Waking up in a dingy South-Asian slum, British-born Saliha tries to recall how she got here. What she remembers is a Pandora's box of people, politics and power, memories which sends a chill down the spine of even those whom the society had ripped and devoured to pieces.
Fire, like I had never seen before, burnt everywhere I looked. Not the orange-yellow petrol-fuelled fires, which was burning the rusty local buses and abandoned tyres into clouds of toxic ashen smoke. But the blood-curdling, red fire of anger which blazed in the eyes of everyone around me. They are thirsty for blood, a small voice in my mind warned me. My eyes began to water. Tears, triggered by fear, no, but by the potentially lethal gas that was escaping from a canister lying on the road-surface a few feet away. This isn't a road, I corrected myself. This is a battleground. A sharp cracking pain in my skull and I knew I was going to be a martyr in this battle. My legs gave away. Calloused brown hands grabbed my shoulders. I saw two sturdy black boots, muddy. There was my Ma, clad in a red sari, I saw her standing just beyond...or maybe it wasn't her, I couldn't tell. My eyelids were drooping, heavy as stone. The red sari was flying down to the ground, just as my eyes closed.
My eyes flew open, unable to survive this shocking dream anymore. Good heavens! It was only a dream. I wasn't in the middle of a battlefield, but snuggled warmly in my bed. Or, was I?
Glancing around, I realised I wasn't, after all, in the safety of my bedroom. This room was so far from my own room, that for a moment, it felt like I was on an entirely different planet. The haw walls seemed dangerously vulnerable, as if the slightest gust of wind would take it down. Clothes were hanging on the wires tied to the walls. A wooden rack on one of the walls held a handful of aluminium utensils. Cheap, probably fake, posters of famous Bollywood actors peaked from behind the hanging clothes.
Clearly, I wasn't abducted by aliens. I was in a slum. A substandard, run-down, and possibly illegal, housing facility in some decayed part of an urban jungle; the 'room' or shack felt like a scene from Slumdog Millionaire. I sat up bolt upright. I made it! This gloomy, drab establishment was one of the few places I had planned to search the meaning of life in,when leaving my birth-land, Britain.
I scanned the room again with renewed enthusiasm. How could there be life in these cramped, unhealthy conditions? What makes them survive? What do we lack in the West, that these run-down shacks possesses?
"You are up, afa!"said a young voice. I looked up to see the a young girl, probably younger than me, clad in a red sari.
A searing pain at the back of my head reminded me that I hadn't been dreaming at all. I was attacked. I was in a battlefield. And I was saved by a girl in a red sari.
"How are you feeling," the girl inquired, not in English, but in the native tongue, Bengali.
"Sorry, but where am I?" I blurted out. "Um, I am fine, I am ok. Where am I?" I spoke to her in her language, my language.
" You are in my house, afa." She smiled. "In my poor house."
"Sorry, but can you tell me how I got here? How did you find me?"
"Found you on the road, the riot police had just walked in. You could have died, afa! Why were you out and about during the shutdown?"
"You don't know what a shutdown is? How can you live in Dhaka and not know! It's half of this country's political code book, which contains only two phrases: 'the country is drowned/overflowing with development' and 'tomorrow shall be a dawn-to-dusk shutdown for xyz reasons'."
I listened intently, mentally noting down the emotions she expressed. "So you think the government is not doing enough for the country? Or are you a supporter of the opposition party?"
"Government!" another voice scoffed. "They are all the same! Start off with fake promises during the elections. Then buy voters. Whoever wins the election sits on the golden chair, and claim the country is developing! That we are becoming a completely computerized cyberpower! Hell cyberpower! Turn a blind eye to the poor, and steal the money that is rightfully ours!"
"Oi Laila!" my savior warned. "Enough with your government-bashing! We have a guest."
"No, continue please. Laila, I want to hear all that you have against the political parties. That is one of my 5 reasons for visiting Bangladesh. Let her speak, please." I turned to the girl who saved my life, to ensure that I got my point across to her, feeling slightly ashamed for not knowing her name.
