Amidst The Crowd, Thou Shall Be Haunted

Lord, said David, since you do not need us,
why did you create these two worlds?

Reality replied: O prisoner of time,
I was a secret treasure of kindness and generosity,
and I wished this treasure to be known,
so I created a mirror: its shining face, the heart;
its darkened back, the world;
The back would please you if you’ve never seen the face.

Cruel. Unjust. Lifeless. Pitiless. Vindictive. Callous.

I was assaulted by all of the above phrases as I listened to Rasel’s story. His is the story of an average Bangladeshi’s life. The story of hope, nightmares and the struggle to live on. The story of deceit, shattered dreams and spasms of never-ending darkness.

At thirteen years old, Rasel is the only breadwinner of his family of five. With his parents sick and jobless, it has been up to him for quite some time as the eldest son to try and manage some money in order to feed himself and the rest of his folks. On good days he earns around 100 taka ($1.25) by picking up scrap, reusable materials from the streets of Dhaka for sale at the recycling factories. In addition, his younger siblings—Rubina and Rashed—– roam around Dhanmondi Lake and beg from the couples in the open couples’ retreats, thereby adding a meager amount to the household income. Together they add up whatever they can; and spend out of what they have been provided with.

On days at a stretch they go without lunch just so that the entire family can have a moderate dinner at night. Bengali families are always closely-knit, and a person no matter how selfish or jealous a nature he sports, will always have to feed his entire clan before he puts something into his own mouth. Begging and picking up waste materials full-time to maximize the amount of income, Rasel and his siblings are hardly allowed any reprieve from the glaring Dhaka sun. It is evident from each of their brown, tanned skins and malnourished bodies that the only shelter they have been provided is under the scorching tropical daylight.

Ironic really. The wealthy need to visit the sunny beaches and expensive resorts in order to get themselves a boastful tan. But here for Rasel and his siblings, a sun-tan is something that comes with existence.

Has anyone ever produced a mirror out of mud and straw?
Yet cleaned away the mud and straw,
so that a mirror might be revealed.

Until the juice ferments a while in the cask,
it isn’t wine. If you wish your heart to be bright,
you must do a little work.

Rife with endemic starvation and poverty, Rasel’s family represents one of many poor class families struggling hard to find a place in the gold mine of Dhaka. And Rasel is one of the 3 million children in Bangladesh who live under the international poverty line.

“And you don’t attend the charity school nearby?” I ask him all of a sudden amidst our conversation. Somehow I already know the answer.

Rasel grimaces a silly smile.

“I have attended classes up to the third grade in my village school before I came to Dhaka. Why do I need to study when it gives me no food?” Rational, I acknowledge. “And besides, I need to come here in the morning right after the Fajr prayers. Otherwise, I will be unable to collect enough materials for sale.”

As we speak in front of the beautifully sparkling waters before us, the sun begins to ogle with a greater force. Debilitating and reminding us of its strength, it tells us how powerless we are against the Supreme Force that decides our Fateful existence.

“I used to work at a garments factory before. Earning around 1400 taka ($18 approx.) monthly. But I left because of the overwork and really poor conditions.”

I recalled seeing an international news report about T-shirts made by child laborers and exported from Bangladesh that were sold at $20 each in the superstores of North America and Europe.

“So, what do you plan to become? Bangladesh is advancing forward literally by the day. Soon we will become a thriving middle-income country. What do you think about the future?”

My question elicited quite a quotidian response.

“Kono mote khawa dawa koira baichha thaklei hoilo.” I think all I need to do is eat and survive through the day.

Had I asked this same question to another child of the same age but from the privileged, middle-class society that I belong to and whose members I befriend and entertain, I would have been confronted with a very different answer. Perhaps it would have been the dream of becoming a scientist. A doctor. Or even a pilot. If possible an engineer as well.

My King addressed the soul of my flesh:
You return just as you left.
Where are the traces of my gifts?

We know that alchemy transforms copper into gold.
This Sun doesn’t want a crown or robe from God’s grace.
He is a hat to a hundred bald men,
a covering for ten who were naked.

