Guilty By Association

 

The plain room, sparse and clean enough to be fit for use, could have been anywhere in the world. Imagining it was somewhere else allowed them to live, thus to imagination they surrendered. Jalil’s day had built up to this moment. The world ceased to exist as he took possession of the delicate figure that lay in front of him. The rickety bed of the unremarkable motel room creaked as his sweaty body slapped against the meagre frame. The poorly constructed anthers of the flowers carved by hand onto the headboard became eyes that stared back at him. There were witnesses to his eagerness taking on its familiar savage shape. He grasped the pile of flesh ever more harshly. The loud moans of pain, though, were drowned by the monotony of restless traffic outside, as were his groans of pleasure that got louder with each fierce blow he dealt with his hands and groin. His one-man orchestra of violence crescendoed with his hands wrapped around his paramour’s neck and pressing down on the larynx as he climaxed. A fan revolved irregularly, a reminder of where they were. Without a moment’s pause, before the world flooded back in, Jalil got dressed and left the room.

He walked out through the cardboard thin door with an instinctive quickness. As he made his way through the corridor, he heard the sound of rusty springs to a slow beat from behind another door, accompanied by the rhythmic beat of a bed hitting a wall forcefully. An asphyxiated moan rose above all the other noise. Jalil’s brisk walk evolved into a jog, then a lung busting sprint by the time he reached the stairs. He composed himself as best as he could when he reached the flimsy desk in the cavern under the stairs that served as the reception. The man sitting behind it wore a greying white shirt and didn’t notice his shaking hand. Jalil cleared his throat in an attempt to get the man’s attention, but it was drowned out by the sound of static from a radio, hidden somewhere under the counter.

Desperate to leave now that the deed was done, he said tentatively, “I thought no-one else came at this time.”

Tuku grunted his disapproval at being interrupted. Caught between looking up and trying to finish the engrossing article he was reading, he lost his place in it and cursed. “You worried they will remember your face?”

“They didn’t see me.”

“It wouldn’t matter even if they did. Strict code, remember?” Tuku dealt in preserving anonymity and encouraging proclivity. The secrets the walls heard were kept within their confines by the laws of economics and survival: violating omerta would hurt business, and what was bad for business was bad for every single one of his clients. Tuku counted the money with all the convoluted diligence of someone not known for his numeracy. “Too much. You always give me too much,” he said apologetically.

Mama, I can’t put a price on what you do for us. Keep it, please,” Jalil said, embarrassed, and, waving away the insistent protests of the ageing owner, stepped out.

Across the potholed asphalt that serviced the narrow alley, a street-vendor took refuge from the gruelling afternoon sun under a declining banyan tree. A corrugated tin tray containing his popular wares dangled from his neck on a brittle, faded gamcha. Jalil walked over to him and handed him a ten taka note: six for a single cigarette, two for it to be lit, and the change the hawker’s tip.

Tucked away in a corner of the beau monde neighbourhood of South Gulshan in the capital, Tuku’s motel gave refuge to misguided lovers and wayward couples. Catering to infidelity and deviant proclivities, fuelled by a hopeless dearth of entertainment, was a prosperous business. Its location meant that there was no off-peak season or time of day. Parked to the left of his wanton halfway house today, during office hours on a weekday, was a Jaguar XJL. The prestige plate defeated the purpose of its proud twenty-something owner’s efforts of keeping his predilections concealed, highlighting instead that the upstart frequented the establishment. He had hosted an unveiling party after being the first to purchase the car from the newly opened showroom, erected to hide the slums from the surrounding urban roads a stone’s throw away from where the car was presently parked. Jalil had graciously lent his editor a helping hand on the day, taking on the assignment of covering the party in lieu of the colleague who had called in sick. Seeing the car there, the ostentatious representative of the motel’s clientele, he admired the proletariat Tuku’s achievements and stole a few minutes of vicarious pride. A rickshaw disrupted his view. Jalil flattened the lit remnants of the cigarette on the strip of earth that was the pavement, and hailed it. Climbing aboard, he asked the malnourished adolescent pedalling it forward to point the three-wheeler that had no suspension in the direction of his office.

