The Pavement

By Tahmima Anam

Salim’s mother was not like the other mothers. She liked to take out her photo album and wave it under his nose the way other mothers showed off curries and milky sweets. She had once, she told him, smothered a Pakistani soldier with a handful of crushed chillies. She didn’t try to hide her disappointment when he took an interest in mathematics. “We’re living under military rule,” she said, “why aren’t you on the pavement?

The pavement was her favorite place. She belonged at the street march, behind a megaphone, hauling banners and shouting at policemen. She intended this to be his inheritance: her readiness for violence, her hoarse voice at the end of a protest, the pavement on which she was thrown, and from which she rose, day after day.

When the call came, she felt that flutter of fear in her heart, the powdery panic that reminded her she was human, but eclipsing it, there was pride—no, relief; he was hers; her history ran through his blood. On her way to the University, she imagined the embrace with which she would greet him. They would pick up some kababs on the way home while he told her the story of how he’d gotten arrested. She would relax into worrying, tell him to be careful next time.

At the police station, they told her that bail was out of the question. He was in the lock-up with the other boys. She would have to wait till Sunday, when the courts re-opened. In the meantime, they could detain him for as long as they wanted. She could bring him some food, they said.

She realized, in this instant, that he had been walking past on his way to the library when he was arrested. That he had seen the procession and ambled for awhile alongside; he would have tried the slogans; they would have felt strange in his mouth, those staccato, heavily punctuated sentences; and when the police charged, he would have thought, my mother will be proud, and then he would have dropped his calculator as he elbowed his way to the front. No! She said, too late, his form already vanishing into the police truck, the beating falling hard on his shoulders.

Behind her, the other mothers were waiting, holding tiffin carriers against their chests.