More True Stories…

Excerpt from ‘South Asian Adventures with the Active Poor’ a book of amusing, engaging true stories with all proceeds donated to Amarok Society.

The Price Everything Has

“Tanyss Madam is beautiful,” said Amena amid the close-quarters crowd in the sweltering heat of our slum classroom one morning.

“Yes, she certainly is,” I said. “And so are you, Amena.”

I wasn’t saying so out of kindness, either. She is a beggar of about thirty years old who can’t wholly conceal her sprightly swagger and zesty wit even as she feigns suffering for stone-faced foreigners; her brilliant smile and the sparkle in her black eyes are but an instant away at most. When she begs, she tells a joke, fate’s bitter, ironic joke on her, and she can barely contain her knowing laughter. Her cheap saree she selected for flair and style, vivid orange and yellow. And she really is beautiful.

When Amena tells me a tale of woe, of herself or of one of her four children, I know it’s the truth; and she has plenty of woes, as do all of the women in our schools. This morning, her unhappiness was a different one, though. As her flamboyant saree would indicate, she’s not of an acquiescent personality, and she would never content herself with merely observing, or enjoying, that Tanyss is beautiful, as many of her classmates do. She would need to explore the matter further, propelled by her intelligent, inevitable extrapolation right into the context of her fate’s ironic joke.

“I’m not beautiful,” she said hotly. “I’m ugly, with my black skin.”

Several women, less beautiful, nodded in pity of her affliction. She is darker than most of her classmates.

When she began at our slum school, Amena was, like most of the other mothers, completely illiterate, but, unlike most others, she evinced subtle signs of embarrassment at her limitations, would seem to smart at getting something wrong. In this way, her persistence seemed particularly praiseworthy, but it also shows that she measured herself by an external standard.

“Everyone knows you’re beautiful, Amena,” I said. “You and your black skin are beautiful.”

“No one needs to tell me I’m beautiful, because I know I’m ugly,” she said, and she pinched angrily at the skin on her bare forearm.

I said, “Dear Amena, right now wealthy European women are paying large sums of money to get their pale skin colour closer to yours.”

“I’ll trade you right now,” she said. “My black skin for your white skin.”

The other women laughed. Amena smiled at the success of her humour, but her eyes flashed.

“I won’t make that trade, because I would lose on it,” I said.

“Yes, you see!” she said in bitter triumph.

“I would lose because, as it is, everyday I get to look at Amena in her beautiful black skin, and she only gets to look at me. I’m already getting the better of the deal.”

This delighted all the women. Even Amena joined their pealing laughter.

Of course, Amena could look in the scrap of broken mirror tied with jute to a bamboo pole in her little hovel and recognize with her own eyes that she is beautiful, which is why she was so angry with the framework, that value placed on light skin as a feature of beauty in and of itself, that said she wasn’t, angry that her beauty, unlike Tanyss’ beauty in Tanyss’ world, doesn’t count for a fig in hers.

Amena is, to look at her, a young woman. Most women of her age in her situation are about three-quarters through their lives, however. Unseen inside them, the effects of poverty and ignorance are ticking off their days at double time.

One afternoon not long after, Tanyss and I were walking along the main road of the neighbourhood, and several of our mother students, including Amena, who were begging outside the exclusive market, saw us coming and ran to greet us, as is their sweet habit. We were standing on the footpath, surrounded, idly talking about this or that, when, out on the road, a woman in a passing rickshaw urgently signalled the wallah to pull over to where we stood. She was a Bangladeshi woman, or possibly Indian, expensively dressed, and she carried a parasol against the sun, probably to preserve the dubious effect of skin-lightening cream.

“Don’t give these women any money!” she commanded Tanyss and me (in English, the enclave of the elite) when she drew up to us. “They are not poor!”

In our surprised silence, she continued, “They’re professional beggars. I see them daily outside the supermarket.”

She looked at them contemptuously.

“They are not poor!” she said again.

I didn’t say, in response, what I felt disposed to say. I limited myself to “Thank you for your concern for us, but these women are all students at our schools.”

“Oh!” she said, clearly startled and confused.

Tanyss stepped over to speak to the woman. I knew what she was doing, besides exercising a patience I don’t have: we know that the most beneficial social element for the poor is an enlightened middle class. Bangladesh is in the process of emerging awkwardly, painfully, from a feudal society, like something indeterminate hatched from an egg —-what is that? some reptile? some bird? —- with a small middle class that is growing slowly, but isn’t enlightened. So, in fact, the woman is important in her little way, alas. Tanyss has the fortitude to try, in her reasonable tones, to convince one caste-conscious bigot at a time.

For my part, I might have enjoyed —- but possibly not —- asking the woman if she knew where and how those women lived, why, if they weren’t poor, they’d subject themselves daily to sneering scorn from the likes of her and the batons of the guards and harassment from the police, in the hope of getting a couple of cents from passing living-allowance misers who’d just paid ten dollars for a tiny tub of mundane Australian margarine rather than endure the odd taste of the inexpensive local butter; why it was important to her that we be prevented from giving them anything, whatever their circumstance; and if it was to rationalize her own parsimony that she propagated the misshapen myth weed that the poor aren’t poor, which we’ve now heard ’round the world.

Instead, I just turned my attention back to our students. Where some of the women merely seemed subdued, Amena, glistening black in the beating sun, glared at the plump, protected, artificially-pallid woman in the rickshaw; I interposed myself and said “Come, dear, don’t fuss about someone like that.” She smiled up at me with angry eyes.

Amena is genuinely poor, genuinely dark, genuinely beautiful, and she finds herself having the odd luxury of genuinely presenting her life to people who care to do something about it. Perhaps that is the further extrapolation of the ironic joke that amuses her so, that, ultimately, the joke’s really on the woman in the rickshaw, about whom nothing, be it her values, ideas, ostensible concern, or fair-skinned aristocracy, is genuine at all.

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