A Night Inside, Kathryn Hummel
Originally published in Tincture Journal (2014)
When I lived in Bangladesh, Jaydeb was the friend who most often persuaded me to meet for drinks and conversation in scattered locations. I was thankful for any company that drew me out of my role as an exotic toy whose string, once pulled by the inevitable questions about my regard for my current country, gave the same inoffensive answers. I suspected Jaydeb chose the meeting places he did in order to educate me to his point of view. Though they were never confronting or obscurely inappropriate, like the all-male underground bars my students friends sometimes took me to—so shady that the very air we breathed seemed tinted—Jaydeb’s choices drew careful contrasts between those sitting in the neat booths of trendy cafes, and those who stood on the other side of the plate glass window, feet bared to the dust of the road, miming their hunger with a listless hand-to-mouth gesture before being moved along by a uniformed guard. One night, sitting in one of the upscale restaurants that tacitly allowed diners to bring their own bottles, Jaydeb explained to me his disinheritance as a native of Dhaka city, spreading forth his lament like a white cloth.
‘Those who celebrate the city,’ he told me, ‘those who deny it’s a ghetto, don't want to acknowledge that the city has been brought close to death. It’s a celebration to stop them feeling responsible for draining the blood of Dhaka from its body.’
Jaydeb underlined this point with a bitter expression as he took a swig of his red wine. Although not good, it was among the best that was available in Bangladesh; I had grown up on wine but he hadn’t, so I assumed the face he pulled was less to do with its quality than an expression of the rebellious air that accompanied the act of swallowing. Although liquor was available in selected import warehouses and locked-door dives, drinking it in Bangladesh was technically outlawed for anyone not in possession of a foreign passport.
As friends, Jaydeb and I had an ever-wavering responsibility to each other: we were two fringe dwellers whose shared sympathy was really too dim to be vital. Unlike Jaydeb, I was not born in Dhaka and so I felt my disconnection in a different way—though I was never certain I was witness to the city’s death. Convinced that human beings had too much ego to ever completely destroy their world, I saw signs of Dhaka’s strained persistence and even, in patches, of its revival. My lack of sentimentality about the city was perhaps the biggest difference between my gaze and Jaydeb’s: mine was present; his was nostalgic. Dhaka seemed at its best when the day wore down to dusk and the sky looked as though it had been stroked dry with a wire brush. I lived near the lake in Dhanmondi and would walk through the drab hues of the surrounding park, where trees, silvered with dust, stretched their reflections across pea-green water. The women power walking in brightly-dyed salwar kameez and the walahs in their loud shirts were seldom so dull. The park was crowded with people, yet even so I was the focus of attention, ghosted by exclamations of Koto lomba! until my shadows became longer than myself and in the hazy atmosphere, weighed down with the fumes of cigarettes and traffic, I was not so noticeable.
During moments when I couldn’t tolerate the close scrutiny of the world outside, I would spend twilights sitting on the balcony that ran the length of my small flat, barefoot and wearing a voluminous housedress. I would set aside my writing and peer down upon Dhaka’s night stage from my seat in dress circle, eight floors up. Children played games on the rooftop of the apartment block opposite; women unhooked vibrant lines of sun-dried washing; and young men would chat, play guitar and sing or huddle around a mobile phone, passing it back and forth. Rickshawalahs rang their bells to the call of the circling crows: harsh melodies that were surpassed by motorists leaning constantly and obnoxiously on their car horns. By the time the last call to prayer growled from the megaphones of nearby mosques, there was still activity on the street below: figures moved under the marigold glare of the sodium streetlights or, in winter, stretched badminton nets across the street for long, cheerful games. At this distance from Dhaka, I looked upon it with more appreciation and felt a sensation close to peace as a half-obscured onlooker, rather than the ground-level spectacle of the only foreigner—and an uncommonly tall one—in the district.
When this solitude became oppressive, my solution was to open all windows and doors and let in air and friends. Naturally, Jaydeb counted among these, though a recollection of his recent self-consciousness, apparently drawn forth by the combination of wine and my company, made me pause before inviting him. During our last few meetings, through sips of whatever we were drinking, Jaydeb would voice sudden reminders that he was committed to his academic job and his upstanding life; that he was a good man with a good wife, the love of his life, actually. I would listen quietly from my side of the table and wonder what he could possibly be warning me against—or why he warning himself. Although the time Jaydeb spent in the company of a single white female was automatically suspect in the eyes of the wider public in Bangladesh, in reality, our friendship didn’t even live up to this banal framework: our common interest was books and the ideas they contained. Jaydeb was, I believed, too worldly and informed, and my manner too decorous, to fuel any notion I was out to seduce him. The influence of the wine of Bangladesh, with its diminishing effect on my understanding of patriarchy and ego, became apparent soon enough; at the time, though, I was only concerned with the comfort of my friends. I would invite Jaydeb around for our customary chat; I would also invite Shumon, a rough-bearded photographer who was friendly with so many of my friends; and my neighbour Durjoy, also a photographer but an unpredictable character, less clear in the frame than Shumon due to the undetermined mixture of chemicals he recreationally enjoyed.
Whatever new atmosphere hung over these drinks in Dhaka, we all tried to do something different that night. Jaydeb declared he would cook; I tried to relax; Durjoy attempted to rewire himself as a pleasant human being. As a gathering of self-declared artists we made uneasy company—our talk was fractured without being spontaneous or friendly. I missed the company of women but had none to invite who would be able to travel to and from my flat alone, and I doubt their presence would have smoothed the social implications that dragged at the edges of our gathering. I recognised the need for food and for wine; wine came first.
Uncorking and pouring started off a practice that had little education around it: in Bangladesh, drinks were measured in ‘pegs’ and slammed down faster than a gang of policemen could bust open a door. Accustomed to chatting, sipping and savouring, placing my glass unluckily on the floor and wandering off to rediscover it twenty minutes later with beaded bubbles intact, I got drunker that night than I had ever been at home. By the time Jaydeb emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of floppy salad greens, beef bacon and mayonnaise, all I wanted to do was curl up in my solitary red bed and sleep, exhausted by my day of negotiating difference outside, then inviting the same element inside at night. The more I concentrated, the more tired I felt. No longer even pretending to host the evening, I sat turning the pages of the new art magazine Shumon brought to show me. The lulling rasp of the pages was easier to focus on than the conversation, which had lapsed by now into a swift flow of Bangla I couldn’t possibly follow, even when sober.
I was jolted from this calming exercise when it transpired Jaydeb wanted to cook rice. Although he had visited the Western-style supermarket beforehand to buy supplies, Jaydeb had acted on the assumption that my household, being inside Bangladesh and therefore of the right location, would have a kitchen cupboard devoted to a huge supply of this staple food. I did not have a huge supply; I didn’t even have a small supply.
‘I don’t have any rice in the house,’ I announced. There was a reason, though I never had to think about it until that night. ‘I eat so much of it outside; I never cook it at home.’
I had been witness to—really a part of—the origins of the Dhanmondi apartment in which we stood. I knew that Australian, Nepalese, Chilean, Chinese, North American, Swedish, Indian, French and Bengali cultures had coursed through its rooms over the four years of its existence. The walls, plain when I first encountered them, had retained remnants of all the people travelling through; those who had retreated behind them; those who had made a point of living a different way in a different land, nothing that openly defied but also nothing that quite fit in. What all these lives had done was create anything but a typical Bangladeshi household. Although I was staying alone, the unconventional tone of my voice dampened by weariness in the midst of two spare bedrooms, I felt my dimming ipseity flicker. I could not resist a whole country—I did not wish to—but I could bend its laws on wine and welcome whatever grains I chose to blow under my front door and across my threshold.
Hearing my words, Jaydeb’s face displayed a brief combat between culture shock and intellectual rationalism—a mixture that suited his profession. He glanced at Shumon, who was standing next to me, but I couldn’t read what was in the look; Durjoy, sitting on the kitchen floor, was grinning with his eyebrows raised, possibly regretting that he’d left his camera across the hall. Jaydeb took his pot of water off the stove and excused himself for ten minutes while he popped down to the shop for a small bag of rice.
What he didn’t cook that night lasted me for months afterwards. The friendships, though they retained the particles of curiosity and warmth that sparked them, didn’t last much longer; but all bottles of wine I had bought for the party that night were emptied before morning.
Kathryn Hummel (www.kathrynhummel.com / @katscratchez) is an Australian-based writer, mixed-media artist and multidisciplinary researcher. Her existing books of poems include Poems from Here (Hobart: Walleah Press, 2014), The Bangalore Set (Bangalore: Kena, 2016), splashback (Sydney: Stale Objects dePress, 2017), The Body That Holds (Adelaide: Little Windows Press, 2017) and A Few Franks forDearest Dominic [London: Prote(s)xt Books]. Uncollected, Kathryn’s digital media/poetry, non-fiction, scholarly research and fiction has been published, performed, translated and anthologised around the world. Recipient of the NEC/Meanjin Essay Writing Competition prize and the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Dorothy Porter Award, Kathryn’s writing has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, among others. A widely-travelled performance poet and artist-in-residence, Kathryn holds a PhD in Social Sciences and edits non-fiction and travel writing for Australian creative arts journal Verity La.