The afternoon Azan suddenly became ubiquitous throughout the vibrant, overpopulated neighborhoods of Dhaka. Here in Dhanmondi, the tall residential skyscrapers loomed ahead of me. In recent years the region has been morphed into a pinnacle of development. Since the country’s Prime Minister has her private residences in this area, it was imperative that the neighborhoods symbolized the making of a modern cosmopolitan city.

But, the truth is, this air of development have hardly touched the lives of people like Rasel and his family. While the country is developing at an unprecedented rate, while increasing numbers of families are sending their children to the local American schools and shipping them off to attend US universities, a huge population still remains underdeveloped. And the numbers of the homeless are exceptionally higher in those areas of the city where most of the people enjoy a per capita income equal to almost that of any normal developed city in the West.

Unequal growth. Something that most development economist and policy-makers in Bangladesh prefer to ignore in order to underscore our rapid rate of economic growth.

“You can pray your namaz, can’t you?” I inquire, having arrived almost to the end of our conversation.

“Yes, I have completed the Arabic Qur’an once!” he says excitedly. Must be an achievement for him.

But his sister Rubina, who has remained silent till then, cuts in all of a sudden.

“But he never prays!”

At this Rasel remonstrates. “I do. But only during the Friday afternoon prayers.”

By then, it has already become too late for me. I take my leave and walk off, breathing the beautiful scent of flowers and food. Entering into Green Road, the attractive stench of spices and barbecue permeated through my nostrils.

“Oh! They have begun to burn the chicken grills and shik kebabs already? Maybe I will get a shwarma for the evening meal.” I ponder to myself.

But then, the terrible, the most horrifying of all truths strike back at me.

Will Rasel and his family be guaranteed a bowl of rice for tonight?

Jesus sat humbly on the back of an ass, my child!
How could a zephyr ride an ass?
Spirit, find your way, in seeking lowness like a stream.
Reason, tread the path of selflessness into eternity.

Remember God so much that you are forgotten.
Let the caller and the called disappear;
Be lost in the Call.


The poems have been extracted from the Persian Sufi poet Maulana Rumi’s legendary work Be Lost in the Call’

At War With the Fireflies

Drunk with a stillness that resuscitated itself with every turn of the wind, the night imposed an eerie atmosphere into the components concealed under its gigantic blanket. Here and there, the green fields, pregnant with corn and rice plants and seedlings, resonated a belated exuberance for having met the recondite creatures whose enigma and incandescence had eluded them forever.

Intermittently, the fireflies moved among the plantations, and my eyes could distinguish them as they moved.

As if under an aphrodisiac, the fireflies worked their magic with the light that the Creator had so skillfully architected into them.

The lights are on.

The next instant they are turned off.

Again, the lights regurgitate themselves over the fireflies’ tiny exoskeletons chaotically.

Attempting to bring order from chaos, the flies turn them off again. Trying their best not to give themselves up to my eyes.

The cognitive processes inside a firefly’s brain occur faster than those inside the human brain. And you don’t need to be a PhD-holding scientist to be able to discern the aforementioned fact. The frequency at which fireflies are able to turn their lights on and off is a direct observable evidence that nerve impulses travel at a much more rapid rate inside their bodies. In a way, they are actually more advanced than the average human species.

In a way. Yes. That’s the correct phrase.

“But why do you digress, eh? Fireflies aren’t your specialty,” the Pessimist that lived symbiotically inside me, told me that my time was precious.

“Why do you care?” I snap back at the Pessimist, “You have made me what you wanted me to become.”

There is a strange stillness in the air.

As the autumn wind blows past me—–raging a war against my subtle nostrils and ruffling my already messed up hair——I revere the evanescent illumination of the fireflies with a piety and religiosity unprecedented in my life. Affronted with a desire and a need to be my own self for a few minutes in my mechanically secluded lifestyle, I had rushed into these open fields tonight. I do not know what it was that had accrued me towards these fields at 12 o’clock midnight for an arduous two-hour drive from my comfortable apartment equipped with all the urban necessities. And neither do I have any idea what it was that I was going to take back with me through this visit.

“Here is an antecedent to your feelings,” the Pessimist began, “The fireflies will fail to bring you any food.”

