The woman stood at the side of the road and stared at the banana.
“Feed it to the child!” Ajit shouted at her in Bengali and English. “Mush it up in your fingers and feed it to the child!” He mimed the action from where he sat next to me in the car, growing more animated by the moment.
“What is wrong with my country?” he said, and then shook with laughter. We were both laughing as we gave bananas to the poor of Dhaka.
I had flown in 48 hours earlier, by way of Bangkok, to assist in the creation of an underwear factory.
Friends joked that it was my boss’s way of getting rid of his daughter’s boyfriend for good—send the kid somewhere, she’ll forget about him in a hurry. He’d hired me in Hong Kong because I spoke English and just enough French and German that I could deal with European clients. But with a factory in China, I needed different skills—an assertiveness that I completely lacked, an ability to manage that I’d never tested before. If I hadn’t lost him money, I certainly hadn’t made him any.
But this seemed promising—my boss had found a business partner from Bangladesh, and knew that shipping product from there opened up North American markets that were tariff dead zones from Hong Kong. I would be the man on the ground. This could be a business empire, and I’d be in on the ground floor. It seemed easy enough – I had people there to help me learn, and I was “management” anyhow – a conduit between client and factory. And, even though I was far away, I was confident his daughter wouldn’t forget about me during my time away.
Our business partner, Ajit, met me at the airport, talked me out of the security line and had his driver get my bags packed in the Land Rover. We were soon driving into Dhaka.
I’d met Ajit once before in Hong Kong. He was big, six-foot-tall, and a talker—always wanting to make a deal. And when he wasn’t making a deal, he’d be making a joke about the foolishness of his people, or the chaotic energy of the place. His own energy was legion, and he could barely contain it, could barely sit still.
I don’t know how he made his money, but Ajit wore well-tailored suits and a large, ostentatious wristwatch. He was constantly encouraging me to take vitamin supplements to boost my immunity or increase my energy levels. The favourite among all of his pills and potions were lozenges that you dropped in water. They would fizz like Alka Seltzer and tasted of a sugary orange syrup. After lunch he’d say, “Take, take this Robert, it will keep you strong. This country, you must be careful with your body.” Initially, I had no time for any of this. I was a healthy 24-year-old, full of the excitement of being on the move and ready for this new adventure.
You travelled nowhere fast in Dhaka in 1998. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then it was a matter of settling into your seat as your driver slowly honked his way forward. In Bangladesh, honking is not for emergencies, but for every movement, a reminder to all around you that you are in motion.
And when you stopped, there was always a beggar, always another needy face – crippled, with child, a child alone, a child carrying another child. One little girl of six who always wanted to sell us a single, plastic flower. So many faces in just one drive. I think Ajit saw me affected by this, unsure how to respond to it, and thought it best to make what, in hindsight, seems like a tasteless game, handing out bananas to beggars. He reasoned it was food – better than money that someone else might be making them beg for – and I had no argument. In the moment, it seemed better than nothing. And it was a way to pass a long drive. We were full of energy and good humour.
And begging hands. Always the begging hands.
I had two rooms to myself in the large house belonging to Sammy, Ajit’s brother. His compound was in the very centre of the city, near Ramna Park. The grounds of the compound consisted of a two-story concrete home, a large paved driveway and two mango trees, all surrounded by a high wall and protected by two armed guards.
At first it was an ideal little oasis. My room opened directly onto a screened-in patio that looked out on the mango trees, and there I ate corn flakes and bananas with milk that was delivered fresh and warm every morning.
After breakfast, we would get back in the Land Rover to drive out to the factory in the city’s Mirpur district. It was ten kilometres from door to door, but that could take an hour in the congested streets. We nudged along on these roads, beside other Land Rovers and brightly coloured Ford trucks from the ‘50s. It seemed that every car was dented – victims of other cars, and the batons of policemen who would beat them with sticks as if they were cattle that they were trying to hurry along a crowded lane. Diesel and dust was all I could smell. For miles around I saw only other cars and tattered yellow, red and rusted auto rickshaws. And begging hands. Always the begging hands.
The Mirpur factory district was under its own random construction schedule. First, you entered streets of single-story “shop fronts”—garages for the wares of steelworkers and cabinetmakers, furniture sellers and men loading iron rods onto carts for transport to building sites.
