This anecdote is based upon the experience of a villager whom I had the pleasure of speaking with while I was in Bangladesh earlier this year. As the account is fictionalised, I’ve customarily changed the name of the protagonist. The story will be told in three parts.
Here is part one:
Nasir sold his tract of land to fund his travel to the West. No more farming for him; no siree! No more blisters from ploughing, no more aches from sowing, no more cuts from threshing, no more kicks from irate cows, no more cow dung and chicken shit to clean. Those days were soon to be over. Truth be told, it wasn’t so much the work but its futility that had begun to sap his morale. The hand-to-mouth existence felt like his life was doomed to remain flattened under some dreary rock while he saw others’ fortunes blooming up into the skies. Quite literally. There were duplex apartments rising up around him, a new tenement every year, each one more grand than the last. These were funded by those who had travelled abroad, got settled, found work, got rich and sent money home. Their loved ones, finding themselves in the cash windfall, began making monthly trips to the bank and withdrawing huge sums to fund the creation of these large holiday homes, partly to tell the community that they were now boro lok. (Oh, how those foreign denominations were exchanged for a bag-load of deshi money, Nasir had once witnessed at the counter.) What’s more, when the heroic earner returned home, members of the lower classes were quick to doff their topis, address him with honorifics, make a grab for his hand as if he were a holy man, and offer to serve as his lackey.
Nasir decided the time had come to take that risk, fall in step with friends, uncles, cousins, who had used their nous and knowledge, their bribes and connections, to reach the other side. He too would strive to become a boro lok. Ho too would have lackeys to order around. He too would earn enough money to build his own palace.
Outside his house, a little after midnight, he paid for the fake passport; it was the largest cash bundle he had ever parted with. The notes were wrapped in a polythene bag. Anticipation made his grip sweaty and the passport he received almost slipped out of his hand. But his fingers held firm, the tendons tensing like cord beneath the surface of each digit. He opened the book to the back page and saw his photo embedded, sealed under the security measures. He scrutinised it under the bluish beam of his torch. The sovereign stamp of the host country was embossed on the edge. The man told him that it would pass all the border checks, his grin widening to reveal white, even teeth, and perhaps the blackest of hearts.
The dalal took out the money and counted it with a practiced flick of the thumb. He wasn’t the type to pay a second visit. Satisfied, he replaced the money in the bag and stowed the bundle under his leather jacket. He started up the motorbike engine and took off, the deal done as silver veins began lighting up the night sky. Nasir glanced at the horizon. A flash lit up his eyes, brightened the hopes gleaming in them. He interpreted the arrival of a storm as a good omen: nature clearing the stale breath of the day’s swelter to usher in cooler, fresher air. The leaves began rustling. The orchard of Alphonso mangoes, ripe and heavy on the branches, bobbed as if nodding their approval. The first raindrops fell on Nasir’s hot brow. It was an angel’s touch.
He stepped back into the house and shut the double doors. His wife’s large eyes waited in the half-light of the room, her body braced against the doorway. She couldn’t be sure whether the transaction had been auspicious or a swindle. The haste with which the man had pressed down on the pedal and disappeared (with toes that jutted far too long out of his sandals) had implied the latter.
“Are you sure about this?”
“It’s full proof.”
“This is a land of thieves and con artists.”
“He’s fixed many people’s documents and has got them safely across.”
“You’ll have no one there to look after you.”
“I’m not the first person to make this journey.”
“You will come back?”
Nasir’s mother was absorbed in her post-prayer zikir in the far room, chanting Allah’s name in a voice hypnotised by worship. She had long since abdicated her role insofar as any involvement in family matters and had entered that period of self-reflection when her senses were coveting the next world. The three children were fast asleep – the soft rhythm of their breathing the most precious sound to young parents after the day’s tribulations. Nasir padded up to his wife. He gently pulled her away from the doorway and ran his finger along her cheek. Her face was pretty, still young, majestic. He turned and glimpsed at his shapeless vest which hung from a peg.
“I’m going to build a house double the size of this and fill your neckline with gold. I will send money so we can enroll our kids in private school.”
She watched him lock away the passport in a safe box which he kept on a shelf behind a stack of holy books. She couldn’t help noticing the slight tremor in his hands. Although his ambition had been so immovably persuaded, it had come at the cost of parting with his land. His livelihood. With the money now gone, there was no contingency. She looked at him and he drank in her gaze. There was something soothing about her, a calm wisdom that could tame the wildest storms in their lives.
