The invitation was on top of his keyboard. Arifin grimaced at it like it caused a sharp pain in his chest and dropped it in a drawer. All his worrying needed to go into his morning's work. The Anti-Corruption Commission had launched a countrywide crackdown. Corporations especially were under scrutiny for offshore tax havens and fraud. Even though Arifin was confident of his work, nothing could be left to chance. All it would take is for one of those ACC hawks to sniff at something with a hint of suspicion, and it would be Arifin Dubaash on the spot to defend not just his own work, but all of Qureshi Enterprises, including his boss' name. As soon as Waseem Qureshi told him of the ACC's newest rounds of audits and investigations last month, whichever they felt was appropriate on a case-by-case basis, Arifin saw fifteen years' worth of his work needing his attention once again. Into that was thrown this invitation, which Arifin knew would eventually come, and he would have to deal with it.
He heard the office clearing out for lunch. Five hours had passed like five minutes. No matter how early he came in to work, time was never kind or patient. Arifin plucked the invitation from the drawer, and made his way to the boss' chambers.
"Sir, may I come in?" Arifin knocked on the frame of the open door to Waseem Qureshi's chamber. He saw Qureshi's hand stop midway between the Tupperware and his mouth. He ate his meager lunch of chapattis, dal, and plain yogurt at his desk every day. His head leaned over to clear the obstruction of the door.
"Dubaash, yes, come," said Qureshi.
The chamber was sparsely furnished. A large, teakwood desk with a black granite top stood like an island directly opposite the door, behind which was a black leather swivel chair. For guests and visitors there was a mini living room set up to one side, made up of a beige three-seater couch, two matching chairs, and a plain coffee table with a glass ashtray as the only, curious piece of decoration. The walls were bare. One large sliding window framed Qureshi's head when he was in his chair, through which there was a perfectly captured view of the Banani-Gulshan Bridge, with the lake snaking along underneath. The humid morning had been shrouded in fog, but the sun was burning through the mist, appearing still through an ashen sky. One column of sunlight bounced off Qureshi's voluminous and wavy silver hair. At sixty-eight, Qureshi cut a remarkable figure, lean and taut, with skin that looked perpetually sun-fed, claimed no vices, and played squash and golf between three and five times a week.
Qureshi disliked having people sit across from him at his desk, unless they were employees. For that purpose employees knew to slide over one of the chairs from the guest area without being told every time.
"I see you got it," Qureshi nodded at the invitation, which Arifin had placed on his lap.
"Sir, I'm really honored—"
"And you're going to be there, Dubaash. I'm well aware of your aversion to social affairs. I respect it, always have. This is different. Now," Qureshi rolled along to his next thought as though the previous matter required no further discussion, "this new round of ACC audits, well, so called audits, this has to be the center of our world. By our I mean yours and mine, specifically. This is unlike any other time before." Qureshi's fingers made a steeple against his chin. His eyes were on a spot on the desk that Arifin didn't see as being specifically significant to whatever his boss was thinking, but it was rare for Qureshi to look directly at the person he was interacting with for extended stretches. How he addressed them, his tone of voice, was a stronger indicator that he was completely devoted to the exchange, and not a word was escaping his note, his own or the other person's. "This time, Dubaash, all they're smelling for is blood."
"Sir, it's all I've been devoting my time to," Arifin said, sounding less reassuring than he'd wished.
Qureshi rubbed under his chin with the point created by his two fingers. "You know as well me that a thorough audit is the last thing they care about. They didn't touch a single day's accounts before putting away Sarwar. And Mohsin, they came into his house, arrested his wife first, then waited for him to come home later with her sitting there handcuffed, in her own house. These new fellows in the ACC, they respond to one thing only. Power. If you don't have more than them, that's it, they spite you, spite everything about you."
"We have nothing to worry about, sir." Again, Arifin felt the words trickle out without weight.
"Of course not. All the more reason to worry if they come sniffing around."
Qureshi began placing the covers of the Tupperware on them. He stacked them one on top of the other, and set them inside a small fridge along the back wall behind his desk. Being done with this, he looked like someone who had finally finished a long-put off chore. Besides the Tupperware the only contents of the fridge were bottled water. Qureshi had never touched liquor in his life, and he didn't smoke, two of the most prevalent habits of Dhaka's society elites, if not absolute markers of their distinguished pedigree.
