Bangladesh has changed, but we remember ’96. Reja Ali Mobarak wrote his part in Bangla and the writers together translated it.
It was of cottage and mansion dripping with subtropical weathering, Khulna Town. Soil and earth, the old buildings brought charm.
A simple archway on the footpath read ‘Hotel Sun King’ in metallic letters. Before entering, I invited the guy from the bus to share tea and samosa, behind a curtained doorway across the street. It was Ramadan. We’d endured his constant chatter for many hours; from the long, unbroken journey from Chittagong we were exhausted. He reclined and talked as I reached the counter to deliver up the few-taka bill.
I used to transport live baby prawns from Hatiya to Foila. We are lower middle class although my father was union chairman. The chingri business saw out the winter months. It was seventeen years ago.
I bore the yoke of village politics that caused my father’s strokes and the burden of maintaining the family that belongs to the eldest son was weightier than my age. Sometimes life runs against the current. While waiting for the commission agent to pay me, I came to Khulna. My Khulna business partner Nazmul invited me many times; yet I chose the independence of a hotel.
In the mornings Nazmul came. At night, his mother would feed us. I’d seen the pens of his chicken establishment.
The hotel manager was thin, with grey hair and gaps in his teeth. We’d found the habit of sharing iftar, the evening meal to break the fast. It was still a few hours and I was counting, relaxing on the sofa under the window at the top of the stairs, in the space that was barely a reception. The manager sat on a stool behind his pint-sized bench in the corner.
I saw two fair-skinned foreigners and one Bangladeshi come upstairs with too much baggage. They asked for a room. I stood, moved a few paces closer. I was curious.
Language was a frustration. I wanted to bargain with the manager directly but the non-stop-talker had the advantage. I didn’t trust him, so after a few sentences I did what I’d wanted to do all day. I told him to be silent. I asked for a room, the koto, the how much, we’d already learnt. On a paper scrap the manager wrote 150, for a double. It was cheap; but we nonetheless went into auto-bargain. It was Bangladesh and we believed one had to.
As usual we turned to walk away in faux outrage. But the old man didn’t shower our retreat with better offers. We didn’t proceed beyond the first landing.
It was strange: they walked away! We thought bideshis stay five-star, like at the Sonargaon in Dhaka. I hadn’t much experience with bideshis but because my father was chairman they used to come sometimes. They’d sit on the veranda and chat in English. From a young age I was expected to serve their tea and my father would encourage me to speak English. I felt shy; mostly I was silent.
I remember how awkwardly they sat, straight-backed and serious, their faces tense. It was nothing like when the neighbours visited. But these two, there was something different: they’d come to a standard hotel, they were unshaven with messy hair. I wanted them to stay. Fortunately they came back and I looked one of them in the eyes and in poor English said the room rate was okay.
That guy in reception said the room rate was okay. I took a moment to study his face: green eyes. I was looking for honesty and we couldn’t rely on the non-stop-talker. It’s odd but examining his face it wasn’t only that he looked probably honest: in some way I recognised it. I told myself not to be stupid. But we took the room.
I don’t know why he believed me and didn’t bargain further, but as they filled in the book at the counter I couldn’t help it, I read over their shoulders to know where they were from. In the ‘citizenship’ column he wrote ‘Australian.’
He read over my shoulder. It was a bit rude.
When talking to foreigners we felt, as citizens of a poor country and because of the language problem, shame; but when he was bargaining with the manager I did not feel that. When I first saw him I felt as though I already knew him. I don’t know why. He finished the work around taking the room and wanted to go there. I asked him to share iftar. He understood my English easily, without even trying.
It was astonishing. After an hour he came from his room wearing lungi! My eyes fell open at the sight: inside I was thinking, ‘Maybe this foreigner doesn’t hate Bengalis.’ The adhan sounded for iftar to begin. The manager had chopped onions and chilli, mixing oil with muri. I’d brought a few sweet jilabis.
It was laid out on a sheet of newspaper. Nazmul was late and the bideshi‘s friend was sleeping. He didn’t know how to eat with his hands and muri mix was sticking to the sides of his fingers and falling on the floor; although he didn’t understand Bangla he helped me communicate. He spoke slowly and understood my meaning when I knew the English words were wrong. It made me so happy! I wished to speak to him more but I didn’t know what he felt.
It was the only day in Bangladesh when I had a strong desire never to speak to another Bengali: a product of the non-stop-talker and the long journey. Sleep was made complicated by the mosquitoes that came in through the hole in the wall. So I got up with zero desire to connect with locals. I didn’t want to start with the ‘country?’ and progress to the amount of my father’s salary. Yet the idea of travelling was to meet people; if I’d always maintained such a negative attitude we would have missed out on so much. So when I saw him sitting there my objections softened. I decided not to judge him solely on having looked over my shoulder as I’d signed in.
It wasn’t my first iftar. I saw him watching how I ate with my hands and was embarrassed for my lack of skill. Afterwards we heard shouting from the street below. Through the window we watched an angry mob pass. They were punching the air with fists clenched, chanting slogans, holding banners I couldn’t read. It must’ve been about the election. Many Bangladeshis had spoken of politics.
BNP wanted an election; Awami League was set to boycott. We watched an opposition protest. I tried to explain and he shared his impressions of Bangladesh. I felt shame when he said some Bangladeshis asked him for a visa, or tried to cheat him. I could not look him in the eye. But it was great to hear that despite his young age he had visited many countries and it was rare how hospitable Bangladeshis were. On average he had quite a good idea about Bangladesh. What was stranger was that some ideas coincided between us.
He told me about his family, his village and his business. I’d seen Hatiya from the ship. The island was lit by dim kerosene in the darkness.
We spoke of Australia but his questions came like a river, naturally and without being boring. When he spoke of local politics without invitation water rose in my eyes and I hoped he wouldn’t notice. He’d said nothing new but as we were nearing the end of our journey I must’ve already started processing and there was this insurmountable disjunct between what seemed to be the suffering of poverty, the political tensions, and the hospitality, the happiness that seemed as common as earth. In Sydney it is rarer.
The strangest part was that despite his English, to comprehend his meaning was without strain. We thought similarly. How could two people with entirely different backgrounds see the world so much the same? I knew him.
He invited me to dinner but said he’d wait for his business partner because they’d planned a meeting. Nazmul was a young guy dressed in impeccable neatness from hair part to polished shoes. Surprisingly he said I could attend; I think he didn’t wish to leave me waiting. The three of us went to his room, finding space between the bed and the chair that belonged to the little desk. The room had no window; but it had no hole in the wall.
I thought it’d be boring; but as they started conversing I discovered a smile: how absurd to attend a meeting between a Bangladeshi prawn seller and a chicken farmer. The unfathomable Bangla wanted to make me laugh! I felt privileged and fortunate and I hadn’t overcome those feelings when he said suddenly the meeting was done. ‘Are you sure?’ I laughed. It lasted less than five minutes.
Dinner was biryani. I tried to pay but it was impossible. ‘I’ll get my own back,’ I thought happily.
I wanted to talk all night but he might think badly if I talked too much. We decided to meet in Mongla the following afternoon. Afterwards I imagined I should have gone with them in the morning but I thought they’d mind it, as if I was a loafer. I told them I had business, thinking I should go to Foila.
I’d wanted he should come with us but it could hardly be expected he’d just drop his business. I asked too many times but lastly decided to press further would be rude. But he agreed to meet in the afternoon. I hope he hadn’t felt obliged.
A clod of earth was Khulna Town: earth connecting, the earth that brings a new place to stand.