Whispers at the Gate




Is it more the Bangladeshi sour Noakhali curd or the sweet Bogra variety?  Is it the availability of snacks along the street or that small thrill of having crossed a Dhaka roadway and lived to tell about it?  Is it the storytelling or the sense of community; the trying to take up some of that unstoppable cheerfulness street side or leave behind a little individualism in favour of a focus on human connection?  Why do I live in Dhaka?

The up-down, here and back again, deshi memories cover a lot of ground and to think of all there is to think about is time-consuming and wearisome.  It’s really much simpler to blame my living in Dhaka on Rosmary.  And I do.

But I suppose nothing bad could ever come from the whispers at the gate, the whispers that were.

It’s 2005 and the doctors’ class finishes at 9 p.m.  The day crowds are gone from Avenida Arce: the Aymaran ladies bustling by in the morning in their broad skirts and bowler hats are at home; the short, suited gentlemen who maybe work in a bank are done with their evening commute; even the shoe-shiner kids who in La Paz, Bolivia, wear balaclavas to protect their identities because shoe shining is not an esteemed profession, and who sometimes sniff glue, have found a better place to be.

The Language Institute Director, Robert, waits as always for my class to finish, the last of the day.  In turn he asks that I wait while he locks up.  The Institute is in an old house, white and brown, with a long driveway and a few trees in the front yard; and it’s not entirely comfortable to be there alone at a latish hour.  As he sets the alarm he’s narrating some anecdote, preferably with a pun in it to give an alternate, wittier meaning.  The students, professionals by day, wander up the driveway towards the street and on the footpath they linger.

Carlos is the only physician in the doctors’ class.  He’s very humorous: in class he corrects his sentences from ‘I went to the city yesterday’ to ‘I went to the city last week’ because he’s not sure how to spell ‘yesterday.’  Remy is thoughtful.  A dentist from high up on the city’s eastern hills she brings me apples or biscuits, not as a bribe… she gets the top mark anyway.  Marina my landlady is there if she can make it, if she’s not off on a knitting expedition for the knitting cooperative to some far-flung village. 

And Sylvia from the south of the valley has English that flows like her silk scarves and saris, or salwar kameez, what she likes to wear despite it not being her tradition by culture.  She’s not to be bothered by linguistic forms or grammar and I love it: the audacity and the bravado in her need to communicate regardless.  And as her teacher I suppose I shouldn’t love it, but I do.  ‘I am Señora Mumbai!’ she declares, adopting the pseudonym Marina gave her after one long-winded, exciting and almost grammar-free tale of her first trip to Mumbai.  And indeed she is Señora Mumbai.  There’s none like her. 

Carlos sits upon his motorbike, ready to leave, waiting for his wife Rosmary to climb aboard.  She completes the class.

It’s 2005 and it might be because of the padlock they are given to footpath lingering.  Robert grimaces as he fiddles with the chain and attempts to click the lock shut.  He asks me to try.  Meanwhile they’re talking.  You’d think they’d be tired after one and a half hours of English but at the end of the lesson Spanish re-emerges, released from banishment, and the language in its newfound liberty bursts out into energetic conversation like a bull released into a bull ring.  


Marina is laughing at something Sylvia said; Rosmary is explaining how her mother-in-law mustn’t know about the motorbike, how she has to get off it early, up the street, and check the coast is clear before Carlos can ride it into the apartment garage… I shouldn’t be writing that but Carlos’s mother doesn’t read in English and this article will publish on the other side of the world.  Remy discusses her bathroom renovations and the colour of tiles or her dancing practice.  But I tell all this only from the translated portions and the Spanish snippets I understand. 

It’s 2005 and mostly at the gate they whisper plans.  I never know what the latest plan is and I’ve learnt to let those whispers be.  It’s just as well if life has a few surprises in it.  Most often they whisper restaurant dinners and then they whisper together a ‘Welcome to Bolivia’ party for one of my Sydney friends who’s due to visit.  He’s late but the party goes ahead without its guest of honour and Sylvia cooks a quinoa pie, quinoa being a native grain of the Andes that is supposed to be healthy.  Carlos and Rosmary provide the premises and the main course of vegetarian sushi, featuring a Japanese salt available only at a single shop in the south of La Paz, a shop which isn’t actually a shop and involves banging on a private gate only known to those who know!  Marina brings apple pies and Remy offers a pink, mousse-style dessert.

Marina asks Señora Mumbai where the little shop she runs is exactly, the one selling saris and from that starts a long-winded story of the Indian bindi she is wearing and how she came upon it.  When she’s done Marina quietly asks me if Sylvia’s English is correct when she speaks, because it’s bold and flowing and Marina’s not sure.  I tell her Señora Mumbai’s English is more than perfect which makes us both laugh because in a way it’s true.  And I challenge Carlos that if he can drink water from his glass using chopsticks I’ll give him a hundred percent in his next English test. 

Whispers take us further one weekend, to Sylvia’s house that lies between the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of the Sun.  We eat and dance, with her and Carlos waving handkerchiefs about like Kurds do.  And from the whispers, in the parties that arise are the interesting questions like, ‘Bolivia is an okay country isn’t it, for living?’  They know I’ve travelled and it’s all ears for my response. ‘Yes, of course!’

It’s 2005 and Rosmary asks, ‘But where will you live eventually, to settle?’  I casually say I don’t know and she says, ‘But where is your heart?  Where is it that your heart lives?’

It’s striking how sometimes it’s the big life questions that have the easiest answers.  Ask me if I want sugar with my tea and I’ll take a moment to decide; but to Rosmary’s question the answer was obvious and undeniable.  ‘More than anywhere else, it lives in Bangladesh.’

‘Then you should settle there,’ she said.

Wisdom: it’s as conspicuous as a scarlet ibis flying through a Trinidadean mangrove forest, which was to come; and as unusual as being mistaken for a local in the Norwegian Arctic, which had been.  It comes in small packages, short sentences that stand out amongst the routine chattering that has no more sense to it than clattering of cutlery has music.  It stands out amid the mountains of poor quality advice masquerading as something more.  Wisdom: in contemplating my living in Dhaka it’s not entirely incorrect to conclude it’s a Bolivian thing, a matter of a tricky padlock at a city gate.  It’s not entirely incorrect to blame Rosmary.  You can too. 

Then again, I suppose nothing bad could ever come from the whispers at the gate, the whispers that were.

The class and friends
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