“There are all kinds of love in this world but never the same love twice.” – F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Imteaz Khan watched his neighbor cross the wooden bridge across the paddies between his village and Mirna, a small town by Bangladeshi standards and kept so by its relative inaccessibility and location on the floodplain. It was neither a market town, nor a place of pilgrimage, nor a way station on the road to anywhere. Situated on one of the small islands near the mouth of the Tentulia River on the Bay of Bengal, it was low-lying, often flooded, and precarious. Every few years strong cyclones force the entire populations of Mirna and most of the other towns on the Gangetic Delta to seek higher ground, but thousands are always drowned; and those that survive return to scattered bamboo sticks and rubble as bad as after any tsunami.
In quiet years Mirna is a pleasant, quiet town with few amenities. Even today the penetration of cell phones and satellite television has been slow and intermittent; but in the days of Imteaz Khan, there was nothing. The town – a large village, really – had not changed much since the British Raj; and the visit of a European was unusual and very much a curiosity.
Imteaz’s village was so small that it was often left off maps. British collectors rarely if ever had visited, and if they did it was because flood waters had not receded enough for them to pass over the lowest-lying areas to Mirna and the larger towns to the north.
The rhythms and patterns of the village were simple, predictable, unaltered for centuries, and followed the cycles of the seasons. Like the residents of most villages in the Delta, those of Imteaz’s village made a subsistence living from rice farming and fishing. Only a few wealthier residents had cattle.
Imteaz had moved to the village from Dhaka to write a book about life in the Ganges Delta. He had always been fascinated by the permanence of marginal cultures; and had spent two years on the Bolivian altiplano researching the Aymara Indians. Although the altiplano was geologically stable and not subject to earthquakes, floods, cyclones, or fires, it was one of the most inhospitable places to live outside the polar north and south. It was bad enough to be poor in a tropical climate, but to be poor, wet, and cold for most of the year was far worse. Yet the Aymara stayed. The easiest answer to their seemingly illogical reluctance to move down off the high plains to more congenial and productive micro-climates was economics. The poor cannot simply pack up and go. A more nuanced answer had to do with ancestors, tradition, an animist belief in the in-dwelling of spirits in the natural landscape, and a spiritual sense of ‘magnificence’.
Because Imteaz wrote at unusual hours outside those of the village, he was awake when his neighbor made his way quietly out the door of his house, walked down the lane to the edge of the paddy fields, and began to walk across the bridge to Mirna. On some very early mornings at the end of the monsoon and at the beginning of the cool season, the fog was thick and heavy, and within a few feet of stepping on the bridge, the neighbor disappeared.
There was no reason for the man to leave his house so early and to walk to Mirna. All shops would still be shuttered, and even tea stalls would still be closed. Dozens of men, wrapped against the damp and the night, lay in rows on the edge of the roads while some slept under the stairs leading to the bridge.
Imteaz was never sure how often his neighbor crossed the bridge to Mirna, nor when he came back; but when he did see him, it was always just before first light.
Villagers are notoriously private when it comes to strangers, and Imteaz’s was no different. Although he tried on many occasions to engage his neighbor and find out just where he was going so early in the morning, he was unsuccessful. The man was pleasant and respectful, but always diffident and cool. There would be only one way to learn his story; and that would be to follow him.
For many nights Imteaz crossed the bridge earlier than his neighbor ever had, and hid behind the abandoned toll collector’s shed, a relic of a time when the officials of Mirna, engaged in a political and administrative skirmish with the village on the other side, decided to exact a toll on all travellers.
For days the neighbor did not come across, but finally he did. Luckily the fog had settled just after midnight and Imteaz was able to follow him without being seen. When the fog thickened over a pond or wet rice paddy, he lost him; but soon the neighbor reappeared.
At last they came to a more settled part of the town, and the neighbor turned down a small lane, waved to a woman just barely visible in a window on the second story, and went in.
