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Bright Lines

by Tanwi Nandini Islam

Paperback, 296 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $16 |


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Tanwi Nandini Islam

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NPR Summary

A Bangladeshi orphan haunted by her parents' murders moves in with family members in Brooklyn until a fateful coming-of-age summer when her Islamic runaway cousin and she confront painful family secrets.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Bright Lines

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2015 Tanwi Nandini 

Girls, every where. Anwar Saleem stared brazenly at the ?ock that strode down Atlantic Avenue. He wondered if they noticed him sucking in his paunch, as he stroked the last ribbon of lavender paint across the awning of his apothecary. LOTERÍA Y CIGAR ILLOS Y SE HABLA ESPAÑOL disappeared into the settling twilight, erasing the last traces of the previous owner's bodega. Anwar wiped his brow. A band of paint stiffened on his forehead. He climbed down, light-headed from the fumes.

On that ?rst Saturday of June, everything in Brooklyn, everything except the sun, seemed to rise. Around the corner, on Third Avenue, petrol vapors blazed from cars in standstill, and traf?c shimmered as if recalled in a dream. Trails of a street hawker's incense disappeared into the scaffolding of an art deco phallus, where pigeons clamored in its eaves. Anwar's Apothecary, sober and secular, nestled between Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe and A Holy Bookstore. A shout from the apartment upstairs startled Anwar enough that he nearly lost his balance.

"Thas not bad for business, now is it, Anwah?" called out the Guyanese street hawker, Rashaud Persaud, from his table down the block.

"Got a very good feeling about this color, my friend!"

"Naw, man, the ?re escape! A girl on da move!" Rashaud laughed and pointed to a young girl climbing out of the window above the apothecary.

The girl hopped down the ?re escape, her rump facing the street. Anwar craned his neck to see. She peeled off her hijab, revealing hair cropped as short as Audrey Hepburn's. Mad dash toward the train; the girl did not look back. A fantasy sobered him: Charu the Runaway—slinking outside with her singing hips, those taunting kohl-painted eyes—ready to meet Internet con?dants.

He shook this image of his younger daughter from his mind. They'd been having some trouble lately; she was moody, but she was going to NYU—that counted for something, right? Anwar looked once more to admire his brand-new storefront. The color was—feminine —but this last bit of paint could liven up their bathroom walls, which had become tinged gray with neglect. His wife, Hashi, would disapprove. She hatedpink-tink, as she told him every time he wore his beloved polo shirt. She rhymed her displeasure:skinny-tinny, Spanish-Tanish, sex-tex. And they always began with the letter T.

Rashaud helped Anwar pull down the heavy, screeching gate.

"Needs some grease," said Anwar.

"Try this." Rashaud smacked him a high-?ve, pressing a Ziploc bag into his palm.

"Trail mix?"

"Majoun. Dates, raisins, walnuts, hash, and honey."

"Thank you," said Anwar, shaking Rashaud's hand good-bye. It was curious how they'd known each other for almost ten years, but how little he knew about his friend. Rashaud had been hawking since he was eighteen, after some problems at home with his mother. But that was as much as he knew. Anwar handed him a New York Post from his back pocket. "And you take this. I've gotta quit reading this shit. Gives me nightmares about freak accidents and Mets games."

As Anwar made his way home, he nibbled on the majoun. Sweetness coated his tongue. He unbuttoned one more button of his cotton plaid shirt, to let the evening breeze in. He surrendered to the humdrum of dusk, and listened as the voices, wares, wisdoms, and gods changed.

Coralline tendrils of cloud revealed a gaping hole where the sun had been. As he walked down Hanson Place and crossed onto Fulton Street, eateries changed names as frequently as bandits. Farther down on Fulton, he passed a mosque with all the exterior charm of its neighbors, a 99-cent store and a bodega. Anwar never ventured there, and strode past the hennaed beards.

He did not believe in the god of these men.

Years past mingled with the unknowns of tomorrow on these evening walks home. He had lived atrocity during the 1971 war in Bangladesh, questioned the Supreme for allowing it. Thirty-two years later and still the ugliness of the war stayed with him, a dull ache, for the most part. The life he managed to have unnerved him: Hashi, Charu, his home; and of course, his elder daughter, Ella, who could not be called beautiful, but was on theinside. He pictured the perfect end to his day: a cold shower, then sitting in his studio, penning the memoir he never could start, about a pair of vagabonds during the war.

