Wonderland

Shoaib Alam

In the days after his father disappeared, Yusuf slept late into the morning—school was out for Ramadan, and there was no one to tell him he couldn’t. On the third day, however, he woke to a nudge. His mother was peering down. “Getting late,” Ma whispered, a trace of minty toothpaste on her breath. Shafts of yellow light leaked through the curtains of Yusuf’s room, attracting mosquitoes fattened with his blood. The mosque at the end of the street beckoned in soft, Arabic murmurs. After a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, the happiest day of the year had arrived. Eid was here. The prayer would begin at eight at their mosque; stragglers would have to stand on the street because the inner chambers filled quickly. Yusuf had never been late before.

“Get moving.”

He yawned. Yusuf was ten years old and unafraid of Ma: her voice was soft and pliant. It lacked the depth and command of his father’s. If Yusuf botched a math test at school, Baba could roar angrily while he delivered a flogging with his belt. When Baba spoke to his patients—the ground floor of their house was his clinic—he used a different voice, this one reassuring, though still quite stern, as he scribbled squiggly lines that the neighborhood pharmacist could read. Many of Baba’s patients came from the southern hinterlands, where his ancestors had oared sampans on the Halda River. In lieu of fees, they brought gifts: chickens from their farms, jackfruits from their trees, and cakes from their kitchens. Baba listened quietly to these men as they gabbled in a dense, southern tongue for themselves, their wives, and their mothers. Sometimes he let them spread a blanket to sleep on the couch in the waiting room. The next morning they’d be on a train on their way home.

Now Baba, too, was gone. Three days before the city shut down for Eid, Baba went down to the clinic by himself for his final shift. He hadn’t returned. The family car, a cream-colored Toyota Crown with a red crescent moon on the windshield, wasn’t in the garage.

“Five minutes.”

Ma left him those words and closed the door.

She had been completely silent on the matter of Baba’s disappearance, waking Yusuf for sehri and making iftar as if nothing was the matter. Assuming their father would return before the festival, Yusuf and his sister, Dina, hadn’t pressed for answers. On Eid, they usually ate roast chicken and watched the specials on BTV—comedy sketches, plays, and concerts—together. They had strawberry ice cream in bowls like crystal clams and opened bars of jagged Toblerone from the depths of the refrigerator. That was Eid. A departure from the norm, Ma’s presence instead of Baba confirmed he wasn’t in the house yet. Baba hadn’t showered and shaved earlier this morning, and he wasn’t waiting to eat breakfast. Yusuf would have to go to the mosque alone.

On the cold floor of the bathroom, he lifted the bucket of lukewarm water and tipped it over his head. He brushed his teeth vigorously and drew blood from his gums. Next, wearing the towel around his waist, he stood in front of the mirror and tried to part his hair to one side. It didn’t work. Yusuf’s hair was thin, straight, and spikey—it stuck out at odd angles, a shade of black more common on the streets of Osaka than Dhaka. Every morning before he dropped him off at school, Baba took a green plastic comb to Yusuf’s head to keep his hair neatly parted. It never stayed for long, and Yusuf could feel the teeth of the comb gnawing uselessly on his scalp, his jaw held firmly in Baba’s furry hands.

Even without the hair, Yusuf looked nothing like Baba. So unusual were his eyes, delicate, like his Japanese mother, that people raised their eyebrows when they heard him speak. Even the people who knew Yusuf often called him a foreigner. Before Ramadan, at a friend’s birthday party, a boy had asked him where he was from. Down the street, he answered, pointing in the direction of the neighborhood mosque. The boy laughed and called him a liar. Liar, liar, the boys chanted. Of course some of them knew exactly where Yusuf lived. At school, he lent them his tiffin money so they could buy dal puris from the canteen, and still they chanted.

As he jumbled the drawstring of his pajamas into a knot, Yusuf wondered where the Eid money would come from now. By touching Baba’s feet for blessings, he received two crisp five-hundred taka notes, a generosity that financed a stack of Archie comics and his friends’ tiffin. He felt guilty that this was where his thoughts had led him as he walked into the dining room. Perhaps, he thought, as he cleared his mind, he could still find Baba waiting there.