"One day this week you'll need to stay a bit later in the evening," said Qureshi. "There's someone coming to see me and I'd like you to meet him."
Arifin nodded. But he was still uncomfortable about his reason for coming to see the boss. Qureshi, in his passing glance over Arifin, caught his discomfort.
"For god's sake, Dubaash, it's a wedding," Qureshi laughed a rare, controlled laugh, just enough to convey the lightheartedness he wished Arifin to feel. "You'd be more comfortable at an ACC hearing, wouldn't you," he joked.
If given the choice, Arifin would in fact opt for the one with the lesser demands on social etiquette. It was not as if he had none. He was depleted. After a lifetime of being the son of a civil servant who insisted his son attend every social event with his father so as to cultivate charm, public grace, and contacts, Arifin wanted to be a hermit. He always wished his father would see how inept he was and turn his attention to Arifin's older sister. Ten years ago when the senior Dubaash died, among his last words to Arifin were never to forget how important it was to "talk as much to the world as he could." It was, his father insisted, the only way to be a somebody in it, and the man that didn't understand that, refused it, kept the world at a cold distance, was condemned to die alone. In his sickbed, Arifin's father had quietly breathed his last, the room empty of anyone else except him and his life's end, while his family ate a late, exhausted supper in the dining room. His wife joined him nine months later.
"She's like a daughter to me," said Qureshi. "One evening won't kill you, Dubaash."
"No, sir. Of course it will be an honor." Arifin stood up, causing the invitation to slide off his lap.
"You haven't even opened it," said Qureshi, watching Arifin pluck it off the carpet like it was a holy relic that should not have touched ground. "It's really well made. Take a look. My niece has an eye for these things and found some young graphic designer working out of his parents' house."
The invitation was on glossy card stock, a deep maroon on which the lettering was in English with an Arabic flair. Around the edges, also in gold, were the initials B&T as a border. Arifin understood their meaning when he read the full invitation. Bushra and Tanveer were the bride and groom.
"I will accept your RSVP here," Qureshi showed the faint trace of a grin as his palm extended for the RSVP card.
Arifin spent the next few days rigorously auditing his own work. He checked spreadsheets until the numbers blurred, and checked them again. He brought out old ledgers from the time he joined the firm. Studying his own handwriting after so many years gave him the feeling he was going through archival materials from another age. By Thursday afternoon he was ready to invite the ACC in and let them have their fill. And there was no word of Qureshi's visitor. Thursday evenings Arifin went for dinner at his sister's house, but as the sun began setting on this one, Arifin called and told Sharmeen he would be late. Her reply was as he expected: come as late as you will.
When Qureshi's visitor arrived close to seven o'clock, the office had emptied out for the weekend. Arifin couldn't help but think it was a deliberate move on Qureshi's part to time things this way. He waited for Qureshi to summon him, and entered the chambers like a boy called to the principal's office under investigation for a grievous breach of rules.
Qureshi and his visitor were seated in the chairs at the guest area, which left the entire sofa for Arifin.
"Dubaash, come, sit," said Qureshi.
Arifin was struck by the sudden and profuse odor of cigarette smoke. It was an alien smell to Qureshi's chambers, which was mostly left with the scents of cleaning products and bleach after the custodial crew swept through it nightly. What was even more unusual was, as Arifin took his seat, and their conversation continued, the visitor lighting a cigarette and smoking it without a word of prohibition from Qureshi.
Qureshi and his visitor small-talked for ten minutes before Arifin was finally dealt into the conversation.
"Dubaash," said Qureshi, "Mr. Moazzem will be assisting us, and we should both be grateful that he's willing to go the length."
Moazzem nodded in Arifin's direction, pulled on his cigarette, and made no eye contact.
