Anyone who accidentally touches Alef’s hands says they are feminine, making the boys in the madrasa—who have never touched the hands of any woman, except for their mothers or sisters—curious. The boys invite Alef to play a game with them—led by seventeen-year-old Qaf, who wants to be the first to touch Alef’s hands.
Alef is fourteen, a quiet boy with a thick underlip that often troubles his speech. When he speaks, he sounds as though he’s fatigued. He says, Why, I…I don’t want to play a game, boys! You f-f-f-find s-ss-s-omeone else.
Qaf chuckles, making the other boys chuckle—Ra, Dal and Ta, who like to be shepherded by a big-boned boy like Qaf.
Why! Why! You think we are ugly? says Qaf, raising his voice, still chuckling.
No! I-I don’t know how to play this game, boys. I s-ss-swear to Allah!
It’s easy! You become the kanamachi, says Ra.
We just cover your eyes, says Ta.
You just try to catch us, says Dal.
When they blindfold Alef for the first round of kanamachi, asking him to roll up his sleeves, which are long and tightened at the wrist with snap buttons so that his forearms and elbows are not inadvertently exposed, Alef utters a few noes to express his frustrations with the corrupt nature of the game. Qaf-Ra-Dal-Ta buzz around him, their ‘it.’ They chant: Kanamachi bho bho. Blindly, Alef darts around to catch his Touchers.
Alef hopes the Maghrib prayer would soon blare in loudspeakers, ending their game. But the afternoon recess is long in summer and, despite several warnings from Himself, their senior teacher, a dark man in his fifties, the boys play till the last words of the azan reverberate through the prayer hall. He spins like a top, alarmed at the hands groping his hands, shoulders, and arms. The boys jostle him. And when he says—Oh, you, you! W-why don’t you b-b-boys l-l-leave me alone?—in a strident tone, Qaf persuades him to continue. He says how lucky Alef must feel to be invited, how lucky they are to play a game that requires ample space, how long and stretched out the prayer hall is, though not an open field (where boys usually play such games), enough for play and study. Alef finds himself cornered.
Ca-caught you! stutters Alef, holding one of his Toucher’s wrists.
No, it doesn’t work that way, says Qaf. Tell us who!
W-w-why? It isn’t fair, protests Alef. I—I don’t know y-your names.
Qaf tsks, See! He thinks we’re ugly! He doesn’t even know our names!
The other boys who’ve already touched Alef multiple times laugh in unison.
Now frightened, Alef says, Le-l-l-et me go, boys! You hear? I don’t want to play.
We will, okay? barks Qaf. But le-l-et me see your hands first. I hear they are soft like a girl’s! He talks in the voice of a proud bully, mimicking Alef’s stutter. Then, without needing any consent, like a force that tolerates no resistance, Qaf examines Alef’s hands, even though, to his dismay, they feel neither soft nor rough.
Leave him alone! says a voice from the other end of the prayer hall. A sturdy figure, Jim, confronts Qaf. The boys, remembering a history of defeat, disperse quickly, calling Jim ‘motherchod’ from a safe distance.
Alef is destined to strive for heaven. His parents wanted one boy in the family to be an expert in Islamic theology. With a brother two years older than him—and in a regular school—he had no choice but to go to a residential madrasa in Dhaka and take the Quran to his breast, that is, memorize its six thousand two hundred and thirty-six verses, so his parents would be granted a place in heaven for raising a boy in a righteous way—a hafiz or memorizer of the Quran.
During vacations when he is reunited with his family, his elder brother talks about TV shows and films running on the only national channel they have access to. The channel ran Sinbad or Tarzan, dubbed in Bangla. There are dubbed Hollywood films—dubbed in Bangla and Hindi—that his brother has also watched on a VCR with his schoolmates: Terminator, Indiana Jones, Titanic. Alef hasn’t heard about any of them. Notwithstanding his keen interest in foreign films, he rivals his brother with fantastical stories of heaven that he has heard from his teachers. He talks about eternally flowing milk-rivers, transparent silk garments, lush, colorful carpets stretching across the infinite Abode on which walk people of faith and yes, you’ll know some of them (families will be reunited thanks to Allah)—only to discover his brother is half-listening. And when TV shows start in the evening, Alef is left alone. He is not allowed to watch TV as his teachers instructed his parents. It is only when he tells his brother—you will no longer be older than me in heaven because we will be equal in age—that Alef is stopped: You’re lying! No way you’ll be older than me in heaven.
