[Reader-list] Cloud of Silence in Bangla Town

Naeem Mohaiemen naeem.mohaiemen at gmail.com
Mon Aug 6 22:19:52 IST 2007

Migration has moved dramatically to the top tier of Bangla politics.
The money being sent home by Bangla migrants is now a staggering EIGHT
TIMES higher than investment by foreign companies, and FOUR TIMES
higher than foreign aid.

Amer Ahmed summarizes:
"From a few thousand in the 1970s, the number of Bangladeshi migrants
has exploded to a gross figure of more than three million by 2002,
with about $23.7 billion being sent back in remittances over that
period (Kibria, 2004). As of 2006, expatriate workers' remittance
flows were FOUR TIMES GREATER than Official Development Assistance
(ODA) and eight times more than Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)."

This month's FORUM magazine has a special issue on migration.  Some excerpts:

Epaar Opaar (West Bengal & Bangladesh) - Udayan Chattopadhyay

Cloud of Silence in Bangla Town - Naeem Mohaiemen

The Third Pillar - S. Amer Ahmed

Full magazine contents:

Cloud of Silence in Bangla Town
- Naeem Mohaiemen

Contested name, conflicted ethnography.
Some friends (Indian leftists) still hold on to the old name, a
solitary act of defiance against soft Hindutva.

Bombay. "Maximum city" that leaves me craving, by comparison, the
"cleaner" air of Dhaka. It was towards the end of the BJP's horrific
tenure (their shock defeat still a pipe dream for Indian
progressives), and I was visiting a friend who was in Bombay writing
his novel. After days of bemoaning the specter of militant Shiv Sena
workers, I decided go exploring the town.

Bombay's Bangla Town was on my radar. I had been hearing about
floating Bengali populations. Some called them Bangali, some said
Bangladeshi. Invisible, unwanted, and yet essential to the city's
smooth functioning. Same as migrants anywhere.

At Raey railway station, I started asking for Bangali-para. A few shop
inquiries, and I was sent down a road with hundreds of shanty shacks.
The men were all away at work -- women and the jobless sprawled on
roadside mats. Also visible were barber shops, where work kept them
near home. Tomato, begun, cauliflower, chilis and deformed miniature
potatoes in symmetric rows on a blue sheet. A stack of fish fry on a
plate: glistening with oil. It looked like it was being prepared for a
restaurant, but the lady firmly and sternly informed me she was
cooking it for mahalla people. In one corner, a floppy yellow object
was being dipped repeatedly into boiling water, it looked like fish
but it was chicken skin. On another sheet, a stack of dried, smelly,
shutki fish.

Fish everywhere, the trail was getting warmer.

In between cooking areas, girls crouched on the ground, washing
themselves with minimal soap and even more minimal disrobing. On more
blue sheets, a man was rubbing his head affectionately on a baby's
stomach. A crazy jumble of shacks. One-two-three-four, all on top of
each other.

When I first approach people, the conversation that breaks off is in
Bangla. But when I ask questions, the replies are always in Hindi. No
one admits to being Bangali. Dr Choudhary is a Bangali name, the only
doctor in the area. But his tiny shop is closed.  There are only a few
other shops where I can try my search. Trail growing cold again. I
step into the last barbershop on the row.

The man sitting in the crouched chair has a thinly shaved pencil
moustache and black kohl around his eyes.

"Are you Bangali?"

He answers with a distinct Kolkata accent.

First question everyone always asks, "Apni kotha theke eshechen?"

"I've come from Bangladesh."

Quick as a flash, he asks, "Mmm, passport korthe chacchen bujhi?"

"Bujhlam na," oh, and a beat later, I realize he's asking if I need to
get an Indian passport...

"No, no, I'm visiting, I don't want to stay here."

His companion speaks up, "I'm from Assam, where are you from?"

"Dhaka." They both nod their heads. It seems to have meant something.

"But my mother's from Sylhet." Now the second man perks up: "Oh so
you're from my neighboring state."

"Well, we used to be the same state," I joke, trying to relax the air.

