by Seema Reza
Le Chatelier’s Principle: If a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, temperature, volume, or partial pressure, then the equilibrium shifts to counteract the imposed change and a new equilibrium is established. This is optimism: seeing everything, everything wrong. Seeing it all entirely. And then, very carefully, choosing not to see it anymore. Choosing instead to find beauty, to let the worst fade from focus, to shift to accommodate the unavoidable disappointments and changes in order to find balance. It is the way of the natural world. Necessary. Dangerous.
Such optimism is essential to existence in a place as poverty stricken and precariously positioned as Dhaka, Bangladesh. In 1971, East Pakistan divorced West Pakistan in a bloody civil war. East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The majority of the country’s economic activity was agricultural then—fishing and farming—businesses and lives were tied to the tempers of the rivers crisscrossing the land on their paths to the Bay of Bengal. The people have tired of this relationship, so they migrate, 400,000 each year, to Dhaka city. Dhaka’s population density is double that of New York City’s—more than 100,000 people occupy every square mile. People live in commercial high-rises and in dingy, one-room apartments above the markets, in gaudily appointed mansions and in small, family-owned buildings three or four stories high. As the concentration of people in the city grows, so does the city’s volume: the fragile tin and bamboo shacks of slums mushroom and expand the borders of the city. Hopeful migrants work in garment factories and as household help in private homes; they pull bicycle rickshaws and beg in the muddy streets.
During the pre-monsoon, from March to August, the heat is dense and vicious, a physical force. The clouds bear down like a blanket still in place after the fever has broken and the city squirms and looks skyward. Children on the street, old men at roadside tobacco shops and women at tea parties anticipate the rain in every conversation. The monsoon invites the rivers, menacing and necessary as dictators, to encroach on the land, which is on average a mere 6-8 meters above sea level. It will turn the city back into a swamp, and thousands of people will die of water-borne illness, pneumonia, or will simply drown. Slum-dwelling families fish up their floating belongings and wait on drier land. Bangladeshi folk songs praise the beauty of the rain and rivers. The monsoon is a monster, but it is also their savior. For in the height of the monsoon, when curtains of rain are parted daily by an hour or two of intense sunshine, rice crops grow at rates of five or six inches a day, remaining just ahead of the furious, rising water.
I met my husband, Karim, here in Dhaka. He was twenty and I was seventeen. We fell deep into a desperate, salty sort of love. I loved the way he looked at me and the way heads turned for us as a couple. I loved his dimples and his grace, his cool air in dark designer sunglasses. The Dhaka we inhabited was a series of rooftop parties and bottles of vodka bought on the black market for a middle-class man’s monthly wages. We lifted the hems of our pants and stepped over the muck on our way into posh restaurants. When he punched the windshield of his car in anger, I was scared. But through an optimist’s eye his jealousy proved his devotion; his forgiveness was divine. I saw an instant bridge to the future with him, free of our families, free of religion, independent, adult. We were married within a year and had our first child soon after, our second six years later.
Since then, I have been back with one son or both, with and without Karim. But now, for the first time in twelve years, at twenty-nine years old, I make the eight thousand mile journey entirely in my own company. Karim and the kids remain at our home in Maryland. There is no shoulder to rest my head upon, no children to care for. This visit to my family in Dhaka, a family in which I am a child rather than a mother, is intended to give me a break from cooking, cleaning, kids, and a respite from the tedium of my suburban life. The time apart will renew my marriage.
In a pale green journal with handmade paper pages I have written and illustrated a book for the children to read in my absence. The book begins: When I am flying high over the ocean, you will be warm in your beds. Let’s meet in our dreams and have mushroom soup up in the clouds. After ten or eleven pages of meticulous writing, chronicling how we will stay connected in dreams in spite of distance and differing time zones, I run out of time and have to improvise. I put captions on pages and ask them to illustrate, tuck a Starbuck’s gift card between the blank pages in the back.
The night before my flight, as I haphazardly finish the book, I feel an uncontrolled sense of failure—of unpreparedness and guilt. My suitcase lays open, gifts for aunts and cousins still in shopping bags wait to be packed. Karim offers to help. He asks whether the shoes must be packed beside their mates, if tags should be removed from gifts, if I am sure my mother really needs this or that. Irritated, I snap at him once, then twice, and before I know it, it has spun out of control; he has snapped back and we are up all night. I am pulled into his spiral as he dives into one argument after the other: grievances a decade old follow new accusations of wasteful spending and concerns over my immodest wardrobe choices.
