Bangladeshi dreams are small: this man dreams of owning a rickshaw, so he does not pay most of his earnings to a Boss; that girl dreams of a pair of flip-flops; a mother dreams of clean water for her children; a beggar dreams of an umbrella.
Sheli dreamt of a tiny house of her own, so her husband did not have to pay 75% of his salary for rent. Ali dreamt of dowry for his deaf-mute twin daughters, and inheritance for his son. Doli and Poli dreamt of a place to call theirs. Shahin dreamt he could provide for his parents in their old age.
Modu and Pushpo were too young to dream, they just fought for their lives. Rani yearned to get out of her kennel and once again have a family to love and a place to roam.
Small as they are, a year and a half ago, these dreams were impossible. To buy a piece of land for even a tiny house would cost a minimum of 2.5 lakh taka, before bribes. In Canada, that's $3,700. To buy bamboo, bricks, sand, wire, cement, is perhaps another $C3,000. Then, there is the labour.
Not so much until you consider that Ali's salary is $C175 a month before he pays the rent.
But Bangladeshis are also optimistic, hardworking, and very, very smart. Ali found himself employed by bideshi who were open to the idea of helping his family. Sheli inherited two gold wedding bangles from her mother that were to go to her daughters for their weddings. Shahin got an apprenticeship that taught him basic building trades skills he still had after the job was over.
And Bangladeshis are used to being hungry.
Without telling anyone, Ali and Sheli arranged to sell the bangles, take out an interest-free loan from the employers, and live for 14 months on one meal of rice and lentils a day.Ali took on other work, Shahin hustled for any work for himself, and sewing for his sisters, exquisite seamstresses.
It was incredibly rough. Yet, while Ali and his family were constantly hungry, they had time to help others. Ali rescued two small kittens from drowning: his daughters scrounged old fish heads and tails to feed them. One, the colour of honey in the sun, they named Modu (honey), the other, a tiny black scribble of claws, they named Pushpo (blossom).
Even when there was nothing for the people, Modu and Pushpo had protein. Ali, Sheli and Shahin brought home garbage from other people's homes to feed local street dogs. Ali organised food and protection for a blind beggar woman who lived near his employer's house, and helped rescue Rani, the street dog who lived with her and almost starved to death because she had to feed puppies.
All this time, he and his family were subsisting on rice and lentils, once a day. Sometimes, they went without anything for up to three days in a row. The employers noticed that something was wrong, and worried. But Ali has his pride. He was going to do this without charity.
And he did. Yesterday, the last piece of the dream clicked into place: Rani came home.
I admit it: I cried. While Ali and Shahin wondered what it is about women, Sheli and Doli-Poli and I hugged each other and cried tears of joy.
A house. No electricity, but three small, plastered rooms, indoor plumbing, glass in most of the windows, a pump in the yard. Brick walls and a flat roof so that, when Shahin marries, Ali and his wife can build a room for themselves on the roof. A tiny yard, with a whitewashed doghouse ready for someone to move in. In Bangladeshi terms, it's not a palace, but, at the size of a small studio apartment in Canada, it is the equivalent of a split level ranch house.
Doli-Poli have a room, or, rather, Modu and Pushpo have a room they allow their servants to share. Ali and Sheli sleep in the middle, and Shahin sleeps by the front door.
With his dog. He never complained that his sisters were the cats' special people. But he did tell his father that, someday, he wanted to have a dog.
Last night, the family ate in the center room, with the cats and the dog curled up in a heap by the door. Rani slept, not out in her doghouse, but right next to Shahin. This morning, Ali, Shahin and Rani went for a long walk together, so Rani could become familiar with the area and meet the neighbours.
Ali tells me that Rani ran in huge circles, following her nose, but treated the neighbours with the same respect she had shown Modu-Pushpo in the living room. When Ali went to shovel up the poop, Shahin made it clear Rani is his dog, so he'll do the cleaning, thanks anyway, Dad.
All that is left is to go next Sunday and pick out the goat for Sheli, so she can have goat's milk and yoghurt for her family.
The chances are altogether too good that there will be storms and hunger in this, and every, Bangladeshi family's future. But, just for this moment, somewhere out in Tongi, is a small piece of that impossible land, where dreams come true.