Shalini is about to leave the office when her editor, Reza, who is nine years younger than she is, slaps a slim book with a black cover down on her desk and grins at her.
“I need this reviewed by the end of the week. It’s short and shitty but I’m curious what you think,” he says.
Shalini is a fiction writer working as a columnist for the literary supplement of a young newspaper called the Dhaka Chronicle in Dhaka, Bangladesh. After a divorce, installing her son in college, and three decades abroad, she moved here from New York to watch her alcoholic father die slowly, whittling away her mother’s spirit in the process.
Shalini’s career, once filled with promise, is stalling. Her ambivalent agent keeps sending her novel back to be tweaked, and her story collection, which came out with a small publisher four years ago, was a mere blip in the literary firmament. Her advance paid barely half a month’s rent in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She had moved there after her divorce, a quixotic decision that left her feeling even more isolated and older, as she was surrounded by hip young mothers with tattoos and biracial children. Ironically, she had both the tattoo and the biracial child herself by the late nineties, when she was labeled a rebel. In Bangladesh, Shalini is a minor celebrity because of this collection, which was well received whenever anyone decided to receive it. In New York she had to beg independent bookstores door-to-door to stock her book. But as she likes to quip, “I killed in Dhaka.” Sometimes she has to explain where Dhaka is, which significantly deflates the joke.
Reza looks fetching today, in a fitted black V-neck tee, jeans, and red Puma sneakers. She is distracted by his finely shaped forearms and the edges of collarbone, jutting out slightly through the V. She has a minor, ongoing flirtation with Reza, who once professed to having sexual fantasies about her. He has not brought it up recently, though, and Shalini never tries to jog his memory.
His use of the formal “big sister” snaps her back to the book on her desk. She frowns and turns it over to a photo of the author, Anira Ali, a slim, attractive young woman in a sleeveless blouse and diaphanous cotton sari. Anira sits cross-legged on the floor next to a set of tablas and a sitar, suggesting eighteenth-century paintings of Mughal courtesans. Shalini shakes her head.
“Nothing doing,” she says. “I know her.”
Reza frowns. “Of course, you do. We all do. Dhaka is incestuous.”
“She’s almost a friend,” Shalini says. “In the Dhaka sense. She teaches hot yoga at the American club. I want to take that class once I’m off the waiting list.”
Reza pulls a chair up next to her desk, uncomfortably close, making Shalini self-conscious. She is wearing wide-legged palazzo pants that hike up when she is sitting, revealing that she has not shaved her legs above the calves, one of her personal “life hacks” that has more to do with her functioning depressive state than living efficiently. She depilates only as far up as a pair of pants or dress requires her to. Once she gets the hang of wearing a sari every day, she will dispense with hair removal altogether. She has managed in the eight months of living in Dhaka to grow a fine mat of bristly black hair on each upper leg and an enviable thatch under each arm. She doesn’t have the toned arms required to wear a sleeveless blouse like Anira Ali.
She tries to tuck her legs underneath her. Her editor’s eyes are on her face, which is also discomfiting.
“I was going to promote you,” he says, smiling.
Shalini snorts. “Bullshit,” she says.
“No, really. I think you should run this supplement as co-deputy editor. We need the support.”
“Oh, Naila will love that,” Shalini says, shaking her head.
Naila, a twenty-six-year-old columnist and editor, has a crew cut and a permanent look of contempt. But she is competent and instinctive and, despite the air of disapproval and the fact that she’s been at the paper a year longer than Shalini, she often asks her thoughts on things. Shalini is aware that the literary supplement is Naila’s dominion and doesn’t see herself co-running it. Besides, that would mean she is in Dhaka indefinitely, that her life here is a real one, filled with considerations and obligations beyond what she originally signed up for. She will never return to New York if she takes a real job. Dhaka will absorb her into its squalid, traffic-jammed, labyrinthine recesses.
“Naila needs the support too,” Reza says, yawning. “Especially with the lit fest a month away. We’re fully covering that.”
He holds the novel in front of him.
“Guess who’s a chief guest this year?” he says.
Shalini peers at the point where his finger is tapping. She doesn’t want to give away that her eyesight is worsening. The vagaries of being forty-five. She shrugs.
“So, what?” she says. She can’t read the name clearly but feels this is an appropriate response, since Reza himself looks disdainful.
He nods and tosses the book on the desk.
“I don’t know how she managed to get a blurb from him,” he says. “I didn’t know she had access to him.”
