Moonlight’s Story

The Story Behind this Short-Story:

My mom acquired Rahima a few months back to work for her as a domestic worker. Although it is clear that Rahima is definitely younger than me, even at this age she is already a single mother of a 2-year old toddler. Her husband left her and their daughter to remarry and never returned to her, leaving her with no male guardian since her father has been dead from a long time back. Her story epitomizes that of many young females in Bangladesh. Although my story is entirely fictitious, it was inspired out of the many Rahimas living and mixing with the crowd freely, keeping their stories to themselves and constantly struggling with life.

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Moonlight’s Story

 

The virgin sun of the morning rose up majestically, turning the sky into an endearing shade of an aesthetic yellow hue. Symbolizing freshness and tranquility, the sun was also serenaded by a gust of refreshing, celestial breeze blowing directly from the heavens. The city’s occupants, oblivious to the morning preparations of the sun, were still engulfed by their slumbers where they dreamt of happiness and ambitions at this particular hour of the day. The birds, however, were already awake, breathing their share of the wind that had been bequeathed by the Heavens themselves.

As the sun fretted over its newly achieved aura, inside one of the many slums of Dhaka a shabby bamboo hovel was stirring up slowly. The sun, seizing its opportunity, penetrated through the countless cracks of the shack and used its rays to illuminate the different corners of the humble hut. Sporadically, as the rays shone upon them, the rats and roaches began to move out and dispersed themselves off to their darker hide-outs.

Other than the parasites, the hut also housed an eighteen year old single mother and her two year old daughter. The mother was named Khadija, after the Prophet’s beloved wife, while the daughter was called Fatima, after the Prophet’s daughter. The two of them were sleeping peacefully, dreaming their dreams of happiness, of finding love, shelter and all the other necessities of worldly life.

As the chirping grew louder with an increased frequency, Khadija woke up with a start. Affronted by the glistening sun’s rays entering into the hut, she gasped for breathe.

It’s late again, she muttered as she got up and rushed outside.

Getting an ablution, she entered back into the hovel and unfurled her prayer-mat in front of the dawn’s silky rays.

Every prayer of hers since the last two years has been but towards one objective.

Please, my Lord. Let me and my daughter live the day as we had lived the day before. Let us survive through the next day without losing each other’s company. Do not separate us until you command death for one of us.

By the time Khadija’s prayers are done, Fatima wakes up routinely to greet her mom with a pair of morose eyes. The two of them then bathe using the waters from the tube-well before getting properly dressed. Powder-puffed with the cheapest talc, Fatima escorts her mom as the two come out of Korail slum to enter into the streets of Gulshan.

Mother and daughter are greeted by the glitz of Gulshan—the towering skyscrapers and the huge number of BMWs on the roads that symbolize prosperity in this God-forsaken country—-as they walk down the pavements that support the wealthiest tax-payers of the nation. They need to enter Khadija’s work-place soon; otherwise her mistress will not fail to reprimand her.

It was a beautiful summer Friday afternoon. The decorations were complete and the village elders were all set. The noon prayers had been accomplished and as soon as the bridegroom arrived the marriage ceremony was commenced by the local Kazi. Dressed in her impeccable best, and with henna painted over her brown face, hands and feet, the 14 year old bride was married off by her poverty-stricken parents at a meager dowry. Yet, everyone was happy, even the young bride who had resigned to Fate and was still too young tobe able to gather what was happening to her. 

The mother and daughter sat down in the kitchen and Khadija began to roll out the dough in order to start making chapattis for the family she worked for. It was still very early morning, but soon everyone would be up awake and breakfast should be available on the table.

It was on the wedding night that the couple consummated their marriage in accordance with the tradition. The girl felt safe in her husband’s arms; arms that were at least ten years older; and the man found that the girl could be trusted to serve his naiveties. So he took her off to the capital city where he worked as a day-laborer. They lived in an overcrowded slum by the side of Buriganga, and while the man toiled hard throughout the day the girl maintained his house and kept whatever frugal possessions they had abreast. A year passed by in bliss, and happiness. Albeit, a short-lived happiness.

“What’s taking you so long?” the mistress asked Khadija referring to the chapattis, and then “You,” pointing at Fatima, “How many times do I have to bloody tell you not to sit against my newly-painted wall? Get off and go to the balcony.”

