by Nadeem Zaman
It was late, past six o’ clock, and Mr. Ranjan had lost track of the time, until the cleaning woman, finally too impatient, dropped her bucket at the door purposely with a loud thump. Water sloshed out over the brim.
“There is a man downstairs,” she said, her arms crossed, a scowl fixed on her face.
“For me?” Mr. Ranjan said.
“I don’t know,” the cleaning woman huffed.
“Did he ask for me?” said Mr. Ranjan.
“What do I look like? I have to finish my work,” said the cleaning woman. “It’s late. No one else is here. Everyone gets to go home except me.” She dragged her bucket of water into the classroom, the sound of the metal scraping on the floor ringing up and down the empty hallway behind her. Mr. Ranjan gathered the exam papers, stuffed them in his shoulder bag, and hurried out.
Mr. Ranjan thought it was the cleaning woman’s way of getting rid of him when he saw no one waiting for him, or anyone else in the deserted building, until he was out on the playground, and noticed a man staring at the building. He was dressed in the khaki uniform of a guard, clean shaved except for a clipped mustache, with thinning salt and pepper hair combed back, and searching eyes.
“Can I help you?” Mr. Ranjan said, cautiously walking toward him. “The school is closed for the day.”
“Then maybe you can tell me where my daughter is,” said the man. “Fatima Sikdar. I’m her father, Latif Sikdar.”
“I know Fatima,” said Mr. Ranjan. “She’s in my Bangla literature class. And she’s a good student, very good. But she went home hours ago. With everyone else.”
Mr. Ranjan had met the parents of some of his students, but he preferred to steer clear of them. Every one of them was a bother, with unrealistic expectations, and a thousand unanswerable questions about their child, instead of letting him do his job, and letting the child progress as he or she would. Based on the final exams that just ended, they were all performing above average, some even excellently. And Fatima was quite good at reading poetry and always had well thought out responses to questions in class. Latif Sikdar was not a parent Mr. Ranjan had met before.
“That cannot be true,” said Sikdar, “unless you’re making a liar of me.”
Mr. Ranjan took a few steps forward. “I’m not sure what you’re implying, Mr. Latif, but your daughter left the same as she does every day, with the rest of her classmates after the last bell.”
“And I have been here since that last bell, waiting for her,” said Sikdar. “She never came out.”
“I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe she’ll be home when you get there.”
“No,” Sikdar shook his head. “I meet her here every day. I take her home before going to work for the evening. We eat together before I go.”
“Mr. Latif, I’m afraid I don’t know what it is you’re expecting me to say?”
“You seem to be suggesting something,” said Sikdar. “Is it that my daughter has gone missing?”
“I’m not suggesting anything, Mr. Sikdar. I’m a teacher, and your daughter is my student like the rest of my students. I have no knowledge of their lives outside of school.”
“So, you’re saying you won’t take any responsibility?”
“It is not my place to take responsibility, Mr. Latif. You should come back tomorrow and see the principal. Then you should go to the police.” Mr. Ranjan began walking away, toward the main gates. A stray dog had gotten in, and was sniffing around the base of one of the palm trees lining the driveway along the playground. From the other side of the school building rose the shouts of boys in the midst of a cricket game.
“If something has happened to my daughter, you and this entire school will take responsibility,” Sikdar’s voice echoed in the empty compound.
Next morning, Mr. Ranjan arrived early, and waited outside the principal’s office, who was also in the habit of being there by seven-thirty. The principal, Mr. Abul Bashar, a stooped man with a handlebar mustache and a high, soft voice, listened thoughtfully to Mr. Ranjan recount his previous afternoon’s encounter with Fatima’s father, time to time nodding in acknowledgment.
“I have shining reports of her from every teacher,” Mr. Bashar said after almost a minute’s pause following Mr. Ranjan’s narrative. “Her father I have also met. He works as a guard at an apartment complex in Uttara. I found him to be gentle and a God-fearing man. The mother became dear to Allah just over a year ago. This is a strange matter. What do you think has happened?”
“I’ve spent the whole night thinking about it,” Mr. Ranjan said. “I have two nieces, and I can’t imagine what my brother and sister-in-law would do if something like this happened.”
“I will reach out to her father,” said Mr. Bashar. “If there is anything we can do, we will. But we must also keep in mind that young people are impulsive these days, no matter how well they might perform in studies.”
