The light struck her eyes at just the right angles. It cut through her slumber, stirring her awake.
Jyoti yawned, stretching her hands. The Airport Road Flyover stretched out in front of her. It was littered with the sluggish metal bodies of vehicles chugging along their Sunday morning commutes.
She didn’t want to be here. Not so soon. She was doing well at Benapole. She was going to be posted in Kolkata soon.
Kolkata. College Street. Botanical Garden. All those other places that actual residents are supposed to know.
She was dying to see Ambassador cars, walk through hundred-year-old streets, and see a part of Bengal that felt pure. Less vandalized and mangled.
Good food. Good tea. Less terrible people. For the most part.
“কতো দিন পরে ঢাকা আসলেন, ম্যাডাম?” asked Faruq, her attaché.
“আচ্ছা। এমনিতে তেমন সময় না, কিন্তু এর মধ্যে অনেক কিছু ঘটে গেল।”
“হুমম। জানি। এসব কথা পরে বলি। আরেকটু ঘুমাতে দাও, ফারুক।”
Faruq sighed, and complied.
“এসিটা বাড়িয়ে দিও। এই গরমে সিদ্ধ হয়ে যাব।”
Jyoti plugged in her headphones and opened Spotify on her phone. It wasn’t officially available in Bangladesh, but she used a modded APK and a VPN to bypass the region lock.
Bob Dylan’s soothing voice poured into her ears. Everything was going to be alright. She had her memories to retreat to.
She looked towards Lord Krishna, small, bronze and mysterious, Radha sitting by his side. She trusted in his wisdom, and so far, it hadn’t led her astray.
Things had taken a turn for the worse when Sagar left them in the middle of the night. “সংসার চালানো আমার পক্ষে সম্ভব নয়, নন্দী। তুমি ওদের খেয়াল রেখো।” His note, like his usual speech, was sparse.
She had made things work, with her English Medium teacher’s salary and round-the-clock tuition. There came times when she saw the faces of students more than her own Jyoti and Chandra.
Jyoti was a smart kid. She grew up fast. She started doing tuitions of her own, sometimes teaching the younger siblings of her own students. Jyoti went a step ahead and taught Bangla Medium students too. By the time she was seventeen, she did other side gigs, like writing, designing and singing at functions.
Nandita wondered where she got the time. She wished that the girl was more serious about her studies. Jyoti did get into the country’s best business school, but Nandita could tell that she didn’t truly apply herself during those four years.
Chandra, on the other hand, was a lot more studious. She was beautiful, too: more beautiful than both Nandita and Jyoti. She read, and studied, and sketched. She idled, sometimes, designing intricate saris and salwars. She was an old soul in a modern world, quoting Rumi and Nazrul in alternating days.
Nandita prayed, and as she prayed, her mind sang.
কৃষ্ণ আইলো রাধার কুঞ্জে, ফুলে পাইলা ভ্রমরা,
কৃষ্ণ আইলো রাধার কুঞ্জে, ফুলে পাইলা ভ্রমরা,
ময়ূর বেশেতে সাজন রাধিকা,
ময়ূর বেশেতে সাজন রাধিকা।
Her mind fell out its reverie, as she heard keys clanging and a lock turning. The front door opened, and Jyoti stepped in, sunburnt and sleepy, duffle bag slung over one shoulder.
“হাই, মা। সরি, তোমার সকালের পুজো ইন্টারাপ্ট করলাম।”
Jyoti took off her shoes, opening the shoe drawer to take out her slippers. She looked weary, and old. Older beyond her twenty four years of age.
“কোন ব্যাপার না। সকালের নাস্তা করেছিস?”
Jyoti smiled, brushing stray strands away from her face, taking off her hair scrunchie and letting her mane loose.
“না। অলটাইম বাটার বন খেয়েছি। নাস্তার আর সময় হবে না। একটু ঘুমিয়ে, গসল করে অফিস চলে যাব।”
“এরকম ভাবে চলে নাকি? শুকিয়ে কাঠ হয়ে গেছিস তো!”
Jyoti scoffed. She surveyed her home, taking a moment to reorient herself to her surroundings. Much had changed in their three room, thirteen hundred square feet flat in Badda since they moved in eleven years ago.
“I am okay, Ma. এতো চিন্তা করার দরকার নাই । চন্দ্রা ক্লাসে?”
