When Polly’s father died, she received an outpouring of love from his friends. She was grieving by not taking any calls—no tears, no ceremony, just silence, and a total loss of appetite—but these were international calls, coming from Bangladesh, in the middle of the night, from strange-looking numbers. Her father had died in Bangladesh. Her mother had died a year before that. Polly was an only child, unmarried, living by herself in faraway Houston, where she knew few Bengalis, certainly not anyone from her parents’ past. She had left home two decades ago for a master’s degree in the US and never returned.
“Come back and settle your property,” Bashir Uncle advised Polly over the crackling phone line one night.
Another night, she woke up to fierce ringing and Rahim Uncle’s words, “We are all meeting to discuss how to help you.”
Yet another of her father’s friends, Musa Uncle, cried to her for several minutes, then asked in a clogged, emotional voice, “Tell me, child, what can I do for you?
Polly called them Uncle, but she was not related to them by blood and she did not know them well, knew them only by name or remembered them only dimly from the past, after long years of absence. Her real uncle, her father’s younger brother in Dhaka, had given her the news of her father’s death. Her father had been ill for months, with lung cancer, and she had been meaning to visit in December.
“Should I fly home?” she had asked her uncle with a child’s cry of alarm. She had been frightened by the news.
In the end, Polly did not attend her father’s funeral. They would not have waited for her, in any case. Her uncle had explained that according to the rules of Islam, the body had to be buried as quickly as possible. But he told her to come soon, to settle her affairs while he was alive. Her parents had been teachers at Dhaka University, but they had still managed to build a house, and her father had some agricultural land in his village.
It was this last bit that had frightened her, if she could put her finger on it, that she was suddenly an adult, expected to take care of her affairs, open the bowels of her parents’ accounts, their properties, belongings, legal documents, and the annals of their home, bulging with their personal belongings and the dark tunnels of memory. They had never taught her about money matters, never involved her in their affairs, leaving her to study, to earn degrees, relegating the twists of property, legalities, and money to the grownups. She still did not consider herself up to the task.
When Polly finally flew to Dhaka in December, scrapping together Christmas holidays and three days of grief leave with her paid vacation days from work (good work—in the finance section of an oil company), she was heavy and rasping for air, unaccustomed to the sudden movement. The whole flight, she sat stricken in her airplane seat, eyes frozen on the personal TV screen in front of her, watching one episode after another of a funny sitcom on the flight’s entertainment offering.
Her uncle had said he would receive her at the Dhaka International Airport. She was to stay with him, now that she had no parents and no home. Just before she had flown, there had been last minute negotiations about these arrangements. He had emailed her asking her to change her travel plans, because on Thursdays he usually played cards with his friends, contract bridge. This time, the game would be played at his house, and the friends were invited to dinner, an invitation his wife had sent out months ago, so it was set in stone. Additionally, the driver had asked for leave on that date and had already been granted it. Could Polly book a different flight, he inquired, or perhaps stay somewhere else on the first night? Then at the last minute, he had called to say that he would be there after all, the whole business leaving her wide eyed, heart thumping.
When she emerged from customs, with only a roller carry-on, there was no one waiting for her inside the airport. She was to go outside and find her uncle. When her parents had been alive, they had a trick of meeting her in the domestic terminal, which was deserted and calm compared to the crammed, crowded anxiety of the international arrivals. Polly pushed herself through the crowd, the air thick with the odor of her fellow countrymen. This was her first time visiting in December. The fares were usually higher in the winter months, so she had preferred the off-season opportunities, a week in February or March, and before that, in the ancient past, when she had been a master’s student, she used to go for the whole hot, sticky summer.
At first, she could not find her uncle and had to wander farther and farther out on the dusty balcony outside the brick airport building and then onto the dust-swirled parking lot, thronged by coolies who wanted to help carry her luggage.
“Apa, this way.” A thin, short man approached Polly. “Do you remember me? I’m Ali, your uncle’s driver.”
