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Up in Smoke
Tanvir Malik

Abid could not think any more. Head buried in hands, he sat motionless like a statue. The cigarette sticking out of his knuckles had been burning, sending up a thin, serpentine smoke-trail. It had not been puffed at for quite sometime and the stalk of ash hung headlong precariously.

The ash fell onto the floor and the last remnants of smouldering tobacco stung his toes.
“Shit….shit…!!!”,  he cursed.

Flicking the stub, he sighed. It landed amid a scatter of squashed and half-smoked ones. He looked at them but saw none. He saw the impending doom awaiting him.

His world had crumbled. What had been unthinkable was true now – clear as daylight. He had to own up to it. But there lay the problem: he simply could not bring himself to do that. How could he reconcile himself to the fact that he was …? No, unimaginable…outlandish…ignominious…

It seemed like all the responsibility – all the blame – had suddenly changed its course and charged back at him. Years of wait, anticipation, concern and finger-pointing conspired against him; suppressed voices crowded his head, mocking. He was the sitting duck now.

The doctor had been sympathetic. Abid had been seated opposite him in his air-conditioned office, with beads of sweat on his forehead and trickles slithering down the temples. The wall-clock’s sweeping hands made no sound. He waited for the doctor to tell him the test report.

“The count’s low…you understand…it’s not that uncommon in men…”

Abid could not have been more shocked. He looked down, crestfallen.

“Not to worry….there’s treatment, of course… only the patient needs changing…he…he…” he tried to lighten the situation. “But…you must quit smoking…nothing will work otherwise…”, he added.

Sadia’s face flashed in Abid’s mind – her contorted face after every session at the hospital. He closed his eyes. The days after were the hardest: the bed-interment, the swollen body, the needle-scars. He could not think himself there.

They had been trying for the last three years. One doctor to another and then to another one. Pills, tests, advice, exercises, and many dos and donts. They did not mind that though. They had tried to keep a philosophical stand.

If a child was the end result of it, they were ready to put up with all that came their way. They plunged into it full-bore.

The people around did likewise. In effect, they bent over backwards to lend a helping hand. Elderly ones said extra nafal prayers, middle-aged ones looked concerned and the young ones offered soothing words. Looks turned into sympathy, sympathy into pity. Their conjugal life was put under the microscope, vetted and discussed. Little charms went under pillows and hung around arms and waists, a fakir frequented their bedroom to fumigate it with incantations and sprinkled water. Their mating rituals were also routinely interrogated.

When all these had been exhausted, new strategies were thought of. Abid remembered his grandparents had come all the way from Potuakhali to show their solidarity. They were a made-for-each-other couple who had retained their jollity well into their eighties. The grandfather had been a police officer and in his heyday criminals used shake like leaves at the mention of his name. His wife had always been the quintessential homemaker who had also had a little formal education.

“Bhai, what have you thought about it…?” the grandfather threw the question at him the night they had arrived.
“About what…, nana..?”

“Oh…c’mon…sona….you know…what we’re talking about…!” the grandmother smiled a toothless one mischievously.

Abid felt uncomfortable. There was no doubting his friendliness with them but this was something he wanted to keep to himself. He was not sure what to say.

“Have you taken her to a doctor…yet…?” nana’s voice rang

“…she’s under treatment…” Abid said curtly

“But that doesn’t seem to be working…does it…?” nani said picking out a chip of betel-leaf from between her teeth.

“It’ll take time, nani…be patient…”

“Yes…but people…you can’t stop them from…”

“I don’t care much for them…. anyway, I was thinking of getting myself tested…just to be sure…you know…”
They did not understand at first. Abid looked at their faces.

“What do you mean? What do you have to do with it?…it’s a woman’s disease…she’s going to give birth…” nani’s eyes almost jumped out of their sockets.

“Ok…ok…I understand but that’s highly unlikely….what could possibly be wrong with you? A fine, upstanding young man….!” Nana was unbelieving.

“Our Abid’s gone mad…hai Allah…hai Mabud…completely round the bend…” nani wailed.