After this, it was the factories themselves. Barred windows draped with discarded fabrics that flapped in any light breeze, if they weren’t plastered to the wall. What looked like half-demolished buildings rang with the angry clatter of sewing machines. From a third-storey window you could look out on dozens of plateaus of concrete, taut arthritic fingers of rebar thrusting up above them. In one, a prayer hall. In all others, the first floor or two of expanding factories.
On the ground outside, young boys busied themselves breaking bricks into dust to be made anew. A yard away, an anemic cow stood next to some green standing water. A little further, a fugitive grazing plot and palm trees. The air was foetid with shit, cotton, denim and damp. No smell is more cloying than denim being dyed and treated. You feel it thick in your lungs.
Most offices and factories were the same. I’d walk up rough concrete staircases, covered in burlap for traction. There were no proper entrances yet, no proper walls, just a flight of steps opening onto a factory floor. Another flight of steps and I would be on the roof, watching men pack jeans for shipping. To find the office was a march through a maze of corridors, until I’d enter a small office with two old office desks. One concrete wall was painted in a fading green. Two telephones would be ringing non-stop. A map of the world was tacked to the wall next to a portrait of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – his profile, in white shirt and black tunic – stern and proud, though his simple dress gave him an aura of humility.
Like the buildings, the streets were unfinished and crowded with boys on bicycles delivering rebar or scrap metal, auto rickshaws dodging through traffic.
Bangladesh was then a new country—still is, its independence only coming in the early ‘70s after a hard-fought war of independence. We saw representations of this military past on our drive to the factory – fighter jets on display at traffic circles along one of the main thoroughfares, for example. But more closely, I witnessed the bitterness of the war that would eventually separate Bangladesh from Pakistan. My host’s father was killed, and his eldest brother was a political activist who had been beaten severely. The brother was once a brilliant student. We would see him at the family compound, or the street just outside. He always wore a happy smile, but it was the smile of a child. Ajit tried to speak kindly to him when they met, but you could see his mix of anger, shame and frustration.
As the second eldest, Ajit had taken on the role of the head of the family, but I quickly found that his was an uneasy rule. He was married to a German woman and lived in Europe most of the time, but felt that he should be more in touch with his homeland. This was why he had made this alliance with us. But he depended on his younger brothers to navigate what was a corrupt and confusing political system. He always seemed to be calling on either Sammy, my host and the youngest of the four brothers, or Shahin, the most industrious and hands-on, to supply us with machines, employees and financial assistance.
“The last time they held up a shipment of mine, I went down to the Customs House with a truck full of men and beat everyone in sight. I don’t have that problem anymore,” he explained with a smile.
Our hopelessness and dependence on these brothers was clear from the outset. On my arrival at “our” factory, I saw we had acquired about two dozen clapped-out sewing machines from Shahin’s factory across the street, along with a handful of old women and a group of children between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. There were three women in their twenties, and one older man, Agbar, who assisted in the management of what was at least a spacious factory floor. I shook my head at the time, but it wasn’t so different from other factories I had witnessed close by. I thought, maybe we can make a start.
Ajit brought our first client in that same day to show him our set-up, but all the client could see were outdated machines that needed new motors, six machines that needed bobbin spools replaced and butterfly attachments added, and inexperienced employees milling about, directionless. Ajit began to seethe.
“My brothers, they have no respect!” He said it with a growl and mopped his high forehead with a handkerchief. “I am creating opportunities for this country, and this is what I get.” I would watch him shout at Shahin later that same day – he stood close to his brother, wagging a finger, waving his hands about. It was all in Bengali, so I could only observe the effect—nothing. Shahin didn’t deign to look at his brother. We were in his factory when this happened, and none of what was passing before him swayed him from the job at hand. Ajit seemed like a more-than-persistent fly in his peripheral vision. But in the end, he provided the know-how to fix the machines, and added more equipment to the cause.
If Ajit was frustrated from the start, I moved between anxiety and apathy. Sitting in the factory over the next few weeks, I learned that I was a prop. I thought I’d learn to manage the day-to-day business of the factory over time, support production by focusing the work on certain lines or processes. Instead, I tallied production numbers, and did little else. Sometimes, I would tell Agbar what was expected that day or that week, but it was comic show and little else.
“Agbar, we have two styles of underwear here in three colours,” I would say. “It’s not complicated, we have to get the numbers up. This week we need to produce about 450 pieces of each size and colour a day. Look at these numbers. We’re not even close. Make sure we are going to hit these numbers. And if we can’t, let me know how we can.”
