Writer’s Block

Umme Farhana

Short Fiction by Umme Farhana

“Why Look Back in Anger?” The chair frowns when she looks at me over her specs. I always wonder why people look over their pair of glasses and not through them. It makes them look weird, angry and a bit stupid. Perhaps it’s their way to show the people they are talking to do not count.

“Because it’s a three act play with only five characters”. I didn’t tell her about my idea of adaptation. Firstly, because my script was not ready yet, secondly, I am
feeling tired.
“If students are not interested to act” she takes a dramatic pause, “I see no point carrying the drama club on, it’s just waste of time”. Again I feel tired enough to explain that theatre
is not all about acting.
“We have a number of interested students ma’am, only a few are ready to perform on stage, others are working backstage”
“In that case, I would suggest you try something more vibrant, more relevant, Look Back in Anger is very much a British play, you know”.
She uses an unnecessary interrogative tone when she uttered the ‘you know’ part. I feel a strong urge to say that I am not asking for her suggestion, I am asking for funds. As the advisor of ACT-ENG I don’t need the chair’s suggestion and of course I know that this Osborne play is very much British in spirit and content.

Coming back to my room, I sit on my chair and light a cigarette. My laptop is kept on, on the table full of unchecked exam scripts. The lovely screen saver is showing a little hut on a plain, a wave of blue hills on the background, a European landscape, a picture I have never seen in real. Students are still waiting for me in the largest classroom, I can hear their chirping­. I wonder how it might feel to live in a lonely hut somewhere- feel relaxed to imagine. But I have to show up again.    

They wanted a decision, a date on which they might start rehearsing. I hadn’t tell them either, about the script not being ready yet. It’s hard to explain why somebody can’t work while suffering from the feeling of ennui, especially to the young guys and girls whose life is full of excitement and enthusiasm, a friend’s surprise birthday party or a street accident can bring equal amount of thrill in their life. It’s good to be young.  

I finish my cigarette and touch the keypad, a word file appears, sometimes I feel like pressing the ‘don’t save’ button when word asks me as I quit the program… may be this is what they call a ‘writer’s block’. But to be attacked by a writer’s block, one has to be a writer in the first place. Am I one? Or will I become one? Ever?

Without much thought in my head, I call Rita-the only friend of mine who has been doing theatre for last 20 years. A very hardworking and dedicated actress indeed, theatregoers of Dhaka know her.
“It’s not going to work, you can’t compare this yaba addicted generation’s self-destructing masochism to the frustration British guys started to suffer from after losing the Empire. Bangladesh never had a glorious past, the loss of which can make the whole generation lament... I don’t understand why you must adapt a British play at all, there are hell lot of good plays all over the world. Only because you are English department? Oh, it’s mere Anglophilia”.
I can see the curl in the corner of her lips though she is on the other side of the phone. She does it whenever she is disgusted.    

Rita’s sweeping comment does not make me upset, nor does it surprise. I could argue that she was being more Anglophile by calling the colonial rule ‘a glorious past’ with so much reverence, I could ask why they did not try other forms of stages than the very Elizabethan proscenium as they claim to be ‘very much Oriental’ and ‘not Anglophiles at all’.

I could explain that I feet upset when I don’t get lalbager hasmarka narikel tel in my nearest grocery shop and I must buy any brand’s coconut oil popularized by the satellite channels broadcasted from the neighboring country. I feel like lamenting upon losing a ‘glorious past’ when I see imported georgettes being used as wedding sharees instead of Katan or Benarosi made in our country. A flash of semitransparent deep red ugliness pinched me all on a sudden. Memories ought to have a ‘don’t save’ button as well.    

I don’t say anything, I am feeling tired, awfully tired, tired enough to talk. A few minutes later Rita hangs up saying she has to go out. She never hangs up without making up an excuse- most often, by daytime, she needs to go out.  

On my way back home, I think about an adapted name for the fourth character, Cliff Lewis. I already turned Alison into Ayesha, Jimi into Jami, and Helena into Elina in my unfinished script. I do not wish to talk to any colleague during the bus ride, so I insert earphones in my ears and look out, don’t listen to any song though. Even the FM radios play Hindi film songs nowadays. Sometimes I enjoy those, the rest of the times it infuriates me.    

