Arfin Dubash, chief accountant to the businessman and industrialist Waseem Qureshi, was perplexed. As an employee, Arfin did not expect to be invited to his boss’s social events, let alone to attend his niece’s wedding reception as a guest.
He was hardly aware that his boss, a quiet and private man, had any immediate family. Never married, no children, no one Arfin had seen come and go over the years that the man considered more than acquaintances.
Arfin’s spell had broken a moment too late, for Niaz Kamal had spotted the invitation, and was waddling over. The man’s lumbering mass never made it from one point of the floor to another, even the shortest of distances, without bumping a co-worker’s elbow in the midst of writing, or knocking over a pen holder or stapler, as everything no matter how much in their designated places would always be in his way.
“Too late to hide, my friend,” he tried to affect a singsong tone.
“I’m not hiding anything,” Arfin said, replacing the invitation inside its envelope.
“Fancy, fancy,” said Niaz Kamal, grinning, tapping a chubby finger on it. The big man of secrets, Arfin Dubash. Almost six years I’ve sat at that desk across from you, not ten feet away, and still you give me eyes like I’m a criminal, or worse, a beggar.”
Arfin kept his quiet attention on his Excel worksheet, hoping that for once the man would simply walk away. Kamal pulled up a chair and made himself a visitor.
“Mr. Qureshi is busy with his niece’s wedding,” he leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head. “Which means he’ll be a stranger around here for at least the next week. Leaving you in charge. Many of us – actually, all of us – think we should be rewarded for all the extra time we’ve been putting in, you know, with a few short days to compensate.”
“It’s always like this before Ramzan and Eid holidays,” Arfin said.
“What will you do if I leave right now and don’t come to work till after lunch tomorrow?” Kamal leaned forward, a fleshy mass posed to be a threat. “Report me to Mr. Qureshi? What if we all did it?” His flabby arm drew a quick arc above his head banding the rest of the office into his question. Ping-pong ball eyes gleamed in their sockets as he waited for Arfin’s response.
“Go back to work,” said Arfin. “I have my own to do.”
Kamal pushed to his feet. It left him winded. Wheezing for breath he planted both hands on the desk, his face a distended mass of flesh in front of Arfin.
“You are not who you think you are, Dubash,” he said. “You’re not fit to work with men.”
Kamal took extra pains to stomp to his desk, sending shudders through the floor and walls, and sat down with a self-righteous thump. For the next several minutes he stayed fixed on Arfin with a scowl. Other eyes around the office that had watched the exchange between the two blinked away and shifted back to their work.
Ten minutes after seven Waseem Qureshi walked in the front door, and bee-lined toward his chambers in the back.
Through the open door Arfin saw Qureshi dabbing rainwater off his face with a handkerchief. He had a look that Arfin had seen many times over the years, and too often in the last few months.
“Come inside and close the door,” Qureshi said.
“I’ll lock the main door, sir,” said Arfin.
“I did it.”
Arfin pressed the door shut behind him.
“The ACC,” Qureshi said, sinking in his swivel chair, releasing a deep, long exhale. “I was so looking forward to this week being the least bit relaxing and enjoyable. See off my niece with some peace of mind.”
“Anti-Corruption Commission, sir?
Qureshi pressed a thumb and forefinger over his eyes in lieu of a response.
“We are prepared, sir. Tonight if they wanted.”
“I know this, Arfin. Problem lies in the fact that these chaps are products of the Martial Law days. Somehow they’ve found their way back in government, despising as they do the current administration, and the ACC is no small kingdom to have power in.”
“You survived the worst times, sir,” said Arfin. “Let them do what they will. We’re hiding nothing here.”
“I guess you’re right,” Qureshi sighed. Waseem Qureshi, sixty-five, was lean and athletic, ate three small meals a day, abstained from alcohol, allowed measured portions of salt and sugar into his bloodstream, played squash four times a week, and made a pre-emptive strike at stress every morning with an hour of meditation. “Right, you are, as always,” he shook his head, smiling. His hands came together under his chin, forming a steeple with his forefingers. “What did you think of the invitation? Fine job I have to say. The chap is only twenty years old, and works out of a one-room brick building, that also is his home. My niece is an expert at finding out of the way people and places.” After a pause, he said, “Your attendance, I’m counting on it.”
