Foreigner

It is not supposed to rain in December, at least not there. The storms that greeted us were freaks, anomalous - heralded with both awe and suspicion. Not unlike ourselves, I reflected years later. We, with two homes and two names and two tongues. We returners face a schizophrenic crowd.


The rain was fast and hot and relentless. It scored my vision in diagonal stripes, from top left corner to bottom right, as I peered out from under the faded yellow hood of the rickshaw. My body was pressed against the flimsy edge of the carriage, my mother’s arm around my shoulders to stop me from falling out as we lurched along the potholed road. As we journeyed I watched the painted wheels spin, flecked with muck, dragging in the wet clay of the sodden red path that led towards my father’s family compound. The darkness was such that it looked as though a cosmic hand had reached into the night and simply lifted off the lid that was the sky, taking with it all luminescent hazes, and leaving only the aching throb of empty blackness.

“We’re almost home!” called out my cousin from the rickshaw ahead. My father sat beside him and I could not see his face to discern any response. My cousin had come to fetch us from the station that evening as we stumbled, exhausted from our train: my mother, my father, my sister and me. He had come as our “guide” as we were proudly informed. I recall thinking how strange it was that we should need a guide to come home.

-*-

Nothing about the journey had felt like coming home. We had driven from Manchester to London in an unfamiliar car - a lift from a colleague of my father, who, being one of my parents’ only acquaintances who could drive, was duty-bound to offer a lift in accordance with their rigid migrant subculture of generosity and obligation. The colleague was Pakistani and talked to my father in Urdu for the whole five-hour journey while I sat uncomprehending sandwiched between my mother and my sister, neither of whom seemed inclined to speak at all. I didn’t understand how both my mother and father were fluent in Urdu as well as in Bengali and English. It wasn’t ‘our’ language in any sense - not here, in England, and not there in Bangladesh. At six years old, I didn’t know then what I later came to learn under my father’s gentle tuition - the fact that language was the heart of Bangladesh’s very existence, that a civil war had been fought between the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan and the Bangla-speaking East Pakistan, and that Bangladesh had risen proudly from the horror in 1971 armed with the most potent weapon of all: a national tongue. I suppose very little had changed between the war and that moment when I was sitting in that pale blue Toyota with broken seatbelts circa 1992. Urdu had presented itself as the same uncomfortable presence to Bengalis back then as it was for me in that moment.

The flight from London to Dubai was no more familiar. I was seated across the aisle from a German business traveller who continuously ordered, much to my intrigue, tiny bottles of whiskey and packets of salted nuts. I stared enviously as he decanted the dark, rich-smelling liquid out of those doll-sized vessels into a plastic tumbler of ice while I slurped on my tomato juice. I had never smelled alcohol before then and the odour invoked both revulsion and intrigue. Our flight was with one of the airlines of the United Arab Emirates and much of the literature - from the magazines to the descriptions on the packets of handwipes - was in Arabic. This was slightly more recognisable - I was au fait with the script through my lessons in reading the Qur'an but although I could make out the letters their meaning remained a mystery.

Our connecting flight to Dhaka was not for several hours so my father suggested we take a walk around the airport in Dubai. My sister and I traipsed through the shops agog at the dazzling displays of gold jewellery and watches, the glass cabinets of leather handbags, mesmerised by the alluring scent of the perfume counters where burqa-clad women with elegant gloved hands spritzed and sampled. I watched intently as, eventually, a tall man in a white robe and a red and white chequered scarf made his way to the group of women. He motioned over the sales assistant and bade the women place their orders. Distancing himself from the flurry of activity that ensued, the man turned away from the group and his gaze fell on me. I looked back at him curiously - he wore the same outfit that my uncles wore when they had returned from performing the Hajj a few years before- the starched white ankle-length robe with cuffed wrist-length sleeves. I thought he looked regal but odd. I offered him a watery smile that he did not return.

It was only many years later that I came to understand the premise on which Dubai - indeed, much of the Emirates is built on - the indentured labour of South Asians enslaved in a system of racial subjugation and denial of access to resources. I did not know at the time, but two of my own cousins were trapped in that very system in one of the Emirate states, reviled as third-class citizens because of their dark skin. That skin colour influenced how people were treated was no new discovery for me - but I had never seen it so potently as on that second connecting flight eastwards out of Dubai. Although it was the same airline, the flight was discernibly less comfortable - the refreshments trolley came around less regularly, the seats were packed tighter together and the crew had lost its saccharine commentary. Although nobody pointed it out to me, I realised myself that the only variable factor was the passengers - there were virtually no white-skinned Westerners on this flight, all of them having disembarked in the Emirates. Instead, the flight was full of Indians, Bangladeshis, and occasional Malaysians. The feeling was, I imagined, that 'these people’ were not as deserving. They were not deserving because they were poor.

