Published: November 29th 2011November 29th 2011
I can’t say I’m much of a hijacker, which in Dhaka means mugger.To the best of my recollection I did it only once, making a pistol with my fingers. I can’t look much like a hijacker either, assuming hijackers have a look, since even after demanding the money I had to announce what I was doing. But once the activity was established, my chosen victim reached into his pocket without hesitation and pushed a wad of change into my pistol cum hand. With chaotic Dhaka for a backdrop sometimes it’s the little instances of sweet madness that give so much sanity. For example: me and Karim.
He was really rather innocent when he first came to the city, the doorman with the great misfortune of having been assigned to work on my building. He had all that village politeness about him and you could tell he was from a good and decent Faridpur family. It was before he got used to city ways.
In truth it’s all too easy to blame the mega-city for corrupting him. In truth I may have played a minor role; although it might be altogether better to blame my friend Situ, who may not
have corrupted Karim specifically as much as the entirety of the building’s security protocols.
The building has all the standard systems: guests are supposed to be announced via the intercom and they’re supposed to sign in and out, for the obvious reason that strangers can’t be walking around willy-nilly. The problem with such systems is that they’re not Situ-proof.
Situ has this annoying habit of being unduly likeable. He’s always had it. So while all of the other guests were busy signing in, being announced, arriving with the full complement of propriety and civility, from the very first day Situ had the ability to pass the gate freely without a solitary word of challenge.There must’ve been at least four different doormen since I moved in and umpteen casuals and there’s not been a single occasion he has ever signed in or been announced on the intercom. If he went to a bank it would hardly surprise me if they spontaneously invited him in to inspect the vault. It’s the way the world chooses to interact with him.
And I might not have minded much if it’d stopped there. But within a few short weeks he’d developed cordial
relations with several of the neighbours and once I caught him casually signing off on a letter from the building committee to the residents. He might be a regular visitor, but he does not live there!
By the time of Karim’s arrival it was really getting to me, Situ’s generic niceness. There wasn’t much I could do about the most of it, though I tried. I made a point of saying to Karim, ‘he’s not a resident. He could be just anybody off the street. Make sure he signs in!’ It never happened.Rather, one day we were stopped as we came in the gate such that Situ could collect his mail!
Well, at the very least I could prohibit the salaams, I thought. Unfortunate Karim faced quite a conundrum: on the one side there was my instruction, clear as crystal, that Situ was banned from receiving the usual ‘assalaamu alaikum’ greetings; on the other side was his heritage and the values of his upbringing. How could he not provide a friendly, respectful greeting, just as he did with everybody else?
We’d walk out the gate together and Karim would be there looking sheepish and awkward after giving
a salaam to me and having to refrain from giving one to my friend. He felt so badly about it that apparently the next time Situ arrived alone, I heard, Karim gave a full-hearted apology, along the lines of, ‘I am so, so sorry; I really want to give you a nice greeting when you come…’
After that Karim used to give a salaam to me but before I had the chance to accept it, Situ would take it, with a sudden ‘walaikum salaam’ returned. In short, he started stealing my greetings! For this I would chastise Karim who’d swear that it’d really been meant for me. Blame Situ, blame the mega-city, but by this stage Karim was starting to relax.
From there it’s true to say the whole foundation of the doorman-resident relationship began to unravel. Somehow there came about a new system by which Karim, who by his very nature and I don’t mean to be critical, is a bit salaam-happy, was restricted to a singular inside-the-gate salaam and a singular outside-the-gate salaam. It was then discovered that an outside-the-gate salaam was not an on-the-road salaam since by that stage I was officially off the property and out of his salaam jurisdiction; though truth be told he sometimes sneaks those in regardless. It all became quite complex, the technicalities of the greeting arrangements.
And of course with the in-the-gate and out-of-the-gate system the challenge arose: to make it to the gate and slip a foot through before Karim noticed such that he’d officially missed one. I understood he felt at home the day he proposed a credit system such that he could give three on the following occasion to make it up. And there are delays on getting into the lift now. Karim sneaks up from behind and just as the doors close they suddenly re-open and he’s there giving one very impressive and hearty final salaam before I go upstairs. It’s a kind of salaam-bonus.
When all is said and done I suppose he’s really rather a good guy, Karim, even if he can’t stop the rain or restore the power during load shedding. I may have mentioned to him that a really good doorman can do anything, and he does at least give an estimate of how many minutes it will take for the rain to stop or the power to come; better still he’s become a proficient explainer in creatively accounting for the inaccuracies of his rain and electricity forecasts.
Meanwhile all the drivers hanging out in the garage area are entertained; meanwhile there’s the constancy of Situ wandering about as he pleases.
And in those little emergencies he’s great at helping out by getting the odd supplies. He knows I prefer the milk from brown cows rather than the black and white ones, and that the origin of the tobacco in the cigarettes should be Kushtia rather than Chuadanga. I hope he doesn’t actually ask these things to the shopkeepers.
So he’s settled in, and all the formality of the innocent newcomer is gone. Karim’s no longer shocked if he’s having lunch and I say, ‘is all that eating really necessary? What about your duty?’ Or when I call on the intercom and begin by asking, ‘where are you now? Are you absolutely in front of the gate, exactly and precisely?’ It’s logistically impossible to be in front of the gate while talking on the phone. So there’s a snigger. ‘I’m standing a little to one side,’ he says. What I mean is he got used to me.
And that interchange, the ‘me-and-Karim-at-the-gate’, has become a miniscule slice of the life of the ever changing mega-city. It’s just another of the millions of asides in the great dramatic production we call Dhaka, a little sigh between the city’s chorus and verse. Needless to say I couldn’t go through with the hijacking caper and he got his change right back.
One day I must find the time to take him up on his longstanding invitation to meet his family. What’s it like there, Faridpur?
Also published at: http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2011/12/02/impressions.htm