Bullied, Alef has trouble sleeping that night. He wishes to go to heaven where he will be eternally happy and adult. He wraps himself with his blanket and lies silently on the coir-filled mattress. Inside mosquito nets, the students whisper and giggle, talk about cricket and vacation, cinemas and porn magazines. The boy on his right, who is three years older than him, asks Alef if he has any pretty cousins. With silence as a response, he drones on about his own cousins, all married before they could pass the board exam.
When their whispers turn into a sort of conversation—as students go gaga over the national cricket team beating Pakistan for the first time in World Cup 1999—Himself’s cane crashes at the bantering students’ feet, hushing them immediately, reminding them of Himself’s authoritarianism that doesn’t indulge any whispering after ten o’clock. A stony silence falls over the dormitory as students close their eyes, pretending to sleep.
The blaring of the azan awakens Alef at dawn. He is late and dreamy. The dormitory is nearly empty. Students have already rolled up their beds. Some are now tottering around the Ablution Room, yawning and pressing their eyes. Unsteady and with his arms crossed, Alef enters the Ablution Room—dimly lit. When students hurry out of the Ablution room to perform the morning prayer, Alef discovers himself alone with Jim, his rescuer from the day before.
Alef rolls up his sleeves and washes his hands. And he does it three times, with a dreamy reluctance, the cold water reminding him of some unnamed feeling, something verging on nausea. When he’s halfway through his ablution, washing his face and wiping his head as though he were combing his hair, Jim sits beside him. He turns on the faucet and washes his feet. Water gurgles and runs down the narrow drain.
After much hesitation, Jim says: When they touched your hands yesterday, they—they didn’t know what they were doing. Those fuckers! Jim’s face tightens in rage.
Alef glances at him, unsure what he means. He feels choked and starts crying. Do-don’t talk about it. Else—
Else what? You’d have been in trouble if I wasn’t there! Jim says. Now he doesn’t hide his rage.
Alef, looking down at the water running towards an abyss, wonders why Jim is enraged. He can’t find a reason and suddenly thinks of what he should do if someone comes in. He washes his feet and turns off the faucet.
I’m sorry, Alef! says Jim, his voice trembling. I didn’t mean to hurt you.
Alef sobs and mops his eyes with the backs of his hands. And he sits there, turns on the faucet again, washes his hands, wipes his head. Twice. The ritual eases an inner conflict that he’s already learned to deny. Jim waits, acknowledging his mistake, wanting Alef to accept his presence. And when students pray and the imam chants Guide us along the Straight Path, Jim kisses Alef on his cheeks, wiping his tears with one hand. Then they both cry, holding each other’s hands.
When they join the Fajr prayer halfway, the imam says: The Path of those You have blessed—not those You are displeased with, or those who have gone astray. They listen silently, locking their arms, prostrating before Allah.
The madrasa in Dhaka is a two-story building resembling the letter L. The second floor houses a prayer hall and a dormitory, toilets, Ablution Room, and a kitchen. The first floor is a large horizontal prayer hall, used as a mosque, only accessible to people coming from outside. The exit is gated and guarded. A mustachioed man sleeps in a choky hardboard room flanked by the stairwell. Like a soldier ant, he stands diligently when students go outside after showing a signed note from Himself, the senior teacher. He makes sure that the students are not up to any foul business such as not returning to the madrasa.
Jim tells Alef that he will wait at the railway station during the Friday afternoon recess. But to leave the madrasa premises is to be in Himself’s favor. Every day, Alef memorizes half a page of the Quran, so for him and the others memorizing the Quranic verses faster, it’s not difficult to get Himself’s permission to go out once a week. Of course, that has to happen in the late afternoon. After the Asar prayer.
Alef manages to leave the madrasa premises the next day. Clad in panjabi and toopi, he is different from the boys of his age playing marbles and hoopla by the railway track. They spin their yo-yos, eyeing Alef with idle curiosity.
Trying to run away?
Alef looks over his shoulder to see Jim smiling at him. He feels so happy to see Jim that he can’t form his thoughts.
Just kidding. If someone would want to run away, it wouldn’t be you!
The sky is clear after the rain. They both walk along the tracks, soon leaving the platform and the boys with yo-yos behind. Old, rusted wagons flank the track on one side. Shacks–made of bamboo and plastic sheets–of homeless people on the other.
When Jim tells Alef that he faked Himself’s signature to leave the madrasa as he’s already used up his weekly quota, Alef rebukes him. He says, Why would you do that? It isn’t right!
Isn’t right? retorts Jim. Boys like us, don’t we need to breathe fresh air?
Alef holds his hand when they hurry past the shacks teeming with naked children and bickering women.
