Among the Expats
In a bout of blatant self publicity this is an excerpt from an unpublished work called Among the Expats about a community of Expats struggling to make sense of the chaos that is the norm in Bangladesh...
This excerpt is based on a woman who used to sit on a man hole cover near my old office. all characters are based on real people with some artistic license...
If anybody would like to know more about the book please contact email@example.com for more detail...
There is something about a tropical rainstorm. The skies turn a menacing dark, bruised shade. The wind picks up, slowly at first, then increasing in its intensity, in its venom. Pedestrians hurry for cover, plastic sheets are pulled over rickshaw wallah and passenger, car drivers resign themselves to a slow journey ahead, a trip to the shops is put off till the deluge abates. Then come the rains. Almost lethargic, large, heavy blotches stain the footpaths, the tarmac as if testing the surface. Is this where nature wishes to unleash her might? The answer is usually affirmative, rain falls in thick sheets, reducing visibility to a few yards, pounding the manmade surface with such force raindrops bounce up again before settling in quickly developing puddles forever ebbing and flowing under the pressure of interminable ripples.
To observe this from the shelter of your 15th floor office or apartment, you cannot help be feel awed by the sheer force, the majesty as nature lets rip. To hear the rain lash against the windows, to see the traffic slow to a crawl, to feel thankful you cancelled the meeting with the bank manager. And yet you feel sure nature is holding something back. That what it is doing is flexing her muscles as she has done for time immemorial yet should she so wish she could truly play havoc.
Sitting in the corner bar, Chins, Lions and Cloggy listen to the backdrop, the symphony of raindrops. There are times when it can be truly humbling to observe the natural world, untamed.
Three more, Sami, says Chins, signing the chit and passing it over to the steward. Oh, make that one more, he adds as the Bean Counter walks in, looking like hed been wrestling a tadpole in the Jamuna.
Sami hands over the chilled beers, a job he has been doing for nigh on a quarter of a century. As much a part of the bar as the fridge and the dartboard, and nearly as indispensable. BC settles down, and the four men pull the ring tops and sup straight from the can, Chins taking too much and wiping the spill from his cheek.
You know on Road 27, just near the park? Have you seen the old women who sits on the manhole cover? Asks Lions
The manhole cover abuts arrogantly from the smooth road surface, forcing everyone to drive around, down the middle of the narrow carriageway. Sitting serenely, seemingly unaware of the passing traffic, sits, no squats is a better description, squats an old lady. Crone, in a less PC world. She has deep-set staring eyes, a hawk like nose. Matted silver hair falls down the back of her neck in a congealed mass. She covers the top of her head with a thin head cover; her palms join together in supplication, the tips of her encrusted fingernails forming a steeple under her nose.
Day in, day out she squats there. No one sees her arrive, no one sees her leave.
Outside, the rain shows no sign of letting up. Cloggy gets another round. I know about her.
Cloggys wife was a bit of a do gooder, viewed as an anomaly by the denizens of the corner bar but because of her old mans high standing as a piss pot par excellence, she was tolerated on her few visits here. Mrs. Cloggy had gone native. Well not really, but that was how she was viewed by the lads. I mean she couldnt speak the lingo but she dressed as the locals, ate as the locals. Everything locally produced was the mutts nuts and everything produced by the evil capitalistic west was exploitive. This gave her, in her own view, the moral ground on every issue concerning the developing world though it did not prevent her from having top of the range Nokia mobile, Pajaro with her own, much abused, driver. She was Millie Tant with a lisp and she frightened the living daylights out of Lions. Which was the reason why she was encouraged to visit as often as possible. But her heart was in the right place.
Cloggy continues with his tale. My missus got involved with her a short while back. She had a couple of buffalo she kept by the lake, just opposite the Wimpy. Just squatting, like everyone else here.
As with many capital cities through out the developing world, indeed throughout the world, every country bumpkin and his cat fancies themselves as Dick Whittington, those city streets are paved with gold and there is enough to go round. So people up sticks and move, carrying their worldly belongings, they travel on overcrowded buses, trains, ferries and are disgorged into the heathing mass of humanity that is Dhaka. By some kind of street ESP, they nearly always gravitate to a locale populated by people from their area and so loose themselves. Work is still difficult to find but breaking bricks or riding a rickshaw is not as backbreaking as working the fields back home and the income is more regular.
A lot of the people in that particular area come from the North West of the country, near the city of Rajshahi, and this old woman is no different. Mrs. Cloggy had been driving over the lake when she saw blue uniformed policemen with lathis surrounded by a crowd of on lookers, gesticulating wilding to the old lady. Stopping the car, she instructed her driver to find out what was going on.
Such public disputes are a popular form of entertainment, and a crowd soon develops, it is not considered unusual for a complete stranger to sticky beak his way into a conflict, and soon the police chief and the driver were standing by the road yelling at each other, looking for all the world like they were a couple of drunks who had been hitting the sauce a bit too much. The fact that a white woman was present added exoticness to the encounter and soon the spectators were spilled out into the middle of the road, backing up the traffic.
