing a light grey shirt which wet from profuse sweating, inseparably stuck to the fleshy bumps on his chest and shoulders. There was a thin moustache on his upper lip, and his face stubbly from at least two days of unshaven beard looked strangely tender.
He moved away to reach the door with hurried thuds. Out on the footpath, barely a couple of yards from the door, he stopped and turned to look back as though absentmindedly. From his looks right at that moment, Deepa could tell he was caught by surprise. For, turning back, all he had to see was Deepa looking at him in an unblinking gaze through the glass divider.
After a couple of days Deepa had a feeling that the incident had never actually happened. Although there was nothing remarkable about it, she was absolutely convinced that she had imagined it by way of a respite from her midday tedium.
In a few days, the incident got jumbled up with the rest of her thoughts. The heat in the two-room office left her half awake, the counting of her fingers went, and the disjointed thoughts flitted about as usual, playing with her, churning her brain as they wished. Amid all the chaos she found the hulking man in light grey shirt standing right in front, his head bent over the low glass divider, and his face dotted with deep dark stubble looking eager and expectant. Hands empty, rid of the wheat-coloured envelope, he looked at her in a searching gaze as though her face looked familiar but he was not readily able to place it. Deepa watched him as he kept on gazing at her searching, and soon as though it were a crack on his taut, sun-baked face, she noticed a sudden beam flash across his cheeks. ‘Didn’t you give me your pen?’ he asked quizzically. ‘Didn’t you?’ he repeated. Convinced that he was being absolutely correct he added, ‘Did I return that? I’m so forgetful’. He paused briefly surveying her face a bit more closely, and then went on, ‘Want to know what that paper was about?’ Deepa waited eager to hear. He said, ‘That was a life insurance claim – my wife’s, she died. Did I return the pen? Never mind, I’ll have one for you as a present, a nice pen … and what will you write with that? Not address, not product name, not…’ The man didn’t spare her a moment and was soon lost – his face as hazy as ever.
Coming for his short visit to the Courier one afternoon, Sohrab Hossain exploded, ‘Is this country a desert or what!’ Deepa pricked up her ears to listen if he was mentioning the air conditioner again. Sohrab Hossain gasped and said, ‘It’s terrible in this heat, difficult to survive’ – his voice choking and lifeless.
Having finished the accounts with Shadhon Babu, he said to Deepa, ‘Let’s go’. Deepa looked vacant, not quite certain she heard him right. Leaving the door, Sohrab Hossain stepped on to the footpath, and suddenly turned round to look back – just like the man the other day. Deepa was struck by the similarity. A ritual match, she thought. She felt baffled to think that the incident few days back was not one she had imagined. It was real, unmistakably real.
‘What’s up, quick’, Sohrab Hossain called out.
Sitting behind the glass divider, Deepa was jolted awake as if from deep sleep. Soon, she was in her full alert. She got up to follow the waiting man, thinking what the noon tomorrow would be like. She would like it to be long.
Translated from the Bangla by the author