F L A S H F I C T I O N
The house is never silent. The television is aloud every waking hour, often without an audience, who are not quiet either. Mr and Mrs Jamil are the kind of couple – friendless and lonely – who never leave each other’s sight. Mr Jamil is a retired civil servant, who is currently very attached to the smartphone his daughter has bought for him, and yet to discover the benefits of using earphones. When he’s not looking at the screen he is chatting with Mrs Jamil on various matters. He is very fond of his wife, although as a young man he wasn’t too happy — being married too young and to an unremarkable-looking girl. She grew on him as years went by: after a time, it’s not about the flesh anymore, not at all.
Mrs Jamil loves to cook for her family. She likes to say that the well-being of a family depends on its matriarch. If the food on the table is good, there’s no reason why everything else won’t. Every time there is news of some neighbour going to the hospital, she knows where to put the blame, and she never forgets to take a certain kind of pride in her own family’s good health, especially her husband’s, who is the only patriarch above fifty-five and without a medical condition in their apartment building.
Mr and Mrs Jamil hardly fight — too nice to even give each other stern looks, as a result of which their marriage – although very happy – has been a terribly uninteresting one. Now and then, they try to get into a fight, with one of them raising the voice just a little over what is acceptable, the other gets the hint; they try. But it falls apart as soon as it begins, and they break into frivolous gossip, on their neighbours, relatives, and TV celebrities. Often, when the sound of passionate shouting from the neighbour’s apartment enters their house through the window, they sit and listen to it with envy, unbeknownst to each other.
Akash listens to his parents’ gossip at the dinner table. They have opinions on everything: Mrs Habib spends too much time outside; Mr Kibria’s sudden decision to buy a flat is suspicious – surely there’s corruption involved; the caretaker’s daughter has grown up to be a pretty one and that’s a problem. The words fly past Akash, missing him, but the sounds can’t be driven away. The television plays in the drawing-room, their neighbours are fighting again. Akash listens.
I’d do anything for half an hour of complete silence, Akash thinks, looking at his parents — now arguing whether Mr Rahim, fifty-three and recently widowed, should marry again. “Who will look after him now? His children will soon have their own lives, their own children to worry about,” says Mrs Jamil, “who will cook for him? A man without a woman is a dead man.”
“If it’s a cook he wants, he can teach himself how to cook,” Mr Jamil interrupts his wife, “If it’s a wife he wants, he’ll re-marry. It’s that simple.”
“We’ll see about that when I die,” says Mrs Jamil, “You can’t even flip an omelette.”
They both laugh. Whether Mr Rahim should re-marry remains unresolved.
Akash looks at his plate, wishes he had somewhere he could go, away from here, in a quiet place of his own. Sometimes, when he can’t concentrate on a paper he is working on, or a novel he is reading, he screams inside his head. He has thoughts that shame him afterwards. At those times, he thinks of being outside, but when he is outside, he thinks about home. The quiet of the morning walk is alien to him; the noise of the cafeteria is of a different kind.
It’s terribly unfair, he thinks, to attach people with bonds they can’t break free from. He will have to be there when they have their first strokes; he’ll have to pay for the hospital bills; sit next to the ambulance driver, when the time comes. It’s his cross to bear and his alone. His scholarship application is somewhere on his computer; chat groups on higher study sits unresponded; his thesis paper needs polishing. Every plan, every dream he has, involves abandoning two lonely old people.
“What do you think?” Mr Jamil speaks to his son.
“Do you think it’s time Salma had children? She is twenty-nine.”
“Yes, of course. It’s too late after that, isn’t it?”
Nayeem Ehtesham loves to read and believes his degree in computer science has helped him write funny stories using his computer.