The weather has been grim since last evening. Dark clouds seem to have engulfed the sky altogether. "What good can come out of a day with a weather like this?", Niladri thought to himself. It was not that he was annoyed because it was going to rain all day. It was rather because he had received a text message from his boss that he will have to attend office thrice every week, even during lockdown. The weather just added to his frustration. He himself had tested positive a few months back and was familiar with the hassle and sleepless nights that come with it. But he was not in the position to do otherwise. The office needs to function.
It was three minutes past four in the morning. Niladri lay flat on his bed, questioning everything in life. It seemed like an endless loop. Each thought paving the way for hundreds of other thoughts. He thought of the events of the day, the interactions at office and how he would have to prepare his meal by himself. Usually, his roommate would help him, but with Eid just a few days away, he went to his parents' house. Suddenly Niladri felt all alone in this world. He could not move and felt like someone was strangling him with bare hands.
He was hungry, frustrated, tired all at the same time. Although of different faith, Niladri has always been respectful of every belief and faith. He himself had helped a group of boys prepare Iftar for poor people back in his hometown. His father was still alive then. Things were different. But the irony of the situation is, the month of Ramadan was upon them again, but now he was the hungry one but not a single soul cared, not even his relatives. They had said they would stick around but asking them for help meant repetition of the same conversation about him not trying enough.
A sudden vibration brought him back to reality. It was a text message! Maybe someone had finally decided to check how he had been doing, maybe life was not so bad after all.
To his dismay, it was only his service provider letting him know that he is running out of Mobile Internet Data. Niladri suddenly felt a wave of melancholy sweeping through him. He got up and stood near his window which allowed only a peek at the few houses at his proximity. Most times, he disliked the view because it reminded him of how confined his life had become. But now the view was somewhat pleasing. People were up for Suhoor and lights coming from their windows looked like distant stars to him.
As he stared outside, the sound of Adhan took hold of the city. The city was quiet and thus, the breeze carried only the sound of the call for prayer. "Why do Muslims fast?", he thought to himself. He knew there was a more spiritual meaning to it. He did not know what, but one thing was for sure, Muslims looked forward to the month every year. They happily accept the hardship, because at the end of it awaits one of the most joyous days of the year. They cry their hearts out to the Almighty for another Ramadan, for yet another Eid.
"Maybe my life is now in its fasting phase, in its Ramadan. Like an Eid, a happy life will come about" Niladri took a deep breath. "One day, I too will have a family to celebrate joyous occasions with, but we will never keep the happiness among us only. On every occasion, we will feed those who are starving because I know how hard a life they lead."
He felt positive. How magical an aura the adhan had created! Just five minutes ago, he was rather restless. Now he was calm, hopeful, and very sleepy. He got back to his bed, lay his head, and soon fell asleep.
He woke up at the sound of his alarm. The sky still looked shady, but there was no sign of rain. But he had to hurry, lest he should be late. Lockdown has already rendered a ban on public transport. So, he had to take a rickshaw all the way from Mirpur to Gulshan.
He was familiar with the ins and outs of the city, owing to his desperate search for jobs a few years ago. But even today as he walked, he felt like a lost soul roaming about, but he had no choice. He was starting to plunge into misery again when a car suddenly stopped at his side. The windows rolled down and someone suddenly called out 'Bhai!'
Niladri was a little shocked. Had he done anything wrong? Had he dropped anything? He looked inside and a rather familiar face was sitting at the driving seat, but he could not make out where he had seen the person. The man was in his late forties, well groomed and had a very soft tone to his voice.
"Do you need to go somewhere?" asked the familiar face.
"Yes, just an emergency."
"I see. Where to, if I may ask?"
Niladri hesitated a little. Sure, the face looked familiar, but he was not comfortable sharing information with someone he could not recall.
The person at the driving seat probably sensed it. "I am sorry. I should have introduced myself first. I am Mustaqem. I live just down the street. I see you waiting in the bus line around this time every day."