Her uncle, a retired diplomat and as big a smoker as her father, sat in the back seat of the blue refurbished Toyota, a car she still remembered, a family icon, his fingers holding a cigarette to his mouth.
“Hello, Polly,” he said through smoke, his eyes squeezed, forehead furrowed, looking thin and dark, shrunken.
Polly climbed into the back beside her uncle while the driver rolled her carrier bag to the back of the car and lifted it into the trunk. On the ride home, Polly’s uncle spoke slowly, like an old man, explaining about the dinner party plans canceled at the last minute, then laboriously going over the burial details (her father had been buried in their village home, outside Dhaka) while Polly sat listening dumbly.
Her uncle lived on the north side of town in a respectable, ancient house, one of the last houses in a rapidly developing city where single-family homes were being torn down to erect high-rise buildings to accommodate a growing urban population. The furniture was old, heavy tables and ornate sofas brought over from Turkey, China, and India, relics of all the places where he had been posted. Frumpy curtains kept the room dark and heavy. Polly had to sit on the sofa and chat with her uncle, without washing or taking a bath, things she would have normally done had she gone to her parents’ house. A manservant wearing a khaki suit rolled in a dinner trolley bearing cucumber sandwiches and chicken patties, little quarter plates with floral designs on the rim, and triangular, folded napkins.
“You have to go see your parents’ flat tomorrow, to decide what to keep and what to throw away,” her uncle said.
Her aunt, an emaciated woman with a gold bracelet on each sticky wrist and black lines under her eyes, entered the dark room and greeted her in a somnolent voice, then asked her in a serious tone what she planned to do with her mother’s saris. “You should give them away to poor women,” her aunt advised.
Polly ate five mini sandwiches and felt her throat run dry. A wave rose in her chest. She thought of all the things she must do and how little time she had.
“Tomorrow, you must go with me to obtain a death certificate,” her uncle said, picking out a fresh cigarette from his packet.
“Does she need a national ID?” her aunt asked.
“We will do that. Is your passport current?” her uncle asked, turning to her.
Polly nodded with chicken flesh in her mouth.
“Don’t forget her parents’ bank accounts,” her aunt said to her uncle. “She should withdraw the money.”
“We must go to court after that. The court is in Sadar Ghat, near the Buriganga…” her uncle said.
“Are you sure she has to go to court? She’ll get sick traveling to Sadar Ghat. There is dust in the air, and you have to sit in the traffic for hours on those narrow roads.”
Polly’s parents had lived in the south of the city, in a flat on the university campus, given to them for the duration of their university jobs. The court was even farther south. Dhaka traffic meant that it might take the whole day just to get one thing done.
“I have to meet my father’s friends?” Polly spoke up timidly. “They’ve set up a meeting tomorrow morning to figure out how to help me.”
“Is the car available?” her uncle asked her aunt.
“No. The driver agreed to take his vacation from tomorrow—”
Polly’s eyes became heavy. She leaned back against the dusty upholstery of the sofa, rested her bare feet on the Persian carpet, and closed her eyes, comforted by her relatives’ voices buzzing above her head in the cold, airless room as she drifted off into unconsciousness.
The next morning, Bashir Uncle sent a car to Uttara, where Polly’s uncle lived, to bring her down to Dhanmondi. The Pajero arrived at ten in the morning. Polly climbed in happily, resting her plump body in the backseat, panting for breath. But the sleek Pajero soon became stuck in traffic, with buses, trucks, and cars honking and hooting in the clogged air. The landscape of Dhaka had changed, with new bridges and buildings but also the sheer number of cars.
Bashir Uncle lived on the eighth floor of the apartment building, accessible by elevator, on top of a tight parking space crammed with cars that had to back into their spaces with precise movements. The building was modern with a crisp hallway and marble floor, not like the building her parents had lived in, built in an earlier decade. The brick walls and plaster of olden days were gone. Inside the flat, the floors were marble and the rooms were arranged on split levels, spinning off into multiple universes, with painted walls and high ceilings. A floor-to-ceiling terracotta mural by a famous artist covered one living room wall.
