Gita-di told me that she believes she will die soon.
Gita-di is the gardener of the PTI, but does just about everything. She does all of the grunt work and is always on duty, 24-7. She is the moving force behind everything that gets done at the PTI. She's been there for about 15 or 20 years and has about 4 more to go before she retires and can draw a pention from the government. The work has really taken a toll on her. She looks much older than she really is (about 50) and often says that she can't sit still and relax because her mind is always full of the work she has to do at the P.T.I. and with her family.She's always dressed in a white sari, which I have been told means that she's a Hindu widow. I've seen old pictures of her and she's still wearing a white sari in those as well. I've never asked her about her husband, and I'm still a bit confused about her family, but one of her sons and one of her daughters lives with her at the P.T.I. women's hostel, along with some of her grandchildren.
Gita-di is old enough to remember the difficult times that Hindus have faced in the past. During Partition and during the Liberation War, Hindus were killed en mass. I have heard stories of soldiers, or just people with guns, storm through villages asking men to lift their lungis. If they weren't circumcised, they were killed. Gita-di told me of her neighbors one each side of her village home. When asked what religion they were, they reported that they were Hindu. They were killed.
Gita-di said she was Buddhist and was spared.
These memories are vivid in her mind, and came flooding back to consciousness when she heard of the terrorist attacks on America and the later accusations against militants in the Muslim world. She was making a broom out of coconut tree leaves when I sat down next to her to watch her work.
She doesn't speak English, and doesn't really speak Bangla for that matter. Haveing been born and raised in Chittagong division, she speaks a local dialect that I still can't begin to comprehend. We can communicate basic ideas, although sometimes it takes some effort. But today I could tell she was trying hard to speak the most standard Bangla she could muster.
"When the war starts, I will die," she reported. She believes that the Muslims will kill her for being Hindu. Whenever this is a conflict that has religion in it, the Muslims tend to build solidarity and lose their tolerance towards others. It has happened many times in the past, especially in the southern part of Bangladesh where there are many Hindus. Gita-di is convinced that if the isn't killed by a mob, that the food supplies will be cut off and she will starve to death along with her family.
It was difficult to have such a conversation. The language barrier, the vocabulary, the subject all combined to make me very quiet for a long time. I tried to convince her that she'll live for a long time and that I had fears also. I don't know if she believed me, but she wanted to tell me what she was thinking. She's wanted to leave Bangladesh for a long time. Most of her extended family is in India and she plans to join them as soon as she retires. On the surface, the Hindus and Muslims get along fine, but in private they will often admit to a deep mistrust and animosity towards each other. The indiginous people in the Hill Tracts region are even more guarded and bitter due to past atrocities.
Gita-di lives 15,000 miles away from New York, but now feels as if she's living next door. She doesn't want to die any time soon. She has plans to join her family in India, and works hard for her meager salary of about US$60 per month. But in reality, everything could end in an instant. Bangladeshis are often thought of as being fatalistic, but when I listen to their stories, I canoften understand why they think so. What can Gita-di do if war breaks out and the Muslim nations must band together for support? What will Bangladesh do with it's 80% Muslim population balanced with it's attempt at a secular government?
I helped Gita-di make her broom with my pocket knife for a while. She showed me what to do and I perfected my skill. She's my elder sister, even though she refuses to call me by my name, but rather uses "Sir" as a sign of respect. I tried to comfort her soul and calm her fears, but to be honest, I'm also worried about what will happen to Gita-di and others like her.