I am in love with the most beautiful woman in the world, Rose, an English writer I met in London only two months ago, and I intend to marry her when I get my life in order. But Rose is so far above my ideal that I lied to her. I told her that I had found an apartment for the two of us, on the right banks of Paris, in a charming Haussmanian building. With all the comforts one can dream of, a keeper, an American kitchen.
« I found a job at Le Monde. It’s the most famous newspaper in France. You’ll love our future apartment« . I feel terrible, but I had no choice than to lie to her. What, Rose, staying in a relationship with a parasite like me? That girl deserves so much better. I glance at the moisture-infested walls of the room. The wallpaper is falling apart. Tears start to well up in my eyes.
A miracle, I need a miracle.
Then my phone rings. My hands are sweaty, my phone slips and falls on the dirty carpet. I dive like an eagle to catch it.
— I’ve been trying to reach you for a few days. I left you a message… I’m the editor in chief of Le Monde week-end. I would like to propose something to you…
I stammered out some cordial greetings, and unable to get a syllable out, I waited for my interlocutor to speak again.
— Listen, I’m not going to beat about the bush. I liked your papers. We are looking for a regular employee. Of course, the pay will be commensurate with your experience, but I think we could get along. Are you still looking for a permanent job as a journalist?
— Yes, I said, and my face took on a crimson hue. I took a deep breath:
— I’m very interested in your offer. How is the recruitment process going?
A small piece of plaster from the ceiling came off and fell into my wine glass. I stared at it, waiting for the editor’s answer with mixed anxiety and joy.
— Because of the pandemic, we will only ask one thing of you. We want an original paper from you, on a subject we haven’t covered so far in the Le Monde supplement. History, society, politics… You choose. You are Indian right ?
— I am French.
— But your first name, Sukanta, is…
— My family lives in Bangladesh. I emigrated for my studies and I never went back.
— Bangladesh… That’s interesting. The recruitment committee might like that. It’s a country we don’t hear much about, and I don’t think Le Monde weekend has ever published a report or a paper on the subject. Do you know anything about it?
I swallowed my saliva and made a swallowing noise. I prayed that my interlocutor had not guessed anything about my discomfort at the other end of the line.
— Of course I do. That is to say… As you wish.
We talked for a few more minutes about the practicalities of the job. Everything seemed fine and I hung up the phone, certain that I had landed the job I had wanted for years. Suddenly I remembered that I had just promised the editor a story on Bangladesh.
My unease about the country dates back to the 2000s, when I emigrated. I cut off links to my entire family. I had an unhappy childhood, my mother had been dead for four years when I left and I didn’t feel close to my father. I had no brothers and sisters. The only person I missed was my grandmother. She had still managed to sneak a phone call to me when I was in my early twenties and three years ago again. I smiled as I thought of the old woman, wrapped in her silver shawl, who always laughed when I got into mischief as a child. I missed her.
I sighed. No need to call Rose to tell her the good news. She already thought I was working for Le Monde. It would take a second miracle for me to find a sudden inspiration to write about Bangladesh… I worked on it all evening, but not a word came out of my pen. I was desperate. I decided to finish the bottle of rosé, fell asleep and dreamed of my reunion with Rose. When I woke up, I remembered that the editor had given me a week, and I shivered with anxiety. A second piece of the ceiling came loose and fell onto my computer’s inert keyboard. I rubbed my eyes, made myself a strong cup of coffee and drank it while watching the neighbor from the building across the street brazenly undress.
Not only did I no longer have any connection to Bangladesh, but I also no longer spoke Bengali. I had a kind of block when I tried to think in what had once been my mother tongue. It was as if French had chased away my linguistic memories with a bat. If someone had told me as a child that I would forget my language, I wouldn’t have believed it. And yet here I was today, lamenting and trying to revive lost syllables.
Suddenly, as if one miracle followed another like the days of boredom, my phone rang again. I recognized the Bangladesh indicator.
— Your grandmother has passed away.
That was my father.
I didn’t know what to say to him. We had always been distant from each other. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I was surprised that he called me. Of course, I was saddened by the death of my grandmother, whom I had loved, but I found it strange that my father had bothered to get in touch to tell me. He was not a man to give sentiment, and I did not hear him express regret.
— Why are you calling me?
— You are no longer my son. But I had to call you today, because of your grandmother. Her last wish is that you come back to scatter her ashes in the Burigonga. I’m counting on you.
He hung up. I stretched. So there was a God who looked after lost souls like mine. I phoned the editor of Le Monde weekend to tell him that I had to go abroad for a funeral.
— I’m sorry for your loss, he said, and I heard him puffing on a cigarette. I looked out the window. The day was already late, the alcohol had knocked me out and I had gotten up around noon. The light was shining on my desk, and life seemed bright.
— I have to go to Bangladesh.
