Nishat prepares iftari, a sumptuous light meal that includes lemon sorbet, dates, fruits, nuts, begooni, samosa, beans and curd. It is the best part of fasting. But now that she is visiting Bangladesh in preparation for the upcoming Eid ul-Fitr, I manage things on my own at our new home, Dhahran.
Life of a single man in Saudi Arabia is lonesome, particularly during this month of Ramadan. Typically, my day starts with sehri followed by the Fajr prayer at dawn. At about seven I head for work, walking before the sun becomes burning hot. The temperature is already on a steep rise, soaring to forty-five or fifty degrees Celsius by noon. The office hours are shorter due to Ramadan, but I do my full day’s work. There is always plenty to do and it is a good time to get things done when nobody is around – no phone calls, no distractions, except that my stomach grumbles from time to time. When I leave the office around five, the forty-minute walk gives me a good sweat and grills my thirst – yet it is a comfortable journey compared to the day-long grueling work taking place on construction sites.
The iftari is at sunset and the main meal comes later in the evening. In Nishat’s absence, I forgo iftari and break my fast with the main meal – bhat, dal and some veggies. I do not like to spend too much time cooking after a long, tiring day. Today I make things even simpler–bhat and dal with some slices of gourd in it. The smell tells me that the dal is cooked well.
As it gets closer to sunset, I get my dinner table ready–a glass and a jug of cold mineral water and the meal. As usual, the last few minutes keep stretching. Finally, I hear the Maghrib azan.
I empty the glass in a few gulps and go for a second. I start mixing the bhat and dal, employing all five fingers–the more you mix, the better it tastes. I lick my fingers, add a bit of salt and keep mixing it, one more round. The first bite in my saliva-filled mouth calms my rumbling stomach and soothes my soul. But the taste stirs up buried emotion and incurs images from my childhood.
We live at Jamal Khan Lane, Ananda Bag, Chittagong, attending the Municipality High School near Biponi Bitan. Like any other day, we brothers return from the school, drop our books, get a bite and run off to the playground. We head back home, sweating, as we hear the Maghrib azan. We go for a wash and then get to our study tables. Ma has just finished her prayer and will soon be preparing the evening meal.
The busy lane has gone quiet. The hawkers have disappeared. But the rearest illsome rickshaws tinkling their bells and the last few fakirs knocking on the doors, ‘Ma go, chydda bhat. Sharadin na khawa?’
I hear Ma calling, “Baba, Tohon, there is some leftover food in the kitchen.” I run to the door without delay. I ask him to take a seat and then run to the kitchen. I first scoop the bhat onto a worn-out tin plate and then pour the watery dal on it. I pick a lump of ground salt from the noondani using my thumb and two fingers and then drop it in one corner of the plate. I get the tin glass and pour in water from the earthen jar.
When I get back, I see the fakir sitting on the floor cross-legged. He has put aside his belongings – a few thinly filled bags. Households generally offer uncooked rice, one of the many sorts: long-grain, short-grain, basmati, sunned rice, parboiled rice and so on. And then there is a variety within a variety, type within a type, and brand within a brand. Obviously, it is not practical to carry a collection bag for each sort.
I serve him the meal. In the dimness of the light, I see a ray of a smile on his worn-out face. He picks up the glass and gets to his feet. I notice he is hunchbacked, taller than me. He looks old, with his grey beard, thin hair and wrinkled face. He is wearing a lungi and a kurta, too loose for his thin, bony frame. His bare foot, skeleton feet show the marks of the miles he has trodden over the years.
He steps out from the veranda and, with a little water, washes his right palm and then gurgles to give his mouth a good rinse. He returns to his seat while gulping one short drink. He picks up a bit of salt with the touch of his wet finger and then starts mixing it with the bhat and dal. He licks his fingers, makes one more touch on the salt and goes mixing it again. He raises his head, looks at me with his cataract eyes and says humbly, “Baba, one green chili, please.”
I run to the kitchen again, pick up a few green chilies and get back to him in no time. He puts the chilies alongside the plate, licks his palm and then the thumb and fingers, one by one. He is now ready to eat.
With eyes focused on the plate, he gobbles one mouthful after another, with bites of the chilies making the well-blended dal-bhat hotter and heartier. He takes a break every now and then to lick his fingers clean. As I watch him, my mouth keeps watering and I cannot help but gulp to unload the saliva from time to time. I stand motionless, leaning against the door, and devour with him the everlasting taste of the food of life.
Over the years I have travelled to many lands and enjoyed many meals but never again tasted anything close to that I shared with the fakir that evening. After the day’s fast, the first bite not only resurrects that long-losttaste, but also reveals the fakir within me.
Tohon is an emerging short-story writer. He has published in the Star Weekend Magazine and Star Literature & Reviews pages.