Help Is at Hand
Onik spun round and round, imitating the child in the TV advertisement. He then stopped abruptly, cocked his head and narrowed eyes ; hands akimbo and legs wide apart, he was the picture of a four-year-old when all his fun derived from copying anything he set his eyes on. He rattled off the words of the jingle – just as the child did. He even remembered to hold his invisible juice-pack in an outstretched hand – keeping the other poised at the waist – and flourish it at the equally invisible camera. When the commercial ended, he stood still for a while and struck a pose to garner the plaudits of the audience – who were, by the way, very visible. The two proud parents clapped as hard as they could, laughing heartily.
The boy jumped onto his mother’s lap who smothered him with kisses.
“Well-done, baba…very well-done…!” Sunny cheered.
“My sona has become quite a performer at this tender age…how sweet…” Tisha ruffled Onik’s bristly hair which stood up on end.
“Yes…he’ll be an actor…for sure …or a singer at least…” Sunny smiled
“No…no…I want to be a …a…crime-fighter…dhia! dhia!!…just like Johnny Cop.I want to beat up criminals…”
“No baba…that’s very b-a-d. One shouldn’t hurt people…” the mother shook head
“But…Johnny’s good…he only kills bad guys…bad people…”Onik looked back at her face.
“Well….we’ll see, baba. But first you have to study and pass exams…otherwise how will you know which guy’s good and which is bad?” the father lifted him up and placed him on the carpet.
Onik blinked but it was not clear if he understood.
“Now go do your homework…I’ll be down in a minute…” Tisha urged.
The four-year old skipped away.
The living room was not small when compared to the ones common to Dhaka flats. A set of sofas, a centre table, a TV trolley and a curio cabinet in the corner fitted well there. One more piece of furniture would clutter it, though. However, any real estate agent would swear it was an absolute waste of space.
“Twelve by twelve…”, the landlord had proclaimed the previous month when Sunny and Tisha had come to pay the three months’ advance.
“Really? It looks smaller to me…” Tisha observed.
“Of course! You can measure it yourself…and the floor tiles are all Sunshine Deluxe, you must’ve seen their ads on TV…it’s number one now! Er…now…let me show you the size of it…K-h-a-l-e-q-u-e!!….let me bring you a tape measure…”
“No need…thanks…there’s no need for that…your word’s good enough and we’re in a hurry too…I have to return to office and she has to pick up our son from school…” Sunny started counted the crisp thousand-taka notes.
“Oh…I see…yeah…everyone’s busy these days…”.The landlord looked at the couple but his look soon strayed to the banknotes.
“Everyone’s running after money and material wealth…no one’s thinking of the hereafter…tsk…tsk…” He took off his cap and began rubbing the grey shock of hair on the crown.
“Here’s the money. It’s final then…I mean…we’re moving in on the first of next month” Sunny smiled.
The landlord had replaced the cap and, feeling the wad of notes in palm, said, “er …the service charge…?”
“Oh…that we can talk about once we move in…salamuwalaikum…”
The middle-aged man just nodded, scowling and managing to mouth, “walaikum…”.
“Who’s Johnny Cop…?” Sunny drew closer, flinging the remote aside.
“It’s a computer game character…we bought him that last week, remember?”
“Hmm…you know something…we shouldn’t anymore, you know? He’s too young…” A frown crowded his brows.
“Whatever do you mean?… games?”
“Yes…may be when he’s older…six or seven at least…”
“Bah! It’s nothing…it’s a completely innocent game and very easy too…I’ve seen it: all you have to do is find out criminals on the run and shoot them on sight…the more dead, the more points…”
“Yes, that’s what I…and besides, it’s hampering his studies, no?”
“Of course not…he’s got tons of homework to do and before he goes to bed tonight he won’t have a moment to think about the game…I’m telling you…by the way, do I smell cigarette here? You’re not smoking again, are you?”
“N-o-o…are you nuts…me and cigarettes?…we bade each other good-bye five years back” he scratched his head.
“OK…and don’t you worry about Onik…this is pure entertainment…all work and no play…” Tisha could not finish.
“Makes Onik a very dull boy…ha!ha!!ha!!!” Sunny grabbed the remote.
“I’m going to see what he’s doing…when dinner’s ready, will call…” Rumi got up.
“Ok, madam…” Sunny said with a twinkle in his eyes.
