It was a Friday, the day for prayer and beggars. Wanting some air, I had decided to go for a walk down to Rifles Square. I had been preparing assignments for my university classes and so I had had my nose buried in novels all day. It was late afternoon and so I called up my friend Hashem to see if he wanted to go down there. He was usually free in the afternoon though he was also hard to pin down if he did not think that he would be meeting with an entire group of friends. In a way, it was hanging out as an economic investment. What sort of time spent would yield the most utility.
I had picked up the phone to call him when I saw his name light up on my phone-display as it buzzed with an incoming call in my hand.
“Hey man,” I said into the phone. “How’s it going?” I knew I had caught him out because he had wanted to leave me a missed call so that it would not cost him money.
“Ok. Bored.”What are you doing?” came his answer from the other end. He sounded surprised and annoyed that I had answered it and cost him the few takas. “Want to meet up and go down to Rifles?”
“Sure. I’m actually out walking,” I lied. “I can actually walk that way. Can meet you there in a twenty mins.” It wasn’t that I did not want to go and meet him at his apartment directly. It was that I knew he would not want to walk down to Rifles and I felt like walking there.
“Walking? What are you nuts? Who walks in this city?”
“I do. Right now anyway.”
“You’re just too cheap to pay for a rickshaw.”
“It’s not that. I don’t see the point in paying for a Rickshaw when I would much rather walk.”
“You’re depriving the Rickshaws of their fares; you’re gonna make them all beggars.”
“I doubt that. There are way too many people here who refuse to walk more than the ten feet to the closest Rickshaw.”
“Jai hokh, you want to get a movie and watch it?”
“Maybe. I’ll see what they have there.”
“So you taking a Rickshaw?”
“Of course bhai, I’m not crazy like you.”
I had just come down onto the street when I saw a troop of legless beggars coming down the street in boxcarts made of roller skates and mango boxes, in front of our building. They were calling for charity: “Allah! Allah! Allah”, in rhythmic and echoing tones. It was Friday and all the homes were full with people reposing on their weekend afternoons, resting after their Jumma prayers. It was, in other words, a good time for alms.
As I walked around them to get ahead, a few of the group noticed me, measuring me up as either a threat or a pray. I tried to avoid eye contact, because I knew if our eyes met then that was it. I would have to give them a few takas. A few of them had tried to catch my gaze, but then their attention suddenly shifted. They all perked up and listened intently. There was a sound of ever-louder booming beat and bass coming from down the the block. The troop scurried, dragged themselves to the sides in a rush.
“Get out of the way,” one of them, with a long stringy beard barked. “The bhaiyas won’t see us. It won’t matter to them anyway if they hit us.” He was right because the cars we hard speeding down the road skidded wildly as they turned the corner; if they had not moved, the troop would have been run over. As fast as the cars were going the drivers would have never seen them in time.
I debated the best route to Rifles for a little bit and then decided that I would go down to the lake at the end of my street and skirt its side till I got to the Botirishnumber bridge. Once across, I would cut through Takwa Mashjid to get to the Dhanmondi park and then take that all the way down. It would give me a shaded walk and I could see all the people addaing away under the trees and by the tongs.
The pavement in front of Takwa was also peopled with beggars. While the beggars by my house were all men, the groups by the mosque were the others: mothers with their litters of thin-children, the geriatrics, the blind, the many different species of the deformed; it was a congregation of the various morphs of the destitute. I have always wondered why the beggars come together in the shadow of mosques. Might it be that they believe that their prayers would be more readily answered there; might it be that passers-by would be more charitable by the sight of the mosque; or maybe it was just that they did not have anywhere else to go.
I was so engrossed in these thoughts that I did not even notice the hand extended out, asking for money.
“Bhaiya, please?” the child pleaded. I could not tell whether it was a boy or a girl, it was too young – no more than five at the most – and wore only a pair of torn and puffy red-shorts.
“Maaf koro,” I said heavily, waving my hand without looking.
When I got to Rifles, Hashem was already on the steps waiting. He had on a pair of dark sunglasses so that you could not see his eyes; could not see which way he was looking.
“Ki obostha?” he said.
“Nothing. When did you get here?”
“A couple of minutes ago. Just been hanging out here and checking out the people. I like people watching. All these kids with their bum lives.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said to pillory him. “What are you doing? You’re too lazy to even walk to Rifles and you live four blocks away.”
“Hell man, I am no longer a bum. I just got a khaep working as an interpreter for the British Council. They had some British teachers come in to meet with Bangladeshi school representatives. I showed them around. I did that all week. Got paid too and so now I’ve got some pocket money. I’m going to get a new phone. Mine is already a year old.”
“Servant to the white man huh?” I quipped self-righteously. “What were you guys showing them? What did they think?”
“They basically were doing some sort of review for some British development program.”
“But was it good? Were the people nice?”
“I guess. They meant well enough. One of the ladies had a real hard time though. She had a real shock with the beggars. They aren’t used to them over in England. She would cringe whenever she saw any of them.”
“She’s not used to this city,” I said. “She doesn’t have the eyes for it.”
“Huh? What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” I said to avoid talking about it because I thought it would sound really pretentious if I said more. ” I heard it somewhere. Let’s go upstairs. I’ll look for some phones too.”
I wanted to tell him that I had just read those words in one of my novels for class. In it the narrator – in one of many equivocating asides – expounded on how living in a city in India makes everyone develop a type of selective blindness. Beggars, in all their motley shapes and forms, are so natural to third-world cities that they have become invisible. The are like djinns, cloaked and unsubstantial, which our minds filter out as we make our way in the world of people.
We walked around Rifles for the next hour. We looked through the stores on the fifth floor – for new movies and for new phones. But neither of us ended up getting anything; there was not anything we liked, but that was not really the point anyway. I think we both just wanted to get out of the house.
“Hey let’s go back to my house and get some Phuchka from the Mama on my road?” I asked my friend.
“Sure, he’s good. And I will actually walk too. The parks are quite nice this time of the day. I like watching the uncles and aunties doing their exaggerated walks.”
“You know what,” I said, “I want to take a Rickshaw.”
“Fine then. Didn’t want to walk anyway.”
We fixed a Rickshaw and I told him to take the main roads. I did not want to go through Dhanmondi because I did not want to pass by Takwa Mashjid again. The truth of the matter was that Hashem’s comment about the British lady had evoked a particular memory. I had been walking by Takwa Mashjid then too. On the sidewalk outside its front fate was a little girl picking at the asphalt. She had on a raggedy dress and a necklace of dried tuberoses. As I was passing she looked up at me and we made eye contact. She had the look of being torn up by a hundred years of misery.
Sitting upon that Rickshaw, I remembered that little girl again. I thought that I must have completely forgotten her face as soon as I had turned away.