Saidullah’s New House

Most of the work for the field engineers in Bangladesh was in the smaller towns. But we did our planning in Suite 500 of the Intercontinental Hotel in Dacca. In 1970, it was the only hotel in this city of 12 million that had modern facilities. All the rickshaw and taxi drivers knew it as “the air conditioned hotel.” In the mornings as we had coffee and breakfast, our full-time drivers would come in for their assignments, often to spend weeks away from their homes and families. None of them lived in the neighborhood, and all had to come by rickshaw, as we kept our vehicles overnight in the security of the hotel.

One Monday morning, a driver named Saidullah came into the office with tears streaming down his face, making his appearance much less comical than usual. He reminded us of the black-and-white cartoon characters of the 30s, with flexible tubes for arms and legs that flowed rhythmically as he sauntered along, with bright, shining eyes and a happy face –his background music the same as the character from Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd,“De-doomp-de-doodely-doomp-de-doomp.” His huge nose gave him the appearance of a buzzard, and his stiff, unkempt hair made a slight rooster-crown. He was about 40 years old.

“What’s wrong, Saidullah?” asked Maurice (Andy) Anderson, the boss.

“Oh, sahib, terrible, terrible thing happen,” he sobbed bitterly. “Cyclone come and blow away my house. My wife and 13 children have no place to live.”

We were all well aware of the overpopulation problem of the nation, caused by the same source of all the world’s problems: the greedy leadership cult that uses religion to manipulate the population to hog everything for themselves. In what was then called “East Pakistan,” the people were told that children were gifts from God, and the more they had the more holy they would be. “Never mind educating them. Just put them to work in the fields. We’ll give the crops to God and tell Him how wonderful you are, and then He’ll reward by sending you all to Heaven when you die.” It worked because there was no education system to tell them different.

So after letting Saidullah’s situation sink in, Andy asked, “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Oh, yes, yes, sahib. Loan me $30 and let me have three days off so I can build a new house.”
That took us all by surprise, so Andy had to ponder a while. Then he reached into his wallet, gave him a $100 bill and said, “Take the week off, Saidullah, and don’t worry about paying it back. We’ll use one of the other drivers while you’re gone. Don’t worry about a thing. Just get that house built.” Andy had to escort him to the door to stop his bows, praises and handshakes of gratitude.

Andy was a true leader… a real American. He had actually believed John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Lassie when he was a kid, not like the fake leaders at the helm in the Tonkin Gulf… not like the ones in the Beltway or the ones I would meet later in Iran. Andy knew that leadership required Courage, Truth, Honor, Compassion and Justice. I liked Andy and I liked the project, even though we were in the so-called “worst place in the world.” But the very week that Saidullah was away, my idealism would be put to the test.

The first microwave telecommunications site outside of Dacca was 20 miles away, but it took three hours to get there because of the two ferry boats we needed to take to cross the rivers that flowed into the Ganges. On Saidullah Monday, we arrived there well after lunch with plans to camp a few nights. We had turned on the equipment week before, and while in Dacca for the weekend, we’d connected the local TV channel to it so now it would be available over the system as we advanced further into the country. Anxious to see how it would work, we put a TV set high on the wall in the yet-to-be-furnished outer office, and left the door open so the locals could come in and watch, most of them for the very first time in their lives.

The room filled within an hour and was a basic sea of lost humanity, all wearing scraps and rags with nothing to do, nowhere to go and no pockets to put any of the possessions nobody had. They stared mindlessly at the TV with open mouths and vacant eyes, some supporting those too weak from lack of food to stand. We watched them occasionally through the high windows in the equipment room, as if we were the TV set looking back at them. At ten o’clock in the evening, the signal went off and the screen filled with snow, with static coming out the speakers. But the crowd remained, motionless, staring at the noise, mouths still agape. Danny Daniel, the senior technician on the project who had been there for several months, went out and turned off the TV. It took a few moments for the walking dead to understand what had happened. Then they slowly dropped their gaze in unison, turned and mechanically shuffled out the door. My mind went back to the Tonkin Gulf. Perhaps burning them all with napalm would not be that much of a sin after all. They were totally useless. I was ashamed that I had considered it, but it seemed like a logical conclusion at the time. But it haunted me for the rest of the week, until the following Monday morning in the office suite when Saidullah would return to change my thoughts forever.