His mobile buzzed in his trouser-pocket as he settled into the middle of the hard, acute-angled seat. It was the post-coital text from his lover, the one he invariably got at precisely this time. Its recurring theme was that he was being missed and loved, and there would be the obligatory reference to his carnal fury. The texts were articulated minimally, using variations of diction that never failed to make him blush. They didn’t live on their own, and neither could bring the other home without facing the ire of an unforgiving, judgemental society that lived to denigrate and denounce. The motel was their sacred place. The more his obsession evolved into something a lot more substantial through their lustful expressions, the more Jalil owed his existence to the lodging. Pragmatism dictated that what he was doing wasn’t sustainable, that he would be found out and punished. In that room, though, shut out from the world and lost in his delectable ferocity, he could be impractical. He could dream. While the rickshaw stuttered to the end of the alley, he focused his attentions on replying to the message he had received from the contact called ‘S’. He didn’t notice the lanky, clean-shaven dandy exiting the motel, flustered, and stealing a glance in his direction as his vehicle climbed onto the high-street, where the screams of the engines and wails of the never silenced horns were louder.

Jalil merged with the platoons of vehicles of every conceivable shape and size that had been eternally struck by the plague of stagnation, the untreated incurable endemic. His rickshaw-walla dismounted and called out to the urchin selling deep-fried peanuts in newspaper cones on the streets. He and his fellow peddlers swarmed the plethora of stationary cars to maximise their profits, avoiding the lesser means of transport. When the rickshaw-walla succeeded at getting his attention, he hurried over with one of his friends in tow. She displayed the full range of her foreign paperbacks – photocopied pages tightly bound between laminated coloured covers that were catchpenny imitations of the originals – to Jalil as her friend tended to the downtrodden chauffeur’s needs. She wasn’t able to tempt the potential customer with the pirated bestsellers sold for under a pound sterling, eventually moving on to the SUV behind them, disheartened. Jalil wanted to tell her to persevere, but he decided it would be better to spare her the condescension. Instead, he told his rickshaw-walla that he would pay for his peanuts as he searched for distraction during the insufferable, perpetual wait for motion.

The spasms caused to the rickshaw by Jalil trying to retrieve his wallet made it lurch forward and strike the bumper of the car in front. The driver got out in a mad rush, his hands reaching for the rickshaw-walla’s throat under a cloud of unintelligible expletives shouted at the top of his lungs. He was stunned into inaction when Jalil intervened swiftly to placate him. It was the norm for drivers to exert their authority on those who wronged them on the belligerent streets, settling for bruises and blood as penance in the absence of monetary settlements from insurance companies. Patrons getting involved in the melee was an anomaly. They were supposed to be cheerleaders or mediating bystanders shouting from the sidelines. Jalil, however, forced him away and coaxed him back into his car before having a word with the owner in the backseat, apologising for the indistinguishable scratch on the severely scathed bumper. Her annoyance at having to roll the window down to listen to what he was saying, and incomprehensible monosyllabic response as she raised the window again suggested that she couldn’t care less. As Jalil returned to his seat and paid the peanut-vendor, his phone rang.

It was his editor. “I…there…Where are you?”

“Stuck in Gulshan. Just finished chasing another dead-end. Heading back to the office, but I can’t promise I will arrive today,” Jalil replied, embittered.

Sounding unhinged, he asked, “Do you remember Mizanur?”

“The guy whose Jaguar party I covered for the society pages?”

“Yeah,” he said hesitantly. There was an expectant silence on the line as he collected his thoughts, and then he blurted out, “Rumour is he killed someone. There is a dead-body. In South Gulshan.”