Niladri suddenly remembered seeing Mr. Mustaqem around this area. He often jogs in casual clothes so recognising him in a formal attire was a little difficult.
"Assalamualaikum Bhai, did not recognize you at first. How have you been?", Niladri asked with a broad smile on his face.
"I have been good, except for the obvious lockdown situation, but more on that later. Where are you headed to, bhai?" replied Mustaqem.
"Just on my way to office at Gulshan"
"That is great. I am headed to Banani. I will drop you off at your convenient place."
"That is really kind of you, bhai. But I think I will just take a rickshaw. Besides, I do not think taking a ride together is safe in this situation."
"It is okay from my side. I work as a rider in a ride sharing app. I have a mask and hand sanitiser. You can just sit at the back, unless you think it is unsafe."
"Thank you for the kind offer, bhai. I just do not want to put you at risk."
"Alright. Stay safe!"
Niladri watched as Mustaqem drove down the street and onto the main road. "What a kind soul", he thought to himself. "Only if my relatives were like this". He realized he would plunge into the negative thoughts again. He could not allow it. At least, not until he is back home all alone. He shook his head, as if to get rid of the thoughts that clung to him. He got into a rickshaw and was off to his work.
There was no sign of rain all day. Returning home was a bit of a hassle though because all transports were occupied. Well at least he was not in a hurry to break his fast. As he was walking along Kamal Ataturk Avenue a strong wind blew by. The first few minutes was relaxing, but it was only a matter of seconds before a storm broke out. Niladri took a few steps inside the entrance of a garage of the building beside him and took out his mobile to scroll through Facebook while he waited for the storm to cease.
He suddenly remembered he ran out of data last night and had not had the time to recharge. But he took the matter rather personally. Maybe he had not felt the need to scroll through Facebook because there was not any person in his life about whom he wanted to be updated. Neither did he expect a text from someone, be it a friend or a family. He suddenly felt lonelier than ever.
"Are Bhai, you are here!" exclaimed a voice.
Niladri looked up, and the same person from morning was standing in front of him.
"How come you are here?"
"I was just waiting for the storm to stop."
"I see. Were you able to find a transport in the morning?"
"Why don't you get in this time? It is almost Maghrib, and I do not think the weather will clear anytime soon."
Niladri wanted to say no, but he also felt very mentally down. He wanted to go back to his house and lie down. He also wanted to say he was a non-muslim not in a hurry for iftar, but he did not think it would make a difference. "Okay!"
The conversation was mundane: weather, covid, lockdown, Indian variant, so on and so forth. But something about Mustaqem was very kind and down to earth. His voice was soft, and he talked with grace with no hint of command to it, yet his attire gave the impression that he held a high position in whatever job or business he was in. Niladri took an interest to ask Mustaqem what he did. He merely laughed at the question and said, "For now, I am your rider!"
Before long, they reached their destination and bid their goodbyes. "Please do have a cup of tea with me whenever the lockdown is eased, and you are not fasting." As Niladri said the line he realized Mustaqem has been addressing him as 'Bhai' ever since morning. He never asked him for his name or any personal information so to say.
"I sure will. Do you need a lift tomorrow?"
Niladri was not sure whether he should say yes, but he really wanted to get to know Mustaqem better. "I am off tomorrow. Why don't we go the next day at around the same time?"
"I will be picking you up from here, bhai."
On the second day, Niladri was ready well before the time they were supposed to start. He did not want to cause inconvenience to someone else by making him wait. Soon enough Mustaqem turned up with his car and with a broad smile on his face asked, "How have you been, bhai?"
As they drove towards their offices, Niladri began to talk about his life on his own. He just wanted to imply that he was a struggler who probably did not fit in any class near Mustaqem, sensing from the way he dressed. To his surprise, Mustaqem was appreciative of his struggles and hardships rather than someone who would shrug away anyone less to him because that person would come to no use. Next, Niladri tried to imply that he was a non-muslim, not that he thought it mattered, but he wanted to let Mustaqem know. Mustaqem was indifferent to this time too.
