The Fiction Factory
When you are a fifty-something man in contemporary Bangladesh, how do you seek fulfillment when the woman you married no longer interests you, when the country shows little resemblance to the dreams you fought for in your youth, and when your ambition to be a writer has been blocked by the demands of making an ordinary living?
If you are Zafar Ahmed Russell, former freedom fighter and one-time story-writer, now working as an accounts manager in an industrial firm, you seize an unexpected opportunity to feed your writerly vanity. You agree to write copy for the Mongoose, a special police force, whitewashing extra-judicial assassinations.
In my novel The Fiction Factory, Zafar Ahmed Russell makes that choice even though it threatens to kill his marriage and destroy his daughter’s love. While Russell’s dilemma is at the center of the novel, there is a second, intersecting story line: his daughter Kajol’s quest to rescue an old lover, Rumi, who was once the hope of many but is now on a Mongoose hit list.
In the finale, the two story lines come together as Russell tries to extricate himself from the choice he made and Kajol closes in on finding Rumi.
Russell arrived at work nearly an hour late. He was not happy with his tardiness but pleased to find the office buzzing with activity. The end of the fiscal year could perform miracles. The three older veterans on his staff, men who had been with him for decades, pored through manhandled ledgers and already their eyes drooped and their shoulders hunched. One thirtyish man in khakis and buttoned-down shirt, an MBA hired by the chartered accountant, manipulated a spreadsheet on his computer screen. Russell had to concede that the CA had injected a new culture of efficiency. Though Russell had kept his title as Director of Accounts, it was a mere formality; the CA had been made VP for Financial Affairs. Russell had asked to stay on beyond retirement age, but it was no sure thing. He must prove his worth.
Shamsu and the other assistant struggled to keep up with their orders: take this to that desk, bring me that book from so-and-so downstairs. One new fellow had been hired to do data entry. Right now he was overloaded. After Shamsu had shown interest — and proved himself a whiz on the numeric keypad — he found half his time allotted behind a computer. It was still novel — a chair behind a monitor appeared higher in status — so he resisted his other duties. Who would rather be a mere peon?
Russell waved, returned the salaams of the others as he padded into his office. He would soon join the bustle. He enjoyed this time of the year: there were small puzzles to solve, and every year there would be at least one large one requiring his finesse.
When he turned around, a cup of tea lay on his desk. His mouth dry, he licked his lips. Shamsu was at the doorway, his boyish face looking expectant. His small eyes shifted between Russell and the wrapping paper on the desk. There was an amused curl to his mouth, as if he was wondering, now what was this foolish man up to?
Russell sat back down and took a long sip of his tea.
“What?” He knew the boy, snubbed once, wouldn’t open his mouth until spoken to.
“Samad Shaheb wanted you to look at that memo I placed on your desk this morning.” Shamsu pointed to a sheet of paper.
“Why can’t he just call me? We pay for a perfectly good PBX phone system. What’s with these memo-shemos? Why are we losing the habits of face to face?”
“He said it’s urgent, sir.”
With a sigh, Russell reached for the memo. The memo concerned their Ashulia factory’s accounts. Mr. CA asked Russell to look into an item recorded as ‘security consultancy services’. The amount had doubled each of the last two months. Russell was responsible for scrutinizing anything that fell under consultancy expenses. This was where all sorts of petty pilfering took place — but also the extraordinary costs of doing business. There were always payments to be made, to keep politicians, police, disgruntled elements at bay. And ‘helpful’ individuals popped up all the time offering to grease channels.
Looking at the figures, Russell’s eyes widened. How had he missed this? He was expected to keep a certain pressure on the factories and sales outlets so that the extortion did not get out of hand. He picked up the phone and dialed the factory manager’s mobile phone.
“Rahimullah Shaheb, what is this mysterious ‘security consultancy’ that’s exploding — logarithmically?”
“Bhai, it fills me with shame. I know I should have cleared it with the head office. Samad Shaheb already scolded me. But I figured it would be a one-time affair, alas it’s becoming routine.”
“Yes, but what is it about?”
“Arrey, don’t remind me. What a headache. We had no choice. A new committee of freedom fighters has set up an office nearby. We managed to bring the last gang under control, but they’ve been pushed away by these guys.”
“Have you negotiated? Offered the leaders a job or two?”
“Bhai, those old methods don’t work anymore. Why should they work when they can make more money by sitting on their asses?”
“I understand, but have you tried?”
