The Turtle Shrine Near Chittagong
Naomi Shihab Nye
Humps of shell emerge from dark water.
Believers toss hunks of bread,
hoping the fat reptilian heads
will loom forth from the murk
and eat. Meaning: you have been
I stood, breathing the stench of mud
and rotten dough, and could not feel
encouraged. Climbed the pilgrim hill
where prayers in tissue radiant tubes
were looped to a tree. Caught in
their light, a hope washed over me
small as the hope of stumbling feet
but did not hold long enough
to get me down.
Rickshaws crowded the field,
announced by tiny bells.
The friend beside me, whose bread
floated and bobbed,
grew grim. They’re full, I told him.
But they always eat mine.
That night I told the man I love most
he came from hell. It was also
his birthday. We gulped lobster
over a white tablecloth in a country
where waves erase whole villages, annually,
and don’t even make our front page.
Waiters forded the lulling currents
of heat. Later, my mosquito net
All night, I was pitching something,
crumbs or crusts, into that bottomless pool
where the spaces between our worlds take root.
He would forgive me tomorrow.
But I wanted a mouth to rise up
from the dark, a hand,
any declarable body part, to swallow
or say, This is water, that is land.
It is my second time in Dhaka. There is respite in its chaos and the individuals in whom I have found a home.
I bump into an extroverted friend in my country’s airport who is scheduled to be on the same flight. He is midway through an ambitious photography project spanning three countries. He needs someone to talk to, and calls me over. He shows me his diary, filled with messy scribbles and film photographs stuck on its pages. He tells me about how he has fallen in love with a young girl from a village.
At the Dhaka airport, he asks if I will be okay, and bids me goodbye. He disappears, as he does, into the crowd. I recognize a petite figure wrapped in a yellow salwar kameez and scarf, standing outside the airport gates, looking through its glass doors. It is my friend’s mother, who I call Khala, who has come to pick me up. She waves. I am thankful.
This time, conversation flows. Most mornings are spent at the table, talking over tea. Sometimes I practise my halting Bengali. When the doorbell rings, Khala rushes to put on her hijab before answering the door. On my last day, while we eat breakfast together, I ask her what the hijab means. She tells me, in reply, about the security problems the nikab is causing.
This time, her husband, my Khalu, talks to me. He tells me plainly about his aches and pains, and how he is waiting to die.
There is spontaneity in this dust-filled city. I attend my first Bollywood concert in a posh hotel, only to find myself in the middle of a mini riot. The organizers have oversold tickets; upper class ladies in lavish saris show up without an allocated seat. Everybody starts yelling; in the dark, the crowd pushes and shoves. Manicured nails break barricades. My toes are squashed numerous times. One lady manages to get up on stage and refuses to leave. It all ends well; the concert eventually starts, and the singer does not fail to deliver. As I have said before, people fight here, and then they move on.
It’s a ceremonious twist and turn of events, and I am pulled along by its tide. I am reminded of the wife of a famous Bengali painter, who woke up one morning to tell her husband that she had seen someone else in a dream, and needed a divorce. Love is a choice, and I’ve picked my suitcase and my planes.
On a rickshaw ride back to onesh number road, a friend tells me about his fear of flight. Half my life is airborne, and I wonder if he is sharing his fears because I am ruminating, in that moment, about my own.
There is an alienation that is permitted here. In a church on a Friday morning at New Eskaton Road, my mind drifts in and out of a sermon. I recognize a grand total of two people, and I feel at home in its unfamiliarity. A song about trust in God floats its way into my mind and makes an imprint, and I hum it the rest of the day.
Twelve days pass, and I am on a plane back to my country of origin. I am starving; budget airlines and their inconvenient flight times make for bad hunger pangs. Mosquitos ravage my feet miles above the ground. I am uninterested in returning to stuckness; my notebooks are filled with plans navigating coming months and various countries. I almost cry at the uncertainty but stop myself in time.
The day after I arrive, my family and I make our way to the crematorium. I go home smelling of ash.