He wasn’t there. As he approached the table, Yusuf toyed with the idea of sitting in the head chair with arm rests that now lay empty. This would need a new sort of courage, which he found lacking. He plopped into his usual place and dug into a bowl of shemai. Without complaint, he ate what he had been given, washing down the vermicelli so that his stomach wouldn’t make planetary noises as he stood in line for the prayer. Then he glanced at the ceramic clock with roses and cherubs above the refrigerator. Five minutes to eight.

“I’m leaving,” he screamed, as he pulled on his shoes by the door, a warning his father often issued.

“Don’t wear your good shoes. You’ll lose them. Wear an old pair,” Ma called from the kitchen, losing her usual calm and determined way with the language. In her fifteen years in Dhaka, Ma had mastered Bengali to perfection. She insisted on speaking it even with Yusuf and Dina—they had never learned Japanese. Still, it was embarrassing to bring her to a parent-teacher meeting or into a stationery shop. She amused people with her sighs, her raised eyebrows at the price of things, her foreignness. But there was no time to think about that. Yusuf scrambled out the door in a pair of tattered sandals too small for his feet.

A light mist haunted the road outside.

 

Sitting where the road ended, the mosque in his neighborhood was new: the interior was done, the exterior ongoing, the planned minaret tormenting the Masjid Committee with visions of a meringue-shaped crown. As his bare feet carried him over the cool mosaicked floor, by the huddles of men in new clothes, past the wuzu khana for ablutions, Yusuf began to understand how afraid he was. Not only of the questions about Baba that he felt sure would come, but of the prayer itself. He’d never learned it. “Just follow me,” Baba had whispered as they settled in many years ago, the building only a tin structure then, and Yusuf had assumed he would have Baba to parrot forever. Now what? He would need someone else to copy.

For Baba, coming to the mosque was as easy as breezing through the busy foyer into the front row of the inner chambers where he blended in with his shapely salt-and- pepper beard, his upright figure, and his velvet cap. But Yusuf couldn’t go and sit in the front row by himself. Baba’s friends would swarm him. He turned left, toward the stairs, far from the pulpit where the elders prayed, falling behind Nabil and Adil, twin brothers dressed in trim, embroidered Panjabis with high collars.

The two were discussing, quite loudly, their plans for the day, but seeing Yusuf, Adil cut his brother off midsentence. “Salaam, little doctor.”

“Are you praying here?” asked Nabil, pointing up at the second floor. “With us?”

They stopped on the landing for him to catch up, letting others pass by.

“You’re in luck!” said Yusuf, bounding up. He slipped a hand into his pocket as he reached the landing and grinned.

The twins were tricksters. They were five years older than and because their father was in Saudi Arabia, the boys took on the air of grown men, going to Mirpur to trade and buy electronics, parking their car under a tree outside Viqarunnissa Noon School to chat up girls. They were the ones to tell Yusuf that hair would sprout on different parts of his body, under his arms, down there, and then laugh. He might not, they noted, because he wasn’t fully Bengali.

“Do the ancients know you’ve deserted them or have you been banished?” Nabil crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head, an eyebrow raised in mock concern.

“Baba’s not in town,” Yusuf answered. “I don’t have to be there.”

A sharp pain hit him in the neck, and the twins stared but not suspiciously. Every week they came to the neighborhood mosque by themselves. In that way, he was like them now. So when Adil put a hand on his shoulders, showing off a new digital watch, Yusuf’s grin widened.

“Then it’s party time for you, Bondhu. Don’t sit at home. You need to enjoy this freedom.”

It was an unexpected invitation. They were driving to Wonderland, the twins said—their car could fit five older boys in the back, two in the front. They would roll down the windows, blast Metallica from their speakers, smoke Benson & Hedges on the sidewalk, and flirt with girls in bright kameezes. The amusement park would stay open late, well past sundown for a rock concert, too, Yusuf knew, from the flyers tucked into the folds of the Daily Star. There was no way his parents would have allowed him to go, but with the unexpected turn of things, there were possibilities: bright pink cotton candy, bumper cars, cigarettes. He nodded at the twins—it would be a fine way to spend the day.