“হ্যা। ও তোকে ভালোই মিস করে।”
“হুমম। আমিও তোমাদেরকে মিস করি। বাসায় বাজার কেমন আছে? আজকে আমি রান্না করবো নে।”
Nandita grinned. Jyoti had always been a preternaturally gifted cook. She had fantastic taste buds too, and a hell of a sweet tooth. She would make her man very happy someday, Nandita thought wistfully. Whoever he was, if Jyoti ever chose to settle down.
” হ্যা, মাছ- মাংস দুইটাই আছে। সবজি একটু কম। চন্দ্রা কে বাসায় ফিরার সময় নিয়ে আসতে বলবো নে।”
Jyoti went to her room, shutting the door as she began changing clothes. Nandita resumed her prayers, both relieved and tense.
She was happy that Jyoti was here, but it would have been better for her to be away from Dhaka. It wasn’t the best place for a pretty, fair-skinned woman to live, much less one who was bold and intelligent.
But she trusted in Jyoti, and she trusted in Lord Krishna. They had survived this long. Perhaps, they will make it through the rest of this tumultuous year.
As Jyoti showered, she saw discarded hair matted across the basin bowl. She rinsed, scrubbed and wiped diligently. She felt liberated and relieved. This, and the AC in her room, were her small comforts in her home. Her Persian cat চিনি was getting cranky in her old age.
She hummed আমার পথচলা as she approached the basin and grabbed some of the hairs, observing their split ends and dies, separating them according to their owners.
Then, without hesitation, she munched on them, savoring the dead cells and dried dies as a deluge of memories hit her synapses. Econ classes at 9 am. Tea at Shadow. Makeout session at TSC. Smudged lipstick, cheap deodorant, decent aftershave.
His name was Ashik, and he was a master’s student in the Physics department. He was older than Chandra. Much older. Jyoti was intrigued. Chandra was smart, but she didn’t have the best taste in men. Jyoti should know, as that ran in the family.
Jyoti took more of Chandra’s hair, and chewed them thoughtfully, slowly. She saw more vivid flashes this time: glimpses of the last two weeks.
Protests on TV. Outrage on Facebook. Tense atmosphere in classes. Huddling together with friends and Ashik, crying as the authorities beat the children bloody. Marching with other students at Shahbagh, and being gassed at Zigatola for her troubles.
Jyoti felt sad, but also proud of Chandra. She was just nineteen. But she had heroes of her own to look up to, and she couldn’t let Sufia Kamal, Begom Rokeya and Jahanara Imam down.
Jyoti changed into an old salwar and went back to her room. She took out a pair of sturdy jeans, a navy blue kurta and brown sneakers. She stared at her reflection as she dressed, studying it intently. Her masked expressions confounded herself.
Was there anything left, of the Jyoti before she found what she was, and what she could do? Did anything remain of Jyoti before she was assigned the codename Ceres?
She considered changing her looks for the investigation. She probably would need to. Her superior hadn’t briefed her much, but from what she had heard, she understood that they needed someone of her unique talents to crack the case.
She applied makeup and fixed her hair on autopilot. She checked her tiny Glock’s ammo clip and then holstered it, grabbing two more clips from her bedside drawer. You could never be too careful in Dhaka.
চিনি jumped from her windowsill, starring daggers at Jyoti. She stood near Jyoti’s feet, purring ruefully.
“এতো রাগিস না, বুড়ি। রাতে এসে আদর করে দিবোনে।”
চিনি averted her gaze, downcast, and then jumped onto Jyoti’s old study desk. Jyoti considered munching on some of her shedded hairs, but decided against it. She wasn’t keen to know who the old gal had mated with this time.
“আগে ভাগে চলে আছিস। রান্না করতে সময় লাগবে তো।” Nandita said as Jyoti put on her shoes.
“চেষ্টা করবো। ঈশ্বর, কাজ আর ট্র্যাফিক আলাও করলে হয়।”
Jyoti hugged Nandita, warmly and wistfully. For once, she felt thirteen again, and she felt echoes of the Jyoti that still remained.
She stepped out and called for the elevator. She peeked at the narrow roads snaking below her, the August sun glaring at a dozen passers-by. She checked her Pathao, the local ride-sharing app. Her biker, Shahana, was still four minutes away.
Jyoti opened the “Your Summer Rewind” playlist on Spotify as the elevator doors opened. She put on her Remax earphones as she stepped on to the lift, smiling and greeting Kamran Noor, the elderly patriarch from fifth floor. Cool Chainsmokers beats streamed into her headspace, and in the corner of her mind’s eye she was once again traversing the Euphrates, joined by Sophia, Rubin, Azhar and Paul.
