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On a day like today

Winter was finally here with all its might. The chilling wind seemed to rattle one right down to the bones. The sun was hardly visible till well into the afternoon. All those people who, only a few days ago, were sulking about how "real" winter never happened in Bangladesh, were now all cosy under their expensive heavy-duty blankets. Even when they would have to get out of their dens and get some work done, they would still be covered head-to-toe in the latest trendy warm clothes. The cold breeze never really got through to them.

But from where I was standing right now, I saw the other end of the spectrum. It was 11 PM. I had just arrived in Dhaka from Sylhet. As I walked towards the exit of the Railway Station, I felt guilty as I saw the sight before me hundreds of people women, children, men too old to work huddled together in what seemed an effort to fight the cruel winter. Here they were, these people suffering the unbearable winter out here in the open, while I would just go home and get all comfy with my family. Somehow, the sight of this crowded platform reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the refugee camps of 1971. At least the refugees had a dream, of having their own country someday, where they would find happiness that would make all the suffering worthwhile. What did these people have? How many of them understood the significance of our Liberation War? Did it really have any significance to them at this moment?

Engrossed in all these thoughts, I did not really keep an eye on the path before me. Suddenly, I stumbled on something and nearly fell. Upon having regained balance, I turned to see what I had tripped on. It was one of a pair of crutches. Even before I could look at the owner of he object, a quivering voice apologised, "Baba, I didn't notice when my crutch got on the way. Sorry." I picked up the crutch and placed it properly besides the other of the pair, and looked at the owner. He was a very old and very frail-looking man, shaking ever so slightly. Obviously the weather was not being too nice to him. I suddenly felt great remorse and sympathy for this old, weak and handicapped man, sleeping on the railway platform. Suddenly, I wished I could do something for this man. As I stood there with these thoughts flashing through my head, the old man had been staring at me. Now he asked, "What's the matter, baba?" Instead of giving him an answer, I reached out for a wallet and fished out a fifty-taka bill. As the old man's eyes followed my every move, I offered him the money. "Here, chacha, keep this."
The old man looked shocked. He shook his vehemently.
"No, no, I can't accept your money."
"Why not?" I asked, rather taken aback.
"Why should I accept money I have no right over?" came the reply, in a confident tone that belied his frail appearance.
I was both shocked an impressed by the old man's words. I had to admire his sense of pride, even if I wasn't expecting it. Something made me kneel down beside him and ask, "Chacha, what do you do for a living?" I guess this was the most logical question, given that he never accepted money he had not earned. Maybe that was what the old man was thinking too, as he smiled and answered, "I stay in the station all day, sell newspapers, water, candies and other stuff. I can't walk around much, so I just sit at a corner where there's always people moving."

Just how much can a man make by selling papers and candies, I wondered? Even more so since he cannot walk around to the more crowded areas? As these questions came to my mind and I mused aloud, "It is surprising that a man your age would rather work than just beg. No offence please, I like your attitude. It's just that few people would show such honour. I will be very happy if you accept the meagre amount that I offer you, even though I will understand if you choose not to." The old man again shook his head, politely this time, smiling. Just as I was about to get up and leave, I heard him say, "Don't mind sir. It's a promise I made to myself a long time ago. I could never accept alms with the same hands that were once employed for a noble cause."

I turned around and knelt back beside him. "What noble cause, chacha? What are you talking about?" His confident tone returned and he even seemed to straighten up a bit as he replied, "I was a freedom fighter in 1971."

I had never seen that coming. Here, out in the winter, huddled among hundreds of homeless, sat a member of that untrained yet enormous force that had played such a great role in the liberation of our country. Looking as ordinary as any other individual on the platform, he still did have that something special: handicapped and weather-beaten, he still would not accept money he had not earned. His sense of self-respect dawned on me completely, and without any further word, I turned to leave. The old timer bade me farewell with a barely perceptible nod. It seemed an honour to receive a gesture, any gesture, from the old man. I walked away, turning back every now and then, seeing the old fellow already busying himself with a little kid who roamed about him. As I took a turn towards the parking lot, they disappeared from my view. I walked on, looking for my car.

Soon I found my car and started for my home. Tired, the experience already seemed to be moved back to a less active part of my mind as I made plans for tomorrow. I looked at the watch, and time seemed to freeze there for a moment. There, in the daytime panel, were the numbers 16-12-2001. 16th December. Victory Day. Thirty years of independence and sovereignty. A freedom fighter living and sleeping on the railway platform. For reasons unknown, a solitary tear rolled down my cheek.