“Sir, being social, I’m sure I’ve forgotten how to do it,” Arfin managed a nervous sliver of laughter.
“Maybe it’s time for change,” Qureshi smiled.
“I’m honored, sir, for the invitation…”
“Good, because I need you there too. I’ve invited them, three from the ACC’s top rank and file. As it is, I’m certain my house would be monitored that night anyway, so why not give them a better vantage point. I want them to know your name and your face. So, please, be social this one night as a favor to me.”
“Sir, yes, of course.”
“You’re an honest man, Arfin. Too honest to even be able to hide your extreme reluctance. Think of it as a work related outing.”
Through the large bay window to his right Arfin saw the rain coming down in sheets, obscuring the street two floors below. Rain clattered on the roof as if there were tin cans and pebbles showering down with it. The ashen sky looked backlit by halogen lamps.
“You came to work for me as a young man,” Qureshi continued. “A brilliant accountant, no doubt, but it was your natural instincts that I noticed immediately. Good instinct is a rare gift.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I will send a car for you,” said Qureshi.
“A car, sir?”
“To get to my house for the wedding.” Qureshi let out a quick laugh and leaned back.
“No need for such trouble, sir. I’m happy to take a taxi.”
“I’m sending the car, not driving it myself,” Qureshi laughed again. “Tell me now, what else is making that brow of yours extra worried this evening.”
“I think so, sir, that some of the men want extra time off.”
“Of course they do. Ramzan is a few weeks away, so it’s time to have a thousand excuses to bunk work. Nothing doing. No time off till Eid. If they have a problem, they can bring it to me or not come back to work.”
His feet were encased in liquid. He had forgotten to taper the cuffs of his pants around his shin and tuck them in his socks, and now they were soaked through, sloshing against his ankles. His umbrella was holding steady against the wind, but he wished he could be inside his briefcase, next to the wedding invitation, watertight and protected.
He reached his sister’s front door twenty minutes late. The rain was down to pattering against the back of his shirt and pants, and when Arfin lowered his umbrella to close it, a sudden gale thrust it inside out. His brother-in-law opened the door to find Arfin blinking in the watery dusk clutching his briefcase to his chest, and the umbrella sticking out of his fist like a laughable weapon.
“Every week I think, maybe this time he’ll show up in a car,” said Kamrul, as Arfin squeezed past him into the narrow hallway. Arfin set down his briefcase and umbrella, watching his brother-in-law limp away as he pulled the shoes off his pruned feet. “Every week, you’re a bigger mess than the last time.”
“Sharmeen, your brother is here,” Kamrul called out, shuffling his way toward the living room. “Let’s eat now, for God’s sake.”
Life had taken a slashing swipe at Kamrul when, one week before the interview for a promotion that would payoff twenty-five years with the Dhaka City Corporation, it sent him to the hospital to be bedridden for three months with a fractured femur from an accident that, by all witness accounts, should have ended him in the morgue. The promotion had passed on by the time Kamrul returned to work. In the beginning, flush from the gratitude of being able to work again, to live as a man in full, with a limp instead of having to roll in a wheelchair, or worse, he had entertained notions that his time would come again, that the powers that be would take into account acts of God, or the city’s lethal traffic, as well as Kamrul’s spotless record and glowing reviews year after year, but when five years passed without so much as word of a recommendation, it was time enough for him to get the point.
Through the spiced air of the house, Arfin followed the hallway toward the back, inhaling ginger, turmeric, and gorom moshla, until he reached the kitchen.
“Get in here,” said Sharmeen, without turning from the stove, hovering over a large pot of dal.
“Oh, no,” Arfin said from the door. “Already so tense. I think I’m safe right here.”
“It’s a shame that man you work for treats you like a chaprashi. You’re a veteran accountant with that bloody place, and here you are going around the city like a two poisha errand boy.”
“I like the rain,” said Arfin. “If I took a taxi or car, I’d still be stuck out there right now. Sometimes the simple ways are better.”
Sharmeen turned to face Arfin, and immediately her sternness softened to a wistful smile. “My little piece of the moon. Here, try this.”
