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  • Incognita
  • Rashid Haider (bio)
    Translated by Radha Chakravarty (bio)

When Mohammad Raees of our village came to ask if he could make a telephone call from the office, I merely pushed the phone towards him with my left hand, without raising my eyes from the file. I didn't hear the name of the person Raees asked for on the telephone; however, when he repeated, "But this was the number she gave me," some unknown reason prompted me to note down the number on the paper lying before me. Replacing the receiver, Raees looked at me guiltily. Amused by his comical expression, I said, "Try dialing again."

I watched Raees's face as he started dialing again after opening his diary to confirm the number. Meanwhile, the guilty expression had vanished from his face. A moment later, he said, in embarrassment, "Sorry, I'm very sorry. The call has been diverted to you again."

When Raees began to wring his hands after replacing the receiver, it was I who said, to save him from awkwardness, "The person who gave you the number must have made a mistake, or you have noted it wrongly. So, who are you trying to call?"

"You wouldn't know the person."

"Who answered the call?"

"A lady."

Though slightly embarrassed at mentioning the "lady," Raees informed me in good humor that her voice was extremely sweet. Rather like Tripti Mitra's.

I laughed out loud. "You are well acquainted with Tripti Mitra's voice on the telephone, it seems?"

Raees guffawed, too. He said, "No, why would that be? Haven't I heard her plays on Kolkata radio?"

I agreed with Raees. Once heard, the voice of Tripti or Shaoli Mitra cannot be forgotten. Observing that Raees had let slip the opportunity to converse with a lady with such a voice, I said, "It's hopeless; you can't accomplish anything at all."

Raees was embarrassed. Eventually, he said, "I'll take your leave, brother." [End Page 33] [Begin Page 35]

I, too, had been hoping that Raees would leave soon. The telephone number was staring me in the eye. I didn't know if Raees had seen me writing the number on a piece of paper; even if he had, he wouldn't tease me too much about it. He was much younger than I was, but would address me as "brother" because we hailed from the same village. He taught now at a college in Comilla. When he visited Dhaka, he would see me at least once and call me every now and then.

After Raees had left, I felt quite amused. I'm quick to avail myself of any opportunity to chat with women on the telephone. Although I can't quite offer a detailed explanation for this, I can say that the thought of whispering into the ear of someone who is somewhere far away, through this inanimate instrument, produces an extraordinary thrill. When old Dr. Muhammad Enamul Haq named the telephone a dur-alapani, or "long-distance communicator," in his attempt to popularize Bengali definitions of English words, I think nobody was happier than I. When he was young, he certainly did not have the opportunity to converse on the telephone. If he had, this incomparable name would have become ours earlier.

Let us return to what I was saying. While I was thinking of a couple of points with which to engage Tripti in an interesting conversation on the telephone, my senior officer sent across an urgent file. I received two telephone calls as well. Neither call was for me. One was for my peon, the other for a colleague from a different section. The peon could not take the call because I had sent him downstairs, but the colleague chattered for a full fifteen, perhaps twenty, minutes in a pure Barisal accent, on subjects such as the sale and purchase of land, his niece's wedding, and his son's job interview. Trying to concentrate on the file marked URGENT, I found my colleague's Barisal vocabulary excessively jarring to the ears. I put down my pen and sat in silence. When the conversation was over, I opened...


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pp. 33-39
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