A blue and white jumbo jet shakes free of the earth and roars into an afternoon glare. Shredded clouds, a hard crystalline sheet of water below, and the dotted fragility of the Los Angeles shoreline seem strange and sorrowful.
The last time I crossed the Pacific was five years ago, in 1990, when my wife flew with me to meet my relatives in Bangladesh. The need for this solitary flight came suddenly last week as I tried to cure a bout of mild insomnia by drinking a late nightcap. The phone rang. A raspy voice from the old country crackled through a maze of wires and satellite connections.
“Ah, Bijou!” I yelled, trying to be heard over the bad connection. “Weren’t you in Miami?”
“I’m in Bangladesh for a visit.”
My most recent encounter with Bijou — our villagers used to call him Fat Bijou — was several years ago. One November, he called me from a cheap motel near LAX to complain about life and American food. (“Everything smells here!”). He had sold his father’s farmlands and come to L.A. to attend a religious conference so that he could get lost in America. (“Just give me the plane fare to New York, my little brother. I know a countryman in Queens who’ll set me up.”)
“Why are you calling me?” I asked him now.
“I have a bit of b-a-d news,” he said, drawling out some key words. “Tinku, your niece, has d-i-e-d. She was taken to Calcutta for an o-p-e-r-a-t-i-o-n. Well, her Calcutta aunt can’t reach her father in Korea….”
Apparently, Tinku, my sixteen-year-old niece died in Calcutta in my sister’s house, before she could be taken to a hospital for a scheduled biopsy. Bijou didn’t know the long and desperate history of her illness, which I had gleaned over the last several years in increasingly worrying bits and pieces: a defective thyroid gland, then swelling of the limbs, kidney ailment, rheumatic pain, opinions from medical boards, nature cures, a belated attempt at surgery.
I decided then, not impulsively, to fly to Seoul, and see Pranab, my forty-four-year-old, college-dropout brother, who worked, illegally, in a textile factory there. I knew, given his circumstances, he’d not be flying to Calcutta for the funeral.
Later that morning, after I broke the news of Tinku’s death to Pranab, there was a long moment of shocked silence.
“I’m coming to Seoul,” I said.
“To see you.”
“Oh, well, I’ll be alright,” he said. But he didn’t sound alright.
“I’m coming,” I said. “Just find me a hotel room near you.”
The plane’s drone makes me drowsy. Closing my eyes, I see images of Noapara — where Pranab and I had spent six years with our mother after Father died in 1965: dusty paths and clumps of mango and date trees; our mud house attic full of wild pigeons and their sad guttural coos; ponds shimmering with lilac-colored flowers of water-hyacinth; monsoon gusts lifting and folding bamboo fences like lily pads; a spectral moon after storms and fallen branches swarming with ants. These lonely images then give way to faces — mother, aunts, cousins, neighbors.
I see Pranab on a sunny afternoon — rushing past me on the dirt road from school, his eyes fastened to a distant point, his body tensed up in flight. Moments later a gang of dusty, barefoot, country boys, with whom Pranab never fit in because of his city ways, his book bag and canvas shoes, come hollering and screaming. Led by Fat Bijou, they give him a chase, calling him a “red boy,” a “ripe melon” and other such names.
A few days after this Mustafa Kamal, our history teacher and an admirer of great nationalist heroes like Subhas Bose of Bengal and Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, took Pranab under his wing. “They’re trying to say you’re not a man,” he said, “Now what can you do to prove them wrong?” Pranab gave one of the boys a black eye and threw another one into a ditch.
Years later, in the early days of the 1971 civil war, Mustafa Kamal would pay for his cultivation of Bengali manhood with his life. A Pakistani soldier from Punjab would shoot him in the back, in front of his wife and children, and Kamal would leap into a muddy pond only to drown.
From this haunting drowsiness, I wake up again to the plane’s constant hum. An overhead screen shows a blue-green map of the flight path, an arc rising from Los Angeles over the blue Pacific like a broken rainbow.