It was a nice summer. The trainees had mingled, trained and shadowed their mentors on counter-intel operations. They observed drone strikes, honey pots and, that one time they veered into ISIS controlled territory, a night-time raid on supply trucks and transports carrying prisoners.
She felt her insides twist as she remembered the state of the refugees fleeing Syria. She had shared food with some of them, and tasted the abject terror, hunger and despair coursing through the impoverished family of six.
She relaxed, in turn, when she remembered sleeping under starry nights, counting stars and charting constellations with Paul, and tasting Jack Daniels on his lips. He had felt so good, then: hard muscles and smooth, sculpted torso, hard blue eyes and Don Draper-like jaws. But then she smelt Sophia’s perfume on his shirt and her lipstick on his neck, and that ruined the rest of the night for her.
She skipped to the next song, and smiled once again at Noor chacha, who grimaced. She had caught him staring at her bust, and as usual, pretended to ignore that happened.
This was only her first leer of the day. The last time she kept count, she lost count at fifty-five. And that was eight years ago.
She walked past the garage, humming in sync with Demi Lovato’s vocals. She frowned as she tiptoed across the edge of the street, avoiding the swaths of mud and puddles, leftover from yesterday night’s rain. She adjusted her orna self-consciously as she passed the local tong. Ratul smiled sheepishly at her, and she smiled back. He had grown into a young man since she had last seen him, when he left for his village in Mymensingh.
She stopped when she reached the road’s end. She checked her phone again: Shahana was one minute away. Soon enough, a blue scooty appeared, pausing to a halt in front of her. Shahana smiled at her, her beedy eyes flittering through her blue helmet.
“আপু, আপনি ধানমন্ডি যাবেন, রাইট?”
“হ্যা। কোনো সমস্যা?”
“না। আসলে, আমি ওই দিকেই যাচ্ছিলাম, এমনিতেও। ভালো হলো, আপনাকেও পেলাম।”
Shahana handed a spare helmet to Jyoti.
“এইটাকি পড়াই লাগবে?”
“হ্যা। আন্দোলনের পরে নতুন রুলস।”
Jyoti smiled wryly as she took the helmet and wore it, before climbing on to Shahana’s Scooty. At least some things had changed for the better.
Shahana took off, deftly making her way through the streets. Jyoti clasped the back handles of the bike tight, as it bumped a few times off the uneven roads.
“আপু পড়েন নাকি চাকরি করেন?”
“চাকরি। একটি কনসালটিং ফার্মে। আপনি?”
“প্লিজ, আমাকে তুমি বলবেন। আমি আই ইউ বি তে পরি। ডুয়াল মেজর – ইকোনমিকস আর ফাইন্যান্স। ফিফ্থ সেমেস্টারে।”
“আচ্ছা। আমাকেও তুমি জ্যোতি বলো। আমি একই লাইনের পড়াশোনা করেছি। আই বি এ, মার্কেটিং মেজর। বেশ কঠিন সাবজেক্ট নিয়েছ মেজরের জন্য।”
“আপনিতো তাহলে অন্য লেভেলের ব্রিলিয়ান্ট। এম এন সি ট্রাই করেন নাই চাকরির জন্য?”
“আমার মতো ভবগুরে কুলাঙ্গারের দিয়ে ওইসব সম্ভব না। একটা কিউবিকেলে অর্ধেক জীবন কাটিয়ে দেয়া। অনেক চেনজ ওফ সিনারি প্রয়োজন।”
“আচ্ছা। আমার মতো একটা বাইক কিনে ফেলো, জ্যোতিদি। ইচ্ছা হলেই টান দিয়ে ঢাকার বাইরে যেতে পারবেন।”
Jyoti laughed softly. She liked Shahana. She had spunk, but there was also that element of wide-eyed wonder to her. Good combinations for a good spirit, though perhaps a bit mismatched for Dhaka’s dour reality.
“না, আমি বাইক ভালো চালাতে পারি না। আসলে ঢাকার বাইরেই ছিলাম, এতদিন। তুমি ঢাকার বাইরে কেমন ঘুরেছ, শাহানা?”
“মোটামুটি। শ্রীমঙ্গল, সিলেট, রাজশাহী। বেশির ভাগই ফ্রেন্ডসদের সাথে। একটা সোলো ট্রিপ মারার অনেক দিনের ইচ্ছা। এইজন্য পার্ট টাইম জব আর টিউশনের সাথে পাঠাও চালাচ্ছি।”
“ভালো তো। কেমন চলছে পাঠাও?”
