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Abeer Y. Hoque (below) interweaves poems and photographs with stories in this book. Photo: Abeer Hoque
Abeer Y. Hoque (below) interweaves poems and photographs with stories in this book. Photo: Abeer Hoque

Lounge Book Excerpt: The lovers and the Leavers

An extract from a collection of inter-linked stories by the Bangladeshi writer and photographer Abeer Y Hoque

there’s only one thing that’s left to miss

time (what’s yours) time (what’s mine)

the winter is digging its grave as I find

a way to see (show me)

to feel (tell me)

to stay

I’m telling this pretty bit of junk to the girl that Dokkhin has brought around to mine. This one is too tall, but good looking, like all the rest. No lipstick, expressive hands. A black and white photograph. As long as she knows how to inhale, I don’t care. Actually, Dokkhin’s last paramour was sweet, though my ceiling got the best high ever with all the honey she let escape. You’d think there wasn’t anyone left who didn’t know how to suck a rolled-up bill. There was that girl in Cox’s Bazaar who thought the Bong way was ghetto. Aluminum foil and lighters? We pop pills, she had drawled. Americans. No romance in their bones. And where’s the love if it isn’t in the going? When you’re gone, you’re gone after all. The beauty of belonging isn’t that it lasts forever, but that you think it will.

Acid was the drug that taught me patience. You can’t not stay in the now, on acid. It won’t stop if you want it to. The present moment swells, neon stains the past, swallows the future whole.

Dokkhin’s girl or friend, I think they met in college in the States, interrupts me. Or maybe she interrupted my train of thought. My blood is sped up enough that I can’t remember whether I had been talking out loud or inside my head. Her name is Rox, and she’s actually more than good looking. Her eyes glitter in this way that I can’t take, so I avoid making eye contact. Why do some girls insist on boy mannerisms like arguing loudly? Though it means she’s not shy, and I like not-shy. But then she asks me what my favourite drug is. Typical weekend partier question. As if it has anything to do with drugs.

I wish I were back in Cox. Next to the sea, wandering that strange symmetric forest. The summer I spent there, I filled up pad after pad with watercolour smears I thought were divine at the time. Divine at the time. And I wonder at the preciousness of my art. My sketchpads are sitting in a box under my bed in Gulshan, probably chewed up by insects and God knows what else Bangladesh has cooked up for them. This country is a black Goya world where humans are overrun. There are creatures here not yet recorded in insect history.

I didn’t have a single visitor that Cox summer, except for Dokkhin one hazy fortnight, when we went through more pills than I can count. He went into spasms in the end, and the sea turned gunmetal in my mouth. I had warned him, but that boy never understood the power of waiting. He’s like my brother Tahsin that way, only better because he’s not an ass-kissing self-serving prick like the blood version.

When I got kicked out of my house, thanks to you-know-who, it was Dokkhin who saved me, found me a place to crash. I had just met him at some fancy Dhaka do, and frankly, I hadn’t thought much. Far too well dressed, which only meant he thought far too much about it all. An Indian with impeccable manners, in Dhaka, for a season of business. Fresh meat, thought the scene. Freshly irritating, thought I. Until I met him at the IC bar days later. I try not to go to these places, overrun as they are by expats or the Dhaka elite or sometimes, horrifyingly, both. Actually then, it’s almost amusing, like watching two vapid and varied still-life scenes, each group stoic in their armours, jeans and shiny tops on one side, zealously ornamented saris on the other, glaring down each other’s earnestly arrhythmic dance moves.

Anyhow, I needed a drink and my booze was tied up in the house I had just been expelled from. I called up a friend and got him to write me into the list. Sure, I have the foreign passport all good elites should, in my case, American, but I had never bothered to get a membership.

‘Who needs drugs when your drug of choice is life?’ That’s the inane answer I give Rox in response to her inane question.

‘People who have favourite drugs,’ I elaborate gently, ‘don’t really know the point of drugs. They might not even know the point of life.’

But I can see now that the questions she’s asking are not the aloud ones. They’re the ones in her unbearable eyes. Fuck, where did Dokkhin find this one?

