Juxtaposed Realities: Dhaka
A short story by Mehreen Ahmed
On a chilled grey dawn, I hear a call out. I get out of bed fumbling, and reach for my shawl. Somewhat disoriented and half asleep, I make my way through to the roof of my bedroom. Eyes still squinting, I bend over the brick, short wall, to see a vendor halt in front of a six storied building; with a cart full of green vegetables: beans, spinach, carrots, cucumber and cauliflower, he looks up, as he hears a yell faintly audible, from above.
“Hey! Stop, stop right there.”
In a knee-jerk reaction, he pulls up the handbrakes of the cycle, to stop the cart moving any further.
“Give me one kilogram of beans, carrots and cucumber.”
The vegetables appear to be fresh, as though they have just been plucked from an adjacent vegetable patch, with cauliflowers white as snow; greens, lush and rich.
“Twenty taka,” the vendor screams back.
“Too much,” the woman retorts.
“Not really, everything is too expensive, amma, surely you understand that.”
“True, how about fifteen?” she harangues.
“Okay,” he says compliantly.
The woman nods in satisfaction, thinking that she has struck a hard bargain. While a little servant girl comes downstairs, to collect the vegetables from the vendor, she tosses a twenty taka note recklessly. Out of the narrow, grilled window, it flies through the air, descending gently, like a kite on the dirt. The vendor rakes it with grubby fingers, puts it in his shirt pocket, before he takes out the change for her. Off he goes again, pedalling his cycle-van hailing “spinach, beans, and cauliflowers”, stopping and selling his greens, through the dusty streets of Uttara in Dhaka.
Still a little ashen from mist, visibility is quite lucid, from steady daylight. Ripened fruits gather in cluster, amid posies of tarnished leaves, in the orchard at the back of the house. None of the pomegranate, the coconut, the guava, the date or the betel nut trees has escaped the onslaught of pollution. Leaves have lost their hue, to the thick dust and masses of irregular black blotches. Real colour does not return, until monsoon, which is when the rain brings it back to life, in exquisite tender green.
The market is not far, but for an average family here, this is the most hassle free way to get fresh, hand-picked vegetables for the day. Break-fast is laid on the dining table downstairs, which is nothing short of a delightful spread, consisted of chappaties and vegetable curry. Oodles of omelette, halwa, fresh coconut juice from the orchard, and a sugary cup of white tea, served in one wholesome meal. Homecoming made sweeter, than never before.
To sit by the window and sip warm tea is the most usual thing to do on a lazy morning. Apart from a few rickshaws, there are also some cars, honking desperately and quite unnecessarily to get past. Indeed. How little things have actually changed. Deafening blare of the horn and the tinkling of the rickshaw bells beat in dull monotony. As the idle morning rolls by, the drivers, the paan-wallas and the street people gather, under the same lamp-post in pursuit of futile political discussion.
Spitting betel juice, occasionally into the smelly, open drains, and smoking cheap cigarettes, they talk about opposition parties. Limited to grocery prices, and general law and order situation, eternal debates go on for hours, until someone is summoned to report back to duty. The same odd crow perched on a saggy electric wire; the lonesome, mal-nourished dog shuffle along the jagged road.
On their kitchen floor, the little servant girl, sits on a piri cutting her vegetables bought from the vendor with a boti. Evidently, she has a lot of practice, observed from the precision of her cuts, as she slices through the carrots and the beans: some thin, some thick; skills, which go unnoticed and often unrewarded.
Not that I already do not know; I venture out, nonetheless, for a rickshaw ride this quiet after-noon; heightened midday sun takes the chill off. However, this is soon over-ridden, as my rickshaw approaches a maddening crowd of gridlocked cars, trucks, buses, people and a multitude of other rickshaws in the middle of the main road. Traffic stalls haplessly, in an effort to edge out, through any opportune opening, but to be thwarted by similar manoeuvres by thousands of vehicles. Traffic lights change without success, as police continue to berate for more discipline and countless whistle-blows, falling on deaf ears.
Mainly Toyotas, but a few new models of BMWs and Mercedes are also viewed. My rickshaw crosses the intersection, narrowly escaping a huge bus, which stops at the very last minute. With no safety plans in place, the game is to carry on, until one is caught out by an on-coming vehicle. Oblique and slippery, the seats of the rickshaws are precarious sometimes.
