I wrote this about two years ago, a few weeks after the event in question happened and I decided not to share it at the time. This still stands out as one of the sharpest memories I have of Bangladesh. While many memories have started to fade or turn hazy, this one hasn't and I'm not sure it ever will.
In late April the humidity that had building for weeks finally released a torrential downpour marking the beginning the mango rains. I was drenched with a fetid mixture of sweat, rainwater and mud sprayed by passing cars as I pedaled home on my bicycle. Oblivious to the conditions as I weaved through the traffic, I reviewed the animated class-discussion my grade nine students had earlier that day as we read Night, a powerful Holocaust memoir, by Elie Wiesel. The author’s assertion that to “remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all” had provoked a lively conversation about the inequality ingrained in Bangladeshi society and the importance of our personal responsibility to intervene and actively seek justice for those in need. I was stoked to hear my students coming to these conclusions on their own and began mentally scripting some questions to flesh out these ideas a bit more the next day.
A particularly loud chorus of bellowing car horns interrupted my idealistic teacher-thoughts and I slowed as I approached a crossroads that seemed to be the source of a major traffic jam. As I slowly maneuvered my bicycle between grumbling cars and snarling CNGs, I soon stumbled across the cause of the disruption.
A rickshaw wallah had, apparently, nicked a policeman’s leg with his wheel and was suffering the consequences. He was on his back. His arms wriggling in an unsuccessful attempt to shield his bloody face from a relentless torrent of angry blows. He writhed in the muck as a lone policemen clothed in moldy-green viciously stomped on his torso and beat his contorted face with a weathered, well-used baton.
Any cries that escaped the wallah’s swollen lips were swallowed by the relentless drumming of the rain.
Passengers on the surrounding rickshaws looked on dispassionately, observing the events through a veil of merciless rainwater. All wore an expression of indifference, even boredom, on their faces. A second traffic policeman peeked apathetically out from under the comfort of his umbrella; his black eyes reflecting the cold car lights that illuminated the pitiful spectacle for all to witness.
I silently watched the beating for what was probably a whole minute; it seemed to last forever. I said nothing. I did nothing.
Suddenly, the officer stopped and, giving the wallah one final kick, left him curled up like a cockroach crushed on the side of the road. I thought he was dead.
After a few excruciating seconds, the wallah slowly rolled over and, panting heavily, pushed himself off of the filthy street. Through sheets of rain, I could make out his smashed nose, purple, swollen face and toothless mouth filled with pulpy, foaming blood that dribbled all the way down his shirt onto the ground. For a split second, I stared into the hollow eyes that had meekly accepted the beating. With quivering hands, he re-tied his blood-soaked lungi, hobbled back to his rickshaw and pedaled painfully away.
Car-engines that had been extinguished to conserve fuel roared to life and rickshaws rang their bells and jostled for position as the incident was quickly forgotten and the traffic flow returned to normal. The policeman’s whistle pierced the air and he waved me onward. I was whisked straight through the crimson smear in the muddy road by a relentless flow of cars, CNGs and rickshaws.
As I pedaled my muddy tires passed through the puddle of red sludge and teeth, I was already trying to justify my inaction. “It would have been dangerous” I thought desperately to myself. “I would have gotten myself into trouble. This happens all the time so there would be no point in trying to stop it. I can’t speak fluent Bangla. They wouldn’t have understood me…”
My excuses felt, and still feel, so inadequate. The falling rain masked the hot tears that streamed down my face.