As he left-turned onto Cambridge Place, a maze of dominoes collapsed, each tick synchronized with the blinking eyes of the hustlers who ruled this corner. They nodded at him and he nodded back. There was nothing like this, the brownstone streets of his neighborhood. Children ran through an unleashed ?re hydrant, hopscotch chalk erased in the wasteful gush of water. The aroma of grilled burgers brought tears to his eyes; he missed red meat.

As Anwar walked up to his brownstone on the corner of Cambridge Place and Gates Avenue, a hibiscus blossom landed by his feet. He had believed the tree would induce restful sleep in Ella, who struggled with insomnia. Within a year, it was already ?ve feet tall; now, after ten years, it was taller than the house. Ella had slept peacefully, he believed, ever since.It's good to be high, he thought, running his tongue on his teeth for remnants of the majoun.

He saw a solitary light in the kitchen. His wife's beauty salon, the eponymous Hashi's, was closed for the day. His third-?oor tenant's apartment: lights off. He mouthed her name,Ra-mo-na Es-pin-al. She worked the night shift today. No glimpses until morning.

Anwar cleared his throat as if to give a speech, but decided to watch the scene in the kitchen window.

His wife, Hashi, cast a ?stful of onions into a pot, then several pinches of spice. She dipped a spoon into another pot and had a taste. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then yelled, "Charu! Charu!" A minute later, their daughter Charu entered, giving Hashi a light hug from behind. Hashi turned to look at her.

Anwar tiptoed into the house, hoping to surprise them. He paused for a moment, in the darkness.Do not enter, he thought, suppressing the urge to giggle.

From this angle, Hashi's back was turned. Staccato chopping of carrots ?lled the room, breaking his reverie. The pot of onions and turmeric hissed in canola oil, splattering grease onto the wall. Charu sat at the table, staring at an array of objects arranged like a daisy on the plaid tablecloth: a pile of empty cigarette packets, some rather compromising photos of Charu at the beach, and the prize, in the center: a condom wrapper, empty of its goods.

"Do—you—want—to—die?" he heard Hashi say.

Charu protested, "Ma, I told you! I was at the beach—that's what people wear to the beach! Those are my cigarettes from a long time ago —I quit! The condom was from sex ed—I just wanted to see what it looked like!"

"You—are— not—my— daughter —You—are— nothing —like—me," Hashi said, her back pumping up and down as she chopped.

"Ma," Charu implored.


Anwar decided this was the moment to walk in.

"Er, what is happening, ladies?" he asked. He swiped a carrot from the cutting board. A second later and Hashi would've severed a ?ngertip.

"Your daughter tells lies and your daughter is doing sex and your daughter is doing smoking and your daughter is not mine," Hashi said. She turned to look at Anwar. She set down the knife and crossed her arms, as if waiting for his response.

Anwar stared at Hashi, and then at their child, back and forth. Hashi's hair was pulled back in a severe bun, her cheeks ?ushed with anger. She was yellow-skinned, slender, eyes sharp as a hawk's; he still glimpsed traces of that haughty girl he'd been incensed with back when he knew her as his comrade Rezwan's little sister. And Charu, skin tanned by these secret beach excursions, womanish curves she'd inherited from neither him nor Hashi. He imagined Charu's visage as his own mother's. He couldn't remember; she'd died before he'd known her breast. The sole photograph of his mother had been eaten by the elements, marring her face.

Charu's enormous eyes were dead cold. It was a look that often corrupted his daughter's sweet face. Long gone were the days when they rode the subway all the way to Queens for singing lessons.

"Hashi, I am sure Charu's explanation is suf?cient," he said.

"No!" Hashi spat.

Guess that's the wrong answer.

"No dinner. Charu will be alone tonight, and I won't hear another word."

"Arré, Hashi, it's not fair—she is a growing girl. She must eat."

"Fine by me!" yelled Charu. "I'm going out, anyway."