His shock at hearing this was only trumped by the deep-seated feeling of schadenfreude that overcame everyone at the rare misfortunes of the rich. Jalil jumped off the three-wheeler, handed the rickshaw-walla a twenty-taka note and started walking in the direction from which he had come in the middle of the gridlock. “I’m already in the area. The story is mine. Where am I going?”

“Hotel America,” the editor said.

Jalil froze mid-step. His knees tried hard not to buckle as his glands worked overtime to secrete enough saliva for him to speak. He somehow managed to spit out, “The victim…is it a woman?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it a woman?” he screamed. “Who is it?”

“No-one knows,” he replied. “Hasn’t been identified yet. I’m guessing it’s a woman. Had to be someone he was sleeping with.”

Jalil ended the call and desperately dialled his lover’s number. Supressing the heavy biliousness of his stomach, he forced his rigid joints to flex. The call couldn’t be connected. He tried again. “The mobile number you have dialled is switched off. Please try again later,” a pre-recorded female voice repeated on a loop in two languages in his ear before the line went dead. He refused to believe her and called again as he picked up speed, running into, over and through inert vehicles and frustrated people. The insubordinate woman chimed cheerily once more. It mattered less now that Jalil had reached the alley. His feet got caught in the aberrations of the street as he fumbled the mobile back into his pocket, making him take a tumble. In one hurried, continuous, graceless action, his hands sprung him back to his feet and propelled him through the doors of the motel. Tuku was standing in front of the reception, his face bearing the look of someone who had seen this before and knew its adverse effects. He cut a forlorn figure, trying to find a compromise between his despair and the solemn bereavement that social convention demanded.

He started in Tuku’s direction, but was stopped by a uniformed policeman whom he hadn’t noticed. The abrupt intrusion made Jalil pause to look around. His eyes adjusted to the bodies brimming with nervous urgency, and he realised that the quasi-lobby was a hive of activity. He was being spoken to, but his ears had switched off temporarily. It was only when he was pushed back against a wall that he heard the policeman say, “No-one allowed in here!”

“I’m a journalist.” The words left his mouth as a reflex action.

“The press? Already?” he asked. “I don’t care how you got the news, just get out!”

Jalil tried hard to think on his feet, but his scattered mind drew blanks. Almost thinking out loud, he said, “The public has a right to know, don’t they? Who was it?”

“The public will know when we tell them,” the policeman said sharply, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him towards the door.

“We deserve to know now! One of our own has been taken, and you won’t even tell us who,” he protested. “Please, it is a question of our safety. A murder out in the open, in broad daylight in this posh area will have repercussions. Let me help you contain the story, make the police look good.” It didn’t help his cause. Rather, the handler tightened his iron-grip and sped him to the exit. Jalil made a final dire appeal when he was pushed onto the threshold. “I know the owner. He is a friend. Please, let me at least make sure he is all right. You can go have a cup of tea while I check on him. I will buy it for you, of course.” That made him stop.

The policeman scanned the ground floor to make sure that no eyes were on them, then ushered him outside. A crowd of onlookers – an assortment of people who had heard news of the death, and bored passers-by who had caught wind of a tale – had gathered near the entrance of the motel. It had a pensive mood, respecting the loss of a life that had brought it together. The curious, prying eyes of the members of the audience wandered away from the object of their interest at the sight of the law enforcement officer stomping out. He held out his hand and said aloud, “I’m glad you could come and help us with the investigation. Before you go inside and help my colleagues, could I have your card?”

Jalil dived into his back-pocket and produced his wallet. He heard the officer cough when he tried to pull out a hundred-taka note clumsily. He let it go immediately and took out the only five hundred-taka note he had, hiding it carefully behind his card as he handed them over. They shook hands and parted ways, Jalil going back into the motel and the satisfied policeman driving the crowd back and taking a stroll along the alley.

