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     Volume 7 Issue 43 | October 31, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

In My Dreams

Neeman Sobhan

It has been a harsh, hot October in Dhaka since I landed. In my dreams, a soft and juicy morning, wrapped in rain-swollen breeze, unfolds. Then I sit up in bed, wide-awake, and find that it is all true. The air-conditioning is turned off, as is the fan, yet I feel cool enough to huddle under a quilt because, a soft and juicy morning has indeed unfolded, with the rain-swollen breeze rolling in like tide through the sliding glass panels of my bedroom, opening onto the Gulshan lake.

With dream-like certainty I can sense the drizzle of rain, wrinkling the surface of the water. There is a dank smell, but never mind. At least, the rains have arrived, and with it a day that promises to be cool and fresh.

I also grow wiser to the disadvantages of a room unprotected by the hum of air-conditioning. The cool, damp (and sometimes dank) breeze blowing through the bedroom is mostly delightful but creates some challenges. Apart from micro-phonic assaults, my ears are assailed by the entire human population across the lake, all clearing their throats with hacking and spitting sounds at the same time; the chorus of scolding crows; the din of irate car horns; the arrhythmic hammering in some construction site close-by; and cheerful human voices calling out friendly lines like, “Oyee! Shunos na?”


The voices from the lake float into my room in a steady ebb and flow as I sit tapping at my computer. Outside my window panes, the sky has momentarily pulled in the fishnet of rain. I hear the slap of green waters on gliding boats, and dream of ebony fishermen in flame coloured shirts or lungis hauling nets of sliver fish, their reflection in the water as of dark trunks of krishnochura trees with vermillion flowers and twinkling stars blooming under water. Then I walk outside to my balcony and find that it is all true.

A boat is indeed drifting across the lake under my balcony, with the sun-toasted men aboard casting their nets and pulling in shoals of fish, while a group of men standing on the shore with hitched up <>lungis<> are watching and cheering them on.

I am appalled.

The banks of the lake are littered with trash, as are the shallow waters at the edge. And I know that the water of the lake is where the sewage from the apartments around it, such as my own, is dumped. Now I try to imagine the silvery harvest from these contaminated waters. My imagination shudders and fails.

Instead, I dream that the water of the lake has been purified, and the trash from the banks and from the streets around me, cleared. But I know that my dream will not be answered. I know this because I realise that I am dreaming the wrong dream, praying for the wrong things. What I need to imagine and pray for is that we, the citizens of this city and country, take upon ourselves the responsibility of ensuring that our rubbish is properly disposed and our water bodies are purified.

In this context, I must recount a strange sight that has been haunting me for a while in Rome. My Roman house overlooks a main street where every day a garbage truck comes and empties the covered rubbish bins. Still the streets often look less than clean, with the odd cigarette butts, bits of paper, or heaps of pine needles mixed with dead leaves, empty plastic bottles or food wrappers. All this is naturally considered disgraceful by us, the inhabitants of the locality, who did not create the litter on these sidewalks. We click our tongues in disgust and wait patiently for the once- a- month street cleaners to come and sweep and wash the streets, which they do every second Thursday of the month.

Now to come to the sight I was referring to, which has given me reason to pause and rethink the whole business of community and individual responsibility in keeping ones locality clean.

Early one morning, around five, when it was still dark, I heard a ghostly, whispering sound under my bedroom window overlooking the front street. Swish-swish, swish-swish it went. At first I thought of bats caught in tree branches or some garden insects or cats on the prowl. I looked out. The street lamps were still on, and under its eerie light I saw a woman with a broom steadily sweeping the sidewalk and the street below her apartment. She lives on the second or third floor and the street corner she was cleaning was outside her apartment block.

I thought she was a sleepwalker. Then almost every second or third day, in that ghostly hour of the morning between light and darkness, when not a soul stirred outside, there was that swishing sound again. “There goes your friendly witch with her broom,” My husband would laugh from the bed when he saw me spring up to watch the scene below my windows. At first, I also thought of the woman's behaviour as obsessive, excessive, crazy and laughable. But during the day, whenever I walked down my sidewalk, I couldn't help notice the stretch of pavement on her side of the street that stood out in contrast to the rest. I had to salute this woman who was probably foolish enough to dream of a street as spotless as her living room floor, and mad enough to change that dream to reality.

I am sitting in Dhaka and wondering about the amount of madness required to dream of solutions to problems. Foremost is my domestic dilemma of the most efficient and hygienic way to dispose of my household garbage in the absence of proper trash bags or domestic helps, who normally carry away the rubbish. In Rome, where we use plastic garbage bags neatly tied up to be carried and thrown by ourselves, I have not had to think of garbage disposal as a major problem. In Dhaka, polythene and plastic trash bags are forbidden without any viable alternatives. No paper or bio-degradable garbage bags are available in the market. It is understood that a maid or servant will take down a pail of rotting food and debris and throw it into some designated giant pile of rotting food and debris outside.

I take refuge in dreams. And in my dreams, garbage trucks, covered trash cans, bio-degradable trash bags and weekly street cleaners have arrived in Dhaka like the rains. And the city is fresh and clean again. I wake from my nap to realise it was a dream. But the cleansing rain, at least, is real.

For the moment, let me just enjoy this rainy morning. Time enough to make my dreams come true another day.

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