The Secret of Prionkor's Tea
Prionkor in his tea shop.
Photo: Andrew Eagle
The constellations rearranged themselves at a faster rate; with us, the four friends, the nocturnal hours managed far less. A slight altering, from one sitting position to another, the lifting of a leg, the turn of an arm: a marginally larger movement achieved only in those gaps given to napping when we'd fully recline on the long wooden benches of the tea shop, avoiding any random protruding nails, and close our eyes.
After some minutes we'd stir and ask my Saha Kaka's son Prionkor to re-ignite the fire and re-make the tea. He'd start over, many times. There were nights in their entireties that watched these simple rituals, the life of that shack on the corner by the main road at the place called By-the-Big-Bridge.
Saha Kaka or Saha Uncle, yes the name has a failing: being Hindu he should be Saha Dada to follow the usual nomenclature, but ultimately the universe is not easily arranged into neat categories; and in Noakhali things that really aren't, often are. His 'Kaka' has no less respect to it than his 'Dada' would.
My Saha Kaka, thin as a stick, is an immeasurably kind man. I'll never forget in his house, which was small even by Hatiyan standards, when he'd lifted the worn-out pillow on the bed in the front room to reveal underneath two tiny, almost newborn, kittens. 'I let them sleep there,' he'd said, 'so the rats don't get them.'
If that's where Prionkor picked up his generosity I don't know, but he never bothered to close the shop, didn't tell us to go even though it was ridiculous to spend the whole night there. Usually around ten or eleven he'd start closing some of the windows so that if the police passed on one of their hardly-ever patrols our loitering would remain undetected.
It made no economic sense: tea was just one taka per cup then and nothing to lose sleep over. And for us it was nothing to do with the tea: that's for sure. Of all the variations of the brown liquid available in By-the-Big-Bridge, Prionkor's wishy-washy concoction was indisputably the worst. We never told him. Sometimes we'd privately laugh to see each other drink it, to witness the grimaces it gave rise to.
It was the adda, or chatting, not less, that would enchant us to stay until the eastern sky grew pale.
Things change: Alauddin took that job in Noakhali and went missing for a few years; Alamgir left in search of a plot of free land on the north side of the river and Prionkor after his marriage moved to India. Nobody knew where he was for sure; even his family were sketchy on detail. But we missed him.
It was Saiful who told me that the big bridge at By-the-Big-Bridge has a large, invisible magnet under it with the power to pull people back. It was the magnet, he said, that returned him at regular intervals from his Chittagong job. He said it pulled me too, almost annually, from Sydney. It can be, because Alauddin gave up his mainland jobs; and Alamgir didn't bother with the north side land in the end. He left the river's new creation to others. It can be, because in Noakhali things that really aren't, often are. Perhaps only Prionkor was resistant to that magnet's powers.
After several years I met his brother in Chittagong and he said he had Prionkor's phone number. So I rang.
Like so many Bangladeshi Hindus, Prionkor had settled on the outskirts of Kolkata. There are whole communities around the City of Joy populated almost exclusively by Bangladeshi migrants. I once heard it said that one in three West Bengalis had Bangladeshi origins, which, with a population of about ninety million for the state would put around thirty million in the previously-Bangladeshi community. Even if such figures aren't accurate, there are many millions who made the westward migration over the decades; just as others came east.
Last year I went to Kolkata for a few days. It was a bit ad hoc: I was just at Benapole and my mobile phone range about to end. 'Today I'll come,' I sent as a text message, in Bangla but using western script. I wasn't convinced he could decipher it.
I took the train to his station, a bustling neighbourhood of colour and noise, and found one of those quaint phone shops that are the mobile-refill-shop equivalent on the other side. Prionkor said he was on his way. I was expected after all. He sounded excited, or was that me?
He had arrived on his cycle-van, the way he'd found to make a living over there. Thank goodness he wasn't making tea! He was unchanged. I sat on the back of his van as he pedalled off towards his house; our catching up interrupted by people trying to get a lift. Modes of transport are more often shared in India, on the basis of that West Bengali 'why rent a whole one?' logic that contrasts so pleasantly with the 'why not rent a whole one?' on this side of the line. Prionkor told them today his van was a private service.
We stopped for tea and Indian sweets, which to my unrefined palate are the same as those in Dhaka except smaller. Prionkor said he'd been eight years in India and really liked it. His children attended school. His wife was happy. And the Indian authorities never made problems; if they wished they could take to task that entire town for not really having, technically, the right papers, exactly. They demonstrate tolerance.
I was impressed: the Australian authorities are in the habit of imprisoning even small children who arrive by boat without the right papers, often for years, though the numbers are a trickle. The number of Bangladeshis in West Bengal could be greater than the entire population of Australia. Somehow India makes room; somehow Australia requires a solid amount of human suffering before most of those asylum seekers, ninety-five percent, are allowed to stay.
Prionkor's house was one of those informal West Bengali structures, two rooms of brick separated by a thin makeshift wall, and in place of the tin to be found this side it had a neatly tiled roof, the norm on that side. Despite its small size his place was pleasant. It's at the end of a circular road, an enclosed neighbourhood gathered amongst a few farm fields. We sat in his small garden, featuring a mango tree and views across patches of still-open land. We remembered things while his wife made lunch. I confess I finally told him the secret of his tea.
'In eight years,' he said, 'you are the first Hatiyan I've seen.'
The Indians were doing a census that day; the census collectors moved about, house to house. Years ago, before the caretaker government's efforts, a voter list was being made in Bangladesh. I remember the guy entered the teashop and for a joke I asked why I wasn't on the list yet. Everyone in the teashop agreed with me. The list-writer apologised and was on the verge of handing me his pen when his companion came in and set things right.
This time the Indians: I admired the way they skipped over the non-citizen households, politely chatting and moving on without fuss to find countable people. Those towns must have very small populations if you only count the countables. And of course the ones that have become countable often didn't start out that way.