“Bhai, you sit in Motijheel in a skyscraper — you cannot imagine the pressures we are under. Why don’t you pay the boys a visit? You were a freedom fighter, maybe they will listen to you. You usually have some tricks. Remember that time when….”
The man would go on and on if Russell didn’t cut him off. He said, “That was a long time ago. The war’s already thirty years past. Perhaps this has to do with the elections coming up.”
“Yes, the elections. My blood pressure will get much worse. Every candidate will ask for something for their leader’s birthday, their dear ones’ death anniversaries, to celebrate the marital bliss of their close or distant relatives. Bhai, please try. They will listen. You have a way.”
Shaala. Everyone’s in a buttering-up mood these days.
“Let me see if I can squeeze some time. Perhaps this morning.”
“Excellent. Talk to the boys, then join me for lunch. I’ll be back in the factory by then.”
Russell knew he would go. This was what made blood zip through his veins. Sitting in the office, his mind would wander from boredom. But he knew one was the admission fee for the other. He could not imagine Mr. CA getting his hands dirty. He walked over to Shamsu at his computer desk, explained the errand, and told him to get ready within five minutes. Shamsu knit his eyebrows before his face surrendered. Russell knew the boy also enjoyed joining him, but right now this meant he would have to work overtime to keep up with his new duties. There was no choice — Russell needed backup.
They climbed into a company car, Shamsu taking the passenger seat in front. The driver made good time through Khilgaon and Rampura, but the traffic fouled when they reached Badda.
The next thing he knew, the landscape had opened up. They had reached the outskirts of Ashulia. Asking the driver to cut the a/c, he lowered the window and breathed in deeply. Outside was a world of green rice fields, a wide lake, river channels, open skies. Beyond that, like monsters lining the horizon, smokestacks of brick kilns, transforming the fertile soil of rural Bangladesh into the hard red bricks of urban growth. In a few years this too would all be swallowed up. Before long, the landscape returned to concrete, to signboards, commerce and industry, to thickened traffic. Russell rolled up the window.
Ashulia. A name unknown to Dhakaites only two decades ago. To people in the ardor of love and affection — sweetheart to sweetheart, parent to child, friends still enjoying the closeness of youth — it still signified a lovely vista within an hour or two. A chance to stroll, breathe with deep lungs, laugh and flirt. A few miles farther, amusement parks offered screaming fun. To men of business, it had become a place to park factories and warehouses. To journalists and police, a place to rush to when a plant burned, a building collapsed, or where workers filled the streets with angry shouts, scenes often spilling over into brickbats and tear gas and gunfire. Ashulia signaled opportunity. Sleepy villages of yesterday were now overtaken by men of commerce, city youth seeking escape, and thousands of young women and men chasing the promise of work. Ashulia fed dreams.
They were on their way to meet some other dreamers.
The car passed an Italian restaurant. Shamsu said he was puzzled that the man who started the business had returned after working in Italy for many years. Why had he come back? If Shamsu could leave, he wouldn’t look back. The driver replied that the man now owned two restaurants and he had others working for him. Over in Italy he must have worked like a slave. In the next breath, the driver said he wouldn’t mind a chance to migrate. A cousin had offered to help, but how could he possibly raise the 400,000 takas he would need? He had only one skill, so he needed a country where he could work as a driver. Kuwait had once been possible, but so many had to come back from there after the war. Why didn’t Shamsu apply for the DV lottery for the USA? He had completed his Higher Secondary. That might not be worth much in the local job market, but it was the admission ticket for the Diversity Visa.
Russell listened to the two of them talk. He wondered if either would make it out.
The car slowed down as they approached crowded industrial neighborhoods. They took a left on the side road between Ashulia and Savar. Surma had been lucky to locate their factory here. If one approach from Dhaka was blocked by rioting, they had another alternative via Mirpur. The driver parked the car in the factory compound and Russell sent Shamsu inside to get directions.
When Shamsu returned, Russell smelled cigarettes on him. He must have stepped aside for a quick smoke. He chuckled and allowed the boy to lead the way. They walked without hurry, a contrast to the hundreds of feet marching back and forth around them: young women and men, their faces bright, sometimes laughing; children in school uniforms with backpacks; older people with bags in their hands, the head of a gourd or a bunch of greens hanging out. Shamsu took a turn into a narrow side street, barely wide enough for a single car. The asphalt soon gave way to bare earth hammered solid by feet, laced with ruts from rickshaw tires. Way up ahead they could see the remains of the old Ashulia: tin and bamboo huts spaced apart; fruit trees; the edge of open fields, vegetables close by, rice beyond.
