People have often told me that you can’t really pinpoint the beginnings of an obsession, and then all of a sudden you find you’re in the middle of it. I would normally concur, but I am pretty certain my love affair with America crystallized with a box of cereal. I was seven years old when I first tried Lucky Charms. Between the first and second bites, I marveled at the irregular shapes and sugary coating of each cereal. Within two more bites of rainbow and horseshoe shaped charms, I concluded that I had hitherto lived an unfairly pathetic life in Bangladesh, where the only kind of cereal to be had was Kellogg’s cornflakes. By the end of my fifth bite, I had internalized the American consumerist dream, vowing I would one day move to New York where I could get boxes of this exotic cereal for breakfast any time I pleased.
I admit other American media preceded the cereal, but nothing provided as much clarity as the Lucky Charms. Essentially, what happened when Ziti, Polska, Hadduss and I received the suitcase filled with cereal and rainbow-colored toothpastes with star-shaped dispensers, was a distinct click in my head. The world of The Fall Guy and MacGyver suddenly became as real as the beautiful box of Lucky Charms which had till now, existed simply as an advertisement on the back of my Archie comic books, along with Tootsie Rolls.
At seven, I had finally received proof in cardboard boxes, that better worlds existed than the rice, lentils and fish which were a staple food in my early diet, and promptly concluded that the grass was indeed greener, not just on the other side of the field, but the entire world altogether.
Suddenly, I craved nothing more than to try an ice-cream sundae or a waffle pancake just the way Betty made them and Jughead ate them in my Archie comic books. With each additional crunch of Lucky Charms in my mouth, I envisioned my future house, a surreptitious replica of the Fall Guy’s house, complete with white picket fences and pristinely manicured lawns. And so I began an obsession with a country and a continent approximately 180 degrees on the other side of the world from where I grew up.
In hindsight, I believe that similar thoughts must have gone through my uncle’s head right before he disappeared.
Monsoon was late the year Quddus vanished. My two sisters and I spent our summer holidays watching Thundercats and fighting over the last mango lolly. Soon, these excesses were curtailed by the constant power outages. In 100 degree weather, we didn’t have air-conditioning or a sustainable means of cooling down. We were left feeling an utter sense of discontent once these outages happened, and would cool ourselves down by lying on the cold stone floor of our shared bedroom.
The heat of the days made us lethargic, and our newly born cousin Hadduss’s screams every night made us anxious. Soon, we were armed with insomnia and candy-induced adrenaline, only to run amok around the hill and break innumerable crystal and china ornaments when playing cricket in the living room. Currently, our parents were traveling around France, and we had been entrusted to my aunt and uncle for the two months they were traipsing the Riviera for work and their third honeymoon.
Years later, I wondered whether three perpetually screaming girls were what led my uncle to do what he did within a week of my parents departing. I’m not sure. When I asked him recently, he, in his usual flippant manner, just laughed and denied everything, as though our memories have all collectively remembered events which did not happen.
The story is simple. Quddus came home one day, told our butler he was coming back for lunch in ten minutes after running an errand, and ordered Guala to lay the table for lunch.
When he didn’t show up by that night, my aunt wasn’t very worried.
Quddus has a knack for disappearing, after all.
Here’s some things you need to know about Quddus. He receives a fishy number of phone calls (an astronomical 200 or so over the course of any three days). Quddus and my father met when my father ate at a fast-food barbecue restaurant Quddus owned. Within a year, they moved in together into the house where they currently still live. They transformed this house into a zoo very quickly, their mutual love of animals resulting with a series of unusual pets ranging from cows and goats, to kingfishers, piranhas, turtles, guinea-pigs, rabbits, mynah birds, parrots, and pythons. We had dogs and cats as well, of course. However, a sign at the bottom of the hill warns trespassers to beware the pythons.
Quddus and Abba have lived together longer than they’ve lived with either of their wives. Once, Quddus admitted that he started wooing Morjina because it’s easier to run a household with two sisters than two women who don’t know each other and will not see eye to eye on silly things like decorating, because of their different upbringings.
Every morning Quddus wakes up promptly at sunrise and then disappears on his scooter after taking a shower. The night guard knows to call him early in the morning and prepare tea for him after tying up the Alsatians for the night. Quddus usually comes home for quick meals, and then goes out again, usually taking a shower three to four times a day. His use of deodorant is fascinating; sometimes he goes through a bottle a day.
He has had this routine for most of the years I have known him.
The three of us girls had learnt long ago that the best way to feed our Coca-Cola addictions was to stop asking questions, and when necessary, threaten to squeal on him when his long list of visitors called at hours when he was actually at home.
Hence, when he didn’t come home that night, Morjina reasoned he had gone off on one of his whims.
So we waited.
