The winter was long but a stuttering one, one which seemed so diffident and unsure. It was not short and intense-maybe in some parts of North Bengal where winter has some meaning- but in Dhaka, the city of sin, winter flopped. But the matter is not the concern of old men cowering in unlit and unheated rooms as few need them in Bangladesh. Dhaka is about sweltering mad heat waves as the ugly hum of air-conditioners sitting on the parapets and window sill blow hot and cold.
Yet a mild winter is bad news if you are in the dodgy business of selling winter clothes. They didn't sell well this winter. It wasn't cold enough to buy another set of warmers. How many trousers can you sell in a city so reluctantly wintry?
The fool and I
The man has a cloth pack of unsold trousers parked near the side of an alley entering the Gulshan market's many gates, inside which they sell everything and all the products are possibly dubious. It's a very strange market where every buyer is suspicious of the goods they purchase and every seller looks at the person on the other side of the showcase with a glint in his eye, bordering on the hunter's gaze.
Yet this man is a failure, a man who was not only let down by a disinterested winter but his skill to make money. And this is the oddest fact of them all. For every profiteer there are 10 gob smacking losers. For every one winner that rushes towards Gulshan, there are 100 weepers crushed in the crowded bush hoping to just reach home before the night is done.
The man with his unsold winter trousers is too pathetic to deserve pity. I bought a pair of trousers from him. Or at least I offer to buy one. He looks down as if in shame. I have not shamed him. I know what it means not to have money. I tell him it is for my son who is in Canada. He relents and unpacks. I make a façade of an interested buyer and after haggling- I am expected to - he gives a dark chocolate pair of jeans for 500. He had asked for 550.
He probably understood and I probably knew that but it didn't matter. On that measly warm March evening, nothing mattered except that 500 taka note.
Dress code for beggars and sin diluting programme
I once encountered a lady in London who was fairly threadbare dressed and even had torn shoes and a smile. I was told that beggars were in high supply in these zones as many South Asians lived there who were prone to street level charity. I was very keen to bestow a shilling to the lady in return for occupying Bengal so when she reached me, I didn't even wait for a call but extended my hand.
The lady jerked back two steps and said, "No, no, I am only looking for directions to the church. " I was embarrassed and stepped back. Never dress a beggar by the dress. But then again, why would I look for directions to the church, everyone knows where it is?. And the beggars that I did come across later were neither better nor worse dressed except a really fancy few who asked for some support towards a cup of coffee.
The fanciest beggars in London I met were those so -called homeless who apparently were mostly by choice. They slouch the whole day and in the evening return to the cubby holes and wait for charities to serve them soup and bread. I once came across a man who lay on the pavement outside the BBC office and read a book on philosophy as the charity worker handed him food parcels, not even really looking at her. Most impressive act.
Dhaka's beggars are also changing sartorially. In our childhood days the beggars were almost like family members who often visited for food and money and were regularly handed out. They were needed in life in a way. Children were perpetually falling sick and without God's help, antibiotics could only go so far. So they played a role. And they were unerringly polite.
However Dhaka's recent beggars are sartorially pious. Most lady beggars are in burqa and none are without the hijab and most don the niqab too. Clearly, the targets prefer it this way because pity is tough to get in sin city so religiosity has replaced it. You give money if they have an appropriate dress code and payment also enters some sawab. It's not that beggars are in shorts and tee-shirts wearing high heels but if they adhere to the code, it's not just charity but a sin diluting programme also. They are giving money to the right kind of beggar.
Givers can be choosers even if beggars can't.
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