A trip through Honey Country

Padma_River_Daulatdia_Ghat_Rajbari_Bangladesh_(2)
28th March, 2011

A sleazy brothel in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh
10:30:32 pm

A torrent of abuse followed a crackling gunshot. I turned around to investigate, and immediately wanted to wash my eyes out with acid. I found myself gazing upon the most gut churning-sight known to man: Jackie Jamshed, running in his birthday suit. His paunch was recoiling from the vehemence of his pace, and his hands were trying to pull up the pants knotted around his ankles. How he managed to run in that position, Allah only knows.
Montu Mia was not far behind. Montu Mia our tour guide; was a man of many talents. He was a freelance reporter, full-time pimp, and a seasonal singer at village weddings. He was also an embarrassment to all three professions.
Right now however, he looked rather terrifying wielding an old fashioned three-not-three rifle. Women from nearby huts were all rallying around him, bubbling with curiosity that was quickly turning to aggression.
“Start the car, Ishtiaque!” Jackie screamed at the top of his voice, cutting my train of thought. He was running for his life, with Montu Mia hot on his heels. If you have trouble believing that a 140kg man-mountain can run like a freight train, do his belt, and bellow instructions simultaneously in an effortless manner; you should have seen Jackie Jamshed in action that day.
Sensing danger, I ran towards the car we had rented for our fateful trip. Our traveling companion, boyscout extraordinaire, “Ultimate Sheikh” was in the depths of a delicious codeine induced slumber. “Ultimate Sheikh! Ultimate Sheikh!! WAKE THE F*CK UP!!!” I screeched frantically. In response, Ultimate Sheikh’s lolling head remained impassive, and a glob of drool rolled down the corner of his mouth.

***

1 Day Ago
Indigo Bar, Uttara
11:32 pm

“It’s a dog’s life, Ishtiaque” growled Jackie Jamshed. His eyes were bloodshot, his brow was shiny with sweat. His lower jaw quivered with intensity of a man who is about to embark on a holy crusade.
– “We’re creative people are we not, Ishtiaque?” asked Jackie in a dangerously quiet voice.
– “Yes, I suppose we are….” I replied meekly.
– “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU SUPPOSE WE ARE? DID WE OR DID WE NOT COME UP WITH THE MOST VIRAL CAMPAIGN OF THE YEAR? How many people can claim ownership to a campaign like MAAL GOROM?” growled Jackie Jamshed. His barrel chest heaving with the effort.
– “Sir, please keep it down,” pleaded the waiter. Must have been his first day on the job. Anyone within ten miles of Indigo bar knew not to cross Jackie Jamshed when he was drunk. I saw the waiter had a babyface and decided he deserves a second chance at life. I gave him a bitter look, then yelled at the top of my voice; “Absolutely right, Jackie. What do you propose we do about it?”
“Do what about what?” Jackie asked, a little fuddled. He was balling up his fists to punch the waiter into oblivion. I quickly placed a glass of scotch in his hands. The gesture seemed to placate him.
– “About our lives? How it’s a dog’s life and how you have a plan to change it?”
– “Oh yeah. You’ll get a mental erection when you hear what I have in store, my horny little friend. Here’s what I have in mind….”

***

Six pegs of scotch, nine tequila shots and a whirlwind of hugs later, I found myself in front of a rundown bus-stand in old Dhaka with Jackie Jamshed and Ultimate Sheikh. Now that I think back, I don’t remember Ultimate Sheikh being with us up until that moment. I wasn’t surprised, because Jackie had a habit of picking up random strangers when he went on his crazy adventures. He was a glowing beam of chaos that drew misfits like insects to bright lights. I was the only constant member in his band of variable brothers. Quite often, I find myself asking if that is a good thing.
Ultimate Sheikh was a veteran journalist who was unfazed by the world. A tank could pass him by on his way to work, but Ultimate wouldn’t spare a second glance. Not only was he supremely incurious about the universe, he was also uninterested in all forms of carnal pleasures known to man. You could drown Ultimate Sheikh in a pool of alcohol, and he’d leave the party wearing the same lugubrious expression he came in with. Only one thing in the world brought a smile on his grim face, and that was Phensidyl. The smile of contentment cracked by Mister Ultimate after four bottles of Phensidyl, would make angels weep. Ultimate was a journalist by profession, and a writer by passion. Although he was very straight-laced in matters of sex and women, a wily songstress had recently captured his imagination. He had been giving her rave reviews in the entertainment page of a national daily. Which raised eyebrows around his office. It was not usual practice for hardened crime reporters interviewing pop sensations. But in a strange way, he really was reporting crime. DJ Monica’s latest album “Bhari Ijjoti Maiya” was a criminal offense which deserved capital punishment, or at least a lifelong exile. However, this sultry seductress had somehow managed to enchant Ultimate Sheikh with her massive mammaries and throaty voice. And Ultimate Sheikh being the passionate sensitive soul he is, was heartbroken when she decided to go on a Eurotrip with the owner of her recording label. Sheikh held no grudges, but he couldn’t help but despair, in his trademark nonchalant manner. He had taken to getting wasted every other day in sleazy bars around Uttara. We bumped into him on one of his worse days. He was two takas short of a peg and was nagging the bartender for one last round. “I can’t believe you are going to betray me like this, brother! 2 Takas! Dui Tekar Leigga!! You won’t give me my peg because I am two takas short? Are we not brothers?” He slurred and spat. Unlike us, the bartender was not amused. Jackie Jamshed generously decided to pay for Mister Ultimate’s drink (not the whole drink, just two takas), thus sealing a lifelong friendship. Four days later, he was in a minivan with me and Jackie; journeying towards what he thought would be a great adventure.