"I'm a public servant, Waseem shahib, please don't embarrass me further," said Moazzem, lightly, with a spurting laugh. He was around Arifin's age, but because he was dressed like a career politician in a starched cream-colored kurta, pajamas, and tan Nehru coat, he held the air of someone much older than both Arifin and Qureshi. His black moccasins were the odd touch to his ensemble, frayed around the edges, the leather scuffed and skinned. His thinning dark hair was sharply parted on the right. Behind a veil of smoke his features remained blurry for the entire time Arifin sat in the office.
Unsure how to conduct himself further, or whether to offer a hand for Moazzem to shake, Arifin hung at the edge of his seat, practicing the silence that had made him one of Qureshi's most trusted employees.
Moazzem snuffed his cigarette in the glass ashtray, and spoke as he lit another. "A man like you should not have to deal with these government puppets." His voice was clear, his inflections reminiscent of English public schools and university. "These people never knew what it's like to be on the level of people like you. Now that they have some power..." a plume of smoke streamed out of his nose. He leaned forward to tap out the ash growing at the tip of his cigarette. "You are who you are."
Twenty minutes passed during which Arifin faded into the bare walls. Qureshi and Moazzem bantered about cricket, and the American TV show Breaking Bad. Moazzem was particularly enthusiastic about a car wash used as a money-laundering front, something, he expertly declared, that would not last one week in Dhaka. "Too many of these bloody beggars on the streets would overrun the place and blow the cover," he laughed, a short, flat burst of throaty emission.
"Mr. Moazzem is a busy man," said Qureshi, rising.
"Nonsense," said Moazzem, chuckling. "My time stops for people like you."
Qureshi nodded his appreciation and went to the safe he kept under his desk and returned with a brick-like manila envelope folded in half. He set it on the coffee table on Moazzem's end. Moazzem took no note of it, and Arifin could not recall when Moazzem picked it up. Moazzem saw Arifin eyeing his pack of cigarettes and said he was welcome to it. Arifin declined.
"They're terrible things, yes," said Moazzem. "But a man without at least one bad habit is like a car without troubles. Can't exist. I guess that would make Waseem shahib a, anomaly? Is that the right word?" He grinned at Qureshi. "Then again, Waseem shahib is an anomaly in more than just one way."
Qureshi deflected the attention on himself by asking if there was anything Moazzem needed from Arifin right away.
"I have what I need," said Moazzem. He stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray and pushed to his feet. He shook Qureshi's hand, and, without a word of goodbye to Arifin, was gone.
"Dubaash," Qureshi said, after Moazzem had left in a trail of nicotine and second-hand smoke. "Thank you for staying late."
"Sir, it's no problem."
"It is. I know it's Thursday, your night to visit with your sister for dinner. How is your brother-in-law doing? Is he back at work?"
"No, sir. Not yet."
"Wish him well for me. Oh, and also, I'll send a car for you for the wedding."
Any protest to this would be shunned, Arifin knew, and so accepted the offer with a nod of gratitude.
Arifin reached his sister's home shortly after eight. Kamran, his brother-in-law, opened the door, releasing from deep inside the flat a rush of ginger, garlic, and onions frying in oil. Kamran looked Arifin up and down like a security guard before leaving the door open for him to enter.
"Sharmeen, your brother maharaj has arrived," Kamran called, turning and limping down the hallway.
"Sorry," said Arifin taking off his shoes, setting his workbag down next to the door. "Is Tania here?" he asked after his niece.
"Not here," Kamran's answer came from the dining room.
"She's staying with a friend tonight," Sharmeen added from the kitchen. "Wash up quickly."
At the table Kamran began dishing food onto his plate like an irate king after a long day listening to subjects' onerous complaints. Sharmeen served Arifin. She filled her plate with a scoop of rice, and a spoonful of cauliflower curry, but didn't take a bite before she saw her brother take one first.
The three of them ate in silence for a while. Kamran had been on leave since a road accident had injured his hip several months ago. After the government doctors had said he could return to work Kamran requested a change of position at the Dhaka City Corporation, hoping that after twenty years on the job his time in service would carry some weight. Every week he followed up and every week he heard the same reply, his request was being reviewed. Kamran had reached a point where it was now about him against the bureaucracy, and he was willing to risk home and hearth to wait them out, instead of returning to his duties in the waste management department where his physical health would be further strained beyond a limit it could no longer endure. His stand came with the accompanying financial stresses, even as the savings he had started for his daughter's dowry sometime in the future was fast depleting.
