The Inheritors

    By Nadeem Zaman

    I got out of Tarek Bashir’s car and checked in at the reception desk, where two employees remembered my father well and asked after him and wondered where we’d gone and when we were returning. I guess there were those who had no idea back then about our plans to leave the country, or when we left, which made sense as my parents had kept the decision strictly under wraps. Tarek Bashir wasn’t there yet, nor were any of his other guests, and the rules were for members to accompany their guests into the club. One of the veteran employees insisted I go in and not wait in the lobby. My father, he said, had had a standing among members that ‘makes this your home, you come and go as you please’. I thanked him and said I’d like to walk the grounds and the tennis courts while I waited.

    Our last year in Dhaka, anti-government protests were at a peak. They’d been relentless throughout the 80s, since the start of the military regime after it had ousted the sitting civilian President and declared martial law. Dhaka University, a few minutes’ drive from the club, was the source and the center of the protests. Student activists hadn’t let go of the bone of contention in their teeth since day one and no amount of police fire, clubbing by soldiers or staring down tanks had deterred them.

    One afternoon, in the middle of a tennis game, I started coughing and struggling to breathe, and my eyes burnt as though I’d touched them with pepper on my hands. I noticed my friend on the other end of the court keel over, gag and spit. Soon everyone around us was experiencing some level of similar distress. Smoke was rising above the walls of the club from the street on the other side. The ground picked up a low rumble like a passing tremor.

    ‘Tear gas!’ someone yelled.

    ‘We need to get inside!’ shouted another.

    Next I knew we were gathering our things in a mad rush and bolting into the club. The main gates were closed and padlocked, as were the doors of the club once the tennis courts were emptied out and every one of us herded in.

    I don’t remember how long we waited inside or when or if we went back out to resume our games, but it must not have been longer than the time it took the tanks and guns to shoot their way through, clearing the protest, before we were back to ‘normal’.

    Some months before our planned departure, I saw the newspaper on the floor of my parents’ bedroom one morning reporting the end of the military government and that the President had ‘absconded’. That word got thrown around a lot over the next several weeks. I assumed it was a special way reserved for presidents to leave the country after their time in office.

    There were grainy black-and-white photos of him with entertainment industry people, which in and of themselves were nothing extraordinary except for the many liaisons he’d had with actresses and singers, all of them married, and the lifestyle he funded by exploiting the national coffers. The last I’d heard of the President had in fact to do with my own family. The daughter of a distant relative on my mother’s side had married a nephew of his.

    Tarek Bashir was genial to the extreme. He ordered a big spread, rounds of drinks, and introduced me to his colleagues as a ‘friend of the family’. Their names were Majid Uddin and Gowhar Wasim. Majid’s family business was in the garment sector and Gowhar’s family owned car dealerships around the country. Gowhar was an enthusiast and collector of classic cars. He showed us pictures of a line of vintage models he kept at a location outside the city in Savar. They’d both gone to university in the US and, from the sound of it, held no special love in their hearts for America.

    Gowhar’s dislike was perhaps a few degrees higher than Majid’s, and he decided that since I represented America in the group, it was my lot to bear his disdain.

    ‘I always knew you guys were a crazy country,’ he said. ‘I never liked being there. But my father, he had to have his way. Thank God I left before this new madness started.’ He looked askance at me. ‘Who did you vote for?’

    ‘Not the person that became President,’ I said.

    ‘The thing is, it’s a good country,’ said Majid. ‘I always thought so. I met wonderful people there that I still keep in touch with. The problem is that it’s a young country, and it’s grown so much in a short time that it doesn’t know what to do with all that power.’

    ‘It’s an ignorant country,’ said Gowhar. ‘You may not have voted for the guy that’s President,’ he said to me, ‘but millions of your people did, and that’s bad enough.’

    I was not keen on going down this path, however much I agreed with him. I was weary of politically charged fights and did not want to enter into one here, thousands of miles from the US, about the state of the depraved American union.

    ‘Nisar is a hundred per cent Bengali,’ Tarek volunteered. ‘No doubt about it.’

    ‘The man must be doing something right if that many people want him to be President,’ said Majid. His eyes closed completely when he smiled.

    ‘Majid likes the dictators, you see,’ Gowhar said. ‘His family is army, so what else would you expect?’

    ‘That was another generation,’ Majid said casually. ‘My last uncle retired more than ten years ago. We’re all civilians now.’

    ‘After causing all the damage, you took off your villain suits,’ said Gowhar. His voice echoed in the mostly empty lounge. Majid seemed used to the treatment. He’d probably always been that person, genial to a fault, never objecting to the ridicule of friends.

