Date Published: 9/17/2014
Publisher: America Star Books
America Star Books Presents The Orphan of Mecca, Book One by Harvey Havel
Frederick, MD October 16, 2014 – America Star Books is proud to present The Orphan of Mecca, Book One by Harvey Havel from Albany, NY.
A brief synopsis of the book: "Amina prepares for college on what is expected to be an exciting first day of higher learning. When she steps onto the university campus for the first time, however, she bumps into Raja Gupta, a young, persuasive, and hot-headed university intellectual who lures her into joining a student group whose cause is the liberation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan. What follows is a stormy and passionate romance detailing the lives of both Raja Gupta and Amina Mitra as they both attempt to survive from one of the worst genocides of historical record—a genocide that ultimately leads to the birth of the poor and crippled nation known today as Bangladesh. This novel is written with historical accuracy and is Book One of a trilogy that charts the rise and fall of these two characters, as well as the son that is orphaned after Amina Mitra is forced to abandon him in the Great Mosque of Mecca."
If a man would be so bold as to remove the stubborn mask hiding the face of humanity, what would he see? Would the truth of humankind be beautiful, or would such a truth be frightening? Would it be elusive? Or would it be so blinding that when he tries to pull away from it, he can only stare at it helplessly? Humanity, however, cannot hide behind that mask for too long, nor can a man avoid what he sees beneath it, as the image slowly becomes that of a young girl whose face is as chiseled as a balsam carving, her legs bird-like in their fragility, the trunk of her body as thin as the root of a banyan tree, her skin as richly dark as the intense burn of the sun gazing wildly upon an otherwise forgotten part of the world.
Her dark black hair shines when the sunlight hits it, the kind of hair that is so clean, a man can only hope to capture its brilliance and test the fragrant oils she has added to it by rubbing them into his fingertips. And what of her eyes – those dark, opaque disks that blend both pupil and iris, concealing her secrets, the eyes that seem to smile so mysteriously, as though she knows something about a man that he himself does not know? Such is the face we are dealing with in this part of the world, in East Pakistan, January 1969, as it is the face of a young woman named Amina Mitra.
In her small village in Murapara, just east of Dhaka, the capital of Bengal, she washes her hair under a stream of cold-running water that a tank made of rusted tin has stored. From the tank’s lid, a web-like exoskeleton of metal plumbing crawled up the wall of her shower stall, the aluminum pipes leaking at their joints. Dealing with the shower before such a long day ahead of her gave her enough reason to complain to her father about it. She thought that the plumbing needed a complete overhaul if only to get her to the university on time.
She soaped her dark body under cold water, making sure not to miss a single space of skin. She sometimes hated how skinny she was, as there were other family members in the village who often teased her about how a good man always wanted a little more girth on a woman before he married her. But Amina was far from interested in marriage at this point. She had her mind set on making it out of the village, as she wanted to be an administrator who traveled in and out of the overpopulated city to the west, which was Dhaka. For now, though, she planned to study government at the University, a place her father insisted she go. Because she wanted to please him and was somewhat interested in civic affairs, she complied. She was the younger of two very beautiful daughters in the family who wanted as much attention as they could get from a father who believed his main purpose in life was to see them married and living with prosperous men.
She rinsed her body under cold water, and when she finished, she fumbled with rusty faucets that sprayed and leaked until only the shrills of wildlife and the wandering currents of the Sithalakya river could be heard through the stiff reeds that surrounded her bari. While wrapping a towel around her, she grabbed the top of the door to the stall and made sure it was firmly closed. There were several children playing in front of her thatched hut. Her hut was attached to several others, forming a rough square of sorts, the sum of all the interconnecting huts known as the Mitra ghar. The huts, in fact, were hovels standing roughly six feet from the ground and made of packed mud. The roofs were thatched, however, and were sturdy and waterproofed enough to withstand the rains that came during the Monsoon season at winter’s end.
The intense sunlight warmed her body, and with a towel wrapped around her she checked to make sure none of the children peeked at her nudity from the front yard. She scurried into her hut without being noticed, and once inside, she spread her towel down on the dirt floor so as not to muddy her feet after indulging in such a long shower. Her clothes were kept in a bamboo chest of drawers, and the small opening in the wall provided enough sunlight for her to select the clothes she’d wear to the university that day. There was also a small mirror on the wall by a straw mattress that served as her bed, and before stepping into a light-blue satin salwar-kamiz, she looked herself over in the mirror and noticed how the two small mounds at her chest were now plump and firm as her sister had said they would get, and yes, she felt more like a woman every day, what she yearned for ever since she first tried on her mother’s old clothes several months earlier.