Being poor. It was on the penultimate part of the journey - the seven-hour train ride from Dhaka, the capital, to Sylhet, the major city in northern Bangladesh, that I began to realise that I had had no idea what it meant. The train was made up of a series of rickety coaches divided into different classes. We travelled in 'first class’, the principle discernible feature being the fact that we had a private compartment shared only with other returners - a necessity when travelling with luggage, and particularly from abroad. I had never travelled in a private coach before, the concept being redundant in modern British trains and the novelty was appealing. It was only when the train slowed down into stations that the real reason my parents had insisted on having a private carriage became apparent.

I remember arms. Thin, grasping arms grabbing through the small windows of the train. A cacophony of shrieks accompanied the motions, pleas for money, coins, anything. Beggars would run to the edge of the tracks as the train pulled into a village station and peer through the cubbyhole windows. Being a first class carriage, our windows had two layers - a removable glass pane, as well as a metal screen that could be pulled down to shut out light and any flying debris thrown up from the tracks. Being six years old and sweltering in the heat, I insisted on having both the glass and the metal screens lifted up so that I could feel the breeze directly. I did not know and could not help the involuntary stiffening of my body as the nameless and faceless arms began clawing through my open window. My mother reached over and drew the screens down in one swift, brisk motion. After a gap of ten years since her previous visit, she had forgotten the revulsion and sadness in witnessing need in such close proximity. But a sheet of metal could not shut it out. Like an ancient, persistent cancer it spread encroaching on our selfish patch of safety. The screen door to the compartment slid back and a stick of a woman draped in a dirty white sari stood there with a naked child on her hip. She pushed another child in front of her. He was about nine years old and his arm looked as though it had been hacked off just below the shoulder, leaving a twisted, scarred stump. Silver trails of saliva – or remnants of food, I couldn’t tell which – were crusted around his mouth, the lips moving as he spoke directly to me. Staring at him, I could not hear his words, my eyes drawn instead to his rags, the protruding ribs from his torn vest, his ugly disfigurement. I barely heard his mother who wailed and pleaded with my parents and the other returners who were sharing our compartment. My eyes followed the soundless words his lips were forming as he addressed me.

‘Sister.’

‘Sister please.’

A passenger who had remained unmoved throughout the entire scene, desensitized from having witnessed similar things countless times before, forcibly shoved the family out of the carriage and pulled shut the door again. I was prickled by the lack of compassion in the adults I saw around me, the swiftness of dismissal of ‘these beggars’. But what disturbed me most was the wave of my own selfish relief that crashed upon me when the adults finally managed to make it go away.

I fled from that train the moment the heavy carriage doors creaked and groaned open. I stood anxiously on the platform with my sister as my parents dragged the last of our luggage from the compartment. My then-unknown cousin – the guide - had arrived and in-between exchanging salams and introductions ushered us all out of the station to the forecourt where he had two rickshaws waiting ready to carry us on the final part of our pilgrimage ‘back home’. I did not even notice the rain until my sister pointed it out.

“Look Abbu! Is it the monsoon?”

My father, also seemingly having just noticed the intemperate conditions, shook his head and looked quizzically at my cousin.

“Rain? In winter? Since when?”

“But Abbu, it’s supposed to rain in winter!” I interjected.

He shook his head. “Not in Bangladesh. The season is dry and mild here.”

“Perhaps the weather knew you were coming from London and so it rained to make you feel welcome?”

My cousin smiled at me and I smiled back. I wondered when it would be polite to correct him – that we were not from London and that not everyone from England comes from London contrary to what most Bengalis think. Later, we would realise the futility of our protest and soon abandon our attempts at teaching English geography. Despite our resistance, my sister and I were constantly referred to as “Londonis” meaning “the ones from London”. A place I had never even visited before apart from to the airport, and one I certainly did not consider home.