"The opposition is no good either, Memshab!" Laila faced me now, and seemed to have realised that I was a 'foreigner', despite my skintone. "As they never made it to the golden chair, they will spend the next five years trying to drag the others off it. Will hold 'protests' and 'demonstrations' and 'shutdowns' all year long, hoping to drag the other off to gain that chair. Only thing is, once on the chair, they too will forget us, and use and abuse their power for personal gains, while others try to drag them off. It's a cycle. A cycle that kills the poor and makes the rich richer!"
"Afa, you okay?" the other girl asked. "Do you want water? " Clearly, she had mistaken my silence of guilty conscience to be an impact of concussions due to the blow on the head.
In all honesty, I wasn't expecting such a harsh welcome back to reality. Wasn't Adil's dad a rich business tycoon trying to break into politics. Was he too planning to make millions at the cost of these poor, kindly souls, who despite living in a shack, helped me and saved me from the angry mob? The answer to that question was probably known to me, only, I didn't want it confirmed so blatantly.
"Who is she, Nishi?" Laila questioned. "Do you know her? I am not letting a stranger in my room; I don't want to be in the bad books of Zorina Khala. Terrible things happen to girls who disobey Aunt Zorina, and you know, no one really cares what happens of us."
"Laila, I helped her during the shutdown. I was coming from the protest they paid me to go to. She was attacked by the mob. I couldn't have left her there. They would have killed her." Nishi was positively pleading her to let me stay.
"For all I care! I have enough to worry about in my own life to care about Memshab's pretty face. If she can't take the heat, why was she on the roads in the first place?"
"Excuse me," I interrupted, as an introduction was essential now. "My name is Saliha. I came to Bangladesh from London, UK. I am on a gap year and have 5 objectives:
- To visit and explore a real village and understand how people survive with the bare necessities.
- To visit a slum and see how people survive in the city, despite all the hardships.
- To find out how much people care about the government and law, and how much they care about general citizens in return.
- To understand what forces bind the country together despite all hardships.
- To find the out the real history of the country and its independence."
"Good luck with the last one!" Laila mocked. "The history changes every five years, starting with the Declaration of the Liberation War! "
"What was the point of the war, anyway? Before, Pakistani rich men came and raped the poor Bangladeshi. Now, the Bangladeshi rich men come and rape the poor Bangladeshi. What was the point of all the blood and deaths, then? Well, atleast, now the dishonor of the country is done by those at home. The honor stays at home, defiled may it be!"
Laila laughed at what must she have thought was a good joke. I still fail to see the humor in the situation she mentioned. "You know what, Memshab? I can answer your questions right now! The villagers don't live in villages! They come to cities, looking for work and money, and get sold to brothels like this one. They live to send money back to their families back home, getting raped day by day, but hoping to save the younger sisters from the same fate, they carry on. The government are screwed up nutters who send their kids off abroad on normal people's money, and the law is just a product in the auction house: the highest bidder gets has law on his side! What makes us one? The mutual hate for the government!"
"Now that you have found out what you want, you can leave. Shall I escort you outside, or can you manage?"
"Laila!" Nishi was indignant! "You have no manners! Is that how you treat a guest? Poor girl faced such a traumatic ordeal and you are throwing her out."
"Keep it down!" Laila responded. "You and charitable talks! If you haven't noticed, it was trusting the wrong people that landed you here!" She then mocked Nishi, making a high pitched voice, "Poor girl! Traumatic Ordeal! "
Then, surprisingly, Laila broke into a song.
"Tere foto to sine se haa, chhipkhale saiyaan fabikol se..." Laila stopped at the door to speak to someone. "Zori Khala, how are you today...it's nothing, just me, singing my hindi filmi songs...tere foto ko..."
