canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Black Petticoat

by Iftekhar Sayeed

A saree is an elongated piece of garment, one corner tucked into the petticoat below the navel, wrapped around, tucked into the petticoat repeatedly, then the other end folded together, wrapped again, passed over the left shoulder; the gathered garment below being then folded together, and tucked in; the part over the shoulder then straightened and left in one chest-revealing fold, or folded more modestly several times.

These reflections were prompted by the descent of a black petticoat as I had breakfast of parata and omelette in my ground-floor verandah. I seized the fluttering garment in mid-air, my attention abruptly diverted from the solitary cow grazing at the back of Hotel Poshur, and the big black ants marching over the coping. The only sound to reach me was the phut-phut-phut of an engine boat. The river can’t be seen from the ground-floor verandah: only the tops of steamers and ships and the buildings of Old Mongla. There were two water towers, one advertising ORSALINE, oral rehydration salts. The mali was noiselessly cutting grass before the southern wall. The same breeze that had brought the petticoat fluttered my pyjama jacket.

I called reception, and inquired about a black dupatta rather than a black petticoat.

“Black, sir? That must belong to the lady in 201, right above your room. She always wears black. I’ll send somebody round....”

I changed, and took up the petticoat myself.

A tall, fair woman in a black jamdanee saree opened the door. I stood stupidly before her, petticoat in hand. The jamdanee had been folded over her chest only once as described earlier, so her plunging neckline in her halterneck revealed itself. Her features were sharply defined, like a sculpture. And like a statue her pink lips were pressed together as though they never parted. But the most arresting aspect was her gaze – or, I should say, stare. For she seemed to look past me, as if at the acacias in the open acres to the north.

“I believe this is yours?”

She took the petticoat, turned on her high, black heels and went in, leaving me the option of following her.

The room was air-conditioned, unlike mine, and it was a remarkably hot and humid day. She flounced on the bed over the Royal Bengal Tiger bedspread, lifting her saree up to her white thighs, and resting a book on one raised knee. A pair of silver anklets shone. There was an aroma of mangoes, for she kept popping a piece into her mouth with a fork. Every time the black glass bangles on her forearms jangled. A large fly, attracted by the odour, buzzed around. The verandah door was open.

I stepped over to the verandah, and stood half in, half out, hot and cool.

The River Poshur flowed past, the morning sun lighting a million diamonds across her width.

“My name is Zafar Shah.”

There was only the hum of the air-conditioner, and from the discman plugged into a pair of speakers by her bed, the tinkle of the sitar, egoless music of the orient.

“What’s your name?”

“Laila,” came the automatic response. Her voice was velvet. A piece of mango disappeared. Bangles sang.

Her complexion was like the sun on the river at dawn – golden. But the diamonds she had on her nose, ears, and fingers echoed those on the river now.

“Laila, why do you wear black?”

“I’m a solipsist.”

I groaned. The title of the book she was reading was Anarchy And The Private Language and the author was – me. A solipsist is someone who believes that she is the only person who exists. A famous philosopher had argued that that was impossible – for she would need a private language, and language needs a public world. But I argued that private languages had occurred repeatedly in history: Abraham had one during the anarchy in Mesopotamia, the Buddha during the one in India....But I never expected anyone to live my argument. For we were in a state of anarchy in Bangladesh.

Before we could launch into a Platonic dialogue – if such were possible with a solipsist – Shahidul Huq Lenin entered. It was not so much his alias as his calling that inspired terror. Lenin was a gunrunner, and no revolutionary. He was king of the south-west, controlling the influx of guns up the river route from the Bay of Bengal.

He was a tall, dark, man in his late thirties. He had sleeked back hair and was quite good-looking. Downstairs, I had a dossier on him. As a teenager, he had been recruited by a political party. He terrorised the local businesses with his guns and goons, collecting taxes, and assisting the party during hartals. His father was a schoolteacher, who had had high hopes for his son. For Lenin had been a brilliant student: despite his extramural activities, he was top of the board in both school-leaving exams. He became a don when he went to university. He rose up the party ranks, became an MP, and the head of the local mafia. Even Special Branch didn’t know how many people he had murdered. His father, heartbroken, died; his mother was still around, poor soul.

“I came to return Laila’s petticoat. The wind dropped it into my verandah below.”

He removed the petticoat from the sofa, sat and said, “Thank you very much, Mr....?”

“Zafar Shah.”


Turning to Laila, who had not moved a muscle, he said, “Get me a shirt, Laila.”

Laila put the book upside down, open at the page she was reading, and proceeded to the built-in cabinet. She was his moll.

“Excuse me, Mr. Shah, I’m a little wet. I’m afraid it’s been raining.”

