They would have called Khaleq a degenerate, a vile beast. He claimed he was in love. Wise men have said that we contemplate all of existence through words; that words have strengths beyond their phonetic constraints, they tether our world to the heavens. But not all words are made equal.
What of the word ‘love’? What is it but a crippling fear of loss? If one’s soul is the rent of all earthly longing, then does not that fear disintegrate? Yet, they still say that love, human love, transcends the divine.
They say that all stories ever told are love stories, no matter how banal or how replete with anfractuous twists; there are those that unfold like salacious epic tales of the Mahabharata or the Arabian Nights; and then, there is the tale of Khaleq and Shahana.
The beginning of Khaleq’s story coincides with the birth of his nation, Bangladesh. In the early parts of the seventies, when the Occident was reveling in its psychedelic flower revolution, almost surreptitiously, with the quiet destruction of a few million lives in the middle of nowhere, a new nation was born.
Reeling from its birth pangs, a nation born from a vicious concoction of socio-linguistic rites and colonial-racial strife, Bangladesh was suffering through an interminable series of upheavals. Few could boast of a good life, let alone one of the luxuries. But, and as is the case in the middle of any chaotic melee, there are advantages to be had for the crafty and the morally bankrupt. In that place, at that time, money was to be made in all sectors where the government saw fit to spend.
With the nation’s infrastructure in post-war disarray, all public sector spending was purportedly focused on infrastructural development. People who were close to the powers that be, which most often were family members or lackeys of political leaders, or second-tier political leaders themselves, sallied into these industries. Most of them, especially the ones who could quickly master the skills of obsequious currying and wholesale fraud, made substantial profits in very short periods. These included all manner of rogues, malefactors, and charlatans, who showed no compunction about perpetrating any degree of knavery or fraud, and their acts of deceit made them instant success stories. For some, however, the expediency of their success became the root cause of their failure as well, because these parvenus never got a chance to acclimatize themselves with money. The quick rush of lucre turned them either into monsters or into freaks. Khaleq’s was one such tragic success story.
Khaleq owned one of the more prominent firms that catered to all the construction needs of the Electricity and Power Ministry throughout the seventies and the eighties. The whole enterprise stood on the man’s personal relationships with key personnel in the ministry, and its homologous organization, the power development board. None would ever claim that Khaleq was a man lacking in either charm or intelligence, but he had an even more prodigious talent for reading people: a valuable skill indeed for one engaged in commerce.
By the late seventies, when General Zia, the military dictator who supplanted dictators of other sorts, ruled the roost, Khaleq had already amassed a sizable fortune and fathered two sons. But the sudden flood of money, and the power that came with it, turned Khaleq into an unfamiliar beast, not unlike many of his contemporaries. The supposed metamorphosis was so sudden that it went unnoticed by everyone, even the mother of Khaleq’s two sons, until the day he initiated in his new life a hunt for the one thing he could not win in his old. To understand his transformation and his macabre hunt, an odyssey into his life is imminent: his life before success. Before the man became a beast, before the business of the power ministry, and after the national scale changed in fortunes, even before Khaleq really became a man, he used to be in love. The object of young Khaleq’s desire was a maiden of famed beauty and grace, even if the fame was limited to the borders of their small town. Her name was Shahana.
As is so often the fate of his nation’s undeclared and unrequited love stories, the fair maiden was born to a family of much higher standing than poor Khaleq’s. They were old zamindars2. The two families had been neighbors if such a term can be used in this context. Her house was the imposing mansion beside which Khaleq’s family had built their meager tenement. To be a little more precise, Khaleq’s home was built on land owned by Shahana’s family, but Khaleq was not a tenant: his family was allowed the privilege of staying rent-free because of Khaleq’s father’s status as an educated public official, albeit of mediocre status. In comparison with the zamindar’s mansion, Khaleq’s modest home looked no better than a hovel.
Shahana might have known of Khaleq, but she had never acknowledged his existence in quite the same manner as her father would never have vouchsafed Khaleq’s father any attention because that is the way the relationship between classes is maintained; that is what, according to the Vedas, maintains balance in this universe. No one could tell if Khaleq, in the old life, did ever muster the courage to express his affection to the girl, but in those times, any such attempt would have been reciprocated with a sound and unforgettable thrashing.
