creative writing

Himu and Harvard PhD Boltu Bhai


By Humayun Ahmed

Translated by Fida Haq 

Dhaka, July 20, 2015, Alochonaa:

Synopsis  

Himu – after resurfacing into civilization from one of his many mysterious yet regular departures from it – is summoned by Aunt Majeda to deliver a few essentials to a Harvard PhD holder named Doctor Akhlakur Rahman Chowdhury aka Brother Boltu who is staying at a five-star hotel in Dhaka for the time being. He is in Bangladesh only temporarily and between séances of deep and manic research in theoretical physics that’s pushing him to the brink of insanity, he may or may not be looking for a companion in Tuturi – a Gold Medalist female architect he has been introduced to by Aunt Majeda. Things turn from bizarre to the inexplicable when Himu takes Boltu Bhai, Aunt Majeda’s husband Khalu Sahib – with whom Aunt Majeda is in a chronic tooth-and-nail fight, the Director General (DG) of Bangla Academy, Tuturi and others to Pir Baby Baba’s Mazar – a little known shrine located in an obscure part of town which is looked after by a legless caretaker. What unfolds at the shrine is totally in the realm of the unseen.

Chapter 1

Ever seen a Harvard PhD? – Aunt Majeda puckers up her eyes while delivering the question. As if she has just stumped me with a puzzle whose solution is known to no one except herself. She is looking amused and tense at the same time. Sweat drops of excitement is emanating from her forehead. Corners of her lips are barely concealing the smile of amusement. Her face zooms closer to mine as her round eyes pucker up even more when she asks in a whisper: So you dumbo! Have you ever seen a Harvard PhD in Physics?

I say, No. Do they look horror-inducing?

Aunt Majeda gets annoyed: Why would they be horrific?They are just different.

–         What is different about them?

–         They are different in a lightbeams-of-wisdom-emanating-from-their-body way.

–         Wow!

–         The eyes are enormous and have a lost look about them. You feel sad as soon as you see them.

Why the lost look in their eyes? – I ask.

Aunt says: Lost because they have fallen into the complex ocean of physics. He is working on the God Particle now. The more he researches in it, the more lost he gets. Poor soul! Have you ever heard of the God Particle?

–         No .Didn’t even know God is available as particles.

Aunt says, Neither did I. Don’t think anyone in Bangladesh does.

I say, Forget Bangladesh. I don’t think even God knows that He is available as particles.

Aunt says in irritation, What do you mean even God wouldn’t know? He knows everything.

–         How do you know this Mr Harvard?

–         One of your uncle’s friend’s son.

–         What’s the name of this PhD Sahib?

–         Doctor Akhlakur Rahman Chowdhury. Pardon, Chowdhury should be at the front. Full Professor of Theoretical Physics. Venderbelt University.

–         What’s his nick name?

–         What are you going to do with his nick name?

I say yawning: Complex people always have silly nicknames. Wouldn’t be surprised if his nickname was Boltu.

–         Boltu?

–         Yes Boltu. Could even be Perek. Could even be Golla or Folla.

Aunt Majeda gets annoyed: Your talk is getting unbearably rubbish by the day. Tea or coffee?

–         Yes please.

–         Which one, tea or coffee?

–         Oh give me both. Will sip tea and coffee in alteration. Double action. My head has zonked out hearing about your Harvard PhD. I got no other choice but a double action. Would have said ‘A double whisky on the rocks’ – had it been Europe or America.

Aunt says: How do you forget so readily I am an elder to you, your guardian. You and your loose talks.

Aunty was probably about to say a few more harsh words to me but luckily her mobile rang. She glided into the kitchen talking on the mobile. The trouble with mobile phones is you cannot stand still while talking. You have to be peripatetic.

Aunty resurfaced from the kitchen after three minutes. She is looking a bit flustered and lost -not too unsimilar to a lost physicist. And a bit red-faced at the same time. Iask: ‘Everything hunkydory, Aunty?’

Lowering her voice, Aunty says, He just called. No joke, Boltu is his real name. They are twin brothers. One is named Nut, the other one Boltu. Together, they are Nut-Boltu. Their father was nuts who lacked a few bolts. How else could he name them Nut-Boltu. What a distasteful mess!

–         Why are you getting so upset? Boltu is not a bad name. Doctor Boltu – has a ring to it. Even one could compose rhymes in honour of the Nut-Boltu brothers:

Nut-Boltu two bros

They ride in rickshaws.

Rickshaw goes to Motijheel

Boltu laughs khil-khil.

Nut is keeping shut

As Nut has a smelly butt.

Just shut up.Keep your mouth shut. – Aunt says firmly

So I keep shut. Aunt says: Boltu is staying at Hotel Sonargaon. Room number Four Twenty One. Coming to the reason I called you – you need to hand over a few things to him.

I say: See the virtues of a simple name? Even you are calling him Boltu without a break now. Brother Boltu is not looking like a distant person anymore. He is like one of us. As if he cleared his HSC only after two tries. Couldn’t get himself admitted in a Uni even after repeated attempts. His chief vocation in life now is to loiter in front of Girls Schools. Throw flying kisses.

