Lost and found

by Apon Zahir

06aCHILDHOOD memories are not something I generally visit very often, mostly because I don’t really remember my childhood very well, but also because of what little I remember, everything seems surreal, like a fantasy, as if I was living in a dream. Naive and silly dreams, the kind only a little boy of 5 would have. But there are a few memories that I remember as if they happened just yesterday. Relatively speaking, those events seem far recent than my latest year in university. These memories have become little cautionary stories that guide my judgement and aid my conscience. Overtime, most of these memories have become diluted, abstract, almost mythical, but there is one memory I can recollect better than most others.
This one is about a little boy, not much older than I was at the time. I do not remember his name, for I had not asked it. I do not even remember his face, partially due to the fact that my eyes were filled with tears at the time. But what I do remember was that he was poor, very poor. He was basically the kind of boy you would expect to see at a Dhaka traffic signal navigating the sea of stationery vehicles selling flowers and pop corn. His clothes were tattered and dirty and he carried an old ragged cement bag filled with something. I do not think it was filled with cement but it seemed very heavy in the way he tugged it along. I remember what he said to me the first time we met. ‘Are you lost?’ He asked in a mildly amused yet utmost sympathetic voice. I do not remember exactly what my response was to that, but thinking of how frightened I was I doubt it was anything comprehensible. But he got the idea regardless.
They say a proper story starts with a clear beginning, followed by a body and then an end. However, I seem to have started right from the middle. Perhaps we should go back a little for the sake of context. Go back all the way to the Dhaka city in the late nineties. We used to live in Azimpur colony back then. Far away, in a place called Taltola, somewhere in Khilgaon, there lived a family of three who were very dear to us. The parents were batch mates and dear friends to my parents from their time shared back in their university. They had a little daughter who was a year younger than me. We were very close, all of us. At that time Taltola was one of the places we visited the most in Dhaka. I remember going there during the big floods in 1998. The whole of Khilgaon had been submerged in dark and pungent waters filled with sewage waste and dead rats. If any part of your body were to touch the water, it would instantly get a rash and start to itch like crazy. The water levels had risen to such heights that some enterprising gentlemen got the idea of bringing in boats for hire to allow the people to travel without getting afflicted with diarrhoea. To my infinite amusement, we too had to hire one of these boats to traverse the streets of Taltola forth and back. That was also probably the first time I rode a boat, but I digress, the story I am telling does not happen during the floods. I do not remember if it happens after or before 1998, but I do remember that the streets of Taltola were mostly dry at the time. It was only my eyes that were drowning.
It was a warm, sunny and beautiful day when we reached the house in Taltola. We were received with the most warm and homely welcome imaginable by man, as if coming to visit your family after a long time. But we made this trip regularly, and the welcome was always the same. The mothers laughed and started helping each other in the kitchen. The fathers laughed louder and sat down in the guestroom to talk about state of the country and how everything was so much better in their time as students. The little girl took my hand and dragged me away to play with the girliest assortment of toys a little girl of a middle class family could own. Little metal replica pans and crockery and a bunch of old dolls. But that did not bother me. We would improvise, let our imagination run loose. One moment we would build forts and towers out of pillows and cushions, the next we would have a highly cultured tea party with the most esteemed dolls in all the land. Children do not really need toys to play, to them everything can be a toy and the whole world is their playground. But then, the most dreadful and treacherous thing happened to me, the likes of which could be compared to the battle of Plassey. Her friends came over to play as well.
06bNow I understand that this turn of events would have been met with the utmost rejoice if it concerned any other little boy, but you also have to understand that at that time I was the shyest and the most introverted little boy you could imagine. I did not have many friends at home and was very awkward when among a lot of people, especially a lot of little people. My joy at coming to visit my little friend in Taltola had suddenly come to a screeching halt as all her attention was now diverted towards them and I was left just fidgeting in a corner trying to ascertain what exactly all these little girls were talking about. Though most of them were younger than me, they seemed to be far more mature than I was at the time. They did not talk of imaginary armies of knights and dragons. What I caught from their almost incomprehensible dialect of screeches and giggles were vague references to television and real life dramas among themselves and makeup. If you want to make a little boy uncomfortable just put him among a group of little girls around his age, soon they will be begging to leave. But I did not, I followed them around like a puppy, unsure but intrigued in their social dynamics. Studying in an all-boys school, I had never seen something like this before. They occasionally asked me a few questions and I blurted out a response, making them giggle and making myself even more uncomfortable. Just as it seemed that I had been entirely forgotten by my friend and her friends, I loudly and awkwardly proposed an idea that would alter the course of history. ‘Do you guys want to play hide and seek?’ All the playful giggles stopped and silence ensued as a blob of little girls stood staring at me, they looked among themselves and after an eternity of seconds one of them responded enthusiastically, ‘Sure! Let’s play outside.’
