Zubier Abdullah is a final year engineering student from Bangladesh who spends most of his time doing anything but studying engineering. He has been published in a number of national publications in Bangladesh and wants to boldly live his dream of being a writer. Aside from writing stories, he likes to make music and play video games.
A Nomad’s Home
I shifted the blanket, pulling it over me and Abu. He, sensing the change, did the same. Pretty soon we were tugging at the small patchwork blanket between us, kicking at each other. That woke us both up.
Abu promptly went back to sleep but my mind felt fresh and I got up and stretched my legs. We were staying near the edge of a small bazaar and already I could hear the sounds come alive. The moon was full in the sky, floating there like a great big roshogollah. The sharp smack of the cattle drovers resounded into the night, followed by a chorus of moos. It was around four n the morning now. The call for prayer would come soon. I wondered whether I should wake my brother, but seeing the serene peace on his normally haggard face, I thought better of it.
He would have to wake up sooner or later. For now he could take refuge in his dreams.
Walking through the bazaar, I decided to see what we could steal for the day. The trick was, of course, to make sure that you weren’t spotted – and if you were, to run. We didn’t have many possessions (a comb between us and a spare set of clothes) so running came easy. We ran and we got away as often as the trains roared past the bazaar.
My brother taught me that in the rich areas of the city, no one wants to give a poor child money. No one.
There was Nizaam, the butcher. He and his son were trying to coax a goat away from its brothers so they could do their business. I have always wondered whether the animals realize what’s going on, and if they do, why some fight back while others quietly resign themselves to their fate. Perhaps my brother and I would have goat meat tonight, though it wasn’t likely. It had been weeks since we had had meat of any sort. Meat is the absolute worst thing to steal because it takes such a long time to cook. It leaves you exposed and the chances of you getting caught become ever so high.
The last time we had meat, we were in another city. Sylhet, or was it Jessore? All of the cities start to look the same after enough travelling. The same rundown houses and the same concrete buildings. Broken roads everywhere, welling up with mud and the same brown, weary faces greeting you wherever you go.
Except in Dhaka.
In Dhaka, walking by the rail line, you will witness a passing of worlds. In the north the city is a wailing monster of sounds and sights – screaming pictures on giant billboards tell you what to buy, restaurants glare at you like nosy neighbors, and the car horns form a sinister symphony. As you pass through, the city starts to show its age and the artificial veneer of the newer areas slowly fades.
As you continue south though, the roads become cleaner, the houses bigger. The quality of life improves.
But not for people like us.
In the posh areas, the lines dividing the rich and the poor become sharper, starker than at the fringes. Though my brother and I do not beg to survive, sometimes we have had to. He more than I. When our mother died a few years ago, he and I started moving around throughout the country. We were born in Dhaka, in an unnamed street, in an unnamed slum but we were here for the longest time – at least until Ammu died. Our father wasn’t around much when we were younger. When I was a baby, Abu was six and he was the one who took care of me. My first word was boo and I like to think it was for Abu. After Ammu died, we couldn’t find our father. He had disappeared, and the two of us searched for months and months to find him. That was five years after I was born.
My brother taught me that in the rich areas of the city, no one wants to give a poor child money. No one. Sometimes there are people with white skin who give you a lot of money but a few months living here and they become wiser. They just look away.
So we steal.
I came up to the spot where Rafiq Bhai was setting up his stand. He was unloading his wares – fruit and vegetables mostly. Red tomatoes, purple brinjals – it was a mad sea of color in the early dawn light. I walked slowly past the stand, keeping watch with my peripheral vision while pretending nonchalance. Abu always said, if they think you are interested in what they have, you will be caught.We had never been caught but we had come close.
Once was last year – that was a tough time. We were in Chandpur, living near the rail line and just like this one, there was a bazaar there. Eid was coming up in a week or so and we were set on celebrating it early. We decided that we would be bold and steal a chicken. The plan was simple – Abu would create a diversion, bumping into a stranger and inciting an argument with him as I put a chicken in my sack and slipped away.
We did it as planned. But as we were moving away, the chicken pecked a hole through the plastic sack that it was in and poked its head out. When the seller saw this he chased after us and though we weren’t caught, Abu suffered a nasty cut climbing a fence. That cut became infected and if it wasn’t for the help of a local NGO doctor, Abu might have lost his leg.
The call to prayer had begun and I saw my chance. Rafiq moved away from the stand momentarily and before anybody could see me, I grabbed a few bananas and apples. Hiding them in the sack I always had with me, I walked back to my brother, whistling as if I had not a care in the world.
We prayed but nothing happened. It never did.
“Abu. Wake up.”
“Let me sleep, Tanim,” he said, groggily.
“It is time for prayer.”
“Then you go pray. I am sleepy.”
“What would mother say? Get up.”
After a few more minutes of this, he got up and we walked to the nearby mosque to wash up and pray.
We prayed but nothing happened. It never did. Our lives went on as before but at least we would have enough food to eat for the day. Abu, of course, would say that the bananas were His way of helping us, but I knew better. I had swiped them after all.
I had brought five bananas and we would have two each and save one for harder times ahead. In the distance I could hear a rumble. It sounded ominous.
“Abu, something is happening. I will go see.” I said.
He could hear it too. Years of living on the road had given us the ability to sense trouble brewing. Without it, we wouldn’t have survived. Not in this city. Not in this country.
“I’ll take care of our things. Go see what is happening.”
I did. I slipped out of my shirt and slung it around my waist. I moved through the crowd, like a shadow, unfelt.
Rafiq Bhai was screaming.
“Someone took my bananas. I had 40 there and now five are gone. I was right here. Do you know who took it, Faruq?”
“How would I know who took it?”
“You were here the whole time. You saw what happened.”
“I wasn’t here the whole time.”
“Liar. I saw you.”
“Who are you calling a liar, you son of a bitch? I said I was not here.”
I slipped out. I had heard enough. My brother and I had to go. Now. Before they realized that I had been there. Breakfast would have to wait today. “Abu, we have to leave.”
“Yes. I’ve heard them. They will come looking for us soon.”
Ahead in the distance, I could hear the dull roar of the train heading south to Chittagong. That would be our next destination. I was excited – the freshest fish in the world can be stolen from Chittagong.
We moved away from the bazaar towards the train tracks. As we waited for the train to come, Abu and I each took a banana and started eating.
We climbed aboard the train as it slowed down to a stop. Abu got up first and pulled me up. I almost lost the bananas but caught them in time.
“We are going to Chittagong, Abu,” I said.
“Yes. We are. Come let us have breakfast.”
As we sat on the shuddering floor of the train car, munching our bananas, a small thread of fear crept up in me.
“Do you think we shall ever find Papa again?”
He was staring out the window and didn’t reply at once. “Maybe we will.” He smiled and patted me on the head.
“I hope we do. After we find him, we can have a nice home again.”
After a moment of silence, my brother replied, “We are home, Tanim. Right here, with each other.”