A picture slowly emerged. A vacant plot of land overlooked the lake, and some incredibly bright ruling power politician had seen an opportunity to make some money. He deduced that what this area needed was another apartment block, exactly the same as all the other apartment blocks in this area, those empty concrete monoliths standing proud, a legacy of too much money, lax planning regulations and a low brain cell count. Anyway, this wonderfully bright representative of the people had decided this was where he wanted his toy, his apartment block. And sod anyone who was in his way, especially a frail 70 year + lady with her livelihood: couple of buffalo that she milked daily. She had squatted on the bank of the lake, impervious to the waste and the shit that lapped the edge. The underground community had assembled a rough lean to for her and a 9-year-old girl. And here was where she went after sitting on the manhole cover all day. This was her home. Flimsy rattan aside a rotting fetid lake with 2 mangy buffalo tethered to a pole. And a guy with enough money to buy a fleet of private jets should he so desire wanted her gone.
A gang of mastan had taken the animals, now the police were taking the rattan. Then the lady would have nothing. Mrs. Cloggy screamed against the injustice of this, this was what she lived for. The fact that the lawmaker, or breaker, the words are interchangeable, that the law breaker had been educated in the West was to her vindication that she was right and that we were a bad influence.
Fair play to Mrs. Cloggy, when she gets bit between her teeth she fights. She got the police to delay demolishing the rattan lean to, giving old lady and orphan a bit of breathing space if no obvious source of income. But there was more. Mrs. Cloggy was even, through her driver, able to trace the beasts and have them returned. She even got to meet the smarmy creature, delighted in his western affectations and secured an agreement they could stay till the end of the month while she made other arrangements. She found him smarmy, loathsome, repulsive, sickly. He was probably more amused by his guest. He was patronizing, yes Im sure youre right but she is breaking the law madam. It was the madam that did it; she hurled the best Anglo Saxon she could think of in his direction.
She made enquiries about the old lady and the orphan. The old lady had been in Dhaka some 40 years, had not been back to her village since leaving. She had been married, had 2 sons and 3 daughters but didnt know where they were. Her husband had been killed in the War of Liberation, she was a widow of a decorated war hero and was entitled to a small pension but she knew nothing of this. For a while she had been passed around by some rickshaw wallahs in the area, she was a mobile library, the only book on the shelf and everyone wanted a read, then after turning the final page she was returned to the ledge to gather dust. She broke bricks for a while, worked as a domestic but always returned to the street. The years passed, age began to show. She became a figure of fun for new generations, living off paisals some days, takas on others. A plate of rice here, a cup of tea there. Once in a while a hand job bought her a roof for the night, away from the rains
About 2 years ago, time has lost meaning as she sits on the manhole cover waiting death to take her in its arms, the orphan entered her life. The orphan spoke little, asked less. She ran errands, sold milk, begged from the cars. Running barefoot between the stalled traffic hands out stretched, collecting for two. Her eyes had seen more than any 9 year old should be allowed to witness, she has a mental toughness from street living that is scary in its intensity. She is a hyena, slinking in the shadows of the concrete jungle, living off others, pouncing when she has the opportunity. She knows as little about the old lady as she knows about her. Their company is all, the young and the old, the most defenceless in any society, the only protection they have is each other.
The rain beat an incessant drum roll outside the bar as the punters luxuriated in their air-conditioned lifestyle, blowing the froth off one chilled beer after another. The long-suffering Cloggy was slightly mocking of his wife. She was a bit of a rent a badge, if you needed someone to organize a protest, or give a speech; she was who you would contact. However, if you wanted something done, look elsewhere. She talks the talk mate, but she cant walk for shit, was how Lions summed her up one night and that was a pretty accurate description that the patient Cloggy went along with. He despaired going home some nights, especially after a natural, or preferably man made disaster. She loved pollution did Mrs. Cloggy, and would picket a multi national oil or gas company at the drop of a hat. She would exhort all and sundry to give up their time and money to help lesbian pygmies with in deepest Africa but then move on to a new cause before any work was due to start. She had the badges, the leaflets, the websites that any welly and anorak in the west would cream for, but she actually did sod all. She offered no constructive ideas, she saw her role as a crusader, bringing the plight to public awareness, well the Tuesday Ladies Bridge Club, batter them in to guilt mode then move on to another cause.
Sami handed over some more beers. So what happened?" asked BC.
Cloggy took a large mouthful, burped and said the usual. She went running round for a couple of days trying to find a place for them to stay. Then she had the bright idea of hiring a truck and taking her, the orphan and the buffalo back to her home village but she baulked at the 400 USD that would cost. Anyway, she soon found someone to feel sorry for and shifted her sympathy elsewhere.
And what happened to the old lady, asks Chins. And the orphan.
Cloggy doesnt know. Once his wife found a new cause, she lost interest in everything that had gone before. He staggered off to the dunnie, leaving Lions shaking his head.
Imagine being married to that, a cross between Mother Theresa and Millie Tant. No wonder he can drink so well.
Excuse me Sir? It was Sami. I know how this ended up. A few days ago, I think it was on Monday, they were moved. The cows were taken from them, the shelter was destroyed. The old lady and the orphan spent a couple of days in the rickshaw wallah community near the Medical Centre.
He looks like he wants to say more, but really there is nothing to add.
Chins could be quite a sensitive type when the mood, and the bevies, took him. What kind of life is that for a young girl? he asked.
The only one she knows. The words hung in the air, mingling with the cigarette smoke and Elvis Costello crooning about Alison. And briefly an outside reality entered the bar, each man alone with his thoughts, cradling his beer, trying hard not to think of what a 9 year old orphan had to do to survive. And lurking at the back of their subconscious were a couple of thoughts. Scary thoughts. This is a story they know about, how many are there they dont know about. And but for an accident of birth
Outside, the rain beat its monotonous call to life.
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