Nimontron (The Invitation) – Sami Suffiullah

Kazi lay sprawled across the bed, smoking his cigarette lazily without a care in the world. He looked up from his phone screen, where he’d been playfully texting someone. He stretched his arms out toward the ashtray, and turned his attention to Subho, who was frantically running around the small bungalow. Subho was neurotic, to put it politely. He really believed he had put on a convincing poker face. In reality, he looked anxious, with small beads of sweat gathering at his temples. As he methodically walked from window to window, closing the shutters, the routine completely memorized, he looked over at Kazi and told him, “Phone off kor. I’m not doing it again, you bodmaash.”

Indeed, just last week Kazi had recorded them “making love” as he liked to call it. Subho didn’t see it as something quite as romantic, having repressed most of his emotions growing up. He was a closeted man who had successfully separated any emotion from strictly sexual encounters, a lie he kept telling himself to avoid getting hurt. To him this was more of a carnal act, which by coincidence happened to be with a man who made his heart flutter. Kazi had kissed Subho deeply, his soft lips sending currents of electricity all throughout Subho’s body. “Come on, let’s just record it one time. We can watch it later, it’ll be fun.” Subho’s legs had turned to jelly and though he was uncomfortable with the idea, he didn’t want to risk Kazi getting upset and leaving him. Then he’d be back at square one, slyly meeting up with the untalented Hiron from down the road, who couldn’t seem to make out without biting Subho’s lips into a fine pulp. Nope, never again.

Not wanting to delay any longer, Subho acquiesced. Giggling, they brought a plastic chair from the drawing room and positioned the grainy mobile phone camera on, supported by an empty shoe box. It looked over the bed, which was nothing more than a tashak nestled in a corner of the room. One of three rooms in Subho’s temporary, rented residence, the bedroom was hardly fit for a high budget video production. Two heavy wires had been strung between the window grill and the almary for laundry to dry indoors during the monsoon. The almary was an ugly metal cabinet, most likely inherited from an old government office building. The lumpy tashak sat protected under a bright green moshari, to keep out any particularly social mosquitoes looking to make conversation with any unsuspecting butt cheeks.

Subho had asked Kazi to delete the video. As much of a kick as he got out of watching it later, he wasn’t going to take any more risks. The last thing he needed on his hands was some sort of MMS scandal – this wasn’t a Shahid and Kareena type romance. It didn’t warrant publicity! Subho quickly walked into the drawing room and peered out the window grill to his landlord, who was sitting on his veranda on the second floor of the building just across the path, enjoying the calm night. It was the month of Bhadro, and the weather was in that tolerable stage between the cool monsoon and the stifling heat of the upcoming autumn.

***

Kaiser Miah sat on his veranda every evening, pretending to read Prothom Alo, but Subho knew better. Laboni Begum, his flamboyant wife, was probably in their drawing room watching Milon Tithi. Ever since they had upgraded to satellite and discovered Star Jalsha channel, Laboni had completely lost her grip on reality, calling her friends on her mobile phone after the serials had ended and chatting endlessly about the shocking drama of the night.

Subho didn’t blame Laboni Mami for her escapism.  Kaiser Mama was not really the most stimulating person in the world and neither was he much to look at. Sitting on his veranda in a haphazardly wrapped lungi and a white undershirt, tufts of unkempt hair peeking out from every nook and cranny, he looked like every aspiring wife’s worst nightmare. Through his connections at the Akhaura customs at the Tripura border, he managed to procure a monthly supply of his favorite scotch. He would recline on his rocking chair on the veranda every night and sip contentedly, while listening to his digitally remastered collection of Hemanta Mukherjee songs, pausing them twice for the Maghrib and Isha azaan of course. Masha Allah. Cleverly hiding his scotch in a floral melamine teacup, Kaiser Miah really thought he had the entire para fooled. Sometimes to look extra innocent, he would pour the scotch into the saucer and swish it around, as if it were some freshly brewed liquor cha straight from the gardens of Srimongol. Just looking at him now in his sheepish state of affairs made Subho chuckle, too loudly. Before he had time to slam the shutters on the window, Kaiser Miah looked up at him and called out his name.

 “How are you Shahadat Babu? How is Amin Bhai?” In an attempt to conceal his drunk jovialness, Kaiser Mama always became somewhat formal, foregoing Subho’s affectionate daak naam for his official name. Such piety.

“Mama, I’m fine thanks. Abba is also doing well, he’s at home in Dhaka taking care of Dadima and Amma. Please give my Salam to Laboni Mami. I will have my rent to you by the end of the week.” Subho smiled politely and closed the wooden shutters firmly, locking both the top and bottom halves. He didn’t want to take any risks with his landlord, who had generously agreed to let him rent out the tiny bungalow, an act of benevolence almost never granted to a bachelor.

