The father of the adulteress arrived before dawn. He accepted a glass of water from the servant boy, and, after drinking all of it without a break, stood gazing wistfully at the ground. He was near the main gate, a middle-aged man, in good health, tall and slender, white hair combed back, bristly white eyebrows over curious eyes, full lips the color of plums. His typed letter had come by post a week ago. The judge wished he could take back his response to agree to meet with him.
He was from the village in Sylhet where the old Qureshi mansion still stood. The common knowledge remained from the days when the landlord A.R. Qureshi lived in the house and oversaw the family lands, and the tenants answered to him as well as being under his protection, that all matters, large or small, in spite of being under the jurisprudence of the erstwhile village council, now the bureaucratic stranglehold known as the Zila Parishad, ultimately required a Qureshi stamp. No more Qureshis were left in the village. The house had been locked up. The judge had paid the place a visit shortly after the landlord’s death, found it dismal, and had no reason to want to return. Along with a bungalow and small tea factory in Srimangal, his third cousin, Waseem Qureshi, had taken the mansion under his charge.
The boy brought tea and set it on the cane table. The judge asked if the man had said anything, asked for food, or was given some, and the boy shook his head. He told the boy to fetch the letter from his office. The judge waved a hand at the father, realizing as the man began making his approach that he knew his name from his letter, Shamsher Ali. The man had signed it in Bangla.
He stopped a few feet from the edge of the steps that went up to the verandah and salaamed the judge, but made no customary attempt toward touching the judge’s feet. The boy returned with the letter.
The judge took a sip of tea, set down his cup, and lifted the letter. But first he asked, “How did you locate my address?”
Shamsher Ali cleared his throat, which the judge found perfunctory.
“In the village people know your family better than their own households,” Shamsher Ali answered.
Without bringing the letter out of the envelope, the judge referred to it.
“All this is true?”
Shamsher Ali rolled his shoulders. He let out a breath, and looked at the judge from under his, at closer look, fierce brows. “What kind of father would make up such things about his daughter?”
The judge tapped the edge of the envelope on the back of his wrist. “I’ve read the letter, more than once. But you need to tell me in your own words what happened, and what’s happening.”
“All my own words, shahib, are in the letter,” said Shamsher Ali.
“Why did you have it prepared and not write it yourself? You sign your name very well.”
“My writing is crude for a man of your level. I wanted it to look and sound right. Professionally I had it prepared. Everything official is done in English, also.”
It must have cost him no small amount. And technically, the words were not purely his, but the transcribed, translated version of the typist. The judge sipped his tea and nodded.
“Waseem shahib has helped me and my family many times,” Shamsher Ali continued. The judge wondered if it was his way of pitting one family member against another in a bid for supremacy of charity.
“Then why not go to him?” said the judge.
“I need the law, shahib. To protect my daughter.” After a silence he said, “The truth, shahib, I did. Waseem shahib, he told me to write to you.”
The judge hid his surprise at this. A good ten years had passed since their last meeting. Their acquaintance had been distant, formal, started later in life, not familial not by either of their choosing, but by the myriad circumstances spinning within family relations that can keep third cousins implicit strangers.
“Did you bring your daughter with you?”
Shamsher Ali’s eyes fell to the ground. His hands moved around to his back and gripped each other at the base of his spine.
“She is safe,” said Shamsher Ali. “For now.”
The story Shamsher Ali told the judge, speaking slowly, methodically, rather a bit too methodically to the judge’s chagrin, making him feel like an imbecile, was that his daughter had been married three years to a man that had progressively spiraled into a tyrant. It wasn’t always so, Shamsher Ali was quick to point out. As a prospective groom, for any girl, he showed plenty of promise, which, at the time the marriage was arranged, included a job lined up in the Middle East. The first year-and-a-half of marriage went as smoothly as could be expected. Shamela, the daughter, the accused adulteress, had no complaints. At the end of the second year, no children had been borne by Shamela, and village gossip began spreading. A visit to a doctor in Sylhet proper proved it was not Shamela’s inability to conceive. Before long the gossip had pegged the husband as being impotent. And that began his unwinding.
