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A week in the country

Against all my protests and complaints, I was forced to go to Chittagong with my family to spend school recess. No amount of threats or coaxing could dissuade my adamant mother from leaving me home alone. I was, after all, only twelve.

Chittagong is Bangladesh's second largest city, and largest port -- where much commercial activity takes place. However, my extended family lived right in the village, which I considered very backward at the time. I was expecting to see only dirt roads and bridges made from bamboo sticks, and surely enough that was the sight I met at the beginning. Our car stopped at a point after which we had to trudge towards my uncle's house on foot. There was no road, only a dusty path with huts and shacks on either side. The stench of cow dung and live animals was overwhelming. I stepped gingerly, taking care to avoid slushy, soft spots where the ground gave away beneath my feet, furious because my leather shoes were getting muddy. I was sweating profusely, and had to repeatedly swat flies that were hovering around me. "How much longer?" I asked my father, who was carrying a suitcase and smiling broadly as though he was having the best time of his life. "Easy for him," I thought wryly. "It's his hometown."

My father looked over his shoulder and hollered, "A mile and a half." My jaw dropped open with disbelief. A mile and a half? Were my folks on drugs or something?

After our seemingly unending trek across the countryside, we reached a thatched bungalow that looked badly in need of repair. A boy about my age ran out of the house to help us with our luggage.

"We're staying here?" I demanded loudly.
"Don't be such a snob," scolded my brother. "It's only for a week."

Red in the face with anger, I stormed into the house and began to put away my things, hardly even saying hello to my aunt and uncle, who were exchanging greetings with my parents. The boy who had come out to meet us was my cousin Monju, and he came into the room to talk to me.

"How about a walk?" he asked, smiling at me from the doorway. "I'm Monju."
I sullenly replied, "I need to wash my face first. Where's the bathroom?"
"Oh no use going there now. There's no running water today because of the shortage in the reservoir. Come on, I'll take you to the well."

Fighting the urge to scream, I followed him out to the yard where he drew up a bucket of water and I washed my hands and face. I was startled by how cold the water was, but it was very refreshing and soon all my weariness and irritability were gone. I decided to go for a walk with Monju.

We passed mud huts where chicken, lambs, and calves flocked in the yards. It was my first time in the countryside and I was ignorant, to say the least, about farm animals. "How do these people manage to keep so many pets?" I mused aloud. "Doesn't it cost a lot?"

Monju looked at me quizzically, and then guffawed with mirth. "On the contrary, these people make a living from having so many animals. The chickens give them eggs and the cows give them milk, butter, and cheese -- not to mention fertilizer. The sheep provide soft, warm wool."

"But don't they need a licence?" I asked.
"No. Village people are far too busy keeping body and soul together to bother about licences," answered Monju wisely.

We soon came across a large cornfield edged with blood-red poppies swaying in the breeze. Monju pointed to a tree in the corner of the field and asked me, "Do you know what you can do with those leaves?"

I stared at him blankly.
"You can make flutes from them," he continued, breaking off a large, long leaf and folding it with his deft fingers to form a flute which he blew into. Out came a loud, sweet-sounding high-pitched whistle.
I was enchanted. "Show me how to do that," I said eagerly.
By the time we were through with the lesson, the sun was beginning to set. On the way back home Monju showed me how to extract juice from the date trees that lined the path. After that I spent most of the week up in the date trees, tying gourds on the trunks and waiting for the juice to run into them.

Back at home, I greeted my relatives, apologizing for disappearing so rudely earlier. "So," I asked Monju. "Where's the TV?"
"We don't have one," he replied matter-of factly. "If there's a really good show going on we go over to the Ahmed's which is about half a mile from here. They're the only ones in the whole village who can afford a TV."
"How can you live like this?" I wailed, now at the end of my tether.
"Easy", laughed Monju, pulling me along by the arm. "Let me show you what we do for fun."

That night he introduced me to some of his friends who had come over from the next village to play cards. There was an electricity outage and it was pitch black. In the flickering light of a lamp, we feasted on greasy flatbread and chunks of steaming beef as we played cards. One of the boys narrated a horror story that left the hair on my neck standing on end. I felt quite depressed when everyone went home!

"You're up early," said Monju the next day when I woke him up.
"Why on earth is your bathroom on the roof?" I asked him impatiently.
"Don't ask me," he yawned. "This house has been standing for a hundred years and people are not about to change it just because I want them to. Trust me, I asked them."
"Aaargh, this awful dilapidated hell hole!" I exclaimed, unable to contain myself.
"We don't have to stay here," grinned Monju. "I'll take you to the creek today." We spent the day in a beautiful lush glen canopied with large leafy trees. Clear streams ran through it, and small creatures scurried through the woodland. Endless mustard fields stretched up to the horizon. "Race you to the top of the tree," said Monju. "There's a raven's nest up there. First one who gets the eggs wins."
I stood aside shyly. "I can't climb trees," I confessed.
"Can't climb trees?" echoed Monju, shocked. "Watch me."
I watched, learned and fell out many time, but picked up the practice with admirable speed, grazing my elbows and knees a number of times in the process.
"I suppose you can't swim either," said Monju, throwing off his shirt and jumping into the stream spraying me all over with water. My blush was burning a hole in my cheeks.
"No, I can't nor do I want to take off my clothes here," I said firmly.
"No one will arrest you," laughed Monju, "but all you really need to take off is your shoes. The sun is so hot at noon, you can even sit here with all your wet clothes on and you'll be dry in no time."

