“I am Mohammad Moklesur Rahman. It is a very pleasure to meet you.”
It is stiflingly hot in the centre of the pitch. A crowd has gathered to watch the white man play cricket. The onlookers encroach on the field to get closer to the action. The children beg for a six. The adults offer their advice: the best option is to hit a six, I am told. Sweat drips into my eyes. A sixteen year old throws down a lightning bolt and I hit it straight back over his head and over the hay bales. Children stream onto the pitch screaming and dancing.
“How many sister brother you have?”
We see a camp of tents made of bamboo sticks and rubbish bags on the side of the highway and we stop. Women holding children step out of their rubbish bag tents and stare at me. The children are scared of my camera. They tell me they have no homes and are forced to move on every few days according to the landowners’ wishes. They tell me the men have gone to work as snake charmers, a job associated with the nomadic ethnic group called Bede. They tell me that they rely on charity to survive. One man stands apart from the group, aloof but uncomfortable, acting as the middleman to collect rent from the nomads on behalf of the landowner. I visit the landowner who lives just a hundred metres away in a colonial household that he has turned into a museum. He is convivial and welcoming, “don’t you just love my home”, until I ask about the nomadic people on his doorstep. He feigns ignorance and changes the subject and my welcome is worn out. There is no support for these people whose future is measured in the days they have until they have to move again.
“I am a businessman. I sell clothes. You want to see my shop?”
The bus company staff sticks a video camera in my face and records my features, along with every passenger on the bus. I am told it’s to deter bandits and to identify bodies if the buses are firebombed. A violent history such as Bangladesh’s leaves lasting scars on the nation’s psyche. In January 2015, political protests resulted in buses being overturned and set on fire. Newspaper reports say there were 31 deaths and 7,000 arrests. Bloggers have been targeted and killed by machete wielding mobs of extremist Muslims. Bangladesh is governed as a secular country; however the majority of the population is Muslim. The government treads a fine line balancing this; the secular and the religious. It must uphold the Bangladeshi criminal justice system but risks enraging the extremist section of the community, similar to the extremism which has engulfed their sub-continental neighbour Pakistan in sectarian violence.
“What religion are you?”
In the narrow dusty alleys of Shahjadpur, a clattering can be heard from inside a corrugated iron shed. I peep inside and see a shirtless man labouring at a loom, pumping his right hand up and down, pushing a beam forward and back with his left and pressing his foot in rhythm. Sweat glistens on his chest and arms. Light splays across the moving thread, a rainbow of colours vivid in the darkness of the makeshift factory. A weave of silk clatters and bounces its way off the loom. He operates his loom for 12 hours and will make a 13 foot sari in that time. The looms operate around the clock with men working night shifts to increase productivity and efficiency.
I am in the heart of Sirajganj, Bangladesh’s largest cloth producing district, where hundreds of loom factories are tucked away in sheds throughout the village producing fabric for saris and lungees. While men operate the looms, women dye cotton and hang it out to dry on village streets.
Makers and sellers of saris and lungees gather at the local market. The babble and shouts of hagglers weave between steamy dark corridors made by stacks of cloth. The competition creates variation in design which means there are hundreds of different patterns to choose from.
“Okay, not Christian. But what religion?”
“No religion? But. Well. But you are not Christian?”
For a foreigner coming to Dhaka for the first time the reality of a developing nation can be confronting; however the statistics suggest Bangladesh is a country progressing away from poverty. As I look down upon dirty Dhaka from the plushly-carpeted bar of the Western Hotel drinking a 1,200 Taka (A$20) cocktail, it is hard to imagine that the nation is reducing the poverty gap ratio; however in 2000, just fifteen years ago, 48.9% of the population lived at or below the poverty line compared to the modern statistic of just 26%. Bangladesh has already met several targets of the Millennium Development Goals, improvements Australia may struggle with in relation to our indigenous people.
“Would you like some water?”
Mum. Only drink Mum water, Gulam advises me. Even the bottled water in Bangladesh can be dangerous. The country has been poisoned, you see. And their poisoners were the United Nations and the World Bank. Their well-intentioned well-building program in the 1970s backfired when half of their 10 million wells were contaminated with arsenic. It took until the 1990s to see the results and now international NGOs are fighting to rectify the issue but reports say that 3,000 people per year are dying from arsenic-related cancers.
“You have telephone number? Facebook?”
The water is hot and salty and brown. Shagore calls them five foot waves, but they’re closer to two. Although, they probably look much bigger to his eleven year old eyes. The sun has darkened his skin and bleached his hair and he moves with the casual graces of the coast. People wade into the water fully-dressed between the red and yellow flags. Pine trees and palm trees and luxury hotels and a Mermaid Eco Resort guard Cox’s Bazar, the longest beach in the world. Thirty kilometres away are the official and unofficial camps of the Burmese Rohingya refugees.
“Okay. We keep in touch. I will call you, okay?”
Resanul makes me uncomfortable but I remind myself his family fled Burma in 1991 and have been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh ever since. Resanul overreaches, but I think to myself he was supposed to be resettled in Australia in 2010 before the Bangladesh government cancelled the United Nations resettlement program and he is still waiting. He asks for more money and I feel uncomfortable but I remind myself he has no passport and I have two. He can’t afford a plane to freedom and I can buy plane tickets to wherever I want. I don’t like him, I don’t know why, but I remind myself that he sleeps with his child and wife under a plastic bag roof that leaks at night.
“Hello? Yes. It is Mohammad Moklesur Rahman. I am calling like I said. I miss you, my friend.”
The future of Bangladesh is fragile. The rising trends in violence could tip Bangladesh towards extremism, but the progress in achieving equality is a force pushing the nation back towards the socialism it was founded on. Maybe analogies can be found in the national cricket team; a team that has traditionally played second-fiddle, or even third-fiddle, to the neighbouring superpowers India and Pakistan. Slow advances over the past decades allowed them admission into the International Cricket Council and now they have a youthful team that even beat world champions Australia. It is a game which Bangladeshis don’t forget, even if it was ten years ago.