Tuku was being questioned when Jalil finally reached him. The parts of the conversation he caught didn’t shed any new light on the situation. He waited impatiently for the detective in plain clothes to finish the inquisition. The moustache above his lips moved rapidly as he rattled off his pointed questions, often lingering on a specific query and repeating some others. Tuku was unable to be very helpful, and his increasing exasperation at this became more obvious with each passing answer. He was put out of his misery when one of the detective’s colleagues called him away to wait on the eminent criminal barrister who had just arrived.

Jalil put a comforting arm on Tuku’s shoulder and said, “I am so sorry, Mama. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“You shouldn’t have come back, Jalil. Now they will harass you,” he portended.

He thought about telling Tuku that he had to know that it wasn’t his beloved, but decided it would be prudent to hide behind a half-truth. “My paper wanted me to get the scoop. Do you know who it was?”

He shook his head and said, “An anonymous tip-off told the police to check the third floor for a dead-body. They barged in right after you left.” His chin slumped to his chest. Staring at the gap between his feet, Tuku said, “Poor girl. Beaten up and strangled to death with bare hands.”

“Girl?” he asked, heart racing. Jalil had to be sure he heard correctly before he could allow himself to feel relief.

The detective returned and interrupted, however. “You are Jalil Sardar?” His irritable nod to signal an affirmative response was met with an apathetic invitation. “We’d like you to come with us.”

Jalil kept his calm and asked, “Why?”

“We have information that you were seen leaving the scene of the crime about an hour ago. Early indications are that it coincides with the murder.”

“Am I being charged?” he asked defiantly, his disbelief overruling the panic that had begun to surface, supplanting his fear for the life of his beloved.

“Absolutely not!” the detective reassured him. “We’re sure you didn’t do it. You’re being considered an important eyewitness. We need to take you to the station so that you can give a full statement. We’re hopeful it’ll help us close the case.”

Jalil complied with the request. As he was led away, he thought he heard Tuku whisper under his breath, “Forgive me.”

Their exit created some commotion amongst the crowd, by now anxious enough for an update to have taken leave of its earlier funereal decorum. The people had been pushed far enough away from the building for them to know that there was fresh activity without being able to see what it was or who was involved. The detective and the small team he had assembled escorted Jalil further into the alley, away from the high-street and those gathered. They were herded into a blue police jeep and driven to the nearest police station. The journey was short. A resolute silence was the only sound permitted to exist in the jeep, interrupted only once by the detective informing Jalil that they had someone in custody, and assuring him that they wouldn’t be taking up too much of his time.

Once on the premises of what was the Gulshan headquarters of the police, comprised of three five-storey buildings behind a tall black steel gate and high yellow walls with barbed wire protruding from them, he followed his de facto guardians to one of the three identical saffron boxes. The detective broke ranks to make an urgent telephone call. Jalil was taken up a steep concrete staircase to the second floor by the others, and led deep into the building, winding past office furniture sporadically interspersed with the occasional disinterested police officer – all men. The final bend before he reached his destination saw him encounter a frail human, possibly male, flanked by two policemen. The crumbling body was kept from collapsing in on itself by the two uniformed figures. They were keeping it erect and walking it, barking muted commands, saying that there was nothing wrong with it. The quiet obedience belied its tremendous agony, but couldn’t completely mask its torment.

Jalil’s wandering mind almost missed the familiar face when it was lifted up from the damp-stained clothes hanging from the frame for the briefest of moments. Seeing the enduring expression of unbearable pain inscribed on it, feeling it as if it was something tangible, made him wish he had missed it. For a second, maybe less, their eyes met, absent the usual concupiscence, windows instead to anguished souls. The sight of Shaheen in that state filled his mouth with the pungent salty sourness that had been building up since he had received the call from his editor. Jalil fell to his knees and released the bile, the scant digested remains of past meals supplemented by generous helpings of various bodily fluids. The two sets of handlers rowed about the chance meeting, coming to blows by a gunmetal cabinet.

