MONSOON MADNESS AND THE RUNAWAY RICKSHAW – Just Another Day in Ole Dhaka

| September 15, 2011 | Comments (2)

 

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As a child my fondest dream was to be rich.  When my father asked me : What would you do with all that  money if you had it? Would you buy lots of candy or a bicycle or the longest electric train ever made, I shook my head and told him I would do one thing – travel the world and live in grand hotels. Five-star hotels with deep, long swimming pools, hotels that had vast lobbies where I could sit and watch people with piles of suitcases enter and leave, guessing where they had come from and what languages they were speaking. Hotels like the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu where there was a drinking fountain that spurted pineapple juice, not water. That was the kind of life I wanted to live.

Years later my wish came true when I actually lived in a hotel for many months on end. I was assigned to work in Dhaka, Bangladesh and was compelled to cool my heels in the Dhaka Sheraton until the apartment I had contracted to rent was available.

After several weeks my hotel fantasy turned sour. I began to hate it.  I felt the maddening claustrophobia of a luxurious jail. The over-chlorinated swimming pool made my face a shriveled prune after fifteen minutes in the water; ten minuter longer and my eyes were screaming red sockets reminiscent of a horror comics monster.  The tennis courts were no better. Enclosed by a chain-link fence, the tennis terrain looked onto a fetid garbage dump peopled by  scavenger children in rags who clawed the enclosure,  wailing ” Backsheesh! ” as  the wives of Japanese salarymen batted balls with their trainers and strawberry-faced Englishmen sipped gin and tonics, grousing about the weather and the ” bloody locals.”

The lobby was no better. Darkish and freezingly airconditioned during the day, it was filled with the shrieks of wailing brats, the children of overpaid multinational CEOs,  dragging their nannies across the carpeted expanses while their disinterested mothers sat in over-stuffed lounge chairs, glassy-eyed,  a cocktail in hand, gossiping with their jaded homologues.

My move to the flat in the bucolic  Dhamondi neighborhood of Dhaka occurred just when the flame trees were in full blossom.  They were a glorious sight. Huge and fan-shaped,  their ancient  branches  seemed  smeared by the bloodiest of scarlet paint brushes. When evening breezes blew, their delicate blossoms would flutter to the ground creating curling, shifting ribbons of red.  The apartment was on the top floor of a building overlooking a small lake where local fishermen squatted on its edges, tempting carp with their long poles. From the balcony I watched them fish, then lay down their gear and prostrate themselves when the evening call to prayer – the azan – was announced in melodious tones over the mosque loudspeaker by the imam. It was indeed a mixed-up, globalized world, I mused, as I sat on my balcony perch, nicely woozie from multiple gin and tonics,  contentedly talking to myself, contemplating the reverent fisherman, their bottoms in mid- air and their faces buried in the green sod, facing Mecca.

My abode was a rarity in Dhaka, being an apartment. Most expat dwellings were either villas or mansions, luxurious to be sure,  but constantly plagued with break-ins and burglaries; well-heeled foreigners living in houses that were open and hospitable to evening breezes were also a welcome mat to dacoits who were numerous in an impoverished local population where un-employment was a gnawing fact of life in most households. I was thankful to be securely housed in a fortress-like structure fronted by an iron enclosure.

The apartment building was entered through a fenced entrance to the side of which was a gate house with a shop of sorts. My landlady’s youngest son, a man in his 30s, was mildly retarded and the store had been created to occupy his time. The glass  shelves in its showcase were filled with little tea pots, coffee cups and other bric-a-brac that gathered dust as Azziz sat in his chair behind the counter looking vacantly into space. I never saw anybody ever purchase anything from him. Once, taking pity on Azziz, I stopped in his emporium and tried to buy a tea kettle. My attempt to give him some business failed since he seemed to have no idea what the item cost and no interest in finding out from his mother, the formidable Haja Efendi.

My household consisted of myself and my manservant, Abdul, who had worked for years in a hotel somewhere in the  Middle East. He carried his hotel training with him to the Dhamondi flat. Rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom were folded in little origami arrangements, all arrow-like and pointy, and other chain hotel touches including a bowl of fruit on the bedroom dresser and a Hershey’s  chocolate kiss on the pillow attested to his still being, mentally and stylistically, in the Dubai Hilton. When I asked him why he had come back to Bangladesh, he left the room without answering me and re-appeared five minutes later with a woman and four children, each a year apart in age, introducing me to his family. Crammed into one room in a shack behind the apartment building, I felt sorry for Abdul and his brood. Sometimes  tipsy after numerous sun-downers, I would lurch to the edge of my balcony and think of calling Abdul and his little clan to come and live with me in my spacious four-bedroom pied-a -terre, but  I never asked him and the move never happened. In the tropical, neo-colonial East one never did radical things like that. ” It just isn’t  done” was a shibboleth that had survived  wars of independence  and fights for freedom and remained  one of the many relics of colonialism that was alive and well in the “enlightened”  late 20th century.