— That’s fine. That will surely help you. Let’s see… I’ll give you three more days, not one more. Because that’s what you’re calling me for, isn’t it?
He hung up immediately. I got up and sat down again, excited as a dog stung by a wasp. I phoned Rose to tell her I was leaving.
— We’ll be together soon, my dear, I said.
— I know we will. I trust you.
The plane ticket had cost me three quarters of my savings, but I was sure that I would return covered with the laurels of journalism from my journey, with a new job at the end. Rose would finally be mine.
Two days later, I was at Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport in the line of travelers leaving for Dhaka. My dual nationality allowed me to travel without a visa. The plane trip went smoothly, I whistled several glasses of wine, but my joy at the idea of finally being able to offer my girlfriend an apartment worthy of the name prevented me from getting a headache.
I watched the clouds roll by, the plane veered towards the capital of Bangladesh, then finally landed in the city where I had grown up. I sighed. My breath smelled strongly of alcohol, and I remembered that my father had once beaten me as a teenager for drinking bad beer.
When I recognized him at the airport, I was amazed: he had aged a lot. His hair was white, neatly combed. He wore a monocle that didn’t make him look younger, and many wrinkles that I didn’t know existed on his forehead. The Shah Jalal airport in Dhaka was crowded. We hardly spoke at all and always in English. I was dragging my suitcase behind me like a past heavy with reproaches. He opened the door of his car for me without saying a word. During the drive to my old home, I didn’t dare look at him. I was afraid of experiencing what many people carelessly call emotions, but which in my case are overflowing melancholy.
I made an effort to smile at my cousins, uncles and aunts who had come to welcome me. Then I lay down in the room that my father indicated to me. It was not the one I had occupied during my youth. I fell asleep. I hadn’t had time to think about a potential story yet, but no matter… I had just arrived in my old country, and the adventure was just beginning.
The next day, I was enjoying a cup of black tea while my father read the Daily Star with a frown on his face, when he abruptly interrupted his reading and motioned for me to follow him. He led me into the room that served as his office and handed me a varnished urn.
— Now it’s your turn. Only you can scatter them. These are her last wishes and they must be respected.
— Will you accompany me by car to the river?
— You can walk from here. Ask for directions if you don’t remember the streets you grew up on.
I decided to comply and let my tea cool down. I carefully placed the container in my bag and set off across the Bengali capital. I remembered the map of the city and the more I walked, the more memories surfaced in my mind. Near a bus stop, I remembered a young girl in a blue sari and the feel of her slender fingers. A white dog had already been following me for fifteen minutes, when I stopped short of breath. The heat was definitely the same as in my teenage years. The sun was shining in the sky and the air smelled of gasoline and guava.
The Burigonga is one of the most polluted rivers in Bangladesh. Textile factories dump their chemical waste into it and if you look at the water, you will see many plastic bottles. Why on earth did my grandmother choose this cursed river for her last refuge? I was thinking of writing an article about pollution here. Why not? All my ideas for the moment were related to my negative feelings about the country I had left: pollution, squalor, violence against women… Selling topics, right? Not for a moment did I think about writing a paper that would show my former country in its best light.
When I reached the riverbank, I wiped the sweat from my temples and took the ashes. I opened the container, made sure the wind was blowing in the right direction, and set about scattering what was left of my ancestor into the morning air of Dhaka. It should have been a matter of a few moments, but suddenly a heavy blow was delivered to my chest.
I fell backwards, slumped to the ground. The sky swirled over my head like an eagle and I passed out from the pain. When I woke up, it was dark. I looked for the container that had held my grandmother’s ashes, but it was gone, and so was my bag.
I jumped to my feet, stunned, wondering what had happened to me. Everything around me seemed different. Night had fallen, the street vendors had disappeared. I noticed that the textile factory across the Burigonga River from me also seemed to have vanished. What had happened? Had I unknowingly walked to another part of the riverbank?
A young girl suddenly rushed towards me. She was wearing an orange salwar, the color of sacrifice in Hinduism.
— Are you all right? I saw you on the ground. It’s the Pakistani soldiers! They can’t stop hitting students.
— I am not a student.
It was clear to me that this young woman was delusional when she talked about Pakistani soldiers, but I decided to play along so that she would point me in the right direction. She stepped back.
— Are you a soldier? You are not Pakistani, are you?
— I’m Bengali and I’m a journalist, but… Where am I?
— You are in the future independent Bengal. Joy Bangla. She held out her hand, English style, and I took it. She had slender fingers, which reminded me of my former conquest in a blue sari. Except that the young person in front of me reminded me of someone. But who?
— My name is Tasnim, she continued. Tasnim Ahmed.
I recoiled. I understood who the young woman reminded me of.
— You have the same name as my grandmother, I stammered.
