Shahed has been totally frustrated over the past few days. He needs one measly signature from either of his parents to go to one of the school excursions, this time to the Mirpur Botanical gardens, and he can’t seem to achieve this one simple menial task. Those two haven’t been talking for days now, and the approaching either one gets the generic ‘ask your mom’, or ‘ask your father’ response.
In fact Shahed has resigned to the fact that his parents are a quarrelsome lot and had they been a western couple, they would have called it quits years ago. He is supposedly the bond, the glue, that holds them still together, but he finds the whole prospect of being ‘the glue’, like glue in real life, a messy affair. There had been occasional relief from this domestic ambiance when he used to spend the weekends at his phupi’s or mama’s place. However, being thirteen now, with furs on his face transforming into facial hair, and the lanky appearance of a growing thirteen year old, his ‘cute factor’ is on the receding end. The invitations for staying over are also on the downside, specially since his Mami found him a sitting a ‘bit to close’ to his eleven year old cousin Moumi, which created another domestic scene at his Mama’s place.
This school outing is very important…he has to go no matter what. And he wants to go legit…he had forged his father’s signature last time, was caught by the class-teacher, and was sent home, ‘suspended’, for three whole days. Those three days at home were like prison, totally grounded, and three days of relentless moralizing about the grave crime of forgery he had committed. His friend Nayan has promised to bring in some booze, picked from his father’s well-stocked bar, and of-course there will be fags, and joints, and if lucky, there will also be ‘yaba’, all under the watchful eyes of the chaperones, mostly bored house-wives who teach at the school. Lucy and Kabita already have their consent forms turned in, and with all the bushes, shrubs, and hedges, the botanical garden has every possibility of turning into the garden of earthly delights.
He never suspect his parents of extra-marital affairs that can be the cause of this ever-lasting rift between the two. Money is not the issue either. Why should it be? Mom has six apartments whose rentals have made her totally independent in her own right and dad owns a sweater and a knitting factory. Probably these lack of co-dependency are to be blamed for their not being civil to each other within the confines of the house. Not that they are ‘nouveau riche’ or anything, both of his grandfathers had been civil servants, whose prudent real-estate investments in the 60s in the form of one single plot each in Dhanmundi have made them paper-millionaires much later. The apartments and the money for the garment factories all came from that source. Coming from such ‘bhodrolok’ backgrounds, the values are neither totally western, nor totally local. They even sleep on the same bed, but refuse to face each-other. Shahed has wondered more than once how much practice it has taken to fall asleep facing opposing directions. The memories of him coming into their room years in his toddler years and literally having to pry them open from each other’s embrace so that he could sleep between them are quite vivid.
Well, the deadline for the consent form is tomorrow, and he HAS to get the signature. Nowadays, the class teacher Mrs. Naureen, will call on the phone to verify the consents. After lunch, mom is about to take a nap. He quietly tiptoes into the room and finds her leafing through an old issue of ‘Femina’.
‘You still haven’t signed’, he said in a soft voice. He is still startled by his own voice. It had changed literally overnight last week, which prompted his mom to prepare glasses of hot saline solutions for him to gargle in. Dad saw the spectacle after coming home, smiled, and then snarled, ‘Leave him alone, your son is just growing up’.
“I need to talk to your dad about your going. Do you think we’ll let you go just like that after what happened in the last one’? Oh God, the now-famous incident where two seniors were caught literally with their pants down. The furor and the subsequent parent-teacher ‘conferences’ were the source of constant giggling episodes among them, and those two elevated to hero status, even though both has been pulled out of the school by their parents.
‘Mom’, he pleaded….’everyone else has turned the forms already and Baroi keeps calling me a mama’s boy….will you just sign the paper?? You are not talking to dad anyway, so what is there to talk about?’
