By Kate Baldus
Kadija was her name; she called me Madam. Kadija begged on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh where I lived and worked. The first morning I stepped out of my sixteen-story high-rise, walked past the two guards dressed in matching army green outfits with small square hats, and put my foot onto the unpaved road, she came running from her lookout point, calling to me with her gravelly voice.
“Maaaadaaaam,” she screamed from across the road.
I clutched my purse. My body froze.
“Maaaadaaaam.” The sounds rattled in the back of her throat, as if she were a human gourd. The vowels knocked in her lungs as she ran barefoot. She had a young skinny underfed body but a heavily wrinkled oblong face like that of an old woman. Her clothes were covered in dirt. A foot between us, she begged, “Ma-daam, baksheesh, Ma-daam, ruti, Ma-daam, khabar.”
She pulled on my arm, and I wanted her to let go. She lifted her hands to her mouth to mime the word “eat,” and in the next instant, the guards intervened. They screamed words in Bengali I did not understand. They swatted at her like she was an insect. And although I was uncomfortable with the way they treated her, I was relieved when Kadija ran back into the street and scurried behind the opposite building.
I spent a year in Dhaka, Bangladesh teaching in the English department of a private university. I lived and worked on Kemal Ataturk Avenue in a two-block section that was lined with sixteen-story high-rises. The road had two sides, two faces. The front was the main artery through Banani, an affluent neighborhood in northern Dhaka, and it was lined with a Hallmark shop, a bank, a Wimpy Burger, Top Clean dry cleaners, La Dolce Vita Gelataria and Internet café, PC Land, Quick Photo, clothing stores, and the main entrance to the university. But my home and office were in the back on an unpaved dusty road marked with potholes, rickshaws, tea stalls, cars and odd pieces of metal that seemed to grow out of the earth.
Kadija was one of a pack of kids who begged on the block. She saw me first, but the rest of them found me by the end of the first day. I came out of the university and was surrounded by twelve skinny arms, all swinging my direction. “Baksheesh,” “Khabar,” “Ruti.” These were the first Bengali words I learned: money, food and bread. They all wanted the same things, and I clutched my bag as I looked at the ground and quickly walked past them.
There are thousands of beggars in Dhaka and more in the district towns and villages. They walk the streets, sit at intersections, hang out on train platforms, and a group of singing lepers parade through town pushing themselves on wooden wheeling seats. Some beggars are skinny, others deformed, hunched, misshapen, or without limbs. Within the Bangladeshi Muslim culture there is a tradition of giving. Alms purify, and my colleagues and students gave to the beggars on the street and during holidays. But I was not Muslim. I was an agnostic western woman, an expat temporarily living in this country. I had been told by other expats to avoid giving to beggars near my home or work because if you don’t give, they will leave you alone, so I didn’t give—not to Kadija, nor to any of the other beggars on my block.
The other street kids quickly learned that I was not going to give, so they begged elsewhere. But Kadija either didn’t know how to learn, or she was determined to get me to open my wallet. Every day when I left home for work and work for home, there she was. Her hands cupped and her voice shaking. She wore Western dresses, which were only worn by young girls, but her face confused me. It was lined and aged. Was she old, but her body never developed fully? Or was she young but cursed by an aging disease? I asked my colleagues if they knew what was wrong with her. They all knew who she was, but no one understood why she looked the way she did. She was one of Dhaka’s many mysteries.
I arrived in January, and by the time the monsoons began in May, I was unsatisfied with just seeing Kadija on the street saying “How are you,” and then going through our skit—her asking for bread, food, and money and me saying, “Nah,” and shaking my head. By then I felt that I knew her a little. I noticed when she had a clean dress on; a couple times I screamed at the other kids when they attacked her. I got used to her approach. The days that Kadija did not come up to me, I looked around for her. If she wasn’t on the block, I wondered where she was, and if I saw her harassing someone else, I missed her. She was part of my routine, and in my isolated expat world where my phone didn’t ring very much and many nights were spent alone in my oversized apartment, I found myself looking forward to seeing her. When she acknowledged me, she gave me something, and I wanted to give back. But how?
I knew the easiest way would be to give her what she wanted: money, food or bread, but once I opened my purse to her, I would become a magnet for all the other beggars, and my life would flip from being the isolated expat to the expat with kids hanging off her arms and back. That was not the human connection I was seeking. I wanted to give her something else. Something that acknowledged her as a human, not a street urchin. Something that let her see me as a human, not a pocketbook. I fantasized about bringing her up to my apartment for tea or showing her my office. But I knew I couldn’t. I tried to talk to her in my broken Bengali, but she never understood. Eventually, I got an idea.
One morning when she approached, I said my usual greeting, “Kaemon achen?” How are you; then I stuck my right arm and hand out towards her. I wanted to shake her hand and wondered if she recognized the gesture. She stopped her beggar’s skit, cocked her dirty face to the right, scrunched up her eyes, and pursed her lips. We stared at each other, me wondering what would happen next, until she took my soft palm into her dry hand and started to shake it up and down, holding on a little too hard like a clown would if it wanted to make fun of the gesture. After ten seconds of this I tried to pull my hand away, and she grabbed harder. I pulled again, and she clamped down even more. Determined to get to work, I started to walk with my palm connected to hers. My right arm was crossed uncomfortably across my chest; our hands bounced up and down, and she walked part straight, part sideways, half running to keep up with my pace. Her hand and body felt so light I thought I could yank her off the pavement with a jerk of my arm, but the force of her grip was intense. I felt her inner strength and will, and it was greater than her weight or age. When we got to my office, and in sight of the guards, she let go and ran back into the street.
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