I first saw him on a grey, overcast afternoon. Approaching the two-story building where I lived with my extended family, I noticed a little boy sitting by the entrance to the stairwell. He was about seven or eight, and wore oversized khaki shorts and a sleeveless cotton shirt. He had a half-eaten bun in one hand and was trailing an imaginary line on the ground with the other. I was exhausted after a long day of classes, but something about him made me pause in my stride.
“Hello! Who do we have here?” I asked with a smile.
The boy looked up. He was startled, but did not respond.
“Have you come to visit?” I asked again. “My name is Rima, by the way.”
The boy’s lips pursed and he stopped eating. He had large eyes and dimpled cheeks.
Finally, he spoke up. “I’m here to visit my aunt.”
I was about to ask who his aunt was when the boy added, “My mom’s name is Rima—did you say your name is Rima too?”
My heart gave a lurch. “Rima?” I echoed.
“Yes, we’ve come to visit Nina Aunty.”
Nina was the wife of my mother’s brother, Sharif Uncle. They lived in the upstairs apartment. But I didn’t know she had a sister who was also called Rima.
I studied the boy carefully. If they were visiting, why was he sitting here? Something came over me, and I sat beside the boy. He showed no reaction.
“What’s your name, pet?” I propped my chin in my right hand and tried to be comfortable and chatty.
“My father calls me Babu.”
“Babu? But every child is called Babu. Don’t you have any other name?”
The boy looked intently inside his bun as if for some invisible treasure and mumbled, “Babu’s my name.”
“Why are you sitting here, Babu? Aren’t Mim and Mitul at home? Why aren’t you playing with them?”
Babu paused to ponder before replying. “They’re having a row, so I left.”
“A row? Who?”
“The grownups. Mom and Nina Aunty and Sharif Uncle. They’re all quarreling.” Babu looked up at me and I noticed the troubled and helpless look in his eyes.
“You don’t like people quarreling, eh?” I asked awkwardly.
Babu shook his head. “People quarrel and then they leave and never come back.” There something acutely painful in his tone that tore into my heart.
But before I could say anything further, someone appeared on top of the stairs and exclaimed, “There you are, Emon. We’ve been looking for you all over the house.”
I looked up and saw my cousin Mim, who smiled and said, “Hello, Rima Apu.” I also smiled back and said, “I see you have a visitor.” Mim’s demeanor did not betray any hint of a violent quarrel in progress upstairs.
“Yes, Emon and his mother have come from Chittagong to visit Dhaka. You remember Nila Aunty, right? She’s my mom’s younger sister. They’ll be staying with us for a few days.”
“That’s good to know,” I said. I paused and added shaking my head, “And here I thought that his name was Babu and his mother was some Rima.”
Mim looked confused. “Huh?” Before I could say anything, the boy looked up and replied in a monotonous voice. “I am Babu, not Emon. And my mom is Rima.” Then he got up and ran up the stairs past Mim and disappeared.
I knew, of course, that some children take on a name on their own, or prefer one name over another. I laughed and said, “So, he prefers to be called Babu and thinks his mother’s name is Rima?”
Mim blushed and said, “He has some issues, Apu. Don’t mind him. Since his parents got divorced two years ago, he has been acting strange.”
I vaguely remembered that Nina Aunty had once mentioned something about her sister getting divorced because her husband was carrying on with another woman.
Mim mumbled almost apologetically, “Rima is the name of his father’s second wife.”
“Oh?” I suddenly did not know what else to say.
* * *
That night it rained heavily as I snuggled comfortably in bed. The past few days had been warm and humid, so the rain felt wonderfully soothing. I dozed off to sleep relishing the earthy smell that wafted in with the first rain of the season. In the morning, I was woken up by our old maid Champa Khala. It was 9 o’clock. I usually wake up early, but it was the weekend so it didn’t matter.
I got out of bed and gasped when I pulled back the curtains. The garden had become a pool of water and the brick path was no longer visible. The eucalyptus tree in front of the gate looked more isolated than ever. I washed up and went out to the large veranda facing the garden, and found my maternal grandmother and Champa Khala looking out blissfully.
They were saying something about building a small fountain in the middle of the garden. I had been hearing about this since I was a child, but somehow it never happened. Either there was no money, or something else came up. But making plans for a marble statue and fountain always seemed nice.
We had just finished breakfast when somebody rapped loudly at the front door. I got up and answered the door. It was Nina Aunty, looking anxious and disheveled. Before I could ask anything, she said, “Did a little boy come over here, Rima? My sister is visiting with her son…”
“You mean, Babu?” I blurted out before she could finish.
“Yes, he calls himself Babu, even though his real name is Emon. Is he here?”
“Where could he have gone?” Nina Aunty sounded miserable. “Mim was saying he met you yesterday, and hence we thought he might be here… We haven’t seen him since this morning. And look at the weather—it’s awful.”
