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 …