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Busy in Bangladesh


Today I’m thinking back to when I’d just left Thailand, to my first days in Bangladesh, way before I’d taken an Indian prison train to the floating graveyards in Varanasi, before I became sick at the Untouchable village, before I picked through seashells in the sands of the Jordan Valley and before I took pictures of orange fur-clad, ecstasy-popping girls at the Vienna Love Parade. I was sweaty and tired. I’d stayed up all night at the airport in Bangkok, waiting at 11pm for a 6am flight to Dhaka.

Customs was quick and I was out of the airport in just a few minutes. I wandered to a highway rotary and asked in broken Bengali directions to Old Town. I shook hands with the curious and offered smiles to the shy, then wedged myself into a black diesel fume-coughing tin can. From the window of this bus was where I first saw the beggar. A few days later, from the tattered foam seat of a rickshaw was where I saw him again. He was a muscular man with skin as black as olives and patience like a stone. He lay face down in the sidewalk of the busiest section Dhaka, a city of 14 million people, the densest population in the world outside of Hong Kong. A filthy white bandage sheathed his left foot, a green rag covered his head, a brown tin alms bowl lay flung beyond his stiff outstretched fingers. The heat from a billion directions made him greasy with sweat. It came east from Burma, west from India, south from the Sundarbans and the Bay of Bengal, and in every direction from the thousands of passers-by. This is what I saw, trapped in smoggy traffic under the roof of an egg-shaped mýný-cab: old women hobbled, young boys leaped, girls in black burqa shuffled while children and old men crouched in the shade of an overpass. The beggar was dead, or seemed dead. Playing dead. Dead, warmed, and melting into vapor, his molecules mixing with the creeping smog that hovered like scheming hands clutching a pillow over the face of the exhausted city. The hundreds of thousands of us stepped nimbly over and around him. No one had a single taka to throw in this starving man’s bowl.

No country on earth is prouder of more tragic origins. It took the blood of 2 million murdered intellectuals to flush out Pakistan. Tanks were aimed at the universities in Dhaka and Hindu minorities were dragged out of their homes and shot. Today the country survives through seasons of famine and flooding. Every neighborhood is a slum. Every village is sick with arsenic, jaundice, or hunger.

But it is also a very beautiful place to go on holiday. ———

Rommel was the one who answered when I banged at his door. Through my father and friends of my father, I’d gotten an invitation to meet a family in Dhaka. Their address and telephone number were written in faded blue ink on a tattered envelope that I clutched in my sweaty hand. I mistook him for his father, someone much older, and he laughed when I tried to call him sir. “Come in! Have a coke. You want to have some samosas?” I nodded. “Cook! Make some samosas! Get chai!” Turning back to me he asked “So, do you want to live here?” That was my introduction to the Hussein family. They wanted to put me up in one of the air-conditioned rooms, pay for everything, introduce me to their hundred relatives and treat me as much as they could like family, though I was a stranger to them.

Himel, the youngest of the three brothers, was fond of telling me that you could get anything in Bangladesh if you had money. His father was head of the police department for a neighboring province and his mother managed the family’s real estate investments and a beauty salon. They were absurdly wealthy by Bangladeshi standards and could keep more servants in their home than you and I would ever dream of employing. Still I had to disagree with him. There were many things you couldn’t get in Bangladesh. Even with my 30 pounds of clothes and possessions, I had things they had never seen before. Yusuf , the 13 year-old servant, marvelled at my minidisc player and toyed with the buttons until he’d erased half my music. The first time he saw me taking off contact lenses, he panicked and went to Kala, Auntie, screaming, “Why does he have an extra set of eyes!”

Robin was the oldest son, a heavyset 24 year-old with an savant’s facility for foreign language. Frustrated by the pace of his English class, he’d snatched an English dictionary and memorized it in 45 days. He used such complex and archaic vocabulary that conversations left me more confused than I would admit. He was half a semester away from getting his degree in Queer Studies and promised me, “Yes, we’re going to be having some really wonderful, bombastic colluquys!”