Mr. Ranjan thanked the principal and requested to be kept updated. His finals exams were done, but others were still scheduled for the day, and soon Mr. Ranjan heard students’ chatter as they filed into classrooms, teachers quieting them, and the morning fall into a lull as heads and shoulders hunched over exam papers. The servant brought Mr. Ranjan his morning tea, and sipping it, Mr. Ranjan tried to remember anything unusual about Fatima.
He could only recall the times she volunteered to recite poems, or impressed him with one of her eloquent answers. Mr. Ranjan felt irritated with himself for not taking more of an interest in the lives of his students. There was nothing wrong with chatting with them once in a while, asking how they were doing outside school, what their family life was like, what they liked to do, who their friends were, and assuring them that they could seek his guidance if they ever wished.
During the break between exams, Mr. Ranjan went downstairs, and found Mrs. Mahmood and Mr. Alamgir chatting by the side of the playground. A group of boys had a soccer game going in the center of the playground, and other boys and girls were scattered around in twos, threes, and larger groups. There was a clutch of students at the main gate buying snacks from street vendors to fortify themselves before sitting for the next exam. Mr. Ranjan approached his colleagues warily. These two, particularly, were notorious gossips. As soon as Mr. Alamgir saw him, the drooping corners of his eyes crinkled in conspiratorial smile, and he motioned for Mr. Ranjan to join them. Mrs. Mahmood was in the midst of laughing at something they’d just shared. Thinking it to be an undeniably prevalent piece of information that should be known by all, Mr. Alamgir began telling Mr. Ranjan, and Mr. Ranjan, quickly showed his disinterest.
They both had Fatima in their class, but seemed unfazed by her absence when Mr. Ranjan inquired. It was nothing unusual, Mrs. Mahmood quipped, for students to fake illnesses during final exams. Mr. Alamgir agreed, payback for being snubbed, and they resumed their chat.
He was perplexed, but not surprised by their callous responses. He wanted to tell them about his exchange with the girl’s father, but it would be pointless. Engrossed in their talk they didn’t notice Mr. Ranjan leaving.
By lunchtime Mr. Ranjan finished grading the rest of his exam papers, his mind set at ease by the process, as well as by the relief that none of the students had failed. He pulled Fatima’s paper from the pile, which he had already graded and given ninety-five points out of one hundred. On second look he noticed the beautiful handwriting, every word written with care, and he reread over some of the answers, wondering what had kept him from giving it the full one hundred points. At the end of it he saw his comments. She had over-written was his primary criticism. It would look unprofessional to scratch out his own comments and grade, so he let it stay, and put away the exam papers in his bag.
He wanted to check in one more time with Mr. Bashar, but found the principal’s door locked. Probably on his rounds, Mr. Ranjan thought, and made his way downstairs.
He spent a distracted afternoon at home thinking about Fatima, her father, and what could be going on at their household, imagining what state his brother, Anil, and his wife Aruna, would be in had it been one of their daughters that had gone missing. Mr. Ranjan was very fond of his nieces. From the time Anju, the older girl, was born, to the birth of Indrani, he had been close to them, visiting every weekend, spending holidays and religious festivals together. The girls adored their uncle. As children they would mimic their parents and ask him why he wasn’t married, why he hadn’t given them cousins, until he would tease them into fits of laughter. They were only a few years younger than Fatima.
After reading for a while, and unsuccessfully trying to take a nap, Mr. Ranjan washed up, changed clothes, and went for a walk. Evening traffic blared intrusively around him. He strolled at a medium pace toward the teashop where he went a few times a week that was owned and run by the family of a former student. Ahmad Mia, the father of the student, was so delighted that his son had matriculated against all odds with Mr. Ranjan’s help, made it into college, was admitted to Dhaka University, and was working with a well known engineering firm in the city, that he never charged Mr. Ranjan for anything. Mr. Ranjan didn’t wish to take advantage, and always left some money.
“Greetings, Professor, greetings,” Ahmad Mia came around from behind his counter. He ordered one of the waiters to bring a cup of tea and asked if Mr. Ranjan wanted something to eat. Mr. Ranjan said tea would be enough, and took a seat.
Ahmad Mia immediately launched into a detailed account of his son’s recent successes at the firm that had earned him a big promotion. Now, Ahmad Mia said with a smile, it was time to find the boy a wife, in pursuit of which the boy’s mother was actively engaged. Mr. Ranjan would be invited as a special guest to the wedding, he assured him. Then he groused about recent political turmoil in the city, the two parties’ continuous squabbling that was only ruining the country further, the Jamaat-Shibir thugs that were making it impossible to do business peacefully, all of which Mr. Ranjan listened to distractedly.