After dinner, Arifin joined Sharmeen in the kitchen. Kamran, with his unemployed free time, had become a devotee of national news, burying himself for hours at a time in the midst of a growing pile of old newspapers in the living room. They could hear the impatient shuffling of paper, Kamran's grunts and snorts, and his smacking down one newspaper with deliberate force before picking up the next.
"Here," Arifin said, taking Sharmeen's hand and closing her fingers around a wad of cash. The kitchen was hot. The ineffective exhaust groaned like a small wounded animal.
"How long will this go on I don't know," said Sharmeen, scraping the food out of the dishes into plastic containers.
"Every month you say the same thing, Apa. Just take it for once without saying anything."
Sharmeen was thin-framed, like their mother, but she also had their mother's defiant eyes, set mouth, and expression of resolve, which together could betray any sign of weakness the rest of her felt at any moment. Despite the puffs under her eyes, and the creased lines that cut across her forehead, the crow's feet in the corners of her eyes when she smiled, Sharmeen could pass for being younger than Arifin, and he, five years younger, with his growing paunch, fading hairline, and the graying horseshoe of hair around the sides and back of his head, felt as though he should have begun helping her long ago, when they were still children.
"There's a little extra there," said Arifin, "for Tania's birthday."
"We're going to celebrate. You will come, no?"
"Are you feeling okay?" Sharmeen asked. "You ate so little."
"I'm not very hungry, as usual." Arifin forced a tired smile. "Also tired."
"If you live all alone, this is what happens. You're tired, and alone, all the time." She had prepared a tiffin carrier with leftovers for him, which she set on the counter between them. "Too much food to just waste."
Arifin changed the topic. "Mr. Qureshi invited me to his niece's wedding."
"He has a niece? I thought he's not married," said Sharmeen.
"No, it's a relative's daughter. Well, he helped with adopting her, and since then he's taken care of her."
"That's very good of him," Sharmeen said, almost as an afterthought.
On his way out, Arifin stopped to say goodbye to his brother-in-law. Kamran's eyes popped over the top of a newspaper, and he looked at Arifin as though a stranger had called his name.
"Ah," Kamran punched the paper in the middle to make it double over. "Is Qureshi Enterprises in the line of this new ACC fire?" he held up the paper. Without his glasses Arifin saw a square white blur.
"I wouldn't know," Arifin replied, hoping that it would suffice, but knowing better.
"You're their accountant and you don't know?" Kamran winced from a stab of pain in his hip. "Shit!"
"Mr. Qureshi has nothing to hide," said Arifin.
"No, of course he doesn't," Kamran quipped. "People like him hide in plain sight. That's their cover."
Arifin preferred not to step into his brother-in-law's trap. Kamran resented the very existence of people like Waseem Qureshi. Their worlds were not only apart and different, they were separate universes in which a fight against the good and the crude was always at work, with Kamran representing the noble pursuits, and Qureshi its damned defeat. Arifin didn't dislike Kamran so much as he believed his brother-in-law to be a fighter who never really fought. Which explained for Arifin the standoff with the Dhaka City Corporation that had nothing but loss waiting at the end for Kamran to eventually catch up with and accept.
"Nothing is being hidden," said Arifin, ready for the onslaught in return. Instead, a spasm of pain attacked Kamran, and choked his speech. "Sharmeen!"
Sharmeen rushed over with a hot water bottle, which Kamran snatched from her and pressed to his hip like administering an insulin shot almost too late. His face contorted. He gasped, waiting for the pain to recede, and pawed at Sharmeen to give him the pain pills she had also brought with her.
Kamran's eyes were squeezed shut, his face lowered. He took in and released huge gulps of air that made his body heave and contract. Sharmeen stood next to him without touching or interfering, even as her hands were at the ready to catch him if he needed support.
"Tell him I said best of luck," said Kamran, slowly recovering control. He tossed the pills to the back of his throat, without water. "People like him," he panted, "are doing a great job keeping the shit piled high on the rest of us. Tell him I said so."
