Buying beli fel-er mala

I’ve taken to sassily saying, “I came back to Bangladesh to ____!” Insert whatever wonderful Bangladeshi thing I am experiencing at the moment. Examples include eating lichus, milky sugary tea from the side of the street, or Ammu’s carrot cake; wearing saris and glass bangles up to my elbows, lying around all day with my cousins; listening to a storm; shouting “Joy Bangla”. One that I feel is particularly true is when I say, I came back to Bangladesh to buy ‘beli ful-er mala’ (jasmine flower garlands) from children on the street. I am inordinately fond of these flowers. I think they are the most exquisite flower in existence; nothing is so pretty and nothing smells so nice. Tk 7-10 per piece, or 5 later in the season or if you’re in the mood to bargain.

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So I will always buy these flowers. I’ve been spending 100 tk a day. Particularly if it’s a little kid selling them, coming up to my car window, I will always buy them. They usually overcharge me – I probably look like the overcharge-able type – and I always will good-naturedly tell them I know they’re overcharging me and end up paying whatever they want anyway.

They’re so tiny, these kids.

There’s a girl at the Kakoli crossing who recognizes me and my family. She’s always there, and she sells a variety of different things, depending on the time of day and the season. Bottled water, illegally photocopied books, mosquito-killing rackets. These days in the evening it’s always the beli ful. She’s the pushiest, most determined kid on the planet. She will run with the car and bang on the windows if you don’t buy something from her. In the winter she insisted I give her 50 tk to buy earmuffs because it was a cold day. The other day she sold Hammad flowers and then insisted he give her money for coke because it was a hot day.

She’s much pushier than the average kid, but with good reason, because it always works with us. She’s so young. 13? 14?

Today I was in the car with my parents and had just bought 100 takas’ worth of flowers from a little boy when this girl saw us and came running over. I of course had to buy another 100 tk of flowers from her, but that wasn’t enough. She shoved her head in the window so I wouldn’t be able to close it and demanded that we give her 300 taka so she could buy a new three-piece for the Bengali New Year. My parents and I patiently tried to tell her that we’d give her the money another time, and my dad reminded her we had given her money for Eid to buy new clothes but we never saw her wearing them. He’s saying this while he and I are both reaching for our wallets to find the money.

Meanwhile, she’s shouting a variety of things to explain why we should give her this money. It’s new year, it’s all she wants for new year, it’s only 300 taka, she’s going to buy the clothes and wear them, and she’s definitely, definitely going to show us the clothes on new year. If she doesn’t wear the new clothes on new year day and show us, well then, she isn’t a Muslim. If she doesn’t wear the new clothes and show us, she’s a Hindu.

My mother had been just about to hand her the money, and when the girl says this last thing, my mother whips her hand right back, exactly what I would have done. The girl immediately realized that she shouldn’t have said that and frantically said, “Sorry, sorry, I made a mistake, sorry, sorry.”

My mom held the money away for a minute and we all sort of stared at the girl. I felt, somehow, deeply disappointed. My little bubble of a flower-buying ritual had just popped, because these ugly words had come out of this girl’s mouth. I don’t know what I thought. That she’s not supposed to think that way, because she’s the girl who sells me flowers on the street? I didn’t do the math in my head, then, about how this sort of thinking comes hand in hand with a lack of education. It is, I suppose, understandable if not justifiable, that she thinks that way. Right then, I was just surprised, and irrationally angry.

As I keep learning, I am so naive, in so many ways.

I didn’t know what to say to her. She was still frantically apologizing because Ammu was still holding the money. Ammu always knows what to say, though. She said to the girl very calmly but very firmly, “You just said that to the wrong people, do you understand? There are both Muslims and Hindus in this car. We do not listen to that kind of talk.”

The girl frantically kept saying sorry.

Ammu handed her the money.

We drove away.

My flowers don’t smell quite as sweet, tonight.

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