Turbulent, murky, and eccentrically wide at this time of the rainy seasons, the river Padma flows incessantly. Lashing with fury at its banks on both sides the river flows swallowing fertile lands, homesteads, settlements. It is a different story at Mawabazar though, where humans endeavour to tame the river. The river here stands as a barrier to the extension of Dhaka-Mawa highway through Shibchar on the other side. As the structure of the Padma bridge rises from the abyss of flood waters, the vestige of the barrier gradually slips away. Forty-six piers stand like petrified giants above the flood water level. Some piers have been joined by decks supported on steel truss girders.
The construction site of the Padma bridge at Mawabazar is abuzz with the activities of workers, technicians and engineers. With the droning of heavy-duty trucks, forklift and excavation machines, the site has come alive. The construction work of the bridge has sent down ripples across Mawabazar and the surrounding villages like Bhagyakul, Mandra, Kabutarkhola, Jashaldia, Medinimondol. About fifty years ago, they used to be quiet rural hamlets, where farmers, boatmen, fishermen lived their lives unperturbed by what was happening in the rest of the world. Now they have woken up to embrace the changing ways of life and the prospects promised by the Padma bridge.
Local people of Mawabazar and the surrounding villages dream about their villages being turned into small towns with amenities of urban life: streets, shopping malls, fast food restaurants, cinema halls. Life would be completely changed for better; lands would be surely valued at the price of gold! When the Padma bridge would be a reality! Village people cannot wait to see that happen.
Rashid alias Raishya, a fifteen-year- old destitute lad, limps and plods on the edge of the brick soled road from Bhagyakul to Mawabazar. Alone in this world, he had polio as a kid. How could his poor parents afford proper treatment for their son? And the polio left him crippled. Raishya spends his whole day-time in the bazar begging food from hotels and restaurants. Sometimes he spends time on the river bank watching construction activities.
On the Mawabazar bank, Raishya sometimes muses how he grew up by the river side. The Padma is such a wide river during the monsoon that the other side looks like a thin line. After a heavy monsoon rain the flood waters from the upstream would rush down in vortexes. His father often warned him: "Don't dive into the Gholna, nobody can save you from there."
Sometimes in his sleep, Raishya would hear the sound of chunks of the bank giving way to the marauding flood water. Then he saw his father waking up and sauntering to the river bank to assess how devastating the river pillage was! He would spend days worrying about the river erosion and the threat it posed to their riverside small homestead; and pondered on where to move when that happened. But it happened one night anyway, which made Raishya both orphan and destitute.
As the bridge decks are closing on from both banks, Raishya desperately hopes to see this mighty Padma river tamed.
Mawabazar has five hotels and restaurants to meet its customers' culinary demands; that includes fried Hilsa fish harvested from the Padma. Rahmania Hotel is one of those.
Rahmania Hotel comes to life early in the morning. Cacophony of the customers, sounds of frying paratha, the mouth-watering flavor of omelet, heightened by the tinkling sound of tea cups, plates and spoons almost reach a crescendo.
Raishya dreams about a full meal. He can't remember when last he had one. Because of his handicap, nobody in the bazar wants to hire him. The hunger consumes him, it burns in his eyes and gnarls his face, often drives him crazy. Sometimes he gets around the shops to sneak into the backside of the hotels. He would inhale the fiery smell of the spices and curries and would imagine a full plate of delicacies.
On a big table at the backside of hotels, the hoteliers dump the waste foods: stale rice and lentils, Hilsa fish heads and uneaten chicken legs; chicken wattles and necks, ribs -- not favoured by the diners. The hoteliers often get rid of those foods by recycling them to destitute people like Raishya. He particularly loves the bony Hilsa fish heads and the chicken necks, because he can chew on them for a long time.
Mawabazar has only one bakery shop, Sulemani Bread and Butter. When the bakery shop opens in the morning, the bakery man organizes on the shelves' bread taken fresh out of the oven. The sweet smell of the freshly baked bread wafts out of the shop and pleases the sensory organs of the passers-by. Raishya takes a deep breath sniffing the air heavy with the sweet aromal. It titillates his nasal passage and then trickles down spreading warmth on his guts.
This fishing season the river Padma has proved a boon for the fishermen community. The catch from the river has surpassed their expectations. Excited Hilsa fish lovers in Dhaka city crowd Mawabazar to taste the various Hilsa fish curry dishes put on display by the hoteliers. As the tour operators of Hilsa trip unload fish lover tourists at Mawabazar, Raishya reaches the operator's car. "Sir please come to Rahamanyia Hotel, if you want to savior Hilsa fish fresh from the Padma river." Raishya greets the visitors. "They are big, tasty and fresh, Sir, cooked by expert hands. If you taste once, you would come back again and again to Rahamanyia Hotel. Don't ever be tempted by the vendors with unauthentic Hilsa fish curries."
The owner of Rahamanyia Hotel summons Raishya one day, and comes down heavily on him. "Mother_____, who told you to promote my Hilsa fish curry? My customers stand in que for tasting my Hilsa anyway! I don't need any publicity for my hotel. ____ off, you dirty piece of ______."
On a particular day, Raishya hardly has had anything to eat. He feels as if he could swallow all the waters of the river. Suddenly, the half-blind cook of Rahamanyia Hotel calls him over and hands him a half-eaten Hilsa leja (tail piece), some rice and masoor dal in a polythene bag.
Raishya goes to the homestead of a villager by the river bank side; tears a green leaf of a plantain, and then squats on the riverbank. He empties the contents of the packet on the banana leaf, taking care so that not a grain of rice, or a drop of dal and Hilsa curry spill off from the banana leaf. Then he mixes everything with dal and starts eating the mix slowly with relish. The maroon coloured skin of the fish-tail tastes great to Raishya! He doesn't throw away the bones even; pounds each of them between his teeth and softens them with his saliva before gulping down. Then he licks up the banana leaf clean for the remaining broth.
Right at that moment, a steel girder between a pair of piers is in progress. A crane mounted on a barge carries the girder while the barge inches towards the span between the piers. On both the pier heads, engineers and technicians with yellow vests and helmets monitor the movement of the girder with level machines. They watch anxiously as the crane gradually positions the steel girder between the span of the two piers.
After savoring every morsel of his meal Raishya drinks water from the hand tube well at Mawabazar mosque premises to fill up his stomach. He lets out a burp filled with the smell of Hilsa fish but then presses his hands on his mouth so that it does not escape. Finally, he heads back to the riverbank, spreads out his gamchha, looks curiously at the bridge construction. Then he falls asleep.
"Oh Allah, when will this bridge be completed? When finished, would I be able to eat a full meal? This Padma has swallowed my home and my parents. Would this bridge help me to get my lost home back? Would I be lucky enough to build a thatched roof on my head in Padma's char!" All these questions churn in Raishya's head even as he is asleep.
All of a sudden, there is a commotion of engineers and technicians. They are celebrating the successful installation of the steel girder between the two piers. A group of people on the river bank, not far away from where Raishya was resting, clap their hands and yell, "Joy Bangla." The commotion snaps up the blissful siesta of Raishya. It takes only a few moments for him to realise what it is all about. He too wants to shout, "Joy Bangla." But the creeping pain of hunger pulls him back. Still he tries to form the words. A gale blowing across the river, however, completely drowns Raishya's voice. The river Padma, which flows unperturbed, too, does not bother to listen to him.
Faruk Kader writes from Sydney, Australia.