I wanted to be like him

Maskwaith Ahsan
Art & Literature
I wanted to be like him

He committed suicide, perhaps, or I don’t know how he died, really. Two years senior to me, he was a student of English literature. Hated our boring poetry classes, always believed that capitalism has stolen the soul of our poetry. What’s the point in attending an inert class of Robert Frost. With the exception of the fact that he didn’t like the footnotes used by T.S.Eliot, he was a great fan of the writer. “Those who need these footnotes have no business reading Eliot,” he would often qualify.

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The campus under the threat of the military junta was nothing but a wasteland to him. Politics was not his life, neither was he in active politics. His real politik was writing poetry, composing songs, publishing little magazine, directing street theater, drawing extraordinary pieces of art on faculty walls or romancing with a leftist cultural activist. A short, thin, unattractive guy experiencing everyday hardships but, alas, one who dared to dream of an equal society. Must have been crazy. Yes, definitely not normal.

A dream hawker in the corridors of the English department, he once told me to look at the boys and girls gathered in the seminar library engrossed in Cliff’s notes to ensure A-plus in tutorials. “They look like students of medicine, memorizing quotes for distinction.” He was introvert and shy, so requested me to do what he couldn’t. “Tell them to study business administration if they want to be corporate managers, play golf and take up economics if top banks are their destination. But for God’s sake don’t study any literature for a job.”

I never followed through his request but always told him otherwise, simply letting go of the whole thing. Introvert, though, he was, he would argue over literary theories for hours together. Most of the teachers lacked either patience or wisdom to spar with him for too long. I could see the great master of art in him, he excelled in whatever he chose to do. I could never recognize the genius in front of me until it was too late. Out teachers, friends and the seemingly bright crowd around us neither had the time nor the inclination to discover this falling star. No one made any attempt to catch him, no one had the time to feel the agonies of that young man.

The leftist diva always adorned in a beautiful sari, easily sharing rickshaw rides with him and holding his poetry scripts could, perhaps, perceive him. But who knows how much. I can’t recall her name as I have no nostalgic memories of any such name, but I have a vivid imagination of her resembling Tagore’s short-story heroines with poetic eyes, eighteenth century hair-do and strong arms to embrace clay-soft male chauvinists. I would often see the couple, sitting under a coconut tree, sharing effusions of love near the British Council. Their romantic escapades would remind me of the black-and-white movies of 70’s Calcutta. No one remembers if they got married or simply lived together. Whatever they did, they certainly broke the taboos of our expired society, or at the very least managed to ply away a couple of bricks from the foundation of our panoptic institutions.

Why not give her the name, Anamica. She was fond of blue saris and this dreamer. Let’s give this man a name too, Mashuq. I dared this dreamer to sit for competitive examination. The written exam went perfectly well, but he returned from viva voce with despair. The pedagogues sitting in the board didn’t appreciate this dreamer; he didn’t have the physique to prove his smartness. One of them even asked him a silly question: “Why have you kept your pen hanging from your pocket.” If I could have just met that old haggard lying in a graveyard or jogging in a park to control his sugar level, I would have asked him exactly how he defines smartness. Anyway, in retrospect it was a relief that Mashuq didn’t get caged in the civil service.

He, instead, joined the group theater movement. Within short time he was identified as a threat by some giant directors and actors, as he refused to succumb to cliché. Mashuq die-heartedly objected to old directors exploiting teenage girls who wanted to enter the world of TV soap through stage of dramas. Mashuq formed a theater group; Anamica supported him with all her desperation. The Neros of TV couldn’t allure her, repeatedly prompting her to tell them what she got out of opting for a defeated hero.

The Little Magazine corner at the Ekushe Book Fair one year could be seen decorated with Anamica trying to sell Mashuq’s publication. It was a dazzling evening; baul songs being played somewhere in the background, the crowd, the dust, the fog, the smell of new books and the laughter of vibrant young people all providing the perfect ambience to the grand fair: lucid poets flirting with adolescent poetry-lovers, TV soap writers hawkishly giving autographs to their mob-readers, intellectuals discussing post-modernism in Latin literature, and TV cameras capturing bookcovers along with grey-haired writers and their voluptuous admirers. In this facade of an urban circus Mashuq and Anamica sat near the age-old banyan tree, he reciting his latest poems and she sitting with a slight smile and a cute dimple listening and gazing at his tired but not-defeated face. Mashuq reads on and on to her when the uproar of the fish market dampens the romanticism of their evening. Taking a rickshaw, Mashuq and Anamica, disappeared.

They turned up at the Silence Restaurant. Cynicism aside, there actually is a restaurant by this name in old Dhaka. It serves traditional Bengali vegetable cuisines at low price, and if you are lucky you get silence. That is what Mashuq always ordered: one piece of soothing silence away from the hideous metropolitan. After a hearty meal Mashuq and Anamica left for a small apartment nearby. No furniture, no crockery, the place used to be full of books, musical instruments and insufficient light. “I will read for you, can you sing for me,” was what Mashuq would often say to her.

Anamica had the desire to sing, to laugh, to wail, to murmur and to play peeping game with the penniless days and nights. But she couldn’t. They had to keep the place in darkness, not to create an atmosphere for love making but to hide their presence, so that their house master would not knock incessantly for unpaid rent. Anamica tried to brighten up the room by occasionally humming softly, hiding her voice like a Jewish girl living in fear of the Nazis. That night Mashuq couldn’t take this repression anymore. “Anamica, please sing loudly and I will play the music,” he burst out in a courage-filled voice.

The penniless and shabby apartment suddenly turned into a musical palace. Anamica couldn’t resist dancing once Mashuq started on his tabla, his love lorn head and hair waving around like that of Zakir Hussain’s. The dual and duet between them kept the place charged for long. Nothingness and boredom was refused access to this loony couple’s world.

Soon afterwards, I lost track of both of them. Almost ten years later, I suddenly came across Mashuq one day. Wearing a threadbare coat and faded trousers, he appeared thinner than before. With eyes devoid of any remnant of life he was talking and laughing to himself, hurrying along the footpath to nowhere. I called out to him but he couldn’t recognize me. I let him pass by. I didn’t want to spoil his mood, if at all he was in any mood. Day by day I slowly forgot him, the way we forget those poets and artists who don’t click, dazzle or shine, or those who refuse to sell themselves out. Then, one day shortly afterwards while collecting my boarding pass at an airline counter, I heard a familiar voice:

“Heathrow bound.”


“May I see your passport, please.”

I looked up to see her smiling at me. “How are you?” I couldn’t recognize the corporate makeup that makes every face look the same. It could have been anyone: Anila, Shaoli, Tumpa, Babi or even Anamica. “How is Mashuq?” Her smile froze. She couldn’t answer. She didn’t have the answer, and I didn’t wait for one.

Maskwaith Ahsan. Maskwaith Ahsan is an international journalist, educator and the author of over 14 books. His columns appear in several Bengali newspapers, magazines and websites across the globe. He also hosts his web TV show E-SouthAsia. With socio-political satire...

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