Manik looked across the street at the small queue of people forming outside the American Embassy. They were gathered together under the gaze of the row of palm trees that stood erect and tall within the high walls, like sentries guarding the red bricked fortress.
He squinted up at the guardians of the enclosure and wondered if anyone ever bothered to eat the clusters of green coconuts hanging precariously from the top of the tree or if they just fell to the ground and were swept away to be thrown into the garbage. That would be a shame. It had been a while since he had tasted fresh coconut water or bitten into the sweet white flesh hiding beneath the green shell.
It was still early in the day and there were only a handful of people milling around the entrance but he wanted to get to them before anyone else encroached on his turf. There was one woman in particular who showed up almost every day carrying a baby, but she seemed to be late today. It was strange how a crying baby made the foreigners give money without hesitation; they were always opening their wallets and bags and handing her five, ten and twenty taka notes. He had seen one of them give the woman a tin of baby milk powder. He was sceptical as to whether she had actually fed it to her baby; more likely she had just sold it. If he was lucky the woman and her baby had moved on.
Every now and then the foreigners going in and out of the embassy would give him some money as well, although not as often as the woman with the baby. He thought that he made them uncomfortable though one time a lady had given him a hundred taka note. She had short hair like a man and had smiled at him with big white teeth. He had never seen teeth that white and even. That was a long time ago and he had never seen her since.
As he looked on, a car pulled up and a young woman jumped out. She wore a blue sari and her shiny black hair cascaded down her back well below her small waist. She waved at the person inside the car, tossed her head back and laughed. People didn’t laugh much outside the embassy. They always looked worried, almost scared at the thought of entering the building. He wondered what lay beyond the red walls as he watched her walking towards the group of people.
He gulped down his cup of tea. The hot liquid scalded his tongue.
“Slow down Manik Miah, what’s the rush?”
“Too late Asad Bhai”, smiled Manik, and slammed his cup down next to him on the rickety wooden bench and let out a contented sigh. Strange how the hot cup of tea managed to quench his thirst even though the summer sun was already bearing down on them with all its might. It hadn’t rained for over a week and the ground was parched. The dust had settled on the leaves and the trees in the street looked dirty and unwashed.
What he could really do with now was a cigarette especially one of those foreign brands, not his usual deshi ones that always left his throat raw but nevertheless felt damn good with every puff. Right now he was out of money. He could ask Asad Bhai but the man had done enough for him. It just didn’t feel right.
When Manik had first arrived in Dhaka he had been overwhelmed by all the noise and all the people. The city was heaving and at times he found himself barely able to move through the crowds. It was an ocean of nameless faces. But one thing he had discovered was that there weren’t many people like Asad Bhai, if there were he hadn’t met many of them. The tea shop owner had always been good to him from the time he had landed up in the Baridhara area and stumbled across the small tea stall.
Since then he had lost count of the number of times Asad Bhai had passed him a cup of tea or handed him paan or a toast biscuit and refused to take any money in return. He said Manik reminded him of his son. He had lost him a decade ago. Typhoid had seen to that. The man had a big heart and the last thing Manik wanted to do was to take advantage of his friend.
It felt like a lifetime since he had left home with nothing but his dreams, four hundred taka in his pocket and a determination to make something of himself. He didn’t want to end up like his father, working till he dropped dead from hunger and fatigue or his mother who had spent the last few months of her life beating her chest and shedding tears for his father and the children that had not survived their first year. Manik had watched her weep till there were no more tears left inside her frail body and she had followed his father to an early grave.
“I better get to work”, said Manik as he handed Asad Bhai his empty cup.
He bent down to pick up his crutches and winced. The pain in his leg was back and had been troubling him the last few days. Night times were even worse. He had been waking up in agony; a searing pain shooting through his leg but when he looked down all that he could see was his grotesquely deformed stump.
Things had not gone as Manik had planned. Life had got in the way of his dreams; life and a large yellow truck. He sucked in his breath and slowly let it out.
Asad Bhai looked at him with a frown on his pock marked face, “Are you sure you don’t want to sit for a few more minutes?”
Manik raised his hand and shook his head. “No, no, I’m fine…”
“Hmm,” said Asad Bhai not convinced. He swatted a fly away from the bananas hanging from a hook on the side of his stall.
“So what do you think about this new lot?” Asad Bhai said, pointing to the people across the road. “Who do you think is going shell out and who’s going to tell you to bugger off?”
Manik grinned at the tea shop owner, “Sometimes you’re too much Asad Bhai! If I could answer that I’d be a rich man.”
“I’m just asking, you’ve been doing this for a while so I thought you might have some sort of gut feeling…”
“No not really, it’s just a question of luck.” Manik paused to stare at the line of people. “Ok,” he said after a moment, “let’s see what kind of fish we have in our net today.”
Towards the end of the queue was a middle aged man wearing a dark brown suit. He had a shiny black briefcase in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. He checked his watch, looked around at his companions and then walked purposefully towards the security guard and said something to him. The security guard didn’t look very impressed and gestured with his hand to go back to the queue. The man looked as if he was about to say something but stopped and turned on his heels and strutted back to join the line. He put his mobile in his pocket where he exchanged it for a handkerchief and mopped his forehead and balding head.