As to his fear, Alef says, But he will b-b-beat you! He f-f-flogs everyone going outside with no permission.
I’m not telling you any lies. Everyone knows how to fake his signature but you! I’ll show you how to do it. Now you want to see something?
Alef feels a tug on his hand. You’re g-g-oing to show me a yo-yo? Alef’s face lights up. Jim, looking up at his face, smiles broadly. Sheer curiosity runs through Alef.
They walk behind abandoned wagons that screen them from lollygaggers on the railway track. Jim unbuttons his panjabi and pulls at something inside. Alef, though his excitement for a yo-yo fizzles out, gapes when he sees the Rupa tank top, a Western garment, forbidden for madrasa students!
He tries to warn Jim—T-t-they will find you! Himself will s-sss-s-oon know. Jim spurns his fear, saying he likes to wear things denied to him. Saying he bought it last week and has worn it for this occasion. For Alef.
When twilight stills the land, they enter an abandoned wagon, choked with scraps of vegetables and old newspapers. A freight train whistles away from the city. Nothing comes to Alef’s mind. His brother told him how adults get intimate in movies, whisper to each other. To be able to speak like that, to choose words that carry secret emotions is to cross a line of boyhood. He fears he will lose that moment forever, just like a seashore submerged in high tide—in his dream. Yet something surges in his heart. He gently says, You’re s-s-s-o pretty! Jim laughs and says, I was going to say something like that to you! He leans forward and reciprocates the compliment with a kiss. They both roll over, Jim trying to bite Alef on the knees. He shapes a quiff with Alef’s hair, imitating the style from a Bollywood actor. Alef feels the warmth of Jim’s hands on his head and face. He nibbles at Jim’s shoulder until they hug and kiss each other, neither of them wishing to disengage.
Alef looks for pointers in his memory. In the history of such feelings. In scripture, in his upbringing. Failing, he thinks of vineyards and their soft-glowing fruits, of milky rivers on whose banks wait not voluptuous, full-breasted women but a fine young boy. So when Jim whispers, ‘Heaven,’ Alef can recognize what he means.
The following day, Alef eats his breakfast early. Puffed rice with treacle. His father didn’t send any money last week, nor did he call him on the madrasa landline, which is the only way to talk to his parents. He ran out of money, out of bananas. He munches puffed rice, watching boys eat dried cakes with bananas, mango mash, and grapes. He sleeps for an hour after breakfast. The memorization of the Quran resumes afterwards and runs until the Zohar prayer. During this session, Alef chants previous pages he’s already memorized. Himself listens to him with closed eyes. When Alef forgets or skips any verses, Himself beats with a cane on Alef’s outstretched palms and sometimes his shoulders and thighs. It is only after the Zohar prayer, when he gives his lunch pail to the cook who fills it up with dal, rice, and a fish head, that he gets to see Jim again.
Fear of losing happiness propels them to be inventive. During shower time, Alef waits longer. Even though he finishes washing his clothes, he waits for other students to leave the communal bathroom. He fills up his bucket with water, adds detergent, submerges the already washed clothes, and then rinses and wrings them under the faucet, waiting for Jim to enter the bathroom. Within a week, students in the madrasa learn that they both spend more time in the bathroom, that they make bubbles and coo at each other for hours, that they play heaven!
But heaven is an expansive, immersive idea. Boys of holy alphabets, caned daily by Himself, long for each other, interpret heaven in their own ways, except for Qaf who tells Himself about the sickness that Alef’s hands have inflicted upon the boys.
Himself concludes that boys in the madrasa may have accidentally developed forbidden thoughts about Alef. He warns everyone that they may have magnified Alef’s physique in their minds and seen him as the opposite sex. He teaches them that girls should only be married when men reach their permissible age–when their parents or guardians think it’s appropriate to marry a girl.
One night Himself flogs Alef, asks him how he corrupted boys with heaven.
I-I d-ddd-didn’t do anything to anyone! sobs Alef.
Boys feel heaven in your hands! he barks.
I d-dd-idn’t do anything!
In real heaven, you’ll see the marrow of their bones. Pretty, transparent women they are! White as milk!
Don’t you think they’ve got better hands than you? Don’t you want to touch those hands?
Then as though he hears what is in Alef’s heart, he replies to his own questions: Then fear not! Preach heaven as I tell you. The heaven in your heart, the heaven in everyone’s heart. Now cover your hands.
Alef accepts a special punishment. He squats down and tucks his arms through his legs, trying to touch his ears with his hands. His face accumulates blood. Once again Himself flogs him on the haunches. Alef screams and sags down. Himself gathers all the boys around. He asks them to observe Islamic propriety by not looking at Alef’s hands that have allowed forbidden thoughts in their hearts.