“I can ask your mother for you,” Nabil offered, “for her permission.”

There would be no need. Yusuf could think of a lie, tell Ma he was staying in the neighborhood. He’d return with some excuse for being late.

“I’ll manage,” he said.

“Dost.” Adil’s eyes shone with possibility. “Uncle’s gone, na? Can you bring your sister with you? Fatafati hobe kintu.”

Nabil looked annoyed. “Don’t listen to this fool.”

“Ah, look how he blushes! Nabil’s heart is bursting,” Adil sang to the tune of a popular movie song. “Yusuf, man, your sister is hot.” He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “If she weren’t your sister, you’d understand.”

It was a joke and completely inappropriate for a mosque. Nabil swatted his brother on the lips, gently, as if a fly had landed on them. “Shut up, Shoitan.” They snickered shamelessly, turning concerned only when they saw Yusuf hadn’t moved from the landing with them.

He was still standing there, gripping his shoes, and feeling unusually warm.

“Little doctor, don’t scrunch your face like that. I was kidding. Zast zoking.”

“He’s a joker, a proper beggar, Yusuf.” Nabil stepped down and tipped back Yusuf’s hat. “Just ask your mother if you can come with us. No pressure. Yeah?”

Yusuf nodded. The joke had felt like a kick to the gut, as though he’d been diminished by it. Did that make him pathetic? He and Dina were rivals at home, squabbling often over the television remote, but on the neighborhood grounds the older boys hushed, stared, or smirked when she came to call him home in the evenings. She must have sensed this recently because for months Dina had stopped coming, sending Gopal, the assistant at the clinic, in her place.

“You should apologize,” Nabil was saying to his brother, kneading Yusuf’s neck with cold fingers.

“I’m sorry, Dost,” Adil said. “I-I didn’t think.”

Yusuf shook the hand he was extended. Adil patted his back, turning solemn, almost penitential, as they walked.

 

Following the twins into the room, Yusuf fell away to the other side to stuff his shoes into the wooden box by the wall. He wouldn’t be going to Wonderland, he decided, not with them. He wouldn’t even sit with them for the prayer. Why should he? Through the grille of the window at the back, he watched the beggars squawking for fitra on the road and wondered if he could ever tell Baba what the boys had said about Dina. There were many things about Yusuf that Baba didn’t like. This, he was sure, was one of them. Baba wouldn’t have liked how Yusuf hadn’t defended his sister, how he still wanted to go to Wonderland, perfectly oblivious that there were things about him, too, that Yusuf didn’t like.

“Yusuf, how are you?”

A hand gripped his shoulder and turned him away from the window.

It was Akbar Ali, the car dealer, peering down with big, amused eyes, waiting to be acknowledged. Behind him, his eighteen-year-old son with a scraggly beard, Harris, clutched two pairs of dirty sandals. They both reeked of cheap rose attor from Baitul Mukarram.

“How is your father, Beta?”

Yusuf regarded the man’s swarthy, mustached face, freshly shaved cheeks, Meril Petroleum Jelly on his lips. He took a deep breath. “Baba is well. And you, Uncle?”

No answer came. The man was looking thoughtfully over Yusuf’s shoulder, at the room. “Are you looking for someone up here?” Akbar Ali said at last, returning his gaze. He chuckled. “Doctor Sahib rarely comes up to these parts. This floor is for us ordinary folk.”

“Just my friends. I came to greet them.”

“Have you done that?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

“Run along then.” Akbar Ali made to move past him and then stopped. His voice softened: “I mean the prayer should start soon. We have a long day ahead of us.” He looked at his watch. “This new imam is always wasting time. I miss our old one.”

“Yes, Uncle.”

Not long ago, when Akbar Ali ran for the ward commissioner’s office, he frequented Baba’s clinic with chocolates in his pocket. If only Baba would sit with him at a rally with local youth, Akbar Ali would be very much obliged. Each time Baba turned him down, the man returned with a new request until the black-and-white posters across their neighborhood stood as reminders of an expensive failure.

“Do you know when your father will be free today? I wish to come by to pay my respects, but I don’t want to intrude.”