At the Kimpu airport in Seoul, a sleepy-eyed man in white waves my passport over a scanner. A page of print flashes on a small computer screen. My passport picture — thin bearded face, bushy hair — contrasts markedly with my current clean shaven look and receding hairline.
“Where you going?” he says in English.
I show him Pranab’s address. The man peers at it for a long time and slowly shakes his head.
“Chichuk! Kyonggi-Do!” he reads with a rising voice.
“That’s my brother’s address.”
“Your brother Korean?”
“Yes,” I say, losing patience. “What’s the matter with it?”
The man leafs through the passport, draws it up against the scanner again, and sighs.
“Five years! Why no travel five years!”
“I didn’t have to.”
He stamps a page of my passport and lets me go.
Pranab stands in a large crowd of Koreans behind an iron railing. He looks at me for a long second before smiling and waving. Hauling a suitcase, I wave back with my free hand.
“Here you are, after five years,” Pranab says in the Chittagong dialect of Bengali we grew up speaking. We hug briefly and talk about the flight and Seoul’s weather. He is carrying an extra jacket for me.
Our taxi crosses a bridge overlooking a muddy river, and crawls through city streets amid slow but unruly traffic. The sky, some distant hills, trees by the road, shops and construction sites all put on a dusty drab mask, unmitigated by the setting sun. The air is about fifty degrees colder than in Los Angeles.
“You can’t blame them for being suspicious,” Pranab says after I tell him about the immigration officer. “Too many foreigners coming here illegally.”
“I don’t see anyone but Koreans here.”
“No, not on the streets.”
“Well, you should see Los Angeles. Anyway, why would they get suspicious about me? I have an American passport.”
“That’s why they let you go soon,” Pranab says. “The trouble is, you come without any planning. You just buy a ticket and fly.” He sounds more envious than critical.
“What did you do?”
“I was a businessman!” he says with a laugh. “Had a room reserved in the Hilton. Stayed only one night, though.”
We get off at a budget hotel called Hanyang, a building of green tiles, faded red carpet and rusty brass railings. The dark lobby smells of Korean food from a cafeteria. We check into a darkened second floor room with a small high window shut tightly against the bitter Seoul cold. Feeling depressed, I lie down on the bed as Pranab washes up in the bathroom. Like me, he has put on some weight and lost some hair. He looks tired too, with dark bags under his eyes, and a puffy face.
“I’ll bring you something to eat,” he says, catching my eyes on him in a mirror.
“Let’s go together.”
“You won’t like the places here. Korean food smells bad.”
“All food smells bad to Bengalis,” I say, “except their own.”
“Oh I can eat Korean now,” Pranab says. “But you? I don’t know.”
He brings back an odd assortment: fried chicken, ketchup, fries, crackers, and apples.
Despite his years and hard knocks, Pranab seems locked into the country innocence of his teens. After dinner, I pick up the phone and dial my wife. “Well, I’m here, eating with my brother.”
“How is he holding up?”
“He’s fine. Here, talk to him?”
I hand the phone to Pranab without comment. Seated on a
vinyl chair, he crosses his legs, and holds the phone with a tight, pinched look.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, thank you.” And after another minute or two of listening, he says the same thing again and hangs up.
“I couldn’t say much to her.” He grins in embarrassment. “My English is very poor.”
“You could have given the phone to me.”
Walking up slowly to a fake cherry dresser, he pulls out a knife from a blue tote bag and begins peeling some apples on a plate.
“When you called me that day,” he says quietly, “I knew something was wrong. But I thought it was mother you’d called about. I just couldn’t believe …”
“You went silent on the phone.”
“I couldn’t talk ….”
Pranab slices an apple, clunking his knife against the plate.
“I keep seeing her on the day I boarded the plane in Dhaka,” he says, “her arms around me, asking me to come back soon.”
“It must be so very hard for you,” I say. “I only saw her that one month in 1990. My memories of her are so vivid. She was so full of life.”
