Aasha Mehreen Amin
A trip to the neighbouring basti is hardly a part of the day's itinerary for the better off. But perhaps it would be a good idea for members of this class to engage in this kind of reality check from time to time. Before they think of buying the 60,000 taka sari at the neighbourhood mall or the twenty five lakh taka Lexus that just turned up at the car sales centre. Of course who are we to be sanctimonious about our product-obsessed society, every one of us is guilty of extravagance at some time or another. Being self-indulgent to the point of total apathy for one's surroundings, however, is a disturbing trend, one that leads to a breakdown in society.
Few people I socialise with will know where Ibrahimpur is. Fewer would have ever been anywhere near that area. Tucked in the back of Dhaka Cantonment and somewhere between Kafrul and the beginning of Mirpur is this locality. It is a strip of ramshackle shops lining the pot-holed dirt road, crowded, dusty with all kinds of ominous smells emanating from everywhere. Behind the line of shops is a whole community, entire families living in tiny shacks. As we meander through the narrow openings where homes are constructed back to back, it is hard to imagine that people can find their way when it is dark. It is actually government property, informs a resident, but now under control of local 'landlords' who rent little shacks for 1,000 taka to 2,500 taka depending on the size and quality of the abode. This is where people live, have babies, raise children, get sick and die. A whole life cycle is spent in this dank, suffocating squalour where everyday is a day of struggle and every meal a godsend.
Rabeya, a thirty year-old migrant from Mymensingh lives with her half-blind husband and three small girls. Her 'home' is a shack on top of rickety strips of bamboo raised on the swamp. The choki or bed takes up almost the entire room, the mosquito net is neatly piled up on one side of the wall and pots and pans and other household items are ingeniously strung up against the walls while bedding and clothes are stored in trunks under the bed. The little hut overlooks the swamp that send swarms of mosquitoes and other insects to plague the inmates. Rabeya's eldest daughter, Rima, an emaciated ten year old, is sick again, and stares at us unsmilingly. Rabeya says her daughter likes 'good things', a phrase to describe clean surroundings, good food and clean clothes. The squalour says Rabeya, makes her sick all the time but one suspects it is more than that. It is from being in a state of continuous hunger. They eat what they can. Each day is a major struggle for Rabeya and the end of the month is especially hard as the money runs out and the shopkeepers refuse to give anything more on credit. In any case, after paying rent each month after getting her wages as a part-time domestic worker, all Rabeya can think of is buy a few kgs of rice to at least cover half the month. These days the prices are so high that even vegetables are out of the shopping list, let alone fish. The other morning, Rabeya gave her children only some maar from the previous night's rice..
Rabeya's hut is in the furthest corner of this slum and to get there is a real obstacle race. We have to pass through zig-zagged paths on which we come across other residents, some cooking the day’s meal, others burning chicken skins to sell. An old man with a flowing white beard and twinkling eyes says 'Please do something for us'. It was not a very heartfelt plea. More like saying something for the sake of it. Without much expectation.
As we are coming out of the her slum, Rabeya points to the bariwala's house - a solid structure with tin roof and freshly painted walls; obviously these people wield power in the area. On this side the huts look slightly better, with real walls and tin roofs, tv sounds waft into the narrow alleys connecting the huts and one can get glimpses of electric fans, even a music system in some of them. It is a congested area with whole families living in the same room with a sari hung in the middle to separate parents from their children or mothers-in-law from the son and his wife; privacy is non-existent.
Overpopulated, dingy, unsanitary and often unsafe in terms of theft and sudden fire, it is hardly the place where anyone can live a normal life. But this is as good as it gets for the majority of the residents. There is no time to have lofty dreams, no reason to expect anything better. There are clones of this slum all over the city, perpetuating the same misery, replicating the same abjectness.
They live in the fringes of society, making life for the well off more comfortable, whether it is cleaning their spacious homes or taking care of their children, building their mansions and offices, taking them to places or helping them to earn big profits in their factories.
Is it possible, one may wonder, that we have the courage to wake up from our cushioned dreams and just take a small bite of this reality? Is it possible to remind ourselves of our responsibility towards those we think are unimportant and who are forgotten?
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