Fate was, as it proved to be on innumerable occasions, kind to Khaleq. He was spared any extended heartache, as a greater urgency embroiled all his energies. Soon the year 1971 was upon them and during those tumultuous months, as Khaleq ran off to join the liberation forces, Shahana was married off to her home tutor. The choice of bridegroom raises suspicions of a romantic affair, quite a common phenomenon for the time; after all, who can expect a young man to attend to and nurture the mental development of an attractive young girl with complete disinterest in her concomitant physical development? Soon after the wedding, the young couple left town, rumored to have settled in the city-of-the-faithful, the capital of then East Pakistan.
It seemed that providence had forever bifurcated their two paths. A lot of things changed in those short nine months, not the least among which was the youth of the newborn nation. Innocent young boys returned as battle-hardened warriors, at ease spilling the blood of their fellow men, but not all gleaning the discipline of an efficient fighting force. Once the war ended and the new nation was born, Khaleq’s parents paired him off with one of his young cousins, whose only living parent had died during the nine months of the war, leaving her an orphan. It was as much a marriage of convenience as it was of love, even if the love was only one-sided. The young lass, Khaleq’s new wife, had always been enamored with him, but the admiration was never returned by Khaleq. That is not to say that Khaleq found his new wife repulsive, or that the fire of youth was not burning in his loins, which it was, so much so that within a month of the wedding, the girl found herself with child.
At around the same time, Khaleq, in search of opportunities, ventured to the capital to try his luck at commerce. After having wielded rifles, handguns, and grenades for the better part of half a year, going back to a humdrum life of uneventful occupation, a steady job with a steady salary and a steady stream of kowtowing to bosses seemed too distasteful to him, as it must have done to so many at the time. Once you have tasted the power of taking another man’s life, your own can never really be the same again. You become like a caged tiger that has tasted flesh. No matter how long it may have been in captivity, and no matter how physically depraved a state it might be in, and obedient and amenable to orders it had become, once it tastes human flesh, there is no trainer in the world that can restrain it. They say the same thing happened with dogs and foxes after the war. Street mongrels had famished themselves in the thousands of corpses that regularly littered the dumps and canals of the towns, the hallmark of the West Pakistan military presence. For what is an army if it can’t lay waste to hordes of unarmed and defenseless civilians? Having satiated their hunger for delectable human flesh, because dogs can’t be expected to discriminate between freshly killed prey and decayed rotten carrion, they could not resist the temptation for more.
Filled with dreams and anxieties, fantasies and fears, young Khaleq arrived in the city that shared both his naïveté and his enthusiasm. They were both venturing into new worlds, the city fledgling to fulfill its potential as a capital and the youth valiantly attempting to carve his own magnificent destiny, and in search of their new identities, the two merged. Khaleq was not the only one; thousands of enterprising young men, who’d gotten the taste of greater adventures than their fathers could have ever imagined, came to the city and merged with it. They changed each other, but in the end, they all changed in different ways. They were all looking for the same thing, but none of them knew what that thing was.
Khaleq arrived in the city and went straight to the man who had commanded his unit during the war. This man had been awarded a high position in the central government as a reward for his gallantry on the battlefield and services rendered to the newly liberated nation. Those were the days when courage and honor still meant something in that land, the last instances of people being rewarded for valor. His old commander offered Khaleq a government sinecure, because he was a man known for his generosity and also for his gratitude, and he remembered Khaleq fondly because of the courage and intelligence, especially the impressive ability to think on his feet, he had shown in the fields of battle. This might be an exaggeration of actual events or a complete figment of Khaleq’s imagination, but as he used to relate the story, he was single-handedly responsible for the rescue of more than a dozen revolutionaries during an ill-fated surprise attack on a West Pakistan military stronghold. There is little doubt, however, that Khaleq was a hero of the liberation war, and his commander did not forget it. But Khaleq was averse to such offers. He had had the taste of monumental adventures, and anything less than a true challenge could no longer satisfy him.
In those days, when Sheikh Mujib’s experimentations with economic socialism were at their peak, the only entity with the ability to buy anything was the government. So, business meant business with the government; you figure out what the government wants to buy, and find a way to supply it. The de facto government, of course, included the people closest to Mujib himself. His sons, his nephews, and the scores of devout Mujibists who rallied around his house, his car, or his offices–many of the same who stood silently by when his body was washed with lead and everyone, including the innocents, carrying the Sheikh cognomen massacred.