The morning was like any other that month: humid and dusty. Private cars had not made their appearance as yet and buses were few but swarms of rickshaws had overtaken the roads.They permeated every corner there, without anything to lord over them – not until 9 am at least. Tisha’s rickshaw was at a traffic signal.Onik was seated just beside her whom she tried to protect by holding the hood over his torso.The traffic poilceman had not showed up yet ; nevertheless, the rickshaw-pullers stopped at the lights for a reason unknown. Billboards, banners and posters of all sorts crowded the place.Five giant billboards on both sides loomed. Onik started spelling the words from one.
“C-A-R…L-O-A-N….car l-o-a-n….maa, what’s loan? I know ‘car’ but what’s the meaning of ‘loan’?”
“It’s money people take out of banks to buy cars…”
“Why do they need to take money from the bank? Don’t they have their own money to buy cars with?” he looked up at her face
“No…when people are short of money, they go to banks, borrow the money and buy cars…”
“Do we have money to buy a car?”
Tisha did not know what to say. “No, baba, we don’t…”
“Then why don’t we take it out of the bank? Why don’t we buy a car?”
She did not say anything.
“The children who have cars in my class, have they all borrowed the money from banks too?”
“I d-o-n-t know … perhaps, perhaps not…” she pursed lips.
“They must have…I think we can borrow money to buy a car too…would be nice…then we don’t have to use rickshaw…” he clapped.
“Uff…stop it, Onik! Why do you have to ask such questions? Your baba will buy a car when he can afford one…not before…”
“If we don’t have the money, we must take it from the bank…look at the children with the parents there, maa, they’re outside the car.The father’s borrowed money and the mother looks happy too…I wonder if they asked their parents to borrow money from the bank…” he went on, unaffected by what his mother had said.
The rickshaw-puller yanked the rickshaw forward in a bid to outstrip the ones in the horde. Others were on his heels soon.
Onik looked over his shoulder to the diminishing billboard. “The children must have, like I’m asking you now…I’ll ask baba too…”
“Ok…ok…do that…now, push closer, you’ll fall off the edge… and hold my hand tight….we’ll be in school in five minutes.”
American Standard School stood at the juncture of two roads. There, at the time when all the junior-section classes were over, a constant traffic jam plagued the local residents.Parked cars lined both sides of the roads as far as the eye could see.Parents jammed the school gates to pick up their children, apparently in a race as to who picks theirs first.Tisha had been sitting outside with a group of mothers chatting in the shade.They had all had stories to tell and if some talked about ingrate husbands, others vented anger at unnamed mothers-in-law, while some others argued about the best advertisement of atta brand on television – some said Korat and some said Sikder . Sitting in the middle, Tisha had difficulty keeping track of all the threads spun around her.
“Maa, buy me a juice-pack…” Onik demanded once he came out of the gate.
“Yesterday I bought you one…not today…no…”
“No…no…I want the new juice…now!” he stamped his foot.
“If you drink juice everyday, baba, you’ll get sick…you’ll have pain in the belly…”
“No…I want the new Fizzy juice pack…it’s packed with vitamins…”
Tisha stopped. “Where did you learn it: ‘packed with vitamins’?” she asked with surprise written all over her face.
“It’s the ad…the ad…I also learnt a lot more things…it has extra calcium which is good for children’s bones…and it comes with free tattoos…”
The mother had no other way but give in.
Dignity Variety Store stocked all brands of juice-pack a child could think of. There were Jaan, MCI, Miranda and the like. Fizzy Juice bunting adorned its entrance. In the bunting, a young girl held a pack in her hand.The straw thrusted up and almost reached her lips but layers of lipstick prevented her from sipping, it seemed. Instead, she pouted just an inch above the top of the straw – afraid it would smudge her lips’ colour. The heavily painted eyes looked dreary. The polished nails glistened.
“There it is!” Onik pointed shouting.
The sales boy smiled and got down one pack.
“But I want the double-mazaa pack – not this one…” Onik complained.
“Babu, we’re fresh out …tomorrow you can get that…” the boy assured.
“Baba, why don’t you take this one…what’s so special about the other one, anyway?”
“That has twice the amount of calcium and vitamins…not to mention two free tattoos…” he almost snivelled.
“Just buy this one today…tomorrow when the other one’s available, I’ll buy you that”
Sunny clutched the folded-down hood tightly.The thought of what Tisha had told her over phone jolted him. He left office immediately, braving his boss’ on-the-warpath stance.His fatherly emotions kept jarring inside his heart and welled up all over. Self-pity peeped out too.What kind of a father am I?, he asked himself. The one that can’t safeguard his child’s safety, came the answer. His child, whom he had cradled in his arms and showered kisses upon not so long ago, speadeagled on the road!! No, it was utterly unimaginable.
The rickshaw pulled up at the intersection.The traffic lights kept alternating between red and orange – the green had gone phut.The busy sergeant thrashed about waving in and out wheelers of all sizes. Billboards watched mutely from all sides. Sunny could not help noticing one in which a boy – not much older than Onik – was in the front apparently addressing the audience and saying: “We’ll get the car this month as soon as Papa takes care of the down payment.Then it will be no problem for us getting around”.In the background the parents stood by a brand new car, smirking beatifically.
It’s a godsend, Sunny thought.He quickly saved the bank’s phone numbers.
“Where is he?”, Sunny anxiously asked, once home.
“Lying down…sleeping” Tisha spoke softly.
He slumped down on the sofa. She sat close, placing her hand on his left knee.
“It happened all of a sudden : there was big bump from behind and the next thing I knew I was on the road and so was he. The CNG sped away. But don’t you worry, we weren’t hurt. Just some grazes…”
He placed his palm over hers where the grazes were.
“I feel miserable…I feel I’m responsible for all this…!” he uttered.
“What nonsense! What did you have to do with it?” she enquired, a bit miffed.
“No…I mean…if we had a car, this would never have happened…we should have one…it’s imperative we do…”
“But we can’t afford it…not now at least.It would cost a lot!”
“I don’t know…I have to arrange the money I guess…somehow.May be we can buy an old one. I’ll ask Bhaiya for a loan….” His head was in his hands.
“I don’t want to create pressure on you but…to tell you the truth, I’m afraid too of taking him to school by rickshaw.We set off so early in morning…it gives me the creeps…”
“Yes, I understand in these times it’s impossible to get around without a car…there’s no other way left but buy a car….” Sunny sighed.
Shajed lay in bed with his eyes wide open at the ceiling. He had come to Dhaka in the morning and, after having breakfast, he thought of catching forty winks but at this hour he could not manage any. He did not like the city even though he had to set foot here sometimes. His widowed mother made sure he visited his two elder brothers at least twice every year.Then he had to leave his cosy bicycle parts store at Haat Gopalpur behind.There, his trusted Uttom Kaka tended the store in his absence. Old age had worn off all the youthful qualities but could not dent his trustworthiness.
He got down from bed and, after some hesitation, opened a window and lit a cigarette. Looking out, he saw a jungle of billboards in the distance – each bigger than another. The biggest one was an after shave’s. “Wanna get her attention?”, it sported in mod Bangla letters. “Redefine your manliness. Bring home Pheroman”. Another was of a skin brightening cream called Fair Factor.The young model was presented in her ‘before’ and ‘after’ manifestations – the first ‘dark’ and, the second, ‘fair’. “Get set for the treat of your life. Bring out the fair woman in you. Naturally”, it read in English. Shajed wondered what was so virile about using an after-shave to attract women’s attention or ‘natural’ about a complexion brightening cream when it was actually working against….
May be the meaning of the word ‘nature’ had undergone a change without his knowing it. He snorted.
Rat-tat! A knock on the door made him start. He quickly squashed his cigarette-end, threw it out, opened the other window and turned on the fan.
“Kaku…open up!” it was Onik’s voice outside.
Shajed opened the door.
“Hello, chachu, how’re you? I heard you fell down and hurt yourself?”
“It was nothing…just some scratches…when I’m grown-up , I’ll fight like Corporal Chris. Nothing can hurt me then…” he made a fist and punched in the air.
“Who’s that?” Shajed blurted out.
“My God ! You don’t know him? He’s my hero. He’s undefeatable – he’s a warrior. He always wins.”
“I see…chachu, I brought you mangoes…fresh from our trees in the village.Have you tried those?’
“No…maa didn’t tell me….and there’s no need nowadays for having fresh mangoes…” Onik shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t you know mangoes are packed nowadays as juice?”
“Oh, yeah … how so? ” Shajed felt intrigued.
“Of course… the natural goodness of fruits is now available in packs…it even has more vitamins and minerals than the fruits themselves… there’s this ad ….you see? There’s no need for them anymore…” Onik said confidently.
Things fell into their places for Shajed. His dislike for the city did not shrink in that second.
He wanted to veer the child’s mind away.
“Chachu, let’s go out…I’ll take you out for a walk…remember last year I took you to the field and we played football? Let’s…”, he proposed.
“Oh kaku, … not possible. I have to do my homework now and after that maa will give me only half an hour’s break. Then I’ll get time to play Search and Destroy. After that I’ll again go for more homework.
So, no going-out ….” he shrugged his shoulders again.
Finally, Shajed saw reason.
Sunny returned home dejected. He wondered where to get the money from. His older brother had turned him down. He had just had to buy a powerful generator for his whole house – the IPS was on the fritz – and had ‘not a sou’ to part with. There was no one else he could turn to. Obviously, he could not ask his in-laws.He would rather die.The only way was to take out a loan from the bank.But, as the bank only lent for buying new cars, the burden of monthly instalments would be back-breaking. Nevertheless, he had to try for that. “Needs must when…” he found himself mumbling.
Tisha entered the living room and from looking at her husband’s face it did not take her long to divine what had happened.
“Bhaiya couldn’t, huh?” she asked.
Sunny shook his head.
“You know may be…we should forget the whole thing…you know….let’s face it: we can’t afford a car – not a new one at any rate. So we’ll stick to rickshaw and we’ll manage…” She put an arm round his shoulders.
“No…no…we’ll have to come up with a way to deal with it.We can pull it off. Maybe…and this is just a thought…we should rent a smaller flat.Then we don’t have to spend a king’s ransom on this one” he looked around and sighed.
“But…even then we can’t manage the instalments”.
“We can…we have to…think…think…” he tapped his own forheard with fists.
“Even if we can, where will the money for the down payment come from?”
“I’m thinking selling the landed property in my name in the village.I never needed it and now that I do…I’ll ask Shajed to sell it…it will bring at least…”
“One year ago you’d never have agreed.I told you last year.You were vehemently opposed to it…”
“Times change, Tisha. Necessity takes its toll at times. Only parents know…” Sunny got up and loosened his tie-knot. “Where’s Onik?”
“He’s playing computer games…”
“Ok…he needs some entertainment of his kind. He has to put up with all the studying…”
The car was parked in front of the four-storeyed building.From the tiny balcony Tisha looked down.The sleek roof of the vehicle looked back at her.The money from selling the piece of land had arrived the previous week.They had loaned the money under a five-year scheme.A driver was appointed for two months. “I’ll drive from the third month” Sunny had said the previous night.The new flat had only two rooms and a dining-cum-living space.There was no lift and the neighbourhood was in a far cheaper part of the city. Slums surrounded the part from two sides.
Nevertheless, they had the car, she thought.At least she did not have to worry about taking her son to school on time and did not have to wait around for a rickshaw.Onik Had not liked the car, though. “It’s much too small if you think of the cars in the ads…and no A/C” he said.But if one thing he was happy about was he had prevailed on his parents to take out a loan from the bank.He called it ‘our bank’ now.He was also convinced it was there to safeguard them against all difficulties – financial or otherwise. He had got a complimentary umbrella fom his ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ from there. It had red and white alternating strips. He carried it with him at all times.
“My head’s swimmimg.How come we’ve spent so much this month…?” the calculator all but dropped from Tisha’s hand.
Sunny looked on, trying to figure out what the expenses had been but his memory could not serve.
“My God ! This is twice as much as last month’s In fact, this is the most in the last six months.Since the buying of the car…”
“It’s only natural as we had to buy the oven, the toaster…the water filter — all on Domesticaid Plan…and there were the house rent, car instalment, not to mention the driver’s salary. I just haven’t been able to get round to take driving lessons…tsk..tsk…”
“Don’t forget the servicing of the car and fuel cost .How did we let ourselves be dragged into spending all that much?”
“ Why not? We don’t have a servant to make rotis – so the toaster, the water’s undrinkable, hence the electric water-filter…”
“And now with me working full-time, we need a washing –machine and a dish-washer. There’s a sale going on at Electrosave. Up to 10% off. The banners are everywhere.And the sooner we can buy the dishwasher, the better because free gifts are there – an iron and a hair-dryer. The iron has become old. Instalments are available. Didn’t you see in the paper today?”
