Ollie and I like to talk about the daily horror of Bangladesh. It’s a running joke –
‘So what was your horror today?’
‘Oh, a bird dropped the rotting skull of another bird onto my head.’
‘Mm, good one. I stepped in what I suspect was a human shit.’
There is a lot wrong here in Dhaka – piles of garbage outside your door, animal carcasses on the street – and it helps to make light of it where you can. But the banter has a therapeutic side to it – offloading all the emotion and distress. Sometimes it’s not funny at all, and you need to talk.
‘I saw that family of people at Gulshan 2 circle who have the disfigured arms and legs today. They had cardboard tied to their hands so they could walk around on all fours. I think they’re a family – one looks like she’s the daughter of the older man. I just can’t imagine what their life is like.’
‘On my way home from the market there was a naked baby girl weeing into a drain on Road 11. I couldn’t see her family anywhere. I didn’t know what to do.’
The extremes hit hard. But there’s a curious balance here, a world full of daily wonders that keep the emotional see-saw swinging back and forth between dark and light. The sunset will glow red against the trees and you’ll see the national flag, hanging in the sky. The streets will roar with victory when the Tigers take a wicket against India. A kind stranger will help you haggle with a CNG driver. A colleague will insist on bringing you home-made sweets. A street kid will hold your hand as you walk to the shops, practicing their English and telling you about what they did at school. Up and down, so often a single day has both a black pit and a shining diamond.
I had one of those days this week, that took both of these extremes and rolled them into a single emotional suckerpunch that only Bangladesh could throw. Leaving Ollie at the American club to play water polo after we grabbed a quick burger, I climbed into a waiting rickshaw and settled into the rocking rhythm of the driver’s pedaling.
It had just got dark and the roads were quiet but not empty; the gently falling rain danced in the light of the occasional street lamp and cooled the air. We passed Gulshan Lake Park – the trees looked lush and green, clearly loving the hot sun and drenching rain of the monsoon – and rounded the corner past a pack of baby goats with amusingly oversized ears. A mango seller was packing up his rickshaw cart and getting ready to head home. I breathed in the contentment and beauty of the night, feeling grateful and lucky.
Approaching the intersection of a major road, the rickshaw driver cruised quietly down the waiting row of cars, using the size and agility of the rickshaw to bypass the traffic jam. A traffic cop, wearing a green uniform, lace-up boots and a reflective red ‘X’, and carrying a baton, walked over to us and began talking to the rickshaw driver.
Within seconds he was yelling, then screaming, then beating my driver over the head. Hard. A lot.
I sat for a moment or two in shock, then started yelling back, forgetting my rudimentary Bengali and swearing at him – in what I can only describe as full Australian. He didn’t seem to care, but eventually got tired, or thought he’d got his point across, and walked away.
I asked my driver if he was OK. He just shrugged, as if to say ‘Yeah, I’m fine – happens all the time.’
That was the bit that shocked me the most. I couldn’t help stifling back a tear or two as that realisation washed over me – the injustice of this violence, by the powerful against the powerless, that was so normal it barely deserved the bat of an eyelid. This small, polite, bearded rickshaw driver was already down, and he was used to being kicked.
I came home feeling dizzy with it all. Up and down, up and down. I tried to think about the goats.