A Place to Stand

Village near Mongla, 1996


with guest writer Reja Ali Mobarak.



Bangladesh has changed, but we remember 1996.  Reja Ali Mobarak wrote his part in Bangla and the writers together translated it.

It was of cottage and mansion dripping with subtropical weathering, Khulna Town.  Soil and earth, the old buildings brought charm.

A simple archway on the footpath read ‘Hotel Sun King’ in metallic letters.  Before entering, I invited the guy from the bus to share tea and samosa, behind a curtained doorway across the street.  It was Ramadan.  We had endured his constant chatter for many hours; from the long, unbroken journey from Chittagong we were unshaven and exhausted.  He reclined and talked as I went to the counter to deliver up the few-taka bill.

***

I used to transport live baby chingri from my home in Hatiya to Foila.  We are lower middle class although my father was the union chairman.  The chingri business used to see out the winter months.  It was seventeen years ago.

I bore the yoke of village politics that caused my father’s strokes and the burden of maintaining the family that belongs to the eldest son was weightier than my age.  Sometimes life must run against the current.  While waiting for the commission agent in Foila to pay me, I came to Khulna.  My business partner Nazmul, from Khulna, had invited me many times; yet I chose the independence of a cheap hotel called Sun King.

In the mornings Nazmul would come.  By night, at his house, his mother would feed us.  I’d seen the pens of his chicken establishment.

The Sun King manager was old with thin, grey hair and gaps in his teeth.  We’d found the habit of sharing iftar together, the evening meal to break the fast.  It was still a few hours but I was counting, relaxing on the sofa under the window at the top of the stairs, in the small space that was barely a reception area.  The manager sat on a stool behind his pint-sized bench in the corner.  

I was sitting, with nothing to do, when I saw two fair-skinned foreigners and one Bangladeshi come up the stairs with too much baggage.  They asked the manager for a room and I stood, moved a few paces closer.  I was curious.

***

Language was a frustration.  I wanted to bargain with the manager directly but the non-stop-talker had the advantage.  I didn’t trust him much so after a few sentences I did what I wanted to do all day.  I told him to be silent.  I asked for a room, the koto, the how much, we’d already learnt.  The manager wrote a figure on a paper scrap: 150 taka for a double.  It was cheap; but we nonetheless went into auto-bargain.  It was South Asia and we believed that’s what one did.

As usual we turned to walk away in faux outrage.  But the old man didn’t shower our retreat with better offers.  We didn’t proceed beyond the first landing on the way to the ground floor.

***

It was strange: the manager told them the price and they walked away!  We always thought bideshis stay five-star, like at the Sonargaon in Dhaka.  I hadn’t had much experience with bideshis but because my father was Chairman they used to come to the house sometimes from the Red Cross.  I remember they’d sit at the table on the veranda and chat in English.  From a young age I was expected to serve their tea and my father would encourage me to speak English.  But I felt shame so mostly I was silent.

I remember how awkwardly they sat, straight-backed and serious, their faces tense.  It was nothing like when the neighbours would visit.  But these two, there was something different about them: they’d come to such a standard hotel, they were unshaven with messy hair.  I wanted them to stay there.  Fortunately they came back and I looked one of them in the eyes and in poor English said the room rate was okay.

***

That guy who’d been hanging out in reception said the room rate was okay.  I took a brief moment to study his face: he had very green eyes. 

But I was looking for honesty and we couldn’t rely on the non-stop-talker.  It’s really very odd but examining his face it wasn’t only that I thought he was probably honest: in some way I recognised it.  I told myself not to be stupid.  But we took the room.

***

I don’t know why he believed me and didn’t bargain further, but as they filled in the book at the counter I couldn’t help it, I read over their shoulders to know where they were from.  In the ‘Citizenship’ column he wrote ‘Australian.’

***

He read over my shoulder as I filled out the Register.  It was a bit rude.

***

When we talked to foreigners we felt as citizens of a poor country and because of the language problem in communicating, shame; but when he was bargaining with the manager I did not feel like that. When I saw him at first I felt as though I already knew him. I don’t know why.  He finished the work around taking the room and wanted to go there.  I don’t know much English but I asked him to share iftar with us.  He understood my offer easily, without even trying.

It was astonishing.  After about an hour he came from his room wearing lungi!  My eyes fell open at the sight: inside I was thinking, ‘maybe this foreigner doesn’t hate Bengalis.’  He sat on the sofa as the adhan sounded for iftar to begin.  The manager had chopped onions and chilli, mixing oil with muri.  I’d brought a few sweet jilabis and some piazu.