“What’s the matter, Professor?” Ahmad Mia said. “A dark cloud seems to hang over your thoughts this evening. It’s the end of the year. Holidays are just coming. Is everything fine?”
Mr. Ranjan told him about Fatima.
“Children these days,” Ahmad Mia clucked his tongue. “Just last month, a friend of mine, his daughter ran off with some boy from a rich family. And now she’s pregnant, and she’s going to have the child without her parents’ blessings. What are things coming to, no? If I ever thought about doing something like that my parents would have skinned me alive. Nowadays, these kids think they live in the trashy movies they watch all the time. It’s a shame, Professor.”
After talking for another half hour, Mr. Ranjan left the teashop, and flagged a rickshaw. On the ride to Anil’s home, Mr. Ranjan wished his sister-in-law was still as respectful and as fond of him as she was when she and Anil were first married. They had gotten along very well, and Aruna insisted that Mr. Ranjan was her older brother as much as her husband’s. But a little over a year ago, around the time that strikes around the country became rampant, keeping schools, offices, and government buildings closed at least two weeks out of the month for over six months, Mr. Ranjan asked Anil for a loan, promising to pay it back as soon as he was able. It was a painful matter all-round, Mr. Ranjan going to his younger brother for money, and Anil, after a passage of time that his wife thought was long enough for him to have been repaid, caught between her insistence that he be firm in asking for repayment and his discomfort broaching the topic with his brother.
Not long ago, Mr. Ranjan offered Anil a small amount as a token, also hoping that it would bring some peace. For Aruna, it wasn’t nearly enough, and the issue continued to fester. She didn’t keep the brothers from meeting, or turn the girls against their uncle, for which Mr. Ranjan was grateful to her, but for her own part, Aruna kept her distance from him.
Anil opened the door, and Mr. Ranjan saw his brother’s expression immediately tense up.
“I’m sorry to come like this at dinner time,” said Mr. Ranjan. “Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
“Is everything all right, Dada?” said Anil. “Are you well?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” said Mr. Ranjan. “If it wasn’t important, I wouldn’t come at a bad time like this.”
“No, no. It’s just that Aruna’s sister and her husband are visiting. We were going to the cinema.” Anil looked down at his feet, then up again. “Dada, come inside.”
Mr. Ranjan followed Anil down the hallway, through the living and dining rooms, to the kitchen. A strong scent of perfume hung in the hallway, which dissolved into the fading aroma of cooked oil and spices. In the living room the television was turned up a few notches too high to a Bangla serial drama, which was in the midst of a critical plot point with a man and woman speaking anxiously about their future together.
“This is the best place to talk right now,” said Anil. “I’ll give you some water.”
“I just want to make it clear, Anil, that this is not about money,” said Mr. Ranjan.
“Dada, please,” Anil offered him the glass.
After a short silence, Mr. Ranjan said, “Where are the girls?”
“They’re all getting ready together.”
“Oh, good, good.”
“I’ll call them out.”
“No, no, another time, I’ll see them.”
“Dada, is everything okay? You seem very tense. Sit down.”
They sat at a small table next to the refrigerator, and Mr. Ranjan told Anil about Fatima.
“I’m sad to hear this,” said Anil. “But it’s only been one day. Do you know if she’s come back by now?”
“No. But I can’t get it out of my mind. I keep thinking of…well, no need to talk like that. Do you still keep in touch with that school friend of yours that joined the police?”
“Mushtaque? Once in a while, yes.”
“Do you think you can ask him to see what he can find out?”
“I can try. But what if the girl is back, and she’s at home right now?”
“Yes, I wish for that, too, and I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know either way. After twenty-four hours it can become a missing persons case, right?”
“I think so,” said Anil.
Aruna, calling Anil’s name down the hallway, entered the kitchen.
“Oh,” she stopped in the doorway.
“Good evening, Aruna,” said Mr. Ranjan. “I’m sorry, but I was just leaving.”
“What is it?” Anil asked her.
“Partho was asking if he can borrow a pair of socks,” said Aruna.
“Fine,” said Anil.
“I will tell him,” said Aruna. “Please get ready soon. We have to leave.” Without making eye contact with her brother-in-law, she said, “Dada, I hope you are well.”
“I’m well, Aruna. Blessings to you and the children,” said Mr. Ranjan.
“Will you send the girls here to come say hello to their uncle?” said Anil.
“No need for that,” said Mr. Ranjan. “Let them get ready for their outing.”
“Aruna,” said Anil.
“Okay,” said Aruna, walking out.
