The light struck her eyes at just the right angles. It cut through her slumber, stirring her awake.
Jyoti yawned, stretching her hands. The Airport Road Flyover stretched out in front of her. It was littered with the sluggish metal bodies of vehicles chugging along their Sunday morning commutes.
She didn't want to be here. Not so soon. She was doing well at Benapole. She was going to be posted in Kolkata soon.
Kolkata. College Street. Botanical Garden. All those other places that actual residents are supposed to know.
She was dying to see Ambassador cars, walk through hundred-year-old streets, and see a part of Bengal that felt pure. Less vandalized and mangled.
Good food. Good tea. Less terrible people. For the most part.
"It's been a while since you have been in Dhaka, isn't it, maam? " asked Faruq, her attaché.
"Right. Not that much time, but a lot has happened in the meanwhile. "
"Hmm. I know. Let's talk about this later. Let me sleep for now, Faruq. "
Faruq sighed, and complied.
"Decrease the temperature, too. I will be boiled alive, in this weather. "
Jyoti plugged in her headphones and opened Spotify on her phone. It wasn't officially available in Bangladesh, but she used a modded APK and a VPN to bypass the region lock.
Bob Dylan's soothing voice poured into her ears. Everything was going to be alright. She had her memories to retreat to.
She looked towards Lord Krishna, small, bronze and mysterious, Radha sitting by his side. She trusted in his wisdom, and so far, it hadn't led her astray.
Things had taken a turn for the worse when Sagar left them in the middle of the night. "I can't do this family thing anymore, Nandi. Take care of the kids. " His note, like his usual speech, was sparse.
She had made things work, with her English Medium teacher's salary and round-the-clock tuition. There came times when she saw the faces of students more than her own Jyoti and Chandra.
Jyoti was a smart kid. She grew up fast. She started doing tuitions of her own, sometimes teaching the younger siblings of her own students. Jyoti went a step ahead and taught Bangla Medium students too. By the time she was seventeen, she did other side gigs, like writing, designing and singing at functions.
Nandita wondered where she got the time. She wished that the girl was more serious about her studies. Jyoti did get into the country's best business school, but Nandita could tell that she didn't truly apply herself during those four years.
Chandra, on the other hand, was a lot more studious. She was beautiful, too: more beautiful than both Nandita and Jyoti. She read, and studied, and sketched. She idled, sometimes, designing intricate saris and salwars. She was an old soul in a modern world, quoting Rumi and Nazrul in alternating days.
Nandita prayed, and as she prayed, her mind sang.
Krishno Aila Radhar Kunje
Fule Paila Bhromora
Krishna Aila Radhar Kunje
Fule Paila Bhromora
Mayur Beshete Shajon Radhika
Moyur Beshete Shajon Radhika
Her mind fell out its reverie, as she heard keys clanging and a lock turning. The front door opened, and Jyoti stepped in, sunburnt and sleepy, duffle bag slung over one shoulder.
"Hi, Ma. Sorry for interrupting your morning prayers. "
Jyoti took off her shoes, opening the shoe drawer to take out her slippers. She looked weary, and old. Older beyond her twenty four years of age.
"It's nothing. Have you eaten breakfast yet? "
Jyoti smiled, brushing stray strands away from her face, taking off her hair scrunchie and letting her mane loose.
"No. Had some AllTime Butter Bun. There isn't enough time for breakfast. Going to grab some shuteye, a shower and head off to office."
"That's no way to live. You are already as thin as a branch. "
Jyoti scoffed. She surveyed her home, taking a moment to reorient herself to her surroundings. Much had changed in their three room, thirteen hundred square feet flat in Badda since they moved in eleven years ago.
"I am okay, Ma. Don't worry. Is Chandra in class?"
"Yes. She has missed you."
"I have missed you guys too. What's the state of our groceries? I want to cook for you tonight. "
Nandita grinned. Jyoti had always been a preternaturally gifted cook. She had fantastic taste buds too, and a hell of a sweet tooth. She would make her man very happy someday, Nandita thought wistfully. Whoever he was, if Jyoti ever chose to settle down.
" We have enough of meat and fish. We are running short on vegetables, though. I will tell Chandra to grab some on her way home. "
Jyoti went to her room, shutting the door as she began changing clothes. Nandita resumed her prayers, both relieved and tense.
She was happy that Jyoti was here, but it would have been better for her to be away from Dhaka. It wasn't the best place for a pretty, fair-skinned woman to live, much less one who was bold and intelligent.