Shamela endured the beatings. She shrugged off the bruised eyes and cut lips. Shamsher Ali was not one to interfere, but the girl’s mother was unabashed in her prodding of her daughter for details, holding the circulating gossip over the girl’s head as liability.
Shamela endured the beatings. She shrugged off the bruised eyes and cut lips.
The judge held up a hand. “You’ve come all this way to tell me of village gossip? “Sounds like you have your answer from the doctor. If that was what was causing the problem.”
Shamsher Ali said nothing, made no claims justifying his story, no refutations, and waited respectfully to be given permission to go on.
On a few occasions Shamela was found unconscious, even though the night before her screams had drawn none of the neighbors, or her in-laws, to her rescue. Shamsher Ali approached the boy’s father, and was shunned. The boy’s father accused Shamsher Ali of lying about his daughter, conniving her onto his good and capable son, casting an evil eye over the boy’s future and wanting to sponge off it, and now dragging his family’s name through mud.
City doctors be damned, the boy’s father had roared, for no other reason but to make sure ears as far as possible could comfortably perk up to Shamsher Ali’s humiliation. His son was noble and pure and in perfect health, and it was his birthright to run his house the way he saw fit. No one less than the Almighty and his Prophet, Peace be upon Him, reserved rights of censure. Was it the boy’s fault Shamsher Ali’s loins had contributed to the world a defective girl? They should have drowned her at birth. Cut off at the head a lifetime’s worth of trouble. And to top it off, a whore. No respectable whorehouse would employ a defective whore. And on and on the boy’s father berated, until Shamsher Ali shrank once more from the heat of a thousand villagers’ eyes burning into his skin.
The village elders were no better. They chastised Shamsher Ali for creating such a stir. For bringing shame on the name of the village, disturbing its peace, and for meddling in other people’s affairs. How did he not know this? His daughter belonged to her husband and his family. She should be left to her fate.
The judge wanted to hear what that fate was. He wanted to hear it from Shamsher Ali.
Shamsher Ali’s hands unclasped at his back and regrouped with palms pressed at the level of his chest.
“My child, shahib. I’m begging you for her life.”
“Don’t beg. I didn’t agree to hear you beg. Certainly not for anyone’s life.”
Shamsher Ali’s hands dropped to his sides.
“What about this business of adultery?” the judge asked.
“They are saying, shahib.”
“Based on what? Gossip? I don’t have the patience to hear about gossip. I don’t care what your village elders listen to. Gossip is trash and those old men should know better.”
“On my child’s soul, shahib, based on nothing but lies spread by her husband and his people.”
“Where is your daughter now?”
“In a safe place, shahib.”
For the second time the judge warily accepted this reply.
“Listen closely to me,” he said. “When you bring a petition to a court of law, the first thing you have to do is state everything, absolutely everything, clearly. No detail is too small. If you hold back, you only hurt your situation. I’ve been doing this long enough to read people before they open their mouths. You’re an honest man, I see that, but even the best of our intentions get clouded by emotions. It’s human, it happens. I said I’ve read your letter more than once, and each time I’ve been left wondering what is not in it. Why don’t you tell me what the letter has left out?”
Shamsher Ali’s face burrowed in his hands. The backs of his hands were crisscrossed with scars, the fingers bony and robust, the yellowed nails jagged and cracked.
The judge sipped his tea. Later today, as chairman of the International War Crimes Tribunals, he would listen to that organization’s chief prosecutor and other state investigative agencies bring charges against Mullah Khoda Baksh, a Jamaat-e-Islami hardliner that had leagued with the Pakistan Army in 1971 and led them to the doorsteps of Bengalis to be rounded up and killed.
Shamsher Ali’s hands slid off like a mask to reveal his face.
