Continued from “A Small Robbery in Geneva”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 31
Inside a closet
You can imagine how disappointed everyone was when I returned home without any presents. The only people who were happy were Raza and his daughter Nikhat, who gained a respite from injections in her buttocks. Many of my relatives probably didn’t even believe the story of my stolen bags, but thought it was a lie invented to explain why I hadn’t brought anything for them.
My mother too was clearly disappointed that all the household items she had asked for hadn’t arrived, though she tried her best to hide her feelings. My father’s face was dark with anger and unsmiling for many days after my return. I knew that internally he was furious at me for having been so careless, but for some strange reason he held his tongue. How ironic that I should have had my bags stolen in clean, safe Geneva, when I’ve never experienced a problem at any of the bus and train stations in Bangladesh. Perhaps I had let my guard down.
The one person who was sympathetic was Angela Schmidt, when I sent her an email soon after my return to describe what had happened. She asked me to email her a copy of the police report I had made at the airport, which I did. She chased it up with the police a few times and even called me on the phone twice to ask how I was doing, and to say she was so sorry, but there hadn’t been much progress.
‘I don’t want to sound nationalistic,’ she said to me during one such brief conversation, ‘but believe me, the people who stole your bags were not Swiss.’
‘Who were they?’ I asked.
We exchanged a few emails on the subject, and then our correspondence dried up. But I felt that somewhere a connection was made, which wouldn’t have happened if my bags hadn’t been stolen.
In the days that followed, I heard the sound of falling coins several times in my dreams, and it was always accompanied by a feeling of dread and anxiety. I heard it in my sleep mostly, but even sometimes while I was awake and daydreaming.
* * *
I had given up all hope of regaining my lost belongings, but one evening two weeks later, when I visited the cyber café near my home, I saw there was an email from Angela. But she was writing to me about something totally different. And, as it would turn out, something far more important.
‘I’ve just met Derek at a UN conference,’ she wrote. ‘You remember him. He was one of the tutors on the course. He works for a Dutch organisation that’s recruiting professionals who have worked on the financing of rural communities. He asked me if I could recommend anyone. Would you be interested? Mail them your résumé immediately if you are. They may not be able to pay very much. It would make sense for them to hire you, since you have the qualifications and the necessary background in rural economies. I’ve already mentioned your name.’
That was so thoughtful of her. I believe she had sensed that I was in a precarious financial situation, and I’ll never forget her kindness.
I emailed back immediately to tell Angela that I was extremely interested in the job. I sent the job application, together with copies of my CV, certificates and newspaper articles, by Speed Post. I didn’t even bother to ask about the salary. Whatever they paid would be fabulous compared to what I was earning at the moment. And it would be a passport not only to future employment and opportunities but to life itself.
Angela called me personally a few days later to say that she had passed on my papers to the head of the organisation, a Mr Wilfred Drucker. Two weeks later a letter arrived from the Dutch Rural Aid Conference, or DRAC, offering me employment. I would be paid in euros, a small amount, I understand, by European standards, but converted into Bangladeshi currency it became for me the same as a princess’s dowry.
As soon as I could, I went to a public telephone booth to speak with Angela, and especially to thank her from the bottom of my heart. There were several qualified candidates for the post, I learned from her, but the director felt that I would bring an additional special expertise to the job by virtue of being Bangladeshi. I knew at first hand what it meant to live in a country with an impoverished rural economy. This struck me as a most delicious irony, for in all the job applications I had made until that point in my life the most frequent reason given by employers for not offering me the job was that I had no prior experience. And now for this job, instead of asking if I had any previous international experience, they judged my Bangladeshi nationality to be itself a qualification! I was delirious with happiness.
Today, sister, when I think back to the loss of my baggage, I have to say that whoever stole those two suitcases that day gained far less than I did. All told, the value of my purchases, including the cost of the suitcases – cheap imitations that cost less than a thousand takas – would not have bought me a proper meal at one of the moderately expensive restaurants in Geneva.