***

At first, Laboni Mami would have none of it. “Are you insane? Do you know these Dhaka University boys? They’re all Leftists. They don’t pray or believe in Allah. They use foreign drugs and corrupt young girls. He will turn this neighborhood into English Road!” She loved evoking English Road Para, the infamous red-light district in Dhaka that her father had frequented when he was still alive. She had horrible memories of her parents fighting over his father’s addiction to the brothel and learned from a young age that men simply cannot be trusted. She kept a tasbih in her palm at all times, reciting Allah’s name 99 times every time she smelled the foul, smoky stench of scotch emanating from her husband’s stale body, which always brought back the terrible memories of her father, who had smelled much the same. She wrapped her cotton shari tightly across her body, covering her hair, and warned her husband one more time, before walking off to the drawing room reciting a handful of prayers until the next natok on TV began.

But Kaiser Miah and Amin Ullah, Subho’s father, were good friends from their college days. Both of them trusted Subho, who for all other intents and purposes was a bhodro chhele, a good boy from a respectable home. And minus his personal taste for frequent gay sex, he met this criterion just fine. And so the day came when Subho signed a one-year lease, his signature right next to Kaiser Miah’s. The both of them sat in the drawing room that evening, talking about Subho’s passion for research and field work in the nearby villages, while dipping cake rusks into the mediocre tea a very antagonized Laboni had made for them, in between sending her friend SMS updates about this suspicious boy.

***

Subho had never been called attractive in the conventional sense. He was fair and of an average build, nothing remarkable. He had what aunties would always refer to as a chyapta chehra, with a round face and wide nose. An uneven stubble peppered his face and cheeks, meeting his neatly combed hair at the mid-ear line, at his sideburns. By all measures he looked like a well-groomed young man from a respectable household.

Subho was sensitive about his looks. No matter how much he worked out he never seemed to get rid of his bhoori¸ the infamous rice belly that all Bengali men seem to have. Even after switching to whole wheat rotis, he had this spare tire of fat around the middle of his body which made him feel like an eggplant. At the cricket field, the other boys would always make fun of him for being girlish, un-athletic, and for having a voice that was too high for his age. He eventually kept to himself, burying his head in his books.

Kazi on the other hand, was a work of art. He had a perfectly chiseled face with a neatly trimmed beard that made Subho melt instantly. Kazi kept his hair long, about neck-length. He often parting it down the center just as the Rebel Poet, his namesake, did in his youth. Kazi indeed dressed like a modern poet, wearing striped panjabi that reached just above his knee, revealing tight jeans and strappy black sandals underneath. His panjabi was always unbuttoned to the mid-chest, leaving very little to anyone’s imagination. Kazi carried himself with a level of intimidating confidence that commanded attention. Subho was as terrified of him as he was in love.

***

Perhaps just as smitten as Subho was, Laboni would often find herself peering from behind her window grill, hoping to catch a glimpse of this man who somehow reminded her of a youthful Prasenjit Chatterjee. Of course, this resemblance existed only in her foolish head, which was currently polluted by the latest drama from Kusum Dola. Though she knew she shouldn’t, she had strategically timed her afternoon chores impeccably, so she had enough time to go up to the roof to hang up the laundry and watch Kazi ride his cycle up the street, coming from his post at Victoria College and heading to Subho’s bungalow. She was completely enamored by this handsome fellow, whose mere appearance from three stories below was enough to make her heart beat more rapidly than her husband’s fetid existence ever had been able to. As Kazi opened the gate and wheeled his cycle onto the uthan, Labona snapped out of her fantasy and went back into the flat, in time to prepare evening nashta for her husband. Tonight was a simple ghugni chaat with cha.

“That dushtu mohila was checking me out again,” Kazi chuckled. He sat on the shatranj Subho had spread on the ground directly under the ceiling fan, and sipped on the lemon tea Subho had made. Always impeccably crafted, with the slightest hint of black salt and lime juice, which made his mouth smart and pucker.

“Leave her alone, she’s just a bored housewife with an ugly husband. She’s always looking for ways to cause drama and share with her friends.” Subho couldn’t be bothered.

“Are you jealous? You know I’m going to have to leave you eventually…do you think I’m going to leave you for a married woman?”

“Leave me for whoever you want. I don’t care. I don’t even like you that much.”

“Is that so?”

Kazi’s eyes twinkled as he grinned naughtily at Subho. Subho was not a talented liar, and had no way to hide his sheepish grin, and the fact that he’d somehow managed to turn bright pink. They both knew his denial only ran skin deep.

***

It rained that night. The locals here referred to it as baje bhadror brishti, because it was the kind of tepid, stagnant rain that left you feeling sticky and miserable. The power had gone out, and of course Subho didn’t have a generator. He slinked out from under the moshari and opened the windows that looked out over the back veranda, before crawling back into bed next to Kazi. They were both drenched in sweat, stripped down to their lungis.

Subho leaned over and looked at Kazi, who was snoring softly, and wondered how this whole situation had even happened. A year ago he was back home with his parents and siblings, preparing to apply for postsecondary studies abroad and cautiously avoiding wedding proposals. He would lay awake most nights, just like this, and think about how on earth he would be able to act his way through a marriage when this was something clearly not written in his fate. He’d stopped believing in God years ago, and didn’t believe that everyone was meant to have a carbon copy destiny with weddings, children, and pre-established social positions. His elder brother and sister were both married with families of their own, and he was happy for them, but deep down Subho craved something much different.