People’s unfettered cries are hardly registered. Their fate hangs in the balance, as rickshaws meander out of congestion. Once on the other side of the road, my tour continues with a sigh of relief.
I am awakened from my thoughts, by noisy clunk of a crude collision. Surrounded by a huge crowd, suddenly, I notice a small group of men engaged in heated argument. Captive audience of this street drama, I witness an accident. A van has hit a BMW and has knocked its head lights out. Sedated expression locked on her face, a young girl dressed in jeans and T-shirt is seated, next to one more person, in the back leather seat, an elderly woman in an expensive sari.
The driver of the BMW demands huge compensation. An agreement is negotiated, however before the offending vehicle is allowed to get off the hook. For two-hundred taka, the matter is resolved. No police is spotted. Acting as the police, the judge and the jury, sentence is meted out in this manner. Bystanders decide whether or not poetic justice prevails.
Demarcation between the have-s and the have-s not is sharp. Slums grow in step with the population, as two worlds grow largely apart from each other. Charities are not such an uncommon practice either, when the rich tries to expunge guilt. Further down the road a woman in the hijab is seen handing over, square little boxes to her driver from inside her white Toyota. He in turn, gives it away to the street-dwellers. Dark hovels, which they call “home,” are make-shifts, built from used plastic and straw in an amateur patch-work.
Sized up to a tiny tool shed, each hovel is inhabited by at least five or six people. Thriving in slums, millions of children are born each year; then again millions also die. Resilience, their coping mechanism, with basic needs hardly ever met; food, drinking water or sanitation. In this instance, men, woman and children open their boxes happily, which takes their breath away. It is Biriyani! Dinner no doubt, but what tomorrow might bring, lies in limbo.
Past the slum, a massive three story building stands in white washed rendered finish. There is a party going on here tonight, as I understand from rows of cars parked on either side. Each car has a driver, who eagerly waits to open the passenger’s door for their masters and mistresses to egress. Posh ladies step out. Underneath, the expensive silk saris, the high heels rattle on the concrete road. Diamonds glitter in the twilight, under the sallow street lights. Seductive aroma, of their expensive perfume, waft through the stale air.
Western sky darkens. Creatures of the night creep in. My rickshaw driver has done the rounds and is now tired from it all. I ask him to stop the vehicle. Alongside the big house, open drains reek of toxic waste. Wallet in my pocket, a monstrous four wheel drive gets past; it splashes some of that water onto me and him.
Swatting an irritating mosquito on his forehead, he scratches an itchy spot and waits for his fare. In a moment of unexpected anguish, he asks uninhibitedly for more money, than what is bargained for. Big droplets of sweat hang from his forehead and are wiped off with the red and black Grameen gamcha sited around the neck.
It behooves, not just me, but anyone to pay him what he deserves. Given, a drained, skin-and-bone young face, he somehow looks much older, as though age has been brought upon him through poverty. Watch him get back onto the rickshaw, in his dirty, torn, checked lungi with mismatched white, cotton frayed vest is agonizing. Slowly, he dissipates into the murky night, most likely back to his people living on the margin.
What the rickshaw wallah said resonates in my mind and is clearer in retrospect. When he bargained, all he ever said was, ‘please give me a couple of taka more,’ and that is enough for me. He asks not just to feed an ever hungry family. For a couple of extras, he can never provide for more than a meal. However, in anticipation that there is a possibility, perhaps an infinite possibility, for ‘more to come,’ is his ultimate incentive.
If one were to typify a place, then these are snapshots that need to be captured. Brazen realities frozen in time; progress impeded because of a tradition of cultural sloth. The world goes by without a moment’s reproach and I retire for the day; however, a line drones mindlessly in paradox.
“Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized on a table (The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T.S Eliot, 1920).”
Splendidly juxtaposed, I chuckle.
About the author: Queensland writer, Mehreen Ahmed has been a published author since 1987. Her works of fiction include an international psychological novella, Jacaranda Blues, as well as numerous short stories, newspaper articles, and travel narratives. Mehreen has also published a number of academic works that have appeared in notable peer-reviewed journals within the area of Computer Assisted Language Learning.