***

Jackie’s plan was simple, yet diabolical. We were to find a sub-rural area, take some pictures with kids in a fake cardboard-set school. Our friend Ultimate would take care of the PR blitz. After that, we would have the story circulating through the social media networks. “Two successful advertising guys leave life of luxury to help under-privileged children”. It’s a bit long and wordy. But then again, if we were good at our jobs; we wouldn’t be in on this crazy get-rich-quick scheme Jackie had hatched in a drunken haze. Once we had the story circulating, we would have deployed a fund raising campaign on one of those kick-starter websites. Then live the rest of our lives like kings, in between receiving humanitarian awards and giving interviews on Oprah and Ellen.
We parked our van inside the ferry and tipped one of the boat crew to look after it while we went for a stroll on the upper deck. On the other side of the river lay the most infamous brothel of Masrangapur. “Is this your first trip to a whore-house, Ultimate?” I asked our melancholy friend. I hoped the cool gentle river breeze would uplift his mood. Sheikh looked as depressed as ever. But it was a stoic kind of depression. There was no despair, no helplessness in it. He had the air of a man who had resigned himself to the worst possibilities fate had to offer.

I decided not to bug him. Jackie managed to find a pot dealer on our boat, and scored a few cigarettes stuffed with ganja. As we puffed on those marijuana cigarettes, gazing upon the scarlet colours of the setting sun; all our troubles melted away. The wet breeze soothed our sun-scorched skin.

As our boat docked, Jackie waved at a peculiar looking man. This was our first encounter with Montu Mia. I must admit, I had never met anyone as flamboyantly proud of his profession as Montu Mia was of being a freelance journalist. He was wearing a vest with unlimited pockets. The word “Press” was splashed across both his chest and back, in thick golden stitching. But just to make sure people still didn’t have trouble making out who he was, he also wore a prop-camera around his neck. The camera was a worn-out old model that was way past its prime.

I later deduced the reason behind all the extravagant self-promotion of his role in the community as a freelance journalist. Being connected with real journalists gave him certain leeway with the local police. An influence which proved invaluable in his other profession, the head-pimp of Maasrangapur.

He had his own makeshift little media-hut. It was roofed with pieces of straw tied together with jute ropes. The walls were made of red clay and pinned with scraps of news. The effect was quaint. We went inside and sat down on two backless stools. Montu Mia made a show of opening an excel sheet on his tablet computer, which he kept locked inside his work desk. A little plastic sign on the desk said, “Montu Mia Freelense Reportar”. He pulled out a few phone numbers on his android tablet and called the local police station. Me, Ultimate and Jackie all shared looks of mock deference.

