He keeps his eyes closed. It has been a while since he heard the first cock crow; now he can hear small birds twittering, goats braying and hens cackling outside their hut. The newborn baby next door is crying as well. He knows that soon his mother will be nudging him to get up and get ready for school. A school for slum children, opened by the missionaries, which is not only free but also provides each pupil with school materials as well as with a hot meal during the lunch break (a plate of rice and some dhal and curry). Sometimes, Zahid has a distinct feeling that his mother has enrolled him in this school mainly because of the free meal; if he has his lunch there, she will have one less mouth to share hers with.
And Zahid doesnít really mind going to school, but since his father has fallen ill, all he has been wishing for is to find some work and earn money; he has been wishing to be big, big with wide shoulders, and a chest as broad as a door. Yes, like a weightlifter, a weightlifter that could literally lift up his parents from their misery. The thought makes him touch his biceps furtively, searching for muscles as he draws in his stomach, pushing out the skeleton of his tiny chest.
But soon he lies there feeling only a wave of anger and frustration with his tiny fists close to his chest. Small as he is, he is not a fool, he knows of course, that however much he wishes he can never grow big overnight. But, on the other hand, he has seen boys of his age and size doing extraordinary things to make money. Little boys form bands to pick pockets, little boys carry secret messages from affluent merchants to their not-so-affluent mistresses and get heavily tipped; little boys carry drugs from dealers to the drug addicts. Little boys sell drugs underground and remain uncaught because they look innocent, little boys run errands for local whores. Zahid knows everything. Zahid’s thoughts excite him. Make his heart pound. Surely, he too can do something as a little boy then! Of course he can! Ah, yes, if only his mother could entrust him with their lives.
Yesterday evening, he had, on his own accord gone to a dispensary and had asked them whether they could provide him with some free medicine for fever and pain.
The bearded man had looked down at him over the wall of medicine bottles to give him a scowl.
Zahid stammered, looking up to meet his peering eyes,
“My father is running a high temperature and he is in pain...’
“There are millions like your father, I’m not doing charity work.”
“Shut up, and get lost!”
“Get out before I lose my temper!”
Zahid had slowly walked away.
Zahid turns, opens his eyes and looks at his father, who is lying on a sack on the other side of the room. He is alternately sighing, moaning, coughing and cursing. The shape of his body under the blanket appears fluid and disturbing in the shadowy tone of the early morning. He has been bedridden for a fortnight now. It all started with a simple fever and has turned into something else which none of them understands. Zahid’s mother has been giving him home-made concoctions, like crushed nim leaves, enchanted water from a local spiritual man, an amulet from another. But nothing has helped. He has been sleeping more and more, losing weight at an alarming rate and diminishing in front of their eyes. Lately his nose has been bleeding and he has been complaining of the colour of his urine; he seems to be growing breasts as his bottom is becoming flat.
Zahid’s mother works as a part-time maid servant in two houses in Banani; one between eight and three with lunch, the other one between five and nine with supper. But these days the residential area has been rapidly turning into a commercial one. Houses are being pulled down and built into multi-storied complexes which can hold several offices and boutiques. Numbers of restaurants, beauty parlours, take-aways and health clubs have grown like weeds. McDonalds has not found its way here yet, but Pizza Hut and Wimpy have made their tempting appearances. There is one amusement park too, which has drawn the rich kids, but is another eye-sore for children like Zahid.
Zahid follows his mother’s movement in the cubicle. She’s always doing something to keep the family together; Zahid can’t remember if he ever saw her sleeping, or resting. Now she is bending down in the corner that they use as kitchen. She lights the stove and heats up a pan of rice starch that she has saved for breakfast. She ladles some of it into a bowl and sets it down in front of his father, and wipes her eyes with the loose end of her limp sari.
She is a frail woman, with crowded teeth that are stained brown and yellow from betel nut chewing and bidi smoking; her scanty hair is pulled back into an insignificant bun and her fingers are bony and long like a skeleton’s; the nails are broken and lifeless, the nose large and curved, nostrils oblong. Even in the darkness Zahid can read the expression on her face. It is persistently bad tempered. Zahid knows why.