Anju and Indrani were dressed in shalwar kameez, olive green and yellow, respectively, and Mr. Ranjan felt a longing seeing them that made his resolve to help find Fatima stronger.
“Dada, come for dinner some time,” said Anil walking Mr. Ranjan to the front door. “It’s been too long. We all miss you. All of us.”
“Yes, I miss you all a lot, too,” said Mr. Ranjan. “Enjoy your evening.”
Mr. Ranjan stopped just outside the principal’s office when he saw Latif Sikdar sitting across from Mr. Bashar.
“Mr. Ranjan, please come in,” said Mr. Bashar. Latif Sikdar acted as though he had never seen Mr. Ranjan before. “This is Fatima’s father, as you know. He tells me Fatima still hasn’t come home.”
“Who will take responsibility?” Sikdar said. “My respect for you is high, Bashar Shahib, but a student of yours has gone missing from your school, and you people seem totally callous about it. What am I supposed to be doing sitting here?”
Mr. Bashar gave Mr. Ranjan a helpless glance.
“We will do everything – ”
“Everything in what way?” Sikdar interrupted Mr. Bashar. “Are you the police? Are you the army? Am I rich man that I can buy policemen to put all their time into finding my daughter? She’s just the daughter of a poor doorman who’s gone missing. Gone missing from her school. The place where she’s supposed to be safest. More than her home. You’ve called me here to waste my time, Mr. Bashar. I thought you had something worthwhile to tell me.”
Sikdar pushed to his feet. His chair scraped back, almost tilting over. “If you can’t help, Mr. Bashar, stop wasting my time trying to appease me with your sham concern.”
After Latif Sikdar walked out Mr. Bashar, by nature a mild-mannered man, was visibly distraught. Mr. Ranjan had never heard him raise his voice or be harsh with anyone, even when a teacher deserved a stern reprimand. Instead Mr. Bashar’s way was to invite the person he had to deal with into his office, and, through series of questions skirting around the main issue, somewhat touch upon the topic. The method had its merits, Mr. Ranjan observed, and the way of communication was always better than conflict, but seeing Mr. Bashar now as upset as he was, Mr. Ranjan felt pity. He told Mr. Bashar about his meeting with Anil, which seemed to hearten the principal.
“You have always been an asset to this school,” Mr. Bashar said. “No one else cares as much about the students as you do.”
Mr. Ranjan saw from the corner of his eye Mr. Alamgir saunter past the door. Mr. Bashar was too engrossed in his speech to notice. From the playground rose the sounds of students being dismissed between exams. There were three days left of finals, and the air was palpable with their excitement.
Mr. Ranjan told him he would have his graded papers in by the end of the week, which made Mr. Bashar smile and say that he was familiar Mr. Ranjan’s compulsive checking and double and triple checking of his work. Mr. Ranjan mentioned the great work Fatima had done on her exam, that he lamented not taking more interest in her directly. Both men agreed that they should not be speaking of her as being permanently gone.
Anil told Mr. Ranjan over the phone that he had contacted his friend, but Mushtaque’s immediate reaction was bleak. Men, women, children, even couples and families going missing in the city every few minutes every day was hardly a matter for alarm. Brutal and sad as that sounded, it was true. And the disappearance of a young girl, even if filed as an official missing person case, would linger for a while, then fall into obscurity. What he could do, he would. A picture of the girl would be helpful.
Early next morning, Mr. Ranjan stopped by Mr. Bashar’s office to get Fatima’s photo from her file. Mr. Bashar was elated. He asked if there was anything more he could do, but Mr. Ranjan told him the best thing was to make it an official police investigation. Before Mr. Ranjan left his office, Mr. Bashar stopped him at the door.
“I hope her father doesn’t come here again and do something drastic,” said Mr. Bashar. “I have three children, and I understand what he’s going through. I think calling him here made matters worse. Now he really seems to believe we were behind his daughter’s disappearance. Don’t you think so?”
“For now, this is all we can do,” said Mr. Ranjan.
Mr. Bashar made to say more, but Mr. Ranjan hurried out the door.
At Ramna Police Station, Mr. Ranjan was led by a frail young constable to Mushtaque’s office. Mushtaque immediately stood up to greet him. Mr. Ranjan was startled by how overwork had added a good ten years to his appearance, making seem at least that much older than Anil. Mushtaque asked the constable to bring tea, and ushered Mr. Ranjan to a chair across his desk.