"It's almost nine at night. You aren't going any where," said Hashi.

"I'm eighteen. It's Saturday night and I can do—"

"Shut. Your. Mouth. You're not eighteen yet. You don't even have a summer job. That would keep you in line." A ?eck of spit from Hashi's mouth landed on her chin. Anwar thought better than to dab it away.

"I told you, I'm working. On my clothing line."

"With what money? What fabric?"

Charu inhaled—Anwar knew this was the momentary calm be- fore the storm. If he remembered correctly, Hashi had promised her leftover dresses and textiles from wedding parties.

"I'll be gone soon enough. And I'm never eating this shit again!"

Charu shoved the dining table. Photos ?ew through the air like a dandelion clock. She ran into her father, and let go a wretched banshee shrill when he didn't move out of her way. She forced her way past, stomped to her bedroom, and slammed the door. A minute later, the sound of objects being thrown against a wall—a stiletto, a dumbbell, any thing within her reach. Then, a furious clanging of a Tibetan meditation bell, found at a German exchange student'sschnickschnacks sale.

Fathering a teenage girl, rough stuff, thought Anwar, as he picked up a photo that had landed by his foot. In the photo, Charu's lips kissed a dreadlocked boy's ear: Malik. He felt a strange pang seeing the picture, jealousy tinged with admiration. He had suspected his younger daughter was dating Malik. The boy was his intern at the apothecary, anddid seem to be around the house often these past few months. The kids had grown up together in the neighborhood. Both were seniors at Brooklyn Tech; graduation was in two weeks. Charu would be headed to NYU, while Malik would be going to the New School. Anwar wondered if this meant they would continue their relations; it was pretty convenient. Malik was a soft-spoken, handsome Black boy. A solid, sensitive young man, better than what any stern, absentminded father could ask for. Anwar could stand him and that meant a lot.

Anwar wondered how Charu knew this feeling of love. It was further proof of their distance. Had the movies taught her?

Hashi bent over and picked up the photographs.

"I cleaned her room today and came upon this," said Hashi. "She's not growing up a good person. Look at this." She pointed to another photo: bikini-clad Charu, eating a corn dog at Coney Island, pursing her lips around the thing rather—suggestively.

He missed Ella. She was a sophomore at Cornell's agricultural school—a choice she'd made given her knack for tending their gardens. Ella remained remote, but within his grasp. She never intruded upon Anwar's sensibility and listened to him about most matters. Her left eye had a tendency to turn this way and that behind her spectacles, and he wondered what she was looking at. If she were here, thought Anwar, her calm would keep Hashi's nerves intact; she would ?nd some way to make Charu laugh.

His two children were as different as their fathers had been.

"What on earth is on your face?" Hashi scratched his forehead with her thumbnail. Paint shavings tickled his nose. He'd forgotten about it.

"What is this? Paint? You walked home looking like some madman?"

"I decided to paint the shop today. Such a beautiful day outside—"

"So you decide on this color?" Hashi shook her head. With a damp corner of her apron she tried to wipe the stuff off, but it had crusted over. "Take a seat." She clumped mashed scoops of rice, lentils, potatoes, and broccoli onto his plate, and sat across from him. "It's summer. Three months of this and I'll be an old woman." She chewed on an unripe tomato as if it were an apple.

"Dinner is very good," said Anwar, licking the smorgasbord from his ?ngers. He remembered the enticing smell of grilled burgers on his walk home. "Let's have some beef next time?"

"It's a miracle I have energy to cook at all. I'm on my feet all day at the salon," she snapped, slumping back in her chair. "It is summertime, which means weddings until death does me part."

"Just suggesting a bit of protein," said Anwar.

"If you want steak, you cook it." Hashi took another hard bite of tomato, squirting the table with juice.

Anwar wiped the slimy seeds with his ?nger and licked them off. "Disgusting, Anwar," said Hashi, grimacing. "Aman Bhai called earlier. He asked if he could stay with us for a week or so. I guess the
divorce is ?nal?"

"I can't understand why he doesn't stay at a hotel or something, not like he doesn't have the money."