What Miss Robertson had said in class all those years ago is true. If you do a good deed, good things will happen to you. Had I not been waiting outside the pharmacy for Nikhat’s medication to arrive I would not have lost my bags, and had I not lost my bags I would perhaps have never ‘connected’ with Angela in the way I did, and perhaps she then wouldn’t have thought of me and recommended me when Derek mentioned the job opportunity in his organisation. These links may seem tenuous, but the more I think about them, the more I’m convinced that the events of that day are more firmly connected than might appear at first sight.
That Bengali Hindu saint, Vivekananda, clearly knew what he was talking about!
* * *
When I reached Amsterdam, I had a brief meeting with the head of DRAC.
‘We are very pleased to have you on board with us,’ he said. ‘You understand of course that most of our employees work in the field under difficult conditions.’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘Your first assignment is in a country just emerging from civil war,’ he said. ‘Ivory Coast. Have you been told that?’
‘No,’ I said, trembling inside but displaying no outward emotion, stoically added, ‘but it’s fine.’
And in fact it was fine. I’d already explained to myself that even if I was going to prison it would be worth it for the salary I would earn. This was a lifeline to a career in international development that might never come my way again.
And now my father would be able to go for the best available private treatment for his lung infection. Some of my brothers and sisters would be able to opt out of the free madrasas and go to better schools; others could study at university now. We would be able to afford the marriage expenses for my younger sister.
My job was nothing less than a lottery.
* * *
‘What an incredible story,’ my companion whispers. ‘So amazing. How long ago was this, sister?’
‘Oh, many years ago. After Ivory Coast, I worked in Sudan, in Burma and now your country.’
‘That’s really impressive.’
‘Do you know, sister,’ I say. ‘When I received that first job offer all those years ago, I introduced the sound of tinkling bells as my mobile phone’s new ringtone. The phone itself was a gift from my father, who like everyone else in the family was all smiles once I’d landed my first job. Dadabhai in particular couldn’t stop talking about how he had predicted that my trip to Geneva would open new vistas for me.’
‘Why did you choose that ringtone? I don’t understand.’
‘It’s the tone that comes closest to the sound of falling coins. At the time I hadn’t realised that the coins were not falling away from me but rather towards me. Ah, the beauty of that sound.’
‘Do you still have that ringtone?’ she asks.
‘Yes, I do,’ I say. ‘I haven’t changed it. Never will. It will always remind me of those times. It will keep me rooted.’
I can’t see her face properly but I know she’s smiling.
* * *
And then the coins start falling. Once again.
Inside the closet.
My mobile, still clutched in my hand, is ringing. Immediately I put it on silent. The screen lights up in the darkness.
It continues to ring.
I press the reply button.
‘I’m fine,’ I whisper to him, ‘but I can’t talk.’
Fine? For how long? Who can tell?
‘Where are you?’ he says.
‘I’m in a bathroom closet on the first floor.’
‘First floor, right.’
‘Be careful,’ he says. ‘These attackers . . .’
‘They are wearing police uniforms.’
‘I’m coming for you.’
‘No, don’t. And listen, I can’t talk. I’m switching off.’
I turn off the phone.
‘Was that your husband?’ the girl asks.
‘No, my fiancé.’ I tell her about the uniforms.
James isn’t my fiancé. In fact barely two hours ago I’d decided to end what was threatening to become an intimate relationship. So why did I lie?
I say: ‘So now tell me about yourself? How do you happen to be in this guesthouse?’
‘I’m waiting for my husband. He’ll be arriving in two days, and then we’ll take my mother back to Paris with us.’
‘Oh, okay, but this guesthouse doesn’t usually allow any private guests. So I’m curious how you come to be staying here.’
‘My husband arranged it. He works for the French Development Agency.’
‘Oh, I see.’
The French are the biggest donors to our election project. My boss, Sebastian, couldn’t have refused a request from them to have one of their people stay at our guesthouse.
I add: ‘So tell me now about your time in Paris.’
She remains quiet.
‘Don’t worry,’ I tell her. ‘It will be our secret.’
I can see that she finds it easier to listen than to talk. It was the same with my little sister. So I stretch my hand across the near darkness, find hers and press it by way of encouragement.
‘Speak, my dear,’ I say. ‘Please speak.’
My companion begins to tell her story.
Continued to “Afghani Bride and Her French Mother-In-Law”