Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb
The classroom was devoid of its usual liveliness and chatter. The stillness of the air seemed to have had a soporific effect on its occupants. Even the gecko suspended upside-down on the ceiling was stationary. A thick blanket of heat engulfed the room, making it oppressive and stifling. The only sound was the scratching of chalk on blackboard. Their teacher—Mateen Sir, as he was referred to by his pupils—was writing out a mathematical equation. Once finished, he turned around and told the class to solve the problem in their exercise books. He then sat down, putting his sandal-clad feet up on the rickety wooden table while observing his students. There was a gentle stirring as the boys roused themselves from their lethargy and picked up their pencils.
Raju, however, sat very still, staring intently at his unopened book. There was a black line running diagonally across the cover and it was moving. He brought his face closer, his eyes level with the top of his desk. The little black ants were marching in a straight line, over his book and down the side of his desk. He was so fully immersed in their progress, he failed to notice Mateen Sir walking up to him. It was only when the wooden part of the blackboard duster was thwacked on his head did he look up. He could feel a shower of the powdery chalk-dust land on his forehead and nose. A cry of pain escaped him and he instinctively touched the top of his head. The duster had hurt.
“Stand up!” shouted Mateen Sir.
Raju moved his chair back and stood up. He could see the boys looking up from their books.
“Are you deaf? Do you have a problem with your ears?” Raju shook his head but knew better than to answer. Sir loved to dole out punishment to boys who talked back.
“What did I ever do to deserve a bunch of lazy buggers like you as my students?” His nasal voice sounded even higher pitched than usual. Having failed to secure a position in an office environment, Mir Mohammed Mateen had taken up teaching as a fall-back option. One he regretted every day. The latter sentiment was conveyed to his students on a regular basis.
One of Raju’s classmates, Masood, had informed them that Sir was actually possessed by a jinn. He had seen him lying on the floor of the school veranda a few months ago, shaking and writhing uncontrollably, with white foam coming out of his mouth. The other teachers had to pry his mouth open with something. Masood said he couldn’t be certain what the item used had been, as his view had been obscured by the teachers. Since then, the boys had been far more circumspect and respectful around Mateen Sir.
Sir was so close to Raju, he was accosted not only by the yellow stains on Sir’s white shirt forming an almost circular pattern under his armpits but also the overpowering stink of stale sweat. He held his breath while he waited.
Raju wondered what punishment he had to look forward to. Sir’s favourite was getting them to stand with their arms outstretched—a book on either palm. The duration corresponded with the perceived severity of the crime. Sometimes he would make them hold their ears and do squats. Sir also liked to hit the palm of their hands with a stick he kept in the corner of the room. Although it was painful, that particular form of punishment was over relatively quickly.
But, for once, it appeared that luck was on Raju’s side and the bell signifying the end of school rang out. Within seconds, everyone in the room jumped to their feet and slammed their books shut. Raju waited. Mateen Sir had to wrestle between the thought of being rid of his pupils for the day or dispensing some well-deserved punishment on one of them. He chose the former and after rapping the duster on Raju’s head one more time, let him go.
Raju picked up his book and gently tapped it on his desk. He hoped this would cause the least disruption for the ants. They landed on the wooden surface in a state of disarray but within moments resumed their steady descent down the side of his desk. Satisfied, he packed his bag and ran to join his friends, Shojib and Tito, on their walk home.
The pavement was crowded with people and the narrow road was heaving with bicycles, rickshaws, cars and scooters. The three boys weaved their way through the chaos; a game in itself, where they zigzagged through the people, avoided falling into the open drains on the side and jumped out of the way of oncoming traffic.
Raju left his two friends and turned into the alley leading up to his house. He was suddenly aware of his stomach reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since he had left for school in the morning, except for a banana during tiffin time.
“Maaaa, I’m hungry!” he shouted as he ran through the door. The bag was thrown carelessly onto the floor along with his green water bottle.
His mother was in their small kitchen scrubbing some dirty pots. It felt hotter inside the room than it did it under the scorching sun outside.
“What happened to you? You look like an old man!” she said, smiling at him as she looked up. Raju remembered the chalk dust on his head. He smiled back.
“Go and wash yourself first.”
“Achcha, Ma!” he said, running into the bathroom. He cast off his light blue school shirt and navy shorts and filled the bucket with water, bathing as quickly as he could. The cool water felt good on his hot skin. The bar of soap residing on the windowsill lay unused. Ma would never know.
She had already put some rice, dal and fish on a plate for him by the time he returned to the kitchen. He sat down on the floor next to his mother and mixed the food together before gulping it down.
