Afsan Ali’s Rubber Garden
I came to know Afsan Ali from Chittagong Club when I was in Chittagong in late nineteen seventies. He was a member of the club and played excellent tennis. Our friendship developed over tennis which I loved to play, although I was not as good as him.
Afsan Ali worked as a senior engineer in Chittagong Port Authority and was well known for his social work in Chittagong City as well as his home village in RamuThana of Cox's Bazar. Son of a prominent businessman and politician, Afsan had also a good reputation for hosting public events such as soccer, tennis tournament, and other sports. He was a good go-to-guy for many governments sponsored events as he had good network in the business community.
Afsan Ali, however, did not continue with the Port Authority because he was bypassed for promotion as Chief Engineer. He left his job out of frustration and joined his family business. In fact, he did very well in business, and was successful in expanding his family business within two years. Before I left Chittagong Afsan had bought some land in nearby Naikhongcherry of Chittagong Hill Tracts and he had told me he wanted to set a Rubber Plantation there. I could not go visit the place as I was about to leave Chittagong.
I kept in touch with Afsan Ali even after I had left Chittagong and Bangladesh for that matter for USA. He kept on asking me to visit his Rubber Plantation which he said had prospered very well. His original plantation of fifty acres had increased to nearly two hundred acres with more than three thousand plants that produced about one hundred to one hundred fifty tons of rubber every year.
My visits to Chittagong after I left Bangladesh had become infrequent. Therefore, I could not visit Afsan Ali's rubber garden despite my great desire to do so. An opportunity arose to visit Chittagong on my last visit to Bangladesh and I contacted his office from Dhaka to let him know that. The staff who picked up the phone said Mr. Ali was ill and was not attending his office for some time. I was very disappointed since I had very few days left in Bangladesh. It would be sad to go to Chittagong after all these years and not be able to visit Afsan Ali's famous garden. Nevertheless, I kept my plan to visit Chittagong since I had many other old friends there who would be delighted to see me.
The morning I was to leave for airport to take my flight to Chittagong I got a call from Afsan Ali's office saying although Mr. Ali was not well, he would very much like me to visit his Rubber plantation in Naikhongcherry and he would be extremely pleased if I would lodge in his bungalow there. I said I had already made my plan to stay with a friend in Chittagong, but I would be happy to visit his Rubber Plantation when I reach Chittagong the following day. The staff said he would inform Afsan Ali accordingly.
At Chittagong airport when I was looking for my friend's car and driver, I heard someone shouting my name from a Pajero vehicle parked alongside the curb. I saw a white-haired man with sunglasses waving frantically at me. It took me a few minutes to recognize the white-haired man in dark glasses. He was no other than Afsan Ali himself.
How did you recognize me after all these years, I asked? You have not changed much, he replied. So, saying, he grabbed my pull away suitcase and put it in the back of his Pajero. You are going to stay with me in Naikhongcherry, he said. But I have told my friend I would stay with him, I protested mildly. Oh, you can stay with him after we come back from the Rubber garden, Afsan said. I could not resist him anymore. I asked my friend's driver to go back and tell his boss that I had gone to Naikhongcherry and will return the next day.
On way, Afsan and I exchanged information about each other, how life has changed over last two decades, and what our children were doing. Afsan told me with some remorse that none of his two sons were interested in Rubber gardening. Therefore, he alone had to take care of the plantation and the rubber factory. He spent most of his time at Chakdala (name of the village where the garden was located).
While driving to his garden Afsan told me about some disturbing happenings of late in his garden. For past few months there have been strange occurrences in his bungalow. Several nights he had heard sound of people gathering in the back yard and the rubber factory when it was closed.
Sometimes he heard strong winds blowing branches of big trees outside his bungalow. He also heard stones being thrown at the roof of the bungalow. But he would see no one when he came out. Neither did his night guard. He also heard sometimes sound of water running in the bathroom. But the water faucets were not running when he checked. He wondered if all these were his imagination, or some people were trying to scare him so that leaves the place.
Hearing all this I myself started to wonder if I should really stay in his garden. But Afsan assured me that he was not intending to scare me. He only wanted to share his story with me which could be his imagination.