“Yes, she was,” Pranab says, putting a plate of sliced apples in front of me.
Pranab doesn’t stay with me at night. “You need a good night’s rest,” he says, thrusting an envelope into my hand as he leaves for his factory quarters in Chichuk. The envelope contains several pictures of Tinku — a high-school picture, a teen head-shot, a family portrait. In the school photo, she stands to the far left of five girls, the prettiest in an orange sari, quiet and sad-eyed while the other girls smiled. I never knew this more grown up Tinku.
The family photo shows the girl I came to know, a cheeky eleven year old clucking her tongue at the way my wife wrapped her sari, rolling her eyes if her younger sister Rinku, not herself, was the one chosen for a night’s camp near uncle and auntie’s bed. The letters she wrote to us after that visit, four or five a year until ’93, took on an increasingly plaintive note — when will you visit again, why don’t you write more often. Then suddenly the letters stopped, with not even a response to our New Year’s greetings. Did she know she was going to die, I wonder, and put the photos back in the envelope to stop an eerie feeling.
Five years have passed quickly for my wife and I, bringing only minor changes in the middle of the big continuities — the same jobs, the same condominium near the beach, the same car, the same dog. Those same years have sent Tinku hurtling from childhood to a forced maturity that comes from illness and suffering, to an absurd death.
Confused sounds wake me around three in the morning. A dull thud thud, a headboard hitting the thin wall in the next room.
A woman’s staccato yelps stretching out into shrieks and moans. Then a lull. I almost go back to sleep before being treated again to another series of thuds, yelps and moans. I go outside and push their door bell hard. A tinny jingle plays out in the room. The panting breaths, audible outside, hold for a moment. I rush back to bed before anyone sees me.
In the afternoon, I am startled from sleep by the same silly jingle that I set off in the morning, sounding in my room. I take a while before opening the door.
“Come, get ready,” Pranab says with a smile. “I’ve cooked today. Can’t feed you our canteen food, really.”
Jet-lagged and achy, I put on layers of clothing and thick gloves. The raw Seoul air is full of smoke, vapor, and smells wafting from roadside carts.
Chichuk is only one stop by metro rail from the hotel, the last station at the industrial edge of Seoul. Fringed by brown hills of dead grass and bare trees, it looks like a moonscape.
“You should have come here in springtime,” Pranab says. “It’s much prettier then.”
We follow an asphalt road that winds through tenements, so narrow in places that passing cars use dirt shoulders, raising dust clouds. The tenements give way to spores of metal and plastic green houses in fields of industrial debris.
The textile factory where my brother works bustles behind a big gate with an iron C wrought in the middle. We pass warehouses, chimneys, and forklifts carrying bales of clothes. Pranab shows me his work station beside a hulking, waving arm that folds long sheets into neat piles. He tells me what he does there, but all I hear is the deafening clatter of machinery.
Out of the gate, we walk down a narrow alley, with rows of mildewed tile roofs on both sides. We take off our shoes before entering the end room of a row house, a squarish room not more than 20’X15′, dark like a cave, but warm from the heated floor. Cold air seeps in through the closed door.
“You have a lot of those,” I say, pointing at a pile of blankets of different colors, patterns and shags.
“Bought them in a thrift store. Cheaper than a mattress, more comfortable.”
“So, this is your room,” I say, inspecting his things — a chipped green steel cabinet full of clothes, food, and utensils; a small TV and a cassette player; some pictures on brick walls.
“I was lucky to get a room by myself,” he says. “Most workers here sleep four or five in a room. Why don’t you sit down on this blanket and be comfortable. I’ll finish up a few things before we eat.”
“Where do we eat?”
“In the office canteen. They let me cook there when I want to make Bengali food. Wait here for a few minutes. I’ll come and get you when things are ready. Here, play some Bengali cassettes. Do you have these in your collection?”
