at the stroke f 5
Even a couple of decades earlier, the only dates that figured in this part of the world were dates that held special meaning. Dates that defined us as a collective whole and dates that told us how we came to be: 21, 26 and 16. Add in a 14, or maybe 15 for some Aprils, initiating the Bangla New Year and that about summed up all that we had to commemorate.
Twenty or so odd years later, alongside fast food franchises and satellite TV, many other cultures from many other regions have seeped in and with them came many other celebrations: a day for love, a day for friendship, a day apiece for each of the parents and a day that celebrates another New Year.
And yet despite the influx of mingled traditions and inter-border revelry, some days still loom as shadows in obscurity. Labour Day is one such example that only conjures up vague and uncertain images of ancient Chicago and a shooting. A day that neither calls for prior preparation nor a moment of silence from our parts. But this May 1st, Lifestyle dedicates to it three words in print by taking a detour in commemoration. Underpayment, overworking, ill-treatment all aside, this year is to celebrate the up side of labour (or working rather) and not the melancholia with which Labour Day has always been entwined. The fun, the breaks, the recreations and the idiosyncrasies of professions high and low.
Cutting the coat accordingly
Any work force that employs the theory of segregation of labour tends to develop an incurable disease- monotony. And thus the weekend is the only way for garments workers to break the tedious cycle and have some fun. While in conversation with Shagor, a 19-year-old who works in packaging, he confessed that the thing he looked forward to the most at the end of the week is playing football on his day off. That is closely followed by a movie or two a month and maybe even a stroll through one of the cities many parks. Sheuli (20), and Shopna (19) were even easier to satisfy. Both lived with their parents and both spent their weekends visiting relatives. Occasionally they said that they went to visit various markets in the city. When asked what they would do if they had the ability to do whatever they wanted on their day off, Sheuli shyly confessed to wanting to visit Wonderland and Ramna Park while Shopna being a tad bit bolder voiced her secret desire to go abroad.
There was one thread of commonality between all the people who spoke of their weekend recreations. They were all easily contented. Something as simple as visiting Shongshod Bhaban, a monthly trip to the cinema or a bite of Chinese was sufficient to make them happy.
In a society where those who can afford to realise their dreams and desires are never quite satisfied with them once achieved, it is refreshing to see that the less fortunate are cutting their coat according to the cloth and having no qualms about it.
In upholding our theme of dwelling on the positives, we have managed to extract a sunny side even out of the dreariest jobs. However rare and trivial they may be, even domestic helps have their causes for uplifting and outlets to look forward to. 'The highlight of my day is realised by the occurrence of a handful of contingencies. Being sent on errands to the shop nearby, conversing with the other house helps while delivering an exchange of dishes between two households and managing to meet them by coinciding the time we all go down to dispose daily garbage are only a few to name. And then of course, there is television', says well-versed-in-Hindi-serials Reena.
When asked what grounds their conversations cover, she mentions that after initially getting to know the people of the locality, it is not difficult to distinguish with whom she can be closer to than the rest and once that is decided, conversation ranges anything in between cinemas, serials, employers, co-workers, relationships and families back home. 'Although I am generally busy throughout the day, I have adequate free time after the early morning rush when everyone sets off for work and school. With an empty house, I can afford to step outside and lax a little during the first half of the day.' she adds.
Too tied up for tea?
Ashraf Ali spends his day sitting inside a tin tea stall, flanked by day labourers and university students in between their classes. “I usually have to sit in the stall all day. People come in now and then, to have a cup of tea, smoke a cigarette,” he says, “So, I cannot really leave it unattended. Then again, when people come in for a cup of tea or a smoke, they are in a mood to talk. Everyone socialises. I make a lot of friends that way. So, basically the days are not too bad for me.”
But he is not a man who believes in 'all work and no play'. “The weekends, I spend with my family,” he says, “My wife cooks well and we all have our meals together- both lunch and dinner. We rarely go out. But maybe once or twice a month we go to the nearby park to see our son play. He plays good football.”
Sugaring up life a little…
For Shubho, a 'muruli' vendor, he is barefoot when wheeling a cart filled with colourful sugary 'murulis' across Dhanmondi. Squeezing in some free time between work is tough. But during the five to ten minutes in-between when the cart is not catering to the needs of buyers, he likes to take a tea break.
“If you can call them tea breaks, that is,” he smiles, “There are times when I just park my cart and get myself some tea. And just when I am about to take the first sip, people come to buy some 'muruli'. So break or no break, I am always on my feet.”
He usually takes Fridays off. When asked what he does on that day of the week, he looks embarrassed: “There is not much to do, so I write letters to a girl I like back in my village. When I feel down, I take out all the letters from her and read them one by one.”
“Once in a while, I might get together with my friends, but now that I've shifted to the other side of the city, I get to see them less often,” he says, “Even then, when we meet, we go off wandering in the park and enjoy each other's company. I especially like watching cricket matches on televisions displayed in the shop windows.”
