Published: June 2nd 2008May 30th 2008
Today I did not sleep late like yesterday. Instead I was awake at 5:00AM, already beginning to feel heat radiating from the rising sun. I have begun sleeping in shorts and a t-shirt though it is a bit of a pain to wear less clothing because then I need to wear more insect repellent. Anyway, I woke early and at 6:00AM worked out for a bit, doing sit-ups, push-ups, lunges, and jumping jacks while listening to my iPod. It felt nice to work-out but it was already so hot by 6:00 that I did want to tire myself too much. No one seemed to rise for awhile besides the help who gave me water so I stayed in my room, read a book, and had a granola bar and apple. For breakfast, they made me a special food. It is paratha
(a thin dough) that is filled with egg, mince meat, and green chiles. Then it is lightly fried and served with red chile sauce. They were good and I was honored to have a special breakfast but my appetite has left me. I think it largely has to do with the heat. I am much more craving cold water than hot dough. It remains difficult for me to eat meat but I really don’t want to say anything especially since my time here is almost done. I understand that my decision not to eat meat can be misunderstood.
Until lunch, I lounged around the room mostly reading and watching Father of the Bride: Part 2 on television. The helper woman, who has become like a friend (though we are different classes and we both barely understand each other’s Bengali), cleaned my room and saw the broken bowl I had brought for the Chowdhurys. I had wrapped it in a towel in my bag but still the rim broke. She took it away and I don’t know, I assume she threw it out after showing Mrs. Chowdhury. She told me it was khub shundor—very beautiful. The children pieced back together the broken shards but I do not think they had the glue to fix it and it would not look great anyway. Too bad I guess.
The helper (I never quite catch her name and now it is too late to ask—I seem to do that with people in America, too) has been with the Chowdhurys for 12 years. She is from a Bangladeshi village. Her husband divorced her when she was very young—much younger than me, and took her son. She moved back in with her parents and eventually came to Dhaka looking for work. The Chowdhurys were beginning to grow older and their children were preparing to leave to go to university in America. She and another little girl have become like surrogate grandchildren in replace of the biological children and granddaughter remaining in New England. Each girl has her own bedroom, a television, and plenty of good and saris (the traditional dress of women in Bangladesh and the subcontinent). They cook and clean and also help the Chowdhurys with small tasks like moving furniture, etc. Mrs. Chowdhury gave the older girl lessons to make her literate and to understand basic math. She now does the same with the younger girl. It is obvious the Chowdhurys feel the girls are family, even leaving them alone in the apartment when they travel for months at a time. They do not like to call them servants but rather “the help.” I think it is an appropriate choice of terminology.
At lunch we had the usual rice with yellow curry sauce and some funky vegetables that were really good, really weird looking and have no English translation. One is green and small and conical. The leaves spiral down the cone like a shell. The other is round and has a prickly outside and it is sliced and fried. I was finally allowed to eat fish. The fish here are little and the whole little fish is cooked. Then the people expertly split it open with their hands and pull out the spine and its dangerous little bones. That is why I am not allowed to eat it—the fish are very bony and one must practice how to eat them carefully. Mr. Chowdhury deboned one for me because true Bengalis true lots of bhat ar mach
—rice and fish. They told to chew it awhile in my cheek to feel out any little bones and to really chew up any very little bones, which I did successfully. The fish itself was very tasty. It was white and meaty but not too fishy of a taste.
Over the dessert of katal
fruit, Mr. Chowdhury and I had a long talk about religion. He has done the pilgrimage to Mecca and has been to many countries. He explained to me that in Quaran, women and men are clearly equal and so Bengalis believe they are better Muslims than the Saudis. He says the Saudis have a male-dominated society that is based largely on culture, even if they believe it is based on Islamic teachings. He told me how the Christian missionaries here are respected because they help the poor and the sick. That is what they are here to do rather than try to force people to leave Islam.
It is sad to hear them talk about their children. They have a beautiful apartment here and they told me how they had planned for how they would arrange the living situation when their children returned to work and get married. Things change and they are not coming back. “It is their decision. If they want to come back, we will support them. If they want to stay in America, we will support them as best we can.” Mr. Chowdhury tells me. Mr. Chowdhury’s father built their dining room table with plenty of space for a growing family that has really only grown to America. I don’t know how my parents would handle if all of their children decided to move across the world. I think the pain of missing one’s children is difficult for any parent, even if they know their children have good lives somewhere else.
In the afternoon, Mrs. Chowdhury took me shopping. It is shukrobar
—Friday, which is equivalent to our Sunday. It is the holy day and most places are closed. There are more prayers broadcast throughout the day but they are actually pleasant and sung beautifully. The traffic was eight thousand times better and we crossed the city in an eighth of the usual time. We went to some upscale boutiques to find me some proper Bangladeshi attire. It was obvious that the shops were very en vogue. Mrs. Chowdhury is a professional shopper and it is very funny to watch. Bargaining is often done here, which is obviously difficult for an American to do. She will pick a piece of clothing up and the attendants start grabbing similar pieces of clothing to show her. When they tell her the price, she absolutely always says "ohh beshi dam
"—very expensive. But when we leave the shop, she will say, "good price!" At the first store, Deshal, I bought a brown cotton tunic and a red and white salwar kameez with a fish design on it. They are very pretty and only came to 23 dollars. At the second shop, Saaj, I bought a long white shirt made of cotton, silk, and jorget and it cost 10 dollars. Everything is hand-stitched and of very high quality. It’s quite a steal for an American and I can some of it back home. Mrs. Chowdhury told me that before I leave, she will dress me in a shari
and take a picture. It is difficult for foreigners to wear foreigners without them embarrassingly falling off. One only wears a short blouse and then intricately wraps a long piece of fabric around herself to form a full-length dress. I think I will stick to skirts and pants. The last thing I need is for a sari to fall to my ankles in the middle of the street.
We just took our evening teatime out on the terrace. It has been a very hot and very humid day. You can feel the rainstorm coming in the heavy air and I can’t wait. I take cold showers before I go to bed and when I wake up and it’s likely my favorite part of the day. I really enjoy the evening teatime because I can be outside without sweating. The tea is delicious and so is the jalmuri
(popped rice mixed with spices and chilis) and pudding (a light caramel pudding cooked over steam). The city lights glow among the palm trees and you can hear the constant but distant honking of the traffic still going strong.
Tomorrow I leave the Chowdhurys for my apartment and I am a bit nervous. I have not really done anything for myself get—I follow around the Chowdhurys and their maids and driver take care of me and bring me places. I wonder how I will get around once I am on my own. I think I will mostly walk and if I want to go to another part of Dhaka, I may just call the Chowdhurys, we will see, but many types of transportation seem unstable and very, very hot. I think Ali and Kuntal will be able to help me with all of that. For now I’m going to go read some more of my novel and relax. The heat and jetlag makes me sleepy. We eat dinner around 10:00PM, after which we retire. It is a different system: breakfast around 9 or 10AM, lunch around 2 or 3PM, snack around 7PM and dinner around 10PM. I really cannot say I have ever been hungry so it must work.