“How was the trip?” Bashir Uncle asked.
Polly could not place him. He was thin with a grey mustache and close-cropped, immaculate silver hair (Polly’s father’s hair had been receding and graying, too, but Bashir Uncle had lived long enough to rescue the look). He looked elegant, well preserved in a sleeveless blue sweater and collared white shirt. Polly’s smoker father had exploded in decay and rot.
“Oh, the traffic is very bad. It took me three hours to just go, what, a few miles?” Polly said, staring at her father’s friend through narrowed, jealous eyes.
Bashir Uncle laughed. “No, no. I meant the trip from the US to Bangladesh.”
A servant, a slight boy with matchstick brown legs sticking out of shorts, wheeled a two-tier dinner trolley laden with food into the room. He had a stern, serious face, a high forehead, and large, focused eyes, an old soul. Polly checked out the familiar wares of the dinner-trolley with hungry eyes, all the food she expected from a nashta (a snack offered midmorning and then again at high tea, a relic from her childhood)—samosa, chotpoti, little fried vegetable fritters, and three different kinds of sweets. She rose from the sofa and helped herself, clattering porcelain quarter plates and silver forks. The bell rang rapidly in succession and more uncles walked in, greeting one another in loud, cheery voices, alive and hearty.
“This is your Rahim Uncle,” Bashir Uncle said, introducing Polly to a tall, big man with jet-black hair and a red face. “He just flew in from Rajshahi today to meet with you.”
“I’m honored, Uncle,” Polly said, setting her plate down and rising to meet the tall man. “What do you do in Rajshahi?”
“Oh, I retired and settled in my ancestral home. My father used to have a small house there and agricultural lands. I’m not rich like your other uncles here.” Rahim Uncle laughed, with force, showing strong lung capacity. “But it’s enough for me to live off. I get everything I need from our lands. Rice. Vegetables. We have a few mango orchards.”
“Your uncle goes fishing,” Bashir Uncle said to Polly. “He is living the life.”
Polly looked from one face to the other, their able bodies and rosy, youthful faces, recalling her shrunken parents in their last days, cooped up in their flat, their skins pale from lack of sunlight, eating processed noodles—they had stopped going to the market to buy fresh food. Their lives had shrunk to just existing, paying bills and taxes. Her father, too, had wanted to retire and return to his village home, but he had not made it.
The meeting began when Musa Uncle arrived. The others evidently thought him the most capable among them to steer Polly to success. They all said repeatedly that they wanted things to go well for her. Polly remembered Musa Uncle more sharply than the others. He had taken a share with her father in the cow they slaughtered for Eid, had come to their university flat to discuss club activities, played bridge with her father. The little boy returned, carrying a heavy porcelain tray of teacups, and the uncles helped themselves, one black tea, one black tea with ginger, and one milk tea with no sugar. Polly took the tea with milk and sugar, helping herself to an additional spoon of sugar. Then she sat back down with her teacup and looked at the faces of her father’s friends sitting on sofas and chairs around her.
“You all look very well,” Polly said. “What is your secret?”
“We meet frequently,” Bashir Uncle said (Bashir Uncle was the host, although she kept getting them mixed up. She stared at each uncle, trying to burn their faces and their identities into memory). “We meet to play cards and badminton. You know what they say. Good feelings flow when old friends meet.”
“Now, Polly,” Musa Uncle began, “you know that we helped your parents build their house in Gulshan. You have to hand it to a developer now—”
Musa Uncle was the one Rahim Uncle had thought most suitable to help Polly.
“Can I just sell it to someone instead, a person?” Polly began, a hot samosa crumbling in her mouth.
“No, no,” Bashir Uncle, the host, said, “no one will buy a whole house nowadays. You have to build an apartment building, and the only way to do that is to hand the property over to a developer.”
“But my father did not believe in apartment buildings. He believed there is a problem of overbuilding in Dhaka. He would not have wanted to turn his house into an apartment building and crowd the area,” Polly said.