Shalini picks up the novel, Shadow of the Mandalay Ruby, described by the chief guest as a “Raucous tale of intrigue set in colonial Burma with a rollicking cast of historical miscreants and clever ladies!”
“I guess her publisher got her access?” she says. A twinge of jealousy rises up as she gazes at the name under the endorsement yelling at her from the front cover. Her book had been rejected by this publisher. Shalini met the chief guest, Thomas Wavell, a major award-winning author and British Raj historian, almost eighteen years back at a banquet in Washington, DC, when she had won third place in a short story contest. She was drunk by the time she got a chance to make her acceptance speech, describing herself as “Seabiscuit,” always an underdog but obviously without triumphing in the end like the horse did. This made everyone laugh, including Wavell, who asked her to join him for a drink soon after the speech. She declined, sure she would fuck him if he had asked, which would have been unfortunate because she was married. His blousy, rumpled-linen Britishness was sexy, despite the receding hairline and slight paunch. His eyes behind glasses were gray-blue and kind. He smiled a great deal, showing all his yellow teeth. He was more approachable then. Now he had bylines in the Guardian regularly and dropped names like Salman and Tilda.
While she was reading from her story they cut her off because they ran out of time. Wavell seemed genuinely annoyed.
“Your story was the only bloody one with real heart,” he said to her. He asked her to keep in touch. She never did.
Shalini blushes as she remembers this. It seems pathetic that she still remembers it and then held on to it as some sort of talisman. She is sure that by now Wavell couldn’t pick her out from a police lineup.
Reza is staring at her curiously.
“They’ve gone downhill,” he says finally. “These Indian imprints are no good anymore. I think they published her only because of Wavell. I’ve tried to get an interview with him for weeks for the lead-up to the fest. No luck. I need to look like that.” He slaps his palm on the author’s photo.
“You need to be a vagina wrapped in a cotton sari,” Naila calls from her cubicle, startling them both. They thought they were alone.
“I almost am, surrounded by women all day,” Reza calls back. Naila joins them, her round frame swathed in a monochromatic flowing purple tunic with matching pants. She looks like a preschool TV show character. A mannish one.
She scowls at Shalini. “So, he thinks I can’t handle the supplement by myself?”
Shalini sighs. “Look, Gilbert Grape, I have no interest in co-editing it with you,” she says.
Naila frowns. “Who is that? Oh, because I am wearing purple! Cho funny,” she says. Shalini smiles. She likes that Naila does not take what she says personally.
“I got into the master’s program in Cardiff,” Naila says. “I’ll be gone by December. We need your help.”
“Oh, wow. That’s wonderful,” Shalini says. She means it, but she is also wistful. Naila is unfettered by aging, embittered parents. At that moment Cardiff, Wales, sounds as exotic and exciting as anything. Anything but Dhaka.
“I can do it for the fest madness, but that’s it,” Shalini says. “I’m moving back to New York. This was always meant to be temporary.”
“Good. You can start by reviewing this travesty of a novel,” Reza says, before Shalini can protest.
Naila’s expression has changed to one of alarm. “But this writer is the moderator for Wavell’s big panel on the mainstage,” she says.
Reza sighs and rubs his eyes. He slumps down in the chair.
“I know, Naila, but if we don’t start having real critical discourse about our authors we won’t be taken seriously.”
“I might like it,” Shalini says.
“Read the first chapter,” Naila says. “It’s short.”
They watch Shalini as she reads the first page. She hands the book back to Reza.
“I can’t do this,” she says. “We are party friends in passing. She’s all tapped into the social scene. Also, it’s awful and I think historically inaccurate.”
“Everything has good and bad in it. We have to be balanced. But maybe Shalini apa shouldn’t do it, since she looks like she’s about to vomit,” Naila says. Then she wanders back to her desk.
Shalini starts to gather up her things to leave. “Agreed,” she says.
“I think Naila is underestimating you,” Reza says. “You would be authentic, something people are scared to be when it comes to the ruling class, nah?”
“What is it with this person and her cronies?” she asks, staring at the author’s comely photo.
“You tell me. I don’t come from your group. I am Bangla medium, nah?” He says, with a thicker accent. “I don’t have an Amrikan passport. I went to Dhaka University not—” he reads the author bio—“Brown. Where is that again?”
“It ain’t Harvard,” Shalini says.
“But it costs more a year than I earn,” he says.