To which Fatima silently obliged.

The job is a blessing, Khadija thought. How else could I have earned 2500 taka working throughout the day! We would have starved to death without the job. 

But mistress wanted everything picture perfect. And fast. Mighty fast. Punctuality was on the top of her agenda.

And so Khadija worked faster to appease the mistress.

It was around a year of marriage. Khadija founded out that she had missed her most recent period. Blushed, feeling ashamed and happy at the same time, she confessed her pregnancy at first to her neighbor. But there was something wrong on the middle-aged women’s face. “You don’t know?” she countenanced. “Know what?” Khadija enquired, perplexed. “Your husband fucks whores all the time. He won’t ever father your child.” 

With the morning chores over, Khadija began to do the washing and the cleaning. She mopped the floors religiously, while Fatima stayed silent on the balcony.

She has been trained to stay silent, Khadija pondered and breathed a sigh of relief. A cry-baby was the last thing she could have managed.

“What garbage are you talking about old lady?” Khadija began a storm of assaults at her and breathed out madeup stories about how the lady’s husband sees the girl living in the next quarters and how she was sure that the lady should be managing her own home before destroying another. But deep down inside, a fear lumped down her throat. A fear that was a multipleheaded ferocious monster. A fear that weighed her down and caught her fervently…….

She meandered away with her lunch, so that Fatima could be apportioned enough to fill her hungry stomach. Gulping down the remains in one go with several glasses of water, she again set to work while her daughter resumed her old position in the balcony. By then, the maiden sun had been replaced by a more ferocious one. The glaring Dhaka heat was drowning out all of Khadija’s energy.

………….”Do you or do you not?” she enquired after her husband. “Fuck whores? Of course not; I am your husband, can’t you see? I took a dowry from your father.” But his eyes emitted an indistinguishable glare of pretense which the young bride could easily discern. She called after him as he was leaving for work diffidently, “I am pregnant.” The husband stopped dead in his tracks, rattled at such a sudden news. Without flexing any muscle or turning back he said grimly, “Well, we’ll see about that later on tonight.” He strode away confidently, denying a wife her right to a husband; denying a daughter the right to fatherhood; denying a family the very fabric of society……

The family had completed its dinner. The leftovers were dumped for the servants and drivers. Each took their own share. Khadija had to share her own with Fatima once again. But seeing her child eating voraciously was enough to feed her hungry stomach. After the eating and resting was over, they left for Korail once again. Climbing down the stairs, Khadija felt a strange nausea of pain on her ankles. But she had trained herself to accept, and to survive. It was just a matter of getting used to.

On the pavements, the two walked hand in hand as a yellow taxi cab stopped beside them.

“Hello there, lovely ladies!” the driver of the cab began, “Need a ride? It’s free. Only the older one needs to bounce on my lap. Okay? Agreed?”

“Back off motherfucker,” Khadija shouted back at the top of her voice, “Fuck your own penis if you feel so hungry, you fuckhead.”

With that the mother took up her daughter and ran into a dark alley to take the shortcut into her hut.

It was a serene moonlit night. The drunkards were singing out loud at the top of their voices, while the drug addicts were using needles to get into a daze. As she opened the façade of her hut she found it slightly opened. “Anyone there?” she called in. But there was no answer. “Must be a cat,” she thought.
Closing the doors from the inside, she laid down Fatima and sang her back to sleep. Exhausted, she then laid herself down on the mattress to get some sleep before morning creeps in once again.

Immediately through the moonlit rays entering into the hut she frighteningly discovered that a dark black silhouette was moving squarely across the room. As the figure approached her she could discern that it belonged to a fully-grown man. The man placed a hand on her face and cupped her mouth to drown out her remonstrations. With the other hand he reached beneath her kameez and began to open the knot tying her shalwar.

Forced to fear the worst, inside the dark gloomy hut through which countless rays of the moon were at that time dancing with the love of life, Khadija felt the stranger’s body descend upon her. She prayed to God this wasn’t happening in reality.

But alas, reality happens to be one of the most enigmatic substances of existence.