“So, Qureshi Enterprises keeps on singing songs of victory, through everything,” Kamrul said at the dining table.
“They have my brother to thank for it,” said Sharmeen, landing spoonfuls of rice onto Arfin’s plate. “Good people that work hard for them, and in return get nothing back.”
“Profits, Mrs. Haider, profits,” said Kamrul, “otherwise they’re only mouths to feed.”
“Listen to this big talk from your brother-in-law,” said Sharmeen. “Next time someone doesn’t give him credit my head will be spinning from hearing about good people being ignored by idiots.”
“Workers get hired to work,” said Kamrul. “You can’t take ‘good’ to the bank. What do you say, Arfin? I’m right, no?”
“I’m not the only person that works there, and works hard,” said Arfin. “Mr. Qureshi is an honest man. He has nothing to be worried about.”
Kamrul reached for the eggplant, and chuckled. “He’s honest to himself first. There’s the difference. Himself first, and then good people and everyone else. That’s the thinking ways of the intelligent man.”
“Then when he gets his promotion,” Sharmeen said, “it will be a different tune, about how good people really are, and it’s all a matter of time.”
Kamrul stopped mixing his food.
“Four years it’s been since my accident and still she thinks that damn promotion is coming,” he said, perfunctorily addressing Arfin. “Being in the hospital for three months isn’t the way to go about being promoted. I don’t care who it is. Woman, for God’s sake, leave it be.”
He pushed back his chair and to his feet. “Be thankful for once that I still have a job, that we can eat and have this roof, instead of deluding about things that will never happen.”
The silence in Kamrul’s wake was broken only by the gurgling of the drain behind the house. Sharmeen took her half-finished plate into the kitchen where Arfin heard her let it clatter into the sink. He finished his meal, and joined her.
“Waiting around for things is exhausting,” he said.
“You don’t have to tell me that,” said Sharmeen, spooning food into plastic containers arranged on the counter.
Arfin drew from his pocket a small folded envelope.
“Here,” he pressed the envelope on his sister’s arm. “If you need more, just tell me.”
“Put it over there,” said Sharmeen.
“Just don’t keep talking about that promotion anymore,” said Arfin. “Being reminded doesn’t make it any easier.”
“He just gave up.”
“What about you? Why did you never go back to teaching? Go back now, and you still have enough time to put in fifteen good years.”
“Don’t lecture me, Arfin. I get my share enough every day.”
“He means well.”
Arfin picked up the containers Sharmeen had sealed and began placing them in the fridge.
“What about you?” said Sharmeen. “Is it right to be alone like this all the time?”
“I have the same answer for you as I did last week and the week before. Women are not waiting in line for a forty year old accountant that’s gone as far as he will go in life.”
“If they had brains they would know better. But you are to blame too. Like a hermit you live, only going to work and that tiny box you call a home.”
Arfin set the last of the containers on top of a larger one and closed the fridge.
“Will you tell me if you need more?” he said, nodding his head toward the envelope on the counter.
“No,” Sharmeen’s expression relaxed, and she laughed a tinny of scales.
“I’ve been invited to a wedding,” said Arfin. “My boss’ niece. Before you say anything, let me tell you, I’m going as a courtesy to him, that’s it. Not to look for a wife. Stop smiling like that. I’m going to use your iron for my shirt and socks.”
“Stay a little longer,” Sharmeen said. “I’ll do it for you.”
“No, no. I can iron a shirt and pair of socks. This rain isn’t finished yet. I should take advantage of this break.”
Out front Arfin found Kamrul smoking, studying the sky.
“I’ve left your shirt on the ironing board,” Arfin said.
Kamrul broke out of his spell, dragged on his cigarette, and said, “My father had a wish that I would become a scientist.” He looked up again. “I think I would have been a meteorologist. Although, in this country, it wouldn’t be difficult predicting the weather most of the year. If not heat then rain, no rain, plenty of heat. You’re off then.”
“Hopefully I can make it home before it starts again,” said Arfin, resetting his umbrella, and tying the small band around it to hold it together.
“How much did you give her this time?” Kamrul asked, pinning his stare on Arfin’s forehead.