Life became even easier if you knew people in the government to smooth things along for you. Finding few other options, the commander wrote Khaleq a letter of introduction, which was no less than a letter of commendation, to the ministry of textiles, and suggested Khaleq meet with the officials there. A lot of people were congregating at the offices of the textile ministry in those times because the government was issuing a lot of tenders to buy clothes.
Despite the outstanding letter of introduction, Khaleq’s foray into the textile industry did not bear much fruit. His was not the only recommendation and certainly not from the most stellar source, but that jaunt did prove fructuous in a roundabout way. While he was making the rounds of the textile ministry, he met and befriended another venturous Young Turk, who had a diploma in civil engineering and a head full of ideas similar to Khaleq’s. Rebuffed by the competition in the textile sector, the two joined hands and decided to try their luck in construction. No doubt, goaded by the engineer who must have erringly believed that his degree could give them an edge, and also because there was no dearth of government tenders in that sector either.
As the taste of success in his commercial pursuits drew nearer, he had other celebratory news as well. Back in the village, his wife gave birth to their first son. The birth coincided almost exactly with Khaleq’s attainment of their first sizable contract. From that first project onwards, they never had to look back.
Very soon the duo found their niche in doing business with the Electricity and Power Board, not because they had any special skills to cater to the needs of that particular customer, but because the Chief Engineer of the board happened to be Khaleq’s partner’s maternal uncle, once removed. Even god only answers the prayers of those who are dear to him. Did the Almighty not make it known to all men that he picked Adam, Noah and the family of Abraham, and the family of Imran over all of mankind and even his fiery creations, the djinns? Then why shouldn’t Chief Engineers?
Financial success was not late in arriving, and success in the family arena kept apace. Just over a year after the birth of their first son, Khaleq’s wife got pregnant for the second time, because a man needs his reprieve and there is no greater reprieve than sowing one’s seeds. Their firstborn was still very young, only a year old, and so the expectant wife and toddler son still stayed behind in the village home with Khaleq’s parents, while he settled comfortably into city life. With plenty of money at his disposal and no home to run to, Khaleq turned to experience the more pleasurable sides of city life.
By 1975, when his younger son was already two, Khaleq had still not brought his wife and sons to his city home. He had gotten too cozy with his hedonistic, and some might even say, philandering, lifestyle. But no one complained. He was always the dutiful son and responsible husband when he went back to the village, which he did at least once a month, and he played the part of a doting father. Money was not in short supply, so there were always plenty of gifts for everyone, and everyone was happy as could be. Then came August 1975, the time when the whole nation changed once again.
Khaleq and his partner had been considered relatively close to the ousted powers. Some even claimed to have seen the two in the company of the national patriarch’s elder son, and everyone knew wherever the elder son went, so did trouble. So both the partners were hauled into jail by the temporary military government, if you can call it that, and given a good sound thrashing for their poor choice of the company; as were so many others of that ilk who had found quick fame from their propinquity with the Sheikhs. That is the nature of fame and success: she is a fickle beast, a whore, unlike the ones who accompany prophets, and they will depart as suddenly as they had arrived. But to Khaleq, fortune was not to be as inclement as it was to many others. He found easy sympathy in a man who had the authority to sign off on his release. This man was a rare specimen and was endowed with some unique qualifications, which were to have a lasting effect on Khaleq’s life.
The reason Khaleq found easy sympathy in our usually officious bureaucrat, Samad, was manifold. First, Samad and Khaleq were from the same small town, even though they had never previously met; those were still times when one’s provenance counted for something. The second, and the more important character trait of Samad was his venality. He would sell his wife if he could get a good deal on her… which he did, and he did.
It can be argued that Samad was not a man rotten to the core. But who are we to judge if he is considered a man with very human failings or a minor devil? That is always best left to the gods.
Depending on how one views the facts, what transpired next could be judged extremely fortunate, or it’s the exact opposite, but incontrovertible was the sheer scale of the coincidence. The generous and pliable bureaucrat also happened to be a popular private tutor to young girls in earlier years, and his lovely young wife was the very same Shahana with whom Khaleq was once besotted. When Khaleq realized the identity of his savior, he also instantaneously realized that he had never really gotten over his first love.
