Modern Love

Now for a Quick Lesson in International Relations

Fellows Fall 2004

By Evan Ratliff

June 03, 2009

SHILPA was the first and only Bangladeshi woman who ever flirted with me. In fact she was the first woman who had even returned my glance in public since I arrived in the country two weeks before to report on Islamic fundamentalism and politics. Bangladesh's population is 80 percent Muslim and correspondingly socially conservative. On the street I received plenty of stares but no coy looks.

Shilpa, however, didn't just return my glance. She even smiled. We were at a political rally downtown, the climax of one of Dhaka's notoriously violent general strikes, started by the opposition party to paralyze the city. She was working riot control, wearing her olive drab police uniform and a black helmet with the hard plastic screen flipped up, together with a gaggle of other policewomen. (Later I learned they were deployed to arrest female marchers, an effort to uphold the social taboo against men and women touching. I also learned that they weren't excepted from the violent reputation of the Dhaka police.

The protesters sat in the street, blocking traffic and making antigovernment speeches. The police surrounded them, but peace reigned, and I wandered around taking photos. Whenever I lowered my camera, I found myself locking eyes with Shilpa. At first unsure if her look was suspicious or friendly, I tried a smile. I couldn't see her mouth, but saw in her eyes that she was smiling back.

Eventually I took shelter from the sun with a group of other reporters. A moment later, a photographer approached a reporter I knew, Sharif, who first seemed confused and then pointed at me, laughing.

Turning to me, Sharif said, "He says there is a policewoman who would like your phone number."

Dumbfounded, I wrote my mobile number on a business card and handed it to the photographer.

"O.K.," he said, sounding annoyed. "You come see her now."

Feeling suddenly like a shy 10-year-old in the playground, I pretended not to understand. But he walked off, and there was nothing to do but follow. I was already uneasy in Dhaka, unable to blend in or communicate, and now self-consciousness was joined by a simultaneous thrill and fear that I was walking into some vortex of cultural misunderstanding.

Perhaps she felt similarly, because when I pushed through the crowd she covered her face and hid behind her fellow policewomen. The photographer handed her my card, but I could tell from her gestures that she was refusing to speak to me.

Not knowing what else to do, I sat down on a nearby fence, occasionally glancing up to find her smiling again. When it was time to go, I walked past the group and mustered the nerve for a kind of half-bow and said, "Dekha hobe" (See you later), drawing a chorus of giggles.

She waved my business card and called out, "Thank you!"

I assumed she wouldn't call, but hours later my phone rang, and a woman's voice said: "Hello, it is me. Ladies' police."

AFTER the exchange of names we reached a communication impasse, which she broke with a string of English phrases. "Golden hair, beautiful eyes." I excitedly recalled the translation for "You have a beautiful smile." To which she replied, "What?"

She gave me her address ­ she lived, it seemed, at a police station ­ and I promised to write. I asked for her phone number, but she didn't have her own.

I hung up disappointed. The next afternoon, however, my phone's display showed the same number calling. Riding in a noisy motorized rickshaw at the time, I didn't answer. It immediately rang again. And then again eight times.

After I arrived at the newspaper offices, it rang again.

"What's your problem?" she demanded.

"No problem."

"I calling you!" she said. "What's your problem?"

"I was in a rickshaw."

"You come here now," she said.

"I can't come now."

"You come here now."

"I don't think we are communicating very well."

"Why no meet?"

I turned and asked someone for the Bengali word for Saturday. "Shonibar," he said.

"Shonibar," I said into the phone.

"What's your problem?"

"Shonibar!"

"Thank you. You come 4:30. Ladies' police hostel."

On Saturday I went to the district police station, the entrance to which was an unmarked opening in a corrugated metal fence. Several dilapidated buildings and decrepit cars were policed by chickens in a dirt courtyard.

I hesitated at the fence, debating whether to forget the whole thing. Finally gathering my nerve, I approached a group of policemen. They seemed baffled when I tried to ask for the ladies' police hostel. I gestured to represent long hair and repeated "ladies" until they let out a collective "Ah" and broke up laughing. One led me cheerfully to the hostel.

A minute later Shilpa appeared, sweeping down the stairs in a bright orange sari. She was tall and trim, and without the helmet her black hair hung almost to her waist.