–         Are you going to shut up? Or should I shut you up with a thorough slap?

I shut up.

Aunt says: He has asked for lungi-gamchha and a Bangla dictionary. I have organised all that.You just need to go deliver it.

–         No problem. I dig the lungi and the Bangla dictionary. But why the gamcha? Is he planning to join Qader Siddiqui’s party?

Aunty says in frustration: Why are you blabbering away so much? Make sure you are not going to say anything frivolous to Boltu. He is a highly respected man. He might even get the Nobel Prize like Professor Yunus.

–         It can become a mega-problem then.

–         What problem?

–         He will be readily slapped down with a bevy of lawsuits. Nobel Prize winners are looked at with deep suspicion in Bangladesh.

–         You have reverted to your babble. Remember I told you to shut up?

I startle mightily upon seeing Boltu Bhai. To our mind, ‘PhD’ conjures up image of a person with broken jaws and jaded eyes, with an always-present condescending smirk ensconced on the lips. They observe people without heavy academic degrees like theirs like they are observing bushmen. This Harvard PhD is verily handsome. He is middle-aged. With a head full of salt and pepper hair. Aunt Majeda’s words are correct. He has a lost look in his eyes.

A hotel towel is wrapped around the Harvard PhD’s waist. He is settled on the bed bare bodied wielding a cup of tea in his left hand. A spoon dangles from his right hand. Dipping the spoon into the teacup, he is scooping tea and placing it into his mouth. Kids are known to drink hot tea this way. I see an adult drink it thus for the first time.

I say, Boltu Bhai, how are you?

He says, I am fine.

–         I have brought you a few things from Aunt Majeda.

–         Is there a dictionary?

–         Yes there is.

–         Then would you take the pain to look up and tell me if there is a word called ‘tuturi’ in it? Have you heard this word before?

–         No.

–         Please look it up. Don’t think I am looking down upon you just because I am addressing you as ‘you’. You can also address me as you, there is no problem. Bangla is a strange language – Your Honour, you and the lowly you.

I say, Japanese is even worse, they have five ways of addressing you. Your Excellency, Your Honour, you, the lowly you and you little shit.

Boltu Bhai spills some steaming tea on bed yelping ‘Oh God’. He is looking embarrassed as a child now.

Holding the dictionary open, I say: The word is there. It means ‘a snake charmer’s flute’.

–         Good. Very good.

I ask: Any reasons you are spoon feeding tea to yourself?

–         My lips are burnt. Cannot touch the hot cup with them. Hence the spoon. Want to know how I burnt my lips?

–         No. What are you going to do with ‘tuturi’?

–         Nothing. Just wanted to know what it means. Tuturi is a name of a girl. I wanted to know the meaning of her name from her. She couldn’t say. When I see her next, I will tell her the meaning of her name. I am sure she will be happy to know it. What do you think, won’t she be happy?

–         Hmm,chances are slim that she will be.

–         Why is that?

–         You are going to point it out to her that she is a dumb girl, doesn’t know the meaning of her own name. She may not suffer that in good humour.

–         Let’s drop the topic then. No need to inform her the meaning of her name. What if – I present her the Bangla dictionary and tell her: here young lady, see if you can find the meaning of your name in it. What do you think of this plan of mine?

Boltu Bhai appears to be a fairly normal bloke to me. But his disposition towards me, nonetheless, has some streaks of abnormality. I am a stark stranger to him but he is on an extreme familiarity mode when talking to me. So familiar that I could address him just as Boltu Bhai.

Boltu Bhai says: Would you please take the pain to look up if there is a word called ‘futuri’ in it?

I rummage through the dictionary and say: No.

Boltu Bhai’s face and eyes light up instantly upon hearing this. With a lot of zeal, he says: what if we coin this new word in Bangla? Futuri!

–         What would it mean?

–         Any wind instrument – futuri. Flute, bugle, bagpipe, trumpet – all will belong to the futuri group. Is it clear to you? Or should I try making it clearer?

–         It’s clear.

–         It’s important that we introduce new words to the Bangla vocabulary as we go.

–         Of course.

Boltu Bhai’s eyes shimmer up. Obviously something new has come to his mind. I have seen people of this variety before. Their eyes talk before their mouth opens. They have an incessant flow of fresh ideas coming to their head.

Boltu Bhai says: Can you take dictation? I say, you write. Can you do it?

–         I can.

–         The drawer of the writing table has the hotel’s letterhead and pen in it. Sit at the table with pen and paper. I am so ashamed, I forgot your name.

–         You have nothing to be ashamed of. I didn’t get the chance to tell you my name yet. My name is Himu.

–         Himu, are you ready? Can I start the dictation?

–         Please do.

–         Write:

To

Chairman

Bangla Academy

Subject: On inclusion of new words into Bangla vocabulary

Dear Sir,

I would like to introduce a word styled as ‘futuri’ into Bangla vocabulary. Instruments that are played by means of blowing wind into them will have the collective appellation of futuri. Flute, bugle, bagpipe, trumpet for instance.

