Inside the Tiger’s Den — Chapter 1
A story about a boy raised in a Bangladeshi shipwrecking town
“There are two tigers that will kill you,” my father told me at least a dozen times over the years. “The Bengal Tiger is a vicious creature that will tear you to shreds, regardless of whether you’re even worth eating. When you see a Bengal, run.” At this point his face would invent a curious smile, complementing the rigid features of his ebony skin, wise wrinkles, and olive eyes. The smile only widened as he reached down into a brown paper bag, wrinkled near the top from carrying it home, his hand reappearing moments later with a glass bottle of beer. “The other tiger will kill you from within, and you’ll enjoy it the whole time.” After this ritual he would pop the cap and raise it to his mouth, gulping as though racing an imaginary drinking partner. “If you chug the first, the others feel better,” he would often mutter in attempt to penetrate the subsequent silence (none of us knew the proper reaction to his whole tiger thing, as we had grown tired of laughing at it). But I get why he liked it. The golden amber bottle of Tiger Beer was revered around Bangladesh, as it was an import from Singapore. Foreign things were, without exception, better. In many cases, the foreign products weren’t even that good — flashlights from China, for instance, had a lifespan of about one hundred uses (the light itself was never the first to deteriorate; the mere action of turning it on and off was enough to steadily wear down the device). In comparison to domestically produced goods, well…
Electricity was a luxury afforded only by the wealthy (and also, a foreign good, imported from the hydroelectric dams in Myanmar and India), with the shipyard bosses dominating that demographic in our region. Even then, it was only available a few hours at night, often failing randomly. As for the rest of us, Chinese flashlights were the only way to get light without risking a devastating fire, and with my father’s measly paycheck the options were far from comprehensive. Life after dark in our house — and I use the word ‘house’ liberally — revolved around possession of our two Telyuan flashlights. One stayed by our door at all times, while the other moved around quite a bit, most often finding itself in the corner by my father’s mat. Both had a combined age of about seven months, and both were nearing the ends of their lifespan. Describing their faults as ‘planned obsolescence’ would give far too much credit to the manufacturers, though, as nothing about the device was planned. Parts were thrown together seemingly at random on an assembly line that certainly did not entail an inspection stage. Sometimes they would even come broken out of the box, and we’d have no choice but to live with only one for the following few months. You get what you pay for, I guess. Our family’s rule on flashlights was simple — use it only when completely necessary, and when you do, don’t turn it off until the sun rises again. When a flashlight broke, my brothers and I worked tirelessly to fix it. We tried tape, sparingly of course, but it only worked with very occasional good luck. Sometimes we could fix it, but only after thoroughly wrecking the reflective paneling around the bulb in search of the proper wire connections.
We lived in a coastal village, with the male population working almost exclusively in the shipwrecking industry. My father frequently recounted stories from his childhood, Chittagong’s Golden Years, as he liked to call it. Back then, everybody in the village fished. Boys as young as eight or nine would start ‘practicing’ by heading to the beach with a bamboo rod and hemp line, dangling insects and worms into the murky harbor water hoping to catch their next meal which they usually cooked over a fire, right there on the beach.
“You could fill a bucket of clams in five minutes, and have them cooked in fifteen,” was another of my father’s many oft-repeated tropes. But he was wrong; my best friend Jaipu and I tested Pop’s hypothesis one day; he counted seconds on the beach while I waded waist-deep, collecting clams. After five minutes I had collected five clams and a single crab, barely enough to feed one of us. We brought the bucket home and waited for Pop to return from work. When we showed him that we had disproven his theory he let out a deep, hearty laugh, followed by a coughing fit — as had become usual for him. “Boys, of course I was right. In my day you could even fill two buckets in five minutes. I didn’t mean you could do it now!” Jaipu and I were defeated, but we started a fire and cooked our meager catch, sharing the snack amongst the three of us. Pop always packed two meals and a snack for work, but most of the time he came home hungry. So we let him have the crab and split the clams between the two of us (Jaipu let me have three — I did the catching, after all).