“It’s good to inform them that we are going in the brothel area to make a report. Otherwise people might see me go in there and suspect I am up to no good. You know I’m a married man. A respected family man and famous reporter around these parts,” said Montu Mia. We followed him through a narrow path. With vast plains of paddy fields on either side. I’d almost forgotten how enchanting the countryside could be. A little distance into the village, we spotted a man walking with a peculiar hop. His body was wiry, and he deliberately twisted his frame before every hop. He gave the impression of a human-spring. Stoned as we were, we were hypnotized by the quirky hop-walk. He stopped before a hotel, asking for a bowl. The hotel staff obliged without question. Then the hop-walking man fished out a bag of what appeared to be sugary syrup. He poured about a quart of syrup in a bowl, and gulped it down with gusto. “That’s Khushu pagla,” whispered Montu. Intrigued by the name, Ultimate asked if Khushu pagla was high on Fantu. Jackie and I already knew the answer to the question. There would be no other reason for a grown man to drink a quart of thick sugary syrup in one gulp; unless he was soaking in Phensidyl. Montu Mia asked one of his mates to lead us to a dealer’s spot. As a respected reporter and moral compass of the brothel-village, he could not be seen purchasing Phensidyl; he explained earnestly. We were lead into a blacksmith’s workshop. Which was clearly a front for drug-peddling. The head smith held a sledgehammer in an awkward grip. The workers and apprentices were banging little pieces of metal with tiny hammers; putting up a show of metalwork. Everyone in the village knew what this shop was for. The pretense was pointless.
After haggling back and forth for a while, Ultimate scored 3 bottles of dail. For the first time since I’ve known him, Sheikh cracked a smile as he cradled the bottles like his children. He slid into a narrow alley, and motioned us to follow him. Then handed me and Jackie one bottle each. We swiftly emptied the bottles of thick sticky syrup and dumped them in a bush. The syrup made you thirsty as hell.
I searched for a tubewell. Jackie found a small hutment surrounded by a thin fence built out of straws and short pieces of bamboo. A woman in her early twenties was evening out the spread of paddy on her concrete yard. Her dainty little feet broke down the little hills of paddy in sensuous swirls. I couldn’t help but admire her silver anklets. I noticed her measuring Jackie Jamshed with an appreciative look. And Jackie reciprocated by licking his upper lip. A smarter man would have sensed the onset of a catastrophe right there and then. But I was too high and too happy to care. The carefree contentedness of codeine was settling in. The weather was a heady concoction of cool country breeze and mild golden sunlight. Honestly, I was feeling way too satisfied and pleased with myself to care what Jackie might be up to. I was an unattached observer, mulling the world over through different coloured glasses. Blue. Green. Pink. Mild golden yellow. The world was a swirl of colours and happy thoughts. I detached myself from the group and roamed around the countryside for hours that rushed by like minutes. Funny how fast time flies when you’re having a good time.

***

A series of beastly grunts woke me up the following morning. “UNGH! UNGGH!! UNGGG!!” I heard an anguished cry, and walked towards the source. I was still high from last night. The scene which awaited me made me wish I hadn’t come by to investigate. Jackie Jamshed was on top of the coquettish village girl we bumped into yesterday. Their bodies were a mass of sweaty quivering flesh. I had mistaken Jamshed’s moans of pleasure as anguished sobs of a dying animal.
Jackie quickly jumped up and reached for his clothes. The girl took cover behind Jackie, and starting wrapping her saree around herself.
“Such horny girls, Ishtiaque. They see a city boy and they can’t help themselves. What is a man to do when they pounce on you without a warning?” Jackie explained earnestly.
– “Hey hero! Who you said did the pouncing?” Hissed the girl as she emerged from behind Jackie’s monumental bulk.
– “Can we get the hell out of here before someone hacks us to pieces? And can you put some god damn clothes on?” I spat at Jackie. He had the guilty look of a fat child caught with his mouth smeared with chocolate. There was a sheepish smugness in him as he looped his belt around his gigantic waist.

As we hurried out of the hut, we bumped into Montu Mia. “Ah! My brothers. I see you have found my humble home. Such luck! Such brotherly spiritual connection we share. Come inside, let me introduce you to my youngest wife, Zohura.” He yelled for his wife. Zohura appeared from behind the huts, petrified with fear. Her hair was still tussled from her encounter with Jackie. “Meet my journalist brothers from Dhaka. Ishtiaque and Jackie. There is also another brother… Where is Ultimate?” Zohura’s shoulders drooped with relief. The fear in her eyes was replaced by mischief as she gave Jackie Jamshed a wicked smile. Jackie would have been blushing right now if his skin wasn’t the colour of the bottom of an overused tea-kettle. I gave him a stern look and a curt negatory shake of my head. My euphoria had all but worn off. Ultimate Sheikh tumbled into our hut a few hours later, groggy with sleep. I pointed at the modest little floor bed Montu Mia had offered us to spend the night in. Sheikh collapsed on that without a word. Jackie walked inside like a guilty school boy. I placed my bed-mat in front of the door to make sure Jackie didn’t slip out for a midnight hanky panky session with the paddy-husking nymph, Zohura.

