Behind the Grey Curtains

Aqueb Safwan Jaser

Tareq often missed his childhood. He missed the plucking of lavender from the field, he missed flying vibrant colored kites in the sky and he missed making perfectly molded animals out of bare clay. He loved playing hide and seek, and would always hide behind the grey curtains which hung in the corner room. But now at 36 years of age, the only solace Tareq found lay in cowering alone in his room, forgotten by the world. He was a dwarf.

At least in early childhood, other children didn’t make him feel different,as his height was normal for his age. His own parents failed to see that something was off until he was at least 8. But somehow Tareq went on to lead an average life at first, and he even had a Master’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Chittagong. But he was forever tormented by his walks to the classroom, as the unwavering stares and contemptuous comments burdened down on him. As his studies concluded, he began to feel even more lost,atypical fish out of the water. Hisanxieties only escalated after his eventual graduation, when Tareq reached his breaking point. Almost immediately after, he decided to lock himself up in the corner room.

It was the housekeeper, lovingly addressed as Ilias chacha, who would carry his breakfast to his room. Sometimes, Tareq’s mother, Mrs. Raychaudhuri, a slender woman with patches of grey on her hair, would carry the meals to his room in a futile effort to speak to her son. But she was never let in. Tareq’s father, Mr. Raychaudhuri,a bearded and well groomed man, onceasked him to take on the prosperous family ship breaking business. Tareq bluntly refused. He felt he had faced enough ridicule for a lifetime. In the end, when the Raychaudhuris realised that it was no good insisting, they let him be.

It was the autumn of 1996 when Tareq finally stepped out of his corner room. The night before, Mrs. Raychaudhuri knocked on his bedroom door. As usual, Tareq didn’t respond. Realising that he wouldn’t be answering, Mrs. Raychaudhuri left a message. She cleared her throat and announced – ‘Hafsa will be arriving in the morning. Just wanted you to know. That’s all.’

Mrs. Raychaudhuri knew that uttering Hafsa’s name would be sufficient. Upon hearing her name, Tareq leaped up from bed with gradually rising excitement. He walked back and forth within the dingy corners of his room. Hafsa was the only real friend Tareq ever had. She used to be Tareq’s neighbour until her family moved to the United Kingdom. This was seventeen years ago, but he remembered well the feisty youthfulness that beamed off her still boyish face, how perfectly her short black hair contrasted with her snow white skin,and the grace she possessed at such a youthful
age.

It was in this very corner room Tareq and Hafsa spent the memorable days of their childhood. Here, Hafsa taught Tareq how to craft paper boats, which they’d later float on the puddle formed in the back garden. Tareq, on the other hand, taught Hafsato play with colours on a canvas. It had been many years since Mrs. Raychaudhuri saw her son happy, and now she hoped that Hafsa’s return would somewhat be the remedy for Tareq which time had failed to be.

As Tareq looked around his room, it was in complete shambles: the smell of tobacco and caffeine blended to form an unbearable stench; the floor was littered with his shabby clothes, cigaretteash, and old Blues records. On the crumbling wooden table, there were dusty volumes of Nietzscheand Camus; the round wall mirror, the windows, and even the grey curtains were covered with cobwebs, with smudges all over.

Tareq picked up some piece of cloth from the floor and began wiping the mirror, revealing a stranger before him. He wondered when it was that he had last seen himself properly. A tangle of beard occupied his face, with the fringes of his unruly hair dropping to his face,almost enveloping his beady eyes. The brown shirt he wore was tattered around the edges. This won’t do, Tareq though. He could not let Hafsa see him in such poor shape.

It took quite a while, but Tareq cleared his room up. He put away all the litter and junk himself, gave Ilias chacha piles of clothes for the laundry, swept the cobwebsaway,and dusted the topsand spines of his treasured books. He then proceeded onto his own person, shaving off his beard and cutting up his now overgrown hair to a reasonable length. He put on a plain indigo shirtand grey pleated pants, with his hair oiled and combed to a pleasing dainty look. Putting on the slightest hint of Cologne, vials of which piled up on his cupboard unused, he now felt ready.

