I have a pounding headache!

I have tried to ignore it for long. Just as no one likes being ignored, a disease doesn’t, either. When a disease observes that its presence is brushed aside, it’s easily offended and leaves you alone before you know it. But that hasn’t happened in my case. Thus ignored, the headache has mounted its attack. At one point, I notice that it is making an attempt to slide down my spine. I must act urgently to address this, so I hurry into a nearby pharmacy to buy four paracetamol tablets. I will take two this instant and keep the other two for later.

I have long been in the habit of checking any store’s sign board before I go in. I come across beautiful names on shop fronts quite often. Once, I saw a stationer called Nilachol, the blue end of a saree, while, on another occasion, I found myself standing in front of a restaurant called Jhaljhol, hot and spicy gravy. I have often observed that businesses with beautiful names are too short-lived. Jhaljhol went out of business within a month after its opening. It was replaced by a new restaurant called The New Madina Biriyani and Kabab Ghar. The image of a goat smiles from the sign board. This one is doing pretty well.

Before entering the pharmacy, I glance up at the sign board. Although the name is not completely new, it’s modern: Prescription. I think the name is perfect because a prescription leads to a pharmacy. The four paracetamol tablets cost me four takas. This is a fairly cheap price for a medicine that relieves one of as painful a disease as a headache. I request the salesman to give me some water. He hands me a glass full of water and I swallow two paracetamol tablets in one go. I am taken aback when paying for the tablets.

My wallet is not with me. I do not think I have been pick-pocketed. I must have forgotten it at home. If I didn’t swallow the tablets, I could have returned them. I feel embarrassed. I am at a loss about what to say while the salesman is giving me a curious stare. The pharmacy’s owner, I think, has been observing me for some time now. He comes up to me and says in a serious tone, “Can you please follow me into my room?” I am not sure if I will have to swallow a few harsh words on account of only four takas!

As I set foot in an inner room, I say with disarming simplicity, “I do not have the money to pay for the medicine, but I am going to pay up first thing tomorrow.”

“Why do you worry so much about the payment of a few tablets?” the owner says reassuringly. “You can also take two more strips of tablets if you like. You do not have to worry about payment. Now, please take a seat. I’m asking them to give us some tea. Tea will relieve you of headache.”

I am impressed with the way he treats me. Time has changed. You barely get warm and sincere treatment from your kinfolk, much less from a complete stranger. “Would you mind my asking your name?” I say.

“Of course not,” says the man. “Once you hear my name, you will never forget it. My name is Koila.”

I repeat after him in surprise, “Koila!”

“Yes. Koila. Coal. I am not kidding. I really call myself Koila. I had a very bright complexion at the time of my birth. ‘How come my son turned as black as coal only in a couple of days’ time?’ wondered my father. Koila has been my name ever since. Initially, though, they would call me so only half in jest. My original name is Mohammad Sanowar Hossain.”

I take a closer look at Mr Sanowar. Not only does he have a bright complexion but he’s also got a beautiful face. He seems to be pushing forty and has grey-streaked hair, which has lent him a more handsome look. Grey hair suits certain people and he is, no doubt, one of them.

“How do you feel now?”

“I feel better.”

“Could you please close your eyes for a minute?” says Mr Sanowar with a mysterious tone.

“What for?”

“Could I apply some ointment on your forehead and eyelids? It is a Burmese ointment called Tiger Balm. It will make your headache go away in three minutes.”

I close my eyes. He wipes the beads of sweat off my forehead. He then applies the balm to my forehead and eyelids with a slight massage, which, I believe, eases half of my pain.

“Keep your eyes shut for three minutes, will you?”

With my eyes completely shut, I ask him out of curiosity, “Do you always massage the Tiger Balm on the forehead of anyone who comes complaining of headaches?”

“No. Not at all. You are a writer, that’s why I have made an exception for you.”

“Oh! I understand.”

Tea arrives, along with hot singaras. Piping hot singaras are always savoury, but these seem to be even better. The tea is neither too good nor too bad. As a writer, I do get special treatment now and then. Writers of greater stature feel embarrassed and rather irritated at such treatment. Since I am not a big writer, I enjoy these little things even though I make an attempt to conceal my happiness.

Sipping at my tea, I look around his room. The decor in the room is as tasteful as the name of his shop. Everything in here is neat and tidy. The floor is carpeted and potted plants are kept in every corner. One of the plants is in blossom, its tiny flowers looking like blue buttons, and it has filled the room with a wonderful aura. Although flowers seem to be something of an aberration in a businessman’s room, he is a pleasant exception to the norm. On the table are two books, one of which is titled Doomsday and Life after Death. While I cannot read the title of the other book, I guess it must be a serious one, too, rather than a novel or a story collection.

One of the walls has a picture of the man from his younger days – a cigarette between his lips, he’s leaning against a bicycle.

