Chapter 39 – Trying to Make Amends
One morning at the guesthouse in the relatively upscale neighborhood of Banani on the north side of the Bangladeshi capital, a Canadian dude named Nabeel and I decided to visit the historical Old Dhaka area down along the banks of the Buriganga River. To get down there, we climbed in the back of an auto rickshaw and told the driver to take us to Ahsan Manzil, the bizarre-ass pink palace built in the mid-1800s for the then-powerful Dhaka Nawab family. During this ride that’d taken about twenty minutes more than it should’ve due to diverted traffic routes and jams caused by the Shahbag protests, Nabeel and I were treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet of kicked-up dust and unregulated CO emissions.
By the time we got down to Ahsan Manzil which currently operates as a historical museum, it had yet to open its doors for the day. As such, we began wandering along the river next to a boat terminal where we ended up meeting two local guys in their thirties who spoke pretty good English. They asked us if we’d like them to take us to the other side of the river and show us a part of the city most tourists never see. We told them we’d like that very much.
A few minutes later, the four of us hopped into a small wooden water taxi which had been operated by an old man in longyi. He had a long white beard and a towel wrapped around his head and stood in the back, doing his damndest to propel us along using a large bamboo oar.
The two men that served as our guides were a pair of skinny-ass dudes, both of whom wore longyi and both of whom had mustaches. One of the guys had a gold tooth at the front of his smile and the other guy was bald. The guy with the gold tooth had definitely been the more dominant of the duo and the bald guy was like a parrot who repeated everything he said.
“Where are you from?” Gold Tooth asked Nabeel.
“I’m from Canada.”
“But you are not a white man. Where is your family from originally?”
“They came to Canada from Tanzania, but my roots go back to northern India.”
“So that must mean you are Muslim?”
“Yeah, I’m Muslim.”
“Yes! Yes!” Gold Tooth cackled. “That means you are my brother!”
“Yes!” Baldy chimed in from behind him. “That means you are our brother.”
“But him,” Gold Tooth added while looking at Nabeel and pointing at me, “he is not Muslim. So he is not our brother.”
“Yeah he is,” Nabeel retorted, “all people are our brothers and sisters.”
“No,” Gold Tooth concluded, “I’m afraid he is not our brother.”
“No sir,” Baldy confirmed with a strange smile, “he is not our brother.”
For the duration of the boat ride – and, well, pretty much the whole tour – these two guys had no interest in talking to me because I wasn’t a Muslim. Which, I guess I didn’t mind – especially during the time on the boat when I just got to sit back and observe all that was around me.
In addition to dozens of other water taxis shuffling locals back and forth across the black-as-ink Buriganga, there’d been several ships along the banks from where goods and produce had been being unloaded and off of which male crew members jumped to take their daily bath. And the further the beard-o captain paddled us away from the boat terminal, the more numerous the shanty towns appeared along the banks where dozens of people simultaneously bathed, did laundry and probably “used the bathroom” in water so polluted it’d be deemed unfit to fill an American toilet bowl.
The place we docked on the other side of the river appeared to be a pseudo junkyard where a thick layer of plastics and other non-biodegradable shit sat atop the earth. From the moment I stepped off that boat onto the squishy ground from where garbage water trickled between the toes of my sandaled feet, every local person stopped whatever they’d been doing to either stare at or run up to me and follow me around. It was clear that people on that side of the river rarely, if ever, had seen a white man in person – let alone one with a red beard and a filthy ginger mop atop his head.
From there, Gold Tooth and Baldy led us over to a local market where women in saris and headdress of all different colors crouched in the dirt behind tarps on which they laid the wide assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables they’d been selling. In a different part of the market – which had been quite small – men had been doing their best to vend unscaled, unrefrigerated platters full of dead-ass fish that’d had more flies swarming around them than a malnutrition-bellied Ethiopian kid in a UNICEF video.
“Hey,” Gold Tooth called out to Nabeel as he and I perused the area, “do you like to smoke ganja?”
“Hell yeah I do,” he said. “They sell it here?”
“No, this is a food market. But nearby we can go to smoke if you’d like.”
“For sure, man. Let’s do it.”
As we got back to following these guys further away from the banks of the Buriganga, we passed a tiny primary school consisting of two classrooms where the students and the teacher alike had all dropped the lesson plan to run to the window and say hello to me. Following a quick photo shoot during which I shook hands with everybody in the vicinity as if I were the fucking president of the United States, I bid them adieu and resumed the mission.
After about five minutes of being lead through some Slumdog Millionaire style shanty village consisting of door-less tin shack domiciles – some of which had been occupied by unattended children lying on dirt floors and others where men or women cooked bowls of food over fire provided by tanks of natural gas – we ducked into one of these huts with Gold Tooth and Baldy whereupon we put flame to a fat fucking J. As we sat there on the wood-board bed of third man who didn’t speak any English, getting high as fuck in his closet-sized home, all sorts of strange men and women would peek their heads in the entryway to get a glimpse of the white man.
“This is done,” Gold Tooth eventually said as he sucked the last of the roach down to his fingertips. “Let us leave here now. It is time for me to show you the shipyard.”