He leaves me in the room. I don’t play the Bengali cassettes. The TV shows only Korean programs and news about the Simpson trial on the GI station. I switch it off and sit on a warm blanket, waiting for food. The pictures on the walls are pin-ups — not bikini-clad sex kittens, but idealized portraits of feminine beauty: a blonde bride in an elegant satin train; a bejeweled Indian dancer in an ornate dance hall.
Pranab returns to take me to an empty canteen smelling of vinegar and fish sauce, its sooty walls strewn with Korean flyers and notices, its bare cement floor gritty with sand. A batch of workers have just finished lunch, leaving dirty plates and leftovers on Formica tables and even on the seats of some scattered chairs.
Pranab clears a corner table, wipes it with a wet rag, and arranges a feast: rice, kimchi, chicken vindaloo, and curried beef with garlic. Beef and beer, smoking, factory work. I feel concerned about his health. I don’t tell him about my practice of California style vegetarianism — no meat, plenty of fish. I fill my plate with rice and chicken.
“When did you make all this?”
“This morning,” he says. “Take some beef too.”
“A little later.”
I note a flicker of concern in his eyes
“So you get weekends off?” I say.
“It’s not like that,” he says, with a shy smile. “I get paid for the time I put in. No work, no pay.”
“Is that so?” I ask. “Do you make as much as the Koreans?”
“I don’t know about America.” he says, after pausing to take a sip of his beer. “But I’ve heard a lot about the Middle East, and Thailand and Singapore. Believe me, compared to other countries, Korea is heaven. Now, of course, they have their own bad habits, drinking and such, but they respect what I do. . .”
“That’s great,” I say. “But don’t take time off just for me.”
“I have the next few days free,” he says.
“Don’t give up work for my sake,” I say, not wanting him to sacrifice an income just to entertain me. “I’m sure I can do things to amuse myself when you’re at work.”
“Take some beef,” he says.
I take a few pieces of beef; then, like a fool, begin to chatter about the health risks of red meat and cigarette smoking.
“If I had known I would have got fish,” he says.
An awkward silence looms. “You must miss being at home terribly,” I say.
“I try not to,” he says.
That night in the hotel room, I gear up for what I came to Korea for, a chat with Pranab about his future plans.
“Dada, you should go back home,” I say, using the Bengali term of respect for an elder brother. “Your wife and daughter need you. So does mother. Don’t worry about money. I’ll send you money for a year, and more if you need it. You’ll find something to do by then.”
Pranab sits quietly looking at his feet. I carry on, probably with unfounded optimism, about the kind of opportunities he can look into later — renting out taxicabs, exporting garments. He waits patiently for me to finish.
“You are very kind to me,” he says. “But there really aren’t any opportunities in Bangladesh for honest people.”
“How long do you plan to stay on here as an illegal worker making minimum wage?” I ask.
Embarrassed by the edge in my voice, I add, “The money you’re making here goes a long way in Bangladesh. But how long can you live apart from your wife and family?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Well, I do worry about you,” I say.
“If you want to do something for us,” Pranab says, “do it for Rinku. Take her with you and give her an education.” Rinku is my brother’s second daughter, only twelve years old.
“We can talk about Rinku some other time,” I say. “Right now you need to go home and take care of your health. What is it about home that you’re dreading? Why don’t you want to go back?”
Pranab looks up at me with a flash of anger in his eyes. “What’s it about home that you dread?” he asks. “Why don’t you go back?”
A strange question that sounds like a grievance. He knows perfectly well how badly I had wanted to leave the late seventies Bangladesh of military coups and assassinations, how I had pored over university catalogs in the American Center for weeks and had applied to dozens of American universities.
“For better or worse I’m an American now,” I say. “Married and settled there. What does your wife say about this? Don’t you miss her?” “I spoke with her on a neighbor’s phone just a few days ago,” he says. “We had a long talk. I’m trying to get a work permit so I can bring her over here.”
“What if you don’t get one?”