With the moon’s rays as the only witness over the act, the man entered into Khadija. He did not need to drown out her voice anymore. By that time fear and physical dementia had wired her out and teleported her into her wildest nightmares. It was all done smoothly and quickly, with only a few breathing moans emanating from the man and his victim. No neighbor would ever be able to enunciate that. Wobbly and tired, the man then entered out and panted heavily as he tied back the straps of Khadija’s shalwar and got up to leave.

The eighteen year old, however, lay lifeless on the mattress, with her eyes closed; refusing to believe what had happened to her; hoping time and again she wouldn’t have to bear the fruit of injustice once again.

But injustice, also, happens to be one of the erudite forces governing subsistence.

It will be a new sun tomorrow; a new dawn. And both Khadija and Fatima will have to go on as if nothing had happened under the wistful eyes of the moon that night.

There was nothing that the moon could do, except hoping time and again that injustice would not have to bear a new fruit in their lives because of that fateful event.

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And……….. its Food, Monsoon & Ramadan all at once in Dhaka

It’s raining cats and dogs at around 12:30 in the afternoon

As August opens up and the world settles down to  calculate and fret over its profits and losses for the first seven months of 2012, here in Dhaka Monsoon is blazing with its full force. While it is the Ramadan season, it is also that time of the year when rain is ubiquitous throughout all the regions of Bangladesh, and there has to be a flood or two in this land of rivers so that the residents can at least commemorate the season with the death tolls. If it is sunny and the Dhaka glare is switched on throughout the  day, it has to rain throughout the night and the next day as well. The dark clouds are always looming ahead, and with the state of pavements in this extremely  overcrowded city, puddles and splashes on the roads are anything but a novelty. And add all that to the extremely fast-paced lifestyle that most of us Dhakaites lead, I am sure none of the pedestrians on the streets will be able to boast of a day without having had their expensive shoes mud-ridden and made unusable for the next few days. And if you are, by any chance, a Bata-slipper lover for the daily chores like me, I am afraid your feet will never be able to spend a day without getting themselves devastatingly dirty.

Unless of course if you prefer to spend the days indoors.

But then again, the season is absolutely impresionante (I am working on my Spanish you see?) if you want to curl up with a good book in your room. That’s precisely what I am doing nowadays. You can sit back inside your home and enjoy the sounds of the wind howling and raging a war against the Thai-aluminum glassed windows in your background. And comfortably gulp down all sorts of fiction or something else that is good to read.

The days and nights  are extremely windy. But even with all the monsoon and rain, night-time brings on socialization for the city’s huge and overworked populace. Although all wedding ceremonies are shunned away in this season, being Ramadan & Monsoon at the same time, almost every Thursday—the weekday before Friday, which is the public holiday here———- is celebrated with parties and gatherings of friends and family, and good food is always on the table! But before good food, it is the fruit cocktails and squashes that dominate every home nowadays. And although everyone knows Bangladesh as the land of natural disasters and poverty, food is something that is more or less cheap and abundant everywhere. The lowland delta region is extremely arable and thus able to produce a plethora of different fruits. A day on the streets of Dhaka is enough to substantiate my aforementioned claim because as you read this, the city is repleted with street vendors and stalls selling fresh seasonal fruits(and definitely not the frozen ones) such as mangoes, pineapples, jack-fruits etc. So a cold glass of a fruit splash is offered to every guest coming into a house.

Evening-parties however, bring on different varieties of food. For those of you who don’t know, we Bangladeshis are food-loving  gluttons. Our cuisine is an eclectic concoction of South Asian, Middle-Eastern and British influences. It all has to do with the history here in this part of the world. Traditionally although the Bengali food is mainly rice and fish (with Hilsha being treated as the king of fishes), due to the fact that Bengal was ruled by the Mughals (Muslim Emperors from the Middle-East) and Afghans for a time, and by the British colonialists later on, the food culture is largely diverse and widely reminiscent of our multicultural past. And of course you have all the gourmet Chinese and Mexican restaurants flooding the streets of the major cities as well.

Help yourself to Shik Kabab and Paratha people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But most importantly, with all the religious salvation and piety involved in this season, the time is also ripe for us Dhakaites to stop fretting around over our extremely busy lifestyles and to start donating  for charity through Zakat.  Around the country scores of people are being deprived of the blessings of life. Countless are starving to death even in this blessed Ramadan season. And it is up to us to share our wealth and privileges with all those who can’t put food to their  mouths neither during  Sehri nor during Iftar.  It is imperative in order for us to be able to create a healthy society that we start coming out of our public and private spheres and start addressing the injustice and poverty that is ubiquitous throughout the many regions of Bangladesh.