He huddles under his ragged blanket and contemplates, while the cold wind freely passes through the holes of the cane walls, mosquitoes whine in his ears, and he raises his hands once in a while to squash one or two on his face. As he brushes away the dead insects he hears his father groaning.
Before long his mother gives him the nudge which he has been waiting for. He sits up immediately, shakes the blanket off his body, braving the draughts in the room. His mother is obviously surprised, her face instantly takes up a softer expression.
“There is some starch in the pan. Eat that before leaving for school.”
Zahid nods and she hurriedly picks up her things, slips her feet into her rubber sandals, throws a shawl around her shoulders and leaves the hut. Zahid remains in his place for a little while, his back pressed against the cane wall. He had tried to glue some newspaper on the wall on his side to keep the chill away, but he feels it nevertheless. Both the chill and his unrelenting thoughts about his father’s malady soon make him come fully awake.
He stretches his limbs out; he must hurry, not for his school but to be amongst the first young coolies in Banani Bazar. He stands up with a leap, takes a quick look at his father and leaves the hut to make his way towards the communal bathroom in front of which a queue of newly awoken slum dwellers has already grown; mothers with kids on their hips, young boys and girls with morning annoyance printed on their faces, adults and oldies already busy chewing paans or smoking bidi. Some scratching backs and some yawning. Some spitting and some coughing. Zahid waits impatiently for his turn to come, and it takes quite a while before he finds himself in the darkened cavity of the wet room. The nauseating odour of the place almost pushes him out of the cubicle, but fighting it with solid determination, he hurriedly unzips himself and hits the mucus covered wall with the taut arc of his urine. He looks at the spattering urine as he zips up his trousers. Exits.
He washes himself by the open air tube-well, and returns to the hut, where he collects a cane basket from a hook on one wall. He casts a glance at his father and then takes to his feet. Out of the dwelling he makes his way towards the bank of the lake. It’s not a beautiful bank that offers a variety of vegetation or riparian beauty, but a bank that offers a variety of odours and garbage, stray cats, dogs, goats, flies and crows. He covers his nose as he makes his way through the pile of garbage and climbs up to the level of the city by the Kemal Ataturk Bridge. Standing on the bridge he looks down at the slum and then turns his face towards the model town, where everything is the negation of his life, his parents’ life—huge buildings, cars with school-bound kids in smart uniforms, bazaar-going sahibs in rolling cars, shop windows as large as his home.
He takes a deep breath and heads for the Bazaar. He has to be the first load carrier today. He wants to earn some notes, not coins. But first he has to get something to eat. His stomach has been rumbling for quite a while now. He crosses the bridge, walks past the still unopened shops, newsagents, home-bound late-shift workers, empty stalls of roadside flower vendors and goes straight to the bazaar, where the morning-alert fruitwallahs are already busy with their daily work. Some hanging clusters of bananas and grapes along the edge of their ceiling, some arranging flowers of pineapples, some building chains of apples, and some assembling mountains of oranges. Looking at the brilliant colours Zahid, can’t help being becoming really aware of his hunger for the first time. He wishes he had drunk the starch before leaving the hut. He closes his eyes and when he opens them he feels the gaze of one of the fruit-vendors; he is looking at him over the perfect summit of an orange mountain.
And then a banana comes flying towards him. Zahid bounds, catches it with the nimbleness of a first-rate goalkeeper, and instantly bites off the stalk and peels the fruit of its skin, wolfing down the flesh he walks away towards a tea-stall. He roots himself by it, taking in the breakfast preparation scene in front of the stall; standing behind the work tops, one is frying samosas, one rolling chapattis, another making milk-chai in massive kettles. Zahid’s thirst is stimulated and his eyes are glazed with the juice of his want, but here he has no luck. Not at all. The men donít even cast a glance at him, and the customers don’t leave a drop of tea in their cups before leaving the place. Zahid sighs, shakes his small head, and moves on to stand by a corner of a building, from where he has a clear view of the road along which the cars usually park.