We reached Naikhongcherry after a four-hour drive. We passed through several rubber gardens as we approached Chakdala, the last garden being the one belonging to Afsan Ali, as he told me. We finally arrived at Afsan Ali's bungalow-a picturesque place made of wood with tiled roof. The bungalow had a nicely kept green lawn with tropical flowers adorning it. There were several fruit trees as well in the compound. Next to the bungalow was a rubber factory and adjacent to it was part of the rubber garden. It was altogether an exotic place.
We sat in the drawing room sofa which was made of leather. But before I could wind down Afsan asked me to wash up for our lunch which was already late. It was nearly 3 P.M. I hastened to my bedroom and quickly freshened up with cool water which came from deep tube well in the premises but was pumped to the bungalow.
The lunch was a big spread. Famous Rupchanda fry, Hilsa curry, Brinjal fry, chicken bhuna, and khichdi. There were also seasonal fruits.
Immediately after lunch Afsan asked me to go with him to see his rubber processing factory as well as the garden since it would be soon closing time for the factory. The factory was a short distance from the bungalow. The road was paved with stones and shaded by big trees that reminded me of Afsan's stories of tree branches swinging in winds at night although I saw nothing of the kind as we were walking under the trees.
After a brief tour of the factory, we walked into the plantation. The trees were quite tall, averaging about eighty feet. Each tree had a bucket attached to it to capture the sap from a puncture in the tree. The whole place was beautiful, but it gave me a creepy feeling I do not know why. Probably because of the spooky stories I had heard from Afsan on the way.
On return we had some tea and snacks. I went to my room to rest for a while before dinner. It was already well past evening, and the whole bungalow and the surroundings had become eerily quiet. There was no TV or radio. I listened to the sound of crickets and distant howling of jackals in the woods.
Around 9 P M the cook announced that dinner was ready and Afsan was waiting for me in the dining room. Afsan was right that I would not be able to resist dinner when I saw it. Indeed, they were eye catching and mouth-watering items on the table such as I had not tasted in a long time. There was a whole roasted wild duck, a side of venison, famous Chittagong Beef Kala Bhuna, and a Bhetki curry as well. This meal is for a whole month, I cried. Afsan said in return this was all he could do since I was staying only one night. I plunged into the meal without wasting time.
After the end of the meal Afsan said he would have to leave since there was an emergency call from the local police station to identify some stolen materials from his factory some days ago. The thief was not found but the materials were found on tips from a villager. Afsan said it might be late for him, but I should not wait. He would see me in the morning at breakfast.
I returned to my room and tried to read some magazine that I found on the table there. The magazines were very old, dating over a year. I flipped through some and went to sleep listening to the crickets and hooting of owls.
I do not remember how long I had slept but I suddenly woke up hearing sounds of rocks falling on the roof. I switched on the bed light and opened the windows to see what was going on outside. It was very dark, but I saw the tree branches swinging in gusty winds. There was no storm and yet the tree branches were shaking. At that point I heard my name being called from outside my bedroom. As I started for the door, power went out and I found myself standing in the room in pitch darkness.
Somehow, I remembered there was a flashlight on a table near the door. I saw the gleaming steel handle of the flashlight, grabbed it, and turned it on. I found the door handle and opened the door. Outside there were no lights as the power had gone out. I made it to the dining room looking for anyone but saw none. As I was wondering about the goings on, suddenly power came back. The living room lights went on automatically.
This was great relief, as it would help me to find Afsan hoping he was back. I glanced at the other bedroom where Afsan was supposed to be staying. There was light coming through the open door. I peeped into the room. But he was not there! It was nearly 2 A.M. I wondered if Afsan was still in the police station. Since the servants did not live in the bungalow there was no point in looking for them. I thought it was probably my imagination. I went back to my room for sleep. Fortunately there were no more eerie happenings.
I woke up rather late, around 8 A.M. I was hoping that one of the bearers would wake me up. I wondered if Afsan had returned. I washed myself and walked to the dining room looking for the bearers. There was not a soul. I again ventured into Afsan's room. It was also empty! What happened to these people?