Master! protests Qaf, one must be allowed to speak openly in order to make sure we are not ruled by tyrants.
Himself looks disturbed. When have I allowed you to speak, boy, eh?
But allow me a few words, for the sake of our nation, our qawm, Qaf says. Have I not studied under you for six full years? Have you not taught me that in matters of our religion—which is just and democratic in nature, which should undoubtedly be the only religion of all nations and races, especially in such a dark age as ours—that in matters of religion even the younger can correct the elder? Especially if the elder appears to be slack in terms of Islamic laws and standards?
Boy, you’re too young to talk like that! Himself says, frowning. Have I not decreed that Alef must hide his hands, so this heaven thing that is going on here, that is unnaturally corrupting you boys, is stopped? Have I not done enough to root out this sickness? Can even Allah make me responsible on Judgment Day that I’ve lowered my standards?
Qaf titters. Boys in his gang, who are older like him and could never finish memorizing all hundred and fourteen chapters of the Quran, and hence have been living in the madrasa since their early childhood, titter, too. For the first time, Himself comes off unsure about his judgment. Go on, you wise guy! he says. Speak for yourself if you find me unjust. That I allowed a youngling to raise his voice over his elder—let Allah be a witness.
It’s not brash of me to examine what you said earlier, master. Qaf says with much gravity and confidence, as though afflicted with the dream of an impossible religious purity. Root out this sickness, you said. But what are we rooting out exactly? Are we actually doing anything at all? Or has the Age become so Dark that in order to observe an Islamic law we resort to metaphors and allegories? Why, when the law says for committing a theft, the thief’s hands must be chopped off, what does it really imply when one turns the pages of the hadith? Does it say metaphorically cutting hands, so this corruption in a society, this stealing should disappear overnight? Are Islamic laws so weak? No, you can’t have faith in a just and democratic religion such as ours unless you obey its laws to a fullest extent, that is without metaphors and allegories, sir.
What are you suggesting, boy? says Himself, now a bit anxious.
Yes, the person in focus, hereby known as Alef, got ass-flogged! But he committed other sins as well!
Such as? Himself barks at Qaf.
Didn’t the person in focus wear the kind of undershirt, for example, that Pig-Lovers and Pig-Eaters of America and Europe wear? Didn’t he commit sins like this, and has been continuing to corrupt our boys, for which he wasn’t duly punished?
Himself looks offended by a conclave of Alef’s sins he’s unaware of.
Qaf continues, What about his fellow sinner, the Eternal Bully, hereby known as Jim, who is at the forefront of this corruption, who fakes your signature to go out with the person in focus, hereby known as Alef, and do Allah-knows-what? Should they be allowed to bathe together? Should they be wearing tank tops? Shouldn’t their hearts be corrected?
Jim enters the prayer hall, in his pajamas and undershirt only. His face flushes with anger as he speaks. Sir-master and hujur-ji, he says, if anyone is to be punished here, it’s this loudmouth! He and his minions know what they did to Alef. Did you ever ask him about what Alef had gone through during his first week in the madrasa?
Himself looks puzzled.
Qaf’s gang, who teased Alef and wanted to touch his hands during the kanamachi game, hangs their heads down. A frisson of alarm arises in Alef’s mind. The alarm turns into mild anger as he realizes that Jim’s talking about him being bullied by Qaf and his gang will possibly worsen his situation. A harsher punishment? Now he assumes a brooding face.
A still puzzled Himself says, What, boy? Did anyone try to pick on you? with that he gives Alef a sharp look.
Oh. It-it’s j-j-just—
If you don’t, let me talk about it. As Jim tells Himself about Qaf’s molestation, Alef sobs and rubs his eyes with the back of his hands.
The judgment getting complicated, Himself feels hemmed in and even slightly embarrassed. Qaf tries to mumble something in protest—Himself hushes him this time.
The prayer hall is empty. Students have been asked not to loiter. But Alef knows Qaf and his gang—despite getting beaten by Himself, as Jim demanded—are around. Possibly more students are here, too. Curtains are drawn, blocking his view. Only Jim is in the other side of the hall, leaning against a pillar.
What turmoil Alef has been through! He surely is a fool, he thinks, to get involved in all this. What would his parents think if they find out? Himself is kind not to tell them about their son going astray. He accepted his punishment. In fact, a lingering pain has numbed his feelings since he was flogged. He offered his hands, palms up, and Himself’s striped cane singed his skin. Jim had to endure a harsher punishment. He was flogged in his haunches, his eyes closed. Himself’s cane swished and hissed so loudly that other students, who were chanting the Quran, raised their reading volume, so the flogging appeared less harsh. It pleased Himself that the beating he was doling out helped students concentrate more on their memorization.