Well, he realized a bit too late that he probably has just stepped on the remaining raw nerve of his mom’s that afternoon. The diatribes began…’you two will never let me even have a nap in …..my whole life has been….your dad never even….you always take advantage of the ….’. Before his mom could see the swelling tears in his eyes, he quietly said ‘never mind’ and came back to his room and switched the computer on. There was a volley of messages waiting in Facebook and Yahoo Messenger. The picnic hype has gained quite the momentum and looks to be a ‘the’ social even of Grade 8, and there is a chance of his not going. This is the only day they don’t have to wear their uniforms and there are lot of messages and inquiries about who is wearing what, and who is pairing up with who.
He has to go, he just HAS to…
Dad got him a bike for his b’day two years ago, but he has not been allowed to take it out beyond the parking lot below. Unofficially he has taken it out for cruising, but on both occasions there were near mishaps, one with a rickshaw, and another with a car that resulted in a volley of obscene languages from the driver for scratching the side. Now it takes up an inordinate amount of space in his room and he would like to see this thing gone now. Mom and Dad does not know that the other reason for the total abandonment of the bike is that main axel had been dented when he gave it a flying kick a few weeks back after being jointly told off by his parental units because of pocket money. They refuse to accept the fact that a measly 100 taka per week is utterly humiliating in the environs of the school playground. If he doesn’t make it to the picnic, his fate there will be sealed forever…an ostracized outcast of a mama’s boy…..
Dinner is served at 8:30 p.m. sharp. Today being Tuesday, Dad will rush through the meal so that he can go to his club for a round of poker. The meals are a deadly silent affair, where comments about the food are sharpened and thrown towards the old lady who silently bears them in the kitchen. Dad sits at the head-table and he and his mom on either side. He does not want it to be like some other nights where he has to ask the cook to feed him in the room because for some strange reason he wouldn’t be able to swallow anything on the dinner table due to the icicles that form around the room during this time of family harmony.
‘Dad’, he started, ‘I told you about the school picnic, nah?...the last date for the consent form is tomorrow. Can I go?’ He could almost feel his mom’s senses heightened to their extreme right about now.
‘What does your mom say?’
‘With all the things going on at the wretched school of yours, god knows what new incident will happen there this time. I don’t see why the picnic is so important under the circumstances. Don’t we take you out enough as it is? Already your Mami’s compliant is ringing in my ears…so humiliating….no, no picnic for you.”
Dad sighed and keeping his voice quivering voice as calm as possible, said ‘We have to trust him, you know…besides he needs to go out and we need to let him grow….can’t protect him from the world forever…...’…
“WELL, you protect him whichever way you can, he is not going.’
‘Saima, be reasonable…obviously it is important for him ….’. His Dad’s occasional outburst of understanding always impressed Shahed.
‘WELL, OUR peace of mind is also important, if not to you, at least to me’
Dad’s cheeks, in spite of his dark complexion had gone crimson. His explosion is imminent, thought Shahed. But he seemed to take a deep breath, managed to bring a smile, and coolly said, ‘Shahed, you will behave responsibly, won’t you? Just bring the form after this meal and I’ll sign it.’
Mom’s both hands came down on the table with a resounding THUMP. Shahed can already tell that dinner was already over. The resulting vibration has splashed drops of gravy and daal all over the table.
‘You JUST have to humiliate me in front of him don’t you? ALL MY LIFE you ignore me and my decisions…..”
Dad cut in..”AND when did I ignore you all of a sudden? ALL MY LIFE I have catered and compromised for you. Even last time you wanted to go to Bangkok and I wanted to stay home for Eid, we had to go your way and….”
Obviously the issue of going to the picnic has been relegated to the back-burner now. Shahed is thinking that it is amazing how chronologically organized his parents’ memories are. At the press of a button both can spew out detailed descriptions of each-other’s short comings in terms of their expectations.
He has to go to the picnic. He just has to.
Now the exchange between the two involved the model of the TV that was bought three months back for their bedroom. The costs and merits of a flat-screen TV versus a high fidelity regular one was being argued in full force.
He had enough. He tried to focus on the picnic, on either Lucy or Kabita. The trio has a unique triangle going. Lucy is head over heels over Shahed, while he likes Kabita more. At the same time, those two are the best of friends. Somehow the Shahed issue has not ripped their friendship apart yet, but cracks are growing.
