Kabid Farooque was born on June 5, 1991 in Chittagong, Bangladesh, the second and last child of Mohammad and Shamim, brother to Taslima. Shamim was a housewife; Mohammad caught rice paddy eels to sell at the market. Between the day of their marriage and the day that Taslima was born, Shamim and Mohammad had a stall in Cox’s Bazar selling spicy eel soup, across from the beach. Shamim’s eel soup, the scent of which would permeate Kabid’s childhood, was soon spoken of as the best in the entire city, and long lines would form outside their little stall, Shamim cooking in the back and Mohammad taking orders and controlling the crowd. But the blessings of not one but two beautiful, needy children put an end to their soup business, to their narrow view of the Bay of Bengal and of Mohammad taking bundles of banknotes home every day.
Kabid was a skinny but healthy baby. Shamim treated him as if he were the prince of Chittagong, spoiling him without end and turning their tiny apartment in Sholokbahar over to the boy. Every centimetre of their home became his principality. The attention and freedom Shamim gave Kabid made Mohammad and Taslima eternally jealous, dividing, from them on, the household into two.
Because she was a housewife, Shamim had time. Maybe this is why she could spoil the boy, putting on slippers and shuffling through the small apartment to check on him in the middle of the night, cooking his favourite meals, passing him a steady stream of sweets throughout his boyhood, giving him the rotten teeth smile which only added to his charm as a young man. This was in contrast to Mohammad who was always in a rush – to beat sunrise, to catch eels, to take them to the market while they were still fresh, to sell them to the store holder then watch customers bag them up to be cooked, served and eaten. Always stepping over the boy and his mess. The equation was a simple one: the shorter the time span between pulling the eel from the earth and it being eaten, the more likely the customer would return and there would be demand for what he did.
When the boy-prince was old enough, Mohammad brought him on his pre-dawn scooter rides to the paddies. Thought the early morning trip through the darkness of the settled smog then the slow, patient hunts would toughen the boy up; knew he’d rather be at home asleep or, at most, watching cartoons with his sister while slowly getting dressed for school. Tugged on his leg and ordered him – out of bed, onto the back of the bike, to hold on, to stand in the field, to quieten his mind and to focus. Did two things wrong. The first was to force Kabid to follow in his footsteps when the boy had shown not the slightest interest in his profession beyond a feverish delight in his mother’s soup – but, even then, so had the rest of the city for the brief but legendary period they had held the market stall. The second is the great mistake all fathers make with their sons when they are insecure and see them not as an extension of themselves but as an adversary. Though it had been closed for a full two years before he came along, Mohammad blamed Kabid for their inability to re-open the soup stall and, of course, already profoundly jealous of the boy, Mohammad refused to teach him a single thing about catching eels, to pass on the one useful thing he could have, that being his skills and knowledge about eel fishing, deciding instead to keep it a secret.
Kabid was spoilt, yes, and lacking in wileyness – who needs to be wiley when Shamim is there to fetch or wrangle whatever you desire? But he was not silly. Knew his father was a weak man, saw it in his eyes. Saw it in the way his mother spoke to him, dismissed him when she disagreed with something he said, preferring the time her husband was not home to when he was. Saw the way the men at the local masjid made him the butt of their joking, the efforts he made to gain their respect, and failed. Kabid pitied him when he came home from the markets almost empty-handed and bullied the boy from the tiny balcony where he’d been playing. Watched as he lit a cigartte but barely puffed at it, more a sign for everyone to stay away, to give him peace. Knew that there, sitting outside under the damp clothes on the line, in the infernal buzz of the daytime traffic, was a man terrified of failure and impotence and the world. Kabid wanted to be everything his father was not and, anyway, felt this to be the case. Felt the power of his confidence as his classmates clambered to win his affection and in the way his teachers would chastise him, desperate to keep him under their control lest he cause a mutiny. Began, as he got older, in moments of confrontation, to tell his father he would be more than him, provoked him further by asking: isn’t that what all fathers want, for their sons to be more? Saw it hurt him. Knew he had a weapon to use against him, knowledge which made his father’s backhands lose their sting. Knew he was being hit not because he was misbehaving, or because he was a spoilt boy who needed to be taught a thing or two, as Mohammad said, but because he was right.
True, Kabid would not become an eel fisherman. But his ambitious fantasies were no match for his academic performance. At some point, the best students in his class, having one eye fixed on the future, surpassed him, and left him far behind, while he still preferred to play and do as he pleased. This created few immediate options when school ended and friends were no longer freely available to laugh at his jokes. At the request of his mother, an uncle got him a job in the production line at a denim factory on the outskirts of the city. Kabid had problems here, too, but he was quickly realising there was a disconnect between the safety of home and school, and the uncertainty of the world beyond their doors. Eight of the fourteen workers in his team at the factory were men, or boys, like him, each of them dressing like him, watching Bollywood movies or Bangladeshi soap operas on the bus to work and in their lunch breaks every day – like him. But the factory work had created a problem. Mohammad laughed at Kabid at every chance he got: this was a girl’s job. Asked him about his girl’s job every night over dinner. When would he quit his girl’s job? Was he doing a girl’s job to find a girl? That could be the only logical reason. And he was right, it was a girl’s job, Kabid could not argue. And to make matters worse, every day, the bus which shuttled Kabid and the other workers to the denim factory would pass the fields where Mohammad would take Kabid as a boy to catch eels in humid but breezy dawns, bossing the boy around while he stood there yawning, daydreaming, hoping to spot a frog. There was no way to explain to Mohammad this was indeed temporary and he was saving up to leave. That one day, instead of waking early and getting on the bus to work, he would get on a bus to the airport and board a plane to Sydney, in Australia – the land where he would make his great fortune.
But spoilt boys are lazy boys. They shortcut where they can, borrowing cars they do not own to chase girls who do not like them, going to fortune tellers to know their future instead of waiting for it to unfold before them, getting loans they cannot pay back instead of working hard at the denim factory. Oh, Kabid, why did you not save your takas and listen to Bollywood hits on your purple iPod while dozing on the factory shuttle? Why did you not prove your worth instead of meeting with gangsters at the unfinished casino for money you did not truly need? Why did you not fear the fortune teller’s prophecy? Kabid’s loan payments were late and his impatient debtors stabbed him, dropping the body into the Bay of Bengal, not far from Cox’s Bazar where the Farooque soup stall once stood and brown cows laze on the beach.
He is survived by Mohammad and Taslima, and of course Shamin, who keeps eel soup forever simmering on the burner for him and thinks of him daily, believing he escaped Chittagong to marry a beautiful princess, with kohl around her shining eyes, wide hips to bear many children and a smile which can ignite an entire village, like a firework which fails to launch.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. His debut short story collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father was published from Transmission Press.
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