They spotted a small structure: tin roof, bamboo thatch walls. A huge sign had been planted into the ground with metal legs. In red, gold and green, it read: “Freedom Fighters Coordinating Committee.” At the top edge, in small letters: “Allah is all-powerful.” No doubt he is, Russell thought, he’s given you guys easy money so fast.
Inside they had to adjust their eyes to the dimness. Two electric light bulbs hung from the ceiling, partnered by a fan that swirled the damp hot air around. For a moment Russell thought he would suffocate. He was getting too old to come to such places. To their right, two men were playing carom; they looked up briefly. Russell heard the thwack of the striker hitting a disc, the other discs scattering. That would be the soundtrack for their next hour here. At the back of the room, two men sat at a wooden table, reading newspapers. They stared at the intruders and waited.
“We are from Surma Food Products,” said Russell.
“Sir is from The Head Office,” Shamsu added.
The man behind the table stood up. “You came all the way from Motijheel? Sit, saar, take a seat.” To his comrade he said, “Shujon, get off the chair and let Chhoto Bhai sit too.” He introduced himself as Liton. He put aside the stack of newspapers and neatly stacked them up. He had an unkempt head of hair and a slight goatee, the hollows of his cheek hairless. Russell thought it was the intensity in his eyes, his confident posture, and the sure movement of his hands that gave him a commanding presence. The others in the room, from a single eye over, looked like the typical men who hung around the tea stalls everywhere: lean, hungry, and simple, often dense. Flunkies.
Russell said, “Since I was a freedom fighter myself, I wanted to see how your organization is taking care of our comrades. Manager Shaheb has asked me for weeks to visit. Today’s the first day I could squeeze some time.”
The man smiled, waiting.
“Taking a look at you, I am confused. How could you have taken part in our glorious liberation war? You’re very young looking for your age. If that’s true, why are you doing this? You should market your secret as an anti-aging formula. Or you must have done your fighting as the seed in your father’s nuts. In that case, the country should have a special medal for such heroism.”
Liton’s face clouded, then brightened. “You have a sense of humor. I like that. You speak like I would. Start by putting your opponent in his place. But why start with hostility, saar. there’s no mystery here. We are the children of freedom fighters. My father’s disabled. So are Shujon, Shumon, and Kader’s.” He pointed to the carom players in the corner.
“Which sector did your father fight in?”
“What do you know — I fought in the same sector. I might even know him. Why don’t we go visit him? We could share some old stories.”
“He’s in Magura. He’s just a poor man, somehow surviving. He couldn’t educate me beyond matric. You people from the city, you lucked out.” Liton leaned forward and fingered Russell’s shirt. “Very fine fabric. Expensive.”
Russell pulled his arm away. “Arrey, do you think I buy clothes from Gulshan-Banani? You can get good quality for cheap if you know where to look. I see your clothes look smart too. You’re doing quite well. From our account books, I can see you’re doing very well indeed.”
Russell said, “Come on, let’s go visit your father. If we luck out with a ferry, we could be in Magura by lunchtime.”
Liton shook his head. “Not possible today, saar. Another time, for sure.”
Russell adopted a serious look. “From our side, it is only proper that if we are paying contributions to you, we should see how our help is meeting the needs of our fighters.”
Liton said, “Of course. We can show you what we do. It’s all recorded properly.” He shouted to one of the carom players, “Kaderia, bring that account book from the corner table. Show saar where our funds go.” He turned back to Russell. “Doctor bills, clinic bills, wheelchairs, artificial limbs, burial expenses: it’s all recorded. We believe in professionalism.”
Russell said no, he wasn’t interested in looking at books. He believed only in what the eye can see.
Liton’s face broke into a wide grin. “Saar, I’ve been thinking. Seeing you are a freedom fighter yourself, we can provide Surma a discount. We’ll still protect you from damage, but we can come to an understanding.”
Russell sighed. “Today you offer a discount, tomorrow you will change your mind. Or Kaderia will cut your throat and open up the Freedom Fighters Coordinating Council. The new group will raise the rates. Where’s the end in this? Let me ask you a question: do you eat bananas?”
“What kind of question is that?” He looked at Shamsu. “Doesn’t everyone eat bananas?”
Russell replied, “No, not everyone. It can cause constipation in some people. What kind of banana do you like?”
“I eat whatever strikes my fancy.”
“Good. Do you know where bananas come from?”
“I hear they come from Kishoreganj.” Liton’s eyes looked wary.
“True, but a lot come from Gaibandha. Have you gone to Rangpur by road?”
