Ferry Ghat

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2022 by Giles Ryan

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

To travel back to Dhaka from Rangpur in the far north you had to cross the Brahmaputra River, and if memory serves me at all, we did this south of Sirajganj. Rahman was driving our solid, sturdy Mahindra jeep, for it was understood that it was too dangerous for a foreigner to drive anywhere in Bangladesh in those days and certainly not upcountry. I had traveled to Rangpur to give testimony in a trial – a shabby affair of embezzlement that ended with no trial at all, instead the employee simply disappeared or, as they liked to say, absconded. Or so I recall now, although in this, too, the details are hazy. No, what I truly remember from this trip, a sight that has stayed fast in memory since then, is something I saw at the ferry ghat while we waited to cross the river.

All the major rivers – the Brahmaputra, the Meghna, the Padma – all brought both life and death, depending on the season. Even in the dry months the rivers were wide, as much as two miles or more, and the only way across was by ferry, and this meant waiting at a ghat, the landing place, with all the other vehicles and crowds of people. This day in the spring, the sky was the clearest blue overhead and the sun was brilliant but not yet so hot at this time of year, for the monsoon had not yet begun, so it was a pleasant day. As always at a river crossing, the ghat was crowded with the people and vehicles waiting to cross over. The bright hues of saris and lunghis gave vibrant color to the scene, and I also saw a few of the pale blue burquas worn by the more prosperous women, their bodies covered head to foot but for the narrow strip of veil over their eyes, their life of purdah giving proof that they had no need to work like other women, the poor women who must wear a garment that permitted the movement of hard physical labor, and who could only cover their hair with the ragged scrap-end of a sari held in place with their teeth.

There were also hawkers selling food and drink, and I bought mangoes for Rahman and I to share as we waited for the ferry, which I could see far off in the distance making its methodical way back across the water to the fresh tide of cargo and passengers, all of us waiting patiently, like it or not.  

And of course there were beggars on the ghat, as there always were in any place where large crowds gathered. They were of all ages and conditions, all holding out there hands, asking for baksheesh, the universal word used by beggars throughout south Asia, originally a Persian word rich in meaning for it did double duty to mean both alms and, in a different context, a bribe. As a foreigner I was a natural magnet for beggars, but Rahman always kept them away, speaking not in a harsh way but firmly, for he was a man with natural authority and the straight posture and serious mien of a former soldier in the Pakistani Army, a man some twenty years my senior, a man who without effort commanded respect. He told the beggars that I was not a rich man, and this was true but also manifestly untrue in this place and time, and a man would need an adamantine heart and a conscience of stone to be untouched by so much misery. Scenes like this, a throng of beggars, always touched me deeply.

Some moments later there was one in particular who caught my eye, a young boy. Was he ten or twelve or fifteen? – who can say? — for poverty and hunger of this kind make a child’s age unknowable. He stood out not because of his rags, which were like those all the others, and not because of the urgency of his plea or the stridency of his cry. No, it was the fact that he crawled along the ground, one leg grotesquely bent at a right angle as though it had been broken and then set in this way, purposefully misaligned, a wretched distortion of the human form, and, seeing him, my heart overflowed with pity. 

I asked Rahman how this could have happened, so he talked with the boy in a rapid exchange, then turned to me and said, “His father did it,” then added, “to make him a better beggar.”

I was shocked, how could this be? What kind of parent, I asked, would do this to a child? Rahman answered, “He is certainly a very bad man…” – he searched for a word, then added, “surely a villain.” 

My hand went to my pocket and I pulled out a note but Rahman put up his hand, insisting I must give the child nothing, saying, “No, you mustn’t. His father will be in this crowd watching us and if you give the child baksheesh, the money will only go to him, a terrible man!”

But the child saw the money and understood my intent and his plea grew more urgent. Despite Rahman’s words – and I knew he was right – I did not want to stop myself so I bent down to the child and put a ten taka note in his outstretched hand. The boy clutched the bill, his fingers like talons, and with his other hand he touched his forehead and heart, offered thanks and wished upon me the blessings of Allah. Then he turned away and, propelling himself with only his hands, moved with surprising rapidity, scurrying away across the ground, pushing his way through the legs of others. My eyes followed him until he disappeared into the crowd.

My offering had caused a stir among the other beggars who now clamored about me asking for the same, and the air was filled with their cries of “Baksheesh! Baksheesh!”  I knew this situation could be dangerous so I followed when Rahman pulled me back to the jeep, insisting I sit inside. But soon the ferry touched up to the ghat and, having already paid our fare in advance like the others with vehicles, we were allowed to board first while the great crowd of passengers arriving and new passengers boarding made a vast unruly scrum on the shore.

Later, as we stood on the deck and watched the one bank recede and the far bank grow slowly more distinct as the ferry made its way back across the river, I asked Rahman how such a thing could happen, how could a father do such a terrible thing to a child? 

There are wicked men in the world,” he answered, “but God sees all and knows all, and God does not allow men to be cruel simply because they are poor, so God will give that father a terrible punishment to match the terrible deed he has done to his child.”

He seemed so certain of this but I could not share his certainty. I did not say the words but in my skeptic’s mind I asked the question: If God exists and sees all and knows all and has the power to punish evil, then why does He not prevent it? If He knows the thought and the intent, then why does He not stop the deed? But this is an ancient question – the essential dilemma of theodicy – and there has never been an answer, unless one is open to the arguments of Jesuitical casuistry or – examined in another tradition – one is willing to accept without question a passage from the Koran or some apt hadith

Over forty years have passed, but now and then something will bring back to mind that day and the boy at the ferry ghat, but it has been a long time since last I thought of it, and I write it down now lest my heart grow old, cold and indifferent.

Contact Giles
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Giles story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher