August 2009

The Nation Reviewed

The MCG and the mango tree

By Tanveer Ahmed

I first met Zakir in my mother’s native village in Bangladesh, where he’d come to meet my family after hearing we lived in Australia. He wore a blue Yankees cap over his curly hair and carried a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d just finished high school and was visiting my birthplace for the second time; he was studying English literature at a nearby university and insisted on speaking English rather than Bengali. He was sitting with a group of my relatives on a wooden bench underneath a mango tree when he asked if I’d accompany him to a nearby river.

As we watched the sun set over a vast stretch of rice paddies, he recited a passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” He delivered it in a bizarre accent, which he assured me was Oxford English. When I clapped politely, he nodded shyly and told me to stop. Then he pulled out a picture of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which he’d heard was the greatest sporting centre in the world, and talked about his desire to live in Australia.

For the next few years, our household received monthly late-night phone calls from Zakir, who would walk to the nearest bazaar and use the public phone. My mother, an English teacher, was his main contact and encouraged his enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Tolstoy, occasionally sending money to help him acquire books from India.

I saw him again on another visit to Bangladesh, five years after our first meeting. He knew about my trip through relatives and returned from his university campus to meet me. My relatives had grown tired of his repeated intrusions into their lives; the way he’d harass them with questions about how he could migrate. But I became fond of him. He’d progressed further towards his ambition, having completed an undergraduate degree and begun a masters, but Australian authorities gave an undergraduate degree from Bangladesh only diploma status. He was saving money by teaching and lecturing, certain that his villager parents wouldn’t be able to fund him.

Zakir made no contact for several years, until another late-night phone call. This time, he was frantic. He’d passed the English exam required to gain an Australian student visa. Through an agent, he’d been admitted to a suburban Melbourne technical college to study hospitality management. His parents had sold off a portion of their land and he’d taken out a significant loan with a local moneylender – at the apparently reasonable annual rate of 30% interest. Everything was set except for a final payment of $1000 he had to make to the agent. He’d tried his other potential sources and failed, so our family loaned him the amount.

Zakir arrived in Australia soon after, living in a rented house in outer-suburban Melbourne with eight other young men, all of them international students from the Subcontinent. They slept in bunk beds and worked 80-hour weeks. They spoke of getting bobcat licences and doing lucrative all-night shifts in factories. All loved Australia and were determined to gain permanent residency.

Zakir was paying almost $20,000 a year to attend the technical college, as much as a full-fee-paying student was paying at an Australian medical school. He was training to become a pastry chef in order to get the maximum points for his permanent-residency application. But his fondness for English literature subsided somewhat after he realised that the average Australian didn’t care much about the classics.

Several months into his Australian studies, Zakir contacted me wanting more money. His moneylender wanted an immediate payment, or would demand a further sale of his parents’ meagre land holdings. I was becoming suspicious; I worried that Zakir saw me as a reliable source of ongoing funds. I told him it would be the last time and that I would pay only half the required amount, which was several hundred dollars. He was almost in tears, saying his family would be ruined. I stood firm, telling him that he should have lived within his means. I soon discovered that my family had also received desperate appeals for money. He had even called my sister, despite barely knowing her. He had gone too far, so I cut all contact.

Late last year, several years since our falling-out, I received this letter:

 

Dear Brother Tanveer,

I have wanted for a long time to speak to you.

I have survived a very difficult time. I had to returen to Bangladesh and fix debts. I returned to finish my studies. I am now a pastry chef and am able to apply for permanent residency. I am also married and, praise be to Allah, will have a child soon. You must forgive me for my wrongful requests.

Yours faithfully,

Zakir

 

I flew to Melbourne weeks later to sit an exam. The hospital where I was examined was attached to the Royal Women’s, where Zakir’s wife had just given birth. Zakir had gained weight and grown a beard, the latter as part of his growing religious observance. His wife quickly covered herself when I visited but showed off their son, who had a full head of black hair and green eyes.

Zakir motioned me into the hospital corridor, where he gave me a hug and became teary. He said he didn’t know how to thank me, but wanted to celebrate the gift of a child. He reached into his trouser pockets and produced two tickets to an upcoming cricket game at the MCG. He had not yet visited the stadium, but thought it was time.

Tanveer Ahmed
Tanveer Ahmed is a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and a psychiatrist. His memoir, The Exotic Rissole, was published in October 2011. @drtahmed

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