why did you create these two worlds?
Reality replied: O prisoner of time,
I was a secret treasure of kindness and generosity,
and I wished this treasure to be known,
so I created a mirror: its shining face, the heart;
its darkened back, the world;
The back would please you if you’ve never seen the face.
Cruel. Unjust. Lifeless. Pitiless. Vindictive. Callous.
I was assaulted by all of the above phrases as I listened to Rasel’s story. His is the story of an average Bangladeshi’s life. The story of hope, nightmares and the struggle to live on. The story of deceit, shattered dreams and spasms of never-ending darkness.
At thirteen years old, Rasel is the only breadwinner of his family of five. With his parents sick and jobless, it has been up to him for quite some time as the eldest son to try and manage some money in order to feed himself and the rest of his folks. On good days he earns around 100 taka ($1.25) by picking up scrap, reusable materials from the streets of Dhaka for sale at the recycling factories. In addition, his younger siblings—Rubina and Rashed—– roam around Dhanmondi Lake and beg from the couples in the open couples’ retreats, thereby adding a meager amount to the household income. Together they add up whatever they can; and spend out of what they have been provided with.
On days at a stretch they go without lunch just so that the entire family can have a moderate dinner at night. Bengali families are always closely-knit, and a person no matter how selfish or jealous a nature he sports, will always have to feed his entire clan before he puts something into his own mouth. Begging and picking up waste materials full-time to maximize the amount of income, Rasel and his siblings are hardly allowed any reprieve from the glaring Dhaka sun. It is evident from each of their brown, tanned skins and malnourished bodies that the only shelter they have been provided is under the scorching tropical daylight.
Ironic really. The wealthy need to visit the sunny beaches and expensive resorts in order to get themselves a boastful tan. But here for Rasel and his siblings, a sun-tan is something that comes with existence.
Has anyone ever produced a mirror out of mud and straw?
Yet cleaned away the mud and straw,
so that a mirror might be revealed.
Until the juice ferments a while in the cask,
it isn’t wine. If you wish your heart to be bright,
you must do a little work.
Rife with endemic starvation and poverty, Rasel’s family represents one of many poor class families struggling hard to find a place in the gold mine of Dhaka. And Rasel is one of the 3 million children in Bangladesh who live under the international poverty line.
“And you don’t attend the charity school nearby?” I ask him all of a sudden amidst our conversation. Somehow I already know the answer.
Rasel grimaces a silly smile.
“I have attended classes up to the third grade in my village school before I came to Dhaka. Why do I need to study when it gives me no food?” Rational, I acknowledge. “And besides, I need to come here in the morning right after the Fajr prayers. Otherwise, I will be unable to collect enough materials for sale.”
As we speak in front of the beautifully sparkling waters before us, the sun begins to ogle with a greater force. Debilitating and reminding us of its strength, it tells us how powerless we are against the Supreme Force that decides our Fateful existence.
“I used to work at a garments factory before. Earning around 1400 taka ($18 approx.) monthly. But I left because of the overwork and really poor conditions.”
I recalled seeing an international news report about T-shirts made by child laborers and exported from Bangladesh that were sold at $20 each in the superstores of North America and Europe.
“So, what do you plan to become? Bangladesh is advancing forward literally by the day. Soon we will become a thriving middle-income country. What do you think about the future?”
My question elicited quite a quotidian response.
“Kono mote khawa dawa koira baichha thaklei hoilo.” I think all I need to do is eat and survive through the day.
Had I asked this same question to another child of the same age but from the privileged, middle-class society that I belong to and whose members I befriend and entertain, I would have been confronted with a very different answer. Perhaps it would have been the dream of becoming a scientist. A doctor. Or even a pilot. If possible an engineer as well.
My King addressed the soul of my flesh:
You return just as you left.
Where are the traces of my gifts?
We know that alchemy transforms copper into gold.
This Sun doesn’t want a crown or robe from God’s grace.
He is a hat to a hundred bald men,
a covering for ten who were naked.
The afternoon Azan suddenly became ubiquitous throughout the vibrant, overpopulated neighborhoods of Dhaka. Here in Dhanmondi, the tall residential skyscrapers loomed ahead of me. In recent years the region has been morphed into a pinnacle of development. Since the country’s Prime Minister has her private residences in this area, it was imperative that the neighborhoods symbolized the making of a modern cosmopolitan city.
But, the truth is, this air of development have hardly touched the lives of people like Rasel and his family. While the country is developing at an unprecedented rate, while increasing numbers of families are sending their children to the local American schools and shipping them off to attend US universities, a huge population still remains underdeveloped. And the numbers of the homeless are exceptionally higher in those areas of the city where most of the people enjoy a per capita income equal to almost that of any normal developed city in the West.
Unequal growth. Something that most development economist and policy-makers in Bangladesh prefer to ignore in order to underscore our rapid rate of economic growth.
“You can pray your namaz, can’t you?” I inquire, having arrived almost to the end of our conversation.
“Yes, I have completed the Arabic Qur’an once!” he says excitedly. Must be an achievement for him.
But his sister Rubina, who has remained silent till then, cuts in all of a sudden.
“But he never prays!”
At this Rasel remonstrates. “I do. But only during the Friday afternoon prayers.”
By then, it has already become too late for me. I take my leave and walk off, breathing the beautiful scent of flowers and food. Entering into Green Road, the attractive stench of spices and barbecue permeated through my nostrils.
“Oh! They have begun to burn the chicken grills and shik kebabs already? Maybe I will get a shwarma for the evening meal.” I ponder to myself.
But then, the terrible, the most horrifying of all truths strike back at me.
Will Rasel and his family be guaranteed a bowl of rice for tonight?
Jesus sat humbly on the back of an ass, my child!
How could a zephyr ride an ass?
Spirit, find your way, in seeking lowness like a stream.
Reason, tread the path of selflessness into eternity.
Remember God so much that you are forgotten.
Let the caller and the called disappear;
Be lost in the Call.
The poems have been extracted from the Persian Sufi poet Maulana Rumi’s legendary work ‘Be Lost in the Call’