“Yes,” Shalini nods. She knows Reza taught himself better English than what he was taught in high school. That he grew up in a three-room flat, with the kind of toilet one squats over, far away from the diplomatic quarter where Shalini and the author of the novel reside. In his neighborhood all the signs are in Bengali, and neighbors gather at the tea stalls to gossip and argue and drink tea, even when it is stiflingly hot outside, far from air-conditioned hotel and club lounges with guards at the door to keep people out. Shalini’s parents’ duplex abuts the American Club of which they are members, next to the Saudi and Australian embassies. Only American citizens can be members of the American club or must be sponsored by a citizen to join.
It’s a Thursday evening, the start of the weekend, and Shalini is itching to leave the office. They all have Friday off for Jumma prayer. Shalini’s mother has left three text messages in the last hour, complaining about her father’s gout. It depresses her, so she invites Reza to join her for a drink at the American Club to argue further about the review. She doesn’t want to be alone and cannot face her parents just yet. Reza quickly agrees. His eagerness gives Shalini pause. She is not sure she should be alone with him when she plans to drink.
“We should ask Naila too,” she suggests.
Tonight the club is crowded. Cars line the opposite side of the street, across from the entrance, while the drivers smoke and chat. The club is surrounded by a high wall trimmed in broken glass and barbed wire, with spotlights perched every few feet. The three of them walk through metal detectors and show their identification and have their bags checked, then Shalini signs them in. The guards smile at her editor and salute Shalini, but they greet Naila with suspicious frowns. She grimaces while they take an extra shuffle around her tattered backpack.
“What do they think they are going to find in there?” she wonders out loud as they settle down at the noisy poolside bar. “It must be my hair,” she says and runs her fingers over her crew cut. “Anything different is suspicious.”
They order margaritas and French fries. They also watch the other guests, ever the curious reporters. Shalini has brought them here twice before, and tries to see the place through Naila and Reza’s eyes. With its basketball court, carefully tended gardens and terraces, and a blue-green tiled pool, this place is an alien world, one into which Naila and Reza would never have entry if they didn’t know Shalini. The trees are almost never dusty, because the gardeners spray water on the leaves every day. It is a lush, verdant womb, protected from the rest of the teeming city.
Liquor loosens tongues, and soon enough Naila and Shalini start in on their complaints about work, while Reza remains silent and watches. He drinks heavily, then steals away behind the pool house to take a proffered toke. Naila is a sloppy drunk but begs sleepiness and goes home within two hours. By this time Shalini has forgotten she doesn’t want to be alone with Reza. She admires his restraint in not joining in the vivisection of their workplace. She notices some of the younger women from the paper, who recently graduated from schools in the US and UK, watching him curiously. One earnest young journalist, Ameena, who works at a rival paper, sits down next to him.
Ameena is thirty years old, just returned from Ohio where she was living and studying. Her mother is a well-known Bangladeshi barrister and women’s rights activist. Shalini can see Ameena is trying to work out if she and Reza are lovers.
“Will you all be covering the lit fest for the weekend magazine?” Shalini asks her.
Ameena nods. “It’s a bore since it became a celebrity circus,” she says. She doesn’t seem pleased, and clearly she’s not here to talk to Shalini.
Ameena leans towards Reza, asking questions that pertain only to him. He glances Shalini’s way a few times but can’t help get absorbed in talking about himself.
Shalini walks up to the bar and orders another drink, watching all the drinking and socializing going on around her. Many of the devoted will face Mecca with a hangover on Friday.
Shalini feels a tap on her shoulder and turns to find the author of the Shadow of the Mandalay Ruby smiling at her. Anira Ali is dressed in fitted yoga clothes, her bangs matted to her forehead from sweat, her pale green yoga mat rolled tightly and tucked under her arm. Even sweaty and without makeup she is pretty. Her smile reaches her large eyes and arched eyebrows. Shalini feels unhealthy just looking at the author and puts down the salt-rimmed glass.
“Hi, Shalini,” Anira says, still smiling. “There’s an opening in my hot yoga class. The British Council lady moved to Bahrain.” Her accent is mostly American with a hint of Bangla, like many of those who attended the American school in Dhaka.
“Oh, thanks,” Shalini replies. “Great.”
Anira’s face is open and guileless.
“It’s Thursday nights at 7:30 until 8:30,” she adds. She points to a room above the pool changing rooms. “That’s the studio. I remember you said you were interested.”
Shalini had mentioned it in passing at a party three months prior. She is surprised the young woman remembers. Anira glances to where Shalini had been sitting. Reza and Ameena are still intently talking. Ameena has moved closer to him. She touches his arm. Anira turns back to Shalini and smiles.