Shamsher Ali’s hands slid off like a mask to reveal his face.
“She will not only be ruined, shahib, her life is in danger.”
“Her life, shahib.”
His hand brushed over his heart.
The judge placed the letter on his lap and tapped a finger on it. “Why ruined?”
“My wife is still in the village. She is also in danger. But it’s our home, and her people are nearby too. Three generations it’s been our home. My forefathers, and me, we have eaten your salt.”
“What about your people?”
Shamsher Ali shook his head. “No, shahib. They want nothing to do with this.”
“So your wife is making sure your three generation old home doesn’t disappear while you’re here trying to save your daughter’s life from ruination and death? And the girl is supposedly somewhere safe? Sitting in my place, what would you think of your story?”
The long day preemptively elongated further before the judge.
“Your family has been like God to us.”
“Nonsense. How long do you plan on being here? Keeping your daughter in her safe place?”
“Nobody will come near her if they know she has your family’s protection.”
The boy brought out the cordless phone. The judge took it, listened, nodded, and spoke once. He returned the phone to the boy when he was done. The boy slipped back into the house.
“I have to go now,” he told Shamsher Ali. “In the meantime, think about what I’ve said.” After a pause he said, “Come back in the evening.”
At dinner, the judge wondered if his questioning of Shamsher Ali had been too severe. The judge’s mind had been hitched to the spotty tale of the village father fighting for his daughter’s name, and possibly, her life, even as conspiracies, treason, death squads, and mass murder had ruled the judge’s day at court. Mullah Baksh had been barely poised to say his name. Straight-backed, unmoving, unblinking, and calm, he looked like the wise leader of a wronged minority placed on trial by an oppressive government for fighting for his people’s civil and human rights, while one after another of his reasons to hang was sounded.
Shamsher Ali had not left the house. The boy told the judge that he had asked only for water, and refused food, or tea. The judge brought his pipe to the verandah and once more summoned the petitioner.
“You’ve been here all day,” said the judge. “Your daughter must be very safe where she is.”
“She is, God willing.” His soft voice was hoarse, as if he’d been tearing it to shreds screaming. His cheeks had shrunk, caved in, his full mouth had thinned and become a chapped and flaky gray.
“Have you thought about what I said in the morning?” the judge asked.
“I tried.” Shamsher Ali’s haggard appearance belied his resolve.
“I did. I’m still not sure, shahib, what it is you wanted me to think about? My daughter faces danger to her life the moment she’s seen back in the village.”
“How long do you intend to stay in the city?”
“As long as it takes . . . ”
“And your wife? She’s by herself in the village, isn’t she?”
“She’s safe, shahib.”
“If your family is already so safe, why have you come here?”
“You are a man who lives his life seeking justice. That is also what I’m seeking.”
The judge emptied his pipe into an ashtray, suddenly exhausted. The tribunals were going to be long. His colleagues gave the impression of swiftness, all of them seeing blood before facts, down to Shamsuzzaman, who was known beyond the call of profession for his unshakable grip on neutrality. Two of the scores of professors dragged out of their homes and shot in the middle of the night by Pakistani soldiers in December ‘71 were Shamsuzzaman’s childhood friends. The judge had gotten the feeling at the end of this first day that patience among his colleagues in these proceedings would be at best a tenuous virtue.
Two of the scores of professors dragged out of their homes and shot in the middle of the night by Pakistani soldiers in December ‘71 were Shamsuzzaman’s childhood friends.
“I have to be up early,” said the judge.
“I will come back tomorrow.”
Dr. C.M. Khan’s stethoscope dangled like a mistakenly attached trunk as he pumped the bladder that tightened the cuff’s strangle around the judge’s arms, then looked over the rim of his glasses at the reading.
“I never know what to make of that look,” said the judge.
“Habit.” Dr. Khan peeled the Velcro and undid the cuff. “Your blood pressure I can tell you from memory, like my birthday. I don’t remember the last time it was different. It’s mine that will strike me down one of these days.”