The Jeddah Jazz

As the countless Japanese cars snaked through the many flyovers of Jeddah, my Bangladeshi driver cum guide drove his new Sonata with an ease I had never before seen present in any of his counterparts back in Dhaka.

It is around 11 o’clock in the morning. But since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sleeps by the day and works at night in order to adapt to the high temperatures throughout the day, the offices and shops were mostly closed.

“There are so many cars here. But the traffic is always on the move. Unlike in Dhaka, where the traffic is mostly gridlocked into a standstill.” I mused more to myself rather than saying anything to him. But immediately, I was forced to regret.

“Huh, Dhaka. What a horrible city filled with the worst of humankind in this world,” came his embittered, callous response. “I would rather drive here in the 44 degrees Celsius desert than go back to that hell-hole of a place.”

With my pride of being me disheveled by one of my very own countrymen, I stopped pondering out loud and looked out through my closed windows to grasp in the concreteness of Jeddah.

But for my driver, silence happened to be one of the lowest issues in his agenda. As he drove past the countless air-conditioned cars and transited from the desert to the roads beside the beach bordering the Red Sea, he pointed to me Egypt.

“There’s Cairo, the land of the pharaohs. Only a few hours from Jeddah by the sea, but possessing none of the wealth and glitter of the city. Full of beggars and pricks, I tell you. And mini-skirted females as well.”

I chuckle and coerce myself against roaring into laughter. I had yet to see a Jeddah female without a veil, and the contrasting sight of Cairo only a few hours away but possessing mini-skirted females made me giggle.

“What happens on the roads at night? I mean if people here sleep during the day to work at night, but still the avenues and flyovers somehow manage to be flooded with luxury cars even at this hour it must be quite gridlocked in the dark.” I enquired after him, trying to make him see that Dhaka wasn’t as bad as he felt.

“At night all those jewelers’ markets open up,” he tells me pointing to the monstrous elegant shopping malls located inside the buzz of Jeddah, “and makes life harder for us drivers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. The traffic jams are always under the control of the police and you never have all those filthy public buses and rickshaws and CNGs loitering around.” Clearly, he had anticipated my lucid trials to uphold Dhaka in his eyes. “Oh and look at that”—- he cuts in all of a sudden.

I grasped in the direction to which he was pointing. And what I beheld made me feel like the smallest being of existence present in this universe.

“Behold: the KingdomTower under construction. The first 1 km long tower in the world. Built by Prince Waleed’s Kingdom Holdings and the Saudi Binladen Group, it will surpass Dubai’s mediocre Burj-al-Khalifa.”

Truly representing the oil wealth of this indolently luxurious Middle-Eastern city, the majestic skyscraper rose up into the sky symbolizing power and riches, and obstructing the views of the horizone. Any outsider who has never paid a visit to Jeddah is bound to think that the city is still sitting in the Middle-Ages. Thanks to all those stereotypes by the Western media. But nothing could be further from the truth. And the gigantic Apple adverts substantiated my aforementioned claim. Although it is true that Jeddah is a remnant of an Arab civilization that has been extant since the 600 AD, the grossly metropolitan city is a violent concoction of Western modernity and Eastern identity.

In a way, it can be justified by the fact that Jeddah sits in between the East and the West.

But then again, I had yet to find all those traditional Middle-Eastern bazaars here that I had seen in ‘World Café Middle-East’ on TLC where they regularly showed Syria, Turkey, Palestine and many other states in this region. Here the bazaars have all been replaced by vast chain super-stores like Bin Dawoud (which of course is the Saudi Binladen Group’s version of Walmart) selling every brand of European chocolates and designer dresses and outfits for both males and females.

As I reached my destination, my driver dropped me off. In the ancient civilizations and the tales from the Arabian Nights I am sure anyone would have referred to Jeddah as an oasis because of the huge amount of life it can support. But due to the heat and the invention of air-conditioners which is ubiquitous everywhere in oil-rich Middle-East, what my eyes were affronted to was definitely not life.

It was buildings and cars everywhere. No sign of life. All locked up in their air-conditioned homes, offices and cars.