“So, do you think you’ll be joining my class?” she asks.
“Yes, I will,” Shalini says. “How do you get the studio hot?” she says, trying not to stare at Reza and Ameena.
“We just open the windows and turn off the AC,” Anira laughs.
It is August and still muggy outside.
“What about in the winter?” Shalini asks. She finds herself smiling back at Anira, whose demeanor is undeniably pleasant.
“I bring in space heaters and humidifiers.”
Shalini chortles at the irony of using humidifiers in a climate where everything is always a little damp, even in the winter.
Anira glances at her watch. “I have some time before I have to get home to the little ones. Could we talk?”
It would be rude to say no. Shalini glances at Reza and stifles a sigh. Focused on his new friend, he fails to notice what is transpiring in front of him.
“Are you sitting with him? He seems busy at the moment.”
Shalini allows Anira to lead her to a table beside the pool. She downs her margarita before following her. She can feel the tequila burn a path down her throat into her empty stomach.
“I really loved your book,” Anira says.
“You read it?” Shalini says.
“Of course, silly. It’s—bold, you know?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Do you like working at the paper?”
Anira sits back and crosses her slim, impeccably depilated legs.
“Yes, it keeps me busy,” Shalini replies.
Shalini can tell by her body language that Anira is confident in her surroundings.
“Are you moving to Dhaka for good?” she asks.
“No,” Shalini says, a little too quickly. Anira smiles but this time it doesn’t reach her eyes.
“I guess it’s not for everyone,” she says. “But I’m settled here.”
Shalini hears the resignation in her voice.
“I have plans, though,” she adds. Her eyes now narrow slightly. She leans towards Shalini. “My book just came out.”
“I know,” Shalini says, leaning back, wanting to be genuine and succeeding, for the most part. “Congrats. Your publisher is top notch.”
“Oh, sure, it’s just the India imprint,” Anira says, waving her hand with a dismissive air. “It’s not like it’s the real one.”
Shalini wishes she had another drink in front of her. The editors of this little imprint hadn’t even bothered to read her stories, telling her short stories don’t sell, even if they’re connected.
“Have you read my book?”
“Not yet,” Shalini says, looking for a waiter but trying not to appear desperate.
“I think it would make a great film,” Anira says. “So does Tommy Wavell. You know him—right?”
Shalini nods, trying to catch a waiter’s eye. “Of course, who doesn’t?”
Anira smiles. “He’s championed me,” she says.
Is that what we’re calling it these days? Shalini thinks but keeps to herself. She gives up trying to catch the waiter’s attention.
“Oh, you want another drink?” Anira says. She turns around and bellows at the waiter in Bangla, “Ay, Mukul! Jaldi asho. Madame drink chayee.”
Everyone within earshot has clearly heard her. Several people glance towards them. Shalini, red faced, starts to stand up because she wants to flee. Mukul, the waiter, is next to her within a moment.
“Margarita, please, with salt,” Shalini says and sits back down.
“Just some water for me, Mukul,” Anira says. “Be quick.”
She glances at her phone.
“You have quite a voice there,” Shalini says.
“You learn to make yourself heard around here. They won’t take you seriously if you’re not assertive.”
By “they” Shalini knows she means waiters, servants, rickshaw wallahs, nannies.
Shalini notices for the first time the tiny black bindi on Anira’s forehead, the size of which matches her pixie-like features. These days the fashion is a huge red dot smack in the middle of the forehead, which Shalini finds baffling. Why is that necessary? So, we’re visible from space?
The margarita arrives, along with Shalini’s courage. She takes a healthy sip and sets down the glass carefully. She folds her arms in front of her on the table.
“Which story did you like the best, or the least, for that matter?” she asks Anira.
“Mmm? What?” Anira looks up from texting.
“Which of my stories did you like or not like?”
“Oh my god, there’s Minnu! You know her, right? Minnu Majumdar?”
Before Shalini can respond Anira enthusiastically waves to someone behind her. Shalini doesn’t bother to turn around. She takes another gulp of margarita and enjoys again the warmth flowing to her belly. Minnu Majumdar, plump and heavily made up, sits down with a jangly sigh, giving Shalini a tight-lipped smile. The tea lights on the table make her gold bangles shimmer. In the center of her glistening forehead is a red dot the size of a silver dollar.
“You know Shalini, right?”
Minnu gives a slight, uncertain nod, looks Shalini up and down, her eyes hovering at the margarita, and then turns to Anira.