She then ordered Nishi, coldly, "She must go! Now! She must leave! Zori Khala's around...we will end up as fertilizer if she finds out about her!"
"I will leave," I promised. "I owe my life to you. I can't get you in trouble for my sake. Do you have a mobile phone I could use?"
"Nishi, get my phone." Laila ordered. "So, why were you on the roads, may I ask?" Laila sat down next to me, ready to interrogate me. "You aren't one of that 'reporter' things, are you? The ones who walk around with secret cameras, talking to people about their lives and making movies and millions out of it? If you are, then back off! I am not having your non-sense in my life!"
"Trust me, I am not any of that. Honest. All I wanted to ever do was understand the country my family originates from; the country I share my birthday with."
"Here you go, afa." Nishi handed me the phone. It wasn't one of the fancy imported Iphones Adil and his friends possessed. In fact, it wasn't anywhere close to the phones Adil and gang showed off, funded by their parents' shady incomes. This was just an ordinary Nokia 'brick' phone, one which served the bare purpose of being a mobile phone: to call people and receive calls from others. The statistics were definitely misleading, saying that 68% of people in the country used mobile phones didn't mean that they were all using smartphones. How naive was I to believe Adil's claim that even his chauffeur had a Blackberry. But, in all honesty, I was only beginning to realise how naive I was.
Preparing myself to call my grandmother, I realised that I had completely no clue what number to call. Our house didn't have a landline phone, and my grandmother's new mobile number was too difficult to remember. I remembered my London home number, though, as well as my parents' mobile numbers; but calling them in London would only create further anxiety and worry for them. In fact, I realised, the only Bangladeshi number I had memorised was one I had vowed never to dial again.
Toying around with the keypad, pretending remember the number, I contemplated how worried my grandmother would have been. I could almost see her disheveled, distraught face, but my pride was stopping me from calling him. I tried to weigh my options again: was my silly break-up with my boyfriend of 3 months really worth the pain my sudden disappearance would have caused for my beloved partner-in-crime, my grandmother, or Dadi as I call her.
Mustering the courage, I punched the well-remembered digits into the key-pad and hit dial. One ring. Two rings. Three rings.
"Hello?" Hearing Adil's voice on the other side made my heart do a curious flip. How did I forget how deep and manly his voice always sounded. There was, however, something strange about his voice today. Was there a silent pulse of panic in his otherwise calm and cool voice? "Hello? Who is it?"
"Adil..." I whispered.
"Saliha, you absolute, flipping moron!" came his reply. "How could you! Do you even have any idea? How worried everyone's been for you! How worried I have been?" He was worried for me? Meaning he still cared? Really?
"Come home at once! Come home and I will show you! For a moment I thought...I thought...I thought I lost you forever!" Hearing him gulp, I knew instantly that he did care. He did care afterall! After all that happened, he did care!
"Adil, I need you come and pick me. I have loads to tell you."
"Where are you?"
I stared blankly at Laila, who grabbed the phone off my hand, and started directing Adil. Meanwhile, Nishi handed me an old, but clean towel, making me realise I had tears in my eyes. If these were tears of pain or joy, I didn't know, but I knew one thing for sure. I never really gave up on Adil, and nor did he on me.
"He's coming after the shutdown's over." Laila said, ending the call, to my slight displeasure. "It's too risky at the moment."
"Don't worry. You can stay here as long as you want." Nishi sat next me, opposite Laila.
"Listen, I know you aren't a spy or journalist," Laila said sternly. "But, you aren't no kid either. Why were you on the roads during protests?"
I looked at the two girls from the corner of my eye. Was it safe to divulge into the most secret of revelations, which I had miraculously managed to obtain, the secrets which could change the history of this country, in front of these two slum-dwelling sex workers?
But then again, it was a secret that concerned the lives of every single human being who live in this so-called democracy. They needed to be warned. To be told about the imminent danger. And who better to start my quest of enlightening others, than the women who saved my life.
I drew in a deep breath, and began...