by Abeer Hoque : Essay and Photographs
Despite the new smooth roads, it takes my cousin Gorjon Bhai and me close to five hours to drive from Dhaka to the district of Feni. The broad two-lane highway is well kept, but overused by every manner of vehicle, man, and beast. Once we enter the village of Barahipur, it’s like being a planet away from Dhaka. There are hardly any roads, let alone traffic, and when night falls, the human silence deepens.
My paternal grandfather’s lands have ponds full of fish, water-logged paddies growing various varieties of rice, a chicken farm, lentil and vegetable gardens, and fruit trees galore: pears, guavas, mangoes, oranges, and bananas. His house consists of four rectangular buildings laid out in a square. A courtyard in the center is strung with clotheslines. Painted floral designs for the last village wedding adorn the walls, floors, and stairs.
I’m allotted a different bedroom each time I visit Barahipur. This one has a yellow door, creaky window shutters, two colossal metal wardrobes, a green mosquito net, and a dressing table that has drawers filled with junk from another era.
“Your Dada died here in Gorjon’s arms,” my aunt tells me as we pass through Dada’s old bedroom on the way to the dining room.
“Oh,” I say, that simple statement making his death and his life more real than anything has before.
Because no one lives in this old Barahipur house permanently anymore, it gets dirty in the way that unused houses do. But dirty in the village is a different kind of dirty. It’s like in Nigeria where the outside was a continual force.
Growing up in Nigeria, we had a snake problem because our house was the last one on the road. Our garden became an extension of the jungle and thus a playground for its inhabitants. After one particularly bad scare with a snake in our pantry, my mother sewed long fat sandbags that we pushed against the cracks under every door in our house that led to the outside. It was one of my chores to make sure all the sandbags were in place for the night before going to bed.
America is so sanitized that one forgets the outside’s power, its filth, its relentlessness. Here, in Barahipur, I cannot forget it for a second. In the evenings, when the insects come out in full force, I am supremely grateful to be inside my little green-netted house. The first night there’s an enormous beetle, an inch and half long, trapped and flitting madly about my room. As I tuck my mosquito net in every inch of the way, I am reminded of my old childhood chore with the sandbags. It’s only after I’ve double and triple checked the edges of the net that I can close my eyes and sleep.
The next day, a spider as big as my hand sits calmly near the squat toilet while I hurriedly take a bucket shower. Outside is the constant cheeping of chicks and the quacking of ducks, overlaid by an unending hum of human conversation. The village is full of life, and there's not much privacy. Since I’m sort of an eighth wonder, I have to be careful when I need to change my clothes or do something else private. If I don’t lock the window shutters and bolt the door, invariably someone peeps in, usually a child who wants her picture taken.
Each day I go on a long walk through the village. The rice paddies are such an extraordinary green, it makes me joyous just looking. Miniscule dirt roads made of dry red earth bisect the primally colored landscape. The palette of my African childhood.
There’s usually an entourage of children following me on my walks: nieces, nephews, servant children, neighborhood kids. They offer running commentaries without request. I’m glad. I don’t have much information about this place so I am more than happy to learn which fruits are ripe, where a snake was found among the water lilies, whose goat that used to be.
In return, I sing to them. Songs I learned as part of my university’s choral society, the harmony to the soprano melody, the black key bits. Our practices were every Monday night, and I always almost missed them. At the last minute, I’d drag myself away from problem sets, from love affairs, from sleep, because I knew what would come over me when I left that practice room after two hours of singing: euphoria.
In Barahipur, it doesn’t matter if I sing Rachmaninov or nursery rhymes, Christian hymns or Michael Jackson songs. It’s the words the kids want. They listen to the English, spellbound, and beg for more.
Playing in the rice paddies, Barahipur Village.
Photo by Abeer Hoque.
My favorite of the kids is Rekha. She’s ten years old and works as a live-in cook and maid. She can’t read but always pages through the books in my room. One morning, after insisting on making my bed, she finds a photograph I’m using as a bookmark in one of my books. It’s of me on holiday in Barcelona. I’m sitting on a balcony, squinting into the sunlight, drinking wine, my legs bare and crisscrossed.
“You look crazy in this picture,” she exclaims.
I laugh. I know few Bangladeshis, especially ones from this village, who would appreciate this photo.
“Why crazy?” I ask.
“You look like a black person.”
My hair is wild and windblown and my skin darker, as per a summer spent by the sea. But I don’t look that much different.
“Why do I look black? Or crazy?” I ask.
“The way you are sitting. Pagol. It’s crazy. Black people sit like that.”