“Come have the bland food you’ve manipulated me with eating for years. Share in my misery, let our blood pressures commiserate.”
“You don’t need mine corrupting yours. And without salt I would give up food altogether, which I will not do. Moderation is weakness, and doctors make the worst patients. So we make our destinies.”
The judge rolled down his shirtsleeve and buttoned it at the wrist. Dr. Khan’s stethoscope banged against the edge of his desk as he took his seat.
“Stay with the regular vitamins,” he said, “and it’s not too late to get a bad habit to give things a stir.”
“I still smoke my pipe.”
“Might as well drink milk after dinner and call it living dangerously. So, what seems to be the trouble that you look like the condemned and not the judge?” He began scratching wide looped letters and curlicues on his prescription pad. “I know you’re muffled from talking about you-know-what, but I wouldn’t want you to if you wanted to pour out your heart about it. There are better ways of getting oneself sick. Who gives a good goddamn what happens to those old goats at this point. Even they don’t. Let them be. They’ll die eventually.” He tore off the sheet and slid it on top of a small stack under a glass paperweight.
“There’s a man, from the village, came to see me,” said the judge. “Some trouble with his family.”
Dr. Khan rose from his chair, chuckling. His stethoscope banged once more against the desk before settling over his belly. “And you find yourself tied to traditional obligations,” he said, as though completing the judge’s thought. “Damn shame.” Dr. Khan’s tongue clucked. “Long ago, I told any damn fool thinking they can come hanging themselves at my door to die first before making the trip. It’s my wife’s damn sentimentality that gets these people to take advantage of her.”
The judge’s head nodded. He fixed his tie, smoothed the front of his shirt, and slid his arms through the sleeves of his suit jacket, then checked the inside pocket for his pipe.
“I can’t just turn him away, if what he’s saying is true,” he said.
“I can’t just turn him away, if what he’s saying is true,”
“Is he seeking money or rights over some godforsaken old property? Which you people have had in loads no doubt.”
“Nothing like that.” The judge felt for his matches in his breast pocket.
“Then show him the way back to the village and remind him not forget his way back to your door.”
The judge enjoyed the doctor’s turns of phrase. A few pegs of Scotch later, which were hours away from happening at Dhaka Club, his poetics would wax until the last of his drinking mates bid goodnight.
“But don’t listen to my damn fool notions.” Dr. Khan clapped the judge’s back, a little too hard as always, and turned the judge’s shoulder toward the door. Maybe the doctor had planned an earlier start today on the Scotch. “See you next month.”
Shamsher Ali, wearing the same clothes as the day before, stood before the judge once more. The judge had read the letter again the night before, trying to look past the mechanical staccato of the typed words, imagining them being spoken by Shamsher Ali. How had the man relayed them to the typist? What had the typist heard? Did the typist pause at places to regard the dictation he was taking? Did he ask questions? Had he taken down every word, verbatim? Or as close to verbatim molding them out of Bangla into English? Had he censored? How honest had been his judgment?
A detailed enumeration of the crimes of Mullah Khoda Baksh would be presented today. Meetings he hosted with Pakistani army officers and Jamaat-e-Islami partisans where plans to target Bengali intellectuals were hatched. Al-Badr, Al-Shams paramilitary death squads sanctioned by Pakistani generals with Baksh at the helm, organizing, recruiting, deploying.
If it were a truly international tribunal, the generals would be the ones on the stand, subpoenaed out of retirement and denial, and placed under light. Pictures of them listening to the actuality of their crimes from witnesses and survivors, akin to the one of Adolf Eichmann in headphones, on trial, trapped in his glass cage, would be blazed across the world media. Yahya, Tikka, Farman, Niazi, every bit as monstrous as Hitler’s executioners.
Shamsher Ali was disheveled, giving off the faint odor of ripe clothes and unwashed skin.