    ‘I understand both your families are long-time residents of Dhaka,’ I said.

    ‘Not really,’ said Gowhar. ‘We’re from Faridpur. Only been in Dhaka one generation.’

    Dhaka, like Chicago, was the city of the transplant. It was rare to come across someone that didn’t trace their roots back elsewhere, and the move to Dhaka had been the story of millions who had left ancestral homes to start over, not always willingly.

    ‘ We’re from Cumilla,’ said Majid. ‘Although, if you went back to my grandparents, they’re from West Bengal. Left during Partition. Everything they had they lost to India.’

    ‘And stole from Bangladesh to make up for it,’ said Gowhar.

    Tarek sat detached from the conversation, as if he had nothing to do with the rest of us.

    ‘There was no Bangladesh at the time,’ said Majid.

    ‘And if it were up to people like you, there wouldn’t ever be.’

    ‘Meaning what?’

    ‘Meaning we, all of us, are opportunists. Whichever way works best for us, that’s the way we go, and then pretend like we did it for country or some great bloody national cause.’

    ‘You just summed up the entire human race,’ said Majid.

    ‘Hell with it all. And hell with politics.’ Gowhar opened the photos on his phone. ‘Look at this beauty: 1962 Porsche Roadster, fully restored, and on its way to me. It’s going to be the crown jewel of my collection.’

    ‘Are you ever going to drive these things or just leave them to rust?’ Majid asked innocently.

    ‘What would you know about fine taste in anything? Collecting is an art. Isn’t it, Nisar?’

    ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I’ve never collected anything other than stamps when I was young, but it can be a passion.’

    ‘You see, Majid. That’s the sound of refinement you will never have.’

    ‘Still collecting dust in Indonesia?’ said Tarek, leaning forward.

    ‘Don’t worry, it’s being very well taken care of. Owner moved there from Italy a long time ago,’ he told me. ‘Said he was looking for the perfect home for it, someone who’ll know what it’s worth.’

    ‘That is dedication,’ said Majid. Gowhar raised his glass to him.

    ‘You can be a connoisseur of good things and a real friend. Even if we give you shit for coming from a family of thugs.’

    A split-second’s irritation passed over Majid. Tarek had gone back to being distracted, though I caught him staring at me several times and when I looked his eyes darted away.

    ‘Where’s your family from?’ Majid asked me.

    ‘Sylhet on both sides. I was born in Dhaka.’

    ‘Sylhetis are a tough bunch,’ said Gowhar. ‘No one is good enough for you people.’

    ‘I won’t argue with that,’ I said.

    ‘Nisar’s interest is in Dhaka,’ Tarek added. ‘He’s writing a book about the city. I’m sorry, Nisar. I couldn’t get hold of the others like I wanted, but I still thought you should meet some people while you’re here.’

    ‘You’re a writer,’ said Majid. ‘That’s got to be such satisfying work.’

    ‘When it’s happening properly, it is,’ I said.

    ‘I hate reading,’ said Gowhar. I thought he would spit in my face to emphasize his point.

    ‘I read two headlines in the news and my head starts hurting.’

    ‘There’s a name for people like that. Gondo-murkho. Ignorant illiterate,’ Majid jokingly chided.

    ‘I don’t give a damn,’ Gowhar said proudly. ‘I read what matters.’ He finished his drink and went to use the bathroom.

    ‘So how long have you been in the US?’ Majid asked me.

    ‘We moved there when I was thirteen.’

    ‘Long time,’ Majid said pensively. ‘How is it being back?’

    ‘I’m still trying to figure that out,’ I said.

    ‘Dhaka has changed, and it also hasn’t. I’ve felt that way for at least the last ten, fifteen years.’

    ‘Guess who bought his family’s property?’ said Tarek, as if suddenly remembering it. Before I could stop him, he said, ‘Gazi.’ Majid’s eyes opened wide. ‘Eternal Complex? That’s yours?’

    ‘Yes,’ I said.

    ‘That place went up in no time. Of course, it’s Gazi Enterprises. They are not wasters of time. And Junaid, my God, he never stops working. I have no idea when he finds the time for all the parties. So, you still have connections here?’

    ‘My father wanted to keep them,’ I said. ‘Mostly sentimental reasons. It’s not really practical.’

    ‘If you no longer live here, it’s a complete waste. This city just keeps getting expensive. That is not only a change, it’s a fact.’

    Gowhar rejoined us.

    ‘Guess what?’ Majid said to him. ‘Gazi built Eternal on his property.’

    Gowhar had brought out his phone to send a text and stopped.

    ‘That’s you?’ he said. ‘Junaid never told me what was so special about that location. It’s not very good. That area is too congested. I tried talking to him, but he was adamant.’

