Standing in the claustrophobic elevator, I stuffed my hand into my pocket, waiting for the doors to slide open. When they finally do, what hits me is a wave of dusty, humid air, rancid and nauseating. I barely wrinkle my nose, having grown accustomed to it, accustomed to everything Dhaka throws my way.
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It was a hot summer night of early June, a few weeks after my junior year in high school. Driven by my interest in microfinance and women’s empowerment, I decided to seek an internship at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, to see first hand one of the finest institutions of poverty alleviation. Although I had expected much of what I saw, it was still a shock to experience the severity of poverty and pollution in this small, crowded country. Standing in the elevator, little did I know that on this very night, I would experience something seemingly insignificant, but all the more mind-blowing in its ubiquity. It would lead me to gain more insight into humanity than all sixteen years of my life.
Following a Bangladeshi local from my hotel, I gingerly walk through the street teeming with people, towards a phone recharging station. A small group is gathered around a woman sitting on a stool, apathetically punching numbers into her phone. As I wait in line, I noticed two tiny figures in the shadows, fading in and out. The bigger figure, a little boy, approaches me, murmuring in Bengali. I keep my head straight, not daring to look in his direction.
Thinking back, what did I fear? I had seen many beggars in the streets, and it isn’t new to ignore them, since giving to one would lead to thousands coming your way. Yet, during those instances, I could always keep walking. I never had to stand and listen. I feared the intimacy of that moment. Then, I feel a small hand on my elbow. I freeze. The hand is small, dusty, distinct against my clammy skin. I realized, I never had to touch them either. The touch makes it real, hitting home the stench of human bodies on the street, the sight of starved babies in the arms of mothers, bringing to life the statistics that told, or did not tell, of these people’s births and deaths. As I stand, wishing to escape, the boy begins to tug me more urgently. Turning around, I see a man carrying large bags is trying to pass behind me, and the little boy is trying to make sure I don’t get hit. I feel myself breaking, slowly, into tears. Even as I think of how to rid myself of this boy, he is trying to help me. I stand, unable to move, as my guide scares the boy away with a raised palm. And he was gone, just like that.
I walk back, into my hotel, into my room, into my bathroom. I turn on the tap and wash where the boy had touched me, again and again. But I can’t rid myself of that awful sensation, awful because he exists, because millions like him exist. Awful because I feel ashamed. He will perpetually be the symbol of humanity, at its best, at its worst; he reminds me of my helplessness, of his helplessness. These are bold words, wild claims and accusations, but they are reflections of my deepest feelings, whether or not they are understood by the audience. Even today, as I eat, sleep, I recall the little boy, the shadow, the thousands of shadows that live without living, in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, in the world.
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