It was all laid out on a sheet of the day’s news. Nazmul was late and the bideshi’s friend was still sleeping.  He didn’t know how to eat with his hands and bits of the muri mix were sticking to the sides of his fingers and falling on the floor; although he didn’t understand Bangla he helped me to communicate.  He spoke slowly and understood my meaning when I knew the English words were wrong.  It made me so happy!  I wished to speak to him more after iftar but I didn’t know what he felt.

***

It was the only day in Bangladesh when I had a strong desire never to speak to another Bengali: a product of the non-stop-talker and the long journey.  Sleep was made complicated by the mosquitoes that came in through the big hole in the wall.  I decided to fight them no longer and got up, still with zero desire to connect with locals.  I didn’t want to start with the ‘country?’ and work our way up to the amount of my father’s salary.  Yet the idea of travelling was to meet people and learn something; and if I’d always maintained such a negative attitude we would have missed out on so much.  So when I saw him sitting on the sofa under the window and there being nothing else to do, my objections softened.  I decided not to judge him solely on the rudeness of having looked over my shoulder as I’d signed in. 

It wasn’t my first iftar. I saw him watching how I ate with my hands and was embarrassed for my lack of skill.  Afterwards we heard shouting from the street below.  Through the window we watched a really angry mob pass.  They were punching the air with fists clenched, chanting slogans, holding banners I couldn’t read.  It must’ve been related to the upcoming election.  Many Bangladeshis had spoken about politics. 

***

BNP was attempting to hold an election but Awami League was set to boycott. We watched an opposition protest march down the street.  I did my best to explain things from my perspective. He shared his experiences of Bangladesh, good and bad.  I felt so much shame when he said some Bangladeshis asked him for a visa, or tried to cheat him, that I could not look him in the eye. But it was great to hear that despite his young age he had visited many countries and it was rare how hospitable Bangladeshis were. On average he had quite a good idea about Bangladesh. What was stranger was that some ideas coincided between us.

Near Mongla, 1996


***

He told me about his family, his village in Hatiya and his business.  I’d seen Hatiya from the ship.  It was an island lit by dim kerosene light in the darkness.

We spoke of Australia but his questions came like a river, naturally and without being boring.  When he spoke about local politics without invitation water rose in my eyes and I only hoped he wouldn’t notice.  It wasn’t that he said anything new but as we were nearing the end of our stay in Bangladesh I suppose I had already started processing and there was this insurmountable disjunct between what seemed to be the suffering of poverty, and on top of it the political tensions, with the hospitality, even happiness that seemed in Bangladesh to be as common as earth.  In Sydney it is rarer.

The strangest part was that although his English wasn’t great, to comprehend his meaning was without strain.  In some things we thought similarly.  It made an impression: how could two people with entirely different backgrounds see the world so much the same?  I knew him.

He invited me to dinner but said we’d have to wait for his business partner Nazmul to arrive because they’d planned to hold a business meeting first. 

Nazmul was a young guy dressed in impeccable neatness from hair part to polished shoes.  Surprisingly he said I could sit in on the business meeting; I think he didn’t wish to leave me waiting alone.  So the three of us went to his room and found space between the bed and the chair that belonged to the little desk.  The room had no window; but it also had no hole in the wall. 

I thought it would be boring; but as they started conversing in Bengali I discovered a smile:  how absurd it was to be at a meeting between a Bangladeshi prawn seller and a chicken farmer.  The unfathomable Bengali language wanted to make me laugh!  I felt so privileged and fortunate and I had not overcome those feelings when he said quite suddenly their meeting was done.  ‘Are you sure you’re done?’ I laughed.  The meeting had lasted less than five minutes.

Dinner was biryani something at the hotel across the street.  I tried to pay the bill but there was no way he’d let me.  ‘I’ll get my own back,’ I thought happily.

***

I wanted to talk to him all night but I thought he would think badly if I talked too much, that I would disturb them. So we decided instead to visit the Sundarbans together and I would meet them at Mongla port the following afternoon. Afterwards I imagined I should have gone with them in the morning but mistakenly I thought they would mind it, as if I was a loafer.  I told them I had other business meetings, thinking I should go to Foila for money. 

***

I’d wanted so much he should come with us to the Sundarbans but it could hardly be expected he’d be able to just drop his business.  I asked a few too many times but lastly decided to press further would be rude.  But he agreed to meet us in the afternoon. I hope he hadn’t felt obliged.

A clod of earth was Khulna Town, earth connecting, the earth that brings a new place to stand.




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This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: A Place to Stand
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