But as I strode off, I felt secured to find a middle-aged man sweeping off the grounds in front of an office with his broom.

I chuckled again as I noticed his brown skin.

A Bangladeshi again! I told myself, jubilant. My driver had previously told me that even if you are lost inside one of the worst desert-regions in Saudi Arabia you will surely find a Bangladeshi nearby. Three million expatriate Bangladeshis are living here and toiling under the glaring sun in broad daylight and struggling amidst desert-storms at night, while the Arabs slept soundly inside their air-conditioned rooms during the day and went to the posh shopping malls at night; with their Arab kids being taken care of by the Indonesian servants employed by these families. And in case you didn’t know, most of their expenses are paid by the government as well.

I inquired the Bangladeshi man for my address in Bengali. He smiled and gave me back the directions and then returned piously to his sweeping. I wondered for how long he will have to do that with the afternoon heat switched on with its full blow.

After my chore is done, as I come out of my destination I was greeted by a gust of extremely hot desert wind. My loose trousers and cotton T-shirt gave in to the dust-breeze and fluttered back and forth.

For the first time that day, I saw a Jeddah woman around two yards ahead of me; trying to get into the front-passenger seat of her car before the wind assaulted her.

Never before having seen women here dressing up without the burkha, I was quite taken aback on this particular occasion as the damsel in distress was fighting hard to prevent her veil from being flown off, because I noticed that she is dressed up like any normal European or American women with skin-hugging, above-the-waist T-shirt and jeans beneath her veil.

I chuckled once again. I had no idea what the woman was thinking of me as I had not lowered my gaze—-a custom followed by everyone in this extremely religious part of the world—-but under her niqab I thought I could discern a contempt for me.

By then the horizon had already been darkened by the shroud of darkness, and as the malls and offices began to open up, the streets began to be filed with men and women and cars—–a lot of cars. I noticed more women coming out on the streets dressed in European low-cuts and all forms of Western outfits, some of them having iPod earphones plugged into their ears. A large portion even without the niqab. I noticed men donning the traditional long Middle-Eastern shirt and the turban.

Conflicted with the fact that the Saudis had only recently allowed their women to work outside their homes in gender-segregated offices; the notion that women here aren’t allowed to drive legally; and weird laws that permitted an 80 year old man to marry a 12 year old girl, I got into my car and enquired my verbose driver about the traditional Jeddah culture.

“Jeddah is the Kingdom’s most liberal and modernized city. The Saudi families have big homes equipped with swimming pools, segregated discos and bars—-“

“Bars?” I cut in disbelievingly, knowing that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.

“Alcohol-free bars obviously. The population here is extremely Westernized. Half the women here on the streets wear low-cut European dresses and mini-skirts under their veil.”

With that he pushed on the ignition and drove off into the city of lights. By then, night had settled in and Jeddah was fully illuminated.

“If you feel hungry, there’s Al-Baik nearby. I will stop and you can have something inside your stomach.” My driver had somehow understood that I was feeling starved and dehydrated.

“Al-Baik? Is it good?” I asked ostentatiously, knowing about the quality of Al-Baik back in Dhaka.

“It’s the best in the country,” he returned confidently, “much better than KFC.”

So as he led me into a one-storied posh shopping center, I cashed out some money from the ATM booth nearby using my father’s international debit card and strode off into Al-Baik.

Standing in a queue, and worrying over how I will be able to converse in Arabic, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that even the salesmen here are all Bangladeshis; thus sparing me the trouble of a language barrier.

I sat alone at a nearby table and picked at the delicious-looking chicken drumsticks. My driver was right. Al-Baik produces the best chicken here and their produce is also much better than the sprawling chicken stores back in Dhaka.

I was reminded of a few online articles about how Saudi Arabia is still stuck in the Middle-Ages like Morocco, while its regional enemies sitting in Tehran & Tel-Aviv are enjoying rapid boons and developments in terms of military, science, art and economics.

“What a farce!” I muttered out so loud that the people sitting around began to stare at me disapprovingly.

 

Amidst The Crowd, Thou Shall Be Haunted

Lord, said David, since you do not need us,
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.