She seemed simultaneously pleased to see me and annoyed that I was late. "I wait for you," she said.

We sat on a wooden bench in the lobby, but our conversation foundered on her limited English and my tortured Bengali. Then, seemingly on cue, Shilpa's sister ­ also a policewoman ­ arrived. Through her sister's superior English, Shilpa began to reveal details about herself. She was 23 years old, from a small village in the west of the country.

The only clue that we might actually be on a date came when she pulled out a small notebook and wrote two questions: "You are married?" and "Were is your wife?"

I wrote, "Not married" and "No wife."

"Why no wife?" she asked out loud.

A fair question, and I had come to Bangladesh at 29 in part hoping to try to clean the slate of past half-hearted and blown relationships. Now I was sitting on the bench in the police hostel, pursuing the most unlikely possible romance, if that's what this was.

I assumed she was looking for the short answer, however, so I wrote, "I haven't found the right person yet, I guess."

For the next week, I talked to Shilpa at least once a day. Although we barely conveyed more than simple details ­ "chicken for dinner," "hot today" ­ I looked forward to it. For days I tried to invite her and her sister out to a restaurant, but no combination of English and Bengali produced the desired result.

Then one day Shilpa called to say that she was going home to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr. "You go to my village?"

The offer threw me. Meeting her family seemed premature. I told her I couldn't, but regretted it as soon as I hung up.

The following day she woke me up with a call from the train station, and we had a short but unexpectedly intimate conversation: she wanting to say goodbye, I groggily wishing her a good trip. In my half-asleep haze I imagined meeting her family and taking her home to mine, and for the first time I admitted to myself feeling more than curiosity.

Several days after she was to have returned to Dhaka, though, she hadn't called. Perhaps she had stayed longer. Or had I offended her by declining her invitation? I was leaving the country in a week, a fact I had never successfully conveyed. I began to worry that I might never see her again.

Finally, two days before my flight, I decided to go to the police station. I wrote out a note, had the desk clerk translate it and bought some flowers.

Once there, I hesitated in the lobby before peeking into an adjacent room. There she was, talking with a bearded, portly man, whom she had identified earlier as the house master. She jumped up and ran over to me, but under the guardian's unwelcome glare, she said she couldn't leave for dinner. She promised that we could have lunch the next day.

When I arrived under the house master's disapproving stare the next day, she greeted me coldly. She pulled out her notebook and wrote down, "Mokali flyover."

I knew the Mokali flyover, the newly opened (and only) overpass in Dhaka. But what did she mean? Sensing my bafflement, she whispered, "You go Mokali flyover. I come there."

WE said pretend goodbyes, and I caught a taxi to the overpass, waiting until she arrived by rickshaw. She beamed at her plan's success. We were alone at last. Another taxi ride took us to a small amusement park, where I bought us some chocolate ice cream bars. We watched the kids and took turns translating the objects around us, laughing. She scribbled something in my notebook.

Soon it was time for her to get back, and we got up to leave. On the way out I convinced her to have our picture taken. Handing my camera to a passerby, we stood together, smiling. But when I tried to put my arm around her, she shrieked and leapt away. I realized that in all of our meetings, we had never actually touched, not even a handshake. Our mysterious passion cut an innocent path through the thickets of miscommunication.

Twenty minutes after we had parted my phone rang. "Mokali flyover meeting place! You go? I am so much needing to see you."

I agreed to meet, waiting a half-hour before her taxi pulled up, and sat down next to her. She apologized for making me return and then pulled out some pictures of herself. She wrote "Forget me not" in English and Bengali on the backs and handed them to me. "This is our very last meeting," she said.

"Maybe I'll come back," I tried.

She demurred, and I knew she was probably right. So we said another round of goodbyes. This time, as I climbed out, she offered her hand, palm out as if expecting a high five. I put a hand up against hers, and she folded them together with a gentle squeeze. Then she let go and was gone.

Sick of the traffic, I walked the hour back to my hotel. When I arrived, drenched in sweat, I turned on the air-conditioner and let the cool air wash over me. I pulled out my notebook and flipped through it.

Her note was written in English on an otherwise empty page. It said:

When I will die
please come to my grave.
Don't cry for me,
only say I love you.