“I have to say you look marvelous, Dada,” said Mushtaque, rubbing his eyes, and stifling a yawn. “Look at me. This is where I live. This is where I eat the bad food that will someday soon stop my heart, and this is where I breathe while my children grow up.” He shook his head and leaned in. “How is Anil?”
“He’s well,” said Mr. Ranjan. “I’m glad you two keep in touch.”
“I haven’t seen him in at least a year,” said Mushtaque. “The world of banking is treating him very well.”
“Yes, it is,” said Mr. Ranjan.
Seeing that Mr. Ranjan was restless, Mushtaque asked how he could be of help with Fatima. Mr. Ranjan offered him the photo. Mushtaque looked at it for a while, as though he was going through a catalog of faces in his memory that might match Fatima’s. He set down the photo and took a long breath.
“Dada, nothing I say to you will come as a surprise,” said Mushtaque. “I see hundreds of young men and women go missing every week.” He took a sip of tea, and rubbed his eyes again. “Good days and bad days, really bad days, happen. On the best of days, I’ve seen the missing person come back, on their own. On the worst, they’re never heard from again, or…the worst scenario comes true. This girl is your student?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Ranjan. “A very good student, too.”
“And you know her family?”
“I’ve met her father. Other than that, I don’t know anything about her.”
“Did you ever see her with people that were not from the school? Anyone that comes to mind?”
“I wish I took more of an interest in my students that way,” Mr. Ranjan said. “She was a good, quiet, humble girl. That’s all I can really tell you.”
Mushtaque picked up the photo, examined it with the same look as before, trying to recognize Fatima’s face. “Dada, for you, I will personally look into this. I’ll circulate this photo, see what comes back. I just ask that you be patient, and realistic.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Ranjan. “Her father’s name is Latif Sikdar.”
Mushtaque took down a few more details on a notepad, they shook hands, and Mr. Ranjan left.
The school year ended. Mr. Bashar told Mr. Ranjan on the last day that he would be gone for two weeks to his hometown in the north, but in case of any news to contact him immediately at the address he had provided him. Mr. Ranjan had been anxious since his meeting with Mushtaque, but as he left the quiet and deserted school building, except for the cleaning woman, groundskeeper, and night guard, he felt that he had taken on more than was his duty, to which he would now be held responsible beyond his scope.
He was not particularly fond of the holidays. Back when his relations with Anil and his family were good, holidays meant spending at least a week, sometimes more, with them, in the company of his nieces, and quiet afternoon and late night chats with Anil and Aruna. His brother and his sister-in-law, the girls, too, still liked to tease him about getting married. He wasn’t too old, there were plenty of women that would give their hands happily to him, and there could even be the possibility of a cousin or two in the bargain. No marriage for him, Mr. Ranjan would laugh, Anil had done a good enough job of it for them both.
Holidays, therefore, were a time of gloom. No amount of reading, or preparing for the new school year, made them go faster or less tediously. For a while, Mr. Ranjan got to know his downstairs neighbor, an affable young bachelor, and they even begun having tea together a few nights week, and discussing politics and current events. Then the neighbor got accepted to a PhD. program overseas, and within a week, was gone. His other neighbors, Mr. Ranjan had no desire to know, and no amount of loneliness or compulsion to curtail the gloom of holidays would lead him to their doors. One couple fought all the time. A reclusive septuagenarian widow lived on the floor above him, saturating the hallway with incense round the clock, and shrieked curses out her window at children playing in the lane below. Across from him lived a middle-aged postal worker. The man reeked of cheap liquor at all hours, and never said a word or made eye contact when he and Mr. Ranjan stepped out to the hallway at the same time.
Two weeks passed. No word came from Mushtaque. Mr. Bashar was possibly back in Dhaka, but Mr. Ranjan held off contacting him. Other people wished to have a holiday, to enjoy them with their families, and for all his concern and urgency to be kept informed, no one could fault Mr. Bashar if he was blissfully in relief from worrying about the girl gone missing from his school. The new school year wouldn’t start for another fortnight, which meant that waiting was all there was to do, it was all Mr. Ranjan could do.
One Friday, some hours after Jumma prayers, Mr. Ranjan stepped out for a walk into a warm, lightly breezy, afternoon. Moments after he made a right turn out of his building he heard footsteps shuffling behind him. Paying them no mind, Mr. Ranjan kept walking, until he felt taps on his shoulder.
“Mr. Sikdar?” Mr. Ranjan turned around, and took a step back. Sikdar’s prayer cap was still on his head, his jowl unshaven, and the dark circles under his eyes puffy from lack of sleep. “What are you doing here?”