And he would tilt his head to the side, as if considering my request carefully, and then said, “Yes, boss.” That usually meant “probably not.” It was a kind of game we’d play, until I learned that it made more sense to ask what was going to be produced, rather than say what was going to be produced. At least then, I’d know what to expect. Then, I could just get angry immediately rather than waiting until later to lose it.
As a prop, I at least had a purpose in a moment of need. The day we had to wrestle a shipment out of the hands of the customs house and into the factory, it seemed just the thing to parade this 24-year-old North American in his smart suit out before the customs agent. Get the right word in the right ear, maybe it would work.
Ajit was there to direct whatever performance we were to make. Here, he too seemed like a child. When the customs men stood around us and asked him questions, he began to look almost frantic.
“He is asking what you will bring him from Hong Kong next time, eh? What, what do you think?” Ajit asked me. Amazingly, he seemed to want an answer. I am a terrible liar, and a writer for a reason – I have little facility for a rapid response. Perhaps if he’d coached me for this, I might have been ready. But I just mumbled something and tried to look amused and chummy with everyone. Our shipment didn’t go anywhere that day.
Sammy looked unimpressed when we told him what happened.
“The last time they held up a shipment of mine, I went down to the Customs House with a truck full of men and beat everyone in sight. I don’t have that problem anymore,” he explained with a smile. He also, in the course of my visit, spoke laughingly of how he had paid to have a man killed. Like it was nothing.
But in that moment, the idea of beating up the customs agents suddenly seemed eminently sensible. And I could see Ajit wanted it done. He would get quiet for short spells sometimes and just stare, his large eyes focused on nothing, the thoughts in his head rolling over. It made him angry that he couldn’t get our orders done with the ease his brothers seemed to have.
By the end of two months, we had cobbled together a shipment of cheap women’s underwear for an undiscerning American customer. Even so, he was less than impressed by the production quality – uneven stitching, imprecise cutting, a huge variance in measurements. The underwear was clipped in threes onto cheap plastic hangers, and you could see how different one neon strip of thong was from the next. The customer couldn’t say no to the shipment, but it was a farce. We were producing, if sporadically. It would get delivered, but only just. “Growing pains,” we called it. But we felt like idiots.
And the city, once fascinating for its bustle, was starting to feel like a traffic circle going around and around. I was congested most of the time, the air like thick tar in my mouth.
Ajit’s impotence in the face of our setbacks was making him paranoid. “Talk to no one,” he said to me, on more than one occasion. “Trust no one. They will kill you, they want to steal from you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. In the compound at night, I was left to myself, except when one of the houseboys was tending to whatever I might need. I asked for as little as possible to avoid that contact. They too, wanted. One pointed at an advertisement for a stereo and asked that I bring him one next time I leave Bangladesh. I just nodded and tried to carry on. When, in January, the blossoms on the mango trees were heavy and carried their rich aroma into my room, I decided to walk out in the yard to enjoy them. But the boys followed me. The boys wanted to study the habits of this strange foreigner.
My girlfriend back in Hong Kong was much too far away. We spoke once a week. She sent me a package of books to keep me occupied, but it was no substitute for someone there to talk to, some connection beyond lists of shipments, plastic hangers and measuring tape.
Between the rote aimlessness of the work hours and the silent time for contemplation between, I started to feel like I was outside of everything – more a reader than a participant. At night, I would stare at the numbers. I stacked one atop the other and doodled in the margins. I would force myself to do a few push-ups or sit-ups to keep active one night, but the next I would just drink tea and listen to the salamander chirping away.
There was a part of me that was open to this idea of “permission” – that I could do whatever I wanted there, with no consequences.
And still every day we would be back in the Land Rover, fighting traffic, feeling the hands tapping at our windows as we drove slowly through the streets. I’d taken to carrying a handkerchief to cover my face and Ajit would dab both his and mine in peppermint extract to keep our sinuses clear. I coughed the diesel and dust, I felt the hands all around us.
At the factory, I would sit alone in the glassed-in office they’d built in the corner of our single production floor. I would listen to the call to prayers wavering through the air outside over loudspeakers. A solitary boy of sixteen on our factory floor would set aside his scissors and with a serene smile of apology roll his prayer rug towards Mecca and prostrate himself.