By the end of the afternoon I had not only learned to float but also to perform a couple of tricks underwater.

We were sitting on the bank peacefully when all of a sudden there was a huge commotion; the snake charmer had come to the village and all the village boys were chasing him. He was holding a large, black wriggling snake in his hand as he ran along and the boys behind him were following in hot pursuit, whooping with joy. "See that fellow in the front? The one whose face is smeared with mud? That's my cousin Utpol. He lives a few houses away from us," said Monju.

"Wow", I exclaimed craning my neck to see more. Unfortunately, the snake charmer was running so fast and there was such a large crowd of boys that I couldn't see much at all. "You do have an unusual way of doing things around here," I remarked, never having seen a snake charmer racing along at top speed like that, instead of sitting still and playing pipes to charm a snake. From what I had seen, he himself could not have been more than about seventeen.

"There used to be a kid here who waited nearby the bamboo bridges with firecrackers," said Monju. "He used to fit one under one end of the bridge just before he saw someone approaching, and then run off to watch what happened. Usually, just as the unsuspecting person was near the end of the bridge, the firecracker exploded and sometimes the person was so alarmed he fell off the bridge -- what with it being so narrow and made of bamboo," he added, seeing the incredulous expression on my face. I tried to imagine the scene and chuckled quietly to myself.

"I hope I don't run into him," I said.
"Oh, you undoubtedly will some day," said Monju. "He's another of my cousins, so you're related to him as well." With another glance at me, he laughed. "I imagine he is a little more sophisticated than that now."

After relaxing in the warm, mellow sunshine, we headed back home in a rickshaw, the wind blowing through our hair. I was so elated about learning to swim. I told everyone about it back at the house until they had heard it so many times that they had to ask me to be quiet or leave the room.

I was enthralled with the exploits of my cousins. I wanted to meet all of them, so Monju decided to take me to Biplob's house. Biplob was the oldest of the lot, and a little less wild than the others. He took me to a swamp-like place where the waters from the flooded paddy fields would swirl around our bare feet, reaching as high as our shin. There were trees all around, the trunks of which were half immersed in water. It was a liberating experience to forget about sandals and expensive dresses and don a simple summer frock, wading around in the waters with the sand, grass, and gravel beneath my feet. That day we took Monju's little sister, Papiya, to play with us by the creek. We had an exhilarating game of pin bowling, with the village goats being the contestants and we being the pins. In other words, Monju would make a hornless baby goat stand by the fence, walk a little way away from it.and make a strange calling noise that I found hard to imitate. The goat would hurl itself forward at him, butting him over and frisking away. He was so skinny that he fell down at once. Although it was rather funny, I was terrified at first -- but Monju made me stand there to get butted over, and honestly, it was absolutely painless and a great deal of fun!

At night Monju was sitting in the front yard. I crept up behind him and sat down. For a moment we were both silent, breathing in the fragrance of the honeysuckle that wafted towards us from somewhere far away. "You know, your house isn't all that bad," I said finally. "Neither is the country." Monju shrugged amiably, flopping onto his back so that he was facing the sky. "I don't mind," he said easily. "We're poor, but we have a million different things to do every day, so I don't really miss having the luxuries of life. For instance, look at those stars up there. They look like diamonds on a piece of black velvet. I don't think I'll give my girl a diamond ring on our wedding. I'll just sit our here with her and gaze at the stars."I looked up at the distant, elusive sparkling stars. Suddenly a sense of deep, lasting peace stole over me. My brother carried me back into the house, for I fell fast asleep on the front yard, dreaming of fresh hay, marigolds, and ladybirds.Recess was over all too soon. The week that I had dreaded for so long was finally up, and not surprisingly, I now wanted to stay, even suggesting that I could I explain to them that I hadn't known there were so many other things to do school in Chittagong, which amused everyone to no end. How could I explain to them that I hadn't known there were so many other things to do besides lying on a couch all day and watching TV, playing video games, or holding long conversations on the phone? For the first time I had taken a close look at all the gifts of God, all the marvelous creations, and I appreciated them so much it was difficult to let them go. The lovely feeling of complete abandon, the absence of rules, the simple pleasures of life were the things I would miss the most when I went back to the city. Getting drenched in the rain, running thorough mustard fields, catching trout in the lake, watching in fascination when the snake charmer visited the village ... there was no end to the wonderful times I had had in Chittagong. Seeing the miserable expression on my face, my father chuckled and promised he would bring me back. I bade my aunt and uncle farewell, but I did not know what to say to Monju. Was there really any way to show him gratitude for the week he had given me? "Thanks," I said simply, unable to find the words.

He smiled and replied "Any time."
I went abroad shortly afterwards, and sometime over the years, Monju sent me a letter. "I'm leaving Chittagong to go to college," he wrote. "I'll be going to the city, and then finally leaving the country like you. I suppose I'll be dazzled by all the bright lights at first, so I was wondering if you have any advice for me."

I wrote back, "Watch the stars for the last time without any skyscrapers blocking your view. No lights are as beautiful and resplendent as the stars you showed me that night in the country. They stirred me far more than any city lights ever could."

Syeda Tabassum Hayat





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