Our bus slows down. There’s a crowd in front of the bus, on the main gate of the campus. A few students gathering and shouting slogans against an alleged molester, a teacher from God knows which department. I can see a few students from English department as well. I become a bit curious to see that group. Our students usually keep distance from these protests and stuffs, may be they are not the part of the mob. The sound of their slogans is not clearly audible through the windows of the air conditioned bus.

Like the sweats running off their foreheads versus cool air blowing over our heads, their screams, though not heard clearly, is very opposite to the silence inside the bus. It seems nobody wants to talk about it, not in support of the teacher who is rumored to have denied to marry the student he had slept with when she became pregnant, not anything against him either. I could feel the tension rising inside the bus. If the students block the main gate, we might get stuck in the campus. 

I try to forget about it and contemplate my unfinished projects, not the adaptation of the ‘very much a British play’ this time, rather the story I have been trying to write for the last couple of months. The love story of a fat boy who tries to go near the girl he fell for, but never gets enough courage to open up as he has been being bullied for his looks from childhood.


I take a bottle of cooling oil from Amma’s dressing table, apply on my scalp and lean back on the couch. Amma started using Himani Navaratna instead of Tibbet Kodur Tel, may be because Big B had endorsed that.  He had been her favorite for years. Or maybe because this cooling oil with menthol is more available now. Or maybe because she has her own way of choosing things, picking up an option. Like she picked up a husband for me when I was twenty, six months after Abba passed away.

The story I was trying to write was just a childish love story, I felt a strong urge to write that very story but I thought it wouldn’t worth it. I am not a teenager any more, I can’t write a chick flick story where a boy feels inhibited to chase a pretty girl because he thinks she would deny him for his obesity. But the stronger reason was different- I was sure that the characters I found were no imaginary characters. They were real people whom I knew very little.    

I laugh at myself for the first thought. Perhaps I am having a kind of ego, an ego that makes someone overrate one’s own capability. Having written a handful of short stories does not necessarily make somebody a writer. And especially in our country where a poet or a writer must live in Dhaka city, they must be roaming around with certain people and in certain places, with this or that group, they must get approval from certain authorities…

So, I mustn’t be very concerned about the writer’s block. I am just a teacher who writes, or tries to write, not the other way round, not a writer who teaches. I do not live a literary life. I have to earn my living by talking about literature, not producing it, and of course, not by living it. Again, I laugh, loudly this time.

“What happened?” – Amma asks me.
“Nothing” – I manage to stop.
“Anything funny on facebook?”   

I am holding my tab but not scrolling FB. It’s good that Amma thought it was some kind of joke that made me laugh. Actually I remembered a poet’s wife suddenly, an artist herself who blamed me and called me names for she thought I was trying to steal her husband. I laughed not because the ridiculous complaints she made but because the notion these people have- poets, writers, artists can do anything, they might even join swingers club if they need ‘experience’ and ‘inspiration’ to ‘create’ art… so it was not her hubby’s fault at all, to start flirting with every woman that comes his way. But for me it’s important to maintain a clear register, I am a chhaposha masterni after all, though I don’t have a kid and they do…
Every time I thought about the couple I felt a bitter laughter reaching for my lips produced in my lower abdomen, may be in the intestines, I couldn’t digest that. Like some cheap street food causing stomach upset and fart. 

I deliberately hid it from Amma, she might feel bad about the cruelty of people I must swallow because of being single, it’s the way many people put it, and more precise people would use the word ‘divorcee’. She herself decided to get disconnected from her siblings as they were critical about my marital status, they found it ‘unhealthy’.

I didn’t notice since when Amma stopped arguing with them in my defense and gradually stopped receiving their phones and calling them back until she refused to attend one of my cousins’ wedding making up an excuse of arthritis. I could very well understand why she was acting sick in front of me. If she went alone, she must face piercing questions which they might not have courage to ask if I were around. She wanted to avoid listening to marriage proposals from widowers of double my age with two or three kids, suddenly all my relatives became matchmakers and started finding suitors suitable for a divorcee. But I said I didn’t feel like going and insisted she goes by herself. Arthritis was a good solution, even if my mood changed, it couldn’t heal her pain. My uncles and aunts stopped calling after that.

We had dinner together that night, she watched KBC- the TV show where Amitav Bacchan asks questions and people answer to become rich. I noticed that her mobile phone was ringing and she turned it off, she couldn’t switch it to silent mode, she didn’t know how to. I asked if she would take some painkiller. She said she had already taken medicine. I guessed she actually had some sedatives, at the middle of the show, she fell asleep on the sofa. I had to wake her because it was not possible to hang a mosquito curtain there. I hated to wake her up.  