By Mohammad Hammad Ali

A month at sea: Dancing with dolphins

I started from my home on May 2, 2002 and went to the Zia International Airport (ZIA) and flew from Dhaka to Singapore. The airport seemed to have improved a lot since the last time I went there. We arrived at Singapore airport at 5:55 am. I enjoyed my time on the plane as it was very comfortable and there were video games and movies. I spent half my time watching "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's stone. Singapore airport is more popularly known as "Changi Airport". It was so beautiful, neat and clean that it seemed like a slice of heaven. I spent my time visiting the show rooms of electronic goods in the airport as we had to wait for the service agent who was supposed to come from my father's office to pick us up. My father, who's a mariner, could not come collect us because his ship was yet to reach there. Singapore is a beautiful country and I should also mention that it is a fine country with 'Fines'.

The service agent came to receive us after two hours and then took us to the "Sea View" hotel. We had our lunch and dinner there. I was real tired and slept for two hours but still did not want to wake up when my mother called me, but jumped out of the bed instantly when I heard her saying that a car had come to take us to my father's ship.

Our hotel was near the sea (as its name indicates) and the port, so it did not take us long to reach there. My father's ship was not fully tied when we reached the port, but it did not take long for it to be anchored. After being tied, the stairs came down and we got aboard the ship. We were greeted warmly from all the crew and joined the ship, a container/cargo vessel called M. V0. Kota Buana, at 0300 hrs (which is 3:00 in the morning) of May 3, 2003. My dad, who's also the captain of the ship, came to receive us with a smile that blended exuberance and exhaustion. The signs of tiredness soon disappeared from his face bit by bit as he met his family after a long time. The most interesting part of my journey was when the ship started to sail.

We first made our voyage from Singapore to Muara (Brunei). It took us 48 hrs to reach Muara and it is 725 n.m (1 nautical mile is = 6080 feet). Brunei is a country rich in oil exports. I saw a lot of oilrigs at sea. As we reached Brunei, we went to the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan. One of the greatest attractions in Brunei is a mosque made by the Sultan (ruler of the country) which has six tombs made of solid gold. It is fully air-conditioned and a separate place for performing ablutions has automatic water taps with a fountain in the middle. The prayer mats there are made with very good quality carpets. There are two mosques -- one for the men and the other for the women -- and both come with huge tombs of pure 24 k gold. I am grateful to the Almighty as He gave me the chance to offer my prayer in such a grand mosque. We also visited the Sultan's Palace. It was awesome. I also had a boat ride in the lake surrounding the beautiful palace; which also has some touches of gold. For the first time in my life, I had seen such a beautiful Mosque, Palace and also experienced playing pool and snooker. So, Brunei was one of the best parts of my whole voyage.

Here's a tip for the readers: If you ever visit Brunei don't forget to visit the beautiful mosque. But remember to wear full-length trousers if you want to go inside the mosque or else you won't be allowed to get in.

From Brunei we made our journey to Malaysia, to a port named Kota Kinabalu. It took us 7hrs to arrive there. Time was the main factor, which didn't allow us to get a closer look at the Mount Kinabalu, although we visited this port four times in the course of the route as it takes approximately one hour to reach there and another one hour to come back. Our ship berthed there for only 2-hours-and 15-inutes. So, we only had time for shopping. I bought a symptom (a traditional musical instrument) as a souvenir and got introduced to the delicious world of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). I especially liked the item named 'Twister'. So, I always made it a point to repeat the same menu whenever I went there. We also had a chance to visit Sabah Museum.

In Kota Kinabalu, the most interesting thing happened whilst crossing a narrow bridge in the port. The water was not so deep but it was crystal clear, so we could see deep into the water. We saw thousands of live jellyfishes with some colorful noodle-type things coming in and going out. So Kota Kinabalu was the place for shopping and some sightseeing in my journey.

From Kota Kinabalu, we made a 7-hour-long journey to Labuan (east Malaysia). The thing I loved there was the Bowling Club. Bowling seemed to me the hardest game of all, but the manager, a Korean man named Mr. Shin, taught me the secret techniques of success. He was a short and friendly man and it was through his teaching that bowling became much easier for me. We did very little shopping in Labuan, but visited many places like the water sports club, bowling club and the Labuan airport, which was a very quiet place with very few people.

From Labuan, we came back to Singapore, and completed one round trip, which took us a little more than a week. We completed four round trips like this on the same route. So I visited all these places four times.

During my thirty days on board MV Kota Buana, I observed the routine and punctual life of mariners. I also watched safety movies with the officers and the crew.

Even though they are away from shore, they are still threatened by pirates. Pirates board on moving vessels. So, I found the crew keeping security watch during night times. I enjoyed sunset at sea on most of my days on board the ship. I also observed how Master (captain) and the other crew carried out safety drills such as boat drill, fire drill, collision drill etc. I also had a chance to attend those drills and learned a lot about safety.

During my voyage at sea many things happened which I will never forget. But possibly the most memorable among all those experiences was to see groups of playful dolphins jumping about near the ship, while we were at sea.

By Md. Ar-Rafi Waseq Hossain (Nihad)







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