Now Himself comes to the prayer hall, a white figure in a long tunic covering his legs. Alef whiffs a pungent smell of attar. Purity in the air.
Ready, eh? Himself asks in a rather mellow tone.
After prostrating twice before some emptiness, Himself bunches his palms and chants the Quranic verses on heaven.
Gardens beneath which rivers flow, says Himself.
Alef repeats the same Arabic words, so does Jim.
And with them will be maidens of modest gaze and gorgeous eyes, sings Himself, pausing for the students to repeat the same.
When students don’t copy him, he screeches: One of them will say, I once had a companion in the world, who used to ask me, Do you actually believe in resurrection?
Still not hearing any repetition, Himself taps his palm with a finger. Miffed, he cannot look behind to see what his students are up to, for it’s not allowed for an imam to look over his shoulder when he’s leading a prayer. No sound from his guidance-seekers! Not even from Alef who, Himself believes, is gentle and acquiescent. He will come up with a new punishment after this. He will force them to crawl before him: their noses touching the floor. He will let their noses bleed!
Laughter! Alef hears it coming from his companion—as though the whole prayer was a risible affair. When Jim’s laughter turns into a cackle, Alef joins him, confounding Himself. So much so that Himself forgets to continue his prayer. As both boys hold each other’s hands and walk out of the hall, Himself prays alone for a heaven that has lost its appeal to his students.
Interview with Mir Arif
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Mir Arif: I had so many beginnings. I wanted to be a writer when I was in elementary school. I wrote stories and parts of a novel in Bengali when I was in high school. I used to hide my writing in an old fashioned trunk. Then I went to Dhaka University and studied International Relations. But my heart was in literature. I postponed my study for two years and did some traveling and reading. At that time I mostly read literature in English / English translation, although growing up I read Harry Potter and some other texts in English. There was a man in the dorm I stayed in Dhaka University, whom I used to call ‘bhai’ and who would later become a professor of English. He encouraged me to read R. K. Narayan. It was an interesting period of my life. I read The Guide and some other short stories by R. K. Narayan. The stories I read felt genuine. I could compare Narayan’s characters with people around me: vendors of tea, girls selling flowers in the street, bookbinders–people who just get by. I felt I too had compelling stories to tell. I wrote a story based on a reclusive student in the dorm, who was determined to go ahead and achieve larger things in life. I wrote about him with an intense passion, in a state of great wonder with the written words and the sheer joy of building narratives. That was the beginning of my writing in English. The story got published in an online outlet. Soon I started a career in journalism, working for two English dailies in Bangladesh. It was during this phase of my life that I took writing seriously and eventually studied Creative Writing in the US.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Mir Arif: I will answer this question a bit differently. I think writers of short fiction need to be aware of their political situation, whether they live in Bangladesh or elsewhere. But the biggest trap is to be obsessed with a political situation and to risk writing propagandas. Obsession with politics limits a writer’s vision. Since the nature of political reality changes–and sometimes changes so quickly–the writer may find their writing irrelevant when a political situation expires. There are other things and topics that are worth exploring and investigating. One such topic is family, which is the genesis of all kinds of complex relationships.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Mir Arif: I would recommend Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin. I’ve read the collection recently and enjoyed its surrealism, authenticity, and surprising plots. One story, “Toward Happy Civilization,” gave me goosebumps. I was so moved by the story, if not moved to tears. The story surprised me with its ending, in the sense that things we expect in life are always here, whatever this here means to us.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Mir Arif: I think I enjoy stories mostly when they offer me something new: it can be experimenting with sentences or form or the way dialogues are written. Or it can be a surprising ending. It depends on what I’m reading, who I’m reading. I like to read writers like V. S. Naipaul, Toni Morrison, or George Saunders because they are consistent with their style. Also, I like interiority, the way complex thoughts are presented about characters or the narrator, something fiction is good at compared to movies.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Mir Arif: Writing gave me new ways of looking at things. It has made me more patient, observant, and generous.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Mir Arif: I’m working on a novel that deals with a few things: blogging, journalism, sex work, the role of an artist in a challenging environment. These are some of the topics that I dealt with while working in Bangladesh. With perspectives I found through my study of literary works in the US, I wanted to explore these topics and ideas in the space of a novel. I’m excited to finish it and find a publisher.