“I know you can do it,” she said.
NEXT WEEK …
A long time ago in Bangladesh a boy was caught stealing a calf from a cowshed. He wasn’t a fly-by-night thief, but an opportunist who had been living with the family I was staying with at the time. An uncle of mine had employed him to keep the cows away from the paddy fields, plus run all his errands. The boy’s father would drop by monthly, a withered figure. From under a drab shawl, he would stretch out his bidi-stained hand to collect the boy’s wage. A few crumpled notes. He would then slip away, as silently as a leach, and not be seen until the same time the following month.
My uncle treated the boy in a manner not uncommon in a village where hired help was aplenty and opportunities few. He wasn’t averse to cuffing the boy in the back of his head whenever he did something wrong. Occasionally he would swipe his bare thighs with a stick or the end of a rope to make sure a mistake wasn’t repeated. The boy was from a low caste, half an orphan, destitute. He had been forced to abandon his childhood as soon as he learned to walk. With a father hooked on some habit, survival was his game.
Whenever punished, the boy winced and gritted his teeth, but never did I see him shed a tear. My uncle tried to rein in the aggression if ever I was present, realising that as a guest in his house and in the country, it would be too upsetting for my soft sensibilities. On the odd occasion he failed to notice my presence, it was the little boy who would flick a glance in my direction and assure me with a wink and a smirk that he was fine. During my stay the boy became my friend since we were roughly the same age. He taught me to swim, to ride a bike, to climb palm trees, to whittle a flute out of a stick of bamboo. His easygoing nature even brought out my shy mother tongue and helped it find a colloquial edge.
So the morning I woke up to the sounds of my uncle bellowing in the courtyard, informing the household of the crime the boy had committed, my heart sank. He’d been incarcerated in the cowshed and his father had been summoned. My uncle claimed his goodwill had been compromised to such a degree that he felt within his rights to beat the boy black and blue.
I wiped the sleep off my eyes and snuck into the cowshed. There I saw broken bales of hay, a bucket turned on its side, the earth sucking on the spilled contents. The boy was tied to a post next to the cows, reduced to an animal. There were marks on him too: a bloodied ear, puffy eyes and a swollen bottom lip. Tear tracks ran down his face, indicating that he’d been crying for a long time. I quickly shut the door. The light disappeared and a shadow fell across his face. For a few seconds the bruises became invisible against the burnished density of the interior. It was like a flannel or a band-aid.
Did you try to steal the calf? I asked him, but he stared stonily ahead as if any admission would diminish him in my eyes. I tried again. How long have you been tied up? All I got was the same hard face. I peered out the grill-barred window and saw the boy’s father amble up to my uncle, genuflected, ready to accept whatever sentence my uncle saw fit. They engaged in a brief conference. They then began making their approach towards the cowshed to hold court. They had obviously decided his fate.
Terror forced me to act. A terror I couldn’t confess to the boy. In fact, I didn’t say another word. I untied his red-raw wrists. I got down on my knees and untied his red-raw ankles. I threw the jute ropes on the ground and stepped back. The boy didn’t say a word to me either. He just leapt up and bolted out the back, the grace of his agility still intact.
For some reason, even now, years later, I am so pleased that he didn’t thank me or clasp my hands in gratitude. Anything either of us said at that moment would have slackened the unspoken bond we had established in the short time we’d been friends. It would have turned a moral act unnecessarily maudlin. All I knew was that this was the very least I owed him. Not as a friend but as a human being. That night I imagined him sneaking back to his home and ransacking all that his father was worth so that he could set out alone in the world. I believed he could survive. To this day I have nothing but admiration for him. He was the thief who despite getting caught didn’t allow anyone to rob his dignity. But in my heart he will always be my friend.
The girl stepped inside the room. Uncertain steps. Steps that wanted to turn and walk in the opposite direction. She heard a resounding click. The door was shut for her. She stood before the old man and woman who gazed at her, their lips parted, their eyes open, expectant. The man instructed her to twirl. She obeyed without a word. Once, twice, thrice. The spell of dizziness felt liberating; a little reckless, as if she were handing over responsibility of her safety to the vagaries of a fairground ride.
“Do you like it?” the man asked.
“I’m trying to.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“Don’t frighten her!” said the old woman.