"Or he should try to work things out with Nidi." Hashi started clearing the table. It took Anwar a minute to realize she was ?xing a plate for Charu.

"Point is, he should ?nd another place to stay," said Anwar.

"He's your brother. He let us stay with him for all those years—"

"We lived in his basement, and I paid him rent, yet never had heat."

"Well, he may have money but you have me, Charu, Ella. He needs your support. Your love."

"My love," repeated Anwar. Bah! His brother did not need his love. Aman owned a triad of pharmacies around Brooklyn, and was indecently self-suf?cient for a family member. His wife, Nidi, had ?ed after years of neglect. And as much as Anwar believed in support and love and other ?lial bonds, he and his brother did not share them.

"We don't need another lunatic in this house."

"Are you calling me a lunatic?" asked Hashi.

Anwar put his hand up to end the conversation before it started. "I need to do some work in my studio."

"It's always you in the studio-tudio," said Hashi.

"Yes, dear."

"She gets her wild ideas from you, you know."

"We all ?ounder before we ?ourish."

"You enable the worst in people."

"I still live with you, don't I?"

Anwar left Hashi in the kitchen. Above him the patterns of ?owers and vines cast in the white molding calmed him, and he felt the evening's argument subside. He recalled the days before Charu and Ella became women—their ?rst bleeding had changed everything— on walks to P.S. 20; they were tiny girls trundling the street in their snowsuits, looking like miniature cosmonauts. Anwar was the wittiest character they knew, and he captivated them with obscurities: The seeds in one apple produced eight different trees; potato fruit was poisonous; New Delhi had the oldest alluvial soils in the world; cicada larvae took seventeen years to mature. He was their magician, their scientist, their Baba, and they adored him without much effort on his part. Nowadays, it was ever more evident that his girls had grown into adults. He grew ?ustered by everyday accidentals: Charu walking naked from the bathroom to her bedroom, or Ella sobbing while planting rosemary in the herb garden.

He touched his painted forehead. A raw scrubbing and hot water would get it off. He worried for a second—maybe the stuff was so impenetrable he'd need a toxic paint thinner to remove it.

No, I will leave it be, he thought, smiling sleepily.

Anwar made his way upstairs to their bedroom, climbing with heavy feet. The ?oorboards creaked, harmonizing with his knees. He had built his home in the spring of 1988, along with a band of men now known as the legendary construction company Brownstoner Brothers. They were the ?rst renovators in Bedford-Stuyvesant, years before it was sliced into neighborhoods with fancy names ending in Hills or Heights. He'd met the head contractor, a bespectacled Saudi named Omar, his ?rst weeks in the city. Anwar had grown tired of suburban somnolence on Long Island, where he worked in a pharmacy and lived with Hashi and the girls in Aman and Nidi's basement. Each day assaulted his pride, and when he'd saved enough money, he left at once for Brooklyn and drove a black gypsy taxi, vowing never again to shell pills in a pharmacy. Omar was one of his ?rst passengers. He asked Anwar to drop him off at an abandoned property on a tree-lined block. The brownstone stood empty and gutted, windows boarded up with rotting planks of wood, the unforgettable phrase CALL ME DIG BADDY spray-painted over the rusty wrought iron door. Sneakers dangled off the phone lines in front of the house, commemorating the dead.City'll give ya this crack house for a dollah, Omar told him. There'd been a DEA raid on the brownstone, making it available in one of the ?rst housing sweepstakes in the city. It was the ?rst time he'd signed up for anything since the war, besides those Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

Anwar won the decrepit 111 Cambridge Place for one dollar, as there were no other bidders interested in such arduous renovations in a notorious neighborhood. The inside of the home lay rotten with water damage, broken stairs, vermin droppings, and a general ill aura. As beautiful and settled as the houses and generations of families surrounding them appeared, their new neighborhood was renowned as a war zone, impoverished and violent and isolated, something Anwar had never imagined existing in America.

It suited him perfectly.