She smiled and joked:
— Perhaps I am your grandmother? Follow me, the cohorts of soldiers will soon be leaving the barracks next door, you absolutely have to come with me. We are looking for competent journalists, and I can introduce you to the organizers of the free radio of Dhaka.
— Free Radio… What year is this?
— 1971. Did you hit your head when you fell?
I sighed. I must have had a bad dream. I followed my protector through the city. I noticed that in 1971, the darkness gave much of Dhaka a feverish atmosphere. We passed several Pakistani soldiers with their rifles leaning against walls covered with posters in Urdu. Each time she passed an Urdu poster, my companion stopped, tore it down methodically, and left with a light step. I followed her wordlessly to a fairly spacious townhouse. The white walls were covered with thick vegetation, and many flowers were grown in an inner courtyard. I followed Tasnim, who pointed to a man sitting sideways in an armchair.
— Satish, this is…
— Like the poet?
I suddenly remembered that my grandmother had given me this name in honor of a rebel poet who lived during the English occupation of the country.
— Like the poet, I said, suspiciously, and the stranger named Satish smiled broadly.
— Sukanta Bhattacharya is one of my favorite writers. The restored dignity of the country… What we are trying to achieve… That was his dream. How sad that he died at twenty. That was his dream…
— But he would have appreciated what we are doing for the people, said Tasnim, whom I had forgotten.
She shook her hair back and forth, and I saw that my grandmother, for I was now sure I was dreaming about her, was definitely very pretty. Satish also seemed to hold his breath as he looked at her, and I wondered if he was the grandfather I had never known.
Satish offered me coffee, and told me that he was a journalist. We soon chatted like two old friends, and I forgot both the reason for my coming to Dhaka and the strange event that had set me back fifty years. Tasnim offered me a place to stay with Satish, who accepted his request, and I followed him to a room in the house.
Once alone, I thought about what had just happened to me. I was certainly still dreaming. But who knows if dreams don’t generate inspiration. I decided to let myself go and trust the characters of this historical dream.
I woke up the next morning in a great mood. I was still in 1971, and Tasnim’s smile greeted me in the kitchen of the house. She handed me a piece of hard bread and asked me what my specialty was as a journalist. I lied to her, saying that I did everything.
— We are looking for someone to host a poetry show in ten minutes. Our radio station broadcasts all over Dhaka.
— It’s a radio station…
—… that broadcasts illegally.
— I thought so.
— Do you have good diction?
She turned to a young man in a gray suit.
— Binoy, I have someone for the Sandesh poetry show.
Then she turned back to me again.
— Would you read a poem? Do you know any by heart?
— A poem?
— Yes, I would. Our listeners enjoy the poetry program very much.
— I don’t know much about the Bengali repertoire.
— You don’t know any Bengali poems?
She glared at me and I thought.
— What’s that?
— My grandmother used to read me poems by this young revolutionary… Sukanta Bhattacharya.
— I don’t know him at all. But I can’t wait to hear some.
My name was chosen by my grandmother when I was born. I suddenly wondered if it was because of my coming in 1971 that she had taken a liking to that name.
Tasnim led me to a table with an old microphone. I grabbed it with some disgust. The rebels sitting around me murmured a few cheers in Bengali, then all fell silent. I closed my eyes and summoned all my memories to recite several poems in Bengali. Finally, I recited my late grandmother’s favorite poem:
হে মহাজীবন, আর এ কাব্য নয়
এবার কঠিন, কঠোর গদ্যে আনো,
পদ-লালিত্য-ঝঙ্কার মুছে যাক,
গদ্যের কড়া হাতুড়িকে আজ হানো ।
প্রয়োজন নেই, কবিতার স্নিগ্ধতা,
কবিতা তোমায় দিলাম আজকে ছুটি
ক্ষুধার রাজ্যে পৃথিবী-গদ্যময়:
পূর্ণিমা-চাঁদ যেন ঝলসানো রুটি ।
(Take the poetry away,
We keep the scratched pages of prose
Out of our sight singing couplets,
Let the canon of prose ring out
We don’t care for the poem’s caress
Poetry, you have free quarters today
Under the flags of hunger, the earth feeds only on prose
And the full moon burns like a loaf of bread)
Suddenly, Satish entered the room.
— They are coming. Quickly. Put everything away.
The radio equipment was hidden in the armchairs, which had a lining. I witnessed a bustle of young people I had not met before. The sun was shining in the main room of the house, which served as both a recording and broadcasting room. Once all the machines were hastily hidden, Tasnim went out to the threshold of the house. She returned almost immediately.
— They don’t come this way. You can bring out the equipment.
I watched my new friends come and go all morning. Several Bengali personalities from Dhaka were in the living room recording live programs to give back faith and hope to the Bengalis under the Pakistani yoke. Several times, tears came to my eyes when I saw the enthusiasm of Satish and my grandmother, who had already opened history books and knew the outcome of the war of independence of Bangladesh.