Imteaz was surprised at himself for not even suspecting a love affair. He had assumed that peasants were so tethered to their plows that they could only look at the unbroken sod before them and the furrows behind. Love – particularly illicit love – was not supposed to be in the cards for a poor Bangladeshi villager. Breaches of the social contract in traditional cultures were not tolerated. If discovered the neighbor would be censured, and his lover would be treated far worse.
What was most surprising about the affair was its romance. Men pay for sex even in the most traditional cultures, and Bangladesh was no different. The neighbor – like many men in the village - could have found an excuse to go to Khulna or even Chittagong for a weekend of cheap sex; and a few taka were always exchanged in the rice paddies. Yet he had found a lover.
As the months went on, Imteaz found ways to spend time with his neighbor who out of courtesy could not refuse a cup of tea at the end of the day, or a mutton curry at the Light of Asia Hotel in Mirna. They talked about the crops, floods, local politics, and the price of grain; but Imteaz was unable to move his neighbor into uncharted waters.
They did have one thing in common, however – ghazals, a musical form which has its roots in ancient Arabic poetry, Sufism, and classical Urdu verse. Imteaz had read all the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz of Persia; the Azeri poet Fuzûlî in the Ottoman Empire; Mirza Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal of North India; and especially Kazi Nazrul Islam of Bengal. Surprisingly – again Imteaz reluctantly admitted his ignorance – his neighbor could recite many songs of Kazi Nazrul Islam, and one day sang this one:
Striding down the road, if ever by any wild chance,
We meet, my dear heart,
Please look at me with those eyes drunk with longing,
Like you used to in the days past.
On that day, if tears well up in your eyes,
Do not hide them by any pretense.
That endearing name you used for me,
For one last time, please call me by that name.
And if the present lover be by your side,
Do not fear; he would be dear to me too.
I'd tell him, 'Love my Beloved, please,
More than I was ever able to.'
Perchance you are pained seeing me so lovelorn,
I'd move myself away.
Lest I be a thorn in your way,
I'd beg, and I'd pray
For your alms of oblivion.
Once on this common ground, Imteaz and the neighbor were able to talk about love, albeit elliptically.
The Nazrul Islam verses reminded Imteaz of F.Scott Fitzgerald. “There are many kinds of love in the world”, he wrote, “ but never the same love twice.” The man in the ghazal who happens to meet his lost lover is disconsolate and irreconcilably sad. There never were nor could ever be such a romantic, impassioned, absolute and unquestioning love again.
Slowly, progressively, and always elliptically, the neighbor intimated at the nature of his love for the woman in Mirna. It could never last, he knew; and one day he would see her just like the lover in the poem and realize how disconsolate his life had become.
“But the lovers in the poem must have been joyously happy”, said Imteaz, using a classical, little used, but very apt Urdu word for ‘joyous’, “while the affair lasted”.
“Yes”, said the neighbor; “but lost love is imprisoning. There is no escape.”
There are many different kinds of love in the world, and most people move on from their losses. Imteaz himself had been very much in love with an American woman from Texas whom he had met while at graduate school. Whether it was because he felt lucky at having been gifted this beautiful girl; because he took after his father who, as an urbane Bengali intellectual had had many lovers; or even because love meant less to him than most, Imteaz had moved on. There was never a love like that of Lisa’s, but there were plenty of others.
Coleman Silk, the main character of Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain, has an affair with a much younger woman – a janitor at the university where he teaches. A close friend warns him that the affair is dangerous. Not only will she leave you, but her ex-husband will come after you. Silk replies, “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”
Imteaz left the village before any final denouement of his neighbor’s love affair. If the neighbor was lucky, it would end with few recriminations, threats, or assault; and all that would remain – as the neighbor had predicted – would be ‘the prison of lost love’.
Imteaz finished his book on ‘cultural relocation’; but found the work tedious. He wished that he had decided to write a book on ‘Love, Permanence, and Loss: Romantic Love in the Ganges Delta’ (a good working title), but realized that it was he who was being romantic. He who morosely realized that he had no woman to love best among all others.
Once the melancholy passed, he put the finishing touches on his academic volume, submitted to his publisher who promised him a wide circulation in America. Enough thoughts about romantic love.