“Sooner or later I will, if not this year, next year.”
We sit silently for a minute or two. Then Pranab takes off his jacket and shirt.
“Are you staying here tonight?” I ask.
“I thought I might.”
“This place is noisy. You may not get much sleep. I stayed up much of last night.”
“You could ask for a room change,” he says. “On second thought, I’ll go back to Chichuk. I’ll bring you some breakfast in the morning.”
“Look, dada. I didn’t mean it that way at all. Stay with me.”
“I know you don’t mean it that way,” he says. “But you need a good night’s rest.”
The night turns out to be noisier than ever. The sexual athletes are gone, but a group of young men take a room a few doors down the hall. They barge in and out of the room yelling at each other, carrying beer bottles.
Giving up all hopes of sleep, I bundle up for a walk. The street is empty, neon signs flickering in the spectral quiet. I walk two blocks to a Seven-Eleven store and pick up a bottle of Korean wine. As the clerk rings up, I noticed a pint of Passport scotch in a glass case. I gesture at the scotch. “Ay, ay, sir,” the clerk says, stomping the floor with a military salute.
The scotch makes me numb and heavy. The bottle half-drained, I feel moored to the bed. Invisible hands push me firmly into a vortex of fractured dreams. Phantoms whisper as I drive on the freeways that crisscross in swooping arcs. And the village, of course, with its fragrant mango buds and ponds of lilac colored flowers.
Pranab comes in the morning to feed me again. He casts a troubled glance at my half-finished bottle of scotch. I make up my mind to atone for an ill-spent night by doing something very peaceful with him, maybe going to a quiet place for a picnic. He suggests the Korean Folk Village, a theme park in Suwon. We pack up and take a train, riding silently across fifty miles of tunnels, roads, houses, viaducts, and bare hills, livened up intermittently by some evergreens or Korean flags.
“It’s like the country we grew up in, a village with thatched houses, haystacks, chickens grazing,” he says.
February is a slow month at the Korean Folk Village. Some big houses, with pagoda-like roofs of corrugated tile and intricate woodwork in the awnings, flank the entrance. Smaller houses, made of wood, brick or bamboo, with thatched roofs and barnyards, exhibit the farm life of centuries past. A lane lined with totem poles lead to a row of shops where craftsmen work and wait for sparse visitors.
“Take some pictures,” Pranab says. “For your sister and niece.”
Obediently, I aim my camcorder at shops, a stream, houses, a small bridge, a woman wearing hanbok, a scholar practicing calligraphy. Pranab walks, seemingly nonchalant, hands held behind his back, and ends up in front of the camera whichever way I turn.
“Enough of this,” I say, pointing to the more populated side of the stream. “Let’s get over there.”
Tourists sit in bunches around square tables and drink home brew from terracotta cups. Hot steam and a musky aroma rise and melt in the thin air.
“I don’t like that stuff,” Pranab says, as he followed me to a makkoli shop selling Korean rice wine.
“You haven’t even tried it.”
I beckon a server and get two piping hot cups of the drink. Pranab picks up the cup, sniffs and puts it down.
“Smells good,” I said.
He takes a small sip.
Later, for lunch, we go to one of the big houses, a restaurant, near the park entrance. We sit near a burning stove and order hot egg drop soup and the only vegetarian plate in the menu — potatoes fried with leek.
“So Fat Bijou is visiting home?” Pranab says. Indoor warmth and spicy soup make him reminiscent.
“Yes. The last I heard from him he was headed for Miami. Before that he was a busboy in an Indian restaurant in Queens; he got kicked out for stealing waiters’ tips.”
“He has sent a lot of money to rebuild the village temple,” Pranab says. “The temple gate will have his name inscribed. He’s doing quite well obviously.”
“Ahh! Fat Bijou, a pillar of society!”
“You and he,” Pranab says, “are the two success stories for our village.”
“Oh f–k,” I blurt out in English and see Pranab turning red in the face.