"Look bhai, I believe whatever religion you follow, whatever job you do, if you are a good person at heart, then you are to be respected.".
The words were rather a bliss to Niladri. He had finally found someone to talk to. Maybe someone much older than he is, maybe someone who has family and friends on his own. But to this man, he was Niladri, not a non-muslim and struggler.
For the next few days, they regularly travelled to their offices together in Mustaqem's car. They talked about everything that had happened at their office, or at their house. It was mostly Mustaqem who was talking, because Niladri did not have much to share outside of his office. But Mustaqem never implied whether he was a high post holder or a mere employee at the office. Neither did he ever ask Niladri which post he held. But from what he said, Niladri could make out that Mustaqem was in fact a high post holder, but he was not sure of the designation.
By Eid, the Covid situation came under control. The government was slowly opening markets and restaurants, and people were beginning to roam a bit freely, although still maintaining the precautionary protocols. One fine evening, Mustaqem invited Niladri to have an iftar with his family and said he wanted to discuss something. Niladri gladly accepted the invitation.
He bought a packet of Jilapi from a local store to take to Mustaqem's house. As he reached the address jotted down by Mustaqem the previous day, he looked in astonishment. He was standing in front of an eight-story building that looked polished with all modern amenities. Up until now, Mustaqem was only a friend who may be of a high designation, but Niladri had never imagined how rich he may be.
"Had he not said he gave rides using a ride sharing platform? Why would a person so rich feel the need to share his car for a ride?" Niladri thought to himself.
He decided to call Mustaqem up. "Am I at the wrong address?" he asked.
"No, bhai. Wait, let me ask the guard to bring you upstairs."
As soon as Niladri entered the house, he received the final blow. Mustaqem was rich beyond his imagination. He had never even guessed it. Not even in the slightest.
"Is anything wrong? You look pale!"
"You told me you gave car rides. How come you never told me how rich you are?"
"I never thought it was important. And yes, I do give rides using an app, because I do not think it affects my reputation in any way. In fact, the simple gesture helps another person who might be needing a ride. Sometimes, I offer rides free off charge. I am a director of the company you were standing in front of the other day. I do not need the money, but if I can be of help to someone else, I will gladly do it. My religion has taught me to be soft spoken, down to earth. Ramadan is not about fasting only. It is about understanding the hardship of those in need. Why do you think we cry on Eid? Because we thank Almighty for giving us whatever we have, for making us realize how little we need to be really happy. We pray to live for another Eid because we want to be reminded of this lesson every moment of our lives."
"But have you ever known that I am a non-muslim?" retorted Niladri.
"Yes bhai, you have implied that a great many times. But I do not see why you think that will be an issue. My religion taught me to love everyone equally. That is what Eid is for. It binds all of us together. As families, as neighbours, as bhais to share the joy and the happiness together."
Niladri stared at the packet of Jilapi at his hand. A few drops of tears might have rolled down too. How something as simple as a month of fasting can teach people to be more tolerant, to love everyone! How big of a spiritual meaning Eid holds besides its religious significance! And it was not just Islam. Every religion promotes peace and harmony. Only if someone takes a dip into the spirituality of harmony and peace, no one will ever feel lonely, no one will feel left out, because there will always be someone willing to help him/her out.
Mustaqem sensed the matter and immediately came forward to hug his friend. As Niladri sobbed on his shoulder, Mustaqem said, "Bhai, remember I wanted to discuss something with you? I am planning to feed poor people on Eid day. For that, I need someone to help me buy groceries, and organise the whole plan. Who better to do that than someone who has already done it several times in his hometown?"
Niladri remembered his days back at home when his father was still alive. He used to refer to them as the better days. But now he had a new friend, a new bhai, a new Eid ahead. A life where he has seen kindness and the benignity of soul. A life where he will see Eid as not just a religious festival. but as a day that is to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of class and religion. Now, he had a new purpose in life, to be more appreciative for whatever he has, for the love he has received is far more valuable than the material possessions he had ever hoped for.
(The writer of this fiction is Md. Nafis Khan. He can be reached at [email protected])