He sauntered into the suite with a more cheerful melody than ever before. The room was alive with the sound of Saidullah. Everyone received lavish handshakes, along with an invitation to his house-warming party to eat chicken tikka, a dish his wife would prepare for the lot of us, using a small portion of the vast amount of money left over. We all anticipated what it would be like to delve that deep into the poverty, but none of us even thought of saying, “No.” I believe curiosity and a genuine concern for Saidullah had the best of us.

We arrived well before sunset to see the bamboo and wicker one-room house made with Saidullah’s  limited time and resources, standing in a small field with crops growing nearby. But before we could see the details, a wave of shining eyes and white and gold teeth came over us, smiling and cheering the heroes who had come at last… wire and children of 14 distinctly different heights. His wife was a tiny thing with wide, brown eyes highlighting a pretty young face that showed little wear from the labors of her womb; the natural result, I assumed, of a natural but limited diet. She was called “Parna,” as I remember, meaning a feather or a leaf. She wore the traditional colorful but well-faded shawl and long skirt, with a red dot on her forehead and a tiny brass adornment in the left side of her nose. The children came to us for hugs, their clothing ranging from earth-stained t-shirts, shorts or skirts… to nothing at all. Footwear was limited to shower clogs or bare feet. All were clean from their daily baths in the large pond behind the house. Soap was a luxury, but a smooth pebble would do the trick. Everything smelled a bit like fresh mud.

The house was built on a three-inch-high, packed dirt platform to keep the water from running in during the torrential rains. Thick bamboo poles supported the corrugated, galvanized steel roofing sheets, woven grass mats covered the walls, and everything was tied in place with strips of bark, now dried steel-hard to last until the next cyclone. Newspaper clippings in glass-less frames provided most of the wall decorations, but a particular couple from past history appeared in a more elaborate frame, their faces sketched anew by a local artist from instructions from the memory of a long-lost photograph. One corner of the house was stacked with rolled-up grass mats and pillows for sleeping. I wondered if they would all fit inside the small room, but then I thought more of sleeping puppies, warmed and secured by the bond of love. The amount of available space would be moot.

The children quickly lost interest in the heroes and soon returned to their usual interests. There were no toys or TV, but sticks, leaves, pebbles and insects – now taking priority over the white-skinned aliens –   would provide all the entertainment necessary. Like all children, there was no need to be running and laughing. But there was always a reason; perhaps only because life itself was a joy, regardless of the frills.

The lack of a dining room suite pushed my mind to one of the first lessons Danny had given me on my arrival several weeks earlier: how to hunker. “Drop to a deep knee-bend and relax. Your butt has to almost touch the ground, but keep your back straight and learn to balance yourself with your arms out front. You’ll need to stretch some muscles to get used to it, but you’ll be able to use the ground for a table anywhere you go. Rest your elbows on your knees.” It had taken quite a few practice sessions to do it, but I could now hunker with the best. I remembered once seeing a hunkering man shaving another using a single-edge razor blade with no handle; a make-shift barbershop with no chair.

At last Parna announced dinner and served each of us one piece of red, crispy chicken tikka along with a pile of rice, well dotted with various vegetable bits, served on a torn off section of banana leaf.  We ate with our fingers, hunkering to form a circle. Highly sweetened tea served in small glasses softened the burn of the spices.

As the sun began to set, Parna began unrolling the mats, calling the children to bedtime, all of whom responded with the usually complaints: “It’s too early,” “the sun’s still up,” “we can still see,” “we’ll wake up on time…” We left as she gathered her precious treasures for sleep.

On the way back to the air-conditioned hotel, I realized that the life of all persons is important. No one has a right to judge the lifestyles of others, and no one has any right at all to decide who may live or die. And particularly, no one has a right to kill massive amounts of people just because they appear distasteful. Those in the TV room had just as much right to live as I did, and my purpose there was to install an educational TV system that would hopefully get them out of the poverty in which they lived. I never again even pondered the idea that mass murder could be a solution to economic or cultural differences.

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