“You look too good, how do you do it?” she says to her, a petulant smirk on her face.
Shalini is used to being ignored, in New York or Dhaka, but the Dhaka snubs sting just a little bit more. When Bengalis treat her with indifference, she feels incredulity at the betrayal, even outrage, followed by guilt at feeling superior.
The tequila and sugar, however, are proving to be an effective panacea as the voices of Minnu and Anira fall into the background. There is a gentle breeze rippling the water in the pool. Shalini hears a splash as a blond woman in a red one-piece bathing suit slices into the water head first. She has the pool to herself. Shalini, her chin propped in her hand, watches the blond swim back and forth. She squints her eyes, so the woman becomes a blurred strip of red, streaking through the water. The pool is so small she swims its length in six strokes. It is hypnotic. Shalini looks up at the people milling around the bar and in the terrace above, drinks in hand—some smoking, some on their phones, mostly Bengalis—while the woman swims back and forth. Shalini has yet to see a Bangladeshi woman swim in the pool. That would a require bathing suit, which they reserve for jaunts to Thailand or Lankawi. Many of the women at the club are dressed in their finest occidental gear—sheer tops, sleeveless tanks, skin tight jeans or short skirts—but no one would be seen in a bathing suit here. Some of the men lean against the bannister of the terrace above the bar and try not to look at the swimmer. The whole scene strikes Shalini as absurd. She giggles. No one notices. Minnu and Anira are discussing something quietly. The woman finishes her laps and emerges from the water, seemingly unaware of the attention.
Anira is snapping manicured fingers in front of her face.
“Minnu is a big fan of yours,” she says.
Minnu is beaming at her. With some difficulty Shalini avoids staring at the large, red bindi on Minnu’s forehead.
“I love your writing. I read your book on my honeymoon in Koh Samui,” Minnu says. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you, apa.”
“You were reading my book on your honeymoon?” Shalini says. “Your man needs to learn some new tricks.”
Almost the moment she says it, Shalini wishes she hadn’t, but Minnu is delighted.
“This is why I love you, apa!” she says. “You’re so bold. And honest, like your columns.”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Shalini says, abashed.
Minnu leans in and touches her arm. “You have a point, apa,” she whispers. They giggle together but stop when they see Anira frowning at them.
“Apa, I’m having a lunch tomorrow, ladies only. I would be honored if you came. Anira is reading—” Minnu starts to say when Anira interrupts her.
“Minnu, there’s an opening in my hot yoga class on Thursdays, do you want it or not?”
Shalini is taken aback.
“Oh, that’s right, I promised it to you,” Anira says.
“It’s fine . . .” Shalini begins.
“No, Shalini apa should have it, even though I need it more than you do,” Minnu says to Shalini. “You look so young, apa, how do you do it?”
Shalini, thoroughly thrilled, can now only giggle in response.
“Can you add me as a contact and give me a missed call?” Minnu asks Shalini, who obliges. “Oh!” Minnu cries as her phone buzzes a second later. “That reminds me. My favorite story in your book is ‘Missed Call.’ It was creepy and sad.”
Shalini wrinkles her nose, but she is pleased. “You didn’t think it was frustrating, the way they kept missing each other?”
“Oh, no, that’s life, nah?” Minnu replies. “I don’t like the neat endings.”
Shalini is surprised. She had dismissed Minnu as a wealthy, idle young housewife, with her girth suggesting the house portion of housewife does not include actual work. Her address, in Baridhara, straddles two roads. “Enter on road 16,” Minnu advises. A thought then strikes her. “Would you also consider reading for us?” she says, excited.
“Jesus, Minnu, let her take a breath,” Anira says.
“Sorry,” Minnu says, blushing.
“I would love to read for you,” Shalini replies, suffused with a sudden calm.
“That’s a great idea,” Anira says. “Minnu, why doesn’t Shalini . . . apa,” she says slowly, as if trying out the word, “take my place.”
“We can celebrate you both,” Minnu says, leaving both Anira and Shalini disappointed.
“Never mind,” Shalini says after a moment. “I don’t need to read.”
To Anira, she says, “I was given your book to review. I’m looking forward to it now that we’ve spent time together.”
Anira’s eyes narrow, a smile glued to her face. She doesn’t know what to make of this remark. Neither does Shalini but she is enjoying Anira’s discomfort.
