By Daniel Emlyn-Jones
His mother uttered a blessing, just as she had done when he was a child drifting into sleep, and then she hung up the telephone, her voice disappearing across the two-and-a-half- thousand-mile gulf that separated them.
Biplab gazed down into the starless sky reflected in the Kematian Water Way, a black mouth lined with the glimmering reflections of towering apartment blocks, and pressed his thumb into one of several gashes on the back of his hand. Ahmed Chowdury had been bothering her about the dowry again, and for the first time he'd slapped the old woman around her face.
"Send the money quickly," she'd pleaded. He dug his thumb further into the wound, adding to each surge of pain until the scab broke and a drop of blood oozed out and sat like a jewel on his skin. How could he tell her that there was no money? That the agency in Bangladesh that had taken her life savings in exchange for a lucrative job for him doing construction work in Singapore had cheated them? How could he tell her that it would take him years working in Singapore just to earn back the agency's fee, let alone pay for the dowry?
If his father had been alive, he would have known. The saccharin smile of the agency man from the city would have sagged under his leonine stare. Biplab cringed as he remembered his own behaviour with the man, handing over the money like an excited puppy; deceiving him must have been easy as plucking a mangosteen. His father wouldn't have been fooled by Chowdury either. Biplab's sister Jamila was very beautiful, with the fair skin of a caste far above her own. Like an improbable scene from some Bollywood movie, Chowdury had spotted her one afternoon shopping for cheap rice in the city market. He'd kissed her hand as if she were a Rani, extolling her beauty with fancy words, and feeding her with sweet laddoos. She'd blush and giggle at the handsome clown, whose true nature and intention lay well concealed. A few weeks later Chowdury's mother sat in their small and dingy one room flat like a dowager empress graciously braving a pig sty, and the marriage was arranged. Biplab asked her about the dowry, but she waved her gold-ring-cluttered hand dismissively, as if such paltry details were not worthy of discussion.
After the wedding, honey turned to poison. Chowdury complained that Jamila refused to submit to him in the marriage bed, his mother berated her insolence, and an outrageous dowry was demanded. Biplab knew what cruel husbands could do to brides whose dowries went unpaid; he'd seen photographs in newspapers. He'd heard stories. He pictured Jamila's face scarred by acid, eyes pleading from between plaques of contorted flesh, and jabbed his thumb into another of the wounds on his hand, pressing harder and harder until pain obliterated everything but itself. The Kematian Water Way fell away chasm-like from the bank where he crouched, as deep as the sky was high, and he imagined falling into it, down and down, on and on forever; enveloped by the darkness as by a thick shroud that lulled him into everlasting sleep. A creature stirred on the water, sending ripples across the surface and breaking the illusion.
Slowly, he heaved himself to his feet and returned to the lamp lit path which wound through regimented verdure alongside the water. At three o'clock in the morning it was utterly deserted.
As he neared the dormitory, he spotted a figure leaning against a tree, and from the limp demeanor of a puppet cut from its strings, recognised his friend and fellow construction worker Imran. No greeting was necessary as he slumped against the tree next to him.
"Can't sleep?" Imran was sucking the last morsel from the stub of a cigarette.
Biplab told him the news from home, and the man flicked the stub to the ground and grunted sympathetically.
"I want to go home," said Biplab, the five words gushing like vomit from an aching belly.
Imran shook his head. "Everyone wants to go home, but few of us can. You'd lose everything. You wouldn't be able to pay for the dowry, or for food, or for clothes, and your mother would die in the gutter."
"At least I could die with her."
"Don't be stupid!" Fear flashed across Imran's face as he grasped Biplab's shoulder and shook him, as if the words could be dislodged and shaken out. "Why do you always assume the worst? See it from Chowdury's perspective. If the jerk likes your sister's looks he won't be quick to damage them will he? He can't show off his pretty little Brahmin if she's all cut up can he? And the idiot knows that if he gets a reputation for bullying poor old woman like your mother, he won't get another wife so easily."
"In Sha' Allah," whispered Biplab.
Imran's hand went down to Biplab's, and he turned the scars on the back into the pall of light from the nearby city. "There are new ones. You're doing it again! Don't you realise that if they get infected you won't be able to work?"
Biplab didn't know how to explain to Imran something he didn't understand himself. His father had given him the penknife when he came of age, and he'd draw the blade across the back of his hand, the red lines beading with blood freed to gather and fall to the ground like tears.
