By Sohana Manzoor
I could begin in the style of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, “Last night, I dreamed I went to Carbondale again.” It would surely seem literary and romantic. I owe this write-up, however, to a former colleague who is currently a graduate student in the US. As we were chatting on a video call, I noticed some shining pots and pans on the wall behind her. It might seem strange to our Bengali sentiments, but I was immediately taken back to my graduate student days in Southern Illinois. I recalled the studio apartments at Southern Hills where the kitchen was not a separate establishment but just a counter in the room. And pots and pans needed to be scrubbed clean and shiny if I wanted to hang them on the wall. If they turned too black, I would hide them in the cupboard.
Looking back after more than ten years, I now can see that I probably landed there in quite a dramatic way. Carbondale is a very small town at the southernmost point of Illinois. There was a small community of Bangladeshi students and faculty members associated with the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. And it would have been only natural to contact some Bangladeshi there and stay with somebody for the first few days. But the overly independent dunderhead that I was, I contacted the English Department instead to figure out a way to get directly to the grad student apartment I had rented on campus.
I often wonder now how I could dare to go alone to an unknown country, virtually knowing nobody. And when the student worker from the International Student Office dropped me off at my apartment after collecting the keys from the office, apart from my luggage, I had only a burger, some fries and a tall glass of coke from McDonalds. I had no phone, no computer, no internet connection, and no immediate way of letting my family know of my whereabouts. And yet, I just tucked my stuff inside the closet and lay down on the couch of the furnished apartment for a long, peaceful sleep. I doubt I can ever do that again.
It did not take too long for me to get acquainted with the Bangladeshi community there. I will always remember Beena Apa, the kind and ever helpful big sister who virtually rescued me the next day from my apartment in Southern Hills. I had never met her before, did not know anything about her either. But when she arrived at my door-step introducing herself, just one look on her beaming face told me that I could trust her. She took me to her apartment in Evergreen Terrace, another grad student housing complex, and I came to meet the vibrant Bangladeshi community there.
Evergreen Terrace was for grad students with families, and it was surely brighter and more cheerful than Southern Hills, where I had taken my abode. Mine was a rather run-down place, and that is where the bachelor and “half-bachelor” graduate students lived. “Half-bachelor” is a term I invented for the men who were married but had left their wives and children back home. I met one family who had come to live in Southern Hills first and shifted to the family housing within a few weeks. I don’t remember their names anymore even though I can recall their story.
“Babu Bhai helped us to get there, you know. And he warned, ‘Shabdhane thaiko. Bagh tagh ase. Dorja khola raikho na (Be careful. There are tigers around. Don’t keep your doors open.)'” The man with a merry twinkle in his eyes said, “I thought he must be joking, but when we saw the place, especially after dark, we were convinced of the tigers.”
“But there are no tigers!” I replied, thoroughly confused.
He howled with laughter. “Only bugs (bagh). That’s what he had meant.”
No. there were no tigers in Southern Hills. Nor did I come across any of the ghosts or supernatural beings people claimed to have seen there. But yes, the place was almost wild, running amok with creepers and moss. Some would find it eerie, as my PhD supervisor had, “It seems so desolate, Sohana. Are you sure you’re safe there?”
The apartment buildings stood apart, separated by tall trees, bushes and thickets. I had seen rabbits, deer and even skunks many times in the vicinity. One evening, as I was coming back from a walk and I thought I spotted a cat running down the stairs. I called out but it ran faster. Two days later, to my chagrin, I realized that the damn thing was not a cat at all, but a raccoon.
Friends advised me to move away to Evergreen Terrace. But somehow, by that time, I had fallen in love with Southern Hills. I remember surprising a deer family when a friend dropped me off late at night; the moonlight had caught the antlers of the male deer and he stood still trying to assess if I was a danger to his babies. The scene is etched in my memory as something magical. I watched the snow falling and draping the ground and the trees with white coverlets and curtains. The large magnolia tree with its wax-like flowers emitted a balmy fragrance that seemed very soothing. Squirrels ran up and down the trees and there was something very peaceful around that place. Every evening, when I returned from school, I looked forward to a quiet dinner with a book. I had no television and honestly, I had grown to detest them. I still do.
But living by oneself has its negative points too. I once discovered a large black crawling insect inside my laundry basket. I hate creepy-crawly things and rainy days in Carbondale were problematic for me because footlong earthworms used to take over the streets. Many of my friends had reported seeing me striding in boots through the rain water and cursing at the top of my lungs. Hence the moment I saw the crawling monster, I yelped and jumped on to my bed. But there was no Prince Charming to the rescue and I had to get it out myself. I surely was not going to sleep in the same room with that wriggly bug. Gritting my teeth, I put on gloves and got a pair of tongs from the kitchen cupboard and pulled it out from the basket. I dumped the thing in the commode and flushed it down, and then threw the tongs out too. To this date I am not sure what that horrendous creature was.
After two years at Southern Hills life there ended kind of abruptly. There were talks of demolishing the place as many of the buildings were old, leaky and not very comfortable. I could clearly see a decline in the population too. I also saw that rather than regular graduate students, there were strange looking people moving in.
A crazy pair took up the apartment next to mine and they were quite rowdy. Then one resident on the ground floor of another building was evicted because he was smoking pot inside his apartment and causing trouble for his two neighbours. I felt that safety might become an issue soon. At the same time, I could not help thinking that it was not the wild beasts, nor the supernatural beings, but the human bugs that were chasing me out of my heaven. Marie, a close friend of mine, asked if I wanted to take up a studio in her building. It was very close to the university, smaller in size than the place I had, and somewhat sparsely furnished. But it was way cheaper. So, finally, after two years, I gave up my blissful abode in Southern Hills and moved to the down town area.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.
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