Photo: Snigdha Zaman/Ikon Photo
Yesterday, I spent three hours in the humble pursuit of reaching workplace and driving home again. I have slowly become aware that I spend more time in a car in an average week than on any other single activity except sleeping. More than eating, certainly, and it's rare I have three hours per day in which to write, read or play music.
So I decided to turn my eyes fully to the life of the streets, and this is what I saw.
8am. The first intersection of the day. As usual our minibus was besieged by the halt and the lame, the blind and the limbless, their cries and imprecations just audible within our sealed bubble, above the orchestra of car horns and the sugary pop music playing on Radio Today. But wait a moment. There was a man I had never seen before, being led by a young girl in grimy rags. As he approached I looked at his face. It was unlike any living face I had ever seen. This man had no eyes. No, not the milky, opaque stare of the merely sightless: I am telling you he had no eyes.
In the sockets there was a leathery curve of emptiness, and at the back of the emptiness two livid holes of crimson. They were the colour of human insides: this was not a colour you should ever see on the surface of a human body. I was looking into a man. There were no acid burns on his face: my driver quietly offered the suggestion that perhaps his eyes had been gouged out. We wound down the window and tremblingly offered him a shiny coin. He blessed us, wandered on to the next car. His face was turned upwards, towards the sun.
Further on we passed a garment factory. As on every day, there were a thousand girls milling around, a starburst explosion of floral colours: shalwar kameezes of cerise, tangerine, lime and gold. These were the daughters of rickshaw-wallahs, earning pitiful salaries while their bosses drive past my door in their sleek cars. I saw one such car recently with a yellow sign in the back saying not “Baby on Board” but “Future Millionaire on Board”. And given the way money has a habit of sticking to certain people here, that's a fairly safe prediction. Still, these women crave even this negligible chance of independence, and for the first time in their lives they have their own money in their pocket. Ahead of them lay a day of pedalling, sewing, inspecting, in the dank light of the whirring shop floor. They were all small and slight, their lives blighted from the start by poor nutrition.
I caught sight of one in particular as we passed. She was walking along with a boy, who nudged her as our car moved by. It is a curious feature of Dhaka life (like Victorian London perhaps?) that sexual expression, even in such modest form, belongs only to the very rich and the very poor, while the middle classes look primly on. She glanced up at him with coy, searching eyes. And unseen by him, she turned away and smiled to herself.
Even by normal standards there was a long hold-up at the next set of traffic lights. At the side of the road, a supple fat man sat cross-legged at his little stall. He lit up the first cigarette of the day, inhaled deeply, and released the smoke slowly into the morning air. The reason for our delay soon became clear. A motorcade swept past. Sirens flashing, loudspeakers from inside the vehicle blaring at pedestrians to get out of the way. The US flag fluttered boldly on the little pennant of the powerful main car. Perhaps the ambassador, the Plenipotentiary, was already late for an important breakfast?
The earth turned, the hours slipped by. On our weary way home, we offered a lift to a friend. The car window was open now, and the buffeting warm air poured in. This friend's wife had recently been killed in another senseless traffic accident. So many fallen, and yet the traffic screams on each day, each driver pushing his foot to the floor, staring pointedly ahead. At every lull in our conversation, my friend turned slowly to survey the world outside the window. I wondered whether he saw her in the sunlit gleam on every car, in the curve of every bonnet. Whether he heard amidst all this hot-headed cacophony the hideous sound of metal colliding with rag-doll flesh. I know that if this happened to my love I would never enter the street again. I would close the curtains, light a candle, and stare forever into its bitter flame.
Photo: Snigdha Zaman/Ikon Photo
At the next junction my old friend the mute flower girl suddenly reappeared, with her usual joyous whooping noises. This is her familiar patch of course: she has been here on and off for nine years. But flowers, it seems, are now passé. These days every street child milling around the cars comes bearing popcorn. Price: 10 taka a bag (or is that the special foreign price?).
Seven days back I was so pleased to see her after a long absence that I just gave her the money without taking the popcorn. But yesterday she turned up again, spotted our car from afar, came running towards the vehicle and insisted I accept what I'd paid for last week. She refused any further money, and danced off, her face aglow. Her chance of a meagre profit had disappeared, replaced by a broad grin.
We passed under a footbridge. No-one ever uses the footbridges here, preferring to brave the traffic, despite the risks, than to climb thirty clanging metal steps. This time, however, there was a man up there. Leaning on the balustrade, he rested his face on the palm of his left hand, taking in the endless streams of time-lapsed cars flowing like coloured water under his steady gaze.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a strange shape on a little raised roundabout. Closer attention revealed that this was a man, prostrate on the ground. So what? Many people here sleep rough, curling up on the ground when their legs will take them no further, and falling like a stone into deep sleep.
But this was no sleeping man.
It is only when I looked harder that I noticed his arm, thrust up into the hazy sky at an impossible angle, his fist clenched. This man was dead. His body had already begun to swell and discolour, his upward punch a last gesture of rage against the dying of the light. Against the world which swept by oblivious on either side.
And as we finally turned the corner into our street, a strange vehicle appeared. Best not to drive too close: this was a little motorised crate with a flatbed trailer, and on the trailer there were ten thousand eggs. All boxed and padded against the jolts of the potholed roads. And up there on the eggs, balanced, poised, was a man lying down. One false move and he would have been an omelette, but he seemed supremely relaxed, his body at ease up there on its cardboard throne. I'm sure he was a metaphor, but I can't quite fathom what it means.
Last night, the blind man returned to me in a dream. In slow motion, I got out of the car and embraced him, right there amidst the traffic. I held his fragile body as tightly as I would a dying grandfather, whom I knew I would never see again.
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