She Knew the Use of Powdered Pepper by Shaheen Akhtar

Published in Fault Lines (Ed. Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi, Pub. University Press Ltd. Dhaka), 2007.


Chullu sat me down in an abandoned house and went out looking for a job. There were several guards at the front and back of the house. No one else. I was sniffing around the kitchen. Empty bottles of marmalade, jelly and pickles. The remnants at the bottom of coffee and Horlicks containers had congealed into hard rocks. There was nothing in the fridge except a few bottles of whisky. A huge piano beside it, with a family group photo atop. Their faces and clothes made me think that they were non-Bengalis. I felt spooked. I opened a bottle and poured half of the whisky down my throat, absolutely raw. Then suddenly I noticed the house-guards. Although scattered here and there, they were in a circle guarding me. It was late afternoon. What should I do, I had to escape from here and that before evening. When I found a guard by himself I asked him, “Who lives in this house?” He turned his face away pretending he couldn’t hear me. I had come out of the house and was walking on the lawn. My throat stung, my innards were burning inside my belly, and amid all this I was making plans to escape. There were a few rickshaws on the other side of the open iron-gate, they even had some passengers. But it would be no use shouting. No one would have courage enough to stand and face armed guards. They had surrounded me now and were circling me. Gradually the circle was closing in. “Look, I’m very hungry. I haven’t eaten anything all day.” They pursed their lips in laughter, as if what I had said was very funny. I was stubborn, “Can you tell me where I can get some food?” I looked at all of them simultaneously when I asked the question this time. Chatting and jabbering, I actually wanted to break out of their circular formation. One guard said, “Yes, yes, you’ll have everything in the evening”, and asked another to bring some tea. As soon as he moved away I raced towards the street. With a tremendous roar the five thugs were running after me. I am running. I hold my life in my hands and run.


It was like it happened in dreams; I was running but could not move forward. At one point they surrounded me in a ring again. I stood with my face lifted toward the sky. Oh, I’d forgotten to mention, I had packets of powdered pepper with me. Not one, lots. I flipped open the packets and threw them. Once, twice, thrice…The skies of Mohakhali had turned as red as the Qarbala that day. As if a blood-rain was pouring from the sky. The booming cannons of the ferishtas in the sky sounded at the same time. I would throw a packet, and then move away step by step. Where to? I don’t know. When I think of it now, all of this seems a dream.