Abdul was a perfect “gentleman’s gentleman” who had perfected the subtle art of being a background person. Friendly and cheerful but totally unabtrusive, I was never aware of eyes peering from the kitchen or through the dining room curtains, but somehow he always knew when my gin and tonic needed re-filling. Increasingly, I came to rely on Abdul especially after my cranky refrigerator which I had unwisely bought in an impetuous second-hand negotiation, began to ” bite” me. Whenever I touched the refrigerator door, I got a sizzling shock. I never heard Abdul yelp after touching the thing so I assumed he was somehow immune to being shocked.

In June the monsoon arrived with a vengeance. My peaceful balcony became the storm-tossed deck of an endangered frigate, lashed by sharp sheets of rain and vicious, howling wind. So compelling was the drama of this diabolic weather that I was often drawn out into it, a gin in hand laughing madly as I was blinded and drenched by the relentless downpour, delighted and at the same time frightened to be absorbed by the ruthless elements. Incredulous, Abdul would watch me from the safety of the dry kitchen, surely saying to himself that these white infidels were strange beyond belief.  

 For the three months of this pitiless rainy season,  my movements were restricted. Not having a car and relying mostly on the local rickshaws for transport, I never ventured far from home. Occasionally I would visit the cultural center of the neighboring Soviet Embassy, whose Stalinesque structure I could view from the corner of my terrace. The time was  the late 1980s and the USSR was not faring well. Bled to death by a senseless war in Afghanistan and threatened by rumblings in its scattered  republics, collapse was in the air. Entering the halls of its culture palace in Dhaka, its walls  battered by the howling monsoon, one felt sorry for this pathetic, ill-conceived experiment, Lenin’s dream turning into a tacky nightmare with peeling paint. The more threadbare the Embassy become, strapped by a shrinking Soviet budget, the more defiant and proud were the cultural center’s exhibitions. Sic transit and not much gloria.

 The best part of my day was what I called my royal rickshaw routine. Promptly at eight  on weekday mornings, after breakfast tea, I would descend to the apartment entrance, Abdul’s oldest son, aged five, carrying my briefcase. Waiting at the gate my faithful retainer smilingly assisted me into the waiting rickshaw which would peddle the half-mile to my office. There is something majestic and sublime about riding in a rickshaw, the version being pulled by a bicycle and driver. The french summed it up beautifully when they described riding in a Saigon cyclo-pousse as ” hatez-vous lentement”, hurry slowly. I cannot deny the  regal feeling of being conveyed in a coach and four to Buckingham Palace.

One day on the way to work in my coach and four, the driver  suddenly decided to take a less-traveled route to the office.  Why, I don’t know. Normally we followed the flow of foot traffic, civil servants and other workers walking to their jobs, weaving around the other rickshaws and bug-like, sputtering Bajaj, all flowing in a typically Asian movement of people. That morning our path was clear and quiet as we moved silently through noiseless greenery, not a soul in sight. It was hard to believe that I was in teeming Dhaka. As we rolled tranquilly through this patch of urban countryside skirting a small maidan where goats grazed, an eerie sixth sense seized me and my serene state of mind suddenly  turned apprehensive.

Before I knew it my rickshaw had screeched to a halt. Blocking our path was a large. long motorcycle mounted by three youth dressed in the style of South Asian “hipsters” – long hair, Lennon-ish western clothes and dark glasses. Two of them dismounted their cycle steed and approached us, wielding sharp objects. My rickshaw driver sat impassively on his bicycle seat watching the highwaymen do their work. In seconds I felt the pointed pressure of what seeemed to be a rather dull  letter-opener, pressing into my rib cage. Not having the benefit of a language in common  – I spoke no Bangla and my assailants were devoid of even rudimentary English, much less such practiced, classic phrases as ” Your money or your life !” – I found it useless to protest as they silently snatched my briefcase, rifling through its contents. Alas, much to their chagrin the robbers found only one thing in my bag – dry, boring United Nations reports. Exasperation mixed with disappointment as they sped off on their motor bike, flinging my case into the nearby maidan where a herd of goats were grazing on tin cans and crab grass. The briefcase’s contents landed in a muddy patch with papers scattered everywhere; within seconds, the report’s pages were set upon by the grateful, horned grazers.

Reaching my office, rather deflated and a bit shaken, I alighted from my coach and four feeling distinctly non-regal.

Never had a UN report been so appreciated and eagerly “digested” as it was that morning by the Capricornian audience on the roadside. Don’t believe it when you hear people say there is no market for United Nations reports. I know places where these masterpieces of obtuse prose are eagerly devoured.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Tuesday Rose says:

    Great piece! A UN report is supposed to be serious and boring. More like ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ than ‘S wonderful, ‘S marvelous’. It doesn’t matter whether this dry, dull-as-dishwater report becomes animal fodder or ends up in a recycling bin: it’s useful in some way. But, we cannot expect any report or document that originates from the ‘theater of the absurd’ (as dubbed by Benjamin Netanyahu) to be interesting, invigorating or inspiring!

    Tuesday Rose

    • Sam says:

      Dear Tuesday Rose,
      Your comment provides food for thought. I guess the bottom line is: we are better off WITH the UN than without it, Netanyhu’s snipe notwithstanding.

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