Akbar Ali was looking at the crowd with his back to Yusuf.

“Uncle,” Yusuf began, the words falling fast out of his mouth, his hands trembling slightly. “The thing is he’s not home.”

“Not home on Eid?” The man swiveled, his face twisted in concern.

“He’s gone. To Chittagong. Our grandmother is very ill.”

“Then you must pray for her, Yusuf,” Akbar Ali said gravely, his eyebrows arching on his forehead, his fingers grazing his chin before coming down to rest on his chest. “As will we, my friend.”

Yusuf dreaded follow-up questions, but Akbar Ali waved him off. Maybe he didn’t expect Yusuf to know the details. The car dealer snaked through the room, tapping on shoulders, asking for permission with his hands, profusely apologizing until he had reached the front. His son stuffed away their shoes and turned toward the younger boys in the last row, where Nabil and Adil were sitting. Baba had forbidden Yusuf to accept the chocolates Akbar Ali brought during the campaign. “There are only two professions worthy of respect,” Baba had said when he found Yusuf with a bar of melting Kit Kat in his hand. “Doctors and lawyers—people respect us, Son. We don’t work for anyone.”

Yusuf fished his shoes out of the box and turned toward the stairs. His father’s words rang in his ears as he ran.

 

The roof was covered in rough, jute mats that left ridges on his skin. To the right, there was a construction site wrapped in bamboo scaffolding. Usually, the place teemed with sweaty workers in lungis bunched up to the thigh, but today they were in another congregation in some other part of the city. Yusuf could see the wide, empty spaces within the building, punctuated by thick pillars and gaping pipes. Around him, the chauffeurs, bearers, and guards had assembled, driven to the roof where the sun bore down on them. Their cheap Punjabis glistened, sticking on muscular frames; their smiles were toothy and embarrassing. Yusuf rarely spoke to these men and when he did it was usually to order something. So he felt anxious. He didn’t know what he would do if they questioned his being there. Why wasn’t he downstairs, in the cooler quarters with rotating fans? But they didn’t ask anything. They seemed too busy to even care.

The imam spoke in a deep, thundering voice, and Yusuf wondered what would happen to them—Ma, Dina, and Yusuf—if Baba never made it back. They owned the house in Eskaton Garden, and it was big enough to rent out. Where else would the money come from for their private school tuition? Maybe Ma would move them back to Japan, where it would surely be easier for her to find a job. She had been a secretary at a bank when she married Baba, then a student himself in Tokyo, but Yusuf had never seen her work. She stayed home while Baba taught at Dhaka Medical College and practiced at his clinic. And today she had sent him out, without any information, to the mosque. She didn’t understand their neighbors, this city, as well as he did. But they hadn’t been back to Japan for many years—Yusuf’s grandfather, his sofu, was an oyster farmer in Miyaki, but whenever they went, they spent most of their time with their aunt in Osaka. The thought of it scared him. He didn’t like the three months he had spent there. The children in the parks knew he was a foreigner. And Yusuf didn’t want to leave Dhaka.

He was the first one down the staircase. If someone had seen him, if Nabil or Adil had called out for him to stay after the prayer so they could hug him Eid Mubarak, he didn’t care. Faster and faster he moved, rushing past the beggars, past the sleepy dogs on the street corner with tumors on their bellies. Outside the gates of their house, he waited to catch his breath. Then he entered.

The living room had been scrubbed clean. The carpet hastily brushed, the curtains ironed, and cobwebs removed from where the windows met the wall. There were fresh orchids on the center table, an exorbitant late-night purchase. Ma was at the dining table, splitting almonds into thin slices, seemingly absorbed by the task, while Dina stared quietly at the muted television. They had waited patiently for three days for Ma to say something and received nothing in return. Dina, sixteen, hadn’t been out with her friends nor had she spoken with her boyfriend from the phone in the hallway, a secret Yusuf had kept to himself for a few months now. If Baba found out, he would take a cane to her back, that much he knew for sure. Now he entered the house and propped his shoes up by the door, feeling anger creep up. It was time he asked where his father was, time for some answers. This much he deserved.

