With regard but without any shyness he approached. She could have been eight, maybe nine years old.
Big, black eyes. Deep eyes, at times sorrowful enough to look like a man.
He stared at me and said something that I did not immediately understand but I imagined he wanted to know my name, and I told him in English: Gabriel.
Abroad, I have the habit of saying my name in English because it seems to be easier to remember.
He smiled with his eyes even before his mouth, and as he did so, without my asking, he told me his. I made myself repeat it. Once again. Then a third. And each time I didn’t understand. And each time his eyes kept smiling.
In the days I spent in one of the poorest countries in the world, I could never figure out what my new friend’s name was. And this I regret even now. His name could have been: Anil, Kamal, Jograj, Hiresh, Gulab, Geet, or Devesh, and still nothing would have changed because his name would only serve me to recall him or describe him one day, but certainly not to remember him.
So I will call it Charan-I like the sound of this name, which means “Feet of God” in Sanskrit.
Charan and his world
Charan spoke the language of his country, Bangladesh, and as he did so, he sounded like a raging river. Incomprehensible sounds that made sense in his daily life produced the only effect in me of making me feel out of place. Not far away, joyful shouts distracted our unlikely dialogue, and, partly to satisfy my curious nature, I approached the pukur teeming with life with Charan.
Pukurs – small artificial lakes – are like our squares. Social environments where people meet, dialogue and discuss, wash clothes, wash animals, wash themselves, sometimes even their souls, but much more often just dirt.
At that moment, and in the days to follow, I was the stranger for Charan to accompany to his world, and he did everything he could to introduce me to it. Several other children, wet and smiling, approached us, and to each of them, I said my name with the best possible pronunciation.
And each of them told me his own, in a kind of formal introduction as happens between gentlemen.
None of those names stuck with me-this I already knew-and I continued in my blissful ignorance convinced of the fact that, at that moment, a name was just a name and I was much more interested in who bore it and its history than in what it was called.
Charan and the other children: wet, festive and excited by the novelty of the day, were all residents of the boys’ orphanage in Satkhira – a town 250 km south of the capital Dhaka. The boys’ orphanage houses 60 boys up to age 12 and is run with many difficulties and great utopias by the Xaverian missionary fathers-a small but vital Christian presence in an Islamic country.
A country where your religion of affiliation-Muslim, Christian, Hindu-is listed on your ID at the same level as your family name or date of birth.
Charan took my hand, forcing me to follow him to a small building that, I later understood, was his home and that of other boys in the same condition. We climbed the stairs, and some of them, seeing us coming, were already moving like crazed flies. A long hallway, very clean-as clean as a polished concrete floor can be. On either side are the doors to the one, large, dormitory.
Three neat rows, wooden beds without a mattress worthy of the name. Colourful sheets and clothing hung along the walls. In the air silence and noise. Silence, and playful shouting.
Curious but never imploring looks, with the dignity of the “host” welcoming a distinguished guest.
I try to be an unobtrusive guest by moving between the beds, and exchanging looks with these little men whose lives are still short but already very intense. Breathing in that human cheerfulness and excitement I step for a moment into their world made up of small things, maybe a few hopes, but certainly filled with moments and the present because the future, for many of these children, is a monster too scary even to imagine.
The small key
Wandering around that large, damp-looking room, among rows of wooden beds and wet towels, my eye as a curious photographer falls on a detail that had so far escaped me.
Many of these boys wore, tied around their waists, a lanyard with a small key hanging from it.
At first, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I thought it was the key to their locker like the ones we used in our naïve days. But there were no lockers there, and no closets either. It was just a large, dank room with rows of wooden beds and clothes hanging along the walls, a crucifix and an image of some Madonna to vow to.
And many small men, with uncertain futures, with a small key attached to their lives.
In our unlikely dialogue by sounds and gestures, I asked what those little keys tied at the waist were and understood that all of them were very jealous of them, so much so that they almost hid or protected them with their hands when I looked at them. Charan, taking my hand, accompanied me to another small room, a long, narrow closet.
In that hidden corner were stored many metal boxes, all the same though different colors. Some with some writing-perhaps a name-some without even that name. Many locked with a padlock and some without.
The room of dreams
Charan took his key gently and religiously. He looked at it, weighed it between his fingers, and walked over to a box on top of a shelf. I thought I was attending a ceremony, a liturgy, or an important event. Even the atmosphere seemed to muffle: the children’s cries almost quieted as Charan opened his sky-coloured metal box.
The lock clicked, he took it off and held it in his hand.
He looked me in the eye and opened his box.
Inside was a pair of flip-flops, they looked new but still a size too big for his bare feet. A soccer team T-shirt folded affectionately as if it were a relic.
A notebook, a metal cup, and a light jacket. They were all his things, everything he owned that was precious, his dowry as a little man. All his treasure.
With a gentle gesture he passed his hand over the folded shirt and closed the box again. For a moment his eyes were downcast, lost in thought. Then he looked back at me and smiled.
That was the room of the Precious Boxes where treasures were stored and kept. What they would bring and have in their future.
Many of those festive, screaming children had a metal box with a locked padlock and a string tied around their waists. Many of them stored their dreams in those precious boxes.
Many others of those children, however, were certainly also laden with the dreams that every boy is entitled to have and did not even have a box. And they did not have a strings tied to their waist.
And the world is full of Charans just waiting for a box to store their dream in.