S&R Fiction – "Sahel" by Iftekhar Sayeed

The fox stood in carved silhouette against the quicksilver of the canal reaching inland from the Bay of Bengal. The shallow channel held the moonlight like a palm. I watched it forage for crabs; its mate joined hesitantly for she had noticed me.

I sat on the beach blanched white, waiting. I had had time to watch, feel, listen. The foxes had ceased to howl hours ago; the almost full, orange moon came up above Kowar Char, an abundant expanse of beach bending eastward with the line of dense koroi trees. Above that line, first Mars, then Orion and Sirius, followed by Saturn rose and were now declining to the west. Behind me, the tamarisk forest bent and brooded in leafy whispers: the light in the hovels inside had long since ceased to wink. Boats blackened with tar, some upside down, lay scattered like white sepulchres. The heady smell, of sea, leaf and sand was wafted to keep me awake: I even had the leisure to discern the glass in the sand glistening….

Then I was awake, and alert.

My eyes took in the horizon, a taste of sudden excitement in my mouth. Kerosene-lamps from fishing boats blinked at intervals in the distance like reddish stars. Only in the south-west, a white speck moved, without light, and without an engine. My pulse began to rise.

Sail-boats are nearly extinct on the rivers and the Bay. But they have an advantage for certain purposes you do not wish to announce: they are noiseless machines.

Whatever colour the sail had been by day, it was now white as it eked out the distance from shore to sea. It would still be a good half-hour before making landfall. I stood up, and waved both arms. Answering bursts of torchlight acknowledged my presence.

The hull of the black boat finally scraped the shore: the channel of water had swollen to a rivulet and the tide almost reached my feet. Figures clambered out of the vessel, and some, less weary, made their way towards me. Zainul, the steersman, no doubt exhausted, still managed to run past me, giving me a smile, naked to the waist and clad in a checkered lungi: he was headed for his village.

A pair of powerful arms hugged me and kissed me on either cheek, pronouncing my name, and speaking rapidly in Arabic. This was followed by lesser hugs but more ardent busses. ‘Merhabas’ sang in the wind. I had just met, respectively, Abu Musa and Shahriar.

Then Sahel shrieked. A woman in jeans and t-shirt splashed towards us, screaming, ‘Kumak! Kumak!’

She came right up to me and, panting, held me in a tight embrace. ‘Help, Zafar, help!”

She looked full into my face, dark eyes wide with terror, and it didn’t need the embellishment of moonlight to show me the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.

“Che etefage oftade?” I asked in my best Farsi.

“Bia!”

We followed her, and found, right behind the boat where the poor chap had disembarked, quicksand closing in on an upraised fist – and then it was gone. Majed, the fourth member, had been sucked down by Gangamatir Char.

Sahel – whose name meant such evocative places as ‘beach’ or ‘coast’ – immersed her head in my chest, holding me close.

As we limped away to our distant hotel under the load of backpacks, a tokay gecko repeated its indifferent call.

They didn’t wake till three the next day. Even people who come to die mourn a comrade’s unintended death. Demoralized and debilitated, they ate the gourmet meal I ordered in the restaurant on the ground floor to pretend to be tourists.

I had brought a change of clothes from Dhaka. For Sahel, it was today an olive kameez with matching dupatta and chooridar; pendant earrings were also the fashion. For Abu Musa and Shahriar, a pair of toned-down pyjamas and punjabis would, hopefully, camouflage them as local tourists. Very few foreigners ever came to Kuakata.

We began the long trek towards Lebur Char in the west. As we walked past the rows of shops on either side of the bazaar, shopkeepers called out to buy their wares. But we walked down the slope of the embankment and I stopped where it met the beach. I bought four large and juicy coconuts for our walk: the best drink for a warm, spring day.

