Remembering a day of unusual experiences
or the last 20 years that I have lived in Banani, the media has covered, among other things, the encroachment and pollution of the water bodies and the day to day plight of the sex workers in Dhaka.
The coverage is usually strong, but with the lack of a solid city corporation and citizen support, nothing much happens, and the government does very little, too.
Many years ago, soon after 9/11 and during Ramadan that year, one day I was back early from my office due to the Ramadan timings. I had a quick chilly dip in the Bagha Club swimming pool (the club was in those days in Road 71), and then duly shampooed and showered, I went to the Gulshan Park to read a book in the glow of the setting sun.
Around the time of breaking the fast, I walked for home in Banani. Passing by the lake between Gulshan and Banani, I heard a child’s terrified scream that seemed to stop abruptly.
Everyone nearby was busy eating their iftar, and nobody appeared to have heard the scream. I looked around as another scream came, and noticed that there was a little person struggling in the horrible, putrid water.
So, without thinking, I jumped over the concrete railings and got the little fellow out without too much difficulty, and in the process I managed to taste the filthy and turgid water myself!
Covered in stinking slime and surrounded by incredulous onlookers who were convinced that I was, perhaps, trying to commit suicide, I wondered how I could arrive back at my Banani apartment in this appalling state.
I could already feel the acidic effect of the sludge begin to work on me.
A young woman, probably about 25 years old, came forward to ask me in quite good English if I would like to clean up at her place, which was just nearby.
She insisted that I could not go home in this state to the MP’s building (so, everyone knows where the foreigners live, or so it seemed). Besides, she said, I had to eat some of her iftar food to help my internal system recover, and she could lend me some clean clothes.
As I left the lakeside, I heard someone mumbling about the bombing in Afghanistan and, in Bangla, added, “You see, some English save lives as well.”
So I went to the woman’s two-room rooftop flat, neat, clean and tastefully decorated. I got cleaned up with a hot shower and she found some men’s clothing for me.
The food was nice and spicy, hot cups of tea particularly welcome, and just as I was about to leave, I asked her how on earth she knew where I lived. She replied that she made it a point to notice possible “clients.”
I suppose that a quizzical look came over my face. “You see,” she said, “I run an escort service.”
Astonished, I sat down with a bump and she began her story.
Around the age of 14, she had been brought to Dhaka by an aunt of hers to work as a maidservant. At the house where she worked, she was sexually and physically abused by both the man of the house and his son.
She escaped from that house and got a job in a garments factory, where the same thing happened. However, after saving some money and learning English at night, she left the factory and set herself up.
She said that she earned Tk6,000 a month by working in a Banani garments shop during the day and could, in addition, earn up to Tk5,000 or more per night.
A very moving story, and though a very sad one, in a way I admired the young woman. She said that gone were the miserable days when men controlled her life and abused her.
Now she was in control.
She seemed very organized. She had computerized her clients’ details: Their likes, dislikes, favourite food, birthdays, and even the money they still owed her!
She was putting a younger brother and sister through private school and college, and she was also investing in land. Business was, she said, always slow in Ramadan, and more so since 9/11, due to a decrease in the number of foreign businessmen coming to Bangladesh.
She used to be able to earn a total of Tk50,000 a month, but when I met her, it was about half that amount, though she expected some hefty bonuses when she accompanied men to the dances, discos, and balls at the Christmas and New Year of that year.
She told me that her favourite client was an elderly American man, a garments buyer, who visited a few times a year.
He would phone her from his five-star hotel to come and have dinner with him. All she had to do was eat dinner with him, and she would be paid $200.
The most unpleasant and violent clients were, she said, from the Middle East.
Eventually, I got home safely but the effect of the lake water on my skin was severe. Even more than a week after this educational experience, I still felt the effect.
What a sewer that lake was and still is! I eventually recovered with antibiotic medicines and skin cream.
Whatever you do, make a New Year Resolution, “Don’t jump in the lake!”
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.