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The Water Giver

by: Nabina Das

He had seen us through the crowd. Lunch time. A 15-course buffet and the smell of mustard oil I cannot miss. Jackson Heights is an ant hill of colors – white, brown, black. White faces, black arms, brown legs. The United Colors of Humanity flag flapping in the glee of an autumn New York breeze of 2007.

He has worked under the roof of this un-glitzy Bangladeshi restaurant for decades now. He has hummed Amar Shonar Bangla in the beginning over cauldrons of boiling oil or milk, dreamed of dazzling green paddy, and then slowly forgotten everything. His education was meager, not enough to earn him a stable job back home in a newborn nation. But the money to the middleman “bhai” was just what he could pay for a better life as a New Yorkistani. After all, there was no family, no ties. Why even stick around to be prodded by the police and hear comments from the neighborhood maulavi for not having grown his beard long enough?
“Two glasses of jol please!” I sound off my Bangla skills finding the restaurant an appropriate venue.

Also the presence of Rezzak Ali – as the old scraped badge on his shirt says – is an inspiration. I am hoping he’d know the towns and villages in Bangladesh that some of my older family members recounted every now and then.

Jol?” He asks looking baffled.

“Yes, jol.” I am blithe and friendly.

“’Jol’ means ‘paani’. ‘Paani’ means water… ” He utters slowly.

His rough-hewn hands meanwhile move away the clutter at a table he wants us to take. He repeats that sentence as if this was a school lesson and the meaning would be clear only after multiple repetitions. Rezzak with unkempt cheeks, a grimy shirt and a reflective brow, whose age seems upward of sixty.

Now I get it.

Usually in Bangladesh, one would ask for paani, the Urdu version of the word ‘water’, and not jol. I should know it. I have family on the ‘other side’. How silly of me.

“I’m sorry,” I mumble.

“No, no.” He protests with a smile. “Just that I heard that word after a long time. No one said jol after my friend Balaram Roy left me two years ago.”

Over piping hot chicken kathi-rolls and a tongue-numbing hot chutney we hear his bit. He tells us a story in between dropping fish fries in searing mustard oil and clearing the tables.

Decades ago, arriving new in the city, only after he ambled around in Manhattan for two days that he met someone he ‘very’ briefly knew in his own desh. Some coincidence it was.

“What to say, I had to pretend we were friends. I had no job, no place to stay. Jamal alone could help me.”

It was a late 70s summer. They went together to Fifth Avenue. To Rezzak, it looked like all of Dhaka. The shops, the lights, the thronging people. They also visited Times Square that was not such a nice place back then. Jamal promised him a job. Because he needed shoes. Winter would be upon them soon. All Rezzak had got from desh is a tin box carrying a few photos and one set of clothes. The money was barely anything he could count on. His friend laughed.

“Can you clean and cut fish Rezzak?”

“Can’t you?”

“Me? I’m a camel-eater and sometimes we wash our dishes with sand. I lived in the sand country in Pakistan. What do I know of fish and water! The only time I came close to all that was when I visited your watery rivery land. I dipped my toe just a bit. It was all blood.”

To us gaping at this story, that seems sad and terrifying.

But Rezzak already knew what Jamal meant. Jamal was in NYC because he was unable to take the war in East Pakistan (later, Bangladesh). He had deserted the army and later sneaked out to the West. An older New Yorkistani in comparison to Rezzak, he was settled in here and safer. NYC would never court martial him. In a South Asian neighborhood in Queens, Jamal found Rezzak a job with a fledgling restaurant. They needed someone who could wash and clean fish, and not tear up at the mustard oil fumes while frying the Hilsa and Rohu.

After that much storytelling, Rezzak shuffles half-empty water glasses from another table, looking uncomfortable. Then he refills our chutney bowl. I sense the story about Jamal perhaps affects his life in an unhappy way. But no, Rezzak says all went hunky-dory with the new job and his friendship with Jamal too. Until Balaram, his old friend, appeared in front of him one fine day of 2004 in New York. Heck of a coincidence again, but nothing earth-shattering.

“You think I’m making it all up?” Rezzak looks at us with eyes gone brackish from the cooking fumes.

No, we don’t. But I’m curious if Balaram’s appearance changed anything in our man’s life.

“You see, Balaram too had left desh in search of a better life. That wasn’t surprising. His wife was dead and he had married off his teenaged daughter because every day on her way back to school, she’d get catcalls. Also she was taunted for wearing a ‘bindi’ on her forehead. I know how that feels. If my beardlessness was a problem, a Hindu girl wearing a dot was even worse.” Rezzak paused. “But if it was not for Jamal, that night we could have died.”

That night when West Pakistani soldiers raided the village, Balaram and Rezzak were debating whether to attend a meeting called secretly by the local wing of the Mukti Bahini boys who were fighting for independence. Tipped off, the army men set homes on fire, killed men and women, trampled standing crops. Most of those revolutionary boys, barely 18 or 19, were all shot in their head. The two friends pretended to lie dead amid a heap of bodies when one soldier came back. Jamal Ahmed was back to check if the mission was accomplished.

Balaram had a rifle butt hit his head. Not severe, it bled badly, and he moaned. It was Jamal who surprised them by offering a bottle of water. He appeared different from the other “Khan-senas” who were acting on orders to hunt down anti-Pakistan forces in East Bengal in 1971.

“Ah, jol! Thank you Khan-bhai,” said Balaram and passed out.

It is another story how Rezzak Ali managed to cart his friend away for medical help. But he had to go away on Jamal’s advice. That area was a Mukti Bahini hotspot, hence, a repeat target for the Pakistani army.

“I’m going to quit too. They’ll shoot me for this,” Jamal had said. “Who knows, we’ll meet again, inshallah.”

Balaram Roy died in Queens in the winter of 2006. Although they had met in NYC, he couldn’t remember Jamal from the past. However, he always liked maintaining a distance with the former “Khan-sena” who probably had killed scores of Balaram’s people. So what he seemed friendly? Rezzak did not tell his friend about the water episode because Balaram would never anyway believe it. Who’s ever heard of an ‘occupier’ saving lives, offering a drink of water? Although New Yorkistanis, they had separate histories. Only Rezzak thought paani and jol were same.

Kathi-roll over, I watch Rezzak’s expressions. He says this is the first time he has told about this bit of the past to anyone. My tongue burns involuntarily.

Apa, let me get you some jol. That chutney is a killer.”

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