When we got tired of waiting, my sisters and I dug a mud cave on a side of the hill and made beautiful mudcakes with the gladioli and early chrysanthemums we took from Ma’s garden. As is common with sisters, we fought. Two of us had to be rushed to the hospital soon enough, not because of bruises or cuts, but because we began to choke after eating the cakes, to fulfill a dare from the third.
Our vomit was laced with flower petals. Yellow, pink, muddy.
The emergency room visit was interspersed with panicked calls to our parents, and it was then, three days after Quddus had disappeared, that Morjina displayed any form of panic.
“I don’t know what to do,” she told them. After a long pause, she added, “No need to come back home or shorten your trip. The girls are under control, and we’re all fine.”
This was hardly the case. However, the time had come to find out what had happened to her husband, and Morjina began to call up all of Quddus’s friends. You would think she should have called the police. Unfortunately in Chittagong back in those days, the police would have been as helpful as a bunch of kidnappers looking for ransom. Finally, a call yielded with some news from the shocked wife of one of Quddus’s friends asking her, “Didn’t you know? Your husband and my husband have gone off to America for two years.”
I don’t know how I would have dealt with such news.
She took it rather well, however.
As the new head of the household, Morjina took her role as our protector seriously. After a quick phone call to my parents in France, she went to their bedroom and found Abba’s rifle.
Despite my parents’ offer to shorten their trip again, she resisted them.
Night after night, she patrolled the hallways and the balconies of our house with this rifle which was taller than she is, in between spells of breast-feeding Hadduss and dealing with the excessively fragmented sibling rivalry between my two sisters and I.
As for us sisters, we stayed subdued after hearing this news for about two weeks.
No one in the family discussed the disappearance with us very much.
Our new-found love to while away our time was to watch the playful antics of four little monkeys that had recently joined the entourage of pets in the garden. Right before school let out that summer, Quddus and Abba had decided to adopt these rhesus monkeys from a breeder in a town close to Chittagong, in a place which is ingeniously called Banderban (in Bangla, bander means monkey and ban means forest). We would watch them do silly antics in their cage at the bottom of the garden. I’m not sure how it happened, but one day whilst placing bets on a particular monkey performing cooler antics than the others, we fell into disagreement and began to bicker amongst ourselves.
Morjina sent us to the bottom of the hill to discuss our differences in a diplomatic manner, but we were adamant to be troublesome, and worse, to be a damned nuisance about it.
Things went out of control when I stuck my feet under the tires of my father’s Mercedes as a means of displaying to one of my sisters that I’d rather do thus than kiss and make up for quibbling with her.
Ma and Abba came home promptly after finding out about my two crushed toes.
By the time they returned, we had incurred one more mishap. The monkeys had decided to try and adopt Hadduss as one of their own. Billu, the biggest monkey, picked at the lock of the monkey cage one fine day, ran over and grabbed Hadduss when he was sleeping in his pram. She carried the little toddler on top of the oak tree above the monkey cage. Hadduss was wailing because the monkey kept picking at his hair for lice, and slapping him when he cried. Morjina was hysterical; the fire brigade was called, and Hadduss was somehow saved.
All in all, we were all very happy Ma and Abba had returned.
What followed were many months of bed rest for me. We often wondered about Quddus. He called during family birthdays. During these conversations, Morjina never spoke to him for long, and he took it as a cue to only call during special occasions.
Hadduss turned one, then two, without further drama.
During our birthdays, we received large care packages filled with fruit and car shaped erasers, dolls and storybooks from an address in Woodside.
Finally, the day came when Quddus called up Morjina and asked her to meet him in Bangkok. It was almost thirty months after Quddus had disappeared. In that time, he had moved to New York to work as a tailor, giving up his comfortable life as a businessman to pursue his own American dream. I’m not sure why he suddenly decided to come back to the Asian continent, and needless to say, everyone was suspicious by his decision not to come home immediately and resume his place in our joint-family household, instead luring Morjina out with promises of vacationing in the crystal blue waters of the Thai islands.
After much internal family debate about Quddus’s cunning behavior in drawing her out to foreign lands for peaceful negotiations away from our prying family’s opinions, Morjina took him up on his offer and went off to Thailand.
They came back happily reunited after a two-month sojourn. We couldn’t recognize him- he had cut his beard and had started donning stylish American clothing. But what is most amazing to know is that twenty years later, they’re one of the most happily married couples I know. I can’t explain why Morjina stayed with him despite his long disappearance, but find it impressive she was able to forgive his neglect.
When they came back, Quddus called the four of us children over to his room and he opened his suitcase. In it lay over twenty different kinds of cereal, and multiple boxes of Cap’n Crunch. It turns out he used to read our comic books too, and had remembered how we had expressed an interest in trying the cereal years earlier.
Until that moment, I was suspicious about his behavior. When Quddus opened his suitcase to give us our gifts of cereal, my feelings of negativity and suspicion withered.
Ziti gave him a hug and Polska, Hadduss, and I followed until all five of us were hugging tightly, our trepidation forgotten.