“We can get the dish-washer later…we need a laptop now.We can pay that in inastalments…not the dishwasher…” Sunny cut in.
“But the laptop is NOT necessary…the dish-washer is…”
“What do you mean? I can’t work at home because the computer’s in Onik’s possession all the time...I can do some office work it if I get that…”
“Obviously not ! No office-work at home. Washing plates is something I don’t like doing… and when was the last time you helped me with that, huh?”
“No dish-washer and that’s final! I want my L-A-P-T-O-P!” Sunny’s voice crossed the boundary of normalcy as he thumped the table with his fist.
“Shut up! You never sacrifice! It’s I who have to knuckle under E-V-E-R-Y T-I-M-E!!” Tisha rolled her eyes and threw up her arms.
They looked at each other with fiery eyes – ready to crush the opponent with the fabled basilisk stare. But, the very next minute, the fire got doused by the realization of plain inanity of it all. Both sets of eyes looked down, pretending to efface the embarrassment instantaneously.
They used to pride themselves on their good understanding. Somehow, that magic had been amiss for sometime past. Communication revolved around expenses, instalments, bills, new necessities and newer wants. They could not even have a full-fledged tiff – it was evident.
Tisha got up hurriedly. Sunny pulled up the newspaper to read, holding it upside down.
The city that had numerous billboards had an equal number of cars and it was anybody’s guess how very many rickshaws. Rickshaw-pullers raced column after column of them ahead, casting traffic caution to the winds. Some had soiled tee-shirts sporting writings like “Mull your future with Mollah for all your real estate needs”. Some wore caps that had
“Hosain Ply Wood” or “Nasima Print Saree” blazing in over-bright colours. Backs of rickshaws had miniature posters stuck that dispensed gratuitous advice to newly married young men so they could send their wives to the seventh heaven at ‘special moments’. They passed on other promises too in forms of unique oils, ointments and tablets which caused accidental onlookers become red in face with shame. The afternoon sun’s slanting rays ratcheted up the sentiment. If only rick-pullers could read!
Onik was sitting in the car with a notebook computer on lap.In the backseat he was playing Lofty Larceny intently. In his brief life of five years this was the most happening time.In the mornings his parents dropped him off at the school.Then the driver picked him up, left him at the day-care centre where he would be until five and then go pick up his parents from their offices.There was no imposition on him from anywhere. He could do as he liked.The aunties at the day-care were liberal – they sweetly smiled at everything or said at times ‘no, not that…I’ll tell your mummy’ smiling which he knew would never come to pass .Lunch was sheer fun : he chose when he wanted to have chicken broast or pizza or jumbo cheese burger. All he had done was wheedle his parents to get a regular Fantasy Fried Chicken (FFC) lunch meal. He had built a large collection of free toy cars that came with the meals.
“Baba…what did you learn in school today?” Sunny pulled his son close on the bed.
“A lot of things, baba…you know, something interesting happened…some people came from Safesave Bank.They wanted to put all our money in their bank.It was the safest place to put all money, they said. They also gave us free erasers and pencils…wait…I’ll fetch them…” He zipped off and returned with equal agility.
“Here! …here they are…”, he opened his palm.
One pencil and an eraser were there with “Save with Safesave Bank – your trusted partner in banking” printed.
“Well…very good indeed” the father appreciated.
“Ok…that’s interesting…” Tisha smiled from the corner, plaiting her hair.
“Yes…they also asked for our parents’ mobile numbers…”
“What! Why…?” Sunny had some alarm in voice.
“Because they want their money in their bank too. They said it would…be double in just three years…”
“Surely you didn’t ….” Tisha came near smiling.
“No, no…I don’t know your numbers…how could I?”
She heaved a sigh of relief.
“Instead, I did something better…” the child was ecstatic. “I told them about your stash of notes in the folds of clothes in the closet. I know you want to buy a dish-washer with that. I overheard you talking to Auntie Nisha…and baba’s cigarette-money in the third pair of shoes from left in the rack…both amounts can be better off in the bank…” he feigned a wise posture.
Both Sunny and Rumi lay stock-still. They had no idea they could be thus ratted out to each other. Even to look at each other in surprise would have been embarrassing.
“I did the right thing. Didn’t I, maa? The bank is the safest place after all…what’s the use of keeping it hidden like that when help’s at hand…?”
Onik tugged at her orna.