My intention was to walk down to Wari and more specifically Rankin Street, where our family resided for close to a decade before moving to Mohammadpur. My friends at Central Women's College, where I had just spoken at a reading session before the students of the institution, pointed the way towards Wari.
I walked ahead and soon got into a dilemma, with all those flyovers towering above me. Across the road I could see the walls of Baldha Garden, a place I was last in decades ago. It was also the spot which reminded me of the times I walked my sister down to Central Women's College, where she was a student, and then walked her back home in the afternoon.
I crossed over to the other side of the road, walked along the Baldha Garden walls before taking a turn towards Wari. It was a pretty big traffic jam, though, which stopped me in my tracks. It was best to abandon that walk of memory, I told myself, even though I was half-drawn to the idea of at least making a trip to the Christian Cemetery. I was last there in 1977 when we buried the father of my friends Brian and Caesar Mascarenhas. But since it was getting dark, I decided to go back home, in a CNG-powered auto rickshaw.
These past few weeks in Dhaka have been exhilarating and also frightfully busy for me, given that I was back in the city after a straight two years and two days. Those years were lost to the coronavirus pandemic. And lost too were so many fellow journalists, so many friends and acquaintances, so many relatives that the city, in a very broad sense, is symbolic of a huge vacuum for people like me.
I have been walking in the sun and dust, perspiring profusely, missing a very dear friend who passed away the same day that Sandhya Mukherjee did in February. It was a rich conversation we always engaged in every time I came back home to Dhaka. Today she lies in her grave. The old laughter redolent of her vibrant, intellectual personality, is what I hear as I walk.
I am with my siblings and my nieces and nephew after what has seemed to be an eternity. Being with them, conversing with them, seeing them rush off to work and classes in the morning is as good as telling myself that the two lost years never happened, that I have always been here with them.
And yet I do not forget that everything for everyone around the world has changed in these two years. I am what I call myself an independent journalist today, subject to the very same maladies so many other journalists suffer from - and that is economic insecurity. People owe me money but remain quiet about it. Young journalists call me, to let me know that they would like to work with me whenever the opportunity arises.
I do not bargain with the rickshaw-puller and the autorickshaw driver these days. Whenever I travel from home to where I need to be, I give them what they ask for. And I do that because of what all of us, especially in the middle class, happen to be going through. Prices of food have shot through the roof and many of us have had to curtail or abandon our food-related desires.
But, yes, everywhere that ubiquity of eateries raises that fundamental thought in me: this city, this capital of the country, is not the country. When poor Abdur Rahman writes to my brother and my sister that he has no money, prompting them to send some cash to him on bkash, those eateries begin to reflect themselves as tiny islands of affluence, which they are, in a stormy sea of misery.
Homecoming has for me been an attempt at rediscovering myself. I have been stranded in traffic jams, without letting irritation or anger rise in me. As the sweat has flowed down my back, soaking my shirt, I have focused on the sweat running down, in a multiplicity of streams, the sunburnt back of the rickshaw-puller taking me to some office or the other.
I have resisted the urge to explode in protest when important city roads were suddenly made off-limits to commuters, compelling drivers to negotiate their way out of the resultant chaos on the next available street. In my soul a single question kept rising and dipping: Why do we citizens have to go on suffering only because we are ordinary people, because above us there are the extraordinary people whose decisions, or lack of them, we dare not question?
It has been edifying meeting my friends in reunion - at tea, over lunch and at dinner. We have tried to keep the lamp of our youthful enthusiasm alight. We have laughed and joked and dwelt on the more mundane as well as serious aspects of life. We have mourned our friends who today mingle with the dust in their graves.
And I have been doing some spring cleaning of books at home, giving away many that hopefully will be read by people in Sirajganj and Kushtia and the like. And even as I have said farewell to these books, I have been the recipient of new books, from my friends and others who have not forgotten my romance with reading.
I have been to Bengal Boi, Pathak Shamabesh, Nymphea and Aziz Market. Reading Shihab Sarkar's introductory passages in his autobiographical work has meant a hard tug at the heart, for he speaks of his mother's grave in distant Karachi, a grave he has never been able to revisit since her burial in the late 1950s . . . for he speaks of the multi-talented daughter he lost to mortality not so long ago. It is the pain coursing endlessly through Shihab Bhai's being, pain that speaks of his mother and of his daughter that breaks the heart.
On a late steamy afternoon, I hopped on to a rickety bus at Shahbagh because it had been a long, long time since I last commuted in the city by such a mode of transport. The ticket collector assured me there were empty seats in it.
There was no empty seat, which made me sit on the hot engine beside the driver and come all the way home. It was an experience I will not forget any time soon. I loved every bit of it.
But, of course, I am in and have always been in love with every bit of Dhaka - its crowds, its traffic chaos, its occupied pavements, its noise and heat, indeed its history.
And I will walk again, and revisit the old haunts - Dhaka University, Ramna Park along Hare Street and Nimtoli and drop by at Khilgaon Chowdhurypara to see my childhood friend.
I will trek down to Banani graveyard, where lie in eternal sleep many of the friends I knew and loved and spoke to through the seasons.
I need to speak to them one more time.