At the beginning of winter as lakes, ponds, and lowlands start to dry up, child
ren play a new
game throwing themselves into the mud, delighting in catching fish with their bare hands.
Jamal lives in a remote corner of Netrokona. Music and drama
are his life he plays the trumpet, writes plays, and acts in them. Just after the harvest, when people tend to have a little extra
money, jamal and his troupe are called to different villages to give all night performances. Request range from music to dramatic acts, and the subject are various – myths, historical stories, urban dramas, and others.
We met Hasina Begum one day walking along a street in Banani, a part of the capital city, Dhaka. She smiled and asked where we were going. As she fell into step with us, we asked her a few que
stions about her life, her work, her family. We learned the her husband had left her and that she was the sole breadwinner for herself and her five sons.
Several month later, we again ran into Hasina on her way home from work. She walked along with us, and we talked some more. Later she invited us to meet her children and she her house in Karail, a large slum on the edge of more affluent Banani.
In the context of Bangladesh, Hasinas story is not uncommon. One among the countless faces living on the margins, you could change the name and the person, but the story would be much the same one of going through the trials and tribulations of life.
The following is an extract from a series of interviews. We have taken care to maintain the original vernacular and pacing of Hasina spoken words and the flavor they convey.
I am 30 and 40 year old. I don’t know. Maybe you can write 35. My father used to call me “ Hasmoti’; He was a farmer. We had enough land to feed us all year. My mother was a housewife. I was the only daughter and I had one brother.
Our land was eroded by the river about 15 or 16 years ago. In Bhairab there is this huge bridge. Our house was near that. The river went thorough our village. It took all our land in about two months. We just kept moving our house until there was nowhere left to move it. After that we moved to Srimongal where My father made money selling candy floss and other small things, and my mother worked in other peoples houses.
I got married when I was very young, at the age of 9. At that time, my husband was maybe 20. A lot girls get married very young. Some of them are so young that they don’t want to go to their husbands house. Their parents sometimes try to send them by force, sometime even beating them. Some of these girls are scared of their husbands. I was also scared of my husband, so for five years I didn’t go his house. He put up with a lot. Whenever he came to our house I used to run away and hide. He was a gentleman then, before he came to Dhaka.
My parents arranged the marriage. My father knew my husband because they were from the same village and both were feriwallah (street vendors) in Srimongal. My husband’ s family had also lost their land to the river.
Since I was their only daughter my parents did their best fo my marriage. They did not give any dowry because that system did nt exist then. This system of dowry is a new trend. I am not going to ask for dowry when it comes to my sons. If something belongs to other people, what is the point in being greedy ? when it comes to my sons marriage, whatever the girls family gives, I will be happy with.
I was 13 when I had my first Child. Now I have five boys aged 3, 5, 9, 12 and 13. I realize it would have been better if I had fewer children. But God didn’t teach me about this before. I didn’t realize that having more children means more suffering. If I had known that I would have stopped after two. Why do you think poor people die ? They die because they have too many children. This is my punishment. I have to share everything between five children. If I had to share it between just two, life would be much easier.
After we married we moved to my husband parental home in the village. He tried to earn a living there, but he couldn’t. We were living in miserable conditions with the children, and my husband said that if he worked in Dhaka, he could make enough to support the whole family. He came here and got a job working in a garment factory as a laborer, loading and unloading. We joined him later. I’ ve lived in Dhaka for about ten years now their husbands house. Their parents sometimes try to send them by force, sometimes even beating them. Some of these girls are scared of their husbands. I was also scared of my husband, so for five years I didn’t go to this house. He put up with a lot. Whenever he came to our house I used to run away and hide. He was a gentleman then, before he came to Dhaka.
My parents arranged the marriage. My father knew my husband because they were from the same village and both were feriwallh (street wendors) in Srimongal. My husbands family had also lost their land to the river.
Since I was their only daughter my parents did their best for my marriage. They did not give any dowry because that system didn’t exist then. This system of dowry is a new trend. I am not going to ask for dowry when it comes to my sons. If something belongs to other people, what is the point in being greedy? When it comes to my sons marriage, whatever the girls family gives, I will be happy with.\
I was 13 when I had my first child. Now I have five boys aged 3, 5, 9, 12 and 13. I realize it would have been better if I had fewer children. But God didn’t teach me about this before. I didn’t realize that having more children means more suffering. If I had known that I would have stopped after two. Why do you think poor People die ? They die because they have too many children. This is my punishmet. I have to share everything between five children. If I had to share between just two, life would much easier.