The owner shows up. He has a bushy beard. His Bengali is accented. He
says he's from Haora. He starts talking animatedly about Bangladesh.
"Yes I go to the Shahjalal mazaar in Sylhet all the time, and also the
one in Chittagong."

"You mean the one where you feed turtles bananas?"

"Na bhai, that's Chittagong, in Sylhet you feed them pao fish."

"How do you get there?"

"Oh I just get a pass and go back and forth. It's no problem, really
easy to get through Benapole. Are you taking the bus too?"

"No, I'm flying."

"Oh, apne tho thahole different category. That's not for us. You put
yourself in that seat and...nothing to worry about."

After a few more minutes of conversation, they give me directions. I
need to get to Wadala, where there's another big Bangali colony.
Okhane onek onek Bangali paben!

But does Bangali mean from West Bengal, or Bangladesh? Or is there no
difference in the middle of basti community solidarity...that part I
haven't been able to figure out from these conversations

At Wadala, the environment is very different. The signs here are much
more open. A huge slum sprawls on the other side of the train tracks,
taking up a few street blocks. Everyone here knows where the
Bangali-para is, no puzzled looks. There are blocks of Urdu signs, but
every person I ask says, further, just a little further. But as soon
as I cross the tracks (stopping to take one furtive photo), walk
around the piles of garbage, and step into the area itself, there's a
very different reaction.

Although shops carry address boards that say "161 Bangali Para", when
I speak to people, no one will admit to being Bengali. Every person
says "go over there," sending me somewhere else. I start walking into
narrower corridors. There are shacks on every side, tumbling in with
barely enough space to squeeze through.

Suddenly I feel very conscious about the large camera I'm carrying
with me. I can barely get through some alleys with the camera bag!
What prompted me to make myself so conspicuous...

Finally an Urdu speaking shopkeeper says, "Go up the stairs to the
jori factory, they're all Bengali."  I climb up slowly with my load
and make a bumbling entrance. My bag gets stuck on a pipe, and
somebody jubilantly yells from downstairs, "wo fas giya!" He climbs up
to disentangle me and by the time I get upstairs, the jori factory
workers are all staring at me. Red-faced, I begin a stumbled, rushed

"I'm from Bangladesh, I make films, I was here visiting a friend, I'm
looking for Bangalis, especially people from Bangladesh.." my voice
trails off as the awkwardness of the situation slowly comes home.

In a city where the Shiv Sena plays politics with the juju  of
"illegal Bangladeshi" migrants. In a volatile situation where "push
back" has entered the subcontinental vernacular. Where election season
means giving instructions to pakrao the "illegals." Where Bangladeshi
is also the BJP's coded way of saying "Muslim". Walking into a slum
where the BJP-era police were rounding up and deporting suspected
Bangladeshis, who will admit to being Bangladeshi to me?

"Who are you?" one of them asks, he can't have been more than sixteen.
I start my explanation again and halfway through, he interrupts and
says in Hindi, "Speak to us in Hindi, we don't understand Bangla!"

"But you just spoke to me in Bangla"

"No we don't understand Bangla, we speak only Hindi, we don't know
what you're looking for."

The music was turned down. One of them turns it back up. Hindi, filmi, loud…

I keep trying for a few minutes. The pathos of the situation seeps in
and I give up. I start climbing back down, careful about my bag this

"What happened, bhaisaab?" asks the Urdu speaker downstairs.

I explain, embarrassed, like a jilted lover.

"No, no, they're lying, they're all from Kolkata."

"Hey," he yells up, "Thum jhut kiu bola…why did you lie? "

Then turning to me, "Listen no one wants to admit being Bangali,
because the police are always looking for Bangladeshis. It means
anyone who's Bangali and Muslim is a suspect. Then they threaten to
deport you, you bribe them 2000 rupees, and they let you go. Sometimes
they put them in the van for show and let them off a mile from here.
It's all about money."

Someone else, "You need to tell them you are a journalist, you will
print their photo."

I hesitate, "I don't think that will reassure them."
(I'm not a journalist anyway)

Another man chimes in, "We're not afraid, take our photo."

"But you're not Bangali."

He breaks into a smile. "Yes, that's why I don't care if you take my
photo. Listen go to that store. They are older, they are not as afraid
as those kids."