At the airport, I hold the children and weep, smell their heads as if they are newborns. Karim spent the day sleeping while I ran all my last minute errands with the boys in tow. He woke two hours before I had to leave to catch my 9 pm flight. He checks my passport and tickets repeatedly. He moves my laptop from one compartment of my carry-on to another, fusses with the zipper on my suitcase—repenting through care for minutiae. When it is time for me to head toward the plane, I dodge his kiss and glide away down the escalator. By the time my plane touches down in London, I am ready to let go of my anger, to steady myself. I send him a text message from Heathrow to tell him I’ve landed and I remind myself of how lucky I am to have him.
* * * * *
The patchwork of green seen from the sky as the plane descends in Dhaka invites hope—perhaps it’s not as bad as I remembered, perhaps in the three years since my last visit, sweeping changes have been made. The view soon gives way to a swarming cityscape dotted with coconut trees and buildings that were once white, but are now streaked with the brown of pollution and the green of humidity-borne mold.
My luggage is slow to arrive and my parents, aunt and cousins have been waiting behind the metal gate outside the arrivals door for more than an hour. Finally one of my cousins pays a security guard five hundred taka to let him in to see what’s keeping me. By then I am already rolling my parrot-green suitcase toward the door. There are no refunds on bribes.
My cousins make a big show of putting a garland of orange mums around my neck when I finally come out. They congratulate me on having traveled from America and ask me loudly if I need to use the bathroom. People stare, and our scene becomes louder. I assert that I am very busy and in America we all wear diapers to promote productivity. We laugh harder. The three of them were born and brought up in Dhaka, but have spent the better part of the past ten years studying and working in New England, Canada and Singapore. We appreciate the instant audience afforded by a society in which it is not considered impolite to stare.
* * * * *
Homeostasis is the ability of the body or a cell to seek and maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes. All horrors can be absorbed. Even the shock of poverty wears off. Before this happens, every sight feels like a slug to the chest. It takes more than an hour to travel three miles by automobile in the city at some times of day, and through the windows of the car I watch children carrying babies on their hips. Thirty-six percent of the population in Dhaka is under twelve. Kids tap on my window and beg and wave sheets of cheap stickers that I buy. I watch a child of two or three squat and have a bowel movement on the sidewalk. His mother picks up a green foil potato chip bag from the gutter and wipes him with it and then picks up the feces. Everyday, I cry.
At a point in each trip, my heart begins to encase itself in armor: the working children who serve tea and cold drinks in households I visit socially, the mothers begging for rice to feed their babies, the haggard looking men and women breaking bricks by hand in the hot sun become nearly invisible. I realize the magnitude of the problem, recognize my own limitations and then give up, go about my own business. I talk on the phone or read a novel in traffic. I dip an edge of my cotton scarf in perfume and breathe through it when we pass through an especially malodorous part of the city. I adapt.
Soon, I begin to pick out beauty, find reasons to smile. The flowers, sticky fragrant, arranged in baskets to fan like peacock displays in neighborhood shops on nearly every main street. I admire the painted designs on the backs of bicycle rickshaws, the strings of lights spilling over the sides of wedding halls, the colorful bolts of checkered woven and floral printed fabrics stacked in the markets. I make offerings of paper boxes of milk and foil packages of biscuits to children in the street to ease my conscience, and feel good about what I’ve done. This skin of optimism is thin, permeable. I go shopping with my mother and am suddenly faced with a child of nine or ten, the same age as my older son, pulling antiques from a case and presenting them to me. I smile and ask whether he goes to school. His smile fades, and I realize I have embarrassed him. My chest constricts.