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The poems have been extracted from the Persian Sufi poet Maulana Rumi’s legendary work Be Lost in the Call’

At War With the Fireflies

Drunk with a stillness that resuscitated itself with every turn of the wind, the night imposed an eerie atmosphere into the components concealed under its gigantic blanket. Here and there, the green fields, pregnant with corn and rice plants and seedlings, resonated a belated exuberance for having met the recondite creatures whose enigma and incandescence had eluded them forever.

Intermittently, the fireflies moved among the plantations, and my eyes could distinguish them as they moved.

As if under an aphrodisiac, the fireflies worked their magic with the light that the Creator had so skillfully architected into them.

The lights are on.

The next instant they are turned off.

Again, the lights regurgitate themselves over the fireflies’ tiny exoskeletons chaotically.

Attempting to bring order from chaos, the flies turn them off again. Trying their best not to give themselves up to my eyes.

The cognitive processes inside a firefly’s brain occur faster than those inside the human brain. And you don’t need to be a PhD-holding scientist to be able to discern the aforementioned fact. The frequency at which fireflies are able to turn their lights on and off is a direct observable evidence that nerve impulses travel at a much more rapid rate inside their bodies. In a way, they are actually more advanced than the average human species.

In a way. Yes. That’s the correct phrase.

“But why do you digress, eh? Fireflies aren’t your specialty,” the Pessimist that lived symbiotically inside me, told me that my time was precious.

“Why do you care?” I snap back at the Pessimist, “You have made me what you wanted me to become.”

There is a strange stillness in the air.

As the autumn wind blows past me—–raging a war against my subtle nostrils and ruffling my already messed up hair——I revere the evanescent illumination of the fireflies with a piety and religiosity unprecedented in my life. Affronted with a desire and a need to be my own self for a few minutes in my mechanically secluded lifestyle, I had rushed into these open fields tonight. I do not know what it was that had accrued me towards these fields at 12 o’clock midnight for an arduous two-hour drive from my comfortable apartment equipped with all the urban necessities. And neither do I have any idea what it was that I was going to take back with me through this visit.

“Here is an antecedent to your feelings,” the Pessimist began, “The fireflies will fail to bring you any food.”

Yet I stare at them continuously. Discounting the omniscient Pessimist, I find something in those lights. I see them as they are, in their natural surroundings. Where they truly belong. I use my prescience to discern their likes and dislikes, their needs and wastes. Discontinuous, discreet particles of matter enter into my vision. For a while, inside my mind, they cast a beautiful castle of thought and splendor, of wealth and wisdom, of sense and sensibility. But keeping in line with their discreet nature, the particles leave immediately leaving everything behind a blur.

Despite my bluntness in poetry and philosophy, there was something in those regular periods of light and dark that fascinated me. That told me that no, everything was not lost as yet.

Being a man of pragmatism, and one who believes in worldliness and flesh and blood, I do my best to win against these fireflies. I hedge my bets against them and try to barricade them from entering my thought process. I strive hard to shun them away. I make myself reason and weigh the facts at my disposal. The poison must not enter into my life. It might just destroy my prosperous, urbane existence forever, and so I must win this war against these wicked creatures.

I had forgone a lot already. And tonight I must not lose any more to these enchanting beings.

I decide to strike back at the Pessimist inside me.

“All hope is not lost as yet, you idiot!”

Yes, there is hope. There is still hope amidst my dream-less life. There is hope for a better truth; for a more illuminated fly; for a firefly that remains alight for a longer period of time; for a firefly that proudly upholds its shimmering rays on its suggestive breasts.

There is hope for a better enlightenment; for a better light to be reached.

Yet there is a strange stillness in the air. And on this particular occasion the stillness is making me numb with an exodus for peace and tranquility; for hope and dreams; for simplicity and serenity.

Like me, the moonlit night had also begun to reciprocate its infatuation for the winged beasts. The flies, however, did not countenance at either of their suitors. They had a more important task at hand, and all those courtship rituals could wait.

But for me, there is still hope for a better survival, towards an existence unmarred by desire, towards a lust that was yet to be consummated, and towards a piety without any shred of sycophancy.

Still, it must be said, that there is a strange stillness in the air.

“You bloody fools, how dare you wage a war against me? You can’t so easily destroy the castle I have built with such skill and perseverance.”