‘Do you know?” Shahed blurted out. He sounded amazing calm, non-chalant, and matter-of-fact. “Do you know Milton’s parents split up? His dad has moved to Uttara with his new wife and auntie has moved to Banani. Now he is in Uttara every weekend. He loves it.’ He paused. He wasn’t sure what was his point for saying all this, but the effect it had on those two were electrifying. They just went blank and stared at him. His mom’s gesture was almost comical, her right arm frozen in mid-air in the gesture to reiterate the point she was about to make to her husband.
‘Milton was saying that his mom cries a lot. But at least they don’t fight anymore. His dad told him that he should have left his mom years ago. He seems to be doing fine, not the sour-puss he used to be. Weekdays in Banani and weekends in Uttara, he just loves it.’
His mom’s hand has come down to a resting position. “What on earth are you saying?’.
Dad looked at her and and then looked at him. “Yes, whats your point?’
“What point!!! No point whatsoever. You never seem to ask about my friends anymore, so I was just saying. Manik’s mom is also getting remarried. He is a hot-shot banker of some sort. He is getting him a Tag-Heuer watch for his wedding. Oh did I tell you about Lisa? She walked in on their parents the other day. You know what? They both were pulling each others’ hair out. She thought it was soooo funny.”
‘Are all your friends’ parents gone dysfunctional or what??” His mother snapped. The rage of her face has been replaced by beads of cold sweat, and she looked obviously flustered by these revelations.
‘Ahh, Shama!’, his father gently rebuked. The scales of his voice have also gone down dramatically. He looked at Shahed, with the look that revealed very well that he knew exactly what his son was implying.
‘Lisa was saying that his mom has to cover her head for weeks because patches of hair have come out from the top and his dad had to buy a big sunglass to cover his black-eye. She took pictures with her mobile and they were so funny.’ He giggled. He is feeling alarmed in his own way. Why is he blurting out all this, the inner secrets of their friendship sworn to secrecy?
‘I was wondering…If you two ever get divorced, who will I stay with? I think I’ll like it if I get to stay with Nanu.” Nanu’s flat is next to the Abahani cricket fields, where some of his friends practice everyday. The fiercely independent woman refuses to stay with any of her children but always welcome any grand-kid to stay with open arms and spoils them with pocket-money, and a refrigerator perennially stuffed with expensive chocolates.
‘Who said we are getting a divorce?’ said Shama.
‘Well, maybe you should. I am not hungry anymore. Going to my room to do some e-mails…ok?’
He is not getting his consent form.
Snacking after dinner is strictly prohibited in the household. It is almost a cardinal sin to eat anything after brushing your teeth, as established by his mother. After his outbursts at the dinner-table, he was quite confused. He had come back to him room and sat down on his bed. He has been visibly shaking. What was he thinking, what on earth made him to blurt out all that? And that thing about staying with Nanu!!!! Where did that come from???? He was hungry too. He tiptoed out of his room and went to the dining area. His mom and dad’s room is shut. The TV is definitely off but there are noises. Someone is sobbing? Must be his mom. Of course its’ his mom. His dad never showed emotion as such. Ever!!! But there is his dad’s voice as well, steady, soothing but quivering. He presses his ears to the door. The conversation is ineligible. But it is a change for sure. Instead of the deadly silence or the muted noise of the TV blurting out the dialogues of some crappy hindi serial, Shahed somewhat finds this exchange inside soothing yet totally bewildering. What are they talking about? Are they talking about getting a divorce? If so, it will be totally his fault. Absolutely his, to bring this up during supper, of all times. Or are they reconciling. They are talking in lowered decibels and directly to each other. That’s good, wasn’t it? Pressed as he is to the door, the sound of his own heartbeat is interfering with his eavesdropping big-time. He does catch the words ‘signing’ ‘break’ and ‘holiday’ among others….He isn’t sure whether the word ‘break’ is for breaking up or not and then go on separate holidays as an eyewash. But they did mention something about signing. He knows people have to ‘sign’ divorce papers as well. He has seen enough TV to know THAT.
Between hope and despair, Shahed comes back to his room, still hungry even more confused than ever.