His back against the wall, the cane basket by his feet, he stands watching the swelling group of people; his eyes are observant, all he wants is a few affluent bazaar customers who will pay him lavishly for his service. Zahid maintains a distance from other boy-coolies purposefully, he is a school student, not one of those regular boy-coolies who doesn’t even know how to read or write his own name. But alas! Sometimes schoolgoers like him have to degrade themselves and find a way to earn money; it may very well be as a boy-coolie, or a servant. He has no choice. His father has not been able to earn any money for a month now because of his illness, and his mother’s income only meets their basic needs. Zahid puffs up his cheeks.
One or two cars arrive, but those are swarmed by beggars and load carriers even before he can make a move; the crowd swells swiftly, the sun becomes brighter, and Zahid is having difficulty in keeping his eyes focused. Then he catches glimpses of a car through the myriad of people. It’s pushing its way through the mass of people. It’s a beautiful car. Silvery and clean. It’s telling tales of silver and coins. The car moves into an empty parking space, and Zahid leaps out of his place rushing towards it, but before he knows it the car is surrounded by a bunch of boys and girls. Boys and girls all dreaming of silver, hearing sounds of coins. Zahid backs off. A pang of disappointment cuts through him. He doesn’t belong to this well-established band of youngsters. This market place is their constituency. No new member is welcome before proven fit for the gang. And Zahid will never be proven fit; he is already an acknowledged defector being a schoolgoer.
The owner of the car, a corpulent lady, emerges from it, and after bargaining with some boys and girls she settles for a young man, who would be able to carry as heavy a load as a donkey, if not an ox. Zahid exhales noisily and returns to his spot, waiting for another car to come. Several cars do come shortly, but he has no luck whatsoever; sometimes, he is pushed aside by other boys, sometimes he is just not quick enough. He wishes his legs were as quick as a pickpocket’s. Or he was a regular load-carrier. He scratches his head, and for a long time he stands there unsettled by his hard luck. He wonders why it is that poor boys like him can never live a moment on their own terms.
He moves away to a shoemaker’s open stall along the edge of the road, and stands there for a second looking down at the vial of adhesive the man was dipping his thumb into before scooping some of the stuff out to spread under a shoe. The thumb is withered and the nail missing. The man is hunched over the shoes; the sad expression of his body, the crayfish like fingers reminding Zahid of his father once again. Instantly his eyes take on a pensive expression and he starts walking. He heads for the residential area, his mind wavering between his school and his father, and slowly his desire to earn some money returns to him. He has to make some money by hook or by crook. He has to. By Allah, he has to.
As he wanders, his dirty soles getting dirtier each minute, he catches glimpses of a group of urchins playing marbles in the driveway of a house. They were playing for coins. Real coins: four anaas and eight anaas. Some boys were winning coins while some were losing. Zahid is spell bound. He crosses the road to sit down with his back against the boundary wall of the house.
A few minutes pass. He is all engrossed; the colourful marbles rolling on the cemented driveway, sun beams penetrating their gleaming surface, winning boys hooting with joy, losing boys complaining, but the general mood of the boys is sheer glee. Zahid’s pupils too sparkle. He can’t prevent himself from hoping that he would be allowed to join the group and be a winner. His chest rises and falls with the pressure of his thoughts for quite a while before coming to a terrible stop, when he hears a voice bellowing from behind,
“Get lost! Get lost before I catch you!”
Zahid turns and faces the gatekeeper of the house. He is not a very big man, but he is dressed in a khaki uniform with military boots and a red beret on his head. As Zahid jumps to his feet, he can feel the odour of the man’s sweat wafting by his nostrils.
The marble players have already vanished, but Zahir is caught. The man’s anger is intense. He wrings Zahid’s arm from behind, bends him over and stamps one of his booted feet on his sandaled foot. He says nothing but there is a malicious expression on his face. His eyes bulge.
Zahid’s voice quavers in his throat, “I have never been here before.”
“Kuttar Baccha, Harmzada. Who are you fooling?”