The day of the wedding, Qureshi's car arrived at three o'clock. Arifin's anxiety-wrecked day was worsened when he saw his boss had sent the Mercedes. A more accurate guess was that the driver, without specific directions on which of the half dozen vehicles in the Qureshi garage to use, chose it himself. The car stopped, and the driver popped out like a wound-up toy, grinning, pulling open the rear door for Arifin.
"Arifin, sir," the driver got back in behind the wheel and fixed the rear-view mirror. "Traffic is extra bad today, sir. Jamaat people have been making fuss about strike later." He shook his head and clucked his tongue, and put the car in gear. "These people," the driver went on, "they don't want the High Court to try the war criminals, that's why, no? they make all this fuss. And government can't fight them." He pressed down the horn and cursed under his breath at a rickshaw that nearly bumped the side of the car. "Mullahs, rickshaws, traffic! Where does it end!" He muttered more curses, and blasted the horn.
Arifin remembered a time when the ride from his neighborhood in Mohammedpur in the old part of the city to the area of the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel where they were now headed, took, at most, twenty minutes. The same journey had become a two-hour misery. No matter how many bypasses were built, Dhaka traffic insisted on being the clogs in the veins of a city whose flow of humans and vehicles had long ago exceeded its capacity to contain them. It was a heart attack seen from within.
They moved along Mirpur Road, stopping and starting. The mid-December afternoons had been sunny, with clear skies, a steady, brisk temperature that could dip into nights of nipping air and fog, but likewise produce days of prolonged sunshine, without the rabid summer heat. Arifin felt unsettled sitting in his boss' luxurious car. To sit too comfortably in the deep, cushioned leather seats seemed like an overstepping of boundaries. He sat with his back straight, not leaning back, keeping his hands to himself so as not to touch any more of the interior as necessary. The car was less than a year old and still heady with the perfume of newness.
"Oh, goddamn!" the driver hissed.
"What is it?" Arifin leaned forward.
They had turned off Mirpur Road, and gone past Green Road onto Panthapath for the last stretch to the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel where the ceremony and reception were being held. Close to the Bashundhara Shopping Complex on their left the driver pointed to a group of three policemen along the side of the road, one of whom was waving his baton furiously at their car, at the same time using it to indicate to the driver to pull over.
"What happened?" Arifin asked.
"I don't know, sir," the driver said, navigating the car to a slow stop a few yards from the policemen. He was sure it was because he had just sped through the red light at Green Road. The one with the baton, a sub-inspector, bounded up to the driver's side and tapped his baton on the window as it was coming down.
"Where did you think you were going?" he yelled into the car. "Is that traffic light there for my mother's wedding, asshole?"
"Sorry, sir, I was—"
"You were what? Jacking off instead of driving? Bonnie Prince Charlie can do whatever the hell he wants, isn't it? Because he drives a Mercedes, isn't it? Isn't it?"
Arifin rolled down his window. The sub-inspector's head swiveled in his direction. His face was wind-beaten, the skin flaky around the chin. A thin mustache looked drawn in pencil over his mouth. When he brought his face to Arifin's window the stale odor of tea, cigarettes, and long hours without attending to hygiene wafted in. The other policemen were roaming around the car like sniffing dogs.
"Sir, I apologize for the inconvenience," said Arifin.
The sub-inspector, whose name badge read Khalid, narrowed his vein-webbed eyes on Arifin. "Are you eyeballing me?"
"Come outside," Khalid stepped back. "And you," he pointed at the driver, "take out the keys and throw them on the ground. And do us the honor of getting your ass out of the car, if you will, your royal fucking highness."
The driver obeyed. The keycard clacked on the ground, and the driver, stepping out, let slip Waseem Qureshi's name. Arifin wanted to slap his mouth.
One of the other cops swooped down and snatched the keycard. He examined it like a foreign artifact just fallen from the sky, before handing it to Khalid, who looked at it with such contempt that Arifin thought he would crush it between his teeth. Around them people were gathering to watch the spectacle.