But she trusted in Jyoti, and she trusted in Lord Krishna. They had survived this long. Perhaps, they will make it through the rest of this tumultuous year.
As Jyoti showered, she saw discarded hair matted across the basin bowl. She rinsed, scrubbed and wiped diligently. She felt liberated and relieved. This, and the AC in her room, were her small comforts in her home. Her Persian cat Chini was getting cranky in her old age.
She hummed Amar Pothchola as she approached the basin and grabbed some of the hairs, observing their split ends and dies, separating them according to their owners.
Then, without hesitation, she munched on them, savoring the dead cells and dried dies as a deluge of memories hit her synapses. Econ classes at 9 am. Tea at Shadow. Makeout session at TSC. Smudged lipstick, cheap deodorant, decent aftershave.
His name was Ashik, and he was a master's student in the Physics department. He was older than Chandra. Much older. Jyoti was intrigued. Chandra was smart, but she didn't have the best taste in men. Jyoti should know, as that ran in the family.
Jyoti took more of Chandra's hair, and chewed them thoughtfully, slowly. She saw more vivid flashes this time: glimpses of the last two weeks.
Protests on TV. Outrage on Facebook. Tense atmosphere in classes. Huddling together with friends and Ashik, crying as the authorities beat the children bloody. Marching with other students at Shahbagh, and being gassed at Zigatola for her troubles.
Jyoti felt sad, but also proud of Chandra. She was just nineteen. But she had heroes of her own to look up to, and she couldn't let Sufia Kamal, Begom Rokeya and Jahanara Imam down.
Jyoti changed into an old salwar and went back to her room. She took out a pair of sturdy jeans, a navy blue kurta and brown sneakers. She stared at her reflection as she dressed, studying it intently. Her masked expressions confounded herself.
Was there anything left, of the Jyoti before she found what she was, and what she could do? Did anything remain of Jyoti before she was assigned the codename Ceres?
She considered changing her looks for the investigation. She probably would need to. Her superior hadn't briefed her much, but from what she had heard, she understood that they needed someone of her unique talents to crack the case.
She applied makeup and fixed her hair on autopilot. She checked her tiny Glock's ammo clip and then holstered it, grabbing two more clips from her bedside drawer. You could never be too careful in Dhaka.
Chini jumped from her windowsill, starring daggers at Jyoti. She stood near Jyoti's feet, purring ruefully.
"Don't be so cross, you old hag. You will get plenty of pats once I get back tonight. "
Chini averted her gaze, downcast, and then jumped onto Jyoti's old study desk. Jyoti considered munching on some of her shed hairs, but decided against it. She wasn't keen to know who the old gal had mated with this time.
"Try to come back early, if possible. It takes a while for you to cook. " Nandita said as Jyoti put on her shoes.
"I will try. It depends on God, work and traffic, to be honest. "
Jyoti hugged Nandita, warmly and wistfully. For once, she felt thirteen again, and she felt echoes of the Jyoti that still remained.
She stepped out and called for the elevator. She peeked at the narrow roads snaking below her, the August sun glaring at a dozen passers-by. She checked her Pathao, the local ride-sharing app. Her biker, Shahana, was still four minutes away.
Jyoti opened the "Your Summer Rewind" playlist on Spotify as the elevator doors opened. She put on her Remax earphones as she stepped on to the lift, smiling and greeting Kamran Noor, the elderly patriarch from fifth floor. Cool Chainsmokers beats streamed into her headspace, and in the corner of her mind's eye she was once again traversing the Euphrates, joined by Sophia, Rubin, Azhar and Paul.
It was a nice summer. The trainees had mingled, trained and shadowed their mentors on counter-intel operations. They observed drone strikes, honey pots and, that one time they veered into ISIS controlled territory, a night-time raid on supply trucks and transports carrying prisoners.
She felt her insides twist as she remembered the state of the refugees fleeing Syria. She had shared food with some of them, and tasted the abject terror, hunger and despair coursing through the impoverished family of six.
She relaxed, in turn, when she remembered sleeping under starry nights, counting stars and charting constellations with Paul, and tasting Jack Daniels on his lips. He had felt so good, then: hard muscles and smooth, sculpted torso, hard blue eyes and Don Draper-like jaws. But then she smelt Sophia's perfume on his shirt and her lipstick on his neck, and that ruined the rest of the night for her.
She skipped to the next song, and smiled once again at Noor chacha, who grimaced. She had caught him staring at her bust, and as usual, pretended to ignore that happened.