After we married we moved to my husband parental home in the village. He tried to earn a living there, but he couldn’t . We were living in miserable conditions with the children, and my husband said that if he worked in Dhaka, he could make enough to support the whole family. He came here and got a job working in a garment factory as a labourer, loading and unloading. We joined him later. I ve lived in Dhaka for about ten years now.
A while after we came to Dhaka he started fighting with me. After a fight he would go out for the night and stay away for a few days. I asked around about why he acted like that and the people who worked with him told me it was because he had another wife and he was staying with her too. When my husband would come home I would ask him where he had been. He say “Its none of your business where I stay. I am providing you with food, shelter and clothes, that’s all you need to know. “ When rich men have money they buy cars. When poor men they buy women.
My husband hasn’t divorced me, he just left. We were married 18 years. A few years ago he married for the fourth time to a woman who worked with him in the garment factory and they moved away from Dhaka. But by the time he married her he had already married there other garment worker too.
When he married for the third time, my brother came and tole me about it. When my husband came home I asked him if it was true. He said it was. I asked him why he had married again and he said that it was because the women had promised to give him money in order to send him to a rich country to work. I told him if it is money you married her for, they stay with her. I will stay with my kids and Allah will look after me. After that I went out to look for work.
I don’t need a husband. Now he is trying very hard to come back to me. He sends his friend around, trying to convince me to take him back, but I don’t want to give him another chance. It would just mean another child after one year, and that would put me into more trouble. I don’t want that. And since he has developed this habit of marriage, I know he well do it again. I am not going to put up with that. I don’t need the pleasure of having a husband around. Its not in my fate.
I have nobody in this world. My father died a long time ago. My mother died within forty days of his death. I had only one brother and died of tuberculosis there years ago. I have uncles in the village, but the river has taken their land too, so I don’t want to go back and live with them.
I have worked in a house as a maid for the last 3 or 4 years. I earn Taka 500 a month and get a meal each day. I go there at 8 am and come back around 5 pm. I get Friday off and I get 2 or 3 days off at Eid. Otherwise, I work the whole year. In this house I cook, I clean, I wash clothes- I do everything. By the time I get home in the evening, I don’t have time to cook, so I bring food for my children from the house where I work.
When I am at work my children stay on their own. The eldest two stay out of the house most of the time, and my third son looks after the younger two. I cook in the morning for them before I go out, and they eat later on their own. When I come back, I give them a shower. The neigbours are really helpful- they keep an eye on the children When I am out working.
The room we live in is in bad shape. If it rains we cannot sleep. We have to sit and wait for the rain to stop.
In the beginning I had problems as a women living on my own. Now the local people have seen that I am not a bad women, so they don’t brother me. One man who lives in a house near mine is the local thug, a mastaan. He protects me now because he knows we are struggling just to survive. Before that I had to pay the mastaans Taka 100, 200, or 500 a month. Now we don’t have to pay anybody.
I never studied at school. Only my eldest son goes to school. I cant afford to send the others, mainly because of money. But even if I could, who would look after the younger ones while I am at work?
My children have seen how much I struggle to provide for them. I don’t know what lies ahead in the future, but if God is merciful enough to let my children live, maybe some day they will work and I will have a better life.
Day labourer haul 50 kg of cement from the barge to shore. The empty cement bags act as protective headgear, and a makeshift mask keeps the cement dust off their faces. They re rapid taka 100-150 for a days work (about US $ 2-3)
Locksmith (Mohammad Yousuf) Babul, who came yesterday to unravel the mysteries of metallic security, visited again today. He came with his ancient tin box- rectangular, rusted, and unusually modest in size considering the range of tools it contained. He is a well of information on the range and variety of springs, ball bearings, levers, tensile strength, and why the illusion of security protects even the most insecure.