Through the partly open door, I could see Lenin’s henchman pacing the floor outside.

“You must have been down to Koromjol.”

His eyes shot up. “How did you know?” He glared.

I looked out and pointed in the direction of Koromjol. “I noticed that there was lightning in that direction. It’s dry everywhere else.”

He relaxed. I guessed the ships were unloading at Koromjol, and he’d been supervising the deadly cargo.

Seven egrets flew in echelon towards the north.

Exhibiting his hirsute chest (local legend has it that a man with a hairy chest is benevolent), he rose, shook my hand and said, “Pintu will escort you downstairs, Mr. Shah.”

He hadn’t even asked me to sit, and now this unexpected burst of hospitality struck me as sinister.

“That’s all I can find my way down.”

“I insist, Mr. Shah. It isn’t everyday that a stranger returns Laila’s petticoat.”

“You’re too kind.”

I looked in the direction of Laila. She was reading again.

Outside, I smiled at Pintu, who smiled back. He was a rangy young man in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He followed me to my room down the stairs, padding noiselessly like a cat.

When I had unlocked the door, he let me have it: a well-directed blow to the solar plexus that sent me hurtling inside. The door closed, and I was bent double on the floor.

The intercom rang away furiously, but it was some time before I heard it.

“Yes?” I gasped.

“Mr. Shah? Mr. Shah?” It was the hotel manager.


“Are you alive? Thank God!”

I waited, my chest heaving.

“Forgive us for not coming to your room. You understand. We can’t be seen to be helping you.” He was speaking in a whisper. “But please visit Hotel Poshur again.”

“I will.”

“We can help you after the sahib and memsahib leave for Bagerhat this afternoon.”

“I’m all right.”

“But please visit Hotel Poshur again.”

I hung up, and proceeded to take the .22 rifle out of its case. As a teenager, I had won a shooting contest, and it had been years since I had fired the thing. I admit it was a lousy substitute for an automatic pistol, but it was all I had.

Dripping with perspiration, I turned on the fan, locked and bolted the doors, and lay back.

I must have dozed off, for I was woken by the intercom again. It was the manager, but more frantic this time.

“Mr. Shah, Mr. Shah, they’re kidnapping the memsahib!”

Rifle ready, I raced out of the front door. Two men were forcing Laila into a white Toyota under the porch. One of them had a pistol. They must have realised that Lenin had left Laila behind: every mafia don has enemies.

One of them got behind the wheel, and opened the rear door. I knelt, rested the barrel on the railing, and fired. The second chap let go of his gun, and clutched his shoulder-blade. Laila broke away, and he scrambled into the back, and, with a screech of rubber against tarmac, the Toyota tore out of the compound.

Laila ran in, and began to take the stairs at a run. I ran to her.

“Don’t come now,” she whispered fiercely. “In the evening.”

She stood in black stockings, garters and garter belt. Her hair scorched the gold of her flesh. She stood facing me, halfway to the door to the verandah. Her left hand rested, shoulder-high, on one of the posters for the mosquito net.

We made love, or did we make war? We were as violent as the world outside, in as desperate a hurry, with the same sense of time sinking rapidly: we were impatient with our clothes, with our bodies, with the rhythm of nature. We struggled like enemies, now myself atop, now her, the head dangling over the edge of the bed or pushed against the pillow, pelvis thrusting as though in anger.

“Reality is never wonderful. Is this moment real? I wish it would last forever. Reality is ugly.”

We lay in one another’s arms, the mosquito net suspended above us. An engine boat punctuated the silence, and the drone of crickets and the air-conditioner. Her skin was cool. The taste of ecstasy lingered in my mouth. Her hair smelled of eternity.

The desire for eternity – eternal pleasure and eternal torment – has arisen time and again under anarchy. The most interesting questions have always been asked during anarchy, not stability: is the world illusion, maya? Is there a reality beyond the apparently real? A confident ‘yes’ to these questions have been given by Plato, Descartes....The first had lived through the Peloponnesian War, the second had been a soldier at La Rochelle during the Thirty Years’ War; the phenomenal world was redeemed by Aristotle under Alexander, and John Locke in a more stable country.

After the probing kiss, she had swallowed me as though searching for my existence; her orgasm confirmed it. Our ascent to confirmation had necessarily been bellicose: every swing of the hip hinted without telling, mere whispers that grew louder in our heads, till the screams came, followed by silence. He must have satisfied himself countless times without revealing himself: he came, he went. This, to her, was real, we were real: not a devil’s fantasy.

“I never take him in my mouth. And I never come.”

The doorknob rattled, like doubts.