Yet I stare at them continuously. Discounting the omniscient Pessimist, I find something in those lights. I see them as they are, in their natural surroundings. Where they truly belong. I use my prescience to discern their likes and dislikes, their needs and wastes. Discontinuous, discreet particles of matter enter into my vision. For a while, inside my mind, they cast a beautiful castle of thought and splendor, of wealth and wisdom, of sense and sensibility. But keeping in line with their discreet nature, the particles leave immediately leaving everything behind a blur.

Despite my bluntness in poetry and philosophy, there was something in those regular periods of light and dark that fascinated me. That told me that no, everything was not lost as yet.

Being a man of pragmatism, and one who believes in worldliness and flesh and blood, I do my best to win against these fireflies. I hedge my bets against them and try to barricade them from entering my thought process. I strive hard to shun them away. I make myself reason and weigh the facts at my disposal. The poison must not enter into my life. It might just destroy my prosperous, urbane existence forever, and so I must win this war against these wicked creatures.

I had forgone a lot already. And tonight I must not lose any more to these enchanting beings.

I decide to strike back at the Pessimist inside me.

“All hope is not lost as yet, you idiot!”

Yes, there is hope. There is still hope amidst my dream-less life. There is hope for a better truth; for a more illuminated fly; for a firefly that remains alight for a longer period of time; for a firefly that proudly upholds its shimmering rays on its suggestive breasts.

There is hope for a better enlightenment; for a better light to be reached.

Yet there is a strange stillness in the air. And on this particular occasion the stillness is making me numb with an exodus for peace and tranquility; for hope and dreams; for simplicity and serenity.

Like me, the moonlit night had also begun to reciprocate its infatuation for the winged beasts. The flies, however, did not countenance at either of their suitors. They had a more important task at hand, and all those courtship rituals could wait.

But for me, there is still hope for a better survival, towards an existence unmarred by desire, towards a lust that was yet to be consummated, and towards a piety without any shred of sycophancy.

Still, it must be said, that there is a strange stillness in the air.

“You bloody fools, how dare you wage a war against me? You can’t so easily destroy the castle I have built with such skill and perseverance.”

But the castle was already disheveled. And it was a matter of time before it was finally dismantled to the ground along with its pride. The dexterity of the handless fireflies was too superior. The forts had been destroyed and the ammo had already been exhausted.

It was too late to win.

Yet, hope was still there. And it definitely was the one thing the fireflies were unable to win from me.

Amidst the stillness of the night, under the moonlit sky’s green eyes, with the corn plants hitting puberty as my witnesses, I confessed my defeat to the winged creatures. I swore defeat and proclaimed my allegiance to their periodic impressions of light and dark. I pronounced my faith and responsibility towards their superiority and their immaculately beautiful existence.

I announced my abstinence from dreamlessness and betrayed the Pessimist in order to coexist with Hope symbiotically.

I swore that I was conquered. Conquered by trust, by lust, by the desire for existence.

Conquered by the debauchery of the fireflies.

Conquered by all, except the darkness and the stillness that stopped escorting me from that instant onwards.

And instead I was supplanted with hope, dreams and aspirations for a worthier life. Everything was superseded with a belief in a Moderator, and my timorousness in the face of superior beauty was truly evident to me.


The rising dissent—–Bangladesh’s divulging ‘labor-spring’

As the world celebrates another Labor Day, here in Bangladesh, laborers have a hard time grappling with their family and professional lives. Due to the availability of cheap labor and a huge population of 160 million people cramped together in a very small state, in this part of the world labor-intensive industries have been thriving continuously since the early 1990s—the period when a democratic and investment-friendly economy was formed for the first time. This liberalization of the economy has introduced work for millions of impoverished Bangladeshis with little or no training. But on the other hand the privatization has also created an extremely capitalistic society.


Today within two decades, Bangladesh has already become one of the leading suppliers of the global cloth manufacturing industry, frozen foods and leather. It is also predicted that with the current boost in the export of high quality, cheap pharmaceuticals to the European Union countries and the Middle-East, the pharmaceutical industry will soon begin to dominate as well. In addition, along with India, the poverty-stricken country has always been a top producer of jute and jute-based products, although this sector has surpassed through many upheavals and hindrances in the past few years.