“Hai hai! Slow down!” said Ma. “You’ll get a stomach ache. What’s the rush, do you have a train to catch?”
Raju giggled. “I’m playing cricket with Tareq, Ma. I don’t want to be late.” He licked his fingers clean. She passed him a glass of water which he drank just as quickly and stood up to wash his hands under the tap in the corner of the kitchen.
He thought it prudent not to tell her that they had decided to climb to the top of a ten-storey building that was still under construction. The workers on the site had shooed them away on a couple of occasions saying it was dangerous, so they had planned to go when the site would be less busy or better still, empty. It was a dare they had both accepted and neither had the intention of backing down. Raju hadn’t told Tareq he was afraid of heights. For eleven-year-olds, not going through with a dare was unthinkable and tantamount to being labelled a coward. He would climb to the top even if he died trying, so firm was his resolve. He could almost see his body lying on the ground, his bones broken into a hundred pieces. If he survived the fall, his father would most certainly kill him for lying to his mother.
The schoolbag was retrieved from where he had discarded it and after a little bit of rummaging inside, he found his recently acquired, most-prized possession—a red-and-yellow striped spinning top. It was sitting hidden away right at the bottom, nestled between his maths and geography textbooks. He wound the string around the wooden top and, with a skilful flick of his wrist, sent it twirling and dancing on the floor. When it finally came to a halt, he picked it up and stuffed it into his pocket, along with the string. Raju wanted to show Tareq his new find. He had spotted the top lying near the school gates when he had arrived in the morning. By the end of the day, as no one had claimed the object, he felt it acceptable, even obligatory, to take it home.
“I’m going, Ma,” he shouted on his way out and heard her telling him to come home before dark.
The sun was still hanging high in the sky, a lone Cheel bird circling above as Raju sped off towards the construction site. He could feel the sweat trickle down his back as he made his way through the narrow alleys.
It had been a matter of pride when Tareq had befriended Raju in school from the day he had joined. An unwritten alliance had been forged between them once they had discovered that both their fathers worked as drivers in the same company. Raju’s classmates had been envious of him finding favour with one of the older boys, especially as Tareq was one the three ‘leaders’ in school. It made Raju untouchable—none of the other boys would dare bully or harass him. No one wanted to get on the wrong side of Tareq or his friends.
Raju ran the last bit of the way. In his eagerness to show Tareq his spinning top, he had, for a brief moment, forgotten the real reason for their meeting. As the construction site came into view, he saw Tareq, sitting on a pile of bricks stacked just outside the corrugated metal barrier, his long limbs splayed out in front of him. He was so deeply absorbed in his own thoughts he didn’t see his friend approaching. In fact, he didn’t hear his name being called until Raju jumped on him in a playful tackle.
He pushed Raju off, causing him to stagger backwards, nearly falling onto the heap of bricks. “Hey, why did you do that?” asked Raju reproachfully.
“You shouldn’t creep up on people if you don’t want to get shoved.” Tareq’s voice was unusually brusque.
Raju noticed his eyes were red and puffy. He wondered if he had been crying.
“Are we going to climb to the top or sit here like a sack of potatoes?” Raju said with false bravado. He looked up at the concrete structure looming above them. He had never been in a building as tall as this one and he could feel his heart thumping loudly in his chest. It was so loud he thought Tareq might hear. There were no walls or rooms yet, just the bare bones of the building with metal rods jutting out everywhere. The first few floors had concrete stairs leading up but the higher floors were accessible only by means of some makeshift bamboo ladders.
Tareq gazed up and frowned. “We can’t. Look, there are some workers up there,” he said pointing to one of the higher floors. “They’ll just chase us off. We’ll have to come back some other time.” He didn’t sound particularly sad by the turn of events.
So he wasn’t going to die today after all, thought Raju with relief. The sudden respite from impending death made him want to pee. He asked Tareq to wait while he unzipped his shorts and relieved himself by the side of the road. With luck, Tareq would forget their dare in time.
He remembered he had his spinning top in his pocket and took it out to show his companion. Tareq placed it on his palm, scrutinising the top with the eyes of a connoisseur. He nodded his head in admiration. They moved away from the construction site and found an even patch of ground and Raju demonstrated his skill with another flick of his wrist. The top went spinning on the dusty ground, leaving circular tracks with its metal pin. Then Tareq took it upon himself to show Raju how to get it off the ground and onto his palm without disrupting its motion. As Raju looked at the wooden object going round and round, he noticed that there was a red welt around Tareq’s wrist. There was also a bruise further up his arm.