With regained knowledge of Shahana’s existence came a renewed and reinvigorated sally of passion. Some might attribute it to the general aura of the chaos of the times that led to chaotic emotions and eruptions in many like Khaleq, some might attribute it to the young man’s ego that had been inflated out of natural proportions due to the unnatural degree of success he attained in such an unnaturally quick time, but none would attribute it to a third and equally plausible cause: love. These are not the romances of epic cinema, but real love stories rarely are. The complex tableaux of human emotions and myriad quirks of fate obviate any predictability in real human drama. Life, unlike cinema, is not circumscribed by bathos formulae. So, with renascent passion, Khaleq started after that which he could not win in his old life. This time around, Khaleq was equipped with all the right tools. He had amassed a reasonable fortune, and he had found a great ally in his conquest, the Marc Antony to his Caesar, the bumptious and obliging husband, Samad.
The seven odd years that had passed between Shahana’s marriage to Samad and Khaleq’s odd tryst with destiny had been as unequivocally chequered for Shahana as it had been auspicious for Khaleq. While Khaleq had spent these years climbing from strength to strength and gaining money, power, and some might even say status, almost exactly the opposite had transpired for Shahana. It did not take her long after the wedding to discover her husband’s true character. Even though the man observed the five daily prayer rituals without fail, he also missed no opportunity to lie, steal, or cheat. These might have been great characteristics in a man to help him get ahead, especially in the prevailing milieu of wanton greed and corruption, but Samad was almost as corrupt as he was lazy and stupid. In indolence and idiocy, he could challenge just about anybody, and so he was the perfect example of a middle-of-the-pack bureaucrat. It took Shahana a little longer, another year or so, to discover that he was also unable to reproduce.
In the meantime, Shahana’s family’s estate had also withered. Her father, being a member of the old guard, had picked the losing side in the liberation struggle and had to suffer the consequences. Fearing reprisals, her parents moved to Karachi, where they had relatives and expected to receive a better welcome, which they didn’t. Their home, along with almost everything else they owned, was looted, and the once affluent family was reduced to penury. By mid-decade, Shahana was but a shell of her former self.
When fate brought Khaleq and Samad together, they really were in a completely transformed world. Between Khaleq’s money, Samad’s greed, and Shahana’s broken will, it really wasn’t much of a conquest.
It wasn’t difficult for Khaleq to convince Samad to be a party to this act of utter depravity; Samad fain welcomed it. Why wouldn’t he? What could be of more comfort than earning without even having to work? And the practice of bartering one’s wife’s sexual favors for favors of more substantial kinds was quite well established in their social milieu; many a cabinet position has been filled, and colonels made, on similar criteria. And how much work would it really mean for the wives as well? Is it not well known that men of those parts are comforted by a few lazy thrusts of their hips? The games of the Kama Sutra and the rich subtle arts of the courtier are not demanded by them; even in their debauched fornications, they are conservatives to the core.
It would be difficult to imagine what Shahana must have felt about the whole sordid affair, but put up a fight she did not. Life would have been fairly easy and relaxed if that would have been the end. Khaleq would have had his conquest and Samad would have been left a little richer in the purse, but life has a way of not staying very simple.
Who knows if it was the disgust that Khaleq saw in Shahana’s eyes when he approached her naked body, or if it was the absolute wretchedness that he witnessed in the girl he once loved, that moved him to compassion–if he was capable of feeling such emotions anymore–or if it was his desire to kindle passion in her dispassionate eyes, but once Khaleq had the taste of that forbidden fruit, his hunger for it only seemed to be further stoked.
To try to venture into Khaleq’s mental state and discover how tormented he might have been by his actions is inconsequential. Of what value would be such knowledge? One can ask if it was truly lust that actuated his actions or if it was love; how could he have conceived of a world where he would have another man’s wife and not be ostracized by the society around him, or how in good conscience could he do that to his two infant sons and his devoted wife, whose only fault in life had been to love him and to have lost her kin? But what a man thinks, or how he thinks, can only be deciphered by the angels, so let Munkar and Nakir be the judge of Khaleq’s true motives; be that love or some altogether different mania, let them find vice or virtue in his actions.