He orchestrated the renovation of the squatter house using his inheritance of his father's lithic Buddhist statues and gold coins from Bangladesh's Pala period. Seeing no use for his father's artifacts, Anwar sold them to Sotheby's for a tidy sum. (His father, an archaeologist trained in the UK, died a second time around for his son's insolence.) He hired Omar and his men at Brownstoner Brothers. Many of them were undocumented young men living underground, surviving on part-time construction and painting work. Hashi begrudgingly cooked the rice, lentils, meat, and vegetables for the workers. Years later, her succulent meals were lauded by the men who had transformed the drug den into a sunlit warren.

They started with a shared staircase between all of the ?oors in the house. Anwar's chronic indecision between modernit y and tradition led him to build two of everything. Two master bedrooms: one for lovemaking, which he and Hashi shared, and one for solitude, which was now his studio. He built two smaller bedrooms for his daughters, with Ella on the ?rst ?oor, looking outward onto the gardens she so loved, and Charu's room on the second ?oor, directly above Ella's. As a child, Charu was prone to illness and Hashi wanted her close. Two kitchens: one with a tandoori oven and copper ware, the other composed of state-of-the-art appliances. (When they built out the third-?oor apartment for a tenant, he relented and permitted the installation of modern appliances; the tandoori sat unused in his studio.) He built two expansive bathrooms. The one in their master bathroom had a slate-tiled archaic stone bath with crevices in the walls for candles.

Anwar debated whether or not to have a Turkish toilet, but Hashi put her foot down, saying,What is the point of America if you still squat like a dog? He built a veranda just outside their master bedroom, which overlooked the backyard. The veranda was a quintessential feature of any respectable ?at, a place to smoke and think. Sure, this wasn't a ?at. But having lived in Aman's basement for so many years meant Anwar would not live in a house without immediate access to escape.

Hashi had two requests. One, he would pay for her to get a BA in psychology at Brooklyn College, because she'd cut off her studies to marry him and had never gotten over the embarrassment of not
?nishing school. Two, as a way to even the score of having to cook for the horde of builders, she wanted Anwar to build her a beauty parlor in the garden apartment, the most dilapidated part of the house. He praised her independence, and was happy that it absolved him of the responsibility of adjusting her to city life. She was lonely in the neighborhood and wanted the company of other women. At
?rst, few neighbors would venture into their half-built home, once notorious for its illegal transactions.

When the ?nal touches were complete and Omar's crew had departed, Anwar planted three hibiscus trees. The scent and beauty of his garden spread an air of nostalgia and clarity on Cambridge Place, and the neighbors praised Anwar for his contribution. Last month, ?fteen years after he'd planted the trees, the block association awarded him the coveted Neighbor of the Year award.

Anwar paused for a moment in front of Charu's bedroom door. He heard muf?ed whispering, a girlish laugh. Three clangs of a bell and a ?at drone saturated the hallway. The sound ?lled Anwar with an unnamed dread—stop, you are being paranoid. He shook his head at the feeling of dread. There lingered the invisible dust of some old horror, for who knew what had happened in this house before their time here. He imagined the desolation of addiction, women stuffed with bags of rock, beaten in murderous rages. He did not believe in ghosts. But if there were any, he wished them on their way.

Another giggle from Charu's room. And then, there was peace, he thought, making his way to his bedroom.

All of the ceilings at 111 Cambridge Place had the same beautiful white ?oral molding. However, in the master bedroom, a door handle was embedded in one of the leaves in the pattern. Once opened, the door revealed a fold-up ladder, which led upstairs to the third ?oor, to Anwar's studio. To reach the door handle, Anwar stood on a chair and pulled down the ladder. He hoisted himself into the room and sat for moment to steady his trembling knees.

Heaven. He inhaled the wisps of baked blueberry in the air. A refrigerator preserved fresh fruit extracts, yogurts, and soy and oatmeal scrubs for Anwar's Apothecary goods that he concocted in this kitchen. Wicker furniture scored from weekend stoop sales. Leather-bound journals and old magazines created a skyline of paper towers on the ?oor. Hashi never came upstairs, preferring the make-Anwar-do-it system. She would holler, "I need cleanser!" Then Anwar would send the products down in a bucket attached to a rope.

He unbuttoned his daytime shirt and pants and changed into his night gear, a plaid lungi and a plaid shirt.