Tourists were thick on the beach, mostly young men and women who had come for the day and would be gone at night. An evidently newly-married couple waded knee-deep into the grey-green water, she in her red-and-black saree and he in shorts and t-shirt. Wheeled restaurants served customers the local favourites, hot and spicy. A stretch of coloured cots under multicoloured umbrellas held recumbent visitors on the dry verge of the farthest advance of the tide. Further out, the glistening sand reflected the standing or strolling figures. In the water, a woman in a green saree dragged a net against the pressure, leaning forward, straining for fish. She ignored the tourists, and they ignored her.

Through the hubbub and the crowd, we made our silent way. Women glanced at Sahel, envying her beauty. She easily passed for a South Asian stunner; my worries were for our Arab friends, who walked several paces ahead of us. I tried not to look at the uniformed police officer, walkie-talkie in hand, belly protruding.

The crowd left behind, the only sounds were the bursting waves and the wind beating against our ears. A koel stunned me with its call. I longed to be able to say to Sahel “sale no mobarak” – happy new year – for it would soon be the 21st of March, Eid-e-Nawrooz, the vernal equinox. She would be dead by then.

On our right, the embankment gave way to a forest of trees where hovels were visible. We passed tarred, upturned boats drying in the sun, making our way between stakes pushed into the sand at regular intervals down to the sea: the green nets, now neatly folded up on the beach, would be hung up on the stakes at high tide.

“Hadafe shoma unjast,” I said, pointing to the south-west.

“Khob,” she replied. “Chand kilometre?”

“I don’t know the exact details; they will fill you in. But the oil-rig is to the south-west, a few kilometers from Khatrar Bon.”

“Khatrar bon chie?”

“It’s a part of the Sundarban forest; we’ll soon see it.”

The target was an oil rig operated by an American company on terms very unfavorable to Bangladesh, negotiated by a local lawyer with a reputation worse than usual for members of that profession. He was an international lawyer, which meant he was in the pay of the west.

“If most of us wasn’t corrupt, then some of us won’t have to kill ourselves.” She sipped coconut milk through a straw, holding the fruit between her palms.

“Bale,” I agreed with intense bitterness, chucking my unfinished coconut into the waves.

Breeze from Shutkipolli greeted our nostrils; red slices of fish hung from bamboo scaffolding to dry. Around the scaffolding, fishermen were seen to enter and leave their shacks.

We passed fishermen who had just landed in their hulking, motorized boats. They were gutting sting rays, and dozens lay spread out on the beach in pink heaps. Pie dogs quartered the catch and sometimes made off with a piece of gut.

“There’s Khatrar Bon.” I pointed towards the north-west where a dark mass had just appeared, jutting into the sea. As we neared, the dark silhouette turned gradually green, and soon we could make out individual trees. This tongue of land was the beginning of Sundarban forest. Sahel ran up to Abu Musa and Shahriar, and explained. They nodded with enthusiasm, and for the first time we seemed to forget the death of poor Majed.

We stopped: we could go no further. We were at the confluence of the Andarmanick River. A large king crow perched itself on a stake next to the stream; a sandpiper hurried along the west bank, its head bobbing; a sanderling landed a few yards from us; a crow paused patiently. Crabs had pitted the sand with holes: crab cast lay spread in neat geometrical shapes.

“Salamwalaikum,” emanated from behind a row of palm trees, and three men emerged. They wore lungis and shirts.

They introduced themselves, apparently in Arabic, and Abu Musa and Shahriar hugged and bussed the men. There was much rejoicing. I was politely introduced and they salaamed me and I returned the salaam. But I knew I was not one of them: my three friends sauntered off, and the group squatted on dry sand. An animated conference began, with a lot of pointing towards the south-west.

The sun sank under the cirrocumulus clouds that draped the sky in sheets of muslin while low, cumulus clouds appeared blue-back. I pushed off to a discreet distance so I could only hear the surf and the wind, and not their conversation, although it was carried on mostly in Arabic, with a few English words and the name of the petroleum company distinctly audible. I wanted to know as little as possible about the three locals in case I was tortured. I wish it had been dark when I saw their faces.