“How is your daughter doing?” The judge tried taking a sip of tea.
“Safe for now,” Shamsher Ali said feebly.
The judge set his cup down. “Eventually, you and daughter will have to go back. Resume your lives. No matter how it goes forward. Am I wrong?”
Shamsher Ali drew a long breath. “How it will be possible only God knows.”
“It will be possible,” said the judge.
“Yes, with your family name and blessing, no one will dare raise a finger at us.”
“So. This comes down to my throwing around my family name on your word. And then what? Every time there’s a village matter there will be a line outside my gate. I’m supposed throw everything aside to put my time into every little dispute and every little quarrel?”
“Your family, shahib—”
“Stop telling me about my family.” the judge’s knee pushed against the cane table as he leaned forward, sloshing tea above the rip of the cup. “Where is your daughter? I want to know from her mouth, hear her tell me all the things you’ve said. I’m not one of your blind village elders. Things don’t work like that here. Bring your daughter here. After I hear her . . . bring her here. I want to hear what she has to say.”
Where is your daughter? I want to know from her mouth, hear her tell me all the things you’ve said. I’m not one of your blind village elders.
“On her soul, I give you my word, shahib.” His hands were trembling as he clasped them together in front of him to keep control.
“You don’t want her to speak for herself?”
“She is afraid, shahib.”
“You said she’s safe. She will be safe here, in my house. No one knows you in this city, no one knows her except the people you’ve entrusted with her safekeeping. Right? So. Bring her here. Let her speak for herself. Let me hear her.”
Shamsher Ali’s hands broke free of each other. The judge was on the verge of dismissing him, for good, sending him on his way to whatever awaited him.
In all his years on the bench, the judge had sent one man to the gallows. Three days after the man’s neck broke, new evidence surfaced that could have reduced his sentence to life in prison. The judge had been a lifelong proponent of the death penalty, but that case had been damning. The soul Shamsher Ali spoke of, if such a thing roamed inside men and women, in the judge, or flowed in his veins, lived embedded in his flesh, in whatever form it was supposed to exist unseen, had since that midnight fifteen years ago been shaken.
A brief conference with Shamsuzzaman at the end of yesterday had left no doubt in the judge’s mind where his colleagues already stood. Baksh would hang.
“Bring her here,” said the judge. “You’re a reasonable man and a father protecting his daughter. I don’t have children, but it doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to understand that much.”
Shamsher Ali’s eyes wandered, cast around, his hopes seeking a place to moor.
“Have something to eat before you go,” the judge said, pushing to his feet.
“Shahib,” Shamsher Ali took a step forward. “I beg your forgiveness. What you told me to think about, I did think about it. You want to hear everything from my daughter’s mouth, I will bring her and I will throw her at your feet. She has cut my nose in the village. I should leave her to her fate. I should. Everything we could manage, we gave for her dowry. What does she go and do? Turn her ungrateful, disloyal back on us.”
“What do you think you should have done?” the judge asked.
“It pains me to think it.”
“I should throw you out of my house.”
“I will drag her here by her ears.”
“I’m not interested in your family drama. You come here, to my house, wanting justice, and you don’t give me the courtesy of being straightforward from the beginning.”
You come here, to my house, wanting justice, and you don’t give me the courtesy of being straightforward from the beginning.
“What do you want to know of me, shahib? I will stay here day and night until I earn your trust.”
“And your daughter is so well guarded and safe wherever she is that there’s no limit on time for her to be there,” the judge pressed, reluctantly.
“She is not, shahib. God will know the truth, no matter how I wish to evade it. I don’t know where she is. She has run away.”
“You have real problems,” said the judge. “Problems far out of my reach. Have you filed a police report? What about the Zila Parishad?”
“I’m a poor farmer, shahib. Son and grandson and great-grandson of servants and farmers. Police and Zila Parishad see me as they see insects. I don’t have money to find myself in front of them. Without money, they have no ears for people like me.”