Liton shook his head.
“Then let me tell you what happens in Gaibandha. For twenty-five kilometers on the road to Rangpur, every Saturday and Tuesday, there is one long wholesale banana market. If you travel on those days, you won’t miss it.”
Shujon was back, trailing behind a small boy who brought tea for five. He distributed the cups and went outside to wait for the cups until they were done. Shujon pulled up another chair.
Liton took a sip and said, “I am not understanding, saar. What do bananas have to do with anything?”
“I’m getting there. Have some patience. When you go to the cinema and the first scene opens with a mystery, do you ask, what does this have to do with anything?”
“No, saar. Go on.”
“Hundreds of people go to these markets to buy and sell. Merchants, dalals, truckers. Do you know how much opportunity there is to get a cut?”
“Very large, I am sure. But the local boys must have that collection under control.”
“Yes, of course they have. And what control they have established! A model for the whole country.”
Liton leaned forward, curious now. He whispered, “Why, what have they achieved?”
Russell drank up the last of his tea. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you everything. You know how in 1969 we fought the Pakistani military and overthrew the dictator Ayub Khan? No, how can I ask you that? You were probably not even born then. But maybe you remember when the people brought down Ershad in 1990? How did we achieve those things? Through Unity. Each time there was an all-party united front among our students.”
“Saar, you clearly are a historian, but you’ve lost your way. Your cinema reel must have been switched for a different film.” He looked at Shujon and said, “Shaala, this old fellow just wants to reminisce about his glory days.” They laughed. Even the carom players in the back joined in.
“Shaala, shut your fresh mouth,” said Russell. “When an elder gives you wisdom, you should listen. What’s your hurry? What do you do all day but sit around, drink tea, and play sticks and balls?”
Shamsu opened his mouth. “Saar has a wealth of experience. He wasn’t just a freedom fighter. He was also with the National Guard after ‘71. You should listen to his wisdom.”
Liton looked to him for support. “He started with bananas, then went to Ayub Khan.”
“It’s natural to be confused,” Shamsu replied.
“What I was getting to is that in Gaibandha they have taken a leaf out of our history. They have established an all-party toll collectors committee. The people pay once, the committee takes care of distribution. Shares go to all the parties, the youth, the police, the administration. If we established this on the national level, don’t you think this would be a better model than what we have? Now every five years, one party takes everything while the other has to go hungry.”
“I agree, saar, there is merit in your idea. But if the big boys set up such committees at the top, we at the bottom will be forgotten.”
Shamsu said, “We would need an honest man at the top to make sure everyone’s treated fairly.”
“And there,” Russell completed the thought, “we come to the age-old problem. Where do we find an honest man? Where do you think we should find one?”
Liton held up two fingers and stepped aside. He went over to the carom table. Drumming on the edge of the board, he spoke into his mobile. “You didn’t forget about this morning, did you? Yes, now. I’m talking to someone now, but we’ll be done in ten to fifteen minutes. The usual will be fine.” He whispered something else into the phone, then hung up and returned. He wore a curious smile on his face.
Shujon had joined the conversation. “It might not be too hard to find an honest man. You could probably choose anyone and say he can have everything his heart desires: a mansion in Gulshan, a Pajero….”
Shamsu interrupted. “Pajero? That’s too low class. Must have a Prado now. Or a Hummer.”
“Okay, a Prado. Then, an annual vacation in London or Disneyland…”
“Must include an annual Omrah visit to Mecca.” One of the two carom players had come over to the table. The other one slipped out.
“English medium schools for his children and when his children are old enough, university abroad,” said Shamsu.
“What if they fail or are expelled from school?” The carom player snickered.
“Let him finish,” said Liton.
“Sacrifice a cow every few days for his beef, hire a small army of servants. Once his needs are all taken care of, he won’t need any more for himself.”
“Excellent idea,” Russell said, “But you forgot something. What about his brothers, uncles, cousins, newly discovered relatives?”
“You are right, saar.” Shujon nodded, scratching his head. “I know, I know — we should find an orphan.”
Liton shook his head. “What happens when he marries? He won’t be a lifelong bachelor, will he?”
“He just needs to not marry for one term. Next time, we get another orphan,” the carom player said.
Russell said, “Everyone has favorites.” He pointed to the flunkeys and said to Liton, “You probably like some of your supporters more than others. How will you ensure fairness?”
Shamsu said, “Sir, we could get someone from abroad who has no contact with anyone here. We have so many of our people outside now. We could get someone born in London or America. He won’t know a Bhuiya or a Jalil. By the time he gets to like people here, his term will be over.”