In between the words and pages
Undeniably the most feasible and accessible option for middle-aged Bangladeshi women, teaching in schools despite the lectures to give, the seemingly never-ending stacks of copies to check and the paperwork to update (teaching plans, attendance registers, report cards), provides a much needed social and mental outlet. 'The absence of a friendly and casual working environment in school would mean that I would strictly have to confine myself to a rigid professional life and running a household. Thankfully, school provides an option to befriend and interact with similar-minded people.' says Salma Parvin of Sunnydale.
Her view is one readily mirrored by her colleague Liza Fouzia Zaman who mentions that after 12 years at the same school, she has developed strong personal relationships with most of her co-workers- some to the extent of including husbands and children in their social arena and becoming close family friends. Her daughter's wedding for example, was an event much awaited for by all the teachers who dressed in the same sari and lent a helping hand in preparing for the functions. But even without the big events, there is a steady stream of gaiety to look forward to. In context of recent times, she mentions how they had a separate function only for teachers on Pohela Boishakh where most participated by either singing, dancing or acting in plays, or alternatively, how they had mini feasts during lunch for every cricket match Bangladesh won.
Working in a school has to it an invigorating intellectual aspect as well; one that has nothing to do with either teaching or learning. 'Lunch time conversations lay the foundation for exchanging opinions about anything from politics and current events to shopping, recipes and family (red alert for husbands and children). After all, at the end of 26 years, my co-workers are more like sisters than they are colleagues,' says Sharifa Sultana of Sunbeams and Scholastica.
Climbing the corporate ladder
Recent employment trends in Bangladesh have proven kind to young graduates who, more often than not, find welcoming job opportunities in mobile companies, local private firms or multinational corporations. In conversation with two such corporate executives from different industries, it is not difficult to understand why these jobs are so inviting in spite of the long hours or hard work required.
'Even though work may sometimes stretch until 7 or 8 in the evening, my job is more relationship oriented and socialisation promoting.' says Imran H. Khan, Enterprise Relationship Manager of Banglalink. His is a department that deals with corporate clients, or enterprise care as they call it, and it involves developing semi-personal relationships with their corporate subscribers by handling any problems that they might face during the entire length of their subscription with Banglalink. 'A large part of my job involves visiting our customers and ensuring that they face no difficulties. We are also responsible for arranging corporate get-togethers and interlinking our clients to promote an overall casual and friendly atmosphere. I cannot deny that it is a challenging job because different people need to be dealt with differently, but at the end of the day, it's all worth it.'
Be it a local mobile phone company or an overseas enterprise, healthy working environments are one of the top lures for young employees as mentions Sabin Rahman, Management Trainee, Communications of Unilever Bangladesh Ltd. 'I always knew I wanted to be part of a friendly corporate culture and that is exactly what I opted for. The HR Department of Unilever is closely knit and even though certain rules of decorum are asked to be maintained, the general atmosphere is casual and informal.' When asked about the recreational side her job has to offer, Sabin mentions that going out for lunch with co-workers or small in-house celebrations for promotions or birthdays are not unusual to come by.
Despite their busy schedules, most professionals still take time out to socialise as points out Samira Rahman, Senior Acoounts Executive of Bitopi Advertising Ltd. “During the month long cricket extravaganza, we usually watched the first half of the game together with friends, even after a full working day. However, long office hours do restrict certain pursuits such as shopping with friends and colleagues because some offices, like mine, only let off after 7.30 pm.”
Evenings to unwind…
Throughout the week, Rafiq hammers away at unwanted slabs of concrete, lugs around sacks of cement and slaps on bricks together to build multi-storeyed buildings. He is a construction site worker. Like most other workers in the construction business, he has a large social group.
“We make friends easily,” he says, “In the small breaks that we get, we love to smoke a few cigarettes and chat away. I also have a Ludo board up in my room, which I bring out now and then. But mostly, the Ludo, we save for the weekends.
On Friday evenings, there are very fervent games of Ludo. There is usually much debate about whether to play the conventional Ludo or snakes-and-ladders. But whatever it is that we ultimately end up deciding upon, it is always fun.”
Ajam, a fellow construction worker, adds: “In the evenings, we turn on the radio and listen to the latest songs from Bangla and Hindi movies. One of our friends has a mobile phone with many songs in it. He often plays music on his phone as well.”
We live in a world that is so consumed by personal needs and selfish desires that we sometime don't even see things that are right in front of us. We're always trying to run more races, make more money and want more things. It's all about upgrades and climbing up the next rung on the ladder. Unfortunately not everyone is blessed with the resources to avail whatever their hearts desire.
So while we're bickering over an aisle seat in the first class cabin of a flight leaving for Timbuktu, scores of hardworking Bangladeshis are waiting for the week to end so that they can take pleasure in something as simple as walking along the park. So this Labour Day, forget how underpaid you apparently are, how many hours you are working overtime and how many rows you get into with your boss. Take a day out to look for the silver lining, because every profession definitely has one.
By Tahiat-e-Mahboob, Shahmuddin Ahmed Siddiky and Subhi Shama Reehu
Photo: Zahedul I. Khan
Special thanks to Sasha and Simon for arranging the photoshoot