His magic box and its contents were only partially visible to me, as if they were the inner sanctum of a sacred temple, where only the most initiated or the special are allowed access. The blackened tin lid lay slightly ajar. I saw inside the box a small metal block that glistened in its shine and experience of use also broken fret saw blades, clamps, cogs, iron files, a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, and a soft cotton cloth which he used for his final flourish. These were important talismans, and I treasured their sight and respected the reverence he had for them.
Ultimately protection is only microscopic contents in latched drawers of cupboards, door locks that guard a house, security alarms system for entire properties. But what are we really hiding or protecting ? We all know that anyone who really wants to get in uninvited can do so with the very basic assistance of technology and instrument that break codes, locks, and the law.
Nevertheless, I still at the sheer magic and craft with which Babul sang his way into every crevice and tooth of the most minute of locks, the way used the tools from his palette with swift elegance, the way he admired his results, and his final considered sigh of a well finished task.
There was such grace and humility about him. But he also had the quiet dignity of an artist who practiced a work that combined aspects of particularly, philosophy and passion. There is a lot one learns from ordinary action, basic grammar that includes the entire construction of life lessons.
“ Sheba tooth house: the beat treatment for all kinds of ear and tooth problems is available here”
- From the cloth display banner
Mohammad Abul klam was trained as a primary school teacher. For his efforts he earned Taka 60 a month, not enough to support his growing family, so eventually he changed jobs. Working in the madraasa or religious school the he earned taka 120 per month still too little to support his wife and five children. He decided a career change was in order he would become a dentist and ear cleaner.
Kalam bought a number of instruments for cleaning ears and extracting teeth, among them, several pairs of pillars and a variety of tools madder from bicycle spokes. He had a backdrop painted advertising his skills, and established a stall at the local weekly market in Mohongonj, Netrokona. Now, he makes a much better living.
Hindu women in the weavers community have traditionally taken part in every aspect of making fabric, except working the loom. The common belief among Hindus is that if a woman runs the loom, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, will be angry and leave the family’s home. Recently, however, economic concerns have taken precedence over long held beliefs. It is no longer uncommon to find women at the loom.
In the tea gardens, women do the plucking. Men work as guards, laborers and water carriers and they work in the tea processing plants. Pay day means drinks for the men, while for the women it if life as usual taking care of the family.
Sugen areng is not easy man to find. Having come across him once before almost by accident, we decided to return to talk with him in greater depth. We crossed the river at Birishiri and, his photo in hand, began asking if anyone knew him and and is so where we could find him. After some time we happened across a couple of Mundee (Garo) women who recognized him. One of them said, “Oh, yes related to Chitto Babu, Ranikang Mission Schoolk’s headmaster, “ and pointed our rickshaw in the direction of his house.
We arrived to find that he had gone out for a cup of tea. His nephew offered to go and get him, leaving us sitting on benches in a tidy courtyard bounded on two sides by small straw houses on raised mud platforms. A pig was tethered to a tree nearby, chickens roamed around pecking at the ground, and three kittens played on the verandah of the house. Cotton from nearby trees was left to dry in the sun in a tidy pile in the middle of packed mud courtyard. An old woman, whom we later discovered was Sugen Arengs wife, Came out from around the side of the house and had a look at us, then returned to her housework.
A short while later Sugen areng entered between the two houses and ducked into of them to tidy himself. After a few minutes he walked over to where we sat, greeted us, and sat down to talk, our presence nothing special, just another part of his day. He rested his forearms on his knees and listened to our questions, then turning his wrinkled hands with their nubbed ends slowly over one another, he replied, so quietly that we often had trouble hearing what he said.
Sugen Areng is among the last khamals of priests of the Shansharek religion in Bangladesh. These days his services are not much in demand, with 99% of the Mundee people having now converted from Shangsharek of Christianity. He lives in Madhobpur village, several kilometers away from Durgapur in Netrokona district.
What follows, is an extract from an interview in Bangla with Sugen Areng. The English translation is meant to retain the original flavor of his speech:
These days I have almost no work as a Khamal, since almost everybody has become Christian. Before I had work every week. Now just once or twice in a year. There are only a couple of people still practicing the old religion, maybe only three or four old people in any village.