* * * * *
My mother has the smiling, dimpled, childlike confidence and self-assurance that come from being loved and believing in her beauty. Her only nod to vanity is black hair-dye—and even that she often forgets to do. She has left us behind, reversing her forty-year migration to the United States to retire and return to the city of her childhood. She has traded beloved indulgent weekends with her grandchildren and daily conversations with her daughters for an apartment across the hall from her octogenarian mother and stepfather, who suffers from dementia. In Dhaka, she is ‘grandmother’ to a group of the city’s poorest children. They attend a need-based school, only the least fortunate are accepted. They are mostly fatherless children whose mothers work as washerwomen and prostitutes. In addition to a traditional education, they receive lessons in hygiene. Each child bathes in the morning upon arrival at school. Signs posted around the open courtyard of the one-story building read “Don’t spit” and “Wear shoes” in Bengali and English. With their uniforms they receive a bag of rice, a bag of sugar, and a can of cooking oil for their families each month. My mother adds the fun. She takes them on trips to amusement parks and treats the whole school to ice cream and coke. She kisses and hugs them and remembers their names as well as she can.
She says she loves it here in Dhaka; that she is finally home. In her time in America, she sought out hard to find tropical flavors: squash greens, dried mango, fiery little green chilies. She ate rice everyday. Here in Dhaka, she bakes cupcakes and signs up for an Italian cooking class at the American Embassy Club. She asks me to bring cake mixes and tubs of icing in my suitcase. Now Duncan Hines tastes like home.
She asks about Karim and the children daily. I tell her the highlights: Karim’s promotion, Ali’s wisdom, Omar’s clever mischief. She can sense something is not right, and she is nearly always by my side. She sleeps with an arm over me in the giant bed she brought in a shipping container from America, and wakes me with a cup of tea. She reminds me to call Karim, to email him, wonders how he’ll feel about this or that. I try to respond evenly. But when I come out of the bedroom after a harrowing long-distance telephone conversation with Karim, she sees my face and I tell her, “I don’t think I can do this. He is so unhappy.”
I have spent my time in Dhaka basking in her confidence and regaining my own. I have stopped taking the anti-depressant I begged the psychiatrist for in an effort to save my marriage. I have laughed and been easy to be around. For a brief moment, my mother forgets the professional photograph hung on her wall of Karim and me, posed in an embrace, left hands clasped, the wedding bands we nearly forgot to wear reflecting the studio lights. She forgets, and she says, “No, no. You can’t live like this. You can’t go on this way.”
To her, divorce is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Her own experience as a child of divorce, over half a century ago, still haunts her. It is the reason she is still married to my father. It is the reason she immediately takes back her words.
“Try counseling,” she says. “Try something.”
* * * * *
Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every body remains in a state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force. There are times when radical change just cannot be avoided. For Bangladesh, that time came in 1970, when unrest over the lack of Bangla representation in the Pakistani government was compounded with fury over the lag in the government response time to the ferocious Bhola Cyclone, which hit in November of that year. Over half a million people were killed, crops were destroyed, and villages were leveled. Bangladesh went into its fight for liberation wounded. And she paid, with self-destruction and the virtue of her daughters and the lives of her sons. She stood shakily triumphant, blinking in the light—she had never maintained her own economy or governed herself. But she had reclaimed her identity, and had hope for her future.
My grandmother is in love. She is no optimist. To her, nearly everyone is an asshole—just wait and they’ll prove it. But with her husband, she is sweet and trusting. More so since his dementia has begun to steadily march across their life. He reaches for her hand and she allows him to take it, embarrassed by the show of affection, but pleased to be one of the few he truly remembers. She has withdrawn. She was never a loud person—her voice trembles and squeaks when pushed to high volume and even her laughter is a nearly silent heaving. She covers her face with the loose end of her sari and shakes, emitting only the high-pitched intake of her breath, as though she might be sobbing—though she would never show sorrow so plainly. When the family gathers and conversation and laughter reach a crescendo of absurdity, each of us talking over the others, she stands up and shuffles away, the black border of her white sari hovering two inches above the ground.
I bring her TED talks to watch. She was a psychology professor at Dhaka University, and I’ve downloaded the lectures of Philip Zimbardo, Michael Sherner, and Dan Gilbert. They speak on the human capacity for evil, strange beliefs, and happiness. Morning after morning she half-watches, folding and unfolding her hands, adjusting the large glasses that magnify her already large eyes, crossing and uncrossing her ankles.
“Hmm. Very interesting,” she says.
In fact, nothing seems to interest her. We make conversation over tea. She is careful to ask after Karim and the children; I remember to ask after her knees and heart. But the real conversation, when we arrive at it, is both less material and more concrete. She asks me why I do not believe in God and what I do believe. I tell her I’m okay without knowing, that I can live without heaven if it means I can discard hell. She is religious; she prays regularly, a collection of prayer beads hangs on a hook on her bedroom wall. My step-grandfather is an atheist, but she can no longer ask these questions of him.