But the castle was already disheveled. And it was a matter of time before it was finally dismantled to the ground along with its pride. The dexterity of the handless fireflies was too superior. The forts had been destroyed and the ammo had already been exhausted.

It was too late to win.

Yet, hope was still there. And it definitely was the one thing the fireflies were unable to win from me.

Amidst the stillness of the night, under the moonlit sky’s green eyes, with the corn plants hitting puberty as my witnesses, I confessed my defeat to the winged creatures. I swore defeat and proclaimed my allegiance to their periodic impressions of light and dark. I pronounced my faith and responsibility towards their superiority and their immaculately beautiful existence.

I announced my abstinence from dreamlessness and betrayed the Pessimist in order to coexist with Hope symbiotically.

I swore that I was conquered. Conquered by trust, by lust, by the desire for existence.

Conquered by the debauchery of the fireflies.

Conquered by all, except the darkness and the stillness that stopped escorting me from that instant onwards.

And instead I was supplanted with hope, dreams and aspirations for a worthier life. Everything was superseded with a belief in a Moderator, and my timorousness in the face of superior beauty was truly evident to me.

 

The girl who was in love with the mountains

Of all the things Zainab wanted to achieve, mountain-climbing was the most important and perhaps the most idiotic dream a 12 year old could have. It was not only because of her abject poverty—a state from which people like her will never be able to escape—but also because she belonged to the dominated sex in a male-chauvinist society. Yet at English class when Mr. Kumar asked all his students to write a 300 word essay on ‘Reaching my Dreams’ the eccentric girl felt no hesitation in talking about an imaginary expedition to a hill-top.

Living in a lowland village where television had not as yet set its foot at that time, Zainab was unaccustomed to having seen any mountains in her short life. Ironically she did not even know the proper difference between a hill and a mountain despite her regular attendance at the Geography class. And yes sir, it was far superior from her knowledge that the world’s highest peak was located in one of her neighboring countries and also the fact that the river she used for drinking, bathing and playing actually originated from that mountain. These were things that her geography teacher had not as yet covered and so Zainab eagerly anticipated the time when she will be told more about her love in the aforementioned class.

So how do you think a girl who has never seen mountains or even read about them actually became infatuated with such an existence? It was her brother. Her dear brother, the most precious person in her life after her father, was a soldier in the army and also the one paying for all her tuition fees and petty yearnings. He was the one who had seen mountains and trained among them in extremely hostile conditions. The name of the place was Boderbon, no Bonderban. Gosh! She could not even spell or pronounce it properly. According to her brother the place was more than a week’s journey from her home. But once you reached there it was bound to feel the most heavenly place on earth. It was like you are the most special and the only one living in this universe. Nothing else mattered. Everything was for you to use and command.

But the English master Mr. Kumar was up to no such romanticism. He taught his students with iron-clad rules——both in terms of grammar and the students’ behavior——and always believed in grounding up facts. For him therefore, ‘Reaching my Dreams’ was supposed to be an essay about what you wanted to do in the world of pragmatism. Whether you wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Or a policeman or simply a house-keeper. And outrageous as it was, mountain-climbing could never be a factually-grounded student’s dream. And never so in the case of a girl born in the cradles of the destitute.

And hence, slapped with an F in the English essay with a detention to boot during the tiffin break, Zainab was unable to enjoy the hide-and-seek matches during the break period today.

The village she lived in was located in the outskirts of a district that had never seen urban life in its entire existence. The only buildings composed of cement were made by the government in ‘a plot to bring the people under a legal system’ as described by the leader of the village council. As for the government, no one was really bothered about them. From the building bearing a huge ‘Department of Agriculture’ placard, men in clean and expensive English clothes occasionally came to the fields owned by Zainab’s father and the other locals. They called themselves the ‘agriculture scientists’, although what the profession meant or demanded was a huge point of entertaining political debate in the road-side tea-stalls and shops for the illiterate villagers who remained sitting there most of the time engaging themselves in every single conversation they could get hold of. The so-called agriculture scientists inspected the crops and the fertilizers and advised the farmers on the what-to-dos and how-to-dos for maximum output. Although most of the locals eyed these English-dressed Bengali people with skepticism fully encouraged by the village leaders and clerics, Zainab’s father knew better the value of education. Although a complete illiterate himself he had educated his only son till the 12th grade—one of the very few young people in that particular village to have achieved such a feat. And so it was with great pride when he had enrolled that worthy son of his at the Bangladesh Army to serve the country. The entire village had proclaimed him to be a model father of a model son, and such was his value in the rural community that he was always the center of attraction at every single village occasion.