I climb up another flight of stairs. This time, puzzled looks again,
but not as much hostility. They listen, and continue their jori
weaving work. After the explanation, the man in front starts speaking.
Very precise, with a strong Kolkata accent.

"Listen, no one will talk to you, everyone is scared. We're not
scared, that's why no one has ever given us trouble."

Another craftsman speaks up. "But even if they do, so what. Listen
bhai, those who are scared are usually the ones they catch."

They're speaking in turns, filling in each other's sentences with
comfort. "But it's all for bribery. They want a bribe, otherwise
they'll send you over the border. They even cut off your shirt label,
so no proof of where you came from."

"But when they get to the border, Bangladesh doesn't want them either.
Why should they, ey apod abar kottheke elo? And another thing, they
separate families. Men are put in one camp, women in another, children
in a third one. If you really want to push people out, this is not the
way you do it."

"So..do people here think I'm with police?" I ask at last.

"No no, no one thinks you're CID. But your clothes, your hair, your
shoe, and the samal you're carrying makes you look different, so
people are nervous. What does he want, they are asking. You arrived
suddenly, no one knows you. This is not the proper way to come to our
area. Come with introduction."

Another man joins in, "But you should be careful, coming here where
you do not know anyone, with all that samal, anything could happen.
Even in the daytime. You shouldn't have come here with all this

"But I have a passport. I'm carrying it with me!"

"So what, if police rip up your passport, what will you do?  You'll
speak English, they'll pretend not to understand. You'll speak Hindi,
they'll pretend not to understand. It takes nothing to put you in

"But I'll tell you what no one will admit. There are maybe 700,000
people here. At least half are from Bangladesh. Maybe they came now,
maybe they came before partition, no one knows-- how could they? They
have always been here."

They start to warm up, and get a little angrier too. "But now no one
wants to admit it because you will get thrown out. It's completely
unfair, just politics and money. Some of these people have been here
for generations, suddenly at night they are getting the knock."

This goes on for a while. Hostility to the police, to the politicians,
to the BJP. All seeping out, bit by bit.

"How long have you been in the jori business?" I finally ask.

"We Muslims have been in it for a long time, you could say this is our
khandani. But now Hindus have also come in, so prices have gone down.
You can barely eat on this. That's why all our families are back in

The first man looks up at me, staring for a moment, before asking his question.

"Are you Muslim?"

"Yes. And you...?"

He just points to the Arabic script on the wall.

"Yes, all the people in the jori business in this neighborhood are
Muslim. So... you can celebrate Eid with us."

A new person enters. He's younger and seems to be the manager. He
looks over at me, suspicious and watchful. The mood is broken,
conversation withers away. Everyone goes back to work. A bottle of
Pepsi arrives for me.

I ask permission and take a few pictures. We think of exchanging
information. They have no address to give me.

"What about this Factory?"

"No point giving you this address, tomorrow you may come back and I
may not be here. Maybe next week, the whole slum will be gone. It's
happened before."

"But take my address, and if you come to Bangladesh, please visit."

They nod.

But we all know, they're not coming to Bangladesh.

It takes a long time to say goodbye. I stay another hour. They give me
Pepsi again. The conversation is light, scattered over the sound of
work. But they seem mystified by my desire to leave.

"Why do you want to leave quickly?"

I explain that I am in Bombay for a few days, want to spend some time
with my friend. They nod but don't really pay too much attention.

Finally it's really time to leave. As I get up, he stops me,

"Ok, one very important question for you."

"Yes, go ahead..."

"Do you really think they got Saddam?"

I'm a bit stupefied. This? This is the big question?

The others join in enthusiastically, this is clearly the burning topic
on their mind.

"We all think that's a copy. Otherwise why do they have to check his teeth?"

"Saddam is not a hero, a woman! How did he get caught?  Why didn't he
kill himself, that's what I would have done."

We argue about Saddam for a bit. Real? Copy?

Finally I stop it. "Listen this conversation will never end. I really
have to go. Getting late. Long way to my friend's house. We'll talk
about it next time."

"Yes," he replies, "Next time."
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