Yes, 1971… So it was a few weeks before the speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of independence. I knew from reading it that it would be broadcast on a radio station in Chittagong, then in Australia, then on the BBC, and that it would eventually go around the world. In a few weeks, my new friends would be at even greater risk than they are now. Would I still be here to watch them? I doubted it. I would surely wake up soon, slapped by the wind that would enter my room at my father’s house through the poorly closed window.
The afternoon went on with the same rhythm. Poets and singers came to record songs and messages of hope. Each program ended with the Joy Bangla motto, shouted out. I noticed that Tasnim had gone into seclusion. I went to find her in a corner of the living room.
— What are you doing, » I asked her?
— Oh, I…
And she hid the notebook she had been holding in her hands a moment before. It was a thick blue notebook bound with a floral design.
— What are you writing?
— I write Marxist poems. They don’t matter.
— But they do!
I noticed that Satish was watching us out of the corner of his eye, a wild glint in his eye.
I took the notebook from her hands. I was stunned to learn that my grandmother had written revolutionary poetry in her time. I read the first lines of a poem and realized that the theme was much more romantic than revolutionary. Tasnim’s cheeks were on fire. She ran away.
I should have caught up with her, but I wanted to understand my grandmother better and I read several poems. I thought they were wonderfully written. I smiled inwardly. Not only was I learning more about my grandmother, but I realized that my Bengali had come back to life. I could speak to Tasnim and Satish in Bengali without any problem, and reading poems written in Bengali was not a problem for me. I was amazed.
— What did you do to her?
Satish’s voice sounded like a dog growling. He snatched the notebook from me and read the poems that were probably about him. Suddenly there was a bang. Satish and the other young men in the room fell to the ground. I followed them. The earth shook.
— Where is Tasnim? cried the young revolutionary.
We both went out into the street. Evening was beginning to spread its brown wings over Dhaka. In the distance, I could see lightning in the mist. Perhaps the flash of rifle bullets. Who was being targeted? And if my grandmother was hit by a traitorous bullet, what would happen to me?
I set off after Satish along a road whose tarmac was half-ruined from the recent passage of tanks. We passed a uniformed guard. He gave us a quick glance without getting up from his chair. The night ended up absorbing us completely. We were like two clouds, floating through the capital. We went down several streets and arrived at the banks of the Burigonga River. Tasnim was kneeling in front of a dead dog.
— They even kill the animals, » she murmured, as we sat down beside her.
She had braided her hair and cried for a while. Satish looked at her, forgetting about me. The tears had made my grandmother’s eyes shine.
— He’s sorry about the poems, » Satish said suddenly, without asking me.
Tasnim looked up at me with his big black eyes.
— The poems… I don’t care about that… I came here… I have a feeling that the coming weeks will change everything. I don’t know where we will be tomorrow, if we will still exist… But I want our poetry to live through our history. You, who are a journalist… She said, I want you to publish my poems and the poems of the rebels if I should not survive.
— But you will grow old, and you will see your children and grandchildren, I said to her gently.
— My grandchildren, that’s a funny idea!
She laughed, and Satish laughed heartily too. I felt uncomfortable, like I was too much. I decided to go back. But as I stood up, as my eyes met my grandmother’s, I was violently thrown to the ground again. The stars flashed above my eyelashes and I slumped.
When I opened my eyes again, I was lying full length on the steps leading to the Burigonga, in the same place where I had left Satish and Tasnim. Except that my rebel companions had disappeared. It was still dark, and I could see the smoke and lights of the textile factory in front of my aching body. I stood up, dusted off my shirt and noticed my bag lying across the road. I picked it up. It still contained the container with my grandmother’s ashes. This one was empty. Happy to have fulfilled my grandmother’s last wish, I walked to my father’s house.
He was surprised to see me come home so late. He didn’t say a word. Once in the old house, I went up to the attic where my grandmother had lived her last years. I searched the place most of the night. Until I could hold in my hands the blue notebook with a floral design that had contained her love for my grandfather in 1971. I blew on the binding to rid the notebook of dust and opened it. I spent the second half of the night translating the poems into French. In the process, I wrote an article honoring the Bengali resistance fighters during the Bangladesh War of Independence.
I don’t know if the editor will like my work. I don’t know if Rose will live happily with me in the apartment I dreamed for us, or if my dreams will explode in flight like the lives of many of the heroes of the 1971 war. But as the plane drops me off on the tarmac in Paris and I realize that a rain shower is soaking me from head to toe, I sigh with relief. I have found a past, an identity, I have fallen in love with my country again. My grandmother must be laughing from where she is. She has certainly been planning this for a long time by entrusting me to history.