Dokkhin agreed with me, though I realized soon after that Dokkhin tended to agree first and decide later. It was why the girls loved him so. It was why the girls hated him so. I, on the other hand, almost never say yes. Nor do I say no. I know it doesn’t matter. It’s all make-believe that we have any control over what happens in our lives. And I got tired of the lovecrush theatre of it long ago.

I didn’t go to Cox that summer to paint, though that’s what I tell everybody. They’ve all been waiting for my second exhibition, even though it’s been years since my first, the one which exposed to me that delicate sewage flush of elitism. Serves me right though. I should have had the show in Bangladesh, not Brooklyn. But I was living in America, those heady post-college years where you think you actually run your own life because you can almost pay your rent. If you had to pay your rent, that is. I should have come back. Stopped living the hypocrisy sooner. Or at least brought the hypocrisy closer to home, closer to its centre. That way, the ignorant and loudmouthed gallery gallivanters of Dhaka could have rightly pointed out the hackery I had produced.

I had been going straight then for a year, bound by an insane promise to Ila, and it was driving me dumb. Of course, my paintings followed my sinking lead, but none of the New Yorker hipster art-fucks had the balls to point it out. Instead it was all subversive talent, oil and water deconstructed, rewired and reverberant, and other shit I can’t deign to reproduce now. Every last one of my paintings went for some outrageous price. I reneged on each sale by giving my paintings away in Prospect Park one pastoral sunset, one by one, to whoever looked the longest.

I’ll never paint again. But I won’t tell anyone that because I know that never will always come back and rub itself all over your stupid face. The truth is, I went to Cox to escape Dhaka. Dhaka and its tired trinkery. Dhaka and its faded winter, its melodramatic summer. Dhaka drowning me in Ila’s love. That’s the real deal. I was running away from Ila. Oh yeah, she said she had nothing left to give me. But I know what she meant. That she had too much to give and it was spilling over my edges, costing her karmic energy by the second. That kind of talk kills me even though I know it’s not all crap. Thankfully, Ila’s voice is too deep to be anything but goddamn sexy. She could make me hard by reading me Daily Star headlines. True, it was the sports page and World Cup season, but still. ‘Tigers Mauled!’ and all the fucking rest, and there rose my desire under my kurta-pyjama.

The first time I saw Ila, she was wearing a grey shalwar kameez, wet from the rain, and I immediately wanted to fuck her. In that post colonial, back-to-your-Tantric-roots, brown-erotica, woman-worshipping Western ways (no, I want you to come first), slipping into Eastern clothes (sorry, you were too much for me, premik, next time?).

The problem is that you can’t love and leave too often with brown girls. Even if you leave their bodies flushed and pulsing, which I do, thank you very much. I’m not one of those boys. You can’t fuck and run in Dhaka, but even in the mutinous underground bars of New York, you could get that rep. Whether or not you make it perfectly clear from the beginning that all you ever wanted was love, without the strings. It’s the strings that fuck things up. Bind me to you, and I’ll show you the surest path to flight.

‘It’s true,’ Dokkhin tells me, ‘but let’s not talk about traps. Besides, we need more ice. Can you get some from your neighbour upstairs?’

‘You’re the one who needs more ice, bhai,’ I say. ‘I can’t drink that shit, ice or no.’

‘We can’t all have your high-class tastes,’ Dokkhin says, swigging the last of his whiskey.

‘Fuck off, man,’ I say. ‘At least I knew what it was like to be middle class.’

We both laugh but we know who’s older money. Dokkhin’s family is one of Kolkata’s bastions of wealth, going back generations. My pops only made his money in the last couple of decades. And seeing how my brother uses his slimeball connections to grease things, I don’t know how long the cash will last. I believe in karma as it turns out. One bad turn for another.