As the man my grandmother loves slowly recedes, she has more time to reflect on the man she didn’t love. My biological grandfather was a taboo topic when I was a child, broached only when my mother and her two sisters, one older and one younger, thought all the kids were asleep. In the darkened room we shared on our summer vacations in Dhaka, out of the earshot of my grandmother, they compared memories and updates acquired through the Dhaka grapevine. In the daylight, they pretended to feel no loss, pretended so well, in fact, that many of my cousins can recall the electric shock of the exact moment they found out that our grandfather was not a biological relation. Even today, in spite of its twelve million people, the Dhaka of the English-speaking upper class is a relatively small town. In the early 1960s, it was smaller, more like an extended family. My grandparents’ divorce and my grandmother’s subsequent remarriage was a big deal. To quash any femme fatale accusations, my grandmother dressed in widow’s white after her divorce. The austerity of her dress and the smooth neatness of her bun are juxtaposed by her partiality to things that sparkle: she wears a diamond ring on every finger, a large round-cut stone perches on her nose, clusters of diamonds drag her earlobes down.
My grandmother does not forgive. People who show her disloyalty are removed from her life. Upon their divorce, she systematically removed her children’s father from every aspect of their lives and her own. At the beginning, she allowed their daughters to spend occasional afternoons with him, but when they returned home, she berated them for accepting the gifts he gave them. She told them that his mistress would be their stepmother and would beat them and torture them. Soon my mother and her sisters, terrified, refused to visit him. When he remarried, my grandmother returned the jewelry she had received at their wedding by having it delivered in a dramatic display at his wedding reception and stopped speaking of him. Now my grandmother talks about her ex-husband openly and bitterly. She asks, “How many people can say they have been married to a true pervert? I can!” And we shake with laughter.
In Bangladeshi culture, family ties and lineage are the foundation of one’s identity. While the caste system has no official place in an Islamic society, the successes of ancestors increase social standing and make young men and women more marriageable. Regardless of class, people meeting for the first time will ask one another, where is your home? The question does not refer to one’s current address—that question, where do you stay— is far less telling. Your home is the village that your paternal ancestry can be traced to. The divorce was an amputation for my mother and aunts.
* * * * *
When my three weeks in Dhaka are up, I feel renewed. For a few weeks, I am unflappable, a superwoman. I cook the children’s favorite foods and reorganize the closets. I apply for jobs, plan a future for myself, have nights out with friends. I tell the psychiatrist to forget the pills. I tell Karim, “It’s not me. I’m happy when you’re not around.”
But the inertia returns, a force of its own. “He’s not so bad,” I tell myself. “He never breaks a bone or blacks an eye.” I remind myself that I am difficult to live with, that it’s my fault as much as his. “Nobody’s perfect.”
We struggle along, presenting our offbeat perfection to the outside world as we always have. We play our parts: I am silly, childlike, spoiled; while he’s serious, accomplished, caring. We are beautiful together. We wear hip clothes to Ali’s basketball games in a middle school gymnasium, and sit with Omar between us and cheer. We take the kids to nice restaurants and collect praise about their behavior from the wait-staff and other patrons. Months pass.
* * * * *
One day my friend accuses Karim of making advances toward her.
When I confront him he denies it, says it was she who made the advances, and he who rebuffed them. I decide that the three of us should have this conversation in one place, together.
We meet in a park on a Sunday afternoon and they each tell their own side of the story, ladies first. When it is his turn, she interrupts his narrative, shouting, “Don’t lie!”
He turns to her, fists balled; features hard and sharp like a wooden mask. I know this face and quickly stand between them.
“What are you going to do?” She asks confidently. “Hit me?”
She is one of my closest friends. But she doesn’t know. The key to equilibrium is absorption. Everything must be dissolved into the solution, stirred and warmed. If you say something aloud, it never goes away. And when Karim reaches his arms around me and pushes her by the neck, the solution becomes over-saturated. It is no longer liquid at all. It is another thing entirely, solid, concentrated. This is the point from which I cannot return, the point at which internal stability can no longer be maintained, and I am forced into motion.