“খারাপ না। আগে যখন শুধু নিজের জন্য ইউজ করতাম, তখন প্রায় রাইডারগুলা সুবিধার হতো না। রাইডের সময় একটু বেশি ঘেঁষে বসা। রাইডের পর একটু বেশি হাসা, আবোল তাবোল কথা বলা। তারপর মেসেজের কথা নাই বলি।
বাইকটা কিনার পর নিজের স্বাধীনতাটা উপলব্ধি করতে পারছি। ইচ্ছামতো একটু ঘুরে বেড়ানো। ঢাকা শহরের আনাচে কানাচে ভালো মতো চিনা। ফ্রেন্ডসদেরকে লিফট দেওয়া।”
“লিফট দেওয়ার ব্যাপারে বয়ফ্রেন্ড পেরা দেয় না?”
Shahana chuckled. “প্রথমদিকে একটু দিসে। ওরপর একদিন বাস দিসি, সে ঠিক হয়ে গেছে।”
“ভালোই, ভালোই।” Jyoti stuck an earphone in her right ear. “আমি গান শুনলাম একটু।”
Soulful Deep Purple tunes took Jyoti away once again. She was still here, traveling through Panthapath, looking disinterestedly at street peddlers trying to sell water bottles and juice packs. But she was also there, in Benapole, analysing and decripting border chatter, and paying visits to local gathering spots. She stood out in such places, sometimes, and sometimes, a dark orna wouldn’t do.
She remembered, that one time, when she ventured beyond the border and rode beyond Petrapol and all the way to Gopalnagar. She had taken the wheel then, not Faruq.
It felt liberating, to be in charge of her own destiny, for once. She contemplated ditching Faruq, and the car, and disappearing into the wild for a few days. Reemerge somewhere in Hooghly, build a new identity, and then spend the next few years in Kolkata.
She could still have Kolkata. Her trainee period was almost over. This one attachment could be a make or break case for her.
“জ্যোতিদি, একটা স্টুপিড কোয়েসচেন ছিল।”
“আপনি বিজনেস কম্পিটিশনে পার্টিসিপেট করেছেন?”
“হ্যা। এ্যাড মেকার, সসিও বিজনেস, কর্পোরিডলার্স। ফার্স্ট ও সেকেন্ড রানার্স আপ। ব্র্যান্ডউইটজ ফাইনালিস্ট।”
“It was easier than it sounds.”
It really was. Jyoti was mostly coasting by. A few fistfuls of hairs from the seasoned competitors, seniors and previous winners was enough. She used to breeze by on the experience alone. She always stopped short of winning though. She didn’t want the spotlight, especially if it meant taking that away from someone more deserving.
She participated in these competitions, and periodically in debate tournaments, because she was often scouting for potential recruits. If she could find someone by herself, that meant a pay bump as well as an increase in other perks. It was almost a Pyramid scheme in structure, as she could participate in their training too.
“আমাকে কিছু টিপস দিয়েন। সবসময় সেকেন্ড রাউন্ডে বাঁদ পরে যাই।”
“কেস আ্যানালাইসিস আরো ভালোভাবে করতে হবে। Good slides and solid presentation also helps.”
“Noted. আপনাকে পরে আরও জ্বালাবনে।”
“Sure. You already have my number.”
As if on cue, Jyoti’s phone vibrated inside her purse. An oldschool ringtone greeted her ears.
“No chance, oh that’s what you got, yeah…”
Jyoti answered. “Yes, boss?”
“Where are you? I have been here for ten minutes already.”
“Almost there. Traffic is murder, as usual.”
There was a pause, before a soft laugh. “You know, I can still tell when you are lying. You need to work on that.”
“আপনি বেশি বুঝেন। What if I wanted you to know that I was lying?”
“That’s some Inception-level bullshit. But I will take it. Come quickly. The uniforms won’t be here for long.”
“I will be there. See you in ten.”
Shahana beamed at Jyoti after she disconnected.
“I heard, Jyotidi. Ten minutes it is.”
Jyoti floored the pedal and sped through Dhanmondi, before veering into a narrow alley.
“Just don’t tell my boyfriend about this.”
Jyoti made a zipping motion across her mouth. “Don’t worry, my lips are sealed.”