A cool wind rising and falling, scattered somber clouds from one part of the sky, making them regroup at another. Wind swept through trees making them hiss and spray moisture.
“The same,” Arfin replied.
“If it wasn’t for the hospital bills…and everything else…no children even, to distract from her misery. Why she hasn’t left me I can’t tell.”
“That wouldn’t be like her,” said Arfin.
“I know. She’s a damn fool of a woman, I tell you. Too, too good. Take good care,” said Kamrul, giving Arfin’s shoulder a pat. “See you next week.”
Arfin owned one suit, the one he had bought for his first interview with Waseem Qureshi fifteen years ago, and had not worn since that day. He had it covered in the plastic that came with it, hanging by itself on one end of the closet. Trying it on, Arfin felt reeled backward through space, like a rewind switch had been hit, sending his life spiraling at a hundred miles an hour to years that existed again, a mere seconds’ journey through his own history.
His parents were alive. Arfin was standing in front of the mirror his father had used every morning for thirty years to check himself to make certain he was presentable to be seen as a respectable representative of the Civil Service. The scent of his father’s Benson & Hedges hung over the room, mixed with the sweet aroma of homemade jilapis soaking in honeyed sugar, his mother’s homemade treat to send off her son into his future.
Sharmeen was already married, and recently served with the news that she would never bear children. Arfin had spoken ominously about his plans for marriage, which his parents had taken as the preoccupied disaffection of a young upstart eager to make his place in the world. Five years would pass before acceptance remained to be his parents’ only choice, half a decade in which they would see their son age twice as much, into a man who had gone as far as he would entertaining much else in his life than what he had achieved. Some years hence, within a year of each other, both his parents would be dead.
The suit tapered around his shoulders exactly as that first day, the pants clinging to the bones of his waist with just enough need for a belt to hold it there. There was something to be said, Arfin thought looking now with an upward curve of his lip after all these years at a mirror of his own, for the lonely man’s frugal diet, and walking.
Rain drowned the sunless morning of the wedding, raising Arfin out of sleep long before his alarm, lashing against the window above his bed. Arfin was certain after listening to it grow wilder for an hour and a half that his phone would ring any moment with Waseem Qureshi on the other end declaring the reception postponed. It was wishful thinking. In the world of Waseem Qureshis no affair as conspicuous and status-laden as a wedding was postponed. The phone never rang. Few hours later, Arfin was getting into his suit, watching himself go through the motions in the mirror with the detachment of seeing another man getting dressed.
He went downstairs to wait for the car Waseem Qureshi had insisted on sending and found the front of his building under a foot of water. Rickshaws and scooters stood mired in forced resignation, waiting out for as long as it would take for the flood to drain, but here and there people were still flitting toward them, crawling up on sodden rickshaw seats, trotting into scooters, and, when they started moving, still making more headway than cars imprisoned in traffic jams, like the one Arfin could see clogging his street.
Arfin rolled his pants above his knees, took off his shoes and socks, and waded through the filthy water. The ground was grimy and scratchy, floating tongues of paper, discarded of their use as food containers from street vendors, licked his legs, and pebbles poked the bottom of his feet at every step.
Before recognizing him, the driver barked at Arfin to stop as soon as the accountant got within ten feet of the vehicle. Even after being recognized, Arfin was made to clean and dry his legs until his skin was raw, track down two large pieces of oilcloth, which Arfin found at a nearby tea stall and had to pay the old proprietor for, place them on the front seat and on the floor of the car so that every exposed inch was covered, and, after a further eyeballed inspection, was cleared to take a seat.
“Why you don’t have the car?” the driver grumbled as he jerked the car in gear and began wading the tires through water.
An hour and forty-five minutes later, they slowed to a halt in front of the towering metal gates of Waseem Qureshi’s house. Four guards were lined up to face him as soon as Arfin stepped out. He was told, with surreptitious politeness to turn and place his hands on the roof of the car, spread his legs, remain calm. The pit of Arfin’s stomach told him otherwise. After he was frisked, one of the guards checked a clipboard, then nodded to the others. Arfin had an urge to laugh, wondering if his boss actually knew the sort of cinematic business that was going on in the name of his security.