And from those very humble days of doing most of the chores around the bari for her parents, who then went off to work at the nearby jute factory, she suddenly saw herself as all-grown-up, as though the child within her finally witnessed the more mature woman standing in front of the mirror and holding the salwar-kamiz close to her body.
Her older sister, Chandra, had always been treated like a grown-up, and Amina always as the young child. She hoped her father would finally treat her like an adult as he did her sister. Such was her ambition. She hoped that one day her father would no longer see her as “his little sweetheart.” But no matter how hard she tried, whether it was cleaning the pots and pans, sweeping the dirt floors of the huts, or hanging clothes out to dry, her father had yet to acknowledge that she could indeed stand on her own two feet without his aid, and frustratingly so, this was something that she just couldn’t earn or prove to him. Because she wanted her parents to outgrow this view of her, she believed attending the university and studying what her father wanted her to study would do the trick. She could only hope.
She put on her underclothes and fixed them to her body by securing a thin rope around her waist. Over her head went the salwar-kamiz. She couldn’t hide her smile when she looked herself over, only that her smile, along with her dark face, made her look even more childlike, and so she quickly straightened the curves at the ends of her lips and hid her brightly shining teeth in an effort to look more solemn and perhaps a bit mysterious.
On this first day of university she decided she was going to be a new person, and perhaps if she smiled less, her family would take her more seriously. But she couldn’t help but smile again as butterflies gathered in her stomach while thinking about traveling into the heart of Dhaka all by herself. Some things took time, she reasoned, and after looking as smart and as intellectual as possible, she left her hut to join the rest of her family in the much larger hut directly across from hers, as her hut stood about thirty yards from where her family had gathered for breakfast. The children now played kabbaddi on the closely-cropped grass. A few of the kids played with a soccer ball off to the side too, pretending to be the soccer stars from the big city, all of this under the intense blare of the sun. Amina circumvented their cherubic brown faces on the lawn. The children laughed and giggled as they played, their bodies covered by single sheets of brown cloth wrapped loosely around their torsos. Amina, suddenly determined to be very solemn and serious, gazed at them with a mindful curiosity, much like a scientist studying her specimens. She avoided the motherly affection she usually showered upon them. The shirtless children, running and chasing each other, stumbling on their own awkward steps and captured by youthful mindlessness, were beings far removed from Amina herself, who, as a young girl, had played with her sister and the cousins who had visited from the next bari. They all played together, she remembered. But there wasn’t time anymore for that sort of playfulness.
She had convinced herself that one must analyze each and every facet of life, and this, in combination with her own insatiable curiosity about the nature of things and the psychology of people, would permit her to do well at the university. The children, then, were no longer the same children who used to give her girlish joy. They became objects of the more mature and sophisticated activity of analysis. So in order to discover more about herself, she simply had to observe their behavior and make sense of them, as was often the norm for most Bengali intellectuals.
Analyzing people had always been an elaborate affair of sweet emotion and stubborn rationalization involving a short trip to the heavens and manifesting itself as a sudden and complete pause of consciousness on the dirt footpath that wrapped around the square, accompanied next by a blank stare at the children as though she was struck by some great vision. The second part of the analysis involved finding some strange and other-worldly significance in the children’s being there. They ran amok and tagged each other, circling around and around on the lawn, as though they were part of a miniature circus.
The connection between herself and the children confirmed her theory that her soul, at that place in time, was immutable in relation to the souls of the children in the square. She supposed she hadn’t changed all that much since childhood, given that such a strong connection to their laughing and giggling, the scampering of their feet across the green-yellow lawn, and their chanting ‘kabbaddi-kabbaddi-kabbaddi’ touched a nerve within her that had never developed fully or had never grown at all. Not often had Amina started the day off with an epiphany, but she wouldn’t be from Bengal if she didn’t want these strange and significant connections to people happen more often.