The moon had risen hours ago, but only now came into its own. Sirius twinkled, and soon Orion appeared in majesty. The wind grew cooler by degrees. The sputter of an engine-boat reached me as it floated down the Andarmanick, then grew quieter, decibel by decibel. The tide had turned, and it would come further up than before, being spring tide.

The finger of the northern wind raised the dry sand in long lines across the dark, dank beach. The receding water left its impress in the sand: the wet beach bore ripples mimicking the waves. The dry sand glowed like snow, and ahead, the wet sand lay dark, like tarmac. The beach spread, divided.

Sometimes a portion of sand turned red with crabs. I listened to the sad soughing of the leaves and watched the branches perform their wonted salaam.

“Oon morde, pesareh bichare!”

Sahel had once mentioned Majid on our way here. “He’s dead, the poor boy!” Every inanimate thing seemed to mourn him all of a sudden.

On the water’s edge, where the sand shone as the waves receded and returned and receded again, sandpipers ambled along, usually alone, though sometimes in a flock. A gull quartered the water.

Many boats floated on the sea, but not a single oil-lamp shone: the silver light had rendered them redundant.

I walked to a flame from an oil-lamp to my left. Two women and two children huddled next to a low, green net that shielded the flame from the wind. The women wore cheap, cotton sarees and must have been in their thirties. They both wore nose-rings.

They were intensely focused on a tin plate held by the younger woman. They concentrated on the water which she swirled around by tilting the plate; she then emptied the contents into the sand. She held the plate over a large, circular tin vessel, half-filled with water. The girl had an earthen pot before her. The flame barely illuminated a baby swaddled in her lap.

They were fishing for prawn-fries.

The children rose, the girl carrying the earthen pot, the boy following. They waded into the water, reached the net, then folded it and brought it to the women. From its folds, they dislodged the fish into the plate, and the boy poured seawater from the earthen pot. A few fish lay there – but panning revealed no fries. Patiently, she tipped the contents into the sand. Then the process began all over again.

“Chandta mahi gereftan?” Sahel bent down beside me, smiling at the women. I translated into Bengali.

“They say they are not catching fish, but pawn-fries. And tonight they have caught nothing.”

During high tide by day they had caught two hundred sixty, and the buyer paid them twenty-five takas per hundred – less than fifty cents!

“Che faghri! Zanaye bichare! Bachcheaye bichare!”

But Sahel was smiling. “Tomorrow we blow up the oil rig.”

The older woman asked when the full moon was. The night after, I replied. They smiled – they looked forward to the full moon. So did we, but for other reasons.

A nightjar called from the koroi forest.

How wonderfully a goal focuses the mind, and dispels other feelings and thoughts! I felt light and happy. I took out my mobile phone, and played the song ‘Zemestoon’, my favourite.

“To ashegh nabodi, bebini talkhe rozaye jodaee…” spoke Sheila out of my cell. (You have never been in love; see how bitter are the days of separation.)

Sahel laughed. “To ahange farsi ro doost dari!” I was happy she had slipped into the less formal ‘thou’ – ‘to’ is more intimate than ‘shoma’.

“Kheili doost daram,” I replied.

“Many singers have sung this song.”

“Midunam. But Sheila has sung it best.”

“…bahare… zemestoonha baraye to hamishe….” Winters are always spring for you. “To mesle man zemestooni nadari.” You don’t have a winter like I do.

My feelings crested on the waves of the song, such was the heightened atmosphere of sea and beach and moonlight…and Sahel.

After a sharp intake of breath that seemed to take in my surroundings, I pronounced: “Havas khube!”

I turned to see her sharp features, and was puzzled by the arched smile. And then it came home to me, and I shut off the song. Instead of saying, “The weather is good”, I had said, “Lust is good”.

“Bebakshid! Bebakshid, lotfan,” I stammered.