Shaheen crawled to his lover, his beloved, feebly. He winced when he placed his weak, crippled hand on Jalil’s. Spit flew mercilessly from his dry mouth as he summoned the last of his strength and whispered, “I won’t tell them about us. I want to remain a man, not become an abomination.”

The detective arrived on the scene, pad and pen in hand, to reprimand his ill-advised subordinates. Jalil was whisked away to a cold, windowless, insular room, and seated at the metal table in the centre of it. A naked bulb dangled overhead.

The detective ordered they be left alone and closed the door behind him. He sat down on the chair facing Jalil, the only other piece of furniture in the lifeless cube, and said, “I’m sorry you had to see that. When a young girl dies, sometimes people give in to their anger and take justice into their own hands. Would you like some water?”

Jalil wiped his mouth with his palm and swallowed. “People did that to him?” he asked in response.

“Yes,” came the detective’s terse reply.

“What people?”

“An angry mob.” There was a hint of annoyance in his tone, a warning against continuing on this path.

“They were wrong,” Jalil spat out, hardly able to contain his rage. “You have the wrong man. Go arrest Mizanur Rahman if you want to give those people the justice they crave.”

The detective shifted in his chair and crossed his arms. “Mizanur Rahman wasn’t at the crime scene. He saw the two of you come out of the motel, first you and after fifteen minutes, the man out there,” he said. “Mr. Rahman had pulled over in the alleyway to answer his phone. Harmless actions of a law-abiding citizen.”

“Lies,” he growled through gritted teeth.

“No, Mr. Sardar, facts. Verified by the owner of Hotel America. The two of you and the young woman who was killed were his only customers today. In fact, the only people who entered the motel all day.” Setting down a plastic pen and a white, lineless pad in front of him, he pushed the chair away from the table and rose to walk over to Jalil. Positioning himself behind his right shoulder, the detective leaned in and said with the pretence of decency, “Two men can’t have been together. Against the laws of God, nature and, most importantly, our government. That means one of you was there to have sex with that woman. There are signs of force used on her. In all likelihood she was raped. We will include that charge in the list of offences. Whoever raped her also killed her. The other is an innocent witness.” When no response was forthcoming, he added, “Despite our best efforts, we don’t have a confession yet. Your testimony will put away a rapist and a killer, Mr. Sardar. You understand?” He pulled the pen and pad towards Jalil and ordained, “Help yourself.”

The condemned man needs no judge, jury or executioner when he has to pay for the sins of a society too hasty to misunderstand, too willing to be duped. Blindly baying for blood, it cares not for innocence nor trusts it. Jalil knew that he was guilty in the eyes of this society, of a crime far greater than rape and murder. Countless instances of those were reported on a daily basis without any emotion, sensitivity or outrage. The victims became nameless the following day, their places taken by that day’s faceless dead. The felons were rarely caught. The unfortunate ones that were lived a purgatorial existence behind bars for years, decades, awaiting the final verdict of the final appeal to spell the end of their days. His, however, was an illness spoken of in hushed tones, a reviled foreign epidemic that the authorities repelled and the government insisted hadn’t been imported yet. Derision came in the form of lynchings that police bribery and judicial delays couldn’t save one from. Faced with his Hobson’s choice, Jalil submitted himself to the possibility of facing the hangman’s noose rather than the certainty of death after being indicted by natural law.

He decided it was better to lie and be a rapist and a murderer than speak the unspeakable truth of his innocence. He had been condemned by his birth, an irrefutable, inescapable fact that he had known all along. He had played his part with deft accuracy, and was meeting his rightful end. “I am guilty,” he said with quiet resolution, the shadow of a melancholic smile passing on his lips as Shaheen’s face materialised in his mind. “Let that innocent man go, and I will give you a signed confession,” he said, closing his eyes to permanently etch the image of his inamorato.

***

This short story, first written in the early 2010s and refused for publication by several regional outlets due to the overt discussion of the politics of LGBTQ+ rights in Bangladesh, appeared in the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera, in 2015.