She knew that they knew that, knew her father, and loved him. Their solid presence surrounded her in the enclosure of the warm drawing room, with the familiar glass showcase holding curios, resembling the showcases in her parents’ flat that she had not yet entered, and a wall lined with old bookshelves, the spines of Bengali novels standing upright next to dark volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
“We know that, but for you that is the best solution,” Rahim Uncle, the country gentleman idling his retired years in Rajshahi, said confidently. “Sell it to the developer, they give you an advance, and they handle everything. Otherwise, it’s impossible for you to deal with so much from so far—”
“I’m selling my own house to a developer,” Musa Uncle said. “We can approach them together, get a good deal on the advance and turnaround time. You will get a lot of money.”
At these words, Polly’s eyes glittered. She began to imagine a new level of comfort for herself, a gift from her parents and the country she had left behind.
“The amount of money your parents have left you…you will never have to work a day in your life.” Rahim Uncle guffawed (he was the one who had called the others to Polly’s aid).
“The developer could even sell the flats for you,” Musa Uncle said. “Don’t worry about a thing. Your uncles are here to protect you.”
Polly spent the next two weeks following her father’s brother, her real uncle, to government offices, getting her passport renewed, a national ID card, a death certificate, and a letter from her uncle to show that he had no right to her father’s property. Accompanied by Musa Uncle, she met with the developer in a high-rise building in Gulshan, where they showed her a sample contract, pages and pages of it, which Musa Uncle promised his lawyer would look over.
There was one thing Polly had to do on her own—clean out her childhood home, her parents’ flat on the university campus. By then her uncle’s chauffeur Ali had arrived back from his vacation in his village home in nearby Tangail, where he had gone on some matter to see about his ailing, elderly mother, who was on her deathbed. Ali accompanied Polly to the flat in the university quarters, which had been left empty for her to sort through out of respect for her father. As soon as they entered the flat, a thick atmosphere of dust engulfed them.
“Get out of here quickly, Apa!” Ali advised, addressing her respectfully as an elder sister. “You will catch a fever from the dust.”
While Ali leaned against the front door, young and aloof to the dust, which he identified as the fingers of death, Polly stepped through the damp, dank rooms. Dust balls entered through her nose, ears, and eyes and settled at the corners of her mouth. Her mother had been a lifelong academic, reciting long tracts from a chapter she was reading to Polly and her father at dinner. Her books were still arranged on shelves in the living and dining areas and both the bedrooms. Looking from the TV to the showcases laden with glass figures to the almirahs full of saris, Polly called Ali to pack up the saris, her aunt’s advice ringing in her ears. Soon afterward, she fled, taking nothing, directing Ali to throw away or sell everything else. Later, she realized that those rooms had held, at the least, her parents’ diplomas, PhD dissertations, her own degree certificates, family albums, and everything else of hers that her parents had carefully preserved over decades.
At the end of two weeks, Polly returned for America. At first, she called the uncles for every question she had. The developer had asked for a certain document or had proposed an advance of a particular amount, less than what they had talked about. What should she do? Perhaps her questions were exceptionally needy, perhaps she called them too much or her voice screeched, but slowly, the connections began to weaken. Musa Uncle had a heart attack and could no longer answer Polly’s questions about the developer. She called a few times after he returned from the hospital. After a preamble about his health, she proceeded to ask about finalizing their contracts with the developer. She couldn’t help it. She wanted to get everything she could out of the country, to her present life, where she could use it. Panic gripped her heart when she grasped the urgency of the matter. Bashir Uncle visited Australia for six months to visit his daughter, and Rahim Uncle’s phone connection in Rajshahi was particularly bad. The little web that had been knit around her slowly disintegrated like old wool.