The driveway was deserted to a snaking line of cars that went as far as Arfin could see. Along one side of the driveway ran a lawn, the grass manicured down to an inch of perfection, lime trees lining the perimeter, and electric hurricane lanterns placed at intervals between them glowing a muted orange in the fading twilight. There was a wet, indecisive breeze as the last glow of day dimmed from the sky, and Arfin saw up ahead the blazing lights of the house.
Guards again, but these two courteous, and charged only with the job of opening the door for guests. They even gave Arfin a bow.
Stepping into the foyer, Arfin was startled by a figure appearing beside him, walking in stride with him, like an actor entering a scene. It was his reflection in the large, gold-framed mirror that hung on the wall to his right, below which, on a polished wooden table, stood a crystal vase sprouting freshly picked, startling yellow-orange gada flowers. The windy tune of the shehnai reached him from an unseen location. Most likely, pre-recorded.
A waiter appeared. Arfin asked for water. As soon as the waiter nodded and walked past in front of him like a curtain moving out of the way, Arfin spotted Waseem Qureshi striding toward him. Arfin could tell his boss was edgy, but the man’s public grace was nothing if not intact.
“Dubash, welcome, welcome, welcome to my home,” said Qureshi, arms extended as though in prologue of offering Arfin an embrace, which ended with him clasping Arfin’s hand in both of his, and giving it a series of energetic pumps. “I’d forgotten, I tell you,” Qureshi’s voice lowered, “that so many damn people had been invited. My dear niece thought she was doing me a favor by inviting them. She’s a good girl. Come.”
Arfin followed Qureshi through clots of people in conversation toward a small dais, fitted with wooden pillars that adorned in garlands of red and white roses, framing, in high-backed chairs, the young bride and groom.
“They’re here,” Qureshi said, weaving his way through bodies, every one of whom offered a greeting, and hoped to detain him in conversation. Qureshi returned each greeting without stopping.
Eyebrow cocked, Qureshi gave Arfin a sideways glance.
“They,” he said, walking up to the edge of the dais. “The people I mentioned.”
“Oh. Yes sir.”
The bride was dressed not in customary wedding-day red but gold. From head to foot, gold covered her like a honey wash. Arfin shook his thoughts from wondering how much her dress alone had cost, shimmering as it was under the chandelier directly above the dais like a thousand-watt outfit of light. Beside her her groom, in his navy blue suit, spiffed Oxfords, and turban, salmon pink, looked like the sophisticated, Britain educated, local aristocrat’s son amongst Sandhurst-bred English officers in an E.M. Forster novel. Both young faces were holding smiles, accepting good wishes and gifts. There was about the scene, Arfin thought, a weighty sadness.
Qureshi broke the line and stepped onto the dais, causing a stern-eyed woman with socialite haughtiness to stop seconds before offering the bride and groom her graces, and her gift. Arfin lingered behind him until Qureshi ushered him to get on the dais to meet the couple.
“I present Mr. and Mrs. Mahmood,” Qureshi announced. “This lovely young girl is my niece, Bushra, and this young man is Tanveer. Soon to be a Harvard trained physician.”
“And her husband,” offered the woman of socialite haughtiness. Qureshi regarded, and summarily dismissed her with a frown.
Arfin’s heart gave a kick. His hand was empty. A gift had not once crossed his mind.
“This is Mr. Arfin Dubash,” Qureshi said. “My colleague.”
“Good evening,” Arfin said. “Congratulations.”
The groom gave him a silent nod. Bushra raised her hand, her offer for Arfin to receive it resembling something between a gesture of calling truce after a long, arduous quarrel that ended in mutual respect, and a monarch letting a grateful subject kiss his sovereign’s God-appointed hand of authority for her charity and greatness. There was something regal about her beauty. The roundness of her face was balanced by her high cheekbones, and a nose that dipped to a slight upward curve at the tip, her chin a perfect lowercase v, and lips that seemed constantly on the verge of speaking. Bushra’s grip tightened around Arfin’s, and after giving it a quick shake, when he was ready to pull back, she had held on, as though expecting Arfin to raise her to her feet.