“Actually, I was going to ask if you knew someone at the Dhaka Chronicle who would be qualified to review historical fiction,” Anira says. She now sounds less certain. “I was worried Naila Amin would be asked to review it. She’s always so political.”
“I guess that someone is me,” Shalini says.
The waiter, Mukul, appears. Minnu tells him to put Shalini’s margaritas on her account.
“All of them?” he whispers.
Minnu tells him off soundly, “Are you an accountant? Do your job!”
Minnu leaves soon after, hugging and kissing her new friend goodbye. Shalini and Anira sit in silence for a moment. She can sense Anira is anxious. “I’ll be fair,” she assures her gently. Anira smiles, encouraging Shalini to say, “You do have to let go a bit. You can’t control what people will write.”
“In Dhaka, I can.” Anira has regained her footing. She is still smiling. Shalini is dumbfounded. “I’m on a first name basis with everyone, even Ameena, over there, chatting with your editor.”
She looks to see what effect these words have when she mentions Reza. Shalini finds she cannot meet the young woman’s eyes.
“I’m not worried,” Anira continues when Shalini remains silent. “Tommy’s also getting it reviewed in the UK.”
Shalini looks up and nods in mock solemnity: “Yes, and reviews from white people are far more important anyway,” she says.
“They are!” Anira says. “If you want to get taken seriously.”
Shalini searches the author’s face for levity and finds none.
“Part of being taken seriously is allowing yourself to be critiqued, objectively. Allowing your work to speak for itself,” Shalini begins.
“You got all positive reviews here when your book came out,” Anira cuts her off. “Do you think that was objective?”
“I got a negative review or two on Goodreads,” Shalini mutters. She has memorized these reviews almost verbatim. The words “maudlin” and “ham fisted” in particular stay with her.
“This is my first book, but I have a two-book deal, a sequel for this one,” Anira says. “Tommy told me he’ll ask Hilary Mantel for a blurb. They’re great friends.”
Shalini’s stomach lurches as the margaritas rise up in her throat. She takes a gulp of water and manages to push it down.
“You should eat something,” Anira says. Her tone is cold. She gets up, gives Shalini a stiff hug, and walks towards the gate. “I have to go. Hubby awaits. See you at Minnu’s!” she calls over her shoulder.
Reza has disappeared. Shalini orders food to go. She checks her phone and sees several missed calls from her mother. Mukul asks her if she wants anything else. Another margarita, madam? Shalini is tempted to retort sharply but stops herself. He is just doing his job. He will be chastised for asking and scolded for not asking enough. He will never get it quite right. Shalini realizes she is gazing at the now embarrassed waiter and looks away. She asks for coffee while she waits for her food just to give him something to do, to seem normal. She doesn’t notice the curious looks her way, as she sits alone, staring at the tea lights flickering on the table.
I’m getting sloppy, she thinks. I’m becoming that pathetic middle-aged aunty who acts lonely. I am lonely.
She looks up to see Reza smiling at her. He crouches down next to her because there aren’t any extra chairs at her table.
“I saw you talking to her,” he says. “I didn’t want to interrupt. It seemed lively.”
Shalini sighs and nods. Reza glances around to see if anyone is watching. The club has thinned out, like water retreating at low tide. He puts his hand on her knee.
“Are you all right?”
“I told her I’m going to review her book,” she says. She is acutely aware of his warm hand on her knee. She doesn’t want him to move it. “I did it out of spite. Because I think she might be the devil.”
He smiles. “But I know you won’t be spiteful. You’ll be fair.”
“Why do I have to do this?” Shalini asks.
“Just be honest,” he said. “You know it’s not a good book. If this was the UK or US, it wouldn’t matter. People are allowed to critique bad writing there, anywhere else, really.”
“Yeah, even India,” Shalini says, chuckling.
“This is more important than you think,” he says. He gets up, drags a chair over from another table, and sits down. She wants to take his hand and put it back on her knee.
“Can she get you fired?” Shalini asks, as the thought strikes her. Even though the vision of the slight yoga instructor with perfectly threaded eyebrows wielding such power seems outlandish on the surface, she exudes steely ambition.
“She might try,” he shrugs. “With you too. I need to quit anyway. I have my own dreams, you know.”
Shalini nods. She often forgets he is an award-winning poet because he writes in Bengali and Shalini cannot read Bengali. The thought embarrasses her.
“She is the only one from Bangladesh invited to the lit fest in Jaipur this year,” Reza says. “I read a lot of the book, you know. It’s clear she had no real editor and that her research was sloppy. She can write what she wants, get her accolades, but if she wants the role of being an ambassador of Bangladeshi literature she must be vetted. Someone needs to have integrity.”
