Dhaka: Crossing the Night (Bengali + English)

What am I doing in London? I’m in the wrong city.

Passing close to the Secret Intelligence Service building I notice it looks like a silver house of cards. The Thames shudders under the Vauxhall Hall Bridge. I still have my brown glasses on my nose, I walk forward adjusting my orange dress with each step. MI6 was built on gardens opposite a gin distillery. Thatcher bought it for 130 million pounds, I think.

My boyfriend is waiting for me on the rooftop of a building that also doubles as a squash court, gym and Japanese restaurant. I inhale the smell of over-grilled maki and hurry to his table, a round glass one. I pull myself up on a stool and sip from the cocktail he ordered, a kind of Mai Tai with orangeade. I think still of the triple-glazed MI6 buildings, tuck my pen into my burgundy Lolita Lempiecka bag with fringe.

এই শহরে কে আমাকে চেনে? (Ei shohore ke amake chene?) Who in this town knows me?

He makes me promise to meet him at the Visva-Bharati University where he teaches, the university of the humanist poet Rabindranath Tagore. I agree. He is tall, thin, boisterous, respectful and charming. He shows me pages he has calligraphed himself, I find the gilding beautiful, I tell him, he smiles, an angel’s smile. « আমি বাংলা কবিতা লিখতে চাই (Ami bangla kobita likhte chai)

The next day, my boyfriend left, leaving me about ten messages. I put on a short dress with ruffles and black polka dots and went to visit Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets. I have a headache, I feel depressed without really knowing why. In Brick Lane, the alleys are black with people. I notice that some street names are written in Bengali.

Later in the day, the sun came back to haunt Londoners. I cross a market choking with colors and find myself near a station, on a deserted avenue. I hear a crash and see two overturned cars, smoking. I shake like a leaf.এই দুর্ঘটনাটি অশুভ। (Ei durghotna ashubho) This accident is an omen. I must leave London. The firemen eventually reach the scene of the accident. It smells the burnt in all the district. My boyfriend calls me, he sends me plane tickets.

The next day, once at Heathrow, I sit down at a small varnished wooden table. A waitress with a harelip brings me two glasses of whisky. An elegant man reading a Spanish newspaper on my right stares at me. I take the two whiskeys in succession. I feel drained, tired not by alcohol but by depression. The airport hosts steel sculptures and artificial plants. এটি একটি বিনোদন পার্কের মতো মনে হয় (Eti ekti binodan parker moto mone hoy) It feels like a theme park.

I’m in Terminal 1, but the airport hosts over 80 airlines. I put on a white tunic and pull up my tortoiseshell glasses on my nose. Something is missing in this airport – silence? -. Or maybe it’s something else. I order a third drink, a non-alcoholic grenadine, and drink it while looking down. I feel like crying. The night is about to rush through the airport doors.

The plane is late. At the counter, lines of angry people are holding up their tickets. I approach the stewardess and ask her when the next plane to Calcutta will leave. She stammers a few words, and beckons her colleague to come to me. « There is a plane to South Asia, but it goes to Dhaka. I shrug my shoulders. I think Dhaka is close to Calcutta but I don’t know Bangladesh. But I feel in a cotton mood. I could throw myself under the undercarriage of a plane so constricted is my chest.

« আমাকে বাংলাদেশের রাজধানীতে টিকিট দিন »। (Amake Bangladesher rajdhanite tikit din) « Give me a plane ticket to Dhaka ».

The flight goes strangely, I am immersed in a kind of stupor. I tell myself that I have done something wrong, that I don’t know anyone in Bangladesh and that it will be difficult for me to join my boyfriend. The problems related to the visa are waiting for me at the arrival.

Shah Jalal airport lies still like a dog rolled into a ball. The stars still twinkle in pink and gold dress in the early morning. A man perched on a cleaning machine shoots fumes of water vapor into the air. Looking through the window, I also see several buses carrying passengers. Shah Jalal, for whom the airport is named, estবাংলাদেশের অন্যতম গুরুত্বপূর্ণ সুফি সাধক (Bangladesher anyotom gurutopurno sufi sadhok), one of the most important sufi saints in Bangladesh, a hostess slips me upon arrival, as I ask her for directions to the cabs.

The cab crosses the district of Uttara, whose name derives from the Bengali « uttar » for north. It is a residential district in American style. Some palm trees take the sun and attract my glance. High skyscrapers pierce the night that is falling. I ask the cab to take me to the Regency Hotel in Uttara of which I found a brochure in the plane.

Once my things are spread out on the bed of the hotel, I decide to leave to walk a half-hour. I am exhausted, the alcohol I drank during the day did not help me to relax. The hall of the hotel looks like a cardboard movie set. My boyfriend is still calling me. The moon sketches a few furrows of light outside. A fresh wind tickles my ears.

The stores in the mall I’m walking through are still open. I hear laughter, I turn around, there is nobody there. I clutch my phone, I hesitate to finally admit to my friend that I have been escaping his company. Again, someone bursts out laughing.

« এখানে কে » (Ekhane ke) « Who’s there, » I yell, half enveloped by the smell of incense.

And then I understand that no one is talking to me, that it is the night itself that is addressing me. I tell myself that my depression has not improved. But the night really seems to speak to me and to open itself to me. It lets out a little starlight and my eyes start to shine.It’s God talking to me, isn’t it?

— You won’t find any God in these streets full of sulphur.

— Who am I talking to then? I clench my fists, so as not to slump to the ground in a stupor

— সিটি নিজেই। (City nijei) To the City itself.