This was only her first leer of the day. The last time she kept count, she lost count at fifty-five. And that was eight years ago.
She walked past the garage, humming in sync with Demi Lovato's vocals. She frowned as she tiptoed across the edge of the street, avoiding the swaths of mud and puddles, leftover from yesterday night's rain. She adjusted her orna self-consciously as she passed the local tong. Ratul smiled sheepishly at her, and she smiled back. He had grown into a young man since she had last seen him, when he left for his village in Mymensingh.
She stopped when she reached the road's end. She checked her phone again: Shahana was one minute away. Soon enough, a blue scooty appeared, pausing to a halt in front of her. Shahana smiled at her, her beedy eyes flittering through her blue helmet.
"Apu, you are going to Dhanmondi, right?"
"Yes. Is there any problem?"
"No. Actually, I was going there anyways. It's good that I get to take you there too."
Shahana handed a spare helmet to Jyoti.
" Do I have to wear this?"
"Yes. New rules after the protests. "
Jyoti smiled wryly as she took the helmet and wore it, before climbing on to Shahana's Scooty. At least some things had changed for the better.
Shahana took off, deftly making her way through the streets. Jyoti clasped the back handles of the bike tight, as it bumped a few times off the uneven roads.
"Apu, what do you do? Are you still studying or employed full-time?"
"A job. In a consulting firm. You?"
"I study in IUB. Dual Major: Economics and Finance. Fifth Semester."
"Right. I studied in a similar field. IBA, Marketing major. Economics and Finance- now those are difficult subjects. Especially for a major."
"I suppose. But you must be quite brilliant, to study in IBA. Why didn't you try for MNC jobs?"
"That's not right for wandering souls like me. Spending half of my life in cubicle, I can't do that. Need a frequent of change of scenery."
"I see. You can a buy a bike like me, Jyotidi. You can go out for a drive and travel outside of Dhaka whenever you like. "
Jyoti laughed softly. She liked Shahana. She had spunk, but there was also that element of wide-eyed wonder to her. Good combinations for a good spirit, though perhaps a bit mismatched for Dhaka's dour reality.
"No. I am not good at riding bikes. I was posted outside Dhaka, actually, for a while. How much have you travelled outside the city, Shahana?"
"I have been to a couple of places. Srimangal, Sylhet, Rajshahi. Mostly with friends. Trying to save up for a solo trip, though. That's why I am driving Pathao, along with part time jobs and tuition."
"That sounds good. How has that been going, so far?"
"Not bad. Some of the riders weren't the best, back when I was just a user. Some sat a bit too close for comfort. Some of them smiled, and asked me to smile, as well. And let's not get into the messages.
It's felt good, asserting my independence, once I bought this bike. Traveling through the city whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted. Getting to know its alleys and corners intimately. Giving lifts to friends."
"I can't imagine your boyfriend taking kindly to that, though, giving lift to friends."
Shahana chuckled. "He didn't at first. Then I gave him a good earful one day. That straightened him out. "
"You are something else, Shahana," Jyoti stuck an earphone in her right ear. "I am going to listen to music for a while, okay? "
Soulful Deep Purple tunes took Jyoti away once again. She was still here, traveling through Panthapath, looking disinterestedly at street peddlers trying to sell water bottles and juice packs. But she was also there, in Benapole, analysing and decripting border chatter, and paying visits to local gathering spots. She stood out in such places, sometimes, and sometimes, a dark orna wouldn't do.
She remembered, that one time, when she ventured beyond the border and rode beyond Petrapol and all the way to Gopalnagar. She had taken the wheel then, not Faruq.
It felt liberating, to be in charge of her own destiny, for once. She contemplated ditching Faruq, and the car, and disappearing into the wild for a few days. Reemerge somewhere in Hooghly, build a new identity, and then spend the next few years in Kolkata.
She could still have Kolkata. Her trainee period was almost over. This one attachment could be a make or break case for her.
"Jyotidi, I had another stupid question. "
"Sure. Ask away."
"Have you participated in business competitons?"
"Yes. Ad Maker, Socio Business, Corporiddlerz. First and second runners-up. Brandwitz finalist."
"It was easier than it sounds."
It really was. Jyoti was mostly coasting by. A few fistfuls of hairs from the seasoned competitors, seniors and previous winners was enough. She used to breeze by on the experience alone. She always stopped short of winning though. She didn't want the spotlight, especially if it meant taking that away from someone more deserving.
She participated in these competitions, and periodically in debate tournaments, because she was often scouting for potential recruits. If she could find someone by herself, that meant a pay bump as well as an increase in other perks. It was almost a Pyramid scheme in structure, as she could participate in their training too.
