There is nothing quite so lovely on an unbearably hot, dusty afternoon as the sudden, deep rumble of thunder from the sky’s dark underbelly, signaling the onset of the monsoon rains. I’m standing at the edge of the neighborhood grocery store, carrying yogurt and bananas wrapped in a thin – but surprisingly strong – jute bag, when the pouring starts. Men and women duck back into the shelter of the shop, rickshaw wallahs get drenched while pulling up the intricately designed tops to shield passengers from the deluge, and workers roll plastic covers over the iftar buffet displayed proudly outside the store.
As a man runs to the shade where I stand, I see him laugh. Smiles come out as we marvel at the rains, which bring out Bangladesh’s beauty. I grab my umbrella and walk home, loving the way puddles form near my feet. I let the water flow into my sandals, allow the raindrops to cover my arms and legs, make my shalwar wet. In America, rain is often cold, dreary, and unwelcoming – the perfect excuse to cuddle up in bed with a book and hot chocolate. Here, umbrellas come out on the sunniest days, and are surprisingly absent in the rain. Instead, people congregate in the street’s nooks and crannies, standing in wait of the monsoon’s end. Sure enough, in five minutes, the streets are flooded but the torrential downpour stops – as suddenly as it started.
Five more minutes pass, and like clockwork, the bright sun is out again. But the dust and pollution has settled, the heat has dissipated. The air is breathable once more.
* * *
Tahmima Anam writes in A Golden Age,
The sky over Bengal is empty. No mountains interrupt it; no valleys, no hills, no dimples in the landscape. It is flat, like a swamp, or a river that has nowhere to go. The eye longs for some blister on the horizon, some market of distance, but finds none. Occassionally there are clouds; often, there is rain, but these are only colours: the laundry-white of the cumulus, the black mantle of the monsoon.
My heart aches already at leaving Bangladesh. Despite the challenges, the vibrancy, color, and exhilaration of life here cannot be matched. I will take with me the memories of brightly decorated rickshaws lining the streets in the early morning. Colorful boats in Old Dhaka, children jumping into the water to cool off. The call to prayer that rings out through the city, hauntingly beautiful and melodic. Hot cha twice, thrice a day replacing my coffee-fueled mornings in America.
Dhaka is in my memory for the empty evening streets during Ramadan, the crowded bumper-to-bumper traffic during the day. The lights donned by restaurants, like Christmas in the States, to celebrate the holy month. Omelettes with chillies, Bengali style, for breakfast. Iftars at restaurants and homes, opulent buffets, jalabi that melts in your mouth, fried eggplant, pomegranate seeds. Shredded coconut and impossibly sweet jaggery. Neverending food to break your fast.
I will recall Tahmima Anam’s beloved countryside, the endless green fields dotted with cows, roadside goats chewing grass, small ponds, and kilometres upon kilometres of jute farms. As she writes, “The promise of the land is not in the cities – their sky-touching glamour, the tragedy of their ruin – but in the vast unfolding plains, this empty sky, this stretching horizon.” Young girls and boys bathing and swimming to escape the afternoon heat. Boys playing football in muddy fields under the infinite open skies. Meandering, rusty rickshaw rides through the rural expanses, and bumpy rides in buses hurtling down the highway – joyous at the lack of traffic. Fresh air. Deep breaths. Lungs opening in joy.
I’ll remember the red brick and white facades of Dhaka University’s science faculty, contrasting with the green of the ground and the bright blue of the sky. Jhal moori in a newspaper cone as a 5 Taka snack, and khichuri for lunch from the most popular roadside stall on campus. Young Bangladeshi couples lining the hallways of the buzzing Teacher-Student Centre, talking and boldly holding hands – nothing more. Tens of students marching through the campus sidewalks, holding signs and protesting. Student activism reminding me of constant campus activity in London.
Bangladesh is bargaining in Banga Bazar. Pearls for just a few dollars. Colorful handicrafts and shalwars, glittering saris for sale. It is a country of incredible disparity between the rich and the poor. Beggars on the sidewalk without limbs, standing outside modern malls and fancy cafes they could never afford to enter. Rickshaw pullers who live in the Korail slum, alongside NGO workers staying at the luxurious Westin hotel that surpasses many hotels in the States.
* * *
There are only a few days left in Bangladesh, and I am left pondering how I can leave a place so quickly, before even having the chance to know it deeply. Disappointments and doubts abound, overtaking my mind: I have not made the most of my time here. I remember the days spent sick, or wasted reading in my room instead of experiencing Dhaka. I have not truly gotten to know this country, or its people. I am overtaken in sadness, realizing my time has been too short to truly develop deep friendships. I have failed. I berate myself, for letting opportunities pass, for failing to take risks, push myself out of my comfort zone. To accomplish all I hoped to. I have lived my life in coffee spoons. I am mocked by J. Alfred Prufrock, my favorite T.S. Eliot personality, and yet the one I most despise – the one I am afraid of becoming. I am mocked by my insecurities, racked with regret.
Goodbye, Bangladesh. I only regret I didn’t get to know you better.
Sadarghat, on the waterfront in Dhaka, after taking a boat ride
You might wonder what all these folks are doing. They’re staring at us, a boat full of foreigners!!
The narrow streets of Hindu Street, Old Dhaka
Fresh fruits for sale on the roadside
Boys peeking out from across an abandoned building in Old Dhaka
Dhaka is the “city of mosques” — interesting buildings line the streets of Old Dhaka
Ahsan Manzil or “the pink palace” of Dhaka
In the peaceful Armenian church & cemetery – run by the only Armenian remaining in Dhaka!
Bangladesh’s rural countryside, on the way to Faridpur