The night is heartbreakingly beautiful. I contemplate the faces that brush past me. What am I doing here? Yet, I feel for the first time in my life, that I made the right decision. I take out my plane ticket and scribble a few lines, then I throw the paper in the wind, to have the satisfaction of seeing my poetry shine in the Dhaka night.If I talk to the City, have I gone mad?

— No, I have not. I speak only to the souls I choose, the City whispers to me in the dark, with a soft, seductive voice.

Suddenly, the streetlights that had remained unlit begin to crackle. Frightened, a dog runs away. The sound of a radio reaches me from a balcony. What am I doing in this unknown city, alone and happy to be so, talking with the night of the capital?

I keep walking. A Ford dealership closes its blinds. Many Bed&Breakfasts start to turn off their lighted signs. Other signs are adorned with pink neon lights.আমি যেখানে যেতে হবে?(Ami jekhane jete hobe?) Where should I go? I end up asking at night.

— এই রাত কি শেষ হবে, (Ei rate ki shesh hobe?) Will this night be the last, I ask the city?

— Certainly not where you wanted it. The City bursts out laughing as it answers me.

Yes, I am conversing with the soul of the city of Dhaka, tired from my day, exhausted from my indecision, from the alcohol, and Dhaka answers me with the greatest thoughtfulness. I walk through the streets, through the neighborhoods, getting lost a hundred more times.এই রাত কি শেষ হবে, (Ei rate ki shesh hobe?) Will this night be the last, I ask the city?

— Oh, don’t worry, I’ll spit you out to your daily routine in the morning, she replies. And a shooting star passes before my dazzled eyes.

Decorated and flashy trucks almost run me over. The rain starts to fall on my naked shoulders. No one has spoken to me yet, even though I am a stranger, lost in the lights of the Bangladeshi capital.Why doesn’t anyone look at me? I ask the city, which accompanies me in my crossing of the university of Dhaka. I arrive, breathless, near the Shahid Minar, the memorial of the martyrs. The steps in front of the memorial are covered with orange and white flowers, and candles light up the white bars next to the big red circle of the memorial.

— No one knows you are here, » the City tells me.

The moon whistles its light through the Dhaka gate. The Doyel Chottor traffic circle is black with people, but no one actually turns towards me. I smile.

— কেউ না (Keu na?) Nobody?

— Nobody. কেউ না (Keu na)

— So I have become invisible?

— All ghosts are, the city mocks.

At Dhaka University, students are still standing outside, some smoking. A sculpture with three men holding a rifle glows in the darkness; a rikshway whose driver is dressed in white passes me by, I feel nothing.

I pass the library of Dhaka University. The white gates are closed. A blue garbage can disgorges sandwich papers. A white and tan dog gasps on the dirt road. In front of a green and blue kiosk, a young girl waits on a motorcycle. I hesitate to go and talk to her.Can nobody hear me?

— No. From the moment you left the hotel, you became a ghost.

— But you can hear me.

— I am the pulse of the city you are passing through. Of course I know who you are. Of course I hear you. I see you and I penetrate your heart. You see, you’re already getting attached to the Bengali night. Don’t the stars refresh your soul?

I sigh. The city has a rather poetically strange way of speaking, and yet it is the only companion I can have this night.

— You don’t wish to escape my company? Don’t you fear me?

I know that my body is asleep between the impeccable sheets of the Regency Hotel. As for me, I am chatting with the city of Dhaka, which my ghost is crossing. I have this immense privilege to have the ear and eyes of the night tonight and I intend to live this madness fully.

The university mosque is also deserted. Posters in Bengali half torn of all the colors are posted on its walls. Behind me, on an immaculate white wall, red and black Bengali tags. I gasp. I would like some air.You don’t feel well, the city asks me.

— Can you take me to the banks of the river?

— Consider your wishes as orders.

The Burigonga (literally the « Old Ganges ») flows through the southwestern suburbs of the Bengali capital. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the country, yet seeing its fresh water and dipping my hand in it makes me tremble with emotion. Small commercial boats are still at work. I throw the net of my doubts into the water and laugh at my adventure.Why are you laughing, the city asks me.

— I am happy to have met you, the City, that’s all.

Plastic bottles float in the water. A textile dye factory spits ink into the water a few feet away. Seagulls fly over my pale forehead. Further on, students try to film a young girl in a yellow tunic. The night also welcomes the hurried steps of travelers. But what time is it? I look in my pocket. My phone is gone. I don’t know if I really want to go and join my friend in Shantiniketan. This world seems too precious, too realistic, and I want to get lost in the urban smoke of adventure. I want to melt into the metal of the heart of the Bengali capital, to talk every night with the City, if it will be my companion.

But I don’t tell him that, and I sit on the banks, my knees folded in my cold hands. The night has almost said its last word, and I know that in a few moments I will find myself suffocating in the morning heat in the Regency Hotel. But for the moment, my gaze is lost in the red night, and the faces I see on the banks hit me like delicious music. A smell of grilled meat reaches my nostrils. I tremble a little, I don’t want to leave. A fruit and vegetable vendor crosses me, but I start to get used to being a lost spectre in Dhaka.

The dawn awakens, a boat with pineapples slowly glides along the Buriganga. I stand up, into the pearly pink sky. The students must have left, taking their cameras with them. I sponge my forehead, the day promises to be hot. My step is slowed down by the smells I try to impregnate myself with before disappearing, by the light I try to make slide on my skin before waking up. But it is time to leave the Bengali night, and my body is already smoking as the sun approaches. I hear a Baul song that makes me tremble, I open my lips to thank the City for letting me approach it.

— আবার দেখা হবে (Abar dekha hobe), See you soon, she tells me.

And she takes me under her arm and wraps me in heavy smoke.

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