He looked at his friend, “Did he beat you again?”
Tareq didn’t look at Raju but nodded. He kept his eyes firmly on the spinning top that was now coming to the end of its dizzying cycle.
On more than one occasion, Tareq had been on the receiving end of his father’s anger, a man known for his temper and foul mouth. He had frequently shown up in school with a cut lip or bruises on his arms or legs. No one had asked how he had injured himself, not even the teachers. Raju had, in his childish innocence, been persistent and after the initial few rebuffs, been sworn to secrecy by Tareq.
Raju knew better than to ask any more questions and they played on the side of the road with the spinning top, making it whirl and twirl to their whim. Afterwards, they ran down the street chasing each other, laughing at the pedestrians who shouted and cursed at them for colliding into them. They stopped by Alamgir’s sweet shop, gazing with hungry eyes at the wondrous selection of sweets on offer.
Tareq rummaged in his pocket and took out a dirty ten-taka note. “I found it on the street,” he said, waving the note in the air, and entered the shop with a swagger. He returned with two juicy roshogollas. They bit into them, unperturbed by the sweet syrup running down their hands. They devoured the sweets and licked their hands dry before continuing their chase. Soon the sky turned from blue to orange with the sun making its descent for the day. A sign it was time for Raju to head home. Reluctantly, the boys parted ways.
“See you in school tomorrow,” he shouted to Tareq, but his friend had already disappeared into the crowd.
The following morning, Raju walked to school by himself. His mother had insisted on putting oil in his hair before allowing him to leave the house, which had resulted in him missing both Shojib and Tito. Going by himself wasn’t much fun. He arrived just in time for the morning bell, running into his classroom before the teacher came to take the roll call. From the moment he entered the room, he knew something was wrong. The boys fell silent and whispered to each other, all the while watching him with curious eyes.
“Hey, what are you staring at? Have I got two heads?” Raju said to the class.
Shojib came forward. “Haven’t you heard?” he asked breathlessly, his face brimming with excitement.
“Aai hai, about Tareq?”
Raju could feel a tightness in his chest. “What happened to Tareq?”
Shojib looked at the others and then said, in a lowered voice, “He beat his father to a pulp. The police have taken him to the local police station and locked him up. I heard his father hit his mother so hard, he cracked her skull. Tareq tried to stop him.”
Raju listened, wanting to disbelieve Shojib’s story but knowing it to be true.
“His father hit Tareq with an iron rod,” Tito interjected. “Tareq grabbed it and started hitting his father back till he was almost dead.” There was a certain amount of relish in his voice as he recounted this piece of information.
“They took his father to the hospital. If he dies, it’ll be a murder case!” said Shojib, his eyes so wide they looked as if they might pop out of his head.
Raju looked at the boys, their young faces watching him intently, waiting for his reaction. Raju said nothing. He slowly picked up his bag and, to the utter amazement of his fellow students, walked out of the room and out of the school.
“Raju! Hey Raju, where are you going?” rang out from the classroom. Raju just kept walking.
He thought of his friend sitting in a jail cell by himself. He wondered whether the police had beaten him too. He could feel his stomach clenching at the thought of Tareq being alone and afraid. He knew he would have been. He was ashamed of the tears running down his face and he dashed them away with his hand.
Raju walked without thinking but soon found himself back at the construction site. The workers were just arriving. He entered the fenced area and made his way towards the stairs leading up. The builders didn’t notice him at first till they spotted him climbing one of the ladders.
“Oi, what do you think you’re doing?” shouted one of them. “Get down!”
Raju ignored him and kept going. He could hear the man shouting now to the others but he blocked out the noise. He climbed up, higher and higher, his legs aching with every step. He could see the top of the coconut tree next to the building and then he passed even that. Finally, he reached the top.
The sound from below receded and the sun shone down on him. He walked to the edge of the roof and looked down. The people appeared small—reminding him of the ants marching on his exercise book. The height made him dizzy and he took a deep breath and stepped back. Raju opened his bag and found the spinning top. With a flick of his wrist he let it go, watching it spin round and round.
Truth or Dare is published by Bengal Lights Books and is out now.
Nadia Kabir Barb is a British Bangladeshi writer and journalist. She graduated from SOAS then received an MSc from the London School of Economics and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She has worked in the health and development sector in the UK and Bangladesh and was a long-standing columnist for The Daily Star in Bangladesh. Her fiction has been featured in various literary journals and anthologies. Truth or Dare is her debut collection of short stories. She lives in London and is currently working on her next book.