“And how do you know this?”
“I know. I’ve seen them on TV.”
Little does my young friend know, I have even more reason to love this photo, if I can be mistaken for black, crazy or no.
Sina Fupu comes into my room with a pile of sunwarmed clothes and starts folding them. She’s the youngest of my father’s siblings and my father has always paid special attention to her, especially after she was widowed with five children. In turn, she dotes on Abbu in her abrupt, matter-of-fact manner, whenever he’s around.
“My mother, your Dadi, didn’t speak the last months of her life,” she tells me.
The planes of her face are smooth and flat, the darkening age spots a familiar map. She pulls her shawl around her shoulders firmly and opens the almari.
“She just lay there, her eyes closed. We would turn her, clean her, feed her, but she seemed to sleep through it all.” Sina Fupu’s eyes are far away. I can tell she is watching Dadi as she sleeps.
“She who ran our house with a steel will. Everyone always knew where she was whether she raised her voice or not.”
A hawker outside falls silent, swallowed into the hush of midday heat.
“And now you could almost forget that she was in the room.” Sina Fupu’s lips twist as she speaks. It might have looked like disinterest or bitterness, if I didn’t know her better.
“It was years after she died that I learnt the word coma.” Her tone is wondering.
The English word, coma, is distorted. I don’t recognize it at first. Then it settles into the memory, lies down with Dadi.
Sina Fupu closes the almari door. I can see her in the mirror as she leaves the room, her feet turning out ever so slightly as she walks.
“It must have been that,” she says to herself. “A coma.”
House and courtyard, Barahipur Village.
Photo by Abeer Hoque.
When Rekha invites me to her house, I accept. Her family’s home has five rooms, not including the separate kitchen and stand-alone bathroom. It’s made of a combination of tin and thatching. The house is filled with aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, brothers, sisters, in-laws, babies. I am brought a chair from another house and seated as if on a throne. Unbeknownst to me, in honor of my visit, Rekha’s father has bought a fortune’s worth of cake and biscuits and cold drinks. This is especially a waste since my Nigerian prejudice against sweets still holds.
No one has any trouble understanding my primary school Dhaka Bangla, but I can’t decipher the Noakhali dialect, so I keep asking Rekha to translate. Rekha’s mother goes first. She’s a sharp dominating woman with lips that are stained purple from the paan she chews constantly.
“Where is Kasim Bhai?”
“Who?” I ask once I think past the blackened nubs behind her lips.
“Kasim Bhai. Your father.”
“Oh, Abbu. He’s gone back to America. He was only in Bangladesh for a short visit. I came for longer.” I keep forgetting about the numerous names and nicknames Bangladeshis have.
“Where’s Boro Amma? She didn’t come this time?”
I haven’t heard this term before, but I guess that she’s asking about my mother.
“No, Amma had to stay in America. She’s teaching.”
“How is your brother?”
“He’s doing well.”
“What is he doing?”
“It’s his last year of university. He’s studying business.”
I wait for questions about my sister or me, but after it’s determined that neither of us are married, nothing more. Muri and I have five graduate degrees between us, but apparently only the male heir’s prospects are important. I happily let myself be dragged off by Rekha who wants me to photograph the family goat.
The next morning, I am awoken by my nieces banging on the door.
“Come Fupi! They’re calling you!”
I climb out of the moshari, wrap a dupatta around myself, and unbolt my door. They lead me excitedly to the front pond where half a dozen men are raising a net filled with fish. Although the pond isn’t clean enough for bathing, it is rife with tilapia. The fish are brought into the front courtyard and Gorjon Bhai directs the division of the catch. Fish are thrown flopping into piles, and once divvied, they are collected in buckets by villagers and taken away.
A delicately featured girl wearing a blue and white shalwar kamis is standing near the fray, watching me. She smiles shyly, pulls her dopatta close around her shoulders, and edges closer to speak. Nipu is 16, bright and entertaining and warm. Her little two-room house is within my grandfather’s compound, and has obsolete calendars flapping on the walls as some curious decoration. When she offers to show me the sights of Feni Town, a short rickshaw ride away from Barahipur, I agree eagerly.
After a delicious fried fish lunch cooked by Sina Fupu, I meet Nipu outside her house and am disconcerted to see her svelte figure swaddled in a burqa. She’s even wearing a matching black gauze veil. According to her, this is standard fare for any teenage girl venturing outside—if they are allowed outside, that is.
“But I don’t have a burqa,” I tell her, leaving out that I wouldn’t wear one in any case.