There was one story toward which he frequently gravitated, and it was about a tragic experience exploring the ‘new creature of Bangladesh’, the ‘iron whale’, or the term I preferred, ‘America’s trash.’ He was referring to the large container ships of course, which started appearing on our shores in the late 1960’s. It wasn’t until I was ten years old when I heard the full version of the story, though, overhearing my father retell it to his brother visiting from the north while I was pretending, poorly as it soon became apparent, to be asleep.
“At first there was only one,” he started, “and we thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was a kid, about twelve years old… what more can you ask for than a massive playground in the middle of the beach? There was no such thing as shipwrecking then.”
Interrupting himself, my father stood up from the ground, actively suppressing his grunts so as not to wake me, and, quietly making his way outside to the tea kettle, poured two boiling cups of water. After a few minutes he shuffled back with the two metal cups, situating himself on the mat next to my uncle.
“I hope I haven’t woken Bharuk,” he whispered, placing the cups on the ground before crouching down and sitting.
“Where was I?”
He paused as if analyzing the suspicious silence of my breath patterns, then slowly stretched his bones and turned in my direction. There was a sensitive disposition in the way my father attempted to discreetly look at someone or something, an innocent attempt to remain unnoticed almost always ending in the complete opposite. Fortunately, he had at least become aware of this fault of his, often knowing instantly when his secrecy had failed.
“Bharuk, I know you’re awake, my son.”
Startled by the realization of his, I quickly retorted, “I was asleep, Pap, but then I was awoken by your conversation. Can I come over and have some tea?”
“I guess it is about time he heard the true story,” he rasped under his breath, looking toward my uncle and beckoning me over, “but there’s not enough tea.”
I scurried toward him without hesitation, and once I had found a comfortable sitting position, he started again.
“While our fathers were at sea, my friends and I would explore the beast and play games like tag and treasure hunt throughout the massive hull and living quarters. But our favorite game certainly had to be hijack, in which we would split into two groups: ship crew, and pirates. It didn’t take much to make us happy, but I wish I knew at the time we were essentially playing on a massive piece of litter — left by the Westerners to rot, as far from their backyards as possible. Still, we had a good time. Soon, we discovered that fate does not make exceptions for fun… I remember the day Kata died like a red-hot, burning brand on my brain. We had just eaten a bucket of crabs and snails gathered from the beach and decided to play one last game of hijack before heading home. After about fifteen minutes as captain my first mate Kerfu alerted me to the presence of pirates on our starboard side — we always put our full effort into making it feel real — and we began preparing for the inevitable invasion. Seconds later, I caught a glimpse of the two through the broken windows of the bridge; Kata and Jejnu had made it onto the main deck and were splitting up to climb opposing stairs. Kerfu and I followed suit, splitting up to man the bridge’s two opposing hatches. We had been tricked. As soon as I began pushing my body against my hatch, attempting to keep it closed, we realized that they had actually rejoined forces and were both trying to enter through Kerfu’s hatch. Kerfu, despite using his full force, was rapidly losing control of the hatch, so I ran to help. A second later, the rusted hinges succumbed under the combined pressure, the metal slab falling onto our invaders. Everything moved in slow motion as the hatch crushed Kata, pinning him to the railing of the staircase. Kerfu and I heard everything, and felt everything as well, for we had fallen with the hatch. Kata heard and felt nothing, from that moment until eternity.”
“Bharuk, I’ve told you it’s rude to interrupt. Please…. Let me finish.”
Pap was visibly agitated, evidenced by his harsh tone and melancholy facial expressions, yet I could tell right away he regretted scolding me. His eyes darted nervously, more gray than green for once, and after a few moments of readjusting and a refill of both tea cups, he carried on.
“Kerfu and I jumped up and immediately tried to lift the hatch off the other two, as a puddle of blood started forming around our feet. I screamed in fear, and Jejnu screamed back, his agonized voice radiating through the rusted metal. Finally, we lifted the hatch and exposed the limp Kata, lifeless, dangling between the railing and the platform atop the stairs. My heart sank and its formerly reliable beating blurred with my breathing; blurred with my thoughts; blurred with my consciousness. For one moment, everything stopped. Kerfu jumped over Jejnu and started shaking Kata’s arms — lifeless indeed — while I attended to Jejnu, who had been severely cut down his left thigh. Frantically, we lifted the boys onto the hatch and started carrying them down the precarious stairs, nearly falling multiple times, finally collapsing onto the beach; out of breath. Kerfu ran to get help while I stayed there, clueless, already struggling with the guilt of what had happened. When help finally arrived, the two were carried off urgently. Kerfu and I remained on the beach, in silent awe, and walked all the way home without uttering a word.”