I would watch the young faces bent to their work, and would find myself mesmerized by the bare feet of the young women. It was the only flesh I saw, and it became both fascinating and erotic. I started to find myself repugnant – there was a part of me that was open to this idea of “permission” – that I could do whatever I wanted there, with no consequences. I was above and in control here, even when I felt completely impotent and incompetent.
At night, I read Don Quixote, because I had meant to do so for a long time, and because, in that time and place, it made perfect sense.
The room I spent most of my time in at the compound was a large, square cell of a space, with one large fan upon the ceiling, a bed and an office desk. The doors were rough wood, the floors cold stone, and the walls a yellowing white. A single salamander chirped and kept me company through most nights. Occasionally a giant cockroach crossed the floor. When I saw one for the first time I didn’t have a name for it, so it failed to have any effect. And they didn’t bother me, so I didn’t bother them. Throughout my stay, I never killed one. They were big, benign, lumbering tanks.
There were four doors and two sets of windows to the room. I made a note of this at the time, and I don’t know why. The nights went that slowly. Each door had a series of locks that I secured at night as I began to absorb some of Ajit’s paranoia. I didn’t know what anyone might steal from me, or why they might want to harm me, but I felt more and more isolated.
It happened so gradually. One day, at the compound, some stranger was there to meet with a family member and started asking me questions. I began to speak but shut the conversation down quickly. This became my new normal – being hushed up by my own caution, afraid of who might want to somehow play me.
And then Ajit started to sound even more panicked over our limping existence. He had fired two of the women at the factory for attempting to organize the employees and press for better pay. It meant finding yet more employees, and still the quality problems persisted, the low production numbers, the quality control.
“Your boss in Hong Kong, he doesn’t care what you do here. He’s just leaving us to fend for ourselves,” Ajit said.
This seemed to be true. I hadn’t spoken to my boss more than once or twice during my time there – Ajit managed all of that. So I was wondering who was leaving me out of the loop, who was leaving me out to dry. Was it Ajit, feeling it better that I not pass along information of all of our missteps and missed deadlines? Was it my boss in Hong Kong, just letting what was happening in Bangladesh happen as it must?
“Maybe you and I can develop business on our own,” Ajit continued. “We don’t need him. You could have your own brand. Think of it – Coal Man. Two words. That would be good.”
Maybe it was too much time away from family. He had a baby daughter in Germany. I didn’t really understand what he was doing in Bangladesh. Every few days I heard him speaking to his wife, saying he’d be away a little longer. And then always the same exchange with his baby daughter: “Where is Baba? Where is Kuala Lumpur, Baba?” And then words of love she didn’t yet understand.
But part of me liked his idea of starting a business, a brand. I was leery and nervous of him, but at the same time there was a want there.
It felt like we were being passed from hand to hand along the street, a slow procession that we no longer controlled.
It was during Ramadan that we both found ourselves bottoming out. The factory continued to struggle, the management a shell game of me sitting behind a desk or pacing, with no way to move forward, no way to hurry up or improve the workmanship. I would look at the stitching, check sizes, say no, no, and no again. I would return to pacing. Ajit ran from brother to brother, trying to get more—more people, better people, more machines, better machines.
An important part of observing Ramadan is charity and begging on the street increases ten-fold during its observance. During the holiday, rather than hands at our doors, the faces of the poor would look into our handerchief-covered faces in the car, bodies pushed against the windows to the point that it felt like we were being passed from hand to hand along the street, a slow procession that we no longer controlled. And all of these faces saying, “Come on, you know the rules.”
It became even harder to breathe. Ajit eventually snapped when there was a break in the crowd and another beggar was clinging to his door, unwilling to let us pass, so persistent with his pleas. Ajit flung the door open and went at the man with his fists. His eyes bulged out of his head and he shouted his rage. Did he actually hit him, or was it just the force of him hurtling out of the car that I remember? I don’t know.
I didn’t do the same. Or at least I don’t think I did. Here is where hiding so long comes in—the sparse notes in my journals from that time, the uncertain pen. I know I wanted to hurt someone though. At the factory, when the workers openly mocked me, I knew that I could smack them across their heads with no concern for repercussions. And I wanted to so much, I could feel my hands itching to do it, because I could do nothing else. I had permission to do this one thing. I don’t think I did, but I’m no longer positive. I remember screaming, I remember throwing poor pieces of product in front of our manager. I remember threatening in a manner that just made these young boys mock me all the more. I imagine I looked like a temperamental child – not dangerous, just absurd.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst happened near the end of my time there. The notes I kept say little of this. It’s only after weeks of revisiting that time that I remember it. Nighttime at the factory, and we were again reminded of our ineptitude. There was supposed to be a second shift at work when we arrived, but there were only a few boys there, closing up. We were short a container’s-worth of fabric, and our speed of production was still too low. One of the boys made a joke – I have no idea what it was – but Ajit went at him. There was a screwdriver on a table and Ajit grabbed it, made as if he was going to gut the boy. Even threatened to do as much. Screamed in his face. No longer cocky, the boy collapsed on the floor as two of the men in the room pulled Ajit away. He was raging.