“That girl wants to ruin me,” Sikdar said weakly. “I work all the time. For her. And all she gives back is ingratitude.”
Sikdar was wearing his guard’s uniform. It was crumpled, as if he’d been sleeping in it for days, flecked with oil stains on the front.
“Come inside, and sit down,” said Mr. Ranjan.
Inside Mr. Ranjan’s flat Sikdar accepted a glass of water with trembling hands, and said that he’d followed Mr. Ranjan home from the school the other day.
“You seemed to me like the first person in that place that knew what he was talking about,” Sikdar said.
“You could have just spoken to me,” said Mr. Ranjan.
“That principal of yours is a nincompoop. His sister lives in the building where I’m a guard. He comes there, sometimes two, three times a week, begging her and her husband for money. What is he going to do?”
“Mr. Bashar is very concerned about your daughter,” said Mr. Ranjan. “And please forgive me, but I’ve given the police and picture of your daughter.”
“Police…bastards…and my daughter, she’s no angel either. This is not the first time she’s doing this. Since her mother died, she’s been out of control. You know why? Because she blames me. As if I didn’t do everything in my power to save my wife…doctors…police…hospitals…they’re all crooked bastards. Money. They want money to save a human life, or let it die like a dog. What am I supposed to do? You tell me. It’s a crime to be poor in this city. It’s a crime not to be filthy rich and be able to pay off every bastard you come across.”
“Before when this happened, Fatima came back?” Mr. Ranjan asked.
Sikdar nodded wistfully. “Yes. She came home, everything was normal, and in the evening she left. Just walked out the door. I do night shifts couple of nights a week. It’s difficult for me to keep an eye on her. But when I got home in the morning those times, she was not there. You think I didn’t go to the police? I went to them. I showed them pictures. I gave them her description. I begged them to take my statement, and you know what they told me? They told me to check the red light districts or go to the morgue. By the time she came back, I was a mess. And I beat her. She apologized, and everything was normal, until the next time. But this time, it’s not the same. I know it. I feel it inside me, in my bones.”
“It’s best not to overreact,” said Mr. Ranjan. “She’s a young girl. She’s suffered a shock. If she came back before…”
“You are a good man, Mr. Ranjan,” said Sikdar, pushing to his feet. “It’s time I should go.” At the door he stopped. “I’ve been all over the city looking for her. Places she likes to visit. Shops, restaurants. She likes to read. Always has. Her mother used to take her to New Market, for the books shops, since she was a child. Poetry. She likes poetry. She would memorize them, just on her own, and say them around the house.”
After Sikdar left, Mr. Ranjan felt too weak to go for a walk, but willed himself to leave his flat. But a walk was not in his lot today, for Mushtaque had just climbed down from his jeep in front of the building.
“Dada, looks like you’re going out,” said Mushtaque, approaching him. “Sorry to intrude on your plans, but I have information I thought you’d like to know right away.”
Mushtaque brought out his wallet, and plucked a folded piece of paper from it. “This is for you. Thing is, Dada, I took it upon myself to keep it an unofficial matter. I shared it with two of the best cops I know in this city, good men who dedicate their days and nights to finding people. Not to worry. They will never break my trust. Best way to not have it fall in with the mess of other cases like it. Anyway, when Anil told me you were still living here, I had to smile. Remember the days he and I spent here, the three of us drinking tea? So. Okay. This is where the girl is. That address. I didn’t want to go there, and give her unnecessary scare. Let’s face it, she’s done nothing wrong in any way. I’ve seen hundreds of young boys and girls her age run away with lovers. She’s there with a boy, a few years older. Unless you ask me, Dada, I felt you’d want to know before I did something.” His eyes were shining, in spite of the exhaustion in them.
Mr. Ranjan took the piece of paper, and offered Mushtaque a cup of tea. Mushtaque thanked him. He told Mr. Ranjan that locating Fatima was the most successful expenditure of his time at work in the last two months. Reconnecting with Anil was also wonderful, and the two friends had already made plans to bring their families together and spend time.
“You should join us, Dada,” said Mushtaque, climbing into his jeep. “Anil spoke about you for a long time. Like you two haven’t seen each other in a long time. Also, here is my card, with my mobile on it. Dada, anything, anytime, just call.”
The address was in Tejgaon. A flurry of thoughts crowded Mr. Ranjan’s mind as he considered his options the rest of the afternoon and evening, and late into the night. He fell asleep with the piece of paper with the address crumpled in his fist. At first light, he woke up with his head feeling unusually clear. He washed and got dressed, and looking forward to a hot cup of tea, set out for Ahmad Mia’s shop.