Shalini wants to touch his cheek but worries it will seem condescending or, worse, matronly.
“We don’t respect the craft,” she says instead. “We think that getting their approval will give us more gravitas.”
“Who?” Reza asks.
“The man, whitey, you know,” Shalini says. “Tommy Wavell. Am I allowed to call him Tommy? I’m not a part of his menagerie of collected brown folks. Don’t worry. I will be balanced,” Shalini says. “I understand postcolonial shock syndrome.”
“I don’t expect anything else,” Reza says.
The review is published on a Thursday. Shalini has been attending the Thursday night hot yoga classes and lost seven pounds in four weeks, despite having a margarita or two afterwards. In class, Anira corrects Shalini’s poses more than others’.
Reza has chosen to publish the 2,500-word review in a special supplement dedicated to the upcoming literature festival in the city, alongside keynote speaker Wavell’s interview. That morning and all through the afternoon Shalini has received no fewer than eighty messages from readers either praising her review or lambasting her. She has been disinvited to three parties, accused by some in Anira’s circle as being vindictive, and she has also been thanked. Someone wrote, “Thank you for throwing yourself on the social grenade and starting the conversation. You’re so bold.”
Shalini decides she hates the word “bold,” especially in reference to herself. She has, admittedly, reveled in the fleeting popularity she found after Minnu Majumdar’s luncheon, which Anira chose not to attend. Shalini held court on Minnu’s lush rooftop garden, reading from her book and sharing stories of her escapades on Tinder back in New York, while captive peacocks roamed below, occasionally preening. The women were delighted with her stories. She was hailed as bold (of course) and refreshing. On Facebook her review has been shared two hundred times in less than two hours. She has been de-friended several times over, but this matches almost as many new friend requests. On Twitter she is described as “jelly” and this she protests, saying that writing an honest review of a popular socialite’s book makes her the opposite of quivering and gelatinous. Naila explains that she is being accused of jealousy, not cowardice. She manages to do this less contemptuously than usual but advises Shalini to delete her retort, so as not to appear ridiculous. Shalini complies.
When she arrives at the hot yoga class that night the reception is mostly chilly. Anira’s loyal fans watch Shalini as she walks to her spot and unfurls her mat and sits cross-legged on it, staring straight ahead. Anira is not there yet. She walks in fifteen minutes later and mumbles an apology before taking her place on the dais. Her eyes are red and swollen. It is clear she has been crying. Shalini can feel the recriminating stares all around her from Bengali women. The white women, including an ambassador, seem unaware of the rancorous energy in the room. Shalini feels guilty but manages to get through the class. Usually Anira corrects her pigeon pose with blocks since Shalini’s hips are always tight. This time she pointedly ignores her.
Still, after class Shalini waits for her downstairs in the bar to tell her it is not personal, and she knows she is hurt but it’s only one woman’s opinion. Anira evades her and walks quickly to her awaiting car, flanked by two friends who glare at Shalini when she approaches. Shalini orders a margarita. One of her colleagues catches her eye and raises his glass to her. She raises her glass in acknowledgment but doesn’t join him. Suddenly her phone is buzzing with texts. She is wary, expecting it to be her mother asking for help to put her father to bed, and ignores it. Shalini hears more buzzing. She looks up to see everyone on their phones, faces lit up by the screens. She checks her messages. There has been an attack at a mosque of the Shiite sect, during Ashura prayers. Shalini had forgotten it is the Shia new year. Several are dead, including children. Machine gunfire was heard by witnesses as recently as ten minutes earlier. It is unfolding at that moment. The reporters in the bar leave at once, others continue drinking. Shalini hears someone say they are all safe here. It’s technically American soil, there are armed guards. Her mother calls, in a panic. Shalini tells her she will be home soon. The mosque is not in town.
“These things escalate,” her mother says.
“It won’t affect us here,” Shalini assures her.
Shalini reads the reports. Five young men entered the mosque and started firing on worshippers two hours earlier. The gunmen are Sunni and influenced by ISIS, Shalini surmises. As she reads, with growing dread, she also feels a loosening of the knot that has gripped her stomach since the morning when the review was published.
“Perspective,” she whispers to herself. Someone has turned on the flat screen hanging behind the bar. There are protests when it’s tuned to CNN, which has not even gotten the news yet. It is switched. The BBC has the news and shows grainy footage of an explosion caught on a phone. Men and boys stream out of the mosque as the sun sets. They are calling it a terrorist attack in progress.
