Food for Thought
Dhaka Day by Day
Sights and Sounds
Most inhabitants of Dhaka city would probably agree that there is no lack of visual or sensory stimuli this is not only a city that never sleeps, it has no intention of letting you sleep either! The problem is particularly bad for those who live near by construction sites or heavily trafficked roads, but noise pollution tends to be a fairly serious problem for almost everyone (even if the source of the problem is just unbelievably noisy neighbours who like to throw parties and celebrate weddings in stereo and technicolour, preferably with surround sound).
Under the circumstances, I was not surprised to recently find myself thinking longingly of a time when the sounds of the city were rather different. My childhood memories are replete with recollections of warm, sunny afternoons when the greatest hardship was enduring my mandatory midday nap. In truth, these "naps" basically consisted of a few hours when I lay in bed pretending to sleep, and listening to the gentle rhythms of my ayah snoring away her well-deserved siesta.
Often bored, I seized upon the occasional cries of the wandering feriwallas. Although their words were invariably incomprehensible, they provided a welcome break from the monotony of this enforced rest period. In those days, vendors went from house to house offering everything from live chickens and fresh fish to opportunities to get your knives sharpened or have an extra set of keys made; in fact, this era provided the ultimate in home delivery of services! And if nothing else, I derived some amusement from deciphering who was selling what. The only call that was instantly recognisable to me was my old favourite, the collector of scrap paper, with his long drawn out cry of “Oiiiiii kag-o-o-j”.
These sounds have now disappeared from many parts of the city, and any that remain can rarely be heard above the general cacophony. So, the other day, when I heard the sounds of the monkey man's distinctive drums going down our road, I was immediately gripped by a remembered sense of excitement. That was all too swiftly followed by the realisation of a moral dilemma (I will confess that I tend to leave no potential opportunity for self-questioning unexplored), as I pondered what my reaction to the drums should have been. After all, my days of being entertained by such shows are long past. And although I do worry about how the animals are treated by their owners, I do not share my family's love of monkeys; not least because I find them to be frighteningly intelligent.
There is a story about my grandmother (legendary for her love of animals in general, and monkeys in particular), which effectively illustrates this. As a young woman, living in a very different Kolkata from the one that exists today, she often gave the monkeys that lived in their neighbourhood leftover scraps of food much to the disapproval of the aunt with whom she lived. On one occasion, a monkey that had been sitting on the kitchen windowsill, accepting food from my grandmother, took exception to the scolding that her aunt was giving her for feeding the animal; and to everyone's shock (and my grandmother's secret amusement), it suddenly walked over and slapped the lady on her face before quickly disappearing through the window! That story taught me to be very wary about approaching these creatures…
A few weeks prior to the modern-day monkey troupe's arrival, I had also heard the snake charmer going past. He was playing his hypnotic flute, and I had to be forcefully dissuaded from giving him some money. I had no intention of watching the snakes "dance". Apart from anything else, I really don't like snakes; but the fact is, I feel sorry for the snake charmers.
It has become increasingly hard to make a living this way, and in the last couple of years, some women belonging to the snake charmer community have taken to carrying around small snakes in a container the size of a lunchbox, and brandishing the box threateningly in order to extract money from passers-by. I have never been accosted by one of these people myself, but I have seen them on the streets (they tend to be colourfully dressed and unusually confident) and some of my friends have been approached, so I live in fear of running into a rogue snake charmer. Maybe it's just enlightened self-interest that makes me want to keep them employed in the more traditional version of their occupation!
With the monkeys, it's a different issue altogether. For a long time now, I have hated watching these animals do tricks so that the owner can earn some money, even though I know that he probably needs it. I worry about how the creatures are treated, and about how humiliating it might be for them - particularly since they are so intelligent - to be subjected to this treatment. Apart from anything else, they just look too human for my liking! Especially when they look at you sadly with those big, mournful eyes.
Anyway, to cut a long story short I was trying to figure out how to do something that would benefit the monkeys, without having to watch one of these shows. Finally, I made a deal with the man to let me feed the monkeys some bananas (on the spot, so I could be sure that they would get them), and let them have a short rest. In exchange, I gave him a small amount of money, more like a tip. He seemed like a nice enough guy and the monkeys lost no time in wolfing down the bananas - probably tucking away some part of it in their cheek pouches, for later. I suspect he thought I was completely mad though, giving away money and food for no good reason. The guards next door, who had been looking forward to the monkey show, clearly thought so, and said as much to our guard!
Anyway, if my fear of reptiles reinforces my determination to avoid predatory women brandishing suspect lunchboxes, there are those who thrive on such encounters. My friend Mahmud is one such weirdo. On one occasion he was so mesmerized by the beauty of one of the snake ladies, he did not attempt to avoid her even when she approached him and asked for money - let alone beat a hasty retreat, as most people would undoubtedly have done.
Mahmud kept his cool even though he described the snake lady as “distinctly aggressive”. She made it very clear that he was expected to pay her what she deserved, refusing to settle for his initial offering of five takas. Nevertheless, it should be noted that despite her undeniable beauty, my canny friend did not make the mistake of paying her more than ten takas. And he clearly got off relatively lightly, since he had just come from the bank, and had the princely sum of thirteen thousand takas stashed away in his inner pocket…
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