Time for a toke, Anwar thought. On the ?oor was a border of nineteen empty pint-size mason jars, courtesy of none other than Rashaud Persaud, who grew a potent crop out in an abandoned house in the Rockaways. Anwar had never been there. He squatted down and unscrewed the lid. The pungent leaf y aroma ?oated into his nostrils. He plucked a dark green bud laced with purple hues, packed a nugget in a wooden pipe, lit it with a match. One luxurious drag let the evening's quarrel subside.

"Unnh," he heard, as he inhaled. Did I make this sound? Anwar thought. He inhaled and then exhaled again out the tiny arched window. What was this sound? He kept the space vermin-free. He heard drumming, then another long, melodious sigh.


"Hashi?" he asked.

No answer.

Hashi had not come upstairs. The drumming sound beckoned him to investigate the wall he shared with their tenant, Ramona Espinal. A thin wall and a locked door separated them. Only Anwar had the key. He rolled toward the wall, his elbow hitting it with a thud. Drumming ceased. He took another toke. Laughter. He chuckled along. Was Ramona Espinal with a lover? He pictured a sweaty, stubbly mariachi, riding the spur of his boots down her tight, voluptuous hips.I must have seen this on TV, he thought. Ramona was a Mexican nurse-midwife at Brooklyn Hospital, and nearly half his age. He checked his watch. It was a quarter to midnight. She shouldn't be home at this hour.

Drumming commenced. A man laughed. It is the headboard, Anwar realized.

"Anwar!" he heard Hashi shout from below.

"Yes, darling!" As soon as he said it, he clasped his hand over his mouth. Abruptly, the drumming stopped.

"Bedtime, na?" called Hashi. "And the shampoo!"

"Yes, darling."

He rolled away from the wall and opened his eyes. Ah, my old friend. Rezwan's severed head ?oated around Anwar. He blinked several times and Rezwan's head did the same. Ghastly bits of spinal cord and purple-black windpipe trailed from Rezwan's neck. A machete scar sliced open cheek into mouth, yellow half-moon smile. How many times can I answer for your death? I am sorry for abandoning you.

As if hearing Anwar's thoughts, Rezwan's head nodded yes. Anwar nodded back. He had loved Rezwan, his brother-in-law and comrade, more than any man before or since. Years after the war, in 1985, Rezwan and his wife, Laila, were both shot to death by an unknown gunman. They had planned to settle near Laila's hillside family home in Rangamati, away from the decaying city Dhaka had become.

They were killed mere days before the move.

Rezwan's anti-government views about President Ershad were well known in Dhaka. But Anwar did not believe the gunman was an unknown assassin or a government operative.

He suspected it was an act of revenge.

Yet Anwar was too far away to investigate. There were weightier matters involved. Ella had been spared, having slept over at her grandparents' ?at that evening. Upon hearing the news, Anwar and Hashi begged to bring Ella to New York, to live as their daughter. It took two years for Hashi's parents to agree to let them take her.

Today would have been Rezwan's thirtieth wedding anniversary, Anwar remembered. Married on a pristine beach in Cox's Bazar, barefoot upon the striated black-and-white sands. Save for Anwar, Hashi, and their immediate family, all the other guests were villagers whom Rezwan and Laila had met while installing tube wells in the surrounding villages. That day, one of Anwar's happiest—rice wine, song and dance aplenty—was etched in his mind forever. He realized that besides the bride and groom, many of those in attendance had suffered for years afterward, poisoned by arsenic-laced well water.

"We die. Memory is fragmentary. I believe in nothing," said An- war to his friend. "But there are times when scripture relieves a sense of ?ailing."

They moved their lips in recitation, Arabic into Bangla into Arabic again, scraps ofSurah al-Noor (The Light).

See how Al—h created the Seven Heavens and Earth
Made the Earth, a niche
Made the moon, a lamp
Made the sun, a glass, a brilliant star
Lit from a blessed tree neither of the east nor west
Its oil luminous though no ?re touched it
Light upon light
Speak to us in parables, knower of All—

I must be with your sister now, thought Anwar. Rezwan stuck out his tongue and disappeared into an air vent. Anwar wanted to hold the closest thing to his dead friend, his daughter, Ella. But she had not yet come home.