“This is a picture of my father,” says Mr Sanowar.

“I thought it was your photo from your younger days.”

“Many people mistake it for mine. But I am not so proud as to adorn the wall of my office with my own picture!”

“Your father must have been a very handsome man. He looks like a hero from a movie.”

“Indeed, my father spent the better part of his life finding out ways to enter the world of cinema. He made it a habit to go to the FDC, the Film Development Corporation, in the morning and come back home around midnight. He always dressed in his best clothes. He offered the assistant directors cigarettes. He even ran errands for them. In return, he would sometimes be given an opportunity to appear in a passing shot of a film.”

“What is a passing shot?”

“Imagine a scene in which a hero and a heroine are engaged in a lighthearted banter while a man happens to pass by them at a distance. The man has no connection whatsoever to the main story, but his walk fills up the frame. That’s what you call a passing shot.”

“Oh! I see.”

“His desperate attempts to attract the attention of directors and producers did not fail altogether. He could at least draw the attention of an extra girl.”

“What is an extra girl, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“The girls who hover around the heroine all the time are called extras. They accompany her when she goes to fetch water. As the heroine dances swinging her hip before the act of fetching water, they follow suit. Do you understand it now?”

“Yes. I do.”

“His friendship with an extra girl soon blossomed into romance, and he married her one fine day. Back then, he had nothing more than a handsome look and a bicycle. In the picture, you can of course see him leaning against the wheel of his cycle.”

“Yes. I can.”

“I am sorry to bore you with my father’s story. It will end in a bit. My driver has already arrived. He will give you a lift to your place.”

“Thank you very much, but that won’t be necessary. I live close by. It’ll take me a couple of minutes to walk back home.”

“I won’t let you go on foot. If need be, I will use force on you. My father only had a second hand bicycle, whereas I now own three cars. Shouldn’t I display them a little?”

“You have three cars?”

“Actually, I have two at the moment; I sold one recently. But I am planning to buy a luxury microbus. I don’t earn much from this small pharmacy. I also have other business enterprises. I have a Chinese restaurant in the posh Gulshan area, in addition to a brokerage firm providing export-import services. But I started with the pharmacy.”

“Oh! I see.”

“Let me return to the main story,” says Mr Sanwar, holding his cigarette packout to me. “Please have a smoke while you listen to the rest of the story. The ending is pretty interesting.”

I light the cigarette while another round of tea arrives. It tastes better than the first cup I was served. I’m listening to the story while sipping at my tea. Mr Sanowar knows how to tell a story. His is a flowing narrative, yet he knows when to pause, catch his breath and resume. His tone is such that he does not have any attachment to the story, he’s relating it only to while away the time. In fact, he would love it if he could wriggle out of it.

“My father stayed at the time in the house of a relative – a remote uncle – at Khilgaon. My father had probably given him the impression that he would marry his youngest daughter. Otherwise, his scheming uncle would not have given him a place in his house for so long. The moment his uncle learnt about his sudden marriage, he drove him out of the house. My father found himself mired in great trouble with his newly married wife. Finding no other way, he started knocking on the doors of his relatives living in Dhaka. He stayed for a week or two in each of his relatives’ places and soon, there was no one else to give him and his wife a place to stay in Dhaka.”

“Father tried finding a job. All he wanted was a job in the show business. He was willing to do anything, from sweeping the floor to holding the umbrella over an artist’s head to handing the heroine her sandals or shoes. He did his stint as a production boy. It involved doing donkey work with nominal pay. The lunch was free, though, and there always were opportunities to steal things. But being the simple and naïve man that my father was, he could not utilise any of those opportunities. Perhaps you are aware that simple-minded people are honest. You won’t find a thief among them. During such terrible times, his wife gave birth to a baby boy. The son was named Mohammad Sanowar Hossain, but my father affectionately called him Koila Baba.”

“Are you that Koila Baba?”

“Right you are!”

“Where did you live back then?”

“My father rented a room in the slum next to the FDC. The rent for the house was quite nominal, but even then, he found it extremely difficult to pay for it. We are actually approaching the end of the story. Why don’t you light another cigarette? I will wrap up by the time you finish smoking.”

“Please take all the time you need to finish the story,” I reassure him. “I am not in a hurry. Besides, I am enjoying your story.”

Mr Sanowar smiled as he resumed his narration.

“I was born at the crack of dawn on an Eid day, so my father thought his son would bring good luck and fortune to his home. Some opportunities presented themselves, too. I’d started earning money since I was only seven days old. I have never known a child who started earning earlier than me. I believe my name should have been in the Guinness Book of World Records!”

“What do you mean by earning an income as a seven-day-old infant?”