But what about a girl’s education? Now that was somewhat of a dilemma for the illiterate father. Although Zainab was being given lessons on the religious doctrines at home by a female teacher and also had been sent to the primary school for learning her letters, he was doubtful whether educating the girl would bear a fruit. It was the soldier brother who had asked his model father to think better. Not only would educating the girl allow her to contribute to the village community in the near future but also make her a good mother and house-wife, and also a good religious devotee. And besides she could even join the Bangladesh Army or the Police to serve her nation. Although the man was not really idealistic about the latter, he eventually gave in and decided that Zainab should continue education, learn about mountains, write essays in English, read history and recite poetry. And so yes, in a way you could blame her father and brother for Zainab’s depravity at the English class.

After the class was over, on this particular Spring afternoon as Zainab came out along with her class compatriots she was surprised to find out a piece of paper lying folded on the bench in front of the headmaster’s office. Actually this was not a single piece of paper. It was a bunch of papers all folded together in an extraordinary fashion to preserve all the pages inside it. For us city-folks, one look at it would suffice to tell us that this was a daily newspaper. But for a 12 year old who had seen cement buildings for the first time only two years back, who had never even seen or heard about televisions or radios, newspapers were definitely something she was unaccustomed to. Her family’s and other neighbor’s only connection to the outside world was through people like her brother, who came home only once or twice a year with tales of unseen forests, religious extremists who made bombs, robbers who had evolved into political leaders and of course, the usual mountain-clad stories which fascinated the young Zainab most.

So the girl, perplexed with the printed pages that bore a strange semblance to her free books, tried to decipher what they said.

This was no ordinary book, as she realized. It was abuzz with tales from around the world. But the first thing she noticed on the top of the first page was the image of a young girl with heavy glasses and clothes as if she was in an extremely cold vicinity, at least much colder than the winters of her village as judged by the heavy clothes she was wearing. In the background of the woman what she saw made her heart skip a beat.

It was a huge land turned ninety degrees or more to one side. The land was covered with a bed of green grass, or perhaps, forest. It was impossible to tell from the distant photograph. The land rose up slanted and at many regions was covered by a prevalent layer of something brilliantly white. Gradually as the land ascended from the ground it emerged into a peak, a peak that seemed to point towards the Creator who had created it with such artistic hands, towards the Architect who had built it with such classic beauty, implicit precision, impeccable appearance and the enormous possibility of touching the sky.

Except that it did touch the sky.

The weird woman was standing atop one of these peaks holding a flag, which unmistakably belonged to her country, and a smile on her face boasted her achievement of having reached the sky.

What lay behind those rotated green fields? The silly girl wondered. Maybe a huge djinn or something?

By then all her class-mates had left her and gone ahead. If she did not catch up with them she will have to walk the three miles to her home all by herself, something she really did not want to do.

But still in deep consternation, she still stared at that image.

As if someone had merely whispered it to her she immediately understood what those rotated lands represented.

Her eyes gleamed with a light of warmth, pride and disbelief as her thoughts were confirmed by the headline below the photograph: “Bangladeshi woman climbs the highest mountain ranges”.


Eyes glistening with a pride and passion more fierce than anyone looking at her at that moment could have discerned, Zainab gently put the newspaper back to its resting place. Unknowingly her hands reached her soft cheeks and quickly rubbed away the tear that had manifested itself all of a sudden. It was as if she was filled with a bliss of the dreams that she saw every night. As if the diaspora of her heart to meet the mountains was not going to go fruitless after all. As if she knew that if this woman could do it, there was no reason why she couldn’t.

Except that the woman had not merely climbed mountains. She told herself. She had touched the sky.

For the first time in her life, Zainab had seen mountains, albeit in the way she least expected.

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This fictional post is dedicated to Wasfia Nazreen, the female Bangladeshi mountain-climber whose achievements make all of us proud. The impetus for this piece was derived from Aminatta Forna‘s brilliant novel Ancestor Stones when one of the characters described her feelings of having seen the sea for the very first time in her life.