We wait in a tong for two hours. Ali’s clawed eyebrows and pink collar belie his years. He’s carrying a bag pack with crudely written placards calling for rent-forgiveness. He doesn’t want to accept, but can’t say no to the packet of BBQ Ruchi Chanachur. Shams makes the rounds: 6 ta dudh cha, and the rong cha for Badal bhai. 15 minutes from now, he learns about the instant coffee and regrets his decision.
Nurjahan clambers on in a neta-chaka-super-white panjabi and a handlebar. He offers us a place. A rickshaw garage, but it’s a little ways down, he says.
A little. The roads peel into dirt into mud into puddles. The street lights uproot from our sides. A school of garbage floats a bridge across an estranged branch of what must be the Turag. But as we tightrope the stalks of bamboo, the deck seems made of stone. I lose my footing and gulp ankle deep into the debris. Jaf sends a hand and a foot in time. We picked him up, the seven of us in a three-seater, at tin-raastar-mor. He was in jean shorts and had spent 200 tk on a plate of teheri on a trip to Gazipur.
A flock of old newspapers, ink long absorbed by the grease of bhaja-pora, burns at the entrance. The smoke scratches the darkness in long, thin wisps. The campfire’s for the mosquitoes, we learn, though that is little comfort for our shins and elbows.
The men, women and Bacchi Bhai clear the benches, sparing us the manners to ask. Everyone who knows anyone crews up and the loners shuffle their feet, lingering just long enough for an invitation.
Saimon signs first, because he’s cool-like-that, and last, because he would like to change surnames: ‘সমস্যা আছে’
Mazed, in full camo, whispers that he’s not really in school anymore. He’s got a job doing some Photoshop work for a graphics firm. He lives alone, a highway away from his parents in Mirpur 6. I tell him it’s okay. It’s just temporary. His lips auction a smile, as if to say: it’s the loneliness, not the 1,200 facebook friends.
Raj is their gateway. His cheeks puff and glisten with oil when he laughs, which he does, a lot.
I last saw Tahmid during the election: অনেক দিন, he reminds me. Back then, the army was out of the barracks, on the streets, under sponsored umbrellas, hedging check-posts, accosting pedestrians and loose cigarettes, huddled battalions on the back of roving trucks; then they fought opposition polling agents, high voter turnout and boys with red tips, who didn’t answer to ‘জনাব।’ Now they were fighting a plague.
Badal’s been radhuni for a couple of dozen mostly bohiragoto salams and barkats, running on a 115 days now. His sous-chefs were all women, and now that they are gone, the cups of cha-nasta at brainstorming, bhuna-khichuri at isha, mopped floors, spotless dishes, and the bottles of corona have disappeared too.
He still had his food cart. As soon as the committee cleared if and what it owed him, he’d have enough for the startup. He could see it now: some newly gentrified corner bloc, Taltola or Taj Mahal; narrowing the fonts to Baskerville or Helvetica; laminating the menus; kids on thrifty third dates spinning word of mouth: hot and cheap; gift baskets to shabeks; pleaing reviews; sure, on the weekends, he’d have to voodoo the chada, line pockets as permits, but who didn’t?
The entrepreneur: the terminal of the human form; billowing rendition of আমার সোনা বন্ধুরে unsolicited in my inbox; glove in a fist, disobeying lighthouse, steaming nautical, crosswise.