“I earned by appearing in a movie! Newborn babies are often required in the film industry. Say, for example, the heroine has given birth to a baby but it is stolen soon after. This kind of story required newborns. I was that newborn baby. No need to act. All I needed to do was swing my arms and wail. That’s how I appeared in my first film when I was just seven days old. The title of the film was Dalim Kumar. I am that Dalim Kumar.”


“Of course, it is! My second film was Komola Shundori. I fell ill while appearing in this film. My scenes were shot on a winter night. The scenes were like this: After giving birth to me, my hapless mother puts me in a wicker basket before abandoning me in the middle of a forest. She soon flees the forest, crying all the while. I am sleeping inside the basket while all the birds, animals and other denizens of the forest gaze at me. At one point, I wake up and start wailing. Right at that time, the country’s king, accompanied by his retinue, is scouring the forest to hunt. Drawn to the basket by my crying at the top of my voice, he finds me, picks me up and carries me home. Because I have a bright orange complexion, he names me Komola Shundori. I played a woman’s role in this movie. Perhaps you have figured it out by now?”

“Yes. I have.”

“So I fell ill after appearing in Komola Shundori. It was a winter night; plus, the scene included several takes. As I was totally naked, I came down with a severe cold. It turned out to be a matter of life and death. I had to be hospitalised. Meanwhile, my father had failed to pay the rent for our slum room, so the landlord got to frequenting the house and threatened to drive us out of the slum. We were basically facedwith what you call in literature ‘the epoch of deep darkness’. Then, by a stroke of luck, someone in the film industry was murdered, which created an opening for my father.”

Taken aback, I say, “I can’t quite get my head around how your father lucked out due to the murder.”

“Let me explain”, says Mr Sanowar, his face lit up with excitement as usual. “I am not sure if you know that in prison, there are people who deal in punishment. One will shoulder the punishment of another in exchange for money. The accused person thus evades punishment while the person whom he has paid does time in prison.”

“I still don’t understand it.”

“Let me try again. Just imagine you did not do your homework at school, so you are supposed to get a slap across your face. But somebody else gets the slap on his face while you go scot-free.”

“Is it possible?”

“Of course it is possible.There is a syndicate that looks after this trade. If you have a lot money, you can feel free to kill a person with your own hands. You don’t have to face the music for that because someone else will walk the gallows for you.”

Rendered speechless, I gaze at Mr Sanowar while he continues relating his story with his usual ease. “My father did exactly the same thing. He gave a statement to the police that he had murdered the man. He described the murder incident down to the last detail. Following his own confession, the police searched his room in the slum and found a knife, the murder weapon, in a tin container. He was put on trial for a crime that he had not committed. But he left four lakh and ten thousand takasto his family in exchange for it all.”

“What punishment was meted out to your father?”

“He was hanged for murder. Bhai, my story has come to an end. The car is waiting for you outside.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” I mutter.

Mr Sanowar throws a sharp glance at me. He seems to be enraged all of a sudden. Soon he regains his composure and says, “The legal proceedings went on for four and a half years. When he was hanged, I was only five years old. A little before he was hanged, my mother took me to the prison to see him. He showed me a lot of affection that day. This is the only memory I have of my father. He held me close to his bosom and said with affection, “Kutu kutumutumutubhutubhutu!”

I sit, motionless. I had no idea that this is how the story would end. I find it really difficult to sit in front of him any longer. I wish I could make up an excuse to leave right then, but I fail to come up
with anything.

“What do you think about my story?” Mr Sanowar asks.

I do not utter a word in response. Mr Sanowar slowly begins speaking again.

“You are a writer. Writers like you create interesting stories – small stories of small events, exuding sadness and pain. Does my life story fit in with the theory of short story writing?”

“Bhai, I’d better get going today. I will drop by another day for a chat.”

“Even after the story ends,” says Mr Sanowar, “something always remains. My story has an appendix too. Please don’t leave before you listen to the rest of it.”

“I am all ears.”

“My father was actually a very lucky man. General people like us cannot fulfil most of their dreams. Only the lucky ones can. All his dreams came true; that’s why he was a lucky man, and my father was one of those people whose dreams have also been translated into reality. He dreamed that his son would establish himself as a successful man, and I have become a successful businessman. He also dreamed that he’d shine as a male lead in films. Although he failed, I still think his dream was partly realised by my mother, who played the female lead in quite a few films.”

“I see.”

“The man – for whose crime my father had been executed – created all these opportunities for my mother to act in films. Interestingly, my mother ended up marrying him. Heroines usually marry their film producers. There is nothing surprising about it. What do you think?”

Mr Sanowar sits back in his seat, looking at me, anticipating a reply, while I fix my gaze on the picture of his father leaning against his bicycle!

“The Prescription” by Humayun Ahmed, translated from the Bengali by Zaynul Abedin, excerpted with permission from Bangladesh: A Literary Journey Through 50 Short Stories, edited by Rifat Munim, Bee Books.