The man stepped forward and began prodding bits of her garment. Handling her roughly. He had to make sure she looked pretty for her special day.
“You knew this day would come,” the old woman said. “And I promise you that when you meet your future it will be beautiful, perfect, just like we’ve been told. Of course you know that. You just have to do everything the way we have taught you.”
The young woman nodded. She closed her eyes and went through the drill one final time. She squeezed the plastic button hidden inside her sweaty grip. Death to the bastards who had maimed half her family and killed the rest.
He waited in the wings while the audience settled into their seats. There were the hushed voices, people slinking out of their coats, the shuffle of footsteps, the familiar laugh of a fan in the front row who had been following him since the early days. The good old days when he played in smoky taverns, always eager to interact and improvise, his fingers gliding over the keys as he sat on his favourite piano stool with the slightly rickety leg.
Henry looked down at his hands. He studied the knuckles and fingers, the skin now knotted and veined, shrivelled by age. He no longer regarded the tools of his trade with the same vanity. He couldn’t. The fifty-year ride had reached its end. The audience out there, after tonight, would be his no more.
The curtain rose; the drama and dignity of its ascendance sent a hush through the auditorium. Henry walked out into the spotlight. He sat at the piano, drank in the applause. He could feel the tremor in his fingers. Not nerves, but the early onset of that dreadful disease. The beginning of the end.
I tend to be drawn to people who have a sad air about them. A sadness that is subtle, but poignant in its subtlety. Whether this says something about them or me remains a question for another blog post, but what is most curious is that this sadness preoccupies me, both as a writer and a human being. There is always something about their sadness – a moment’s hesitation, a hollow laugh, a melancholic shine of the eyes, a quiver of the lips, or even a throwaway comment – that imprints itself on my conscience. Imagination then gets to work, sometimes days later when I’m out on a walk or having my morning cup of tea, and fashions a whole catalogue of stories that might explain the pain they are hiding.
Just this weekend I happened to bump into an old school colleague. It was on a bus. From the start I could tell he was in a bad way. His hair was dishevelled, his teeth stained, the skin on his scalp peeling. He reeked of booze and neglect. When our eyes met he balked at first but then sat up with his hands laced behind his back and greeted me with the slurred words: “Hey, it’s been years, tell me what’s been happening in your life.”
It didn’t take the honed intuition of a counsellor to spot the tight smile which was stretched like tarpaulin over the broken pieces of his life. What’s more, his gambit pretty much laid down the law that the conversation we were about to engage in would be one-way traffic with him asking all the questions to ensure we didn’t venture into his life. I respected his unspoken request and stayed on safe ground by opting to reminisce about our school days instead.
All the while, however, his current plight kept eddying in the corner of my mind. I could not help noticing the chewed fingernails, the blotchy skin reddened by shame, his eyes that kept darting, refusing to meet mine. The smile that wouldn’t leave his lips, the same smile he used each day to charm strangers into dropping a coin into his begging bowl.
This was someone who had been something of a maverick at school. He possessed an intelligence that could decipher the most challenging maths equations and solve the Rubik’s cube in a matter of minutes. Yet he had a problem with authority. He was no stranger to being put on school reports and his disruptive behaviour frequently had him standing outside the headmaster’s office. Having grown up in the unstable environment of a broken family, he’d always carried a keg of anger which teacher’s seemed to be particularly adept at setting alight. It was clear to many of us on the day he was served his expulsion notice, that after walking out of the school gates he would either use his anger to conquer life or use it to stonewall the world, irrespective of what it had to offer.
I’d very much hoped that in the intervening years he’d have carved out a life of success, a story befitting a Hollywood screenplay and if our paths ever crossed he would regale me with tales of his heady achievements. I’d had him marked down as a computer programmer – someone whose métier would take him to Silicone Valley or leading boardroom meetings at the offices of Apple or Microsoft. Alas, years later, to find him drunken on a bus in broad daylight, trying to hide his shame, made me realise just how abrasive life can be, especially to those who are forced to start on the back foot. If there’s any consolation, I suppose that had he become that success story I probably wouldn’t have been preoccupied by him all weekend, and the nib of my pen wouldn’t be quivering to write the story of the angry young man whose life is on an endless spiral until the day he wakes, suddenly alert, swatted by the realisation that it is now or never. I guess I can give him a happy ending, which is worth something, right?