The Beautiful and the Damned

“Nazia would be disappointed today,” was the thought prominent on Qadir’s mind as he walked down the street that led from the busy Park Circus towards Tangra. His shoulders were dropping, pointing towards the ground, typical of a person who had a tough lot in life. But for Qadir, it was just not this one day, it seemed to be the same every evening since the last five years. For a resident of the City of Joy this was exactly the sort of emotion that was not expected.

As he walked, he looked at the sun setting over the distant buildings of the business area of Kolkata, the Chowringhee. His thoughts wandered thinking about another sunset he had witnessed as a child when his family had crossed the border near Bongaon, fleeing from their country into India and a new life. They were affluent merchants in Cox’s Bazar earlier, his ancestors dealing in the leather business.

He remembered running along the streets of that busy town and the smells of freshly tanned leather. He remembered his father, a jovial, God-fearing man who was honest with his customers and had taught him the basics of the family trade. But then the war of independence started and everything disintegrated.

He remembered his father talking about Kolkata one evening, the opportunities which it held in store and about how they could start their business in the bustling city again. More importantly they would escape the vagaries of war and find a haven in India. He didn’t have many memories of the journey except for the fact that one day at Bongaon, he watched the sun set on the land where he was born.

The blaring of a car horn brought him back to the present. Qadir was crossing the road without even realizing it. He was seeing the glitzy new buildings of Theatre Road and wondering about the disparity in the city. The City of Joy- where the rich and the poor, the Bengalis and the non-Bengalis, the literary stalwarts and the uneducated, lived and struggled to survive in a peaceful manner. This was the city which produced marvels and inventions, which produced literary and visual work-pieces of art. This was also the same city plagued by poverty at the deepest level. This was the city which had to face the brunt of various strikes. This was a city which had the largest population of lepers, a place where the colonial buildings struggled in a setting being occupied swiftly by the modern skyscrapers and glitzy malls and discotheques. In short this was the city where the Beautiful coexisted with the Damned.

Nothing characterized this more from the areas of Tangra and Topsia. Two streets away from the Theatre Road and the busy area of Park Circus, Tangra painted a picture of a sharp difference, maybe a difference comparable to the different layers of the hells in the Divine Comedy. An area which contained the majority of the tanneries in the eastern region of the country. But slowly these tanneries were losing their importance. The amateur methods and lack of industrialization in the sector made them lose out on the business compared to other units in the Mathura and other regions.

The effect of this ballooned out of proportion and Qadir’s father suffered losses in the business to such an extent that he was soon no more the proud owner of a franchise but a mere worker in a leather unit. He eventually died of tuberculosis, a disease that plagued majority of the workers struggling in the tanneries. Qadir then had started working in the same tannery in his father’s place.

But then five years back he had lost that job as well. The government had cancelled the license of the tannery making him lose his job along with 150 others. Since then he had searched for work in other tanneries but the times were bad and no one was willing to offer a job to a Bangladeshi refugee. He had settled himself to mending shoes, a prosperous merchant now having to settle for a pity cobbler’s job.

He crossed Chinatown and entered Tangra walking towards the shanty which housed his meagre dwelling where his family of five lived. As always, Nazia was waiting at the door, expectantly, for his arrival. He lowered his shoebox and showed his day’s earnings to Nazia.

A mere thirty eight rupees. There was obvious disappointment on her face. She had expected more. He could see that in the way she counted the coins repeatedly, maybe with a hope that it would amount to something more than that.

He had to change that disappointment. A thought crossed his mind then. He remembered the conversation that he had with another Bangladeshi expatriate, Raza. He had asked him to consult him one day if he ever needed a lot of money. Now was the time.

Raza smiled at the frail man whose hairs were graying prematurely. The SIMI, an underground organization were considering a strike on Chowringhee for long. But they had just not found the candidate for it. This was the perfect man. He took out an oilcloth wrapped package from his closet which contained an amount of two lakh rupees, a fortune for a poor cobber.

Qadir’s eyes lit up on seeing the amount. It was more than what he could ever earn. Raza then explained to him what he had to do. He put a hand on his shoulder and said, “This city has taken a lot away from you. Now think about your family”. Qadir could say nothing. He silently walked out of that room.

The next day Nazia was up early again. This was a woman who had immense power of patience. One who had stuck with her husband and kept him going every day to struggle in the city. Qadir patted her cheek as he left. He had placed the money in her chest containing her belongings.

He walked out again, along the same path that he walked everyday leading to the Chowringhee. He was better dressed today courtesy Raza. As he walked into the sector leading towards the American Center he prepared himself. He looked at the beautiful March morning and the glitz surrounding him and thought about the disparity which Allah had created in this world. Why, in the same city, should a place be so affluent while the other area look like the City of Damned? No, this area shouldn’t exist. It had to be reduced to rubble.

This was one of the last thoughts in his mind as he stepped in front of the American Center. He opened his shirt slowly to reveal the concealed explosives. He had to press just one button to activate them. He looked around and sighed. May Allah be more gracious with me in Jannat. Inshallah!

Then he closed his eyes and triggered the explosive.

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