“I think the shaheb in the brown suit is probably some small time government official who thinks he’s a big shot”, said Manik.
“How can you tell?” asked Asad Bhai.
“Trust me I’ve seen many of them in my time. Who else would wear a suit in this kind of heat or try and push to the front of the queue when everybody else is waiting to get in as well? I wonder what he’s doing here.”
“Maybe he’s here for some work or maybe he wants to go and see Obama shaheb!” suggested Asad Bhai.
Both men laughed.
“I thought people like him have other people to do things for them. I’m surprised he didn’t bring his peon to carry his briefcase or wipe his face for him!” grinned Manik. “That kind of person has his wallet under lock and key, and I really don’t think there’s money to be had from there. That my friend is a slippery fish.”
“Ok, how about the two men standing over there, the one in the white shirt and the short fellow in the grey t-shirt and jeans”, asked Asad Bhai pointing in the general direction of the group. His large hands reminded Manik of the bunch of bananas hanging in the shop.
Before he had a chance to answer the question a man strolled towards the tea stall and addressed Asad Bhai.
“One packet of Star cigarettes and a tea”, he said in an unusually soft voice. Somehow the voice and the visage were at odds with each other.
Manik stared at him in admiration. He had a magnificent moustache. The ends extended downwards at the corners of his mouth right down to his chin. Even his grey hair was perfect, thick and wavy and slicked back with oil. Manik had only seen moustaches like that on cinema actors, in the days when he had the money to go to movie theatres. He figured that the man must have been a driver for one of the people across the street. Frequently, the drivers would drop off their passengers and come around to park on the stretch of road next to Asad Bhai’s tea stall. Some of them even gave Manik a taka or two.
He laid his crutches back on the ground and waited for the newcomer to pay. He ran his fingers through his thick curly hair, it felt coarse and was longer than he liked. No wonder he felt so hot all the time. When he was a young boy his mother used to massage oil in his hair and tell him that his hair made his head so hot you could cook an egg on it. It was one of the few memories he had of her laughing.
When he had arrived in Dhaka five or six years ago, he had allowed himself the luxury of going to the barber every few months with the money he had saved. He could hardly believe his luck when he got the job working at the petrol station in Kawran Bazaar only weeks after he had arrived in the city. At the time he had believed that somebody was watching over him. It was long hours and the pay wasn’t great but it gave him enough to live off and save a little bit at the end of the month.
Looking at the man, Manik could feel his admiration turning into pangs of envy and resentment. That could have been him, it should have been him, but his hopes of becoming a driver had faded away the minute his rickshaw had come face to face with the three ton yellow truck.
Asad Bhai gave the man his change and turned back to Manik. “So, what do you think?”
“Think about what? Oh yes”, he said looking across the street. He tried to dispel the image of steel tearing into flesh and bone.
Manik shifted his position on the seat to get a better look. The man in the grey t-shirt and jeans had a large envelope under his arm and was staring up at the walls of the embassy. Manik wondered if he was thinking about the fate of the coconuts as well. The young man in the white shirt was looking through some papers he had taken out of a plastic bag.
He chewed on his bottom lip. “That’s a difficult one. Most of the younger ones seem to be students and half the time they give me money because they feel bad for me and the other half of the time they just ignore me. In fact one time a boy didn’t believe me and wanted to see if I really had a leg missing or if I was just holding it up under my lungi!” He laughed but this time his laughter sounded hollow and forced even to himself.
Asad Bhai’s voice rose in anger. “What a bastard!” he said.
The man with the moustache looked startled and turned around to see who Asad Bhai was swearing at.
“You know Asad Bhai, said Manik, “when I first started coming around here, around the embassy, people would sometimes give me money and ask me to pray for them. Maybe they thought I had a direct line to God because I beg for a living or maybe they thought that God feels sorry for me because he took my leg from me. Who knows? One time, when I began working in this part of town, I asked one of the young men standing outside the embassy what he wanted me to pray for and he asked me to pray that he got his ‘visa’. I didn’t know what he meant. He explained to me that all those people who stand outside have to get permission to go to America and the people working in the embassy decide their fate.
“Yes, I know”, said Asad Bhai while he shelled a few peanuts and put them in his mouth. He took a few more and handed them to Manik. He tilted his head to the side and then folded his arms across his chest.
“I’ve spoken to some of the people who come to the embassy. Now and again the younger ones from the queue come over to buy a bottle of water or something from me while they’re waiting and when I’m not busy I like to have a chat with them. Some of them tell me that they want to go and visit America and the others seem to want to go and study over there. I don’t know why they’re so desperate to go to a foreign country. What’s so great over there? Why can’t they just study here? I wouldn’t want to go so far away. I’m happy in my own country!” said Asad Bhai shaking his head.