Kala, the mother who made me call her Auntie, was a radiantly happy woman full of love for God and for her family. Her generosity humbled me and there was nothing I could do to fall from her favor, though my host brothers tried hard to arrange it. Of all things Bengladeshi which Rommel thought I should learn, profanity was first priority. Carefully he led me through strings of syllables that summed a vile lexicon of trash. Usually I had no idea. Chut ma-re nar pula? “No, chut ma-re NIR pula.” Chut ma-re nir pula. “Good! Now say it to Kala. She won’t mind! It’s good.” Chut ma-re nir pula. I’ve never seen anyone’s mouth drop so quickly, anyone’s eyes turn so fast to ice. “Great!” Rommel shouted. “Now say the other one.” Kan kir pula? “NAAAAAA!” Kala screamed, and looked at Rommel as if to ask: How could you teach him these things? I had only an inkling of an idea of what I’d said to her, something like “Whore’s son, I sleep with your sister!” But not so nice.

It took only a few days to master Bangladeshi profanity. Once I was proficient, I started getting phone calls from Rommel’s friend Bepul. Hello? “Bastaaaaard!” Bastard? Come on over here, you mother. I kick your scrawny ass! (Shala? Materchote! Sisdem koydeh demo!)

It was hard not to feel like I belonged here. I saw horrible things in Dhaka, but these were countered with introductions to people who turned my perspective upside down. I saw a man with sores and scars like melting icicles on his face. “Someone threw acid at him,” Robin explained in a hushed voice. I saw uniformed police tackle a man in a train station and beat him half-conscious with bamboo staffs. Standing at a bus stop in Mymensingh I tried hard not to trip over the feet of hundreds of families asleep on the black tar sidewalk. Men, women and their children together under tattered blankets with nothing else to their names. There were children here who could never grow to their full height because they would never have enough to eat. The children were pests who might resort to any ploy for money or candy. In the daytime I’d push them out of the way and curse them out as they fixed their eyes on the lump my wallet made in my pocket. At night they lay sandwiched between their mothers and fathers, asleep on hard pavement. I thought, that kid is only 10. He begs and makes a nuisance of himself to get whatever he can, but he’s still only 10. What can I give to help them? 2 taka, enough money to buy a cup of chai or a roll of bread, enough to help a human being fool himself into thinking his sunken stomach is full. Or I give 10 taka, a healthy man’s hour’s wage, or even 100 taka and I keep one person from death for the next week. When I leave, they’ll start to starve again. To be in this place is to stare at an abyss of despair and stalled hopes. I give money and it’s like throwing pennies into a black hole of poverty. There was a need in Bangladesh that I hadn’t seen anywhere before. NEED, with all capital letters. It was a disorganized place without a hope of recovery or salvation and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

But these were fantastic people also. Most of them, even in Dhaka, had never seen a foreigner before and I attracted more attention than I ever wanted. Conversations stopped when I walked into cafes. Shoeshine and newspaper boys stood gaping, or sometimes rushed to me and cautiously brushed their fingers against my skin, lighter than they’d seen before. One of my favorite memories from Dhaka is being introduced to the Hussein grandmother. She was over 90 years-old in a country where the average lifespan ends near 50. She’d seen the British occupation, Independence, seccession from India, and a war with Pakistan that left her city decimated. But she’d never seen dread-locks or face piercings. I tip-toed over when she beckoned me to her bed and asked me to bend down. She ran her shaking, papery fingers over the coarse knots in my hair and laughed and laughed.

Rommel and his friends wanted to get me out of Dhaka and into the countryside. I couldn’t blame them. Dhaka is a really fascinating place where art and education thrive in spite of crushing poverty, but the streets are more congested than anywhere in the world. Public fist fights are common; it is not safe or practical to leave home after dark; and a brown cloud of pollution hangs from above the rooftops down to the gutters. It blocks the sun and makes breathing impossible. Anyone with enough money not to work would stay indoors.