“I’m back,” he announced to the room.

Dina seemed startled, but Ma didn’t look up from the almond flakes.

“People asked about Baba,” he continued, as he removed his cap.

“What did you say?” Ma asked, setting down the knife, making it sound like a challenge.

“That he is out of town.” Yusuf approached the table. “That my grandmother is sick, which I’m sure she isn’t. When will Baba come back, Ma?”

He put a hand on the back of the chair opposite her. Yusuf figured this would be the best way to ask her—when rather than where, letting her decide how much she wanted to reveal. He was used to these little manipulations with her: if he told her a friend had enjoyed the sandwich she packed for his tiffin, the next day there would be two. If he told her he needed an extra notebook for homework, she would give him twenty Takas, no questions asked. It was how he sometimes got a little extra money when he was short. These tricks wouldn’t have worked on Baba.

“Soon,” said Ma. She said it again, almost to herself. “Soon.”

Dina stared at him like he ought to tread carefully, and Yusuf sensed for the first time that she might know more than she was letting on. This angered him further. Though he had kept her secret, she still treated him like a child. He would ask her later. He would threaten to tell Ma about her phone calls if she wasn’t telling him the truth. Yusuf had had enough. Was he so little a part of this family that they wouldn’t tell him where Baba was?

Before he could open his mouth, the bell rang, and the maid came running in to announce the arrival of Akbar Ali. His son, Harris, was there too.

“That man would show up,” Ma muttered, dusting the soft white flakes from her hands. On his visits inside their house, Akbar Ali often said things that enraged Ma. Once he asked if they boiled their drinking water—and that had sent Ma fuming into her bedroom. Now she folded the free end of her sari over her head, patted her hair down and pushed the adamant strands under the fabric. Her eyes were puffy and red, something he had been too angry just a moment ago to see.

She turned to Dina. “Don’t let them see you. Yusuf, come with me.”

He followed her to the next room, unsure why his mother was asking Dina to hide or of how they would get through the questions about Baba that were sure to come. It was barely nine in the morning, but Yusuf was exhausted. He moved quickly to embrace their guests. Akbar Ali gripped him and pinned Yusuf to his chest, where sweat and perfume were trapped beneath his silk Panjabi. It was revolting.

“Still shy, our Yusuf Master. You’ll have to grow out of it to be a man,” said Akbar Ali, a hand on his shoulder. He roared at his own joke as the maid left a tray of sweets on the table. The napkins had been folded into shapely triangles—a sign that Dina was close by, fiddling about in the kitchen, instead of hiding deep inside the house as Ma had ordered.

“I didn’t see Yusuf’s father today,” Akbar Ali asked casually as he sat down. He bridged over his belly.

Ma poured shemai into a bowl and offered it to Harris. She made another bowl for Akbar Ali. She would not be rushed. When both mouths were at work on the shemai, she spoke: “He’s not in town.”

Akbar Ali raised a hand in protest. “Who did you send for Eid shopping? Yusuf? Am I not like your brother? You should have asked me, Sister.” He paused to look at Yusuf and then at Ma. “Our kind doctor has done so much already for our neighborhood. You have deprived me of a chance to help you.”

“My husband did all our shopping before he left,” said Ma. “He’s very thoughtful.”

“No doubt, no doubt,” said Akbar Ali. “When will our doctor be back?”

“My mother-in-law is unwell, maybe you know.”

“How unfortunate. But such matters are up to the Almighty,” said Akbar Ali. “At least she has a doctor for a son, to take care of her. Has he gone alone?”

“My daughter has gone to take care of her grandmother, too.”

“Oh-ho.” Akbar Ali twirled the spoon around his bowl. “I sent Harris here to the tailor, and the man was complaining, Bhabi.” He gulped some water and cleared his throat. “He said Dina never picked up her orders for Eid. As you know, I don’t pay attention to gossip. But I couldn’t help wondering if everything was all right with you. But you did a very good thing indeed, sending her to be with her grandmother.”