“It’s fine because you’re from abroad. But I could never go out to town otherwise. My mother wouldn’t hear of it. Only when I was much younger, when I wore dresses, then it was okay.”
As we trundle to town by rickshaw, every woman I see is dressed head-to-toe black, and most often veiled to boot. Nipu says it has always been this way, but when I visited Feni Town years ago when I was in college, it wasn't so dramatic. Nipu was just a child then. It makes me sad to think that my grandmother and her generation fought so hard for women's rights, for the abolishment of the Purdah, and with some success too, because my mother and her friends didn’t grow up wearing burqas. Now it seems Nanu’s work, in that domain at least, may have been for naught.
Divvying the fish caught in the pond, Barahipur
Photo by Abeer Hoque.
Feni Town boasts mega ponds, the likes of which no longer exist in Dhaka. Our rickshaw circles around one and then drops us off at a coconut garden. We wander through it and end up in a shady mango orchard, the branches so low above us as to feel like a leafy tunnel.
Closer to town, Nipu finds a park chockfull of flowers, and we settle down for a chat. As we swing on a swing-set, she tells me about her dream to go to Dhaka University once she's finished with high school.
“But my parents won’t pay for my last year of school. They think they have already paid too much and it will hurt my chances of marriage.”
“Do you think it will?”
“I don’t think so. And besides, I want to be able to take care of my family. What if my husband doesn’t do his part? My cousin sister has this problem and she can’t even clothe her children properly. I have a part-time job in Feni Town, and I’m learning so much. I want to have my own way of making money. Then whether or not I get married, I can take care of myself and my family. But I need to finish school and go to university.”
Despite her earnest tone, her direct gaze, I have no idea if Nipu really needs money for what she’s asking. In a country this poor, there is no end to the heartbreaking stories. Whether local or foreign, people have different strategies for dealing with solicitations. Some people never give alms. Others keep small change handy in a separate purse. Still others try to help through charities and non-governmental organizations. It’s unclear to me which option is best, so I might do any of the three, depending on the occasion and my state of mind.
With Nipu, though, it doesn’t matter. Any girl who can tell me a story like that after growing up here is worthy. I don’t care what she needs the money for. I give her everything I have on me and borrow more from Sina Fupu when I get back.
“What can I give you in return?” Nipu asks me. “I have nothing. I can only pray to God to give you blessings.”
I don’t want prayers but am too afraid to say so in a place as God-conscious as the village. Anyway, what if God were some version of magic, or some superlative apprehension of beauty? Isn’t joy itself a reason to believe?
“You can do one thing for me.”
“You said you know how to use the internet, no? Get an email address. Write me. Tell me how you’re doing every so often.”
My last night in Barahipur, I go for a walk on my own. Everyone else is glued to the TV watching a natok, but I can’t stand the overdramatic acting that characterizes Bangladeshi stage theater. It’s cloudy out, and I can see the moon only occasionally. I come to an open space where the rice paddies reach to the horizon on both sides of the narrow dirt road. Since I can’t see much, I close my eyes so I might hear better. A million frogs croak in the water-logged paddies. Ducks and wild dogs cry in the distance and the crickets are ubiquitous. Down the road, a rice mill hums.
When I open my eyes, there are fireflies everywhere, moving constellations in the translucence. The night is perfect: cloudy, moonlit, and immersed in underlying light and sound.
Man climbing palm, Sitakund, by the Feni River.
Photo by Abeer Hoque.
What I don’t realize as I walk contentedly back to the house is that my disappearance has caused pandemonium. At least 20 people are outside scouring the area for me. I have been gone less than 15 minutes but it is long enough to raise an alarm. No one, especially a woman, goes walking at night alone.
“Oh, is it dangerous?” I ask.
“No, no. It’s just not done,” Gorjon Bhai tells me. “But what would have happened if you had fallen in the darkness?”
“Or gotten lost?” Sina Fupu adds.
“Or been kidnapped?” A more hysterical neighbor chimes in.
“Weren’t you frightened?” Rekha whispers, tugging at my dopatta.
“No. I just wanted to take a walk. I’m very sorry for all your worry.”
To make it worse, my father has happened to call from America to check up on me, perhaps raising the first alarm. He’s in a grand state of shock upon hearing that I can’t be found. Gorjon Bhai hands me his mobile phone. Abbu has been waiting anxiously for me on the line.
I apologize again, even more contritely, and tell him about the rice fields and the cloudy moonlight and the frogs and the fireflies. My extended family hears the last about the fireflies, and a joke evolves about how I went walking to see the jonaki. I hear them laughing but I don’t protest. Fireflies are a good enough reason for me.
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