The man presses his booted foot down on Zahid’s as though he is crushing an insect, and wrings his arm harder. Zahid screams. Tears roll down his cheeks. The man laughs raucously. In an instant the other boys reappear and cluster around Zahid and the man, sniggering and snorting, chanting and taunting, hopping like monkeys; their voices falling up and down with a brutal energy, urging the man to cut off Zahidís hair.
Four boys volunteer and each grabs Zahid’s hand or foot and lift him up, his body swings like a hammock a foot above the ground. The man takes a pair of scissors, sharpens them in the air, and with undisguised pleasure gives Rashid’s hair a cut. A wild, disorganised cut. An angry cut. A spiteful cut. When he is ready, he takes a step back and surveys Zahid from all angles; he nods to himself as though having a conversation with himself, “That’s a good cut. Yes, by Allah, it’s a good cut.” He then takes a step forward again to look down into Zahid’s eyes, “It will definitely classify you as a pickpocket. Now get lost.”
The boys put Zahid down on the ground.
Zahid scrambles up slowly, tears streaming down his face. The man gives him a shove and he starts walking, keeping his head under his basket, his eyes on the road.
He remains caught by total fear but also by a mad desire to find a way to get even with the boys and the gatekeeper for a while. His thought makes him clench his fist tightly and breathe heavily. But like most little boys before long his head was emptied of vindictive ideas to create room for his original desire to make some money.
He heads for Banani cemetery, a place where the most affluent inhabitants of Dhaka city can afford to have their eternal rest. On Fridays the relatives of the deceased ones visit the place with clothes, food or coins to distribute among the beggars. Zahid’s parents don’t approve of beggars and begging, but today Zahid decides to accept anything he is offered. Soon he has a packet of bread and sabji and a glass of water to drink. He also gets a few coins, but far from enough to meet his needs. Keeping the money in his breast pocket, he spends the day wandering among the graves and the multitude of flowers that were standing in vases by them. And as he walks amidst the silence of the spot and the scent of the wilting flowers, a new idea begins to bloom in his mind; everything is not hopeless, there is still a way for him to ease his father’s suffering...
When Zahid returns home, it’s late in the evening. Usually at such an hour his mother is home after her second job, but this evening she is not indoors yet. Zahid releases a sigh of relief, he is not ready to face her accusations, her questions, her whimpers or anger. He pricks one of his ears; no there is no moaning, no whimpering from his father either. He tiptoes into the hut and in the dim light of the lantern that was hanging in the ceiling makes his way to the corner where a plate of food is waiting for him. He washes his hands in a bowl, and then removes the cover from the plate to gobble down the coagulated sauce and the cold chapattis, the roasted dry chillies and the sliced onions. Having finished his supper he crawls over to his father, and lies down next to him under the same tattered blanket, taking heat from his body. But the heat is soothing only for a little while. Very soon it gets uncomfortable; his father’s skin seems to be on fire. Zahid rolls out from under the blanket. He sleeps fitfully.
* * * * *
On the other side of the Kemal Ataturk Bridge, in a posh residential house in Banani, Sima can’t sleep either; it’s her last morning in Dhaka before leaving for London to rejoin her husband and children. She had come here to pay her last respects to her father who passed away forty days ago. Yesterday the forty days of mourning were completed, finally, allowing life to return to normal; the soil on his grave has taken on a different colour—black death underneath the ground giving nutrition to the advent of green grass above it. The grasses now shuddered with life when the wind touched them.
She fidgets in bed for a while, yawns and sits up. She hears the sounds of cars and taxis passing by. A rooster crowing, cycle bells jingling. She moves, parts the mosquito net on her side and slowly lands on the floor. She goes to the adjoining bathroom and washes herself before returning to her room. Her morning cup of tea is now waiting there on the bedside table, the top of the cup covered with an undulating layer of smoke! She takes up the cup, blows the smoke away and walks to the window to draw away the curtain. The dawn is about to break.