Saeed stole a look at this phone’s screen. He was doing well today in Clash of Clans. Once he was relieved of guard duty, he was confident he could merrily grind for a couple of hours on his way home.
“এইসব কি দেখিস, সাঈদ?”
Saeed stared at Ershad, who was gawking at Saeed’s mid-range smartphone. The forty-something old was getting more curious as he aged. His paunch meant that sometimes, he couldn’t look beyond the edge of his belly. That didn’t stop him from trying.
“ক্ল্যাশ অফ ক্লান্স খেলছি। আপনিও খেলে দেখতে পারেন। টাইমপাসের জন্য ভালো।”
Ershad snorted. “এইসব বাদ দিয়ে সংসারের কামাইয়ের চিন্তায় মনোযোগ দে। দারোগার বেতন দিয়ে দুই বাচ্চাকে কেমনে খাওয়াবি?”
“সার, আমার এখনও বাচ্চা হয় নাই। শাহেব আর বিবি যথেষ্ট আপাতত।”
“বিবিদের কি কম আবদার হয়?”
“তা হয়তো না। কিন্তু আমার তিশা ওরকম না। চাকুরীজীবী। আমি যা কামাই তার চেয়ে দ্বিগুণ কামায়।”
“তুই আবার কোন ধরনের পুরুষ? বউয়ের কামাইয়ে চলতে লজ্জা করে না?”
“লজ্জা কিশের? আমি আমার কামাইয়ে চলি, বউ নিজের কামাইয়ে। অ্যান্ড আমাদের কামাইয়ে সংসার চলে। সিম্পেল ব্যাপার।”
“হুম। তোমাদের জামানা অনেক বেশি ইমোশনাল। আমরা সেই ত্রাফিক থেকে শুরু করে রোজগার করে আসছি। স্টেশনে এফ আর আই নেওয়া, এলাকার দোকানের ভাড়া নেওয়া। আসল কষ্টের কাজ করতে চাও না।”
“আপনি যেটা ভাবেন, স্যার। কাজ হচ্ছে কাজ।”
Saeed turned his neck, look at the slightly ajar door leading to the duplex. He craned his neck upwards, taking in the modern majesty of the building’s architecture. This was a good spot of real estate, overlooking Rabindra Sorobor and the Lake. Nothing he or Tisha would be able to afford, even if they saved for the next hundred years.
“এখানের ঝামেলাটা কি, সাইদ?”
“একজন গুম, আরেকজন খুন। দুই সপ্তাহ আগের ঘটনা।”
“তাই নাকি? বিরোধী দলের লোক নাকি?”
“সম্ভবত না। সাদাসিদে মানুষ, সবাই। বাবা সাহিত্যিক, মা অধ্যাপক। ছেলে ভার্সিটি পড়ে ও মেয়ে কলেজ।”
“দেশটাই সাদাসিদে, সাইদ। মাঝেমধ্যে একটু বেশি কাদাপানিতে খেলাধুলা করা হয়, আরকি।”
“আপনি ভালো জানবেন, স্যার।”
A few more minutes passed. Then, the young officer in civilian clothes emerged, donning his Aviator glasses as he stepped out, grimacing as he took in the sunlight. He looked rugged and fit, his physique no doubt a result from many hours in the gym.
A blue Scooty sped towards them, before slowing to a halt. A young woman disembarked, taking off her helmet and freeing her long locks. She straightened the frizzy edges, and checked her phone, tapping away at her Pathao app. The female rider nodded after checking her own phone.
“টাকা পেয়ে গেছি। See you later, Jyotidi.”
“You too, Shahana. ভালো থেকো।”
Jyoti walked towards the young officer, who seemed half annoyed and half relieved. “Still stuck in Benapole time?”
“It’s the same timezone,” Jyoti grinned from ear to ear. She extended her hand. “Good to see you too, Ehsan.”
Ehsan took her hand and shook it. “Let’s go inside. We are already late, as it is.”
Jyoti nodded. The two walked past the metal gates and the two guards. Saeed mentally took note of Jyoti’s posture and confidence. She was young, younger than him and even his sister. But she walked with the sort of confidence that Saeed saw from senior officers.
Jyoti grasped the marble railings leading to the entrance and paused. She closed her eyes, forehead furrowed. “I know this place. Oh shit.”
“হ্যা। I have been here before. Well, not me, exactly. But someone I know has.”
Ehsan looked at her apologetically. “Yeah. I was afraid you were going to say that.”