Despite the hard earthen floor, and our thin sleeping mats; it was very pleasant inside Montu Mia’s hut. I woke up the next day feeling like a million bucks. Jackie was up and about, brushing his teeth and gurgling loudly. Making suggestive gestures at Zohura when he thought no one was looking. After a hearty breakfast of eggs, rotis, vegetables and mangoes; we set off towards the brothel at the edge of the village. Montu Mia was sure to inform the authorities of our arrival, and true to his words, he left us at the entrance. “No further for me, my friends. A respectable man such as myself must not be seen too close to these types of establishments. However,” he lowered his mouth very close to my ears and whispered like a conspirator, “You young men feel free to enjoy yourself, on the house.” He winked at me then bade us all goodbye. It might have been purely my imagination, but when he hugged Jackie he seemed a little stiff. Entering the brothel was like entering a whole new world. It was hard to imagine how different life was on either side of boundary walls that separated the brothel from the village. The place was roughly as big as the village itself. In fact it was a village within a village, completely self-sufficient. In my imagination, I always pictured a brothel to be like a large hive of rooms; with prostitutes showing off their goods to attract potential customers. The real thing shattered all my preconceived notions. The first thing you would see when you entered a brothel was a bazaar. All the traders were women. They sold everything from sleeping mats to clothes and groceries. Some women wore heavy makeup, most women were dressed like normal village folk. You couldn’t distinguish them as hookers unless someone told you. The teen prostitutes however, were very peculiarly dressed. Their clothes seemed to be heavily influenced by Hollywood pop culture. A lot of them were trying to mimic the Disney princess look. A lot of them had dyed hair in bright blonde and orange. But what set the women of the brothel apart from the women in the village was their apparent freedom of expression. Women from the village were subdued, spoke meekly and laughed silently. The women at the brothel were loud, in every sense of the word. They laughed, singed and danced. Called us out from their huts as we walked the trail that went through the bazaar. I understood how Montu Mia was able to run the business without actually frequenting the brothel. The women here were self-managed and self-sufficient. Montu Mia had no real authority inside the brothel. He merely collected his cut and made sure the police gave them no trouble. It was a strange feeling, knowing that any of these women would have sex with me for money. Even in the big cities in Bangladesh, sex was a taboo subject. Everyone pretended it didn’t exist, and few talked about it in public. Yet, here we were; in the middle of the largest brothel in the country where literally thousands of women were openly selling sex. Such hypocrisy was only possible in Bangladesh.
“Bhai, I don’t think it would be a good idea to exploit their children. There are already half a dozen NGOs in existence. Two of them are schools,” said Ultimate Sheikh. I nodded in agreement. I asked around the brothel and found out that these NGOs were doing exactly what Jackie had intended to do. Fancy advertising, no real work. Beneath the facade of social welfare, these unregulated and unsupervised organizations raked in millions of dollars in donations from foreign aid. Jackie appeared from one of the huts, he had been gone throughout the better part of our excursion. He had tell-tale signs of debauchery on his face. Two girls in their late teens sent him flying kisses from their huts. They were twins. Jackie pretended to catch kisses adrift in the wind and pocketed them with a grave expression on his face. The twins exploded in gales of laughter. Soon afterwards, we were back at Montu Mia’s house to have lunch. It was a simple meal of rice, lentil soup, chicken curry and vegetables. It was delicious. Zohura may not be a faithful 2nd wife, but she was a tremendous cook. She served us patiently, and fanned our sweaty brows. We ate till our bellies were close to bursting. Ultimate Sheikh excused himself to light up a joint and finish off the remaining bottle of Phensydil in our minivan. I went outside for a walk along the paddy fields. It was humid and breezy outside. The sky was showing tell-tale signs of rain. Village rains were magical. I didn’t want to miss it sitting indoors. I saw Jackie playfully tickling Zohura as she cleaned up our hut. I coughed loudly and gave Jackie a dirty look. He retracted for the moment and Zohura ran past me giggling. I felt sleepy after our heavy lunch and took a three hour nap. After waking up, I decided to go on a boat ride.
I went for a walk around the ferry docks, trying to get myself a small boat. I needed to relax. The breeze was nice, weather was magical. A small excursion would do me a world of good. Unfortunately, all the boats I encountered refused to roam around the river for a couple of hours. The sky was beginning to darken, and these men had toiled all day extracting stones and pebbles from the river. These pebbles were used as raw material in mosaic floors and concrete mix. I walked a little further along the docks on the far side of the river bank. One industrial sized pebble extractor boat decided to take me on. There were no seats, but large metal pipes on the deck to sit on. The boatman was pleasant, close to my age. “I already took several big contracts today. I really didn’t need to take you on. But you seemed like you could use some peace and quiet,” he said lightheartedly. There was a perpetual half-smile stuck to his face. His happiness was infectious. He introduced himself as Salman, no first or last name. He worked half his life on boats, saving enough money to buy his own. The dowry he received from his recent marriage was a big help. And he finally bought his own boat. He was lean and healthy. More baked than tanned. His black skin shone even in the dim light of the setting sun. He worked the ferry boat 8 hours every day with his little brother. Transporting large amounts of river-pebble to factories. His life seemed like something out of a Mark Twain novel. I was probably romanticizing his existence a bit. But even years later, when I look at a ferry boat and think of Salman, I can’t help but feel a little jealous. He seemed like a truly free man.