“Happy morning to you, Professor,” said Ahmad Mia. “Up so early? And it’s the holidays, no?”
The shop was already busy, with the three servers scurrying between tables with cups of tea and plates of food. Ahmad Mia invited Mr. Ranjan to take the table closest to his counter so he could talk to him while commandeering the morning rush.
“Early to bed, early to rise,” said Ahmad Mia. “Best words of advice ever. Would you like the house special for breakfast, Professor?”
Mr. Ranjan asked only for tea. Ahmad Mia ordered one of the servers to set a fresh kettle of water. “The air around you is heavy quite a bit these days, Professor. Is everything okay? Your brother, he’s okay? And his family?”
“He’s doing good,” said Mr. Ranjan. “His family is also fine.” He lowered his voice and told Ahmad Mia of the recent developments. “I’m on my way there.”
“Why do you want to get involved, Professor?” Ahmad Mia shook his head. “Just give it to the girl’s father and step out of the mess.”
“It doesn’t feel right,” Mr. Ranjan said. “There’s something about her father that makes me uneasy. He told me without any reservations that he beats her. I should report him to the police.”
“I don’t know,” said Ahmad Mia. “You’re a man of learning, I’m a man of business. We see things differently sometimes. I’m only saying what I would do.”
Mr. Ranjan finished his tea, further resolved to pay his visit to Fatima. What he would say to her or how he would broach the matter of her disappearance, he didn’t know. If he could do anything, however small, to help her avoid being humiliated once her father discovered her whereabouts, it would be enough.
The building was not far from Tejgaon College, within a cluster of apartment complexes just off Indira Road. Mr. Ranjan waited a moment after getting down from the rickshaw, scanning the windows of the building, wondering which one Fatima was behind.
“What are you staring at?”
The young man was walking toward Mr. Ranjan, puffing a cigarette, carrying a plastic grocery bag.
“Are you lost?” said the young man.
Mr. Ranjan checked the piece of paper from Mushtaque and shook his head.
“Let me see that,” the young man slipped the paper out of Mr. Ranjan’s hand, frowned at it, and handed it back.
“This property is owned by my family. I live here, too.”
“So does one of my students,” said Mr. Ranjan. “I’m here to see her.”
“Are you from the police?”
“You don’t look like police. My family knows a lot of police in this city.”
The young man set down his bag, dropped his cigarette to the ground, and mashed it with his heel. “I knew someone would come, sooner or later. Did my parents send you?”
“I’m here on my own. I don’t know who you are or your parents. My student’s name is Fatima Sikdar. She’s been missing. I’m trying to help her. And yes, I did use the help of the police to find this address, but you have nothing to worry about.”
The young man was impressed. “A man of connections. I respect that. You can help her by not telling that son of a whore father of hers anything about where she is. And let us be alone.”
“I’m not here not here to cause you trouble,” said Mr. Ranjan.
The young man laughed bitterly. “We’re ready for trouble, if that’s your and her father’s intention.”
“As long as she’s fine, I only care about that,” Mr. Ranjan said.
“Of course she’s fine.”
“I would like to make sure for myself.”
“Okay,” the young man said, as though accepting a challenge. “Come inside. See yourself. What am I afraid of? Not one thing. Especially not of a dui poisha teacher. Or her father for that matter. Or the police. Or anyone. Weak excuse for a man is what he is.” He said all this as he was walking inside, his words trailing off out of earshot.
Mr. Ranjan followed the young man up two flights of stairs. The stairwell was scantly lit through a skylight covered with bird dropping. The young man stopped at a door at the end of the hallway on the second floor, and immediately began banging on it with his fist.
The door opened, revealing Fatima’s flustered face. “Samir, you really have a problem with patience. What am I supposed to do? Wait by the door every time you go out?” Seeing Mr. Ranjan she paused.
“We have a guest,” said Samir. “Or I should say, you have a guest.” He pushed past her to go inside.
“Sir,” Fatima said.
“Are you well, Fatima?” said Mr. Ranjan, surprised that Fatima, rather than being surprised or disturbed by his presence, seemed amused. “Forgive my coming like this.”
“Sir, please come inside. This is a big honor.” Fatima held the door open.
The facade of the building and the hallway belied the interior of the apartment, which was impressively furnished along with a big screen TV. Samir set the plastic bag on the living room floor, and used a remote to turn on the television. Seconds later a woman’s voice shrieked through the speakers. The brilliant picture sparkled on the screen. It was a Hindi film on a cable channel, where an outlandishly dressed young female was screeching farcically down a deserted highway as three grinning, lascivious, villainous brutes gave her chase.
