Ramadan is a month of abstinence for Muslims. People practice mercy, compassion and rigorous fasting. They do not eat, drink or smoke from dawn till dusk. But when sundown comes, it's party time. For the uninitiated, iftar is the meal with which you break your fast if you are a Muslim (the religion of 89% of Bangladesh's 160-million-strong population). The feast entails large portions of very delicious, spicy and fried food with luscious desserts. So, after a full day of starving, iftar is the gluttonous relief (for some, especial the urban class) and according to scriptures, a glad tiding from God. Iftar in the lead up to Eid is big business in Dhaka. This brings me to the question -- did the real spirits of abstinence and equality flourish, and was the customer always right this Ramadan?
Banani Road Number 11, once a luxurious pathway to the richest neighbourhood in Dhaka, has transformed into a bustling hub of consumerism. This Ramadan, it is home to overpriced iftar items, boutiques and a place for you take your romantic partners to dates-- the Arabian ones you can eat!
However, the hustle and bustle is not exclusively the province of the rich. Sometimes the two worlds - of privilege and deprivation - do collide. This is the tale of one such intersection.
Last Monday, I went to Rashna Bilash, a prominent restaurant in Banani that serves lavish iftar items, while others just about set up their haleem huts. Their assortment of delicacies was commendable to say the least, although the price tag was a bit of an appetite killer (bland chicken pulao for 200 taka and a mutton leg roast for 500). Nonetheless, the place flocked with corpulent gentlemen wearing luxurious Punjabis (the traditional dress of Bangladesh which may cost you between 50 and 500,000 taka) and their equally hefty significant others.
I, being the destitute single soul, had four chicken balls and four vegetable rolls to go for 200 taka. This is when it happened.
As I marvelled over the tray of "mutton leg roasts" (made famous by Star Kabab, a much older chain in Dhaka), the red-apron-clad server, whose name I later came to know was Saddam Hossain, tried to tempt me to take one. Clearly, he had no idea about my skimpy appetite. Notably, his tray was closest to the exit and was visible to those outside.
I declined his offer, paid for my meal and exited the venue. This is when I met Sulaiman Ali, shirtless and all of 7 years old. He peeped in and was struck with awe at the sight of a feast that was as alien to him as his own life was to the customers.
Maybe because of my affable looks (ahem!), he approached.
"Bhai (brother), could I get some?"
"You'll just waste the money on others, SHOO!" I exclaimed.
Naturally, having lived in the area for two decades, I hand out food or books instead of cash to kids -- advice I would give to anyone reading this.
Tenacious Sulaiman insisted, "Just a paratha!"
Puzzled, I thought: how can anyone eat paratha without a main dish? I took the question to the server of both the paratha and the leg roast. He explained that the boy's request was reasonable. The parathas were stuffed with potatoes and were, "bhery tesht (very tasty) and 30 taka only."
"I'll take two," I hesitantly responded.
At this point, Sulaiman walked in on a crowd where he was both out of place and unwelcome. After all, you need a Punjabi to make the cut. As a journalist, it would behoove me not to judge the looks he got from the middle-aged people who frequent Banani for iftar.
Hossain, comprehending my intentions, complied and packed two parathas for Sulaiman and handed them to him.
No good deed is selfless. I was happy as a clam.
At that point, Hossain's bearded supervisor, wearing an ominous orange shirt, appeared on the scene.
He rebuked Hossain. "Throw the pichchi (kid) out! What's he doing here?"
Frankly, I expected the authority to conjure up some support, but that did not happen.
Meanwhile, Hossain retorted fearlessly while pointing at Sulaiman. "This (boy) is the customer, sir!"
Hallelujah! Eid Mubarak.