Hasan Chowdhury hasn’t changed. Even after thirty years, even from behind the lights that glare on stage at the Shilpakala Academy, I recognize his bearish body. He lurches into the cavernous auditorium and stops halfway up the aisle. Though the proceedings have already begun, he pauses and surveys the stage and the rows of sour-smelling plush chairs as though they are his territory. Then he sits right in front, behind the row of VIPs. I remember him entering the dining room every morning with the same posture, throwing himself into the chair beside his father and peeling a steaming roti off the stack prepared by Shafiq and Kamala. He’d scoop up the bhaji, his hands like paws, and wash everything down with cups of cha.

His hair is still shoulder-length, and the grey looks incongruous. He’s given up on the beard and the bushy side burns, thank god, but not the John Lennon glasses. The wire rims balance on the tip of his nose just as they did when we were at Dhaka University, another nod to the rebel he was then. Perhaps he loves that boy. More likely, he’s just another lost man in his fifties clinging to the illusion of his golden youth.

I don’t think he would have recognized me if I wasn’t up on stage, my name on the silk banner suspended behind me, if I hadn’t just been introduced by a woman in an olive saree printed with a dun pattern that reminds me of dried, bent earthworms. Though Hasan is nearly my age, time hasn’t been as generous with my body. I’ve withered. My hair is completely grey and I’ve cropped it. He’d remember wispy hair the colour of apple scab, tied in a simple ponytail. I remember the ends incessantly loosening and curling themselves into corkscrews in the drenched heat. My smile sags now and I look unhappy most of the time, although that is not altogether true. And I have acquired a stomach, gifted by my baby, a droopy belly that I long ago stopped trying to conceal.

In front of the scratchy-sounding microphone, I wait for recognition from Hasan, but nothing. He looks right through me just as he did so many years ago whenever I asked what he thought was another ridiculous question. Questions like: why shouldn’t Luna be able to choose her own friends? Why are Shaheed and Ruby avoiding me now? Why is the only suitable response to hatred and intolerance simply more hatred and intolerance? Hasan thought most of what I said was worthy of utter contempt, and though he’s done and said almost nothing today, his mere presence and the attitude he carries set in motion an overwhelming and very familiar sense of injury.

The end of the applause leaves an expectation thick as the air before a monsoon rain. The woman in the olive saree has a tight, anxious smile on her face. Like a strange insect, she bobs her head and flutters her hands. A panoply of bangles on her wrists tinkle frantically. Begin, begin, she signals.

“Asalaam aliekum,” I say. “Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me back to your country.”

The crowd grows quiet.

Excerpted from This Innocent Corner (Oolichan Books, 2010)
© Peggy Herring

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