So from Dhaka we took a bus to the city of Mymensingh, and from Mymensingh we went to Guripur. From Guripur we negotiated a rickshaw for 10 of us over roads that had been flooded the week before, mud that cut into the thick of rice paddy country. It took 2 hours to cover a 10 mile stretch of muck and we didn’t arrive until 1am. The sea of rice paddies reflected a blue color in the moonlight. The sky was stuck with stars and the ground was burning up with fireflies. I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything that beautiful again. It was 2am when we reached Rommel’s friend’s uncle, who lived in a one room tin shack with this family. He was happy to wake up and spend the rest of the night with us, drinking illegal bootleg alcohol and singing Bengali folk songs.

“Bepul’s uncle, the man you met,” Rommel said the next day, “He’s killed four people.” Man, I don’t believe you! “No, it’s true.” Liar. “He killed 4 people. If you ask most of the men in this village, if you take a survery, you’ll hear maybe 6 out of 10 here has killed someone.” You’re joking. How did it happen? “There isn’t so much land here for farming. Sometimes, after the floods, the waters recede and there’s new land. Bepul’s family moved onto that land, but they had to fight for it. Some men came here in the night to chase them out, and Bepul’s uncle killed them. This place is very dangerous. If you weren’t with us, you could not come here.” That’s crazy. He didn’t go to jail? “This is the country. Life is cheap here.”

But I couldn’t believe it. I thought the place was wonderful, and we’d already stayed much longer than we’d planned. In the village center, a small cluster of chicken coop-like shacks where Rommel and his friends could buy cigarettes, I drew a crowd of 60 people who followed me to the ends of the town, half-fascinated and half-intimidated by whatever I was. They waited outside while I had tea with the governor, peeking into the windows, curious and quiet.

We stopped at a port city on our way back to Dhaka. It was a place to stretch our legs where Rommel had friends he wanted me to meet. Near the shore, where rusting cargo ships returned from Australia, India, and Africa, I stopped to look in the window of a souvenir stand. The owner was a small man with a white skullcap and a thick gray beard. The Koran says that a thousand angels hang from each hair of a man’s beard. The pious never shave, and following Indian fashion most men keep at least a moustache. Bangladesh is like a sea of moustaches.

He looked at me curiously and asked in halting English, “Where are you from?” America, I told him. “What religion are you?” he asked. Christian, I lied. He stammered and tripped over his thoughts. I was expecting some political tongue lashing over Afghanistan or Israel. I was already starting to take a few steps back. “Ee-sis was the greatest man!” Sorry? “Ee-sis! Our religion has the most respect for him! He was a great man.” Ee-sis?…Jesus? Oh!– In the few English words that he knew, this man was trying to show his respect for my culture. He wanted me to know that his people weren’t narrow-minded and intolerant, that his religion wasn’t the gospel of terrorists, that I was always welcome in his country. He was trying to reach me however he could, and I didn’t know how I could thank him. I was really stunned. This man had nothing to share except his goodwill, and he offered it to a stranger when I hadn’t given him anything. I didn’t know what to say, except Thank you, for his hospitality and for everything I could learn in his country.

There are more stories and people than I have time to describe, and some things so horrible or bewildering that I can’t do them justice. Bangladeshis expected nothing from me, shared anything they had, and fought me if I wanted to do as little for them as buying a cup of tea.

Months later I keep asking myself: what does this account for? Why did I have this experience and what can I do with it? Why did I see these things, so I can brag to other travellers or make myself sound exotic? Man, I hope not. I would love to rededicate my life to rebuilding nations and working with the poor, but I’m human and I’d love a 10 cd Pioneer stereo with surround sound and lots of blinking lights for every room in my 9 million square-meter apartment, too. Somewhere between the two I’ll wind up settling– a starter home with cats who piss on the Ikea furniture, a car I like in a color I hate, and the career that emerged from the shambles of my inability to decide a profession. But at least I floated in the same, safe tax-bracket and lived in a decent house. I didn’t use my education and the gifts and resources of health and prosperity to uplift the world, but at least I didn’t live each day in a fight to eat and never thought of survival as a miracle. But I don’t know which of these two is the bigger disaster.

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