“My god, Samir, turn it down,” Fatima said. She shook her head, a faint smile around her mouth. “Sir, come in, please.”
Mr. Ranjan walked in and remained by the door. Samir had muted the TV, and the sudden silence only left streaming in the sounds from the street below, reaching Mr. Ranjan like white noise. Samir tossed the remote aside, picked up the plastic bag, and walked down a narrow adjoining hallway. There was the sound of a door closing, followed by water running.
“Please sit, sir,” said Fatima. Mr. Ranjan went to the sofa, and took a seat at the exact spot that Samir had just vacated. He became aware of a pungent, invasive scent. Samir’s cologne, he thought, applied much too liberally.
“I’ll bring you tea, sir.”
“No. Thank you. Please. Don’t trouble yourself. You’re not surprised to see me here? You don’t want to know how I found you? This place?”
“No,” said Fatima. “Of all my teachers, if anyone would have done something like this, I would think it would be you. How you found me is not important. I’m not in hiding here, sir. This is where I live now. Someday, eventually, everyone will know.”
“What happens when your father finds out?”
“He can bring the police and the army and the RAB with him,” Samir shouted from the back. “We are not afraid of him.”
“Samir, don’t scream from there,” said Fatima. “This is my teacher. Come and talk respectfully to him.”
Samir returned, his face and hair damp, his hands wrestling within the folds of a washcloth. He mopped his forehead and cheeks, and draped the washcloth on a shoulder.
“Mr. Ranjan is the best teacher I’ve ever had,” said Fatima. “He always understood my love for poetry.”
“You did very well in your final exam,” Mr. Ranjan said.
“It will be the last one I take, sir.”
Mr. Ranjan felt his stomach sink, his breath rush out in a puff.
“I understand,” he said.
“You see, Samir? This is why he’s such a wonderful teacher,” Fatima said, pinching Samir’s arm, then sliding her hand into his. “Mr. Ranjan is progressive. He understands the times. He’s not like every other teacher and adult that wants to lecture and lecture till your head wants to explode.” Fatima smiled expansively at her teacher. “Sir, please have lunch with us.”
They ate in silence, and after they were done Mr. Ranjan grew uneasy. Seeing Fatima and Samir together he was not sure what he was doing there other than being an intruder in a perfectly happy home that two young people had decided to create and share. Samir’s bravado and angst of earlier were gone. He cleared the table, while Fatima wiped it down. When they were done, they offered Mr. Ranjan more tea, and moved back to the living room.
Samir broke the silence by speaking about his family. His tone was obliging, as though wishing in earnest to win Mr. Ranjan’s favor. He was the only son of well-to-do parents who had wanted to send him to America to study business and return home to take over the family textile business. Samir, in short, refused, and through friends had found a job writing and editing for a newspaper. After he and Fatima met and began seeing each other, he approached one of his father’s cousins that he was in good relations with, someone whom Samir’s father had helped get started in business, and who now was a successful developer, to get this apartment.
Samir spoke with an ease that made it seem as though every one of his actions that brought him where he was was part of a natural course. The entire time Fatima’s eyes stayed studiously on Mr. Ranjan.
“I’m sorry if you feel let down, sir,” said Fatima. “I’m not going back to school, or to my father. His plan for me was to turn me into his money making machine. He told me every day how he had everything planned. How far I would study, who I would marry, that he would live with me and my husband in his old age, that it was all part of my duty to him. You know, sir,” her voice broke, “my mother, her life he squeezed out of her every minute, even when she was sick, for his own needs. He can be with his needs all he wants now.”
She stood up. “Sir, I want to show you something.” She brought a book from the bedroom, opened it to a dog-eared page, and handed it to Mr. Ranjan. “Those lines of Nazrul, they mean more and more to me every day.”
Mr. Ranjan scanned the stanza: A tempest blazes under our feet/Seeking flight through thunder and storm.
“Very good,” he said.
“I hope you’re not disappointed, sir,” Fatima said, walking Mr. Ranjan to the door.
“No, of course not.”
Mr. Ranjan decided he wanted to go for a walk instead of heading home. The afternoon air was brisk. The sun was comfortably warm on his back. During finals his afternoon constitutional often fell out of routine between making, administering, and grading exams, so for the remainder two weeks of the holidays he would walk every day. Then it was going to be the new year, beginning of a new class, new students, new young lives that he would have the chance to be part of, if he chose.