“Just an American expression,” I say in embarrassment. “You remember how Bijou was your tormentor in school…”
“I can’t hate him,” Pranab says “for doing what he did as a boy. At least he has made something out of himself. The others, like me, are floundering.”
“Dada, you are not floundering. You don’t have to. Money isn’t everything.”
“Let me tell you about some of them,” Pranab says. “You don’t keep up with the news from back home, I do. Take Sudorshon, you know the quiet boy who opened a grocery shop. He was killed not too long ago by some robbers. They were going away with his cash box, when, like a fool, he told them that he knew who they were. So the robbers tied him to a post and set the shop on fire.”
“That’s a tragedy!” I protest, “not a failure.”
Pranab doesn’t understand the distinction. He recites a litany of calamities befalling the people we had known as children
— loss of property, hard drinking, vagrancy, violent deaths.
“Don’t blame the victims,” I urge, using an American cliche’.
“I am blaming the village. The country too. A dying place.”
“It’s so alive in my mind.”
“It’s dying,” he says, gently.
“I see why you won’t go back home.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he says. “Do something for my daughter.”
Pranab becomes rather chatty after that. A gentle and loving man, he dreams of stern measures as a solution for human problems. For Bangladesh, he wants a strong government that would silence the noisy mullahs, and jail any bureaucrat, office worker, or businessman caught cheating, malingering, or taking bribes.
“As Kemal did for Turkey,” he says, giving his musings a historic precedence.
“Wasn’t it Mustafa Kamal who taught us about Kemal Ataturk?” I say, alluding to our school days. “Yes, he was rather proud of his namesake.”
“Ah, Kamal Saheb,” Pranab says, “a good man.”
“What if those who do the judging also cheat or take bribes?”
Pranab seems lost in thought. The slain teacher’s memory evokes an irony that doesn’t escape him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know what to think of anything anymore.”
The next day I coax Pranab into working his day shift, and play the lone tourist, visiting Kyongbokkung Palace and museum, buying gifts for my wife in the Itaewon shopping district — a jade bracelet, a celadon vase. This routine makes me tired. My tour book describes Seoul as vibrant and friendly, but its congested roads swarming with grimy Hyundais and Daewoos, and the incongruous sight of well-dressed crowds rushing about amid a wintry barrenness, depress me. And where are the old and the idle, I wonder. The cold, dry parks are brown and empty. The young and the able, rushing off in business suits, fill the subways and city streets.
That night in a bar called Rock n Roll Cafe, Pranab and I sit watching the same young men and women, in T-shirts, jeans and leather jackets, screaming and bumping en masse to Bon Jovi or the Doors, smoking Marlboros, gulping down Budweisers.
“Some of these girls aren’t much older than Tinku,” Pranab says softly.
“We’re getting old,” I say with a laugh. And I can’t imagine my brother who is not yet old, who finds comfort even in his one room shack, a few words of Korean and a low paying job, growing old and making a home in this hard northern clime.
“Go back home, dada,” I say. “This is not a country for you.”
A look of confusion comes over his face. “Let’s get some fresh air,” he says, stubbing his cigarette into an ash tray. “I’m getting a headache from all this noise.”
Out in the quieter street, braced against the cold night, we walk hurriedly toward a subway station.
“You’re so educated, you know the world,” Pranab says. “I guess you have a right to tell me what I should do.”
“Don’t say that,” I protest. “I don’t know the world any more than you do. I just want you to be happier in some way.”
“Yes I could go home as you suggest,” he says. “After you leave tomorrow, it’ll be hard to keep going here.”
“You’ll do fine at home,” I say, wondering if that sounds as thin and flat to him as it does to me.
Later in the warmth of the train, hiding amidst its crowd and clatter, Pranab repeatedly wipes his eyes. When we come to Yonsinnae, the station near my hotel, I say, “Come, spend this night with me. We’ll eat and talk about Tinku.”
“Let’s say a prayer for her soul,” he says.