Buzzing along through the slum – a sensation which, at first, had made it extra weird for me when the crowds would gather around just to gawk – I soon figured out the locals that had nothing better to do than follow me would imitate pretty much anything I did. If I stared at a political poster on the wall, they’d do the same. If I took interest in a woman selling bananas in front of her tin shack home, they too would stand there trying to figure out what I thought was so fascinating about her. And if I threw down a D-Generation X style “suck it” for a photograph, they’d stand alongside me and do their best to pose in the exact same way.
Just as Gold Tooth suggested, we went on to explore the grounds where ships were being built and painted. As if no rules existed, we were free to climb all over these half-constructed vessels, all of which could only be boarded by climbing up skinny-ass planks that’d been angled between the ground and the decks some twenty feet up. And as long as I’m on the topic of skinny-ass planks, the most amazing thing I’d seen at the shipyard had been a small group of bony-ass barefoot local dudes walking a plank between a boat on the bank of the Buriganga and the trash-strewn shore while balancing massive baskets full of bricks atop their heads.
After that, while wandering around, we visited a sweatshop where mountainous heaps of blue jeans had been being assembled by very poor-looking people, some of whom were children. I saw an outdoor barber giving a man an old-fashioned shave in a seat on the sidewalk. Likewise, I saw an outdoor dentist yanking out a man’s tooth no more than twenty feet away from some guy who’d been tearing apart a pile of dead chickens with his bare hands, sending feathers flying all over the place, undoubtedly resulting in an environment unsanitary for dental work to be done. Nabeel and I were even offered heroin from a guy in a suit and tie who gave us a business card that said he was a lawyer before eventually ending our day back in the Old Dhaka area on the other side of the river at a place called Star Mosque.
Even though I had an incredible time, I do very much regret one thing I did on that day. Before we’d even gotten to the shipyard, as I tailed Gold Tooth and Baldy through the slum, peeking into each and every abode to get a really solid feel for how people there lived, I saw some guy sprawled out on a bench in his shack in what I viewed as a hilariously lazy position.
“Yo, what’s up with this motherfucker?” I laughed while pointing at the guy in front of the small crowd of locals who’d been following me. “Is that guy smokin’ ganja too? I’ve never seen someone laying like that before. Fuckin’ guy is straight chauncin’ right now.”
“No sir,” this was one of the only times Gold Tooth had spoken to me directly, “he is not smoking the ganja. That is a blind man, sir.”
“Oh,” I could feel my stomach drop, “really?”
“Yes sir, he is blind. He cannot see.”
Blatantly making fun of someone’s disability like that took me back to fifth or sixth grade when my dad had taken me, my brother and my buddy Kutasi to an afternoon Cubs game at Wrigley Field. At some point, the three of us kids had gone to the bathroom. Anyone who has a dick that’s been to Wrigley knows that, in their facilities, they don’t have traditional urinals. What they have instead are metallic troughs that extend the length of the wall that I always thought it would be funny to run up, dive into and slide across while entering and exiting a bunch of different grown men’s pee streams, but that’s beside the point.
While we young’uns had been in the john that day, some really fucked-up crippled dude came lurching into the room. He had a really hard time walking. His upper-body had been bent down straight forward, running perpendicular to his legs which’d stood straight off the ground. He was like a walking right angle. I don’t know if it was a birth defect of if he’d suffered through some sort of Ethan Frome-esque “smash-up” that’d left him “the ruin of a man,” but there’s no denying that this dude’s existence appeared nothing short of miserable.
Upon seeing him, we stopped and stared as he stood near the urinal troughs and began fumbling around with the zipper on his pants. Once he’d gotten it open and had his junk pulled out, he inched up to the receptacle and did his best to lean his upper-body back so he wouldn’t be left standing face-to-face with a trough full of piss. His efforts were in vain.
As he got ready to go, I could see how exceptionally short his legs had been. This resulted in his midsection being below the level of the top of the trough. So the only way for him to get his stream into where it needed to go had been for him to aim his penis upward and arch his stream into the thing which probably wouldn’t have been too much trouble if his upper-body hadn’t been in the way.
When the man let it rip, his stream of urine shot out from the tip of his dick and collided with the underside of his chin. In what had probably been one of the most humiliating moments in that man’s life, the three of us – two twelve-year-olds and a ten-year-old – started laughing hysterically and ran out of the bathroom to go tell my dad what we just saw. And after that, I’d go on to tell all my friends and relatives how hilarious it was to see that nameless faceless freak piss in his own face in the bathroom at Wrigley Field.
Since this image had been so out of the ordinary, it’s never faded from my memory. It’s as clear as it was the day I saw it. But over the years, it stopped being something funny and started being something shameful. It pains me to think of how insensitive I was towards that man – how very much his life must have sucked as it was and how he didn’t need little fuckin’ assholes like us laughing at his extreme misfortune on top of it. Even though I was unable to understand it back then, I see how unimaginably cruel it was to laugh at the horrid reality of that man’s existence.
So back in Bangladesh, after I’d found out the man I’d been laughing at was in fact unable to see, the guilt and feelings of unworthiness I’ve accumulated over the years from being born with a fully functional, heathy body when there are other people out there not as fortunate as I prompted me to pull out a stack of taka from my wallet and guide it into the hand of the blind man. Reminding me eerily of a Catholic sinner trying to buy forgiveness for his sins from the church by way of indulgence, I walked away from that tin shack feeling as shitty as ever about myself.
Some photos from that day in Dhaka…