Heading back into the mass of guests and their endless din, Qureshi’s joviality faded. They could not have been talking to the newlyweds for more than five minutes, but Arfin was sure a new surge of guests had arrived in that short time. Shoulder touched shoulder, conversations bled into each other, the league of waiters moved and served flawlessly and unhindered, and Arfin’s curiosity tuned in to the spectacular cornucopia of scales and pitch that was the human laughter.
Qureshi scanned the room like a policeman on alert for a possible suspect in the crowd. He settled on a group of three middle-aged men about twenty feet away in a circle of their own.
“There they are,” Qureshi’s elbow nudged Arfin. “The ACC’s three-headed dog.”
Qureshi led the way toward them. The three men had been talking intermittently while their eyes roamed the room, keeping their expressions stern, which spread into smiles as soon as they collectively spotted Qureshi heading their way.
“Gentlemen, I apologize for my absence,” said Qureshi, extending his hands. “This is my colleague, Mr. Dubash.
“Mr. Kader, Mr. Shahan, and Mr. Huq,” Qureshi introduced them.
The waiter appeared with Arfin’s water as he finished shaking hands. Thinking that Qureshi would lead the conversation, Arfin picked up the glass, and began taking small, frequent sips. The three men staring at him as a unit flashed before Arfin the image his boss had drawn, turning the men’s human faces into fang baring canine heads. He remembered the reference from an old copy of world mythology he’d found among his father’s books and read over a weekend.
“Many congratulations to you, Mr. Qureshi,” Mr. Shahan broke the silence. “Your niece is lovely, and he’s quite the smart young man.”
“You’ve met them?” Qureshi said.
“We took the liberty,” Mr. Kabir offered.
“A Dhaka wedding in the middle of July?” said Mr. Huq.
“The boy has to return to the States for the beginning of the semester,” said Qureshi.
“Where are her parents?” Mr. Shahan asked.
“They’re here somewhere,” said Qureshi. “As you can see, so is everyone else.”
The three men were expecting more information, but Qureshi was done.
Three glasses of water later Arfin’s throat was still parched, and his bladder was making demands. Qureshi’s attention was devoted to the three men. When other guests approached him to say hello, reached for his hand, or lauded him for the evening’s fine arrangements, his responses were brisk. With the ACC men, Qureshi had artfully kept the discussion free of seriousness. Arfin saw that his boss was in good control, regaling the men more with his knowledge of cricket and his thoughts on the forthcoming test match between Pakistan and Bangladesh, than parading his business acumen. These men knew all too well who Waseem Qureshi was, that it would cause them more damage than good to be tainted in his grace, and it was their own careers getting a clap on the back by them ostensibly doing their job and keeping tabs on one of the most high-profile names in the country. None of them noticed Arfin’s exit.
Weaving his way through the throngs, their conversations humming through him like a steady stream of electric current, Arfin pressed toward the main doors through which Qureshi had brought him in. A sudden lacquered tang of perfume made him turn his head as he passed a woman with her face blanched with foundation so thick it was crusting around her cheeks. Up on the dais, Arfin noticed that the bride’s chair was empty.
On his way out Arfin tried to flag the attention of a waiter with eye contact, but could not get one of them to return his, to ask for the nearest bathroom. It didn’t feel right to go wandering in the home of his boss without permission, but his formality was at last trumped by the natural tendency of his conscience and formality free bladder.
For all the bodies and chatter and milling about in the wedding reception, the foyer was deserted. One light fixture shone a spot from the center of the ceiling on the egg white marble floor. Arfin closed the glass doors behind him, and the silence was as sudden as if he’d lost his hearing. Facing now the main entrance to the house, the large mirror and table with the vase of flowers were to his left, and to his right he noticed a narrow hallway leading to the shadowy outline of a door.
The sounds of the reception receded behind him, its volume dimming with each step he took. It struck him that the man he had worked for for the last fifteen years lived in a house that brought to mind the palaces of Mughal kings Arfin had read about in school, royal spaces that hid behind its glamour secret passageways and hidden chambers where sinister acts, murder and treason and treachery never to be known to the world outside were carried out. In the service and protection of the monarch. Arfin reached the door and turned the knob.
