4 Things That Can Get to You in Bangladesh

Buriganga Flotsam

The people can get to you. The staggeringly warm hospitality, open homes, hot food, generous smiles and generous portions (“No, no. You must take more.”) In all the places I’ve been in the wide world, the Bengali people I’ve encountered (and Indians) have been some of the most generous and hospitable I’ve ever met. A few folks and I met recently at the house of an Indian couple I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a bit over the last month, soaking up their wisdom and eating their food. The spread for dinner was absolutely fantastic: lentil stew, dhal, rice with nuts and garnish, fresh vegetables, roti, chicken, fish, and ice cream for dessert. She had spent literally all day cooking for that evening, and that after a long week of visiting and helping an impoverished young woman through the delivery of her first baby. “Yes, it’s very tiring being a mother to so many people,” she said offhandedly. Would a foreigner, only in the country for a few months, be welcomed so warmly, so genuinely in the U.S. I wonder? In my own church? By my own friends and family? They set the bar high.

The Bangla language can get to you.

“Shorkari chuti” means “government holiday.” “Torkari chuti,” while easy to mix up, means “vegetable holiday.” This, as it turns out, does not make sense, but results in a lot of laughter from the Bengali staff.

The sentence structure is completely different from any kind of Western sentence structure I’ve ever seen. It worse my in English writing may make.

“Shobdo” can mean either “word” or “loud.”

Quite often I am unable to remember the Bangla word for “I forget.”

I counted 42 different words specifying the relatives we, in English, would call “Father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, niece, and nephew.” Where, in English, we might say “that’s my uncle.” In Bangla there are different words specifying your father’s sister’s husband – and then two different versions, depending on whether a Muslim or Hindu is in question.

I expressed my consternation at this arrangement, declaring that in English there are much fewer words, and it’s much less confusing.

“But then,” begins my teacher, looking genuinely concerned. “If I ask you: ‘Who is that?’ and you say ‘My uncle,’ how will I know if it is your father’s brother or your mother’s brother, or your mother’s sister’s husband?”

I open my mouth, and then shut it again.

The newspapers can get to you. Mixed in with the cricket scores and a beautiful arts page are typeface and ink reminders of just how cheap life comes here, suffering and injustice delivered to your front door for your convenience seven days a week in two languages.

The gritty stories spare no expense on vivid detail. A murder victim found by the railroad tracks, throat cut with a wire. Assistant sub-secretaries of some committee of some political party bound and beaten at a university riot.

Every week it seems I read another story about another rape that ends the same way – the perpetrator gets off with a fine, while the victim, often a young girl, is either forced out her village because of the shame or forced to marry her rapist. She is “tainted” now. “The victim was found hanging by the neck from a scarf, having committed suicide,” the stories end.

But while it’s all raw and real, it’s not just tales of carnage, corruption, and injustice. There’s also the highlights of the people feeding the poor, profiles of local artists capturing beauty in the streets and the beautiful faces of a beautiful people, rags to riches stories and poetry reviews and calls for reasonable dialogue.

That’s when the beauty can get to you. The wonder. Unexpected. Takes you by surprise.

I was at the gym lifting weights, a daily ritual that keeps me sane and sleeping well with the physical challenge and exhaustion, when outside the rain came pouring down like a sudden flood into an ash bin.

After the storm I walk back as the sun is setting, and the light seems trapped, pressed down under the swollen honey clouds. Rays ricochet between the skyscrapers and the puddles ‘til it seems the very atmosphere is glowing. A creaking rickshaw wheel dashes the light from a puddle in front of me, and then I wait and watch as the water settles and the picture reforms: a clear, still, honey-gold reflection of the trees overhanging the road. For a few moments, before the all that glow escapes out of the gray, there’s poetry on this road, in this city – and its very elusiveness, its very transience, makes it worth the chase.

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People Jobs

A rickshaw wallah in Old City, Dhaka, Bangladesh

A rickshaw wallah in Old City, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Bicycle rickshaws are everywhere in Dhaka. Brightly-colored, squeaking, grinding contraptions by which thin men with knotted-rope sinews pedal businessmen, school bound children and their burka-clad mothers, tourists, and families of four around the city, operating for short distances and able to reach some streets that larger vehicles can’t fit.

