Baba (my father) and I were in Dhaka, attending a wedding. I don’t know if it was of a relative or a friend; maybe it was of someone we didn’t even know. One doesn’t ask these questions in a dream – because they never get answered.
The building which served as both the wedding venue and the guest house for out-of-towners was huge, almost a castle. Built out of grey stone blocks, it had hundreds of high-ceilinged rooms and miles of labyrinthine corridors. It was not long before I realised that it also served as the headquarters for the local secret police. So, the room next to the bride’s boudoir might very well have a girl hanging by her wrists, naked, from the crossbeams. Or the banquet hall might overlook a chamber where an old man would have his fingernails ripped off and salt (no doubt borrowed from the caterer) gently smeared on the red, raw fingertips by smiling men in sweat-stained uniforms. I also met these men in the corridors, hurrying past with a preoccupied expression on their faces; they never talked. Nor did I.
The house started to suffocate me; the windowpanes were dirty and no sun would come in. the gloom made me restless. Baba and I decided to go out and see the city. We were assigned a guide, one of those nondescript relatives one encounters only at family reunions. He looked a bit like an old photograph of the writer Humayun Ahmed. He was timid and friendly, and eager to show us around. He had an accent that reminded me of stormy nights of my childhood when my cousin and I would curl up in our grandmother’s lap and listen to stories from her teenage in a Bangladesh village (of course, it was India then), all the time watching flashes of lightning filter in through the shutters of the North Calcutta house where she lived with her sons, my mother’s brothers.
This man (I never got to know his name) asked us if we had any specific destination in mind. We were at a bus stop; I had a backpack with my camera, water-bottle, and other knick-knacks in it. Baba had his omnipresent Shantiniketan bag slung over one shoulder.
“Is there a zoo here?” I asked.
“Yes, sir! A very nice one, too. Wait, there’s a bus that goes directly to it.”
A bus came. It looked surprisingly like an Amsterdam tram. Only the doors were open and people were hanging from it. I could never take Baba on this crowded contraption.
“It’s okay, that’s not our bus,” our guide said.
Another one came; this one was reassuringly like a Calcutta bus, with a battered tin body painted blue and yellow lettering on the side. It was equally sardined with people.
“This is it.”
“I’m sorry, I cannot take my father on this bus. How far is the zoo?”
“Oh, just about two stops from here.”
“Then we’ll walk.”
“You’re sure?” (to my father) “You, sir?”
“If my son says we walk, we walk,” Baba said with a smile.
“But the sun is too strong, and…”
“Then we shall walk in the shade,” I said. He didn’t get the joke (not that I expected him to).
We started walking. The streets were wide but without pavements, so we tried to remain as close to the buildings as possible. The traffic was curiously sparse, though, consisting mostly of cycle-rickshaws, and the occasional bus.
After a while, we decided to stop for a cup of tea at a roadside stall. I unstrapped my backpack and relaxed on a weather-beaten wooden bench. The tea came in thumb-smeared glasses, festooned with flies (on the house, I thought, amused). It was as all roadside teas are – stale, bitter, grainy on the tongue. Baba was even more finicky about his tea than me, but he seemed to enjoy it.
Ten minutes. We resumed walking. After a couple of blocks, I suddenly realised I felt lighter.
“I think I’ve left my backpack at the tea stall.”
“Ufff, you’re so scatterbrained! Run back and get it.”
“Shall I go with you, sir?”
“No; you stay here with Baba. I won’t take a minute.”
As I started running back towards the stall, it took me a few seconds to realise that the streets have changed. We did not walk these streets before; but now they were the only ones I could take. They were narrow, shadowy, deserted. Cold.
I came out in a broad avenue; a long shamiyana (like in old Bengali banquets) covered the entire stretch of it on my side. A feast must have ended just now; the ground was littered with plates made of sal leaves, rice grains, broken earthen cups, fish bones and splashes of curry. I kept on running, still under the shamiyana, bordered on both sides with rows of those long folding tables with laminated tops that can seat six at a time.
As I ran, I became aware of other people joining me from both sides. I looked back, and almost screamed. They were a ragtag group of brown, skinny men mostly in tattered lungis or pajamas, bare-bodied; and none of them were complete. One had a hole where his nose should be, another had stumps for arms, while a third had ears and lips missing. What they all had were two working legs, and they kept up with me effortlessly, all the while smiling the rictus grin of the freak.
“Lepers,” I thought. “I’m running with lepers.”
The shamiyana went on, endless, featureless, shadowed, mirroring the corridors of the house where we were staying. The lepers were on all sides of me now. Two of them were on my left; they were looking at my Fabindia kurta. One said to the other, “Expensive stuff, eh?” The other smiled and said, “Would look good on my wife.” I wanted to scream at them, beg them not to kill me, that I’d give them the kurta if they promised to spare my life, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak. Suddenly, I realised that it was my destiny, that I would never get my backpack, that I would never see Baba again, that I had to run like this, run with these lepers, these fleet-footed hounds of diseased defiance, run, run, run till all my blood would erupt from my mouth, and keep on running even then.
[An actual dream I had on the morning of 10th January 2011, with a little embellishment for dramatic purpose]