<I met a fisherman on a cold autumn evening by the river side. I was preparing to leave and he was just settling in for a night of fishing. We got talking. His story was very simple. He was a taxi driver, uprooted from his native Bangladesh and transplanted thousands of miles away in chilly Canada. This is his story.>
It hadn’t always been thus, but Farook was happy now.
He hadn’t been happy in the past, back when he lived with his mother, father and his younger sister and brother. He knew that now. Old enough to go on the daily fishing trip with his father, the fishing trip that cut his hands and wore out his muscles, the fishing trip that gave them their daily meagre earnings, Farook had known hunger and hard work. He’d been old enough to know there was no escape from the circle of their daily life.
This was the only life Farook had known then. They left at dawn in their little boat, father and eldest son. Just like his father had gone out with his father. There were four of them in the family now. Jubair, the youngest, was not quite old enough to accompany them, but he was old enough to sort and spread out the daily catch on the blue plastic sheet that served as their store in the little fish market.
Jubair it was, who packed the fish for the customer after the haggling process was completed. His father conducted the haggling with skill tinged with just a trace of resignation. He had never really recovered from the shock of Nafisa’s death.
Nafisa had borne him three children, two of them boys. Nafisa had never complained, never raised her voice and never shed a tear. Nafisa had gone about her work with no trace of feeling. Nafisa had died as she had lived, quietly, without complaint.
There was little time for the family to grieve; the daily cycle of fishing, selling, cleaning up and cooking before a dreamless sleep saw to that. Sabina had taken over the kitchen after that, moving seamlessly into a role for which she had so far been apprentice to her mother.
Life was as it could be for a poor fishing family in Bangladesh. Farook’s duties in the house also included cleaning and cutting the fish and helping Sabina cook their daily meal. He was responsible for grinding the spice paste for her, fetching and carrying and watching her cook; guiding her, though she was already able to handle the simple meals they ate. He was aware that she would be soon looking after another household. She had to be ready.
Life around them was changing, though it had not yet made any inroads into their lives. Bigger trawlers were taking over the fishing fleet. Smaller independent fishermen were losing out to the bigger, faster and well manned ships. Farook’s father saw the change around him and was silent, resigned to his life. He expected nothing and was prepared to take life as it came to him.
When the owner of one of the big trawlers came to visit, the decision that came to be was the biggest this small family had ever had had to make. His father’s reluctant acquiescence was painful to watch. There was a touch of apathy, almost, in the way he capitulated to the offer. At 20, Farook was leaving to start a new life. He was going to see places he had never seen or heard of before. He little knew just how far he was going.
For the next three years Farook was busier than he remembered. Work on the trawler was harder than even his life at home. Starting out in the kitchen, mending nets, the raw physical exertion of the final haul of the heavy nets the winch had brought up to the side and the sorting at almost frantic speed left him exhausted at the end of the day. The pay was better and Farook was able to set a little bit aside.
Two months after he started, he moved out of the house and took up a shared bed space nearer the trawler. The evening meal was cooked, eaten and cleaning up done in record time before sleep overtook Farook’s body and mind. Soon he developed an easy relationship with the others on the boat. Ashore, his circle of acquaintances grew slowly.
The fishing village was also changing. Heavy demand for shrimp and pomfret from foreign markets was driving up prices. Trawler operators were quick to capitalize on this new found revenue stream. There were new faces to be seen in the village and money, more money than the village had ever seen.
On Sundays, the trawler crews often banded together to take advantage of the day off and head across the bay to the big town. This was a real sea port with big ships that crossed the oceans to faraway lands. Used to the compact utility of the trawler, Farook was at first excited by the size of the ships. The ship folk seemed better dressed, seemed to have far more money to spend.
Farook, could not but help compare the way they carried themselves, with a near swaggering assurance, to the trawler crews. These trips became a regular fascination with him. He took to going over whenever he had a chance. The sailors he met told tales of far away lands; the women, the shops, the bright lights and Farook wanted nothing more than an opportunity on the merchant ships.
It took him some time to approach the sailor working near one of the large ships. He eased up to him and casually asked “What kind of fish do you catch in that?”.
The sailor looked up, saw him, shrugged and said, “We don’t catch fish. We carry all kinds of cargo across the seas.”
He waited, then slyly looked at Farook. “You want to see what it looks like?”
“Yes, I’d very much like to see”.
From the moment he stepped on board, Farook, wanted to stay there. He wished he could find a way to be on this ship. The next few hours went by in a blur. Years later, he could not say how it happened. When he put his thumb print on the contract, it was done. He was no longer a fisherman. The next day he packed his few belongings and went to visit his father.