– “You have one of those fancy cigarettes brother?” He asked hopefully. We shared my last Marlboro and watched the setting sun. The sky was getting darker, and the breeze escalated to howling winds in a matter of seconds. “We better get a move on, the weather could turn bad,” I wanted to be on the boat for a little longer, but didn’t want to argue with a seasoned sailor. I reluctantly gave him a nod of approval. By the time I reached my hut, it was half past ten.

As I walked into my hut, a strange sense of foreboding crept up my spine. Fear grasped my chest. Neither Jackie nor Ultimate were in their beds. It wasn’t very late, and I really didn’t have any legitimate reason to worry. But there was an uneasy knot in my stomach. That feeling you get when you know something bad is about to happen without any reasonable explanation. I walked around the hutment, to the road where we had parked our minivan. I was relieved to find Ultimate Sheikh passed out in the driver’s seat. Despite his gaping mouth and globs of drool dribbling down the corner of his lips, he seemed at peace. That’s when I heard the gun go off. “Khankir pola! Madarchod!! Shuorer Bachha!!!” Montu Mia’s voice exploded with rage. As I turned around to investigate, the most gut churning sight known to man awaited my gaze: Jackie Jamshed in his birthday suit. Running at an impressive pace, with Zohura in tow. She was trying to subdue her husband my wrapping her arms around his feet. Montu Mia kicked her aside and shot his gun once more. I felt a bullet hiss past an inch above my head and went mad with terror. Jackie quickly joined me. With one heavy thrust of the elbow, he broke the glass window of our minivan. I wrenched the door open and ducked inside, curling up in a fetal position. Jackie twisted the keys, and the engine rumbled reluctantly, spluttered and died. We were sitting ducks. I raised my head for a quick peek. I saw Montu Mia take careful aim, determined to find it’s mark this time. I was paralyzed with fear. I thought of my mother, I thought about all the wicked things I’d done and pleaded with god for forgiveness. I thought of the only woman I’ve ever loved, and the smile on her face when I met her for the first time. I thought of chocolate milk and peanut butter thickly smeared over slightly burnt toast. Just when I thought I was toast myself, Zohura leaped from the ground and tackled Montu Mia, sending him tumbling down. Another gunshot went off, but this time in a random direction. “Oh fuck!” Jackie exclaimed and kept twisting the keys in a frenzy of terror. As if an answer to my prayers, the engine came to life. Jackie put his foot down and the car rushed passed Montu Mia’s hutments. It was hours before we could breathe normally. Ultimate Sheikh finally woke up when we reached the ferry docks. Completely unaware of the life-threatening situation we were in only a few ours earlier, Ultimate Sheikh stretched luxuriantly and lifted his shirt to rub his hairy tummy. “Where are we?” He asked in a sleep-ridden voice. I ignored him and asked Jackie to put on some clothes. He had discarded his pants while running for his life. Once the panic and hysteria of being shot at had worn off, I became painfully aware of his nakedness. Thankfully we had an extra set of clothes lying around in the minivan.

Once we were on the ferry, Ultimate Sheikh immediately started asking around and managed to score some weed on board. I finally breathed a sigh of relief as the ferry took off. We leaned on the railings and puffed on our king size joint. Jackie finally broke the silence, “You know Ishtiaque, there’s a lesson to be learned from….”

“Not one word, Jackie. Give it a rest. Just shut the fuck up, alright?”

He had the good sense to shut up for the rest of our trip home.

***

(All characters and events depicted in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anyone either living or dead is purely coincidental. To know more about Jackie Jamshed and his exploits, you can read Wallowing in Dhaka)

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