He had met Kazi online. In Bangladesh, the choices for gay men to meet are aren’t exactly plentiful. Chatrooms, a handful of pre-established “pick-up” spots, and hormone consumed classmates are generally the only options out there, and one clearly stood out as the best option. After too many sketchy encounters with some classmates and neighborhood boys around him – making out in an empty primary school classroom at night, fondling each other in a quiet alley while two stray dogs watched, Subho had had enough. He decided to give the chatrooms a shot, though he wasn’t optimistic.

Subho made a completely anonymous profile. His display picture was a faceless torso, a chiseled and hairy six-pack he had found late one night on a rather embarrassing descent into scandalous corners of the internet that have since been wiped from the computer history. He kept his description equally ambiguous, evoking the words of his favorite poet, Jasimuddin.

“…. You will wear the necklace, and reverberating our paths in a jhum jhum rhythm as we go, we will laugh, play, sing, and dance all around the village…”

Any man who could guess which poem this was would win his heart over, Subho decided. With no expectations, he logged in and braced himself. But even with all the bracing he couldn’t have prepared himself for the nonsensical, fast-paced, seemingly violent meat market that he suddenly found himself drowning in.

“Attention friends! Do not meet with Bhalobandhu123. He is a married man with children who lies about his age and appearance. He will ask you to have sex with him on his building roof while his wife is sleeping. Block him!”

“I am taking a train from Sylhet to Brahmanbaria later today. Will anyone be on the ride as well? We can get a private car and spend the ride together. Inbox for details.”

Scrolling through these messages was giving Subho a headache. Why had he bothered at all? He was considering deleting the profile when he suddenly got a message from a blank profile with no description. The message was one word: Nimontron.

 

Nimontron. Invitation. The title of Jasimuddin’s poem, whose stanzas were in Subho’s description.

For the next month, the two boys messaged each other incessantly. They chatted on Skype, Whatsapp, Facebook, the phone, everywhere. As Kazi was in Comilla, teaching at Victoria College, and Subho was in Dhaka preparing to apply for graduate school, the odds of meeting were seeming increasingly slim. Which is why Subho, despite knowing how upset his parents would be, took a risk and applied for a research fellowship at the prestigious BARD institute in Comilla. The thought of leaving the country without meeting Kazi, without at least giving him a chance and seeing where this could go, made his stomach churn.

Kazi and Subho had fallen for each other the minute they saw each other. Their prothom mulaqaat was ankle deep in the muddy mess of the main Comilla bus stand, amid angry villagers in-transit to their upazilas, impatient army families headed to the Cantonment, and the regular bustle of small-town Bangladesh. Putting all of this aside, the two lovers remained true to their first encounter online, and accepted their nimontron by bringing necklaces for each other and putting them on each other like congratulatory malas. Subho brought a tasbih that his brother had given him on a trip to the Nizamuddin Darga in Delhi and Kazi brought a string of beads from the Fakir Lalon Shah Maazar in Kushtia. It was so silly, and people openly gawked as they partook in a ceremony that made sense nowhere but their little fantasy, laughing softly at the hungama that they were apparently causing.

Kazi stayed in a rented room, in quarters behind Victoria College. Once Subho moved in to Kaiser Miah’s bungalow, Kazi began to come over regularly. Cautiously at first, always with significant planning, missed calls, and warnings ahead of time. Subho would close every window, shutter, and door in the bungalow and even put up the wooden barrier on the doors, before turning off all the lights. The two of them would sit in silence at first, unable to make each other out in the darkness. Then slowly they would come closer, kiss softly, and ease into the night. Kazi was much more at ease, more comfortable with himself, and would have to swallow his chuckles. “Subho, why are you so stiff? Why are you acting like a dead fish? Why aren’t you making any noise? How am I supposed to know if you’re enjoying- OK not that loud shhhh!”

Eventually Subho calmed down and would leave a window open, turn on a light in the bathroom and leave the door ajar, and things became more natural. They eventually grew out of the initial sexual frenzy, and learned to appreciate each other’s company in different ways. They’d play Ludo on the veranda, challenge each other to recite Bidrohi from memory, and just spend time together. Sometimes Champa, the girl who worked in Kaiser Miah’s home, would walk across the pathway with a plate full of piping hot beguni – eggplant coated in a chickpea flour batter and deep friend into succulent fritters, and simply say, “Laboni madam pathaise” – these are from Laboni madam.

It felt right, you know? Just the two of them, living separately but together in this sleepy small town, with no one to bother them.

***

Kazi’s phone had been buzzing. In a deep stupor, he had one arm wrapped around Subho and another arm resting on his forehead, completely oblivious. He continued to snore away, failing to wake up, despite Subho’s persistent nudging.

Irritated, Subho picked the phone up for him, which had been resting on top of the tasbih from the Nizamuddin Dargah, and read the message. It read simply, “Shona, Kaiser just left for office. Come over quickly, before Champa comes to clean. I love you – Laboni.”