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    Volume 11 |Issue 03| January 20, 2012 |


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In the ’hood

Andrew Eagle

'Tell me why are we, so blind to see,
that the ones we hurt, are you and me'
— from the song 'Gangsta's Paradise' by Coolio

CNGs, four-wheel drives, pick-up drop-off cars, dogs, pedestrians, the tempos-of-death stopping suddenly, randomly and askew, and the seemingly out of control buses are there to dodge like bullets. Leaping over the median strip like a cheetah, slithering by the edge of the fence that's proudly sponsored by a local bank like a boa constrictor, there's the menace of the mega-conglomeration of choking smoking motorised mayhem once more to brave, on the far side. The trials that need to be overcome for a few groceries!

The Bronx, Harlem or Dhanmondi: yo! We're brothers living in the 'hood.

English brother, the younger (right), doing his thing.
Photos: Andrew Eagle
Brothers in the 'hood.

The tea stall guy is on the corner. 'You close up,' I threaten him, 'where's your licence? This is a footpath. This is no place for a business! No good people are on the street at this hour! You close up!'

'Why?' he taunts, rough as guts, 'who are you, the police?'

'No!' I tell him with authority, 'I'm a foreigner!' I don't suppose that's entirely true in the 'hood. Then, tone softening I continue, 'but before you close, give one cup of tea. And make sure it's not some dui nombor Jinjira tea!' He usually starts speaking to me in Bollywood Hindi. I don't know why. I must one day ask his name.

That's the system in the 'hood now, since Abdul and Faruk actually were hunted away, in the midst of the days of Situ's Sobhan craze. It was when he first implemented his theory that Sobhan was an acceptable generic name for any stranger; much as others use Mama, and he had first dished it out in the local hotel on a waiter. 'No,' the waiter had said, 'Sobhan's not here. He's gone to the village and will be back in a few days.' He spoke with too much sincerity for the 'hood.

The first time failure didn't turn Situ yellow and with Abdul and Faruk the system went down. Abdul caved at the first, and started answering to the name Sobhan; and he may have started calling me Shopon for a time as payback. But Faruk was a fighter: hundreds of times that year Situ said, 'Sobhan, give tea,' and the reply came like machine gun fire, 'my name's not Sobhan. It's Faruk!' The rule of the street was that, back then.

'My name is Habib,' I tell the waiter at the cheap gritty hotel, 'I'm from Bhola.'

'My name is Habib,' he replies as we touch palms and other customers laugh.

  The street kitchen.
Photos: Andrew Eagle
The choking smoking mayhem of the 'hood.

It's got some name that gritty joint but from the start I called it the Yucky Hotel, until I found the food was actually quite tasty. Then it needed something more sophisticated, French sounding perhaps which to an English speaker's ear rings classy-like. Now it's l'hôtel de Yucquie that's spoken about.

After a meal Habib hollers to the kitchen 'one cup Sylhet!' or 'one cup Habigonj!' as he narrates how he's helping his son finish college in Dhaka. At other times he only offers Bholan tea, depending on his mood; and he's got a reputation for slipping the odd gratis tikka kebab onto my plate.

Once I hadn't been for a while, to l'hôtel de Yucquie but Situ came through. The manager got up from his desk and with Habib sat at his table to talk serious-like, one to one and brother to brother. Why hadn't I been there in a while, they asked with earnestness, did they need a new menu? I had only been twice that month. They had been counting. 'It's not the money,' they said and meant, 'we like it when he comes.'

My name is Habib!

It's the English brothers that run the cigarette stall. 'Good morning,' English brother, the elder, used to greet me in the afternoon. They know I can do it in Bangla. They reverse bargain, the brothers English. They sell me a gaslight with a discount and I tell them I don't want the discount and they say without the discount it's not for sale, and I ask for a twenty year warranty on it, so it goes, although that is in Bangla. But each time there's a few more English words, about the rain or a trip to the village or the other brother's whereabouts and they're picking it up alright. When it's 'good morning' it really is morning now and that's progress for the 'hood.

Emran's got his squat for phone refills and the odd shout of tea when he's not on the road. He shows the photos from Darjeeling or Mumbai or as far as his oily rag budget managed to get him in the latest week's absence. He's got a traveller's soul and dreams of a big salary labouring in Italy, although I told him 'impossible! You can't go! Who will refill my phone?' 'I'll do it from there,' he said. If he ever ditches the 'hood and bails I guess I'll be calling Italy for credit refills.

And at the grocery store is Bacchu who's mad about the hilsa fish from his native Chandpur. He piles in the goods and if the bag's of polythene I tell him he's a criminal, and at last he offers a free Choc Bar or takes a break and we too have tea. His managers don't seem to care. His life is tough. I had that figured the day he told me he'd worked at that ruddy grocery store for twenty-four years; and he hardly looks thirty.

The internet joint: how it stayed afloat was beyond me. The concept of business is not to charge ten taka when it should be twenty and throw in a five taka cup of tea, there too. They make the real bucks on the household connections, they said.

The vegetable brother, I don't really know him, but he always throws my way a smile and a laugh. It's because of the day I was bored so, as he stood outside his shop in a row of vegetable joints, I suggested slyly if I distracted the next shopkeeper, if he wouldn't mind, he could pinch one of the watermelons and run up the street and I'd meet him on the corner. It was season then and watermelons were piled high along the footpaths. It was our first conversation. 'But I'll get arrested,' he said and there's no doubt he's an ek nombor guy but part of him enjoyed the naughtiness and unexpectedness of the watermelon-snatching plan, coming from a stranger. He remembers being entertained by my little performance.

Finally, cheetah leaping and boa constrictor constricting and dodging and baulking, running and walking, scrambling through the maze of the jam with groceries in hand it's time to make it to the home base, to Karim-at-the-gate. There are tales of hardship and triumph, struggling to get by and fighting the odds. There's camaraderie in the blood of our life in the 'hood, a usual commodity in the gangsta boroughs of a mega-city, like in the Bronx, like in Harlem, like in Dhanmondi.

My name is Habib! And so is yours.


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