You are beautiful, Dhaka
Some days, I wake up feeling wrapped in plastic. This feeling grows over the day, I continuously feel like I am reaching out from underneath a plastic foil as it stretches infinitesimally through my every motion but never tears apart.
On those days, I go out to get stuck in a traffic jam in Dhaka.
"You're not taking the car?" is my Mom's way of affirming whether I am having one of those episodes.
She sighs, rolls her eyes and mutters something under her breath and then gives me a warm hug. This is our ritual, this is how we cope with my sudden transitory escapes in the middle of the day, with warnings of returning before the evening.
But today she smiles, "You look beautiful."
Today, as I hail a rickshaw and as it slowly paddles across an alley and then flits out onto a busy road, my mother's word echoes along with my little silver jhumkas in the air. And thus starts my game.
You can never steer me into a conversation when I am on a rickshaw. Because my mind travels to wherever my eyes land on. I see a toddler on the sidewalk, holding a bright red pinwheel. The man who walks an inch behind that little girl must be her father. And I imagine that the girl must have cried a great deal when she wanted to buy that little pinwheel but her father refused because they were running late for her school. I imagine how puppy-eyed the girl must have been, when her father finally succumbed to go back and buy it, like all fathers do.
My rickshaw slowly halts beside a silver car as a long, familiar traffic jam forms.
Unlike others, I love to wait in a traffic hold up. It gives me more time to watch everything, gives my imagination more time to escalate up and down in its rollercoaster. Inside that car, with the windows rolled up is a girl who's also wearing a saree like me. She carefully tries to align her "tip" right above the bridge of her nose, looking into a small, ornate hand mirror. Who uses mirrors these days? But maybe, it's from a special person. Maybe that's the person she's going to meet. I imagine her with a guy in a green panjabi, walking and talking about books they've read. They might never be together, but she will always look back to this day.
To the left of that car though, parallel to me, a guy sits in a rickshaw arguing loudly in his phone. "Why don't you ever just solve your own problems?" He almost hisses. "I know I am your friend but that doesn't mean–" he is cut short. I phrase his friend's argument in my head "I don't always ask you for your help." Or "This is the last time." Who knows how it would work out?
Ahead of us, in a corner is a small grocery shop where a woman wearing a black burqa is nervously looking right and left as a gang of guys leer at her. I don't need to imagine what she's thinking really. I know it. She's scared and must be having a conversation with herself about why she didn't just listen to her family and not go outside alone like that. I want to jump from the rickshaw and scream at those filthy guys. That's how immersed I get when I try to picture someone else's life to drown out my own. It's like plunging into an ocean from your own glass tank.
I don't get to do that though, the rickshaw pulls ahead when the traffic police signals to. I imagine the traffic policeman waiting for his shift to end, so that he can go to a nearby restaurant and eat his lunch where he'll miss his wife's cooking.
I catch a glimpse of a mango tree, bending humbly and shading a boulevard. A smile sneaks onto my lips, when I think how its leaves rustle and dance in the breeze, just like my open hair does too. Those leaves must watch all those who pass below them, and maybe shy away to let a beam of sunlight shine over only those they find deserving.
Our rickshaw takes a little detour, and again slows down into a small congestion. This one won't take time, I know. I see an almost empty tea stall, where a guy sits staring at an empty cup of tea. Wisps of invisible smoke carrying the weight of sorrow and regrets glide into the sky. He puts it down finally, and buys a small packet of biscuits. Breaking them into tiny pieces, he feeds them to a stray dog which was sleeping under a bench. The dog will always recognise those pair of mud caked shoes, whenever it will see them from inside its safe haven under that rickety old bench.
A woman from a second floor balcony, dries colourful clothes. Her eyes wander to a piece of cloth wedged in between a branch and a window sill. Over it, crows, glistening under the sun, perch over telephone wires. I have a theory that crows listen to all the conversations that pass through those wires.
All the vehicles dissolve and we speed away. An old woman selling boxes of vibrant bangles sits on the road, a man prepares a plate of fuchka for his first customer, a girl sniffs a white rose, and a boy walks with art papers tucked to his chest like they carry his soul. A small skip of puddle on my left, a crowd of people cursing the workers who were digging the road, the stench of drainage and the smell of freshly baked naan and sizzling beef, coexisting.
"Mama, we're here," I am broken from my reverie and see the old rickshaw puller who's wiping away his sweat. Getting down, I hand him a lot of extra notes other than the fare, and his eyes glisten with gratitude. I imagine him returning home, and talking about the extra money he made today because of a young passenger.
Standing on the sidewalk, I finally look at the sky as a way of ending my escape.
Today, the sun overhead looks like a blooming drop of orange colour an artist mistakenly dropped on his otherwise blue canvas. The crows I saw a while ago caw "You're beautiful" together and fly off into the cotton clouds. I believe clouds can hold anything. They hold the souls of animals when they are slaughtered brutally. They have secret gardens for hungry children who were killed for stealing fruits.
A purple kite falters and fitters slowly up the sky. Its string is cut and detached from its owner. It flies on its own, nimbly up, till it disappears into the white clouds. And as I look down, I see another girl, standing in focus amidst a colourful blur of motion, looking at the kite too. This city is a place for bleeding and healing at the same time. Everyone is alone but together here.
Sometimes, I wake up and feel like I am wrapped up in plastic.
But today, ever so slowly and just by a fraction, I break out of it.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org