Imran's gaze then went from Biplab's hand to his arms, and he pinched the scrawny biceps and swore. "You're getting thinner and thinner! Why don't you eat properly? You think starving will help anyone?"
Biplab feebly shrugged him off, but didn't have the energy for any further resistance. He'd caught sight of himself in the mirror the week before, and knew he should eat more. The problem was he had no appetite, and when he forced himself, usually at Imran's instigation, he just brought it back up.
"You're behaving like an idiot." Imran waved his hands dismissively. "Anyway, you think you're the only one with problems?"
"How's your mother?" Biplab asked. She had a heart condition, and Imran regularly sent money home to pay her medical bills.
"Worse. Hospital again, and I have no more money. My sister's trying to borrow some from my uncle, but he's being a stingy ass-hole. Some stupid argument they had a hundred years ago. My sister complains and complains that she can't cope by herself, but if I go home to help, they don't get the money. What does she want me to do? Chop myself in half?" He kicked the trunk they were leaning against as if it were the tree's fault, and then chuckled. "At least that way they'd get a good meal."
The following morning shortly after dawn, Biplab sat on a truck bound for the Penglog work-site, together with eleven other men. The dormitory lay in a suburb near the island's coast. Penglog lay in the heart of the city. Before turning into one of the main arterial roads to the city center, they passed over the estuarine Sungei Kematian, and Biplab looked out at the tranquil silhouette of jungle across the mirror of water, a wild area still undevoured by the expanding city, and imagined the myriad paths and clearings, crevices and hiding places there. He and his family had once lived in the countryside, in a village near the Bangladesh coast. He helped his father tend a small plot of land, while his mother and sister kept a modest house. By itself the plot never quite fed them all, but they could catch fish, crabs and shrimps from the sea, and they and their neighbors shared what little they had.
Then one year there came a monsoon more terrible than any that had come before. The sea rose and consumed the land, trees were wrenched from the ground, crops decimated and houses pulverized. Even the brick community-built mosque whose minaret had for decades dominated the village skyline, was transformed into a battered pile of rubble. Following his father's orders, Biplab fled with his mother and sister to an area of higher ground outside the village, while his father stayed to try and rescue his brother's family, who were stranded on a rooftop slowly disappearing beneath the rising waters: they had all been drowned. With mourning a luxury they could not afford, Biplab quickly headed to the city with his mother and sister in search of better fortune, but there, hundreds vied for a single job, hunger drove numberless people to madness, and their neighbours couldn't have cared if they lived or died (probably the latter because then at least their meagre possessions could have been stolen).
With a jolt the truck arrived at Penglog. Biplab slowly heaved himself out, donned safety gear, and began the descent to the worksite. The site lay beneath street level in the bowels of a giant skyscraper, and consisted of a large cavernous space three storeys deep. Scaffolding covered the walls, and into the floor a team of workmen was in the process of pouring a large volume of liquid cement. Biplab was sent to work on a scaffolding platform some ten meters above, driving rivets into steel girders.
The lightheadedness struck about 15 minutes into his shift. He lurched backwards and dropped the rivet driver, which fell over the edge of the scaffolding platform on which he was standing, twanging off some poles before falling with a splat into the large expanse of wet cement beneath. The foreman shouted and ran to him. He spun on the platform, trying to regain his balance, and made a lunge for a piece of rope hanging from some higher level. He missed it, and fell screaming into the expanse of cement beneath. He was by nature a strong swimmer, who as a teenager could outswim nearly all the other boys in his village, but he had grown weak, and in the cement each stroke dragged him down. He tried to breathe, but his mouth quickly filled with the clotting liquid.
He was back in his village before the great monsoon, standing on the beach facing the sea, his feet embedded in the soft sand, gently foaming sheets of water lapping at his ankles. Dusk was approaching and everything was luminous in flames of red, pink and crimson which filled the sky. Over the breeze came the call to prayer, and it was as if the cries of the azan, "Allah Hu Akbar! Allah Hu Akbar!", and the immensity of the sky were one. He turned and ran back through fields and orchards, swiping branches from his face, animals scurrying from his path, and as he neared home, he caught site of his father waiting for him outside the door of their house.
The removal of a corpse did little to disrupt the timely completion of the Penglog MRT station. Over the place where Biplab passed from this world thousands of feet now hurry, and on the wall above his first grave is a poster advertising a special engagement diamond, cut with extra facets for maximum sparkle.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014