May in a hot desert land

Afsan Chowdhury
Thursday, May 18th, 2017
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It was May 2005 and I was working on our four-volume “Bangladesh 1971”. As editor of the project I had to organize funds, whether begging, borrowing, or stealing. Mehboob Shareef, my old Unicef colleague Mehboob bhai, who was heading up Unicef in Turkmenistan at the time, hired me several times as a consultant to help me out with funds.


I enjoyed being in Turkmenistan, its almost cut-off from everywhere atmosphere and not-too-rushed life. I visited once in winter, once in autumn and once in May. As we swelter through our May, I remembered my May in that desert land.


I arrived at night so never felt the heat. Early morning Asghabat – the capital city- was nice and I strode forward happily from my hotel. The guard at the hotel asked, “Taxi?” I said ‘No’ and walked out to the road. The informal taxi system is nice there. You just stand on the road and lift your hand and somebody stops and gives you a lift for a small payment.  Everyone seems to own a sturdy Russian built car which also doubles as a taxi in the rush hour. Petrol is cheaper than water there.


I got one, named the road, reached the UN compound before 9 in the morning. Soon there were briefings, meetings, appointments etc and tea and coffee and gifts for my old friends. Great morning and then it was time for lunch.  It was a short walk to a restaurant where some friends had already gathered.


It was 12.30 and like many idiots before me, I thought I knew the weather like a local. As I stepped out of the air-conditioned office, it felt very hot. But when I reached the street, it was blazing fire. I literally felt my skin would burn. The streets were almost empty and here was this gadha Bangladeshi walking on the streets of a desert country in high summer. I thought I was being cooked and as I walked, I thought my legs might catch fire. I put my hand on my head and tried to walk to the eatery as quickly as possible.


Actually, that gesture saved my life as a car stopped thinking I wanted a lift. I jumped inside the car and mentioned the eatery name. The man looked at my red heated face as if I was mad. No English, so he gestured in a way that roughly translated to “What the f***?” I smiled happily, foolishly and gratefully and pointed to my head, meaning I agreed.  He dropped me at the shop, we had the meeting and later I was dropped off to the office. Thank God I was saved.


Ruski bazaar


That evening I took a walk from the hotel to the Ruski(Russia) Bazar where one could buy everything.  A young shop assistant- the only one who spoke English properly God knows how in that market- had asked me for a Bollywood songs CD which I had managed to get and was carrying for her. She was very happy with it, almost grabbed it from me and hid it under the shelf. Then she introduced me to a young girl. “Sister. From village. School too hot. Desert too hot to study. So she come to work with me.” The girl sat there without speaking with impassive eyes.  She had no control over her life. Even heat could stop her education.


It was a sobering thought and as I worked on the UN report, I realized the girl whose school was suspended due to heat remained a lot on my mind.


My brains survived the month I was there and I bought an umbrella which I used sometimes to walk in the heat just to remind myself how tough life could be for many others. Luckily even as I walked the government there agreed to fund air-conditioning in the desert area schools where food literally fried in the sun without a stove.


I dropped into the market one day and went to the CD girl to tell her the good news about the official decision. But apparently she had left with her sister for her village a few days back. I will always remember that our comfort level is not a crisis compared to a school closed by the heat of summer.

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