I see Amma watching KBC again, another season started recently. I get up from the couch and enter my room, open my laptop and start checking the boy’s profile. Enough time is left before dinner, KBC only started. His name was written Shakib in the attendance register book, but in FB profile he changed the spelling to ‘Sakib’. Removing the ‘h’ made him the namesake of the cricketer who earned a reputation of being the youngest captain in one of the world cups of recent time instead of the film star who had recently been accused for hiding the fact about his being married to a very popular actress. Cricketers are our real heroes. At least the cricket playing nations know that a country called ‘Bangladesh’ exists somewhere in the globe. The actress could win the sympathy of the middle class by crying a lot in front of the TV camera, with a toddler in her lap and Shakib Khan became a villain, but the other actress’ filing a rape case against another cricketer, her former boyfriend, made her a whore. People are very prompt to differentiate Madonna from Whore.

I don’t find any photo in his profile where the long haired girl is present. They were never seen together during the department’s tour to the Saint Martin’s island. I couldn’t remember when I imagined a probable relationship between them. I tried hard but didn’t get a clue. Memory is a big cheat, sometimes it uses the ‘don’t save’ button without asking.  

Sakib or Shakib missed a semester and now he is in the same class as Tania. I usually do not get students’ updates in the newsfeed, I unfollow them as soon as I accept their friend requests. I even made another list of students and people I know less, so all my posts are not visible to them. One must do certain things to keep a respectful distance from students, we are not artists after all…

But lately I was following these two. Usually the boy shares fun trolls about being bulky, and some academic issues, the girl posts photos of Durgapuja, Dewali, and hangouts in fast-food shops with a male friend and a female one who seem very close. I didn’t know why I was looking for a connection between these two people who were not likely to fall for each other. I read all the comments on the foods photos she posted, just to find a comment made by the boy, didn’t find any.

When I first discovered the fact that the chick flick story I was going to write was actually a story about my students, I was taken aback, I tried to rid myself from the story. But slowly it turned into an addiction. Apart from following their posts, I did some real life investigations as well. I made them sit in the same bench when they were taking a midterm test. I believe they did not find it unusual because I always change the sitting arrangement during exams. Right after that midterm test I spent so much time on FB just to find a clue, some reactions. Then I started following the other students of the class, then the students who had been Sakib’s real classmates, the senior ones. I just wanted to see who tagged whom and where, who shared what… and tried to get a clue.    

I failed to discover the story, started imagining it instead. Still, they were the same people. Sakib and Tania. No matter how much I tried to change their names and appearances, they remained the same, two real people. They even resisted when I tried to give them other names. The bulky boy with specs and a slightly trimmed beard that often makes him look like Derek O’ Brian, and the girl with long silky hair and pimples on her cheeks because of which she looks much younger than she really is.

They started roaming around in my head with their hands tightly knitted while walking by the shore of the Saint Martin’s Island. They found a place where nobody could find them and they hugged in the chilly wind that blew from the Bay of Bengal. They shared the warmth and smell of each other’s body and mouth but couldn’t trust that this affair would last when they would get back home. They were thrilled, shivered, sweated and wet with tears, saliva and cum. Inside, they bled. 

I couldn’t help watching all these. I felt I was a voyeur. I must not peep to the young lovers’ private space no matter how thirsty I feel for love. I must not keep an eye on the couple’s activities for the sake of my so called art. I must not interfere their lives, nor their FB profiles only because I couldn’t find love when I was their age and now being blamed by a man’s wife for an imagined endeavor, a man I know only through the love poems he wrote.  

I start laughing again. It was not a bitter laughter about some unsecured couple, or some teachers who can’t decide whom to support, the molester colleague or the victimized student, not even the professors who always look silly by looking over their specs. It is aimed at my younger self who thought love to be a waste of time, who thought of herself very much matured and practical, who thought only foolish people fall in love. Who thought responsibility to parents made somebody better human being and disobedience worse. I laugh at the young girl who considered herself old enough and the older woman who can’t remember how it feels to be really young.

I realize that
I am actually looking back, not in anger but in pity- not sympathy or compassion, but pity. A sarcastic one. Laughter brings tears in my eyes. I wipe my eyes and start writing the chick flick story.    

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