A Silent Embrace

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece was commended in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find the full list of long and short listed entries – including the winner – here.

We have sat together beneath the boughs of the Banyan tree more times than I can count – but only in my head. This leafy fortress witnesses us as we share what is unsaid.

We called her Picchi, a diminutive echo in Bengali, since she first arrived. Her real name tarnished by time some two decades ago when she moved into our glossy flat in Mohammadpur. She arrived at the age of four when she didn’t know how to bathe by herself. She didn’t go to school but she made my bed and reorganised my desk when I went. When I was home, I taught her English grammar rules and got frustrated with her the way my teacher would in class for getting the wrong answers. For years we played games together, our combined giggles filled the house, knowing that it would be me who would always win.

The guilt of leaving did not take root until much later, an infestation that grew with me into adulthood. At twenty-two years old I find myself returning to the humid heat and congested dance of life in Dhaka to look for her. I cloak myself in the compulsory scarf but the tattoos peeking out of my long sleeves and a short haircut invites unabashed, hungry stares nevertheless. Any leads to this search began by retracing my steps to my local relatives, bewildered by my pursuit of somebody deemed as a nobody. In a labyrinth of information, whispers suggest that she toils in one of the city’s many garments factories, others claim silence since she vanished with a mysterious man to his village. Down the grapevine, through my aunt’s sister in-law’s colleague, I have conjured an address of where she might now be employed as a maid.

We don’t recognize each other at first glance. Corroded by my murky childhood memories, my own reflection had over time replaced the image of her. Learning about my arrival, she had prepared a small feast to welcome me. Aloor Chop, crispy potato croquettes stuffed with boiled eggs, are arranged in the form of a pyramid. Green mangoes are sliced and bathed in chilli sauce, sprinkled with salt. She makes Jhal Muri by tossing puffed rice and sev together with diced onions, tomatoes, tamarind extract and mustard oil. A bowl of homemade rice pudding glistens, surrounded by what seems like a whole sweet store had been robbed. Despite over a decade of distance, she hasn’t forgotten my sweet tooth. Then, she is a wallflower while I get scanned and interviewed by the family she serves.

“What did you study in school?”

“What is living in Canada like?”

“When are you getting married?”

I answer enthusiastically in my broken Bengali, words more intended for her rather than anyone else in the room. She remains silent.

We are finally alone together in the refuge of the building’s courtyard. It is a quiet moment, despite the bustle of traffic on the other side of metal gates. Gates that have deteriorated and rusted from the omnipotent moisture of the climate. The same moisture that allows the bounty of green around us. It doesn’t seem fair to me that in a land of so much abundance she possesses so little.

“You are not Picchi,” I say in embarrassment.

“No. Don’t worry,” her timid voice shakes. “I’m Hamida.” She speaks herself into existence.

We rest in the shade of a jackfruit tree carrying the familiar tendrils of a malignant epiphyte. It feeds by crafting a lattice of aerial roots around its host, like a living cage.

“I have something for you.” I present from my pocket a gift of gold. I was adorned with them at birth, each ornament a blessing from my family. Hamida came to our house without ever bearing any.

She holds the dainty chain in her hands. “W-what is this?” Hamida is confused by my gesture. I can’t explain. Alone, it is a feeble act, incapable of altering our fated course.

She lets me put it around her slender neck. A single moment of tenderness.

I have to say goodbye again. The tree’s ethereal threads thicken around her every limb. She is trapped. I can only avert my gaze as she succumbs to this engulfing embrace.

The Banyan tree is a hollow tapestry. A tomb.

More information

For more information about our New Travel Writer of the Year Competition, head to our competitions page.