“Open up, Laila!” It was Lenin.

I grabbed my clothes and hurried into the verandah. A gibbous moon rose in the east, silvering the waves. Across the river, the lights of Old Mongla glimmered. The night was muggy. I sweated with fear and heat. My mouth was dry. Fireflies swam around me. Frogs announced rain. To the south, the lights of a ship burned like those of a large city. I dressed quietly, ready to jump. Unfortunately, the compound was illuminated.

“We’re going to Khulna. Pack. I heard that fellow saved you today. We’ll kill him in the morning when we pass by on the steamer. What do you think, Pintu?”

“Let’s kill him now.”

“No, I’m late for the conference.”

The door opened. It was Laila. A bar of light lit up the verandah.

“P.S. Ostrich. Cabin 4.”

I gave them fifteen minutes to leave, and then I took a bus to Khulna. I only stopped at a kitchenware store. The orange paddle steamer was anchored at the ghat, crew and staff asleep. Coolies in lungis and vests loaded sacks of rice, crossing and recrossing the gangway in the feeble light of an overhanging bulb. They paid me no attention.

I climbed the companionway up to the first-class deck. I sat on a leatherette chair in the darkness. I remembered the legend above me.


It seemed appropriate that on this funereal night I was on a British-period relic. The river was a graveyard – both natural and man-made, made by Lenin. How many bodies had he dumped into the Rupsha?

In my stress, I seemed to see into the past – the ghosts of English men and women, drinks in hand, joked and lounged in the lightless deck. I was with the dead.

And the mosquitoes.

Around 3:00, I heard Laila’s bangles in the saloon. I tiptoed up the narrow path between the cabins and the railing on the right. The frogs at the Poshur had been right. The moon was now obscured by dense clouds.

The steamer started, with two melancholy blasts of the horn. The engine hummed. Laila, I was sure, would make no move before we were out of Khulna and on the River Poshur.

The cabin door opened, lighting the narrow passage beside the railing. Glass bangles clinked above the swish of the waves. Laila stepped out and closed the door. She turned to make sure I was there, before cabin 6. The strong breeze dragged at her hair. She opened the door again and made a beckoning motion, smiling.

“What? Are you getting romantic, Laila? I’m dog-tired after my meeting with those gun dealers – they strike a hard bargain. Bastards! Ok! Ok!”

He stepped out. The door closed. He heard me, and turned. I plunged the knife – as deep as it would go – into his belly. It was the knife from the back, bangles screaming, that surprised him. The whites of his eyes enlarged abruptly, then diminished, then disappeared. We hauled him over the railing after I pulled out my knife.

The waves appeared menacing in the light from the lower deck that illuminated them. An immense vastness surrounded one. The elements seemed to be hostile towards man and his creation.

We entered the cabin. It was lined with wood and painted white; there were two berths side by side with a table between them; a basin and a mirror stood at the other end. I washed the knife in the basin. Laila took off her bangles and her heels.

We stepped into the saloon. The staff, most of them naked to the waist in lungis, slept on the carpet under the revolving fans. The rattan chairs were upside down on the bare tables. Only a bulb burned before the pantry between the first and third classes. We stepped over the sleeping figures and made our way to the third class. Here passengers slept on the floor. We stepped over an old man, mouth agape, cheeks hollowed, eyes closed in their bony sockets; a young woman in burqua had fallen asleep with a baby at her breast. We entered the second class.

The light was on in Pintu’s cabin still. Laila knocked and he stepped out.

“Does Lenin sahib want me?”

Laila shifted to the railing. I plunged the knife in, and shoved him overboard.

I was surprised that there was no blood on me, except for a slight stain at the wrist on the right arm. But I got the shakes. As soon as we were back in the cabin, and I had washed my hands, I began shivering uncontrollably. I lay down; it was useless.

Laila was calm: it was eerie to see her so self-composed. She poured mouthfuls of whisky down my throat. I must have drunk half a bottle before sleep came.

When I came to – there’s no other expression – I felt bitter in my mouth and in my mind. Laila bent over me: she had changed into a black, chundri skirt and black, sleeveless blouse. A vein on each eyelid alone told of the ordeal. I loathed her.

Sunlight reflected from the river danced through the slats above the cabin door and between the curtain and window on the white wall across from me. I felt no joy, as I once used to at that familiar sight.

I told Laila to go to the deck and order breakfast there. She obeyed without a word.

When I got there, she was biting off a piece of bhetki fillet after dipping it in sauce. The sight of food made me nauseous. I sat and looked around.