For months this went on, Khaleq and Shahana having trysts at any odd time of day, with full knowledge and consent, and more often than not, the aid of Samad. Back in the village, no one could suspect this execrable arrangement. Khaleq’s wife was melancholy, but that was because she did not get to see the object of her love as often as she had previously been used to. But Khaleq didn’t stop his visits completely. Even the infrequent visits and the facade of normalcy became too laborious to uphold after a point and Khaleq sent a letter to his parents because he still did not have the courage to confess to his crimes face to face in front of those he wronged, confessing his passion for Shahana and asking them to arrange a divorce with his wife. The sons, he wanted them to be sent to him in the city, where, he wrote, they would receive a better education.
In the world of commerce, things were still going very much in Khaleq’s way. His company was still winning tender bids, and the money kept rolling in, but things in his personal life were not such smooth sailing. His wife refused to give him a divorce because she still believed in the power of her love, which is a particular element that is always overestimated, not through any fault of its own but because of the character of the believer; only the weak and desperate choice recourse in the power of love, and by virtue of that very position, as weak and desperate, they have no power. His wife’s refusal would not have caused Khaleq much chagrin, not only because he did not care about her fate or her anguish, but more so because the laws of the land put no restrictions on polygamy. What caused Khaleq consternation was Shahana’s refusal to marry him or divorce Samad.
It seemed at least that as far as Shahana was concerned, the bond between Khaleq and her was based on simple commerce. It was a relationship of the flesh. Unlike Khaleq’s wife, who held on to an unnatural belief in the power of love, the years and her vicissitudes had made Shahana an absolute non-believer in any such malarkey; she had become inured to any such tender emotion and faced life with a stoic pragmatism that is only possible for someone who has fallen from more rarefied heights. She was not a common woman of easy virtue who would hawk her physical charms to every paying customer and she did not harbor any contempt for Khaleq, but she well understood the dimensions of the relationship that could possibly flourish between Khaleq and her.
Khaleq, however, stood resolute. He wanted more from Shahana than she was ready to give, so he did what any good businessman would do. Instead of trying to convince Shahana, who showed no sign of conceding, he went ahead and made a deal with a more pliant party.
The original compact that created the sinful enterprise was forged not with Shahana but with Samad, and so this new compact was also forged between the same parties. Seeing that Shahana would not part with Samad, which would befuddle any observer and could be attributed to the insipid notion of love if we had not already realized Shahana’s jadedness with that emotion, Khaleq could see no other option but to include Samad in whatever arrangement was to be made. With the right kind of incentive, and the right kind for Samad is measured in the weight of currency notes, he could be persuaded to do just about anything, no matter how sordid. And the final arrangement that Khaleq and Samad did agree upon was one that would have made the devil himself blush.
It was decided that both Shahana and Samad would move into a new house that Khaleq had built for her, and all three of them would live under one roof. Samad would still be Shahana’s husband, but Khaleq would enjoy conjugal privileges with no legal conjugal binding.
What neither Khaleq nor Samad had anticipated was Shahana’s resolve. Even in her otherwise unresisting state, she could not be compelled. As the pressure of Samad’s greed -fueled by Khaleq’s love, concupiscence, and unholy perversions – grew insufferable, she made a definitive choice. With the same stoicism with which she had accepted the original sinful compact, Shahana chose to walk calmly off the ledge of the roof of their five-storied building. In later police statements, the guard of the building and the house-help would testify that they saw Shahana act in the exact same manner that she always did. They thought she might have been preparing to go out, because she had dressed in one of her finer silk sarees, and even if she had always been averse to jewelry, she had worn some that afternoon.
No mention of Khaleq or what might have been the original cause of Shahana’s choice was mentioned in any police report or in the facile news pieces that came out in the press over the next few weeks. Stories of lust and greed were never bandied about. No one knew. If they had known the depths of depravity that led to Shahana’s fate, they would have called Khaleq a degenerate, a vile beast. He claimed he was in love.
Bobby Hajjaj is an academic and political activist. He is a highly published researcher and lecturer at Bangladesh’s top-ranked university (North South University), and the leader of an opposition political party. Over the last decade, he has endured government sanctions, prison, interrogations, and for a brief stint, exile.