A decade later, Bashir Uncle called Polly out of the blue. His wife had died, and his daughter had moved to Austin, Texas, so he wanted to see if he could come visit Polly, his old friend’s daughter, in Houston. They met, at a Starbucks he had named in Katy. His daughter had dropped him off and left, and he was sitting alone at a table sipping coffee out of a paper cup. She stared at him in shock. He was missing two front teeth and his mouth had caved in. The skin on his face and neck were loose and his eyes were glassy. After half an hour of the visit, he said he was tired. He called his daughter to come get him. Even sitting down, his movements were sluggish and depressed. A part of Polly was satisfied to see her father’s friend come around to where her father had been, a decade ago.
In those thirty minutes, Bashir Uncle asked Polly, “What is the status of your parents’ house in Gulshan?”
“I don’t know. It’s still there. Nothing has been done about it.”
“Really?” He looked at her vaguely. “Musa’s sons signed with a developer and they got ten flats, but Musa was never able to live in his own home. The flats were completed while he was alive, but Musa died two weeks before he could move in.”
Polly nodded, bitterness on her lips, because her house had been left as it was, and there was no one to help her navigate the process of turning it into anything.
“How is your father’s brother?” Bashir Uncle asked.
“He died last year. Of lung cancer,” Polly said, breathing hard. She had gained another twenty pounds in the last decade. She had ordered a latte with extra sugar, a grande. She slurped from the cup now, burning her mouth.
“Your Rahim Uncle is not doing well,” Bashir Uncle continued, his eyes looking over her shoulder at a wall, as if she had asked. “You remember him. He retired to Rajshahi, to his ancestral home.”
“Of course, I remember him! He was very healthy when I saw him.”
“I heard he has dementia. He doesn’t recognize anyone. He can’t make out words when his friends call.”
Polly nodded, realizing that this meeting wasn’t about her but about something she represented to her father’s friend. She was supposed to listen and to receive his panic, a mere confidante. Their roles had changed. They fell silent, slipping into a memory of decay, turning back to look at the long shadow of those who had left.
Later, Polly realized that she had not asked Bashir Uncle about his wife’s death (she realized that his slow movements and toned-down demeanor might have been symptoms of his grieving) or even about his own health. As she drove home, she recalled a conversation she had had with her father before he had died. He had called Polly, coughing and hacking, a few days before he had died. He did not call much in his last days. It was difficult for Polly to call him, as she had to go through various servants to reach him, and the call ultimately dropped. Even when she was able to get him on the phone, he seemed distant and distracted, too tired to talk.
But this one time he had called her, wild, his voice piercing through the telephone line in her ear. “What did I do wrong?” he had demanded of her passionately. “Why am I dying so young while my classmates are all big shots?”
“You’re not dying!” she had said automatically.
“Oh, I’m dying,” he had spat out in disgust.
She had been jealous of all his friends from that instant, on her father’s behalf. Later, when they had offered their help, she had thought to extract from them what they owed her as her father’s daughter, in exchange for the tragedy of her parents’ premature death. They had promised her, promised her, that they would take care of her, that they would do everything for their friend’s child. But in the end, their lives and their children and their health had come in the way, and they had abandoned her. As she drove home in the falling light of day to her high-end apartment building in Katy, where she lived alone, she realized that she had moved on from an urgency for action, the desperate fear of losing her parents and all that was rightfully hers, to acceptance. On that day a decade ago, when her father’s friends had met to help her, they had looked so criminally healthy and able and she had been distraught by this discrepancy between them and her parents, she had still had them, had still been surrounded. And now she mourned them, one by one, as the sun set in the Western sky, glowing bright orange, lighting up the scattered clouds before going out.
Gemini Wahhaj is Associate Professor of English at the Lone Star College in Houston. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Zone 3, Northwest Review, Cimarron Review, the Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Chattahoochee Review, Apogee, Silk Road, Night Train, Cleaver, and Concho River Review, among others. An excerpt of her Young Adult manuscript The Girl Next Door was published in Exotic Gothic Volume 5. Forthcoming publications include Scoundrel Time, Chicago Quarterly Review, Arkansas Review, Allium, Valley Voices, and the Raven’s Perch. She is the editor of the magazine Cat 5 Review.
Cover Design by Karen Rile