The judge moved to the edge of the steps where he now stood towering over Shamsher Ali, who in reality was close to a head taller than the judge. From a distance the skin of Shamsher Ali’s face gave off the sheen of health and vitality, but up close proved to be a sun-scorched leathery tan. Lines ran along his forehead like they were cut straight with a scalpel. Crow’s feet crinkled at the corners of his eyes.
“How much value does your own word have for you?” the judge asked.
Shamsher Ali’s eyes narrowed, pinching the crow’s feet, as if sudden light had been flashed into his pupils.
“It is my word, shahib. All that I have in the world.”
“Then you will appreciate the value my word has to me. Which you want me to put on the line for you.”
A phone call to the Sylhet District Bar Association, to his old law firm partner, and before that his classmate at Dhaka University, Ansar Wahab, would be how far the judge’s word would have to reach, and be put to test. It was not much of a test. Ansar loved nothing more than a tussle with village elders and Zila Parishad types. Throw in policemen with the sloth of waiting for their palms to be greased, and pro bono would be too small a price to endure for the sheer pleasure of the fight. The judge’s word would not be at risk. Ansar would make it a personal matter, and the use of his official credentials would go as far as being no more than a glorified ID badge.
The boy appeared holding the cordless phone in front of him like a sacred offering. The judge took the phone and checked his watch. There was plenty of time before the day’s session would be called to order.
Shamsuzzaman’s voice piped over the line, eager, frenetic, like he’d just sprinted half a mile to make the call. There was a situation. Jamaat-e-Islami opposition outside the courthouse, demanding the immediate release of Mullah Baksh as well as the suspension of “these satanic trials by infidels and traitors and conspirers with Hindus.” It was no small crowd, either. And it was swelling by the second. Some lawyers had been attacked, stoned. Shamsuzzaman declared he was ready to pass his verdict. “Let’s drive the bastard’s neck to the noose.” Mir Ahsan Latif was also resolved, as were the chief prosecutor and investigative committees, to send Mullah Khoda Baksh’s life marching toward its (just and long-awaited) end.
Jamaat-e-Islami opposition outside the courthouse, demanding the immediate release of Mullah Baksh as well as the suspension of “these satanic trials by infidels and traitors and conspirers with Hindus.”
He had been silent long enough for Shamsuzzaman to wonder. The judge blinked out of his reverie, and as a sign of acknowledgment cleared his throat. The proceedings would keep on schedule, Shamsuzzaman said. “No Jamaat bastards are going to disrupt the law from functioning, let me tell you, let them burn down the city if they will. Every drop of blood and every bone in that murderer’s body will answer for his crimes.”
After hanging up, the judge met Shamsher Ali’s stare. The judge had no doubt that the man would stand there for as long as it took.
“Go back home,” the judge said, softly.
“Every word I’ve told you is true, shahib.”
“I know. But I still don’t understand why you didn’t tell me . . . it’s not the way to gain the trust of . . . when you have nothing to hide.”
“It was my shame, shahib,” said Shamsher Ali. “That’s what I was hiding.”
“In the court of law it would only weaken your case.” The judge said this and wanted to squelch it in the next moment. “Pride is the worst thing to bring to your defense.
“Take good care of her.” The judge weighed his next words before speaking them. “Don’t keep her married to that man. That’s all I have to say. Anything else you do is your business.”
Shamsher Ali nodded, his eyes trembling.
The judge dialed for the operator and waited to be connected to Ansar, imagining the glee behind his grumbling façade at the thought of shaking down village bureaucrats and the girl’s in-laws, and wondering what his old law firm partner would have to say about the tribunals. A lot, no doubt, a lot.
Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and grew up in Chicago. His undergraduate degree is in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Masters in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Louisville, where he is currently in the PhD. program. His fiction has appeared in Eastlit Journal, China Grove, 94 Creations, and Farmhouse Literary Journal.
Read our interview with Nadeem here.