I went out of the bungalow to look for the cook and the chowkidar who had their living quarters next door. The living quarters were empty; not a soul was there. In fact, it did not look like anybody lived there. The kitchen was nearby. I went there. Lo and behold. The kitchen stoves looked as though these were not used for months. Even the pots and pans looked unused for days. What was going on? If the kitchen was not used how on earth, I got all those meals? My mind was going crazy.
Next, I walked to the rubber factory looking for the men who worked there. At least they would be able to talk about Afsan and his servants.
But greater surprise was waiting for me as I went to the factory. The entire factory was locked. I peered through one of the windows. There was not a soul inside. Instead I saw hundreds of drums piled on each other, and the machines that I saw churning out rubber sheets were sitting idle. I wondered, was all that I saw yesterday a bad dream? My head was reeling.
I made my way back to the bungalow with a swaying head and mind and collapsed into a sofa. I did not know who to call and where to go. There was a phone in the living room I remembered. But when I picked it up, it was stone dead. I really was trapped and doomed.
After two hours or so I suddenly saw a jeep driving up to the bungalow with a few policemen. Immediately a police officer came out of the jeep and entered the bungalow. He came straight to me and asked if I was Mr. Choudhury. When I replied a stupefied "yes", the officer said "Sir, we have come fetch you. We are so glad to see that you are alright", the officer said.
I left the bungalow with my bag as quickly as I could without asking any more question. On the way to the police station, I simply asked if Afsan Ali had gone to see him the previous evening.
The Officer raised his eyes and said "Sir, do you mean Afsan Ali's ghost had gone to the Police Station", and then he laughed. "Sir, Afsan Ali died six months ago". Now, this was too much for me. Was the Police Officer making a fool of me, or did he think I had gone cuckoo? "Now, officer, this is no joke. Tell me what you mean by Afsan Ali dying. If he is dead who was my host yesterday?" I asked. "Sir, I will tell you everything when we go to the Police Station", the officer said.
I reached the police station in a daze not knowing where I was or if I was having a bad dream. Once inside the police station the officer called for hot tea. It is while drinking our tea that Officer Rahmat (that was his name I read on the name tag he had on his uniform), told me that early this morning he received an urgent call from his senior officer in Chittagong asking me to go the Rubber plantation looking for me. He gave him a description of me saying that someone had picked me up the day before from Chittagong Airport and had headed to this place.
This was conveyed to him by my friend in Chittagong with whom I was supposed to stay and whose driver had gone to the Airport to fetch me. The driver reported this to his boss. My friend got panicky since he checked with Afsan Ali's office in Chittagong where he was told that this could not be true since Afsan Ali had died about six months ago. His death was very strange. He was found hanging from a tree nearby. The local police had investigated into this but could not find any foul play.
Rahmat continued that hearing about this he had suspected that someone must have played on a trick on me and kidnapped me to this place. Therefore, he rushed to the place. But what he could not understand how I could believe the person who had picked me up was my friend Afsan Ali?
It was my turn then to narrate to Officer Rahmat my eerie experience of past twenty-four hours, how I was picked up by Afsan Ali in person, a man I knew for last three decades. How I was feted and taken around a functioning rubber factory and I had seen real workers. I also told him about the spooky events of last night.
Officer Rahmat scratched his head and said, "Sir, I really do not know how to react to your story. All I know that your friend had been dead for last six months. I myself investigated into his strange death. I do not want to say that what you saw was all imagination." "Strange things do happen," he added with a mischievous smile. "In any case I have arranged a car for you to go to Chittagong", he said.
As I was proceeding to the waiting car officer Rahmat said, "And you know what? Two days before his death Afsan Ali had come to me to look into some materials that were allegedly stolen from his plantation. They are still there".
And then he whispered "Sir, he also said that evening about the weird happenings in his plantation that you said he had experienced. Very strange, very strange".
I thought about my eerie experiences all the way, but never told my friend in Chittagong because he would never believe this. All he believed that I was the target of a failed kidnapping attempt!
The writer is a former civil servant, lives in Washington, USA