A boost of confidence, I now knew the language they spoke. Suddenly the world seemed a lot less chaotic, and I felt as if I had made a mark on it. Back at home I was very good at hiding. I knew every nook and corner of our little house and if I was really determined, I could make myself disappear without a trace. But once I stepped outside onto the narrow road of Taltola I came to the sudden realisation that I was in a different world. The key skill required in the game of hide and seek is not the ability to mask one’s presence to the best of their ability, but rather to have a firm grip over the layout of the land. And in this regard, I was but a novice to my newfound friends. When the counting began everyone sprang to their own favourite hiding places as I stood on the street absorbing the vista of Taltola. I had never seen it from this angle before. The streets were very narrow and dusty, and crammed with commuting people. There was noise everywhere, the kind I had never heard before. A building was being demolished a few blocks away from where we were visiting. People were yelling, carrying around sacks of cement and bricks and breaking walls with huge hammers. Naturally I ran towards the noise, letting curiosity get the better of me and almost forgetting about the game. As expected, I was the first one to be caught. During my time ‘seeking’ I spent what seemed like eternity looking for hidden girls. To my dismay, I could find none until finally they themselves became bored and revealed themselves. Defeated, humiliated, I simply walked away blurting out as awkwardly as ever, ‘I don’t want to play any more’, while trying to hide my teary eyes. My little friend seemed to finally remember me and shouted, ‘Okay, we will be inside,’ and they all ran back in.
06c‘Who needs them?’ I mumbled as I made my way back to the demolition site, indulging myself to watch all the people work and shout. There was a huge mountain of bricks next to the house that I managed to climb and sit on top of, ruining my fresh clothes entirely. I did not care. It is then I saw the contraption that would be my downfall, a big yellow bulldozer, sitting among the rubble like a tank in a battlefield. It was dingy, rusty and rumbled softly as black smoke poured from its exhausts. It was as if this machine was built to capture the fantasy of little boys like me, and I droned forth like a fly drawn to a flame. The remarkable machine was incidentally left running without anyone in the driver’s seat. I circled it, surveying its muddy caterpillar tracks. It had arms extended in front that held the metal blade. It also had a single crane arm on its side and from a certain angle it looked like a giant yellow metal scorpion, at least, to my childish eyes. It rumbled rhythmically, occasionally giving a jolly shudder. It seemed as if the machine had a life of its own, and it was enticing me, beaconing me to get on, and I obliged, it was not as if I had anything better to do. The cockpit itself was something from a dream. A curious assortment of wheels, levers and pedals. The seat was big and hot from the exhaust. I would have gotten in and driven off into the sunset, but alas my ambitions were cut short when I heard the enraged uproar of a middle-aged man whom I glimpsed to be charging at me while shouting out all the profanities of the world. Needless to say, I hightailed it out of there, my heart racing and my mind in a state of turmoil. I did not stop running until I realised that I was in a completely different neighbourhood than before. There were still clouds of dust everywhere, accompanied by the sound of construction work in the distance, but other than that, I recognised nothing and a looming dread crept over me as my worst nightmares were coming to life.
I have often dreamed that I was lost. I dreamt that I was running and running but going nowhere, only becoming perpetually more lost as a result. Perhaps I have a certain degree of mazeophobia, or perhaps I am just unsure of myself in matters of direction. Nevertheless, I started walking towards the vague direction I thought was the home. I expected to walk by the demolition site soon and perhaps even engaged the angry man once again, but I would risk that, I did not want to get more lost. But as I kept walking and no demolition site, nor brick-mountain, nor yellow bulldozer came to sight, my unsettling suspicions started transforming into rabid paranoia. By this time, I was exasperated, hyperventilating, tears flowed like fountains but I didn’t make a sound. The streets seemed surreal. Narrow, dingy and now claustrophobic and playing tricks with me. Losing all sense of direction and running madly wherever my feet would carry me, I soon exhausted myself. I looked around, desperately hoping to find something familiar, something to guide my bearings. But it was hopeless, I receded to the realisation that I was completely lost. I just stood there and shivered as people passed me by, they did not see me, I was invisible to them. The world seemed to have forgotten me, and I just stood there, wondering among tears if this was just another nightmare.
It was then that I met him, a little boy, not much older than me. He was poor, his clothes were tattered, he carried a heavy cement bag that was not filled with cement and when he saw me he came close and asked me if I was lost. When he saw the look on my face he smiled, dropped the bag and took my hand. ‘Come with me, where do you live?’ he asked; I could not answer, ‘It’s okay, we will find your home together.’ He led, I followed. I held his hands tightly, he was my salvation, a compass, a beacon that lights the way. Over the years, events have happened that have made me lose more and more faith in humanity. People can do terrible things to one another, and it is often very easy to overlook the pain of the suffering. Everyone wants to witness the tragedy, but no one dares to try to stop it. I do not know how much courage and empathy one would need to put someone else’s, a complete stranger’s interest over your own. That seems silly to me know, why should I help someone who won’t hesitate to stab me in the back. I was taught by my family never to interact with strangers, but in my humble opinion, a random act of kindness, even towards a stranger, is not something anyone should refuse to do. Because it is in these random acts of kindness that hold us together as a species.
After hours and hours of walking, stopping by every house and the boy in rags introducing me to the inhabitants and asking if I belong to them, we finally stumble upon a familiar face, the gatekeeper of the house we were staying at. I do not know how the gatekeeper recognised me, for I had never noticed him in my life, but he did. The next few moments are a blur to me, a sudden rush from chaos to normality. I remember running in to find my family and my friend’s family just as they were when I left them. To them, only an hour had passed, and I was still outside happily playing with the other children. I never looked back, I did not say thank you, suffice to say, I had forgotten about the boy in rags completely. I never knew his name, or what he was carrying in his cement bag, and often times I wonder how he felt as he watched me disappear into my own abode without so much as looking at him one last time. I hope he didn’t mind too much, for I am grateful to that boy in more ways than I can count. To me, that boy in rags resembles the best in humanity, a moral compass, a beacon that lights the way.

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