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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Gilles Delmotte
 Photo: Martyn Unsworth

Bangladesh: Madam (cont.)

This became our new routine. She saw me, hollered “Ma-daaam,” ran towards me, and the next thing I knew my hand was bouncing up and down, and we were walking together. When I told people what Kadija was doing, they told me I was crazy to touch a street kid. “You’ll get a disease.” “Hepatitis.” “Something bad.” I didn’t think much harm could come from her hand, but I did wash mine more than I used to. And although I noticed that some people on the street stared at us as we passed, I didn’t care what they thought; they would stare at me no matter what I did, and this felt like a step. We continued with the handshake for awhile. Then I wanted to learn more about her and find a deeper way to help her.

The monsoons continued, and so did our handshakes, but then like most things in Bangladesh, our routine changed without warning. One day at my lunch break, I was headed home to eat when Kadija approached. I stuck out my hand, and to my surprise she pulled my fingers up to her soot covered cracked lips, and she kissed me! She looked up at me and said, “Apni amar Madam,” You are my madam. She then kissed my hand and my arm and started to move her lips up my body.

I was horrified. I felt betrayed. I feared the residue of her wet lips would infect me. I yanked my hand away from hers and increased my pace. I had no more independence from her now than I would have had if I had given her money. She had not learned anything from me or the handshake. She pursued me, but my legs were longer, and I dipped into my apartment building before she caught up. She was not there after lunch, and for a couple days I avoided her.

I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about the kiss. I gave her my hand; of course she kissed it; what did I expect? Did I really think I could feel close to Kadija, a beggar kid when I still, after eight months, felt distance from my colleagues, students, cook, and the tea boy at work? Did I really think I could give her my hand when she wanted money and food? I tried to control a fate that couldn’t be directed. How could I have been so stupid?

We were both bound to the run-down backside of Kemal Ataturk Avenue and inevitably we met again. I heard, “Maaaadaaaam,” before I saw her. She ran up to me with a smile and a bounce that used to make me happy, but I felt myself pull away.  When she came up close, I crossed my arms around my back.  She reached out for them.

“Nah,” I screamed at her and shook my head.  “No kisses,” I screamed in English.  “Hand okay; kisses no,” I said in simplified English as if it would help her understand a language that she didn’t know. “Nah,” I repeated one more time for emphasis and leaned toward her shaking my head.

While I spoke, her smile receded. Then she glared at me, and I thought she might turn and walk away, but she didn’t move. I waited. Maybe something had been communicated? I was about to continue on to work when she smiled and stuck her hand out at me, not to beg, but to shake. She presented it in the same way that I had given her mine the first time we shook.

Kaemon acho,” How are you,she asked using the familiar form of you with me.

Bhalo,” Good, I replied. I took her hand and asked “Kaemon acho?” back. Then we started to walk.

Bhalo,” she said, and we proceeded, palms connected and moving up and down, toward my office. 

Kadija did not approach me very often after that, maybe once or twice a week, and when she did, she was back with her beggar routine. But even that eventually died out, and by December, my last month in Dhaka, she no longer called out to me at all. She still ran up and down the street, but she didn’t seem to notice me anymore. And in theory I got what I wanted. I didn’t give to the beggars on my block, and eventually they left me alone.

For the most part that felt all right, but with Kadija I wanted more or something different. I don’t know if it was her wizened face or the fact that she, like me, stood out on this block no matter what she did. I couldn’t shake the urge for us to be more than a western woman and a street urchin colliding on the backside of Kemal Ataturk, but that was what we were and all we ever could be. I might have wanted to give her an unnamed gift or experience; I might have hoped to curb my loneliness with her touch, but all she wanted from me was my money. I would always only be her Madam.


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