We bundled into the rickshaws – my father and cousin in one, my mother, sister and I following behind in the other. I felt sorry for the rickshaw-wallahs, the men who had to pedal us on their bicycles who were dressed in printed lunghis and white sleeveless vests with thin short sleeved shirts worn unbuttoned over the top. On their feet they had rubber sandals, and over their heads they had nothing to protect them from the pelting hard rain that stung their faces and hands and occasionally invaded their nostrils, choking them and making them splutter and curse the unnatural climate, a sure sign that the final Day of Reckoning would soon be upon us all. We jolted blindly along the pockmarked road seeing nothing of the scenery we passed through - the edges of fields blurred into dark hedges and trees and then upwards, indistinguishable from the inky sky. A low hum of croaking followed the rickshaws as we rode - it seemed to come from every angle, from beneath our seats, behind us, ahead, far across into the distance.

“What is it, Ammu?”

“What?”

“That sound.”

“They’re frogs. They’re singing in the rain.”

But the sound was more of an ominous drone than a joyful chorus. I shuddered at the thought of those anonymous creatures watching us pass with their beady round eyes, berating us for our intrusion before we had even arrived.

“Look!”

My sister pointed into the distance towards a small flickering light. It bobbed around as though someone was holding it, and as we drew closer we heard excited cries and shouts.

“They’re here!”

“Quick, take the umbrella.”

“It’s too muddy - take sandals to them!”

The rickshaws pulled to a stop and my cousin bounded easily out of the first carriage.

“Welcome home, apu-moni. Welcome.”

I found myself standing in the shelter of the covered verandah that was lit with several hurricane lamps. My mother and father were standing nearby surrounded from all sides, talking, laughing, pressing hands with the flock of welcomers. Our family. My sister was standing between these strangers looking from one to the other, trying to read their faces and catch the occasional word that she could comprehend in that elusive language. I shrank inwardly feeling stupid and incoherent and heavy tongued. Across from me were gathered a small group of children I imagined to be my age. Skinny and dark, they eyed me curiously and giggled at each other when I looked back at them. They were my cousins, apparently. My father ushered me towards them and made rudimentary introductions in both languages. I learnt that these cousins were not my age but in fact a few years older – closer to my sister’s age. I felt even more oafish, our differences in height just another indicator of how my bilathi – foreign – upbringing of Western abundance rendered me freakish and out of place.

As usual then. Even at home - real home, proper home - in Yorkshire, in England – we did not fully belong. Or at least, we thought we did until someone at school would make fun of my father’s English pronunciation, or would ask me why I only knelt during mass but did not make the Sign of the Cross, or why I wasn’t allowed to eat sausages. Later on, I would come to almost miss these innocuous accusations of difference, they having been replaced over the years by more hostile assertions. Why does Islam hate women? Why do you lot hate the West? Why do your men molest white girls? But in that moment in the courtyard of the family ‘home’ I had been preached to about for so long I was ignorant of these future markers of belonging and un-belonging. All I felt was a deep loneliness – I had travelled half way across the world, by car, plane, train and rickshaw, from one ‘home’, apparently, to another – but all I had witnessed was my own inability to fit anywhere, to ingratiate myself, to make myself like them, like them, anywhere.

I looked over at my sister. She was standing on the periphery of a conversation between my father and two uncles, her round eyes flitting between all of their faces. She looked panicked, eager to keep up but their speech was too fast and I saw her painted smile falter. I guessed what she was feeling in that moment and I dared to wonder if she had felt what I had – in the car, in Dubai, on the plane. We had talked, once, about what it was like at school – about how someone had called me a Budbud, and I didn’t know what it meant. She explained to me that it was like calling someone a Paki but for a Bangladeshi person. I cried then, not because I had been called it but because she had had to explain this mortal insult that I had been too dim-witted – or naïve – to understand. I made my way across the room towards her and sidled up close. I wanted to take her hand but was worried that she would shrug it off, not wanting to be pestered by her younger sister. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. Our cousin, the guide, stood behind my sister and I. I hadn’t realized in the rickshaw how tall he was, how his thin moustache was sparse and bristly and how his hands seemed too big for his wrists. He looked back at me in the same quizzical way, as though noticing me for the first time.

“You look just like one of us!”

The words reverberated between us, neither complimentary nor an insult. He sounded almost disappointed, let down by my mundane brown eyes and black hair and brown skin. Years later, my sister asked me what I thought he had imagined us to look like. Blonde, probably, I answered. Maybe blue eyed. Definitely with a fair complexion. We giggled about it, feeling smug about our cousin’s naïve impression of us Westerners – that on some level he had expected, no, hoped that we would carry the milky-pink hue of the English. He had welcomed me ‘home’ but not only was I out of place - I was the worst kind of foreigner. I did not even look different.

#memoir #foreigner #diaspora #bangladesh

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