“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.
Manik knew what it was like to be young and hopeful. After his parents had died there was nothing left to tie him to the village he had grown up in and it hadn’t taken him long to decide that Dhaka was where he wanted to be. He could still remember the incessant crowing of a cockerel the day he had finally left his home. The rain had washed away the early morning dust and the air around him had been heavy with the smell of wet soil. He had walked a couple of miles from his village to the bus station and found a seat on the overcrowded bus heading to the capital, wedged between a man smelling of onions and a fat man who kept falling asleep on his shoulder. None of that had bothered him and he had revelled in the excitement of embarking on the journey of his life, ready to make a new start, a new life in a new place. To him Dhaka had seemed as far away and exciting as America was to these young men and women. He wasn’t sure Asad Bhai would understand.
The man in the white shirt dropped one of his papers and an elderly gentleman behind him picked it up and gave it back to him. He wondered whether the man in the white shirt or the man in the grey t-shirt would get the chance to fulfil whatever their dreams might be or whether they would be crushed within the red walls of the embassy.
“I hope the boys will be feeling generous today”, said Manik. “But usually the women are a little more willing to give me something”, he said looking at the girl in the blue sari. She was talking on her mobile phone. He could see the bangles on her wrists glinting in the sunlight.
“Ah that’s because of your pretty face Manik Miah”, snorted Asad Bhai.
Manik smiled back at him. In the days before life had screwed him over, before his stump, he had had his fair share of attention. The girls in the village would look shyly through their lashes at him and giggle when no one else was around. It was a great feeling. He had been born with fairer skin than both his mother and father and was taller than the boys his age in his village. Now he was only half a man, no woman would even look at him unless it was with pity in her eyes.
The man with the moustache looked at Manik. He had obviously been listening to their conversation. “Bhai, if you can spare a prayer, you should pray for my shaheb and madam”, he said looking almost tearful.
“You see that lady in the grey sari and the man standing next to her?” he pointed to a couple standing across the road. “They are such good people and don’t deserve to suffer like this. They’re trying to go to America to bring back the body of their son. Can you imagine how terrible it must be for them, waiting over there, praying that the embassy people let them go to their country to bring him home?”
“Ahha, that’s so sad, what happened?” asked Asad Bhai.
“They got a phone call yesterday morning from America. Choto Shaheb was driving and there was an accident. He didn’t even make it to the hospital.” A fat teardrop rolled down his face and disappeared into his moustache. “I saw Choto Shaheb grow up in front of my eyes…”
Manik shook his head in sympathy. He looked at the old couple standing in the sun waiting for the doors to open. They looked a little lost and bewildered. The man was leaning on a walking stick. Even if they didn’t give him any money he would pray for the couple. He thought of their son, who had breathed his last in a foreign country without his family around him.
When Manik had regained consciousness in the hospital after his accident, he had been alone. He couldn’t remember how he had even got to the hospital. He woke up to the sound of other people screaming out in agony and his own excruciating pain. The nurse told him he had been lucky the accident had occurred near the hospital and two passers-by had brought him in. He didn’t feel lucky.
Initially the pain had been so acute, he hadn’t even realised there was nothing left beyond his knee. The impact of the rickshaw and the truck had crushed his lower leg and the doctors had not been able to save his limb. At first he wished that the truck had crushed his body and not just his leg. He had lost track of the number of times he had cursed his so called saviours for bringing him to the hospital. Why couldn’t they have just left him on the road to die? His body had betrayed him and he had survived and recovered. The next few years had been spent watching everything he had worked for disappear. He had lost his job at the petrol station and had been unable to pay the rent for his room. The streets of Dhaka had become his home and the sky his roof. He was brought back from his reverie by a car honking at an old man trying to cross the road.
A few more cars had stopped outside the embassy and some of the passengers stepped out to join the already existing group of people. By this stage the line had grown to almost a dozen people. The security guard yawned with his arms outstretched and got up from his seat. They all looked at him expectantly. Even the security guard had power over these people.
Manik had seen hundreds, possibly even thousands of people standing in the same queue day in and day out over the last few years. Every day there would be a new group of people; men and women, old and young standing in the heat or the rain, waiting, hoping to get their ‘visa’ to go to a country he would never know or see. Whenever he looked at them he didn’t feel like the only one who was begging.
“I really have to go otherwise they’ll go inside and I’ll miss my morning income.” He straightened his lungi as he got up. He wondered whether the girl in the blue sari would give him any money or whether she would look at him with pity. Maybe she would just look away with disgust.
Manik looked at his friend, “Asad Bhai, do you think anyone eats those green coconuts inside the embassy?”
Asad Bhai shrugged his shoulders.
Nadia Kabir Barb is a long standing columnist for Star Magazine (The Daily Star Newspaper, Bangladesh). A British Bangladeshi mother of three, she draws inspiration for her column ‘Straight Talk’ from her multicultural background. Her articles range from social and political issues to humorous and often irreverent observations of life in general. Her short story ‘Let Me Go’ was published as story of the week by The Missing Slate Magazine.