The sun shone in a million mirrors on the water. The green banks passed by on either side. A fishing village appeared, with thatched houses surrounded by areca and coconut palms: there was a banana orchard behind. Around twenty covered boats floated in a large semicircle around a net suspended from black drums. A barge carrying bricks chugged noisily by. The wind was like a substance beating against my eardrums: it mitigated the heat and the humidity. An egret winged its way across the water, its white reflected in the river.

How many times had my soul leapt up at such a scenery, every scenery separate, unrepeatable? Now, all I felt was despair and contempt. I was a murderer.

Montu, a bearer, stood respectfully before me in his red tunic and blue trousers, hands clasped behind.

“You are well, sir?”

“Fine, Montu. And you?”

“Your prayers, sir.”

His dark, round face broke into a smile.

“Where are we, Montu?”

“We’ll be at Boro Masua soon, sir.”

“What? Of course, we’ve left Mongla behind. Now, I have to get off at Barisal and get back. I have an appointment at Mongla.”

“We’ll be at Barisal before evening, sir.”

My silence indicated that I wanted him to leave. I stared at Laila. She was listening to the sitar on her discman with a headphone. Why did she listen to the egoless sitar? One could imagine a court and a despot, ego surrendered by performer and auditors, for where the self is safe, it needs no assurance of its existence.

We watched a cloud move from the shore to over our heads. We inferred the presence of the cloud from the darkness of the water and the adjacent greenery, the darkness being its shadow. Then it moved towards us from the right bank until the water before us was segregated into light and dark.

The engine was cut and the paddles stopped. Between the steamer and the pontoon at Boro Masua the water foamed and eddied. A line was thrown and grabbed by a man in blue uniform.

The megaphone blared: “Do not attempt to jump on the side of the ship.” This was repeated again and again. “Anyone without a ticket will not be allowed.”

There was a rush of men, women and children up the double gangplank with the hapless checker collecting little slips: women in burquas, with or without babies on their hips, a blind old man in skull cap, punjabi and lungi led by a child, children carrying trussed chickens....Then the traffic was in the reverse direction, surging down.

Next to this scene was one of bucolic tranquility: three date palms stood together, and two a little way off. Cows grazed. A pair of king crows sat on their reluctant hosts, jumping off when they moved and hopping on again. A pair of mynas flew to our deck railing and then wandered about the deck.

Redemption came a few minutes after Boro Masua.

Laila was buying coconut water. The vendor came up from the third class below. He chopped off the top of the coconut and pierced the inner covering. A jet of water shot up. The coconut was held, inverted, above a funnel to fill a bottle. Laila bought three bottles of coconut water with Montu’s help.

Then the klaxons blared. General Harun-ur-Rashid was coming with the coast guard. The steamer stopped, and he boarded. There were armed sentinels all over the deck.

The General, tall and burly with a double chin, came up the companionway, through the saloon, a guard before and after him. He was in uniform: I felt better immediately.

“I’m delighted to meet you, Laila! Forgive me, young lady,” he said, taking off his peaked cap, “but I have some unimportant matters to discuss with Zafar, here. Would you allow Colonel Masud to escort you to your room?”

The General did not sit until the girl left. A look of frenzied elation had come over Laila’s face.

“You have the papers. Zafar?”

“Before we begin, sir, I have a confession.”

“I’m not a priest, Zafar,” he boomed, “and killing a rat like Lenin was an act of heroism for which you should be decorated. This fillet is fantastic. Try some.”

“I think I will, sir, now that you are here. But how did you know I killed him?”

He dipped a morsel in tomato sauce, and lifted it half way to his mouth and blinked. “Well, you’re alive, so he must be dead.” He omitted to add, “Silly boy.”

I cut into the bhetki with vigour.

“When is the coup, sir?” I asked, handing him a briefcase. “You’ll find a list of all the criminal MPs in here. That means almost all of them. Including,” – I swallowed – “their cronies and goons.”

“My divisions are moving towards Dhaka right now.” He looked at his watch, swirling the coconut water in his mouth. “This will give me all the legitimacy I need.” He looked around. A small, covered boat supervised a submerged net suspended from floating drums. “Civilians! They can never run a country. Not one so beautiful.” He picked up his cap. “Take good care of that girl. She saved the country.”

Klaxons blaring again, the General left. Montu brought a radio and we heard news of the approaching divisions. The General had redeemed the phenomenal world. Everything seemed beautiful again, and I suddenly missed Laila.

I found her quietly sitting, chin in hand; I sat next to her. The swish of the waves underscored the minutes of silence. Then the tears of years came: she sobbed in spasms on my chest, and I gulped.

I waited for her on deck. Then she came.

In a white shalwar and kameez.

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL TEXT, LEFT CURVE MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.