I looked outside. The sky was heavy with grey clouds, as if it might start pouring anytime. But it was beautiful, a perfect monsoon morning.
My grandmother called out to ask what the matter was. Naturally, she was concerned, too. The iron gate was still locked, so he couldn’t have gone out of the compound. “Maybe he’s hiding in some nook?” I offered.
Nina Aunty wrung her hands in despair. “We can never be sure what he might do.” I offered to go with her and as we went up, she said, “Did Mim tell you anything about Emon? He lives in an imaginary world.” I nodded but could not find anything to say.
But I was sure that the boy was hiding in some cupboard. That’s what I used to do when I was a kid and my parents quarreled.
When I reached their place, I saw another lady sitting in the drawing room in total disarray. Presumably, this was Emon’s mother. She seemed exhausted. As soon as she saw Nina Aunty, she said, “I tell you again, I can’t call him ‘Babu.’ He’s not such a baby—and now this. Why do I have to deal with this alone? I can’t do it anymore.” Nina Aunty tried to calm her down. Sharif Uncle asked if he should go to the police station, when I said, “I doubt they will take any case unless 24 hours have passed.”
They all looked at each other helplessly. I said, “Let’s look for him again—from the rooftop to every corner of the house.”
But Emon seemed to have evaporated. After an hour of searching, I went to their kitchen for a cup of tea. Looking down from the kitchen window, I thought I saw something at the back of the garden. A small form was crouching behind the shrubbery surrounding the old discarded Gazi water tank. “I think I know where he is,” I whispered to Nina Aunty as I rushed past her.
From around the corner, I saw a small leg stretched out in the overgrown grass and I tip-toed by the hedges. The boy sat on a pile of old bricks playing with a stick. He had a far-off look. He went still when I approached, but would not look at me. Finally, he asked, “Are you here to take me back?”
I nodded. “Why did you run away?” I asked, then added “Babu” to gain his trust.
He did not reply right away. Then he said slowly, “I want to go home. I want Baba.”
I realized I did not know much about him. But it was clear that he missed his father. So much so, that he was willing to forget his real mother and claim his father’s second wife as his mom.
“I want to go back to Chittagong—to our old red brick house with the tiled roof. My father and I used to play frisbee. Mom would bake cookies and cakes. We were happy there.”
My heart skipped a beat—I remembered the carefree days of my own childhood when my mother was still alive and my father still around.
“That sounds lovely,” I smiled and held out my hand. “When you go back to Chittagong, surely you can play frisbee again?” I suggested.
Emon looked at me strangely and said, “I could, if they let me be Babu. They keep on insisting that I am Emon. Don’t they know that only Babu can be with Baba, not Emon?”
His words were bizarre but something warned me that it would not be a good idea to upset him. “All right,” I said, “I will ask your mom and the others to call you Babu.”
“She’s not my mom!” He sprang up and sped past me, only to be caught in the strong arms of Sharif Uncle. The latter held the boy in a firm grip and carried him home while Emon shouted and fought ferociously.
I followed them slowly. In that wet and silent serenity, the boy’s screaming reverberated in the garden and I thought detachedly what our neighbors would think.
* * *
Emon’s mother just sat there. It seemed she was used to her son’s outbursts. I pieced together the story based on tidbits of information. Even two years ago, Emon was a happy child with a father who doted on him. But his parents’ relationship slowly unraveled. There was another woman in the picture, and the marriage eventually broke up. Emon’s father continued to visit his son, and would take him out to parks and fast-food joints.
Then last year, he told Emon that he now had a new baby brother, and wouldn’t he like to meet him? When Emon returned home after seeing his baby half-brother, he was absolutely quiet. Gradually, he became thoughtful, pensive, and withdrawn. One morning he woke up claiming that he was not Emon, but ‘Babu’—and he wanted to go back home to the red brick house with the tiled roof.
“I’ve been taking him to doctors,” said Emon’s mother. “I heard a lot about Dr. Majumdar. That’s why we’ve come to Dhaka.” She paused and added, “He’s just a little boy, but he’s so angry with everything and everyone. I’ve had to take leave from my job to take care of him, but I have to return soon. I can’t be on leave forever, you know. I honestly don’t know what to do.”
“Would it help to call him Babu?” I suggested. “I understand that it’s his father’s pet name for him…”
Emon’s mother clenched her fists and spat through gritted teeth. “Babu’s the name of his father’s other son—with that bitch Rima.”
I turned away to look out the window. My own name suddenly felt alien. Meanwhile, the rain had started pouring again. The shimmering silver curtain separated us from the rain-soaked world out there. The fresh earthy smell I had inhaled the previous night was turning pungent.
Sohana Manzoor’s short stories and translations have appeared in journals and anthologies throughout South and Southeast Asia, including The Best Asian Short Stories. She holds a PhD in English from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and recently edited Our Many Longings: Contemporary Short Fiction from Bangladesh.