"Give me some tips, please. I always get knocked out in second rounds."
"You need to get better at case analysis, then. Good slides and solid presentation also helps."
"Noted. I might knock you later, to poke your brains about this."
"Sure. You already have my number."
As if on cue, Jyoti's phone vibrated inside her purse. An old school ringtone greeted her ears.
"No chance, oh that's what you got, yeah..."
Jyoti answered. "Yes, boss?"
"Where are you? I have been here for ten minutes already."
"Almost there. Traffic is murder, as usual."
There was a pause, before a soft laugh. "You know, I can still tell when you are lying. You need to work on that."
"Oh yeah? What if I wanted you to know that I was lying?"
"That's some Inception-level bullshit. But I will take it. Come quickly. The uniforms won't be here for long."
"I will be there. See you in ten."
Shahana beamed at Jyoti after she disconnected.
"I heard, Jyotidi. Ten minutes it is."
Jyoti floored the pedal and sped through Dhanmondi, before veering into a narrow alley.
"Just don't tell my boyfriend about this."
Jyoti made a zipping motion across her mouth. "Don't worry, my lips are sealed."
Saeed stole a look at this phone's screen. He was doing well today in Clash of Clans. Once he was relieved of guard duty, he was confident he could merrily grind for a couple of hours on his way home.
"What's that, Saeed?"
Saeed stared at Ershad, who was gawking at Saeed's mid-range smartphone. The forty-something old was getting more curious as he aged. His paunch meant that sometimes, he couldn't look beyond the edge of his belly. That didn't stop him from trying.
"It's called Clash of Clans. You can try playing it too. Good timepass. "
Ershad snorted. "You should try paying more attention to earning for your family. How are you going to feed two kids with a constable's salary?"
"Sir, I don't have any kids. Just the two of us, for now."
"So what? Wives are fickle creatures, too."
"I don't know, sir. Tisha isn't like that. She works full-time. Earns twice than I do, too."
"Hmm. What kind of a man are you, Saeed? Don't you feel ashamed, living off your wife's income?"
"Why? I live off my income, and she lives off hers. And we use both of our incomes to run the household. It's simple, really."
"Hmm. Your generation is too emotional. We used to work, day and night. From traffic to taking FRIs in stations and collecting protection money from local shops. You guys just don't want to do the real hard work."
"I don't know, sir. Work is work."
Saeed turned his neck, look at the slightly ajar door leading to the duplex. He craned his neck upwards, taking in the modern majesty of the building's architecture. This was a good spot of real estate, overlooking Rabindra Sorobor and the Lake. Nothing he or Tisha would be able to afford, even if they saved for the next hundred years.
"What happened here, Saeed?"
"One missing, another dead. It's been two weeks. "
"Is that so? Anyone from the opposition?"
"Probably not. They are simple folk, the whole lot of them. The father's a writer, and the mother's a professor. The son goes to university, and the girl goes to college."
"Bangladesh is pretty simple too, Saeed. It's just that sometimes, we play in the mud too long, too often."
"Whatever you say, sir."
A few more minutes passed. Then, the young officer in civilian clothes emerged, donning his Aviator glasses as he stepped out, grimacing as he took in the sunlight. He looked rugged and fit, his physique no doubt a result from many hours in the gym.
A blue Scooty sped towards them, before slowing to a halt. A young woman disembarked, taking off her helmet and freeing her long locks. She straightened the frizzy edges, and checked her phone, tapping away at her Pathao app. The female rider nodded after checking her own phone.
"I got the money. See you later, Jyotidi."
"You too, Shahana. Stay safe. "
Jyoti walked towards the young officer, who seemed half annoyed and half relieved. "Still stuck in Benapole time?"
"It's the same timezone," Jyoti grinned from ear to ear. She extended her hand. "Good to see you too, Ehsan."
Ehsan took her hand and shook it. "Let's go inside. We are already late, as it is."
Jyoti nodded. The two walked past the metal gates and the two guards. Saeed mentally took note of Jyoti's posture and confidence. She was young, younger than him and even his sister. But she walked with the sort of confidence that Saeed saw from senior officers.
Jyoti grasped the marble railings leading to the entrance and paused. She closed her eyes, forehead furrowed. "I know this place. Oh shit."
"Yes. I have been here before. Well, not me, exactly. But someone I know has."
Ehsan looked at her apologetically. "Yeah. I was afraid you were going to say that."