But the conditions of workers in all these industries who help to amass huge amounts of foreign income each year for the country are far from good. Not only do they have to go through extremely dangerous and poor working conditions, but are also forced to lead lives with  low wages as a result of which almost all the industrial workers live much under the international poverty line. This is the very reason why the country is always abuzz and making international headlines with workers’ strikes and protests. And the government also has always been under intense domestic and international pressure for securing the rights of the workers.


A shimmering example to demonstrate the inhumane conditions of the industrial workers in Bangladeshi factories is the ready-made garments industry. As the highest export income-earner for the economy and as the world’s second highest global supplier, the industry employs around 3.6 million workers, around 95% of which are females. Recently the international think-tank Mckinsey has also predicted that by the year 2015, the Bangladeshi cloth industry will have overtaken its Chinese counterpart to become the leading cloth supplier and also the first choice for international investors and importers to invest in this sector. During the last fiscal year, the industry has exported $18 billion worth of apparels to the global market.


But the naked truth is that this rise has been achieved on the saddles of exploitation of the impoverished workers in these industries. It is their hands and the investors’ money that produce high-quality, cheap clothes for global superstores like Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger and H & M. An eminent local economist has recently calculated that for every $100 worth of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ apparel sold in Walmart in America, $25 is taken by the US government; $35 by the factory-owners, shareholders and the other investors; around $38 by Walmart; while the worker whose arduous work and dexterity produced the item has to remain content with barely a small fraction of a dollar.

And so, due to this unequal division of the money, the country has always been rife with workers’ rights issues and dissent. Violence is not uncommon between protesting and demonstrating worker groups and the policemen. And several workers have even been killed in clashes with the police forces and other owner-sponsored agencies. However, most of the time the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), one of the most powerful lobby groups in the National parliament, has always succeeded in crushing down the trade union groups and any call for riots.


With the set-up of the government-sponsored Industrial Police—-an elite police force specialized in monitoring, gathering intelligence and quenching any demonstrations by the workers——trade unions have been thrown into silence by repeated torturing of trade union activists. The current government has increased the minimum wage rate of garments’ workers from around $20 to $36 in terms of the current exchange rate. Yet, the price is far from enough. The workers, most of them living in slums and closed quarters in cities, barely manage to survive with the 10% inflation rate currently in the country. The Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity, a prominent trade union in the country, has demanded that the minimum rate be raised to at least around $58 but the government, with the strength of the BGMEA lobby, has firmly quelled all forms of opposition and has strictly claimed that after the increase, even though it is meager, no forms of protestations or indiscipline will be tolerated in the aforementioned sector.


Although most of the industrial workers live in slums, some get the privilege(!) of dwelling in cramped, shabby little quarters and buildings in the narrowest alley-ways of the cities

During the last big uprising of garments’ workers back in 2010, activists from several trade unions were even arrested by law enforcement officers and brutally tortured to preempt them from going against the owner associations and to stop them from demanding a greater minimum wage rate.


As if the wages weren’t enough, the garments’ workers have to deal with a lot of other issues as well. One of the most important concerns is safety. The factories which house thousands of male and female workers are equipped with little or almost no security. With lax safety standards, fires have erupted in many factories quite frequently in the past decade, killing many workers on the spot due to the absence of any emergency or fire exits. While the owners of these factories are among the highest tax-payers of the country with their kids being sent to American schools that charge fees up to $11000 annually, and while

Garments workers clashing with the industrial police

they themselves reside in posh apartments in the wealthy neighborhoods and drive luxurious cars, the laborers work arduously throughout the day with small lunch and prayer breaks risking their lives constantly to be able to feed their families. Although due to the assistance of welfare organizations like BRAC they are sending their kids to schools, they know perfectly well that in the near future their children will also have to embrace the same fate as them because of the enormous class difference.

A fire in a luxurious-looking factory of the locally owned Hameem Group killed 20 workers and injured a further 100.


There is also the severe case of gender discrimination in these factories. Women are allowed to work side by side with their male compatriots, although most factories have segregated the sexes in the clothing lines. But the wages offered to females is almost half as that offered to males for the same job. The majority of the workers in the garments trade are females who have come to the cities in search of jobs to feed themselves and help run their families. But with the money they earn they can hardly run their own self. Also, since they have absolutely no guarantee of maternal leave or pregnancy leave or any other feminine facility, life becomes harder and more and more stressful for them at work everyday. While the government, the Western leaders and the religious mullahs of the country, along with the fiercely Islamic elite, champion the state of women empowerment in an extremely conservative, religious state like Bangladesh and never fail to underscore that women in this country are much better off than our mightier neighbors like India and Pakistan, the growing exploitation of the female populace has taken a toll with the rapid growth of the garments’ trade.