After an hour she is walking alone on the last causeway that branches out of the main pathway of Banani cemetery. As she walks, her face is caught by the dawning sun, her mind is busy with her private thoughts, and her ears are indifferent to the sounds of newly awakened birds.
This is the first time after her father’s burial that Sima has come to this cemetery empty handed. Each time she has visited the grave she has come with fresh flowers; sometimes with a bouquet, sometimes with cut flowers. Her father had been a lifelong aficionado of flowers, he would say, quoting prophet Mohammed: if you have two coins, spend one on a flower. Whenever he himself had the opportunity he would bring home the most beautiful flowers and have them arranged on his bedside table. After his death Sima had made it her mission to ransack the city of Dhaka to find equally beautiful flowers to enliven his resting place. It was only yesterday that she came up with the idea of sealing the rite with an orchid, as she had suddenly remembered that just before falling ill, her father had taken to cultivate orchids. He had even had a greenhouse made in the back of their house to serve this purpose, but unfortunately he passed away before he was able to see his first orchid in full bloom. Since his illness, Sima’s mother had been tending the saplings and the bulbs, and yesterday when Sima had told her mother that she was thinking of finding a suitable orchid to end the forty days’ service by the grave, her mother told her that the first orchid in her father’s green house was in bloom.
The specimen of orchid was beautiful, very beautiful, brilliant gold with streaks of amaranthine blue. The petals were soft as velvet, and the emerald leaves, perfect as a work of art, were resting gracefully against the rim of the golden brass pot. Before long Sima had picked up the pot from the shelf and walked to the graveyard.
Each moment this wonderful flower had left to offer was entitled to her father’s soul on its last night on this earth. Together with the night’s breeze, the floating clouds and the moonbeams, his departing soul would roam around it before merging with the space. It felt like a perfect grand finale to the forty days’ mourning...
“Sister, Sister! Please. Buy this flower! It’s a rare example.”
Sima awakens to life. She stops walking. A boy is blocking her path, he has a brass flowerpot in his hands. He is holding it out with his both hands as though it’s an offering to a deity. She looks at the golden petals trembling in front of her. The dewdrops sparkling on the thick green leaves. She sees the golden shine of the brass gleaming in between the black fingers of the boys. His dirty nails. She doesn’t speak, but blinks as though fighting her understanding. A momentary confusion clouds her eyes for a second before she begins to regard the blossom with brightened eyes. An orchid! An impressive orchid, indeed! A twin copy of the orchid she had held in her hands the evening before.
She looks past the orchid and the frail hands that are holding out the whole pot. She can discern the footmarks on the causeway. Her eyes follow the marks and halt by a grave. A blue grave with green grass on it. She looks at the grave, her favourite grave, the grave where she had left this orchid the previous evening, but the orchid is no longer there. It is now in the possession of a flower-thief, standing in front of her. A thief with the hair-cut of a thief.
Sima’s rage bubbles within her; she looks down and meets the eyes of the boy. He has dark, black eyes. They are big and empty. His body is fleshless, his dirty legs are bony, his clothes are too big; there is a complete desperation in his appearance. She is about to lash out, but he pleads again.
“Sister. My father is ill. Very, very ill. We need money for medicine. Please buy this flower.” The boy’s voice croaks in his throat.
Suddenly Sima is disarmed; the boy’s distressing voice is like a blast of wind, chasing away her anger, dispersing her wrath, scattering the words that were forming on her tongue. Just a single minute but something in her soul alters, establishing an unconscious and warm connection with this poor flower-thief. A curious, inexplicable connection wherein all children are linked. She looks at the flower with a dew drop trembling on its brilliantly glowing petal. She can hardly understand what is happening, what sort of response would justify her feelings; she nods a few times and opens her wallet to empty the contents into the cane basket lying by the boy’s feet. Then she takes the flowerpot from him. The boy says nothing, but a big smile breaks out on his face, displaying a set of perfect teeth. His large eyes twinkle as he picks up the money and the basket to rush towards the gate. Sima doesn’t look back. She starts walking towards the grave. A moment later the flowerpot is placed by the head of her father’s tomb.