From what I’ve heard and researched, most of these men are here as a result of urban flight, seeking better job opportunities in the big city away from the struggles of eking out a living from the soil. Though Dhaka is known most for its garment factories, transport jobs are low-skilled and perhaps even more readily available. Only a fraction of the bicycle-rickshaw wallahs actually own their vehicles. The majority rent the use of the rickshaw for a few shifts, giving the owner a cut of their earnings, and feeding their families day to day on the remainder.

But are these jobs opportunity for the urban poor or unjust and cruel exploitation?

A year ago, my first time in Kolkata, I was talking about the prevalence of rickshaws in that city with a seasoned NGO worker. “Kolkata,” she said, “mostly uses auto-rickshaws (AKA “CNGs” for: the Compressed Natural Gas which powers them). Bicycle rickshaws were mostly outlawed several years ago. They exist, but we never use them.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because its horrible!” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Bicycle Rickshaw Sketch

Bicycle Rickshaw Sketch

And there’s truth to that. These rickshaw wallahs are quite often, if not always, impoverished, overworked, and underpaid, hauling their light vehicles through dangerous traffic and inhaling their city’s toxic smog all day long. They’ll earn only enough to keep them afloat day by day, not enough to save.

But, on the other hand, these men do have work. Inhumane working conditions with little opportunity for advancement yes, but when the alternatives are worse, more dangerous, and pay less, the rickshaw wallah still has the ability to earn a living for the unskilled laborer, however sparse that living may be, and the dignity that comes with that ability.

There’s a section in the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts where Lin, the hero of the tale, is talking about the men in Bombay who run around town with a water cart, manually filling tanks around the city:

“He told me it was a people job… that each man is supporting a family of four from his own wages… They were strong, those guys. They were strong and proud and healthy. They worked hard to earn their way, and they were proud of it. When they ran off into the traffic, with their strong muscles, and getting a few sly looks from some of the Indian girls, I saw that their heads were up and their eyes straight ahead.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff takes this idea of the worth of manual work in poor conditions a step further in his 2009 article “Where Sweatshops are a Dream.”[1] Kristoff, writing from years of experience living and reporting from East Asia, controversially argues that sweatshop and manufacturing labor actually ought to increase to help the plight of the urban poor, as the alternatives are far more terrible.

Now all of that doesn’t mean the whole situation is all fine and dandy. Conditions and opportunities for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the disempowered, need drastic change and reform. Fair wages, safety regulations, and revamping or actually enforcing traffic laws would do wonders for rickshaw wallahs and garment factory workers alike, and fair-trade, fair-wage jobs that can actually support and empower individuals absolutely ought to be championed and sought for. But, while that is pursued, I still would rather see a man working as a rickshaw wallah than as a trash picker.

I write that with a bit of trepidation coming from a city like Dhaka, a place that has made the news over the last few years with hundreds dying in unsafe factory collapses or fires, and where the newspapers tell everyday of horrific traffic fatalities. I am by no means blind to the suffering, or the things that we ought to fight to change. But I realize that it’s more complicated than that. We can’t just say – “these working conditions are horrible so we must get rid of them.” Because then, where will the people go?

I think about all of this when I climb on the back of a rattling rickshaw here in Dhaka. I think about the arguments of those who won’t take rickshaws because of the danger and conditions for the workers. But then I think too that, like it or not, right now this is how these men feed their families. So, still not entirely sure of myself, I ride along the weaving, wobbling way, and I stumble through my Bangla phrases and hand over a fistful of Taka at the inflated “Badeshi” price, and I hope that it’s the right thing to do, and not the easy way out.

Dhaka: Language School, Rickshaws, and the Ambassador of Denmark

Skyscraping tenements over a  lake in Gulshan, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Skyscraping tenements over a lake in Gulshan, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Rickshaws rattle, spokes squeal, and there is a rust on the wind. You can smell it, that rusting air, feel the oxidized atmosphere heavy on your throat and lungs sometimes, even see the haze of particulate matter resting low on the horizon, the color of a dirty fingerprint smeared over Dhaka.

Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh. One of the worlds most densely populated cities and, with a population of over 15 million, one of its biggest. Its history (as a city) is not ancient, but storied nonetheless by disparate reigns: founded by the Mughals in the 17th century (laying the cornerstone for its place as the “City of Mosques”), ruled under the Pax Brittania, and then functioning as the capital of “East Pakistan” following India’s ugly Partition in 1947, before finally achieving independence in 1971.

Key to understanding why I’m here when, after all, I’m headed to India, is Bangladesh’s former place under pre-partition British India as “East Bengal.” Kolkata, only a few hundred miles over the border West, was in “West Bengal.” Thus, the two share Bengali culture, cuisine, and the fascinating and difficult Bangla language. Since Bangla is the national language here, the best language schools are in Dhaka. So, I’m here to learn as much Bangla as I can in two months, and then I will put that language to use in Kolkata.

For now, my days are spent buried deep in  hours of one on one language instruction and study – cramming verbs and tenses and unfamiliar sentence structures. Bangla really is a beautiful language, though a difficult one. The days aren’t completely without their adventures. Any walk outside is to step into a world of dusty streets where the sewers run open and beggars stretch out their hands with a professionally honed, but still heartbreaking, longing. Chai-wallahs sell tea in plastic cups (not the charming ceramics of Kolkata), or clothing and cigarettes from slapdash pushcarts. Men sit precariously on top of teetering, jam-packed buses – shielding their eyes, scarves pulled over their mouths. It’s half price to ride on top of the bus, but I’ve heard that many of the crippled beggars on the bridges and corners got their start by trying to save a half-fare and losing half a leg instead. Dented cars, weaving motorcycles, bikes, and auto-rickshaws crowd and edge for their space in the anarchy of the roads – lanes seem optional, and first come first serve, regardless of intended direction. Pedestrians walk between the vehicles at any conceivable gap. And, everywhere, more than any other city in the world, bicycle rickshaws carry their passengers to the closer locations. Seat covers torn, chains rusty, frames garishly colored like the mutatus of East Africa.

Then there’s the unexpected things. My Australian housemates introduced me to the American owner of an excellent coffee shop and roaster in an expat-heavy part of town. Jazz, cinnamon rolls, Cappuccinos. I talked to the owner, the manager, the baristas – got the tour around the kitchens. It all made me even more excited for working to open the café in Kolkata – seeing the potential and the fact that I really would love to help open some place like that – a bit of my own writerly, coffee culture in the middle of Bengal. For a coffee lover like myself, a little thing like finding a coffee shop can go a long way towards making these two months very good.

Then I met the Danish Ambassador. It happened like this: the other night a friend of a friend who has lived in Dhaka for years asked me, rather vaguely: “Do you want to go to our art thing?” I said yes, assuming we would be heading to a small-scale education or development project function of some sort. Instead I found myself ushered into the Danish Ambassador’s residence for an International Women’s Day art show, surrounded by state department employees, prominent Bangladeshi artists, and the upper crust of the Dhaka community, and being assailed by waiters carrying platters of wine and tiny sandwich hors d’oeuvres. Evidently everyone else had been given some sort of warning, as I seemed to be the only one clad in flannel and Chacos. I spent several hours looking at some fantastic art by Bangladeshi women, heard a speech by a member of Bangladesh’s hardline Islamic political party on advancing women’s rights, and then another speech by the current Speaker of the House for Bangladesh, and talked a bit about the perceptions versus realities of Islam in Bangladesh with several people. The contrast of that society with the bits of rough life and lines you see everywhere here is remarkable.

First impressions are often some of the most fresh and vivid, but also the least complex and fully formed, and I don’t pretend to yet understand the complexities of Bengali history, culture, politics, religion, and language, but I hope to spend the next years trying to tug at all the unknowns until some meaning unravels and a bit of a clearer picture forms. For now I can only write what I see and what I think, and keep practicing my Bangla.