By the time she entered her family’s hut, they were half-way through their breakfast. There were two large windows in her parent’s hut, compared to only one in her own. These openings let in a jagged ochre light. Such light was typical of the early morning sunshine in their hut. At night they lit lanterns and pitched torches around the square, but in the day time, the generous sunlight sufficed. Outside the hut, she could faintly see the slow, meandering waters of the river through the glare, as her family’s village had been built along its banks, its back towards it. She heard the melody of the sinewy currents washing over ancient rocks that were stuck deep into the river’s clay base. It reminded her of the short vacations she took with her family down to the Sundarbans - the lush, verdant forests that were like emeralds cupped by palms of sky-blue water.
East Pakistan, after all, was a land of islands, tributaries, streams, and rivers, all on flat, grassy plains that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle – from the great Ganges that flowed in from Eastern India, to the weighty Brahmaputra that hooked into the province from Northern Assam and followed a straight line south. Like veins, these rivers cut across, bisected, and trisected the flat littoral plains. They fed into other rivers and streams, culminating in the Southern marshes in a fragmentation of the land where shallow deltas formed micro-islands. The shallow deltas were a network of jade-green channels reaching as far south as the Bay of Bengal itself.
On their trips to the south one could not travel very far without hitting a river, stream, lake, or littoral forest, as though the water commanded the land and broke it up into hundreds of divisions. Its natives could only helplessly watch these waters steadily rise over their lives and suck whatever villages existed along the borders of the forests into the bay. From the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, where the Bengal tigers roamed, to the more fashionable resort areas of Cox Bazaar and Inami Beach off of Burma’s western coast, it was no surprise to her that water would one day overtake them. The water, it seemed, had more power over them than the parcels of water-soaked land upon which the first Bengali squatters planted their flags.
The sounds of each river played the songs of a people’s history, and unsurprisingly, Amina remembered a time when a more terrestrial flood of West Bengali émigrés moved into East Pakistan from the north and west. She compared these movements to the currents of these rivers. Hindu landowners had forfeited their properties and moved east in the opposite direction towards India proper, a double exodus of dark Muslims and disenfranchised Hindus heading this way and that. The sheer magnitude of it had swirled into violent clashes that took many years to calm. Her family, in fact, had moved from a small town on the outskirts of Calcutta. India’s eastern flank had been cut suddenly and became the eastern wing of Pakistan. The Mitra family settled in Murapara, Rupganj province, next to where her cousins already lived. Her vacations with family were often futile attempts to break free of the heat and the lingering thought that such a maelstrom would recur.
After the family had finally emigrated from Calcutta in 1955, building the bari in Murapara took some time, but fairly soon the Mitra family had its own established ghar and were lucky enough to be surrounded by a host of other family members who found work in the nearby jute factory. She didn’t know much about the history of her family beyond that, only that her parents had journeyed through the clogged streets of Calcutta only to discover the same clogged streets of Dhaka, but this time they lived with their own kind instead of Hindus. It was safer that way, she reasoned, and she faintly remembered her father loading her mother, her sister, and herself into an antique bus, packed to the hilt with brown, skinny Muslims. They headed across India’s eastern border into the new frontier where long, thick processions of shawl-covered women and hump-backed men approached the new land that was promised to them. That was a long time ago- when India split apart and the unheard of land known as Pakistan came into being. Pakistan was a country so unique that it was separated by over 1500 kilometers of Indian territory. They arrived in Murapara with but a few rupees left to build an entirely new life.
Harvey Havel is a short-story writer and novelist. His first novel, Noble McCloud, A Novel, was published in November of 1999. His second novel, The Imam, A Novel, was published in 2000.
In 2006, Havel published his third novel, Freedom of Association. He has published his eighth novel, Charlie Zero’s Last-Ditch Attempt, and his ninth, The Orphan of Mecca, Book One, which was released last year. His new novel, The Thruway Killers is his latest work. The Orphan of Mecca, Books Two and Three, will be released next year as well as a book, An Adjunct Down, which he just completed. His work in progress is called In the Trenches, about a Black American football player.
He is formerly a writing instructor at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. He also taught writing and literature at the College of St. Rose in Albany as well as SUNY Albany.
Copies of his books and short stories, both new and used, may be purchased at www.barnesandnoble.com, www.amazon.com, and by special order at other fine bookstores.
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Harvey%20Havel/_/N-0