“Moshkel chie?” Here eyes were languid. ” Bia khuneye man bad az sham.”

In just a few seconds, a few twinkles of Sirius, we had made an assignation for after dinner in her room.

She went upstairs ahead of me, and neither of us had touched the plate of sautéed sting ray and vegetables. I was happy, however, that the others were downing the food with relish.

I excused myself, and padded to her room. I knocked ever so softly.

“Bia to! Dar baz-e.”

As I entered, I lost my breath. She stood before the mirror clad in a studded brown leather teddy, her weight on her right leg.

“Emshabo ba man bash. In akharin shabe mane …” This was her last night.

How can you make love to a woman who’s about to die? How can you not make love to a woman who’s about to die?

The last night came. We were assembled at the Shutkipolli, the odour of desiccated fish thick in the gusty wind. The taste of fear and sadness made my mouth dry. From one of the shacks, men in lungis carted rocket-propelled grenades, bazookas, machine guns…. They were supervised by the three locals we had met at Lebur Char. I glanced at Sahel, tonight in her jeans and t-shirt again. Her lips were white, cheekbones bleached. The full moon cast our shadows on the sand. A quick thought of the women panning for prawn-fries flashed through my mind, God knows why.

“That’ll dyu, gennelmen.”

The night had drawled like an American, and clicked as several barrels pointed our way.

“Well, well,” I sang. “If it ain’t Barack Obama himself.”

“Don’t make fun of my president,” yelled the burly African-American who had stepped out of the forest. I counted more than twenty rifles at the ready. Uniformed policemen crawled like crabs over the beach.

“About time too,” spoke Sahel, and walked over to the American. She, too, had now become an American: all accents gone, walking like a woman in Manhattan. “Give me a cigarette.”

“That’ll kill you, darlin’.” He took out a box from the pocket of his printed shirt. “Looks like you fell for that old honey pot trap.” This was obviously addressed to me. “That’s some uniform she’s got there, you gotta admit.”

“Standard CIA issue, no doubt.”

He bent double with laughter. “I like you. Where you’ll be going with your Arab buddies and these Bangalis, you can keep me entertained all night ‘coz ain’t nobody gonna ever find you again. Yes, sir!”

“You’re a fool, Zafar. Why do you have to side with losers?” She breathed white smoke through her flaring nostrils.

“This is my civilization. And it’s yours, too.”

“I changed my civilization.”

“Well, not exactly, Maryam. You were raised by the Agency, more or less. You know how many languages she knows?” The American came close up to me.

“Besides,” I went on, ignoring him. “You said yourself if most of us weren’t corrupt, then some of us wouldn’t have to blow ourselves up.”

“I was just pushing buttons, Zafar.”

The American raised a finger and jabbed my chest, then his eyes widened. I moved aside to let him drop dead with a knife the size of a man’s forearm stuck in his back. The night swooshed to the flight of knives. Men emerged from the hovels, knives in hand, distributing them almost ceremoniously.

Sahel raced for the American’s gun, but I caught her by the shoulder.

“How did you know?”

“Last night, when you thought I was asleep, you sent a message from my mobile….”

“I deleted that.”

“But I heard.”

“Why? I thought you trusted me completely.”

“Majid’s death made me think. Nobody dies in quicksand unless they panic. Why should he have panicked with his friends around him? What did you do?”

“I gagged him.”

She dealt me a blow with the edge of her right hand that sent me sprawling. She had the gun in her hand, and turned toward me, aiming it at my chest. Then she stopped, the expert haft of a knife projecting from her left breast.

The loading of the ammunition continued as though it had never been interrupted. The sail unfurled, the boat was pushed off and on its way. The evening call to prayer sang out from minarets.

I cradled her head in my arms, the sea flowing over my legs and her hair, even as her life ebbed away. The waves would wash away the blood from the beach, leaving no trace of tonight.

“Sahel!”

“Call me … Maryam… that’s my real name…Sahel…was…for you.”

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