Please oblige me by taking necessary steps.

Sincerely yours,

Boltu

–         Are you going to use the name Boltu? You ought to give your formal name here.

He says: You are keeping calling me Boltu Bhai Boltu Bhai, as a result of which Boltu is making rounds in my head. Strike Boltu out and put my formal name there – Chowdhury Akhlakur Rahman. But I have to say I like the name Boltu. In my dreams, everyone calls me Boltu. I can share an interesting news about dreams with you. Should I?

–         Please do.

–         It’s only in dreams that a man can see himself. Whereas a man cannot see himself in the real world.

–         A man can see himself whenever he looks at the mirror.

–         No he does not, he only sees his mirror image. Do you understand now?

–         Yes I do.

–         Good, very good. You got yourself appointed for the job. Join from tomorrow morning.Your duty starts from 10am.

I revel in surprising others. This is the first time Boltu Bhai surprises me instead. I didn’t come to him looking for a job. I just came to drop a few things.

Boltu Bhai says: Hire an AC-microbus. The microbus will remain with us for ten days. We will go to a village named Shohagi in the district of Netrokona. We will hang around for ten days there.

I say: Yes of course Sir.

–         Why are you Sirring me?

–         You are my boss, that’s why.

–         You were calling me Boltu Bhai, which was pleasant to hear. I am not a traditional boss. Besides, your appointment is on contract basis. Your contract will cease the day after I finish writing the book.

–         Boltu Bhai, what is it that my job entails?

–         Didn’t Mrs Majeda tell you anything?

–         No.

–         You will run errands for me so I can finish writing the book.

–         What book?

–         The name of the book is: ‘God is naught, Soul is naught’. I will prove there is no being called God in the book. Also, neither is there any entity called soul.

I say, They will cut your veins off.

Boltu Bhai asks in consternation: who will cut veins off?

–         We have people who are into severing veins. Experts in anatomy. They come and nonchalantly cut veins of anyone who talks nonsense about Allah, religion and the like.

–         That is most bizarre.

I say: Boltu Bhai! Don’t be worried. They only cut veins, they don’t kill. Those whose veins were severed say they didn’t really feel much pain. The only downside is they have to remain bedridden for the rest of the lives. Have to move around in wheelchairs.

–         Are you pulling my leg?

–         Of course not Sir. I am telling the truth.

–         That’s a bit of a problem then.

–         Sir,you better write a different book. Prove it by your writing that ‘ghosts exist’.

–         How do I prove that ghosts exist?

–         You need to prove ghosts’ existence by resorting to the most complex of equations.It would be a major sensation if a Harvard PhD proves ghosts’ existence in a book. Thousands of copies will be sold. It will be translated into many languages. In Hindi, the book will be titled ‘The Ghosts Are’.

Boltu Bhai looks at me in amazement. I say, ‘I can supply you with info on all types of ghosts of Bangladesh if you want. Sir, have you heard the name of Mumdo ghosts?’

–         Mumdo ghosts?

–         When a Muslim dies, he becomes a Mumdo ghost. When a Hindu Brahmin dies, he becomes a Brahmadotti. When a shrew dies, she becomes a Petni. There is yet another type of female ghost named Shakchunni. They are a dangerous type. A Hindu widow becomes a Shakchunni after death. I have to confess I do not know the ghost type Physics PhDs turn into when they die.

Boltu Bhai extends his hand and hails me to a stop. You are one of the most dangerous types of people – he says keeping his calm. You are trying to confuse me and you have succeeded in doing so to some extent already. You are fired. You don’t need to come. Now get lost.

–         Sir,are you telling me to go?

–         Yes. I had to be very impolite, apologies for that.

–         Can I say something before I go?

–         Do. Remember it’s going to be your last words.

I say: Your head has become all knotted because of the complex Physics you study. Your knots will untie if you go meet Keramot Uncle. I can take you to him if you want me to. He will ensure your knots are untangled.

–         Who is Keramot?

–         Lives in Gandaria. Head chef of Bismillah Hotel.

–         What is he going to do?

–         He will make you laugh and make you have fun, the knots in your head will unravel.

Keeping silent a wee bit longer than usual, Boltu Bhai says: I am utterly enraged. In fact, I am holding my anger back with a lot of difficulty. I’ll be very happy if you just go now.

–         Yes Sir of course.

Boltu Bhai slams the hotel door shut with a big bang right after me. The poor inanimate door has no choice but to bear the brunt of Boltu Bhai’s anger. Had the door have the faculty to speak, it would have screamed ‘Uff re! I am gone’. Then again, language of a five-star hotel door would not be of ‘Uff re! I am gone’ type. It would instead say, ‘Oh shit!’.

*Fida Haq is an activist, artist, art critic and a technologist. Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he also blogs in English and Bangla. He can be reached at fidahaq@gmail.com

Note from translator
**I have a sub-project: translate at least three novels from the Himu series by Humayun Ahmed into English in my life. Have completed the first one already and here’s the first chapter. I am looking for a publisher from outside Bangladesh to publish it. And yes, I have permission from the copyright owner of the book to do so.

 

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