Russell stood up. “Shamsu, your idea has merit. I am sure that if we left the problem to these young men, they could figure out a solution. People don’t give such bright men enough credit. But we need to go now.”
Liton said, “The trick, saar, is to pose the right questions. That’s what I keep telling these guys. Once you know that, you can solve anything.”
Russell gave him a look of surprise. This fellow was smart.
The carom player said, “Saar, could you see about getting us a few jobs?”
Russell replied he would see what he could do. As they walked out, Liton came along. Shamsu had already left; Russell figured he was catching a quick smoke. He saw him outside, stubbing out a cigarette on the ground with his shoe. He was talking into his mobile.
The two flunkies came out and shook Russell’s hand.
Liton said, “Don’t worry, saar. We’ll take care of Surma.”
Russell took him aside and whispered into his ear. “Look. A little bit here and there to look out for our interests is all right. But try not to get too greedy. And don’t besmirch the good name of our freedom fighters. Those who got injured or are forced to beg or pull rickshaws, they deserve any help we can give them. If you want to do something for the welfare of unemployed young boys, just be honest. Don’t insult our heroes.”
Liton’s face looked opaque. Russell could not read him.
As they walked off, Shamsu told Russell he had called the driver to meet them at the next corner. He was worried about some suspicious eye contact he had spied among the goondas, but Russell dismissed his fears. Once they were rolling along in the car, Russell pulled out his phone to call Rahimullah.
“I think the matter’s taken care of. You might even be able to depend on these boys for some special assistance now and then. Offer them a job or two.” He looked at his watch. “I think we’ll have to have that lunch another time. There’s a lot of work at the office.”
Shamsu said, “Trouble.”
Just as the car approached the main road, they were surrounded by young men who seemed to close in on the car from the two sides. Russell turned his neck and saw that three or four men were also behind them, their palms drumming on the trunk.
The driver said, “Why are all the men eating bananas?”
Alarmed now, Russell replied, “Keep on driving.”
The men on the two sides began to slap the roof of the car. Ahead of them, at the corner, stood another crowd of men. Two banana vendors squatted on the corner, hands on their foreheads; next to them their baskets lay empty. From among the group at the corner, a man Russell recognized as the second carom player came out and began to knock on the window to his right. He held up a finger to signal that he wanted to say something. Russell ignored him and told the driver to keep moving. They crawled forward.
Suddenly they were completely surrounded. Men had sat on their car’s hood, the ones in the back had parked themselves on the trunk. The driver said he could not see.
“Drive, drive!” Russell ordered him. “Straight ahead!”
“Even if I can’t see?”
Now the men all around them began to smear the car’s glass windows with the bananas in their hands. Russell heard the carom player shout, “Show the chutmarani that he can’t come to our neighborhood and act like the big boss. He comes and lectures us about bananas, now let’s see him eat some bananas. If he won’t, let the car eat.”
The driver turned his head and looked behind. “Sir, they’re trying to pry open the petrol tank cap!”
“Drive, drive!” Russell shouted.
“Through the men?”
The driver revved the engine and ploughed through the men in front. They all scattered, some falling to the pavement. A long steel-tipped wooden pole came crashing through the window to Russell’s left. Russell grabbed it as it entered and shoved it right back. It hit a young man’s chest and he tumbled over. The skin on Russell’s palm tore from the force. A hailstorm of bananas hit the back of the car, and they could hear them bounce off the metal and glass.
The driver used the wipers to clear the windshield. They sped off along the road towards Savar. The car stopped a good distance from the scene of the attack and Shamsu and the driver got out to clean the windows. Russell’s breathing calmed down. He got out of the car, asked Shamsu to give him a cigarette and go buy a bottle of water so he could wash the wound in his hand. He took a few deep drags and tossed the cigarette away. The driver cleaned the back seat, carefully picking out the fragments of shattered glass.
Russell called Rahimullah again. “Forget that last call. The goondas attacked our car just as we were driving away. No, I don’t know why they attacked us. I thought the conversation had gone well. We’ll make a police report.” He hung up. He didn’t mention the bananas. It would take too long to explain the story.
Shamsu had returned with the water. Russell cleaned his hand. It was just a bad bruise. He wiped the blood with the handkerchief in his pocket. He balled it into his fist.
Shamsu said, “The police won’t do anything. Better to call the Mongoose.”
The driver added, “Crossfire one or two of the haramjadas, that’ll show them.”