By: Faizah Aziz Aditya
Asian University for Women, Bangladesh
The Dampara highway was abuzz at peak hour with vehicles of all shapes and sizes. A cacophony of shrill horns began at 8 pm. With office-goers returning home, trucks leaving the city after a day of carrying and selling raw materials, and long route buses coming and leaving, everyone was rushing towards their destinations.
Amongst this chaos of life, no cars pausing for even a millisecond, let alone making way for pedestrians to cross, three friends were stuck. After a nice evening out, these friends found themselves on one side of this highway, but needing to cross to the other.
After fifteen minutes of futile attempts to bravely put one step forth, these friends decided to approach the traffic police, their last hope; otherwise, they would have to stand there and wait until peak hour was over, an hour and a half away.
The traffic policeman seemed dejected– tired from the heat, the dust in the air, and the constant discord unique to unrhythmic shrieks of honking from an assortment of vehicles on a Bangladeshi road – rickshaws, CNGs, taxis, cars, vans, minibuses, tempos, buses, trucks.
The traffic policeman looked incredulous as the three friends asked him for what seemed impossible – to cross the damn road. Nevertheless, he nodded bleakly, out of responsibility as a uniformed officer if nothing else. His attempts were halfhearted, though, and who could really blame him? The ferocity and velocity with which each vehicle passed was beyond the hands of a mere traffic officer to stop.
Another ten minutes trickled by painfully, frustratingly, and it was still impossible to cross. Prottasha, the protagonist of this short story, stomped her feet in irritation and then paused, closed her eyes, took a deep breath to calm her nerves, looked at the other two sharply and said, “Follow me!”
She grabbed the hand of one of her friends, who in turn grabbed the other’s; she looked right before confidently striding across the road, her free hand authoritatively held out at the oncoming vehicles. With her palm and fingers outstretched, she walked forth, an image of Prophet Moses crossing the Red Sea, seeming a miracle-worker to her friends as vehicles stopped short of hitting them as they crossed.
What went through Prottasha’s mind at that exact moment, nobody can tell, but her friends surely had gone into shock. They walked quietly behind her, their eyes wide with terror and disbelief, their mouths a little parted, words failing them as Prottasha guided them to the other side with the same confident long strides. Her friends’ feet shuffled and marched behind her of their own volition.
As soon as they reached the other side and the whirl of movements resumed on the highway, as if someone had hit the pause button and now hit play again, the two friends finally snapped out of their trance of terror and stared at Prottasha for a whole minute before throwing a jumble of questions, accusations, and comments her way:
“Are you crazy?!”
“Why did you do that? What if we had gotten hit?!”
“Oh god, my heart is still hammering in my chest!”
“My whole body is trembling.”
“You are crazy!”
“It was sheer luck we made it through!”
“Who even taught you to cross the road like that?!”
It was that last question which produced a reaction from Prottasha, who so far had been silently looking at her friends and letting them rant. She said, indignantly and boldly, “My dad.”
The response immediately brought a cold chill and silence to the group, as the two friends looked ashamed and apologetic. They could only muster a soft, surprised “oh!” and a mumbled whisper of “I’m sorry” in answer.
“I’m sorry for making you cross the road like that. I understand it seemed completely reckless, but how long were we going to just stand there and wait? Someone had to take action; even the traffic police didn’t help!”
One of the friends answered meekly, “I’m sorry for the tone I used earlier, I did not mean any disrespect to your father, but you do realize that was no way of trying to solve the problem– it was very risky!” her voice getting stronger near the end.
“Did you have any better ideas? We couldn’t just wait an hour or two in the middle of nowhere, we were getting late!” Prottasha snapped back before taking a deep breath and sighing.
Her voice steadier now, she looked back at the whirlwind of life rushing past them at breakneck speed and said, “Dad taught me how to cross the road when I was really young. I don’t remember much about him anymore, just snippets– a dialogue here, a black and white picture there, buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind– I doubt how authentic they really are…” Distant longing tinged her voice as she looked back at her friends.
“But this one,” she continued, “I remember vividly! I was seven years old. There was a narrow street in front of our house where cars would come and go infrequently, and I would always be so scared of crossing it on my way to school. Usually, mom or dad would hold my hand and help me cross, but one day dad said he would teach me how to cross so that it wouldn’t be such a Herculean task for me anymore.”
“So he took my hand, and I remember him saying, ‘you first look right, and then left, and then right again, and slowly but confidently and steadily cross the road.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Also, remember that the cars in the roads of Bangladesh never stop for anyone, so if you keep waiting, you will never be able to cross.’ He held out his hand towards the traffic, looked at me and said, ‘just hold out your hand confidently like this and cross, the cars will see your hand and understand you want to cross and will stop!’ ‘And remember,’ he added, ‘never run. You run, and you will get run over for certain. Always walk with long strides, and you’ll see you have crossed the road in no time!’ And then he made me cross the road on our way back to make sure I had practiced my lesson.”
Prottasha paused for a moment, a soft smile playing on her lips now, and said, “After his death that year, I don’t remember ever being scared to cross the road again. I have crossed the road all by myself ever since, as mom got busy working to support our family, and there was no one to hold my hand anyway.”
As she started walking again towards home, indicating for them to follow, she said, “It sounds ironic, but every time I cross the road now, I feel like he is watching over me. It is only amidst this whirl and cacophony of rushing vehicles and shrill honks that I vividly remember him and the way he used to securely hold my hand and smile at me as we crossed the road together. It is only amidst this chaos that his words give me protection and his memory gives me peace.”