He felt carpet under his shoes. Soft, and thick enough to be a comfortable mattress. A familiar scent laced in the chilled air. Qureshi’s pipe tobacco, its blend of citrus and honey marking the man’s territory. Arfin knew of the office Qureshi had set up in his house by a phone number he had shared with only Arfin to a line that was different from the regular residence phone. He was standing in that office.
After his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he could make out a large desk, a swivel chair identical to the one in Qureshi’s chambers at work, and behind them a wall fitted with a row of floor to ceiling bookshelves. The room had an insulated, soundproofed hush. Feeling like an intruder, Arfin made a half-turn to retreat.
Women’s clothes in their most festive grandeur, the signature rustling they made, whispered out of the darkness. His hand paused over the doorknob when he heard a jingling to the rhythm of the woman’s steps, undoubtedly walking his way. Ghungroos, clasped around her ankles like a classical dancer’s, the miniature bells shaking faithfully with the smallest movement of the feet.
“I thought I had to go away without holding you one more time,” the woman spoke at a cautious volume. “And telling you my heart will always be with you. Never will it belong to anyone else. Ever.” A hand lighted on Arfin’s shoulder, its pressure gentle and inviting, and in the next moment the overhead lights rained down brightness. Before Arfin had fully turned to face her, he heard her gasp.
Bushra’s expression was identical to the one she had given Arfin on the dais, her lips closed against more words. For a moment her eyes widened. Arfin saw her hand reach for a panel of switches on the wall. “Sorry,” she whispered, and flipped a switch.
He heard her withdrawing, the rustle of her clothes urgent as her shuffle, and the ghungroos desperately shrilling along with her pace, until there was the sigh of a door opening at the other end of the room and closing with a thud.
He would have to relieve himself elsewhere, outside.
He retraced his steps to the foyer, pushed open the main door, startling the two guards in the middle of conversation, and jogged down the driveway toward the main gates.
“Dubash, what do you do with yourself on weekends? Or does any such thing exist in your world?”
Niaz Kamal stood over Arfin’s desk, emanating stale, deep fried oil and cigarettes.
“Do you go to mosque on Friday? No, I don’t think so you do. If I were to put my money on it, I would say you stay right there in that chair. How do you sleep? Do you sleep?”
The meat of his face shook from his laughter. “You would know,” he stopped laughing, his eyes narrowed, “if you had any idea what it was like to want something else other than work. I feel sad for you, friend, very sad. A man with nothing else to look forward to in his life than work. What will you do when you’re too old for work?”
“He’ll finally find a wife that’s young enough to keep him young, too,” said Rahman, raising snickers and mumbles around the floor. “He’ll have no time for old age or miss working. She’ll keep him plenty occupied.”
Arfin was ready to leave when Qureshi entered. Arfin checked his watch, twenty minutes past eight, and Sharmeen had called twice in the last half hour, insisting that only after he was there would the table be set. In the background Arfin had heard his brother-in-law’s grumbling dissent.
“Good evening, sir,” Arfin said.
“I thought you’d still be here,” said Qureshi, changing course from his office toward Arfin’s desk.
“Just getting ready to go, sir. But if you needed me to stay I will. I was not sure when you were coming back.”
“No, no. You don’t need to stay any later. I wanted to thank you. Really, Arfin. Thank you.”
“Sir, for what? I’m grateful to have been invited. It was a beautiful reception.”
“I don’t know whether to feel relived or worry that the Anti-Corruption Commission of our country is so easily mollified by a few drinks and a meal. But why did you leave without seeing me?”
“You were busy, sir. I didn’t want to intrude. I’m glad things went well.”
“The newlyweds left last night. She’s the closest thing I had to my own child, poor thing, and I’m finally at peace that she’s off to a life that will suit her well. You know, she was adopted into the family.”
“I did not know that, sir.”
“Long story that I’d rather leave for another time.”
Qureshi gave Arfin a sudden, peremptory smile, which just as abruptly disappeared, and sank into his chair, more tired than he was letting on. Arfin waited a few seconds, then closed the door.
Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His fiction has appeared in Eastlit Journal, China Grove, 94 Creations, Farmhouse Literary Journal, and forthcoming in the Roanoke Review.