Khalid pocketed the keycard and grabbed the driver's collar. "You think you scare me with dropping names, asshole? I will destroy this car right here and tie you naked on top of it and throw it in the river. Who will stop me? You? Your boss? Look at me, shit-face, when I'm talking to you!"
Laughter arose among the crowd, which had become considerable. The other policemen were standing back, without interrupting the crowd's enjoyment, and themselves reveling in every moment of the scene.
Khalid was squeezing the driver's collar hard causing him to gag. When it became unbearable, the driver grabbed Khalid's wrist, unsuccessfully. Khalid shook him so violently that his head snapped back and forth like a broken flower stalk.
"Sir, please, if I may," said Arifin, careful not to physically intervene. "It was my mistake. I was talking to him when I should have let him concentrate on driving."
"Really, now? And who are you, sitting in the back like a shit-grinning nawab, huh?" He released the driver with a shove backward. The driver bumped against the side of the car.
Arifin checked the crowd, which was different from a mob that could gather within seconds of an accident involving a car and a rickshaw, or, worse, pedestrian. In those cases, the mob acted as a wall, literally, to prevent the driver from fleeing the scene, and the victim, without clout, being at the mercy of filing out a police report that would accomplish nothing. This was a case of the police, for once, seeing the world as they saw it, and humiliating it for once.
"Sir, again, I apologize for the mistake he made," said Arifin.
"Who are you? Qureshi's brother?" Khalid had stepped over to face Arifin directly. He mentioned Qureshi's name with a spiteful familiarity, not unlike the tone with which Arifin knew his brother-in-law to mention the name of his boss.
"No, sir. I only work for him, too."
"And you think you're above the law because of that?" He raised his baton and poked it into Arifin's chest.
"Sir, what? You stuttering transvestite! You think I'm afraid of you?"
"No, of course not—"
The slap came like a hurled piece of hot coal striking his cheek. Arifin felt the burn before the smarting pain. The calluses on Khalid's palm were as tough as bolts. They knocked on his cheekbones.
"Qureshi might fuck your mothers, you pimps, but I don't give a damn. You hear me? He will drop to his knees and kiss my ass if I tell him, you hear me?" Khalid hissed in Arifin's face. "Both of you empty your pockets. Hurry up!" Khalid stepped back.
The driver dug out a crumpled pack of beedis, a match, a few coins, and a comb. When Arifin emptied his pockets, Khalid homed in on the contents, one of which was an envelope that he brought out from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Khalid tore it open. Inside was a card with three one hundred taka notes tucked into it, Arifin’s token gift for the bride and groom. He looked up at Arifin, and stuffed the money in his shirt pocket. He ripped up the envelope and card and tossed them in a nearby pool of muddy water.
A horn screeched, and brakes squealed. There was movement in the crowd, caused by a woman's voice trying to get through. "Move, let me get through, move." Arifin saw her first, and following his gaze, Khalid turned. The other policemen with Khalid had snapped to attention. Khalid, as soon as he saw her, grew rigid, and brought his right hand up in a salute. The woman was an inspector, with a plump, moon face, angry, myopic eyes, hair pulled back into a bun, and pockmarked face. "What's happening here?"
"Madam, traffic violation," Khalid replied.
"Looks like a sideshow." She turned to the crowd. "All of you, break it up! Move on! I won't tell you again." The policemen with Khalid began dispersing the crowd. "For a traffic violation you create such a scene?" She told Khalid. "What's the matter with you? Give them a citation and send them on their way."
"Shut your face, Khalid. You're like a bloody petulant child. Every day!"
Khalid's lips were trembling, his forehead crowding with pearls of sweat. To avoid making eye contact with anyone he kept his stare locked on a point straight ahead of him. The other policemen were standing with their heads bowed.
"Do you have anything to say?" the inspector asked Arifin.
"No, madam. We're sorry for the inconvenience."
"Go, get in your car and go."
Driving away, Arifin saw the inspector lambasting Khalid and the other policemen as though this was going to be their last day on the force. The spot on his shirt where Khalid's baton had bore down had left a scuffmark. Arifin brushed it off. His face was throbbing, and he could feel it swelling. The worst part was, whether he needed one or not, he would have to come up with an excuse for showing up to the wedding empty handed.