“I will kill him! He thinks this is funny? I don’t need you! No one needs you,” he shouted at the kid. “You are nothing! You think I couldn’t kill you? Everyone, get out! I am going to take care of this.” He continued to pace, continued to look dangerous, and the boy was convinced that this was it. He was cornered by this bull of a man, and it didn’t look like he’d be contained for long.
I just stood there. While other people tried to contain the situation, I was frozen. What the fuck had happened? I couldn’t move. I didn’t want the boy dead, but I didn’t stand in the way. I didn’t even say anything. Eventually, a couple of other boys took their sobbing friend away, physically unharmed. We got back in the car. I said nothing. I continued to say nothing.
“You can’t trust anyone in this country. How do I know I can even trust you?”
It couldn’t have been more than a day or two later that I fell ill with dysentery – an errant raw tomato. When he knew how sick I was, Ajit tried to take me to a hospital, but none would have me – they said I’d likely end up sicker there. So a doctor and two nurses arrived to tend to me and pump me full of fluids.
It was a testament to how weak I was that, when the nurses didn’t seem to have a clue of how to hook up my IV, I just laughed and put on a smile for them as they went about poking my arm. There is a comfort in helplessness. When you can’t go any further, the absurdity of fighting it becomes a balm.
It wasn’t more than two days that I was on an IV. But when they unhooked me, I was unstable in a new way – I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t stay still, couldn’t focus on any one thing for more than a few seconds. The synapses in my head were thrown off. I tried so hard to get one thought in my mind and carry it through to some conclusion, but my mind was demanding a leap here, a leap there, my legs the same. Too much of whatever they’d pumped into me, so that I was near frantic, pacing my room, walking up and down, through the breakfast room and its wire mesh screens. Around and back, around and back. Thinking, maybe I’d feel better if I were to do push-ups, maybe jogging around and around.
This lasted a night, after which I slept.
But Ajit didn’t. He made sure I was taken care of, while losing himself in our failing business.
When we got back onto our trips from compound to factory, I saw where it had taken him. “This country is crazy,” he babbled. “And I get no support from your boss. What am I doing? I must meet him and sort it out. I don’t know who to trust. You can’t trust anyone in this country. How do I know I can even trust you?”
I thought of that boy at the factory.
I said nothing and went back to reading the Quixote. But I was done. Ajit left for Hong Kong a few days later, and while he was there I faxed him my resignation. He wasn’t my boss, but I hadn’t talked to my boss in what seemed like weeks. And Ajit was the gatekeeper, had become so in my mind. I had to get out of the country, and I no longer trusted him. Besides, who else really needed to know?
I was there just short of four months, but it felt far longer. Perhaps because of the nature of time at that age, trying to keep pace with a surfeit of energy and desires that run faster than the days can hold. Perhaps because I’d aged so much. I left exhausted and relieved to be out – not necessarily sane and repentant like Alonso Quixano at the end of his story, although I did wish to apologize to a few people. My boss, for one, who was justifiably insulted by the manner of my resignation. And his daughter, who would stay in Hong Kong while I returned to Canada. And, of course, that boy, who I didn’t lift a hand to help. It was the one moment that could have felt like redemption. The begging hands on the street hurt in their insistence and occasional arrogance. But how do you help so many? One boy makes sense. One boy can be helped in one conscious moment, if you choose to.
I felt shame in leaving, but never voiced it, because it had nothing to do with anyone but me. I felt that I’d been put to the test, and had failed convincingly. How easily I forgot myself and fell into a role, took it on without qualm. How easily I became a prop, a mouthpiece, a screwdriver, slicing through the thick, acrid air.
Robert Colman is a writer and editor based in Newmarket, Ontario. His poems have appeared in literary magazines across Canada. He is the author of two poetry collections, Little Empires (Quattro Books 2012) and The Delicate Line (Exile Editions 2008).