    ‘Where do you think you are?’ Majid said with a horsey snort. ‘Where isn’t it congested in this city?’

    ‘Plenty of places,’ Gowhar said. ‘If you go out of the city. Junaid could have had his pick, but he built that place that no one wants to live in.’ He tapped out the text and set the phone on the table. ‘What’s your father’s name?’ he asked me.

    Tarek answered. ‘Nisar is Disha’s cousin.’

    Gowhar gave him a look, then turned to me.

    ‘Isn’t that just like Dhaka?’ said Majid. ‘The farther you go, the smaller the circles become. You can write a book just about that,’ he chuckled, his face filling with a smile.

    ‘He and Junaid were family,’ Tarek felt the need to point out. ‘And I had no idea when we were,’ I said. ‘I’ve been out of touch with most of my relatives for many years.’

    ‘You’re lucky,’ said Gowhar. ‘What a fiasco that was. I’ve known Junaid since we were in school, and it was like he was possessed by demons when he was married to her.’

    ‘Junaid is no angel either,’ said Tarek.

    Gowhar’s phone buzzed before he could respond. I was close enough to unwittingly see the name Maisha on the banner. So did Tarek. Gowhar sent off a reply.

    ‘No, he’s not, but Disha,’ he eyed me, ‘is a piece of work in her own category. You take that how you will, Nisar, but it’s God’s honest truth.’

    ‘Okay,’ said Tarek, holding up a hand to quiet him.

    ‘Shady family,’ said Majid. We all looked at him thinking he’d meant mine. ‘Unfortunately,’ he went on, without noticing our intrigue, ‘no one in this city, this whole country, can do business without him being everywhere. Gazi Enterprises, they’re a mafia. But at least Junaid is trying to turn over a new leaf. At heart he’s a decent man. But I don’t know how far he can go to undo their damaged reputation.’

    ‘How does that make him different from every other family in this city?’ said Gowhar.

    ‘Who is so clean?’

    ‘It’s not about clean,’ Majid argued. ‘It’s about…’

    ‘About what?’ said Gowhar. ‘Putting on a face? Showing you’re one thing and being another?’

    ‘Who exactly do you mean, who does that?’ Tarek wanted to know.

    ‘You’re too sensitive, Gowhar,’ Majid said.

    ‘Next time you hear shit talked about you behind your back, tell me how well you take it.’

    ‘Okay,’ said Tarek. ‘We have a guest here, after all. Let’s not all make assholes of ourselves.’

    It was too late for that. And I felt like the biggest asshole of all. ‘ Sorry, Nisar.’

    ‘Anyway,’ Gowhar said pushing to his feet. ‘I have to pick up Maisha. My wife.’ Tarek gave him a look, but Gowhar was angled away from him with his back.

    He held his hand out at me. ‘Nice to meet you. I’ll see you again soon, now that you’re Junaid’s neighbour, and business partner.’

    ‘Nice meeting you.’

    After he left, I gave taking Tarek aside a thought and then abandoned it. He would deny any ulterior motives for bringing me here today. Then there would be Disha to deal with if he told her.

    ‘Thank you,’ I said to Majid.

    ‘For what?’

    ‘For your candor.’

    ‘I told you already what a bastard Gazi is,’ said Tarek. ‘Your cousin never stopped being hypnotized by him.’

    ‘I think I’ll go now,’ I said.

    ‘What’s the rush?’

    ‘I have work to do.’

    ‘Stay, stay.’

    ‘No, Tarek. Thank you for the meal and the drinks.’ I shook Majid’s hand.

    ‘Just send my driver home after he drops you off,’ said Tarek.

    On my way out I recognized another one of the staff from when I was a child. He was old then and he looked decrepit now. I walked up to him, gave my name, told him whose son I was. His rheumy eyes lit up. We embraced. He asked about my parents. I gave him a thousand takas. He smiled a smile with the three teeth left in his mouth and clasped both my hands in his gnarled fingers.

    I left the club and made a right, going towards the Shahbag traffic circle. At the intersection I asked three CNG drivers before one agreed to take me to Banani at a rate that would be extortionist to locals but to me was less than what I would have paid him with a tip.

    Excerpted from The Inheritors, Nadeem Zaman, Hachette India

    Nadeem Zaman is the author of the novel In the Time of the Others, which was longlisted for the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and a collection of stories Up in the Main House (Unnamed Press 2019). Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he grew up there and in Chicago. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Louisville Review, Singapore Unbound, Wilderness House Literary Review, Roanoke Review, Dhaka Tribune, Bengal Lights, and other journals. He teaches in the English department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The Inheritors is his second novel

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