The conversion started before I was born. I was born in the year 1317 (Bangla Calendar- this corresponds to 1910 in the Gregorian calendar). At that time there were very few Cristians, almost none. When I grew up a little and cloud understand things I saw a few Christian houses. The Birishiri mission was already there. The Rannikang mission started after I was born. After it was set up, more people started becoming Christian. Gradually, everybody became Christian. Now only the old people are Shangsharek.
I don’t know exactly how the Shansarek religion started. As fas as I know, Shangsharek is our original religion. Our forefathers came from Tibet. But that was a long time ago. I m not exactly sure when. They came down from Tibet to the hills around Chittagong and from there to here. That’s what I know.
There are many different gods in the Shangsharek religion.
The one we believe is the greatest and whom we worship and respect most is Shajon. He has a lot of Shisya ( disciples) whom we also worship as gods. They look after different aspects of life like Ragshi, she is the goddess for crops. We pray to her for a good harvest and to protect the crop from insects. We’ll have a puja (prayer) before we go to the field to start sowing the seeds and after the harvest we pray again. We don’t pray every day. We fix a date and then we tell all the relatives about the date. They come, then we pray. If we
have any problems, like fever of disease, we set a date and pray then. We believe in Heaven and Hell. Like Cristians, we pray that when we die we will go to heaven. After death, a Shangsharek person is creamated. Exactly one year later, we invite all our relatives ( for a ceremony) and pray to god for the soul of the dead person. We also believe that if you do bad deeds you will go to hell. We believe all the religions are the same, they just have different names- somebody calls God Shajung, somebody else calls God Allah or Bhagwan.
I became a khamal because my grandfather, who was a khamal told me that he had die someday, so I should learn the way to pray. My father was not a khamal. He was a farmer. I studied with my grandfather from 1330 ( Bangla; Gregorian 1923) until his death. In those days the prayers were huge. A lot of people would come all the relatives and all the people from the village it used to be a lot more festive.
After us no one will know how to perform the rituals of the shangsahrek religion. The knowledge transferred from one generation to the next is verbal and practical. There is nothing written about how to perform our rituals. And now that all of the next generation has become Christian, who needs to know these things ? I have accepted the fact that that is the way it will be I will take my knowledge with me had no doctor, so we had to rely on herbs to cure ourselves. Now most people don’t want to learn about these things. There is one boy living nearby he sometimes comes to learn these things from me.
I get married in 1252 ( Bangla; Gregorian 1956), when I was 32 years old. Nowadays people get married at 12, 14, 20,22 but my grandfather strictly forbade me to marry at an early age. He said if I did that I would not live long. My grandfather lived 150 years. He got married at the age of 50. He told me to marry late, saying “ Nafor bashey ghune dhore” – young bamboo attracts termites” That’s why I am still alive.
In the Mundee system it has always been that after marriage the boy moves in with the girls family. This is still what happens most of the time, but now a few Christian families want the girl to move in with the boys family after marriage.
Property is distributed through the girl children in our culture. The child who looks after the parents is called the Nakhrom. She is the one who carries the family name. she can be the eldest or the youngest- it doesn’t matter. If there are four daughters, then the property will be divided into five parts. All of the daughters will get one share, and the Nakhram will get her share plus the extra share. I can’t say what will happen to this system now that most of the Mundee are Cristian. With every marriage we build a new house on the girls parents land, and the married couple lives there.
I don’t have any children. I had a son who died when he was 42 or 43 years old. He was a farmer. He went to the market to sell paddy, and there he died of a heart attack. He was never sick before. He has five children. They live with their mother in their maternal grandparents house. Now there’s only us two old people.
If the children want to become Christian, they can, and if the parents choose to stay in the old religion that’s their choce. My son became a Christian. I believe its personal choice. I had no objection he never asked me to become one. Nobody is forcing their beliefs onto others. Religion is something personal. Its got to do with how you feel inside. We all need to pray to something, so people should follow their beliefs, whatever they may be. We still follow our old religion. We have been practicing if for so long that we cant just give it up. What if we fall into some kind of trouble in the afterlife ? we have lived our life believing in this religion. Let us die with the same belief.
Islam is not the only face of religion in Bangladesh. The minority religious groups- the Hindus, Buddhists and Christian – have more than a visible face. The common Bengali language and culture unifies them and instills a sense of quiet coexistence in spite of the apartment differences between the faiths.