When the clock struck 10, Tareq ran down to the dining hall. There she was, Hafsa, sipping on a cup of tea with all her ethereal charm. She was no longer the little girl that once looked so boyish with her short black hair. As Hafsalooked up from her teacup, she was rather surprised. Although, elegantly dressed, Tareq was of the same height as he used to be in their childhood. But Hafsa was sensible enough to not let the astonishment appear on her face. After all, Tareq was her dearest childhood friend. So she smiled instead and greeted Tareq with the grace of nothing less than a dignified princess.

After breakfast, Hafsa followed Tareq into the corner room. There they sat and laughed over the nostalgic memories of childhood. They caught up on things that occurred after their departure. Hafsa was now a teacher of English Literature at Welbeck Primary School, she loved the children and the children loved her. She spoke about that one time when she orchestrated Shakespeares’ As You Like it. It wasa memorable moment, she said. Hafsa was going to stay with the Raychaudhuris for the next few days. She had apparently come to Bangladesh for a special reason, which for now she wanted to keep to herself. Not that it mattered, Tareq was only glad that she’d be around.

Tareq hadn’t seemed this content for years now, and over their cups of tea, the aging Raychaudhuris cherished this joyful sight of their son, ever so slightly back to his old self.

Now in the back garden, Hafsa would hold Tareq’s hand and walk, reminiscing about old days. Then they flew kites in the sky as their laughter pervaded throughout the house. Tareq was finally happy. Under the star-lit sky, Hafsa would recite poems by the great Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī and in intervals, she would ask Tareq whether he was bored or not. Tareq, however,always shook his head and stared at her with awe.

Hafsa would then insist him to recite a poem. He’d quote lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven. Hafsa would rest her head on her arms reposed around her knees. She was acutely attentive while her eyes reflected great adoration for Tareq. At least, that’s what he felt.

But Tareq felt a lot more. He loved Hafsa, dearly. Everyday, after returning to the corner room,Tareq practiced how he would confess his love for Hafsa. However, the windy days passed by,and the practice was never put into use.

Then one fine day, he decided to speak about his sentiments to her. With an emerald gemstone ring clutched in his hand, he called for her but she was nowhere to be found. While crunching the leaves beneath his feet, Tareq humorously wondered how he would be one of those rarest of dwarves, to be engaged with a Snow-White. Tareq smiled to himself at the thought momentarily, but then shook himself to reality. He had to find her first. He consistently called for her until he came across his parent’s gloomy face.

Then he felt relieved when his beady eyes met Hafsa’s sparkling blue eyes. But she now stood arm in arm with a tall, charming man: ‘Tareq, I would like you to meet Fayez. My fiancé’. Tareq smiled and nodded.

After sharing a few pleasantries with the person for whom he felt an indiscernible hatred, he left the hall room, citing migraine as his reason for departure.

For the next couple of days, Tareq didn’t leave his room. A worried Hafsa inquired the Raychaudhuris about Tareq but her inquiries were met with an uncomfortable silence. She couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Some time passed by, and winter arrived with its wind of despair. Hafsa got married to Fayez. A few days after the wedding, she came to meet the Raychaudhuris. She’d return back to the United Kingdom the following day. When she arrived, her eyes searched for Tareq. But he wasn’t there.

When Hafsa and Fayez were about to depart, Ilias chacha arrived with alittle, purple box. ‘Master Tareq asked me to give you this, Miss Hafsa,’ – Ilias Chacha drawled. Hafsa opened the box to find an emerald gemstone ring. A little piece of note laid over it – “For the newlywed bride.” Hafsa smiled and before getting in the car, she glanced at Tareq’s window. The grey curtains still hung over it.

When the car roared to life, Tareq got up from his bed. He peeked between the grey curtains. His Snow White left with her prince charming, and moving away from the window, Tareq retreated back into the darkness of his corner room.



Categories: 14TH ISSUE, LITERATURE

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