On my way back from the neighbour’s, I stop in the loo. Seems Rox doesn’t believe in locking doors. She’s sitting on the toilet but waves me in. I only need to shake out the ice crumbles at the bottom of the bag into the sink, but when I glance into the mirror, she’s watching me. I leave the bag in the sink and turn around. As I lean down slowly, I can see her legs closing into a dark velvet upside-down V. The oldest mystery of them all. I have an urge to paint her. On her. A tired O’Keefe image comes into my head. What the bleeding edgers don’t understand is that we create those standard overdone images even when there’s something pure driving us. We do it because of that purity. All the ways to jack it up, splatter it, deconstruct it, build it back, they’re all just ways to get back to the original feeling, at best; foils at worst. That’s why ‘I love you’ means something even now.

Ila was the first Bangali girl I loved. Hell, the first girl. Before that was a string of white girls. Even when I came back to Dhaka, it was easy finding them. A new crop of NGO-ers every season. But Ila, with her undulating curves and hair, got me for some reason. I couldn’t stop touching her. I couldn’t stop painting her. No drug ever felt as good. Drugs and Ila together would probably blow my mind, but for reasons

both logistical and perhaps lucky, I never had the shot. When Ila found out about my habits, she got me to swear I’d never do anything when I was with her. At first, that was easy enough. But then it got harder. I saw Ila less. She doesn’t realize it, but how often I see her means nothing. How little we talk means nothing. When she’s around, the world shrinks and fits into my heart. When I’m gone, my hearts shrinks and disappears into the world.

The bathroom window is open and a breeze flicks at me. I’m so close to Rox that I can squint the glitter of her eyes into pinprick stars, growing, falling, fading. A living painting. Or is it a painted life? I clap suddenly between her legs and look at my hands. Fucking mosquito. Black ink fairy imprint across my palms. I grab the bag of ice and bang out of the bathroom.

Every moment that ticks within this time line of us, it lasts forever, or a day. So when I come back into the room, it’s as if I never left. It’s as if I’m coming in for the first time. I freeze, as I sometimes have to when the two realities coincide.

‘Welcome,’ Dokkhin smiles. ‘Or is it welcome back?’

I have long since stopped being surprised at his knowing. I know my internal monologue’s fucked sometimes. As in I don’t know when it’s internal and when it’s aloud. But even when I’ve made a ludicrous leap of imagination, Dokkhin somehow follows.

When Rox enters, she goes straight to Dokkhin’s side and sits neatly beside him as if bidden. The room seems darker so I can’t see her eyes anymore, thank god. Dokkhin seems oblivious. He’s in the Matrix, working the strip of aluminum foil, pressing it, stretching it, running the lighter flame along it. When he’s placed the little red pill on the edge of the aluminum, he hands me the lighter. For all his suave ways, Dokkhin can’t keep a lighter lit while he inhales so I always do the honours. The rolled-up 100-taka note is sitting on a box of cigarettes. He puts it in his mouth and waits as I hold the lighter under the silver strip. A second later, a tendril of smoke is born. As it widens and wends, Dokkhin’s breath calls to it. I trace the lighter under the path of the pill as it smokes and slides down the strip. The smoke is now entering me, that familiar metallic tang girding my lungs. Rox’s whole body, not just her eyes, in darkness now. Dokkhin a silhouette, then a shadow, then nothing.

I am alone. As I breathe, each rib contracts under my muscles, under my skin. I can see the building of my Cubist body. It slowly becomes. Fuck, there is nothing like it. This understanding of why we are. This salience of being, itself a reason. It’s why I still pop, inhale, shoot, chew, lick, snort, suck, absorb all of it, despite the steel pincers flexing on my brain some nights, most nights, every night.

I know what I have to do. The thing that always belonged to me. The way anything belongs to you in the moment you engage. I pick up my paintbrush.

A second later, a lifetime later, I feel Dokkhin shaking me. His voice fades in and out like a pirated soundtrack. He’s telling me something absurd. He’s telling me not to die. Ila wavers like a flame into my candlewax mind, midnight skin and midnight hair. I’m not in my room anymore. A bumper car world resolves. It grumbles and shakes around me. It pixelates. Fluorescence in my eyes. Ila wavers out.

Excerpted from The Lovers And The Leavers (4th Estate, 237 pages, 499), with permission from HarperCollins.

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