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The Artful Dodger
“I'm actually planning to give up smoking for one last time”.
“Huh?” I raised an eyebrow, for I knew this guy all too well. In twenty six years of life he has made countless such promises to himself and all his friends, nineteen times to be precise. So with a chuckle and an ‘oh dear Lord’ expression, I hid my face behind a dog-eared magazine.
However, there was no deterring him with sarcasm. Once started, Rishad was unstoppable “I have a simple enough plan, hey. Every time I want to smoke, I’ll go to the tong, buy a banana and a bun…” which comes to about the same price, he told me in an undertone “and give it to some kid to watch him eat it. With that feeling of contentment, I’ll go my own way” I snickered as he smiled from ear to ear.
The humidity of Dhaka was at its worst that day, making sensitive people literally forget how to breathe. Suffocated and coaching-battered as I was, there was only one thing I could pray for- rain. But sometimes, prayers are answered a bit too late. By the time it started raining, here I was; sitting across my polar opposite in a cozy little café. This friend of mine is a self proclaimed free thinker, an underground rockstar, a poet and five years older than me. I on the other hand, choose to wear a salwar kameez in a room full of miniskirt and tank top clad mannequins.
“With your reputation and everything, this 'mohapurush' method will never work. So keep weird thoughts aside and think of what to write for the mag.” Yes, this is how we are friends; we write for the same magazine.
“You don’t believe me, eh kid? Here’s a little demonstration. Observe” Rishad’s facial expression was changing bit by bit, probably an urge to smoke. I followed him to the exit when I realized- “No umbrella, what now?” It was then I caught sight of them, four street urchins playing in the heavy downpour. The plastic bags and tattered rucksacks covering their makeshift huts should have kept water at bay, but soon became an abode of innumerable water droplets. Through the watery windows of the café I could make out their shriveled silhouettes running around in a complete frenzy. Even in the midst of their apparent frenzy, the smallest boy in the group artfully picked an unaware office-goer’s pocket. “The Artful Dodger” I said a bit too loudly when Rishad interrupted my chain of thought “Oliver Twist? You and your Charles Dickens references….now stay here and watch”. A little rain doesn’t hurt, I thought, and followed him outside.
A humble tong always made better business than a posh café- never have I seen an exception to that. On a rainy day however, people would rather catch the first bus than sit around on tea stall benches. The cha-wallah was rather intimidated by the pot bellied, enormous bear I had brought along, so it was I who asked for the banana and bun in a reassuring ‘it’s okay, he’s harmless’ tone. I felt a little overly generous so with a quick “My treat!” at Rishad, I absent mindedly felt my way through my sling bag for money. A few ten taka notes would have popped out, except my bag felt nothing like the usual canvas; more like tender human skin.
The alien hand squirmed and writhed in my grip, but my persistence was no match for the malnourished little thing. Still holding tight, I made its owner go around the bench to face me. No surprises when the infamous ‘Artful Dodger’, the little pickpocket faced me with knobby knees. “What was that about?” I asked, as if I didn’t know what it was about- survival.
“Apa, please forgive me? Never again” was the reply- rehearsed, calm and collected. My friend sitting on the other bench prompted him, and the words came flowing from the little guy’s heart:
“My mother’s no more, father remarried. I live in my sister and her husband’s makeshift polythene hut on the railway tracks over there” Lutfur, our Artful Dodger reminded me of Pip at this point. When asked why he picked pockets, there was a smirk on his face. Indeed, laughing at those just-robbed, clueless faces was not only justified, but also human. However, he quickly hid that slight hint of amusement and carried on- “I went to work too, janen bhaiya? The work was making pipes on a machine and cutting polythene. I cut my hand, see? Stealing is ‘upori paowa’(an indulgence, an added joy) apa, you can’t really resist”- Lutfur’s honest confession.
We expected to see a small cut, something that any child could endure. But what we saw was a missing finger. “Still better than being maimed to beg” he declared.
Lutfur might have been a bit quicker, cheekier than other kids, but all his cunning and experience was backed by untold misery. These streets, these hostile unforgiving streets had no place for the righteous Oliver Twist. ‘Survival of the fittest’ says natural selection, and the unwritten iron code of this concrete jungle knows no other law.
Dickens’ The London slums had a suffocating, infernal aspect; the dark deeds and passions lingered in dim rooms and pitch-black nights, while the governing mood of terror and brutality stood sentinel in the cutting cold. When the half-starved child dared to ask for more, the men who punished him were fat. Today, after two hundred years London is devoid of slums. British ecstasy is at its peak; revolving around the Queen and her triumphant hatboxes. But here in a country of all-possible, street children remained as they were. Their misery, their tales of struggle is a two hundred year old legacy- only worse. Our slums are humid, merciless, filthy abodes of ‘lesser beings’. ‘Brown sahibs’ I muttered under my breath, that’s who we are.
“If it bothers you so much…” began a little voice inside my head, but I checked it with a sharp hiss. For now, I looked on as the Artful Dodger became the lab-rat of a rich kid’s whimsical experiment.