She shivers and looks around at the gardens, the flood-lit tennis courts, and the pool, the waiters skirting around the tables and in and out of the kitchen. She looks up at the veranda covered by a thatched roof to imitate a humble village dwelling, bordered by bright orange bougainvillea that drips over the edge. People are more subdued and not talking as much. They are watching and reading. Mukul stands next to her table, staring at the TV. The tray he is holding is about to tip over. Her margarita is on it. She grabs it just as it’s about to slide off the tray, spilling a little on herself.
“Sorry, madam, so sorry!” Mukul says. He dabs her damp sleeve with a napkin, his eyes still glued to the TV.
“Mukul, are you okay?” Shalini asks the boy.
Mukul shakes his head. “My uncle attends that mosque,” he says.
Shalini is surprised. It never occurred to her that the boy was Shia.
“It will be okay,” she says. She knows she sounds uncertain.
“Yes, madam,” Mukul says before going back through the swinging doors into the kitchen. What else can he say to her? Or she to him? Shalini finishes her drink. The TV is now tuned to a local news broadcast. There are more casualties than originally feared. The gunmen have holed up inside the mosque. There are two hostages. A father and son. The military is sending tanks to the area. The prime minister, who had been attending an official dinner, is dressed in a colorful sari. She solemnly answers questions, saying that everything will be done to bring the hostages to safety.
“Who is responsible for this terrorism?” a reporter asks the prime minister. She says they will find out and bring the perpetrators to swift justice. “But this is not terrorism,” she insists. “And it is most assuredly not ISIS. There are no terrorist groups in Bangladesh. These are misguided young men led astray.”
It is an election year. The prime minister’s party has capitulated to Sunni Islamic fundamentalists on at least two occasions in an effort to maintain balance.
Shalini pays her bill and gathers up her yoga mat and bag. She walks through the gate and bids the guards goodnight before signing out. It is 9:30 pm. The tree-lined street is eerily quiet for a Thursday night. She begins the short walk towards her parents’ house as she has so many times before, slightly drunk and sentimental. She walks past exhausted rickshaw wallahs, supine on their bikes. They have special badges on their rickshaws, the only ones allowed in the diplomatic quarter since another “non-terrorist” attack two years earlier at a popular café saw twenty-two people killed, including foreigners.
She walks past guards asleep at their posts, one laid out on a jute mat in front of the gate he is meant to be guarding. The female night-sweepers are stoically sweeping the litter off the dusty roads and sidewalks, their tattered cotton saris hitched up to make it easier to maneuver. They do not glance up as she walks by, consumed by their task. Their heads are always covered. The corner where Shalini used to see prostitutes, heads and cleavage uncovered, idling in their garish makeup and saris, is empty—also a result of the crackdown after the attack on the café.
Her phone buzzes; a text from Reza asking if she is too tired to chat. At her parents’ gate, she calls him back.
“What’s the news on the attack?” she asks.
“Too many rumors right now,” he replies. “We’ll find out more tomorrow. Are you okay?”
“Of course,” Shalini says. “Why?”
“I got called into the managing editor’s office today. He has asked me to print a favorable review of the book, so we look balanced and fair. Like FOX news.”
He chuckles but Shalini hears the anger in his voice.
“Shalini?” he says when she is silent. “He says it’s because her book is being launched at the fest and Wavell personally requested she moderate his session. And the review was a bit scathing. I said it was accurate. The fucked-up thing is he agrees that the book is bad, but he is worried about how it all looks.”
“Did she call him?”
“Yes, she did, and she demanded I be fired and that you be fired. We aren’t fired, by the way.”
“Who is she, to be able to demand that?”
“Nobody,” the editor says. “It’s that Dhaka is too small.”
When he says this, she remembers the blond woman in the red bathing suit gliding back and forth in the small swimming pool. Am I that woman? Shalini wonders. She can feel a familiar despondency creeping up and pushes it down.
She bids goodnight to Reza and walks up the three flights to her parents’ flat. He has re-addressed his interest in her, but she is too weary to be flattered or return the attention. Despite her weight loss, she doesn’t feel good in her skin. She pauses before opening the door, readying herself for what lies beyond it, a tableau of the artifice of her life, ruined spirits amidst expensive teak furniture and bric-a-brac collected on travels, all from a time when her parents were functioning. She arranges her thoughts, and her face, propping up the illusion that she is in control, and opens the door.