Sitting in his chair, Yusuf began to admire the way Ma had measured what she would say. He had not expected this of her. His grandmother was not ill—he had made that up only that morning. He didn’t know how the tale of Dina’s absence would help them, but it seemed to him now that she had a plan of some sort to cover up for Baba’s disappearance. He had thought her to be a simple person. Had Ma always used lies? It was a gift he wished she didn’t have to use, but there were people who liked to talk. Akbar Ali might begin to frequent their house, in Baba’s absence, as he did the clinic. They might have to do something, Yusuf and Ma.

“Well, Yusuf is here,” sad Akbar Ali. “And he is the man I need. The children have mutinied bhabi. They are going to Wonderland. The park in Gulshan right near the circle?”

“I know where Wonderland is, Bhai.”

“Of course. I volunteered to take some of these budding criminals. Now Doctor Sahib is gone, Dina is gone. Yusuf will join us. If you can spare him for the day.”

The offer surprised Yusuf. What came next surprised him more.

“Yusuf is a free man today,” said Ma. “He makes his own decisions.”

“Ki, don’t you want to go to Wonderland?” said Akbar Ali.

He did. He wanted very much to go to Wonderland. He wanted to drive the bumper cars, maybe crash into Adil and send him toppling off. He wanted to buy the toy gun he’d seen advertised and wait to see if he’d won the trip to Cox’s Bazaar in the big lottery. The stories about him at school would never end if he did. Still, would Ma be upset with him if he left home today? Something told him she would, that this was a test he needed to pass.

“I don’t think I will be able to go,” said Yusuf, measuring his words, keeping his voice as stable as he could.

Akbar Ali bolted up. “I see you have trained your son well. His manners are impeccable. Your mother has given permission, Yusuf. We’re going early to avoid crowds. In fact, we’re leaving just now, in ten minutes.”

The man’s surprise pleased him. It made him feel powerful like he and Ma were a team. “Not today, Uncle. Dina Apu will not be happy if we go while she’s away.” He had just thought of this embellishment. There was no harm, Yusuf thought, in adding to the story about Dina’s trip to their grandmother’s. It would only make the lie more believable. “And Ma will be all alone today. It’s Eid. I can’t do that, can I?”

Akbar Ali looked as though his equation had missed an important variable.

“You can spare your son, can’t you? The roads won’t be as clear as they are right now. We can be there in twenty minutes.”

“It’s his decision,” said Ma, pointing at Yusuf. He thought he heard a pinch of pride there.

“We better be on our way to Wonderland then,” said their guest.

“You haven’t had any tea,” said Ma. “Dina, Dina, bring the tea.”

She froze. Yusuf’s heart quickened, too.

“Oh, look at me.” Ma smiled. “Amena, bring tea for the mehman. Amena!”

Akbar Ali narrowed his eyes. He hesitated as if he wanted to see who would come through the door with tea, as if he were in a twisted game show. Yusuf thought about punching the man in the nose. Would blood spurt out or would it seep down like in the movies? If he positioned his punch right, maybe the caterpillar mustache would fall off, too. Then, thinking quickly, Yusuf got on his feet, angling his body toward the door. In the confusion over the names, Akbar Ali took his lead. He stood up as well.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” he said, waving his hands. “If you change your mind, young man, run to our house. Salaam, salaam.”

Akbar Ali took another look at them, and then he was out of their house with his lanky son, Harris, who hadn’t spoken a word. Ma shut the front door and watched them descend the stairs through the peephole. She took the achol off her head, and it swayed gently, falling behind her. She regarded Yusuf as if he had brought home a prize from school. He had helped her weave the story about Baba and Dina, after all. He had earned her trust. Ma took a deep breath and opened her mouth. Here it was. Now she would tell him where Baba had gone and maybe even when he would be back.

“I’ll take you,” said Ma.

“To Baba?”

“Wonderland,” said Ma. “We’ll go. I promise.”

She would not tell him. She still thought him a child, thought he wouldn’t be able to keep a secret, thought she could lie to him about going to Wonderland the way she had lied to Akbar Ali. They weren’t a team, after all. Even if he asked her now, she would probably lie—she was good at telling tales.

Ma was in the vestibule of their house, waiting for his answer. Yusuf smiled and nodded at her like he believed it all.

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