His father had aged 15 years in the last 3 years. Sabina was married and had left the house. He was alone with Jubair. They were doing the work of 3 people between them. Farook was conscious of a feeling of shame as he handed over the bulk of his savings to his father. He told him he was going away on the big ships across the bay. He would visit often. He would send money. They both knew what would happen. Neither could catch the other’s eye and then Farook was gone.
Gone to the big ships.
Gone away from fish.
He settled into the merchant ships. The long hauls across the sea took him to Indonesia, Australia and China and even further away. One fine day, Farook found himself steaming through the mouth of the St Lawrence River into Quebec City.
Two days after docking, Farook found himself suddenly jobless. The shipping company, faced with mounting losses, could no longer run the ship. Farook was left with no way to go home.
Luckily for him, one of the crew had been to Quebec before and had Bangladeshi connections in the city. Farook found himself living with a Bangladeshi family he had never seen before, while tried to work out what his options were.
Three months was enough to tell him that he would do better away from Quebec. He’d had a hard time picking up some elementary English, but the French was beyond him. The Bangladeshi dock worker he shared a room with told him he’d be better off in Toronto. He even found a contact.
So Farook went to Toronto and spent a year living with a taxi driver, in a little apartment off Danforth Avenue, above a small, crowded store. In the summer evenings he and the taxi driver and his friends would sit outside the store, sipping tea, swapping stories, smoking. The store owner joined them sometimes on days when business was slow.
Thrown into the company of taxi drivers, Farook soon found himself learning how to drive and became, invetably, yet another Bangladeshi taxi driver. The network helped with the work permit and then permanent residence.
Driving in Toronto, Farook’s English was improving day by day. He had taken ESL classes and he was gaining in confidence every passing day. News from Bangladesh was rare and sometimes grim. Monsoon flooding had taken his father and Jubair. Their bodies were never found. Farook was too far removed to figure out what he should have felt. He’d grown up in a small fishing village in Bangladesh and folks there worked hard, lived philosophically, got on with the day to day work needed to eat and to live.
On a warm, sunny day in Toronto, Farook suddenly found himself engaged to a young girl, second cousin of the store owner. She was visiting Canada, in the hope of finding just such a match. The store owner had seen the potential of getting his cousin out of Bangladesh and Farook was easy prey. The marriage lasted 12 years.
In those years, Farook wished for nothing more than escape from his life. She was at complete odds with his easy going, take it as it comes approach to life. She came from a small town and she’d been to the big city. She was in Toronto and there was much to see and do here. She wanted to go out. She wanted to go for holidays. She wanted him to stop smoking. His attempts at pleasing her were half-hearted, easily seen as such.
It gave her a harder edge. They bought an apartment in Scarborough, but she wasn’t happy with his status of taxi driver.
“Why can’t you get another job? This taxi thing is fine for a bachelor.”
“I don’t have any other skills. What do you want me to do?”
“Why not take some computer classes and apply for a call centre?”
Farook could not imagine himself in an office. He liked driving taxis. He met different people and it gave him some freedom, a semblance of his former life. He enjoyed meeting the other taxi drivers, sharing a smoke in the parking lots, waiting for a fare, exchanging gossip, drinking tea.
The divorce when it came was a relief for him and her. She got the apartment and Farook decided to move out of the area completely. He found a shared rental in an apartment building on Paisley Boulevard in Mississauga, away from his old friends, haunts and memories. He continued to drive a taxi.
Finally, in his late 40s, Farook was at ease.
There was nothing for him in his shared apartment. His co-residents had nothing in common with him. There was no background, no sentiments, no stories. The communal smoke and hot chai sessions in Scarborough were a distant memory. He indulged himself by going back to his roots, fishing for trout and bass in season; fishing for pleasure.
He settled in to a regular routine of driving by day and angling in the Credit River by night. Out on the river he was alone, he was relaxed. Most days he met no one, but when he did meet other anglers they kept the code, nodding acknowledgement and settling into their own private worlds with rod and line.
One day in late October, as he was settling in for a night of fishing, he met a very curious Indian.
The Indian watched him as he brought all his fishing rods, boxes of tackle and bait and arranged it all around him on the little wooden platform off the banks of the Credit River, on the other side of lighthouse on Lakeshore Avenue.
“Is this a better place to catch fish than out in the lake?”
“Yes, you get trout, plenty of them, some are nice and big”
“It’s already past 6pm. How long will you fish?”
“Till the morning”
“You fish all night?”
“Oh yes. It’s very peaceful.”
“All night? What about your family?”, asked the Indian.
“Oh, she divorced me. Now I fish”, he said, as he settled in with finality, with ease.
He was no longer Farook, the fisherman, Farook, the deck hand in the merchant navy, Farook, the taxi driver, Farook, the failed husband.
He was the peaceful, easy going, Angler on the Credit.