“No…no…no…let her treatment go on…and see…no need for you to see a doctor…” nana shook his head
Nani came close to Abid and sat beside him. Stroking his head, she whispered something into his ear. His facial expressions changed immediately. He jumped up.

“Nani…how can you even think of….of…such…ours was a love-marriage…” he was exasperated.

“Sona…I was just…suggesting…don’t get angry…sona…” nani said in a mollifying tone.

“No…that won’t happen…ever…” Abid stormed out of the room, not looking back.

Sweat had drenched half of his shirt and round patches stained the sleeve-underarms. He took off the necktie, unbuttoned his collar and adjusted the air-conditioner temperature. Should get my blood pressure taken, been a while, he thought. His right hand reached for the pack of cigarettes. The next moment, however, he drew it back. Should he or should he not? Smoking had been his companion since he had been a college student and together they had formed an unshakable alliance. It had been there when he and Sadia met, when he started his job and when her treatment started. And this time too, he could not say no to his friend.

“Oh, no…! Your grandmother didn’t say that…!” his colleague Mili had said, surprised out of her mind.
Abid nodded. There were five others there at the Chinese restaurant.

“Holy cow! These old people are …. still stuck in their mud…” Rehana said between sips.

“Yeah, but…the primary responsibility’s the woman’s…you gotta give me that…”Afzal opined

“Of course not….how can you be so crass!…a woman can’t give birth all by herself, can she…?” Mili was angry

“No…of course not but…everything happens inside her body…she carries the child inside her womb for ten months…and as such…she should take the lion’s share of the responsibility…”Aman joined the debate.

“Yeah…that’s fair…I think…however, men can’t wash their hands of…” Rehana said.

“Men can’t do that…they’re entangled in it anyway…all I’m saying is – physically speaking, it’s primarily the female’s responsibility…”

“Even if the problem’s the man’s ...?”

The three men sat up straight and exchanged glances.

“Th-e-s-e cases are almost unheard of…one in a thousand may be…” Rajan shrugged shoulders. The other two men nodded profusely.

“I don’t agree …there are lots of them…” Mili was adamant.

“Ok…ok…ok…stop! I think we’re veering away from the subject….Abid, what happened next…Abid…?” Aman looked beside him but Abid was not in his chair. He had slipped out.

Outside the door Abid took a deep puff. The conversation had bored him and he had excused himself to get some “fresh air”. May be he should not get tested. It was Sadia’s responsibility first and foremost. He was just a donor, so tospeak.What could possibly be wrong with him? Being the man, he should not go out of his way to sacrifice himself at the altar of social disparagement. No…that risk would not be worth it. The doctor had been trying and, God willing, they would see the face of their baby soon, he consoled himself.

The mobile on the table rang. Sadia calling.

“Hello…yeah…yeah…can’t come now…ok, baba…why do you have to make things complicated for me all the time, huh…? I’m busy now…!!!” He cut out. She never tried to understand his situation. All she ever had was complaints. Things on the homefront had not gone like clockwork lately. He remembered when he had found his mother in tears at prayer. He had just come home and found she had not taken her dinner.

“Maa…what’s the matter? Why haven’t you…?” he asked, concerned.

She pulled down her veil to hide her face and wiped it.

“Maa…why are you crying…? Tell me…what…?”

“Nothing, baba…go and eat your food…you’re tired…”

”No…no…first you tell me what the matter is…” he almost shouted.

“Nothing…baba…nothing…the few days I’m alive, I’ll never open my mouth again …what’s the use? I’ll never see my grandson’s face anyway…never…sniff…sniff…” She broke down.

“Maa…maa…tell me…p-l-e-a-s-e…” he entreated

She relented. “Sniff…sniff…I asked bouma to… and she sniff…sniff…she...said it’s all my fault…” she could not finish her sentence and rested her face on the son’s shoulder.

Abid sighed. “Maa…don’t worry…come and eat…let me see what I can do…!”

There was a knock on the door. Shahjahan entered.

“Sir…don’t you want to go home? It’s past seven already…” he said.

“Huh?…oh…yes…yes…I do... You go home…give me the key…collect it tomorrow…have the others left…?”
“Yes sir…everyone’s gone…” he turned but came back again.

“ Sir…driver…”

“Ask him to go home as well…I’ll take a rickshaw…”

“Sir, you’re sweating…turn down the AC?”

“No…no…you go on…leave that…!”

He lit another cigarette, trying to recollect what happened next.

Sadia had been watching a movie on TV sitting propped against a pillow. She smiled seeing him enter. He kept his look down.

“What happened between you and maa…?” he asked suddenly looking her in the eye.

She returned the look in surprise. “Nothing…nothing happened…”

“Why is she crying then…? And she hasn’t eaten dinner either…”

“Oh…I didn’t notice…feeling sick…you know…yesterday’s session’s still making me suffer…”
He turned off the TV. “What did you tell her…?”

She started to get perturbed. “Abid, please…don’t shout…I’m dizzy…can’t you excuse me this time…?”
“No…not until you tell me what you told her….”

“Ok…ok…since you’re so eager – I told her it was all her fault…this treatment…this estrangement of ours…she wants to break us up…everything’s her handiwork…happy? Happy…now? I can’t take it anymore…” she started weeping.

“How could you….?? Don’t you have any shame? On the one hand, you can’t give me any child…and on the other…you go and insult my parents…!!!”

“Yes…sniff…sniff…my not giving birth has become my concern only…and that’s why you put me through all those….all those humiliating tests…sniff…sniff…and the people’s talking behind my back…you want to punish me…sniff…!!”

“If need be, they have to be tolerated…what can we do?…you must give me a child…”

“I give birth…I bring it into the world…and….and…the moment it’s born, it becomes yours…how funny!!! You’re imposing everything on me…just to save your skin…” she wiped tears

“What !!! What do you mean…?” he frowned.

“If you’re so sure I’m the one responsible, why don’t you get tested? Tell me…why not?” she raised her voice. “That’s because you’re a coward…you always have been…you’re a mockery of a man…” she scoffed.

“S-A-D-I-A-A….” Abid’s right hand went up, without his noticing it. The hectic day at the office and empty stomach had taken their toll. The eyes reflected fiery temper and his body shook all over. She had hit him in his weakest spot and he wanted to smite the monster that dared suspect his species’ inherited pride. But the next moment, he put the hand down, made a fist and turned round. Never had he been more embarrassed in front of his wife.

His head felt heavy and the back of his neck hurt. He pressed the crown of his head – it was hot. Palpitation had taken possession of his body. He went to the toilet to splash his face with water. In the mirror, he could not recognize his own face. It appeared swollen and out of shape. The colour had left his face and a whitish pallor had settled instead – bloodless, emotionless and feckless.

Once seated, he looked at the clock: 8.30. He knew he had to go home. But what would he do there? How would he face his wife? The place that he called home, appeared to be a more forbidding place than hell itself. The woman he had fallen head over heels in love, struck him as a succubus who had sucked his seeds out. He sank into the chair.

He had slept on the living-room couch that night. Lying on his back, he resolved to talk to his physician. He would definitely prove his ‘innocence’ in this matter – he was adamant. And, once it was done, he would be back basking in its reclamation. He had to. Nevertheless, the next day when he held the container in the doctor’s chamber to collect the sample, his heart knocked. What if…? What if the tiny container he held n hand would make the biggest difference in his life? But that was for an instant only. He came out, sporting a nervous smile.

A cricket chirped in a corner. His shirt was fully soaked now. The breathing had become heavy and irregular, and he clutched his chest. An invisible weight smothered him. His head felt like a five-ton brick. He groaned.

The phone started ringing. The ringtone he had assigned to his once-dear wife, rang hollow in his ears. His hand was fixed on his chest. The ringtone kept up its badgering. He reached for it at the edge of the table, intending to shut it off. The extended hand inched towards the emanating din but the weight on his chest overpowered him. He fell down. The carpet on the floor minimized the severity of the thud. He lay face down, choking. The mobile shrieked on. The clock showed 9.00.

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