With the next Olympic Games under the red carpet, big brands like Nike, Puma and Adidas, are already active with the manufacture of sports’ clothing throughout the world. And a big chunk of these outfits are being made in this small state of the 160 million, where these high profile brands are constantly underpaying the workers and maintaining their solidarity with the government and the industry owners. International allegations against many of the factories supplying these global sporting brands have been brought about  but even with the repeated calls for better wages and conditions, the lives of the average worker remains virtually unchanged.


Last month, the deepening divide and the growing dissent have escalated all of a sudden. Aminul Islam (39), a former garment worker and one of the presidents of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, went missing on 4th April. On 5th April his tortured and murdered body was discovered on the sides of a road around 61 miles from Dhaka, in an area with a high concentration of garments’ industries. Previously he had been arrested several times along with many others for organizing protests and demonstrations. Recently he had also been working hard to organize a mass protest for better working conditions and improved wages in several garments factories of the Dhaka-based Shanta Group, which supplies clothes to global companies like Tommy Hilfiger and Nike.


It is evident that the murder was carried out with a political motivation. Several

Aminul Islam, 39, a labor activist who was found dead just outside Dhaka on 5th April

international and domestic human rights and workers’ rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Worker Rights Consortium, Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation have all asked for a transparent and carefully monitored investigation into the matter.


It is mainly due to the hard-work of these industrial workers and their struggle for better lives for themselves and for upcoming generations that the country is earning huge amounts in foreign income. With the rapid industrialization and inflow of foreign money, economic growth and poverty alleviation throughout the country has been robust throughout the last decade. A burgeoning middle-class and upper class population has been created in Dhaka, Chittagong and the rest of the cities and villages due to the ubiquitous growth of these industries.


Dhaka, the city I grew up and live in, is currently a heavily industrialized urban city. Everywhere you go—except in the wealthier and the middle class residential areas—you will come across factories on both sides of the roads. I am, in fact, a direct product of that industrial revolution in Bangladesh. My

The growth of the industrial and urbanized Dhaka has brought about a sky-scraper boon for the burgeoning middle & upper class to live in

father is a raw materials supplier to garments factories and although his is the sole income for the family of four, we are quite a thriving middle class family with me and my other sibling sent to English schools to read Shakespeare and to get ourselves mesmerized by the natural sciences.


But what about those children of industrial workers who know that they will also have to work hard and live with injustice for the rest of their lives just like their parents? Will their be more killings of the Aminuls then?

With the garments owned by Korean or local investors, or even a joint venture, with the cotton from neighboring India and equipments from China, it is the hands of these workers that assemble the final product in garment factories and stick the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ brand label on it. The product is then packed up and sent across the seas, deserts, mountains and oceans to Europe and the United States, the Middle-East, Japan, Korea, Russia and Australia. It maybe a shirt, skirt or a trouser. Or simply a mass-produced Western dress. Due to the assembly line mass-production in this age of globalization, the prices of these Western and global clothing in the domestic market have actually become much lower than the traditional Bengali clothes for the middle-class citizens. But when the price at which the foreigners are buying the item is considered, it will surely be far beyond any worker’s total monthly income. Yet these workers have a hard time grappling with their life and overcoming the hindrances of discordant prospects and a grim future for themselves. They lead a life with extreme discomfort and risk just to be able to live. Time and again they are forced to confront to the fact that their succeeding generations will also have to lead the same lives. Yet, they move on. Shoving away their tears, they go to work each day to the factories, where discipline is stringent and no latecomers are ever tolerated. They work towards a bleak future, yet continue to serve the global community at whatever price that is available to them for survival.

While the workers live and work in extremely hostile conditions, the industrialists, merchants and businessmen enjoy the air-conditioned, safer & well-ventilated modern commercial buildings of Kawran Bazar, Motijheel, Gulshan & Dhanmondi.