The three of us, sitting on the hard wooden floor, sat in similar, silent awe. Uncle Sadi had probably heard the story as many times as I, but even he was visibly saddened by hearing it again, perhaps because he knew I was finally learning the truth. Pap always told me the child-friendly version of the story, ending with Kata getting injured — not killed. Although I’ll admit I had suspected something amiss considering the amount of time Pap spends drinking with Kerfu and Jejnu — Kata nowhere to be found — I never quite put the pieces together until that night. There was a certain distinction between injury and death, an intangible feeling of risk, that made the ships seem fun despite Pap’s previous telling of the story. I’d be willing to risk a small injury, so to say, if it meant having the caliber of fun he so colorfully described. This time, though, his tone was entirely different. The sense of adventure I had once romanticized was no longer appealing.
Even with Pap’s censorship I learned the dangers of the shipyard from a very young age. Its impact on our village was impossible to avoid, and it seemed like every week a friend of mine was “home, sick,” as the passing of a father or brother was frequently euphemized. Fathers and sons older than fourteen worked in the shipyard as many as eighteen hours a day, and with such prolonged exposure to the dangerous conditions, accidents were frequent — and lethal. From falling debris to poisonous chemical leakages, there was no shortage of potentials to get maimed or diseased, and it felt like every week a new type of accident was being discovered. And even if the physical dangers of the shipyard were avoided successfully, the workers still had the bosses to fear — ruthless men who exploited their power in the worst possible ways — familywrecking, per se. Stealing scraps was forbidden (obviously), but the bosses went to extraordinary lengths to ensure workers stayed in line, even turning the workers against each other. Rewards of about $0.75 were offered to anyone who reported a thief, and the desperate times called some to even plant stolen goods on others, attempting to cash in on the quick money.
When a worker tragically lost his life, colleagues weren’t even permitted to go home; well, unless they wanted to lose their job or face other consequences (see: familywrecking). It was such a frequent occurrence that hardly any work would get done if they skipped: about three people died each week, with dozens upon dozens of injuries, ranging in severity from cuts and scrapes to full amputations and paralysis. Still, the ships always intrigued me, and I wanted to be as strong and confident as my father. It took a great deal of fortitude and perseverance to return to the yard, day after day, especially when the deceased colleagues were among his best friends, and my pre-teen mind glorified such inviolable courage.
Pap was vocal in his opposition to my working on the shipyard. He tried to provide me with skills I could use one day to find a different job, coming home one day with an English alphabet book (he must have stolen it as books weren’t exactly in our budget), and although he didn’t speak the language, he attempted to teach me anyway. We studied side by side at times, attempting to categorize each letter’s multitude of punctuation rules, drawing comparisons whenever we could to the Bengali script. Beyond letters and vocabulary, though, our goal of mastering English felt as though it was distancing itself further and further day by day.
For a while, he thought sports were my ticket out. I didn’t know why, but he constantly talked about finding a ‘ticket out’ for me and my brothers. For us, it meant going for a three kilometer run in the morning, and another just before eating dinner (my brothers were younger, and much of my time was spent keeping the little ones on track and motivated). His whole phase started after he heard the brief biography of an Olympic runner from Kenya on the radio — an athletic superstar who was such a successful runner he brought fame and fortune to his impoverished family and neighborhood outside of Nairobi. He must have missed a few crucial details — perhaps the man was born into a family of adept runners — because the more I ran I only became more convinced a dream like this was not possible for anyone. I admire Pap’s optimism, but despite his efforts, we both knew I’d be working alongside him in only a few years.
His prohibition on going to the shipyard was the strictest rule in our household, by leaps and bounds, but soon enough I’d be spending more time with him, having the time of my life. I was sure of it.
If you enjoyed this preview, please let me know. I have been writing this story for about a year and can’t wait to share the rest!