Food conundrums for the Bangladeshi Worker in the ‘Arob Probash’

It was a gulf sultry summer evening as I sit in an Andhra restaurant that is staffed by an eclectic crew from Hyderabad, Madurai, Kolkata from India and Barisal in Bangladesh. I ask my friend who is a service staff to take me to an unofficial Bangladeshi ‘Mess’ or an eatery where reasonably priced set meals are available, as was discussed for a few interactions earlier. This particular neighborhood in the capital of a Gulf nation was initially all residential which has become more commercial as the years have passed by. My friend, who is educated, comes from a middle class family in Barisal and his other two brothers also live in the same town. He did not work in Bangladesh, and had his first job in the Gulf. He was not able to find something suitable back home and rather preferred to come overseas to find his destiny. As we walk through some dark labyrinthine alleyways behind the restaurant lane where he works to reach an area that is pictorially out of an urban area in South Asia, hidden from the rich Arab imaginaries of the Gulf. The area is flooded with folks chattering in Bangla, as my friend waves hands to people who recognize and shout ‘Salaam’ to him.

 

My friend is enthusiastically keen to show me the place. He points out shops where Bangladeshi snacks such as ‘Chola But’ are available for a rate, which is financially accessible to the migrant bachelor bodies of the Gulf. The area reminds me of similar Bangladeshi communities such as Rolla Bank Street in Sharjah or Kuala Lumpur Chinatown or Desker Road in Singapore. We then twist and turn through alleyways and turn left to a landed property, which has a terrible stench of sweat. This is strangely a minority Hindu Bangladeshi eatery as my friend presumed that I am Hindu and do not eat Beef, both two nearly incorrect assumptions. He did not take me to his usual Muslim Bangladeshi eatery, which is also not formal, in the eyes of the law as they mix beef in the goat mutton curry there, although the rates are even cheaper.

 

The informal eatery had a bunch of young men chatting way outside the main entrance, which is obviously non, descript. We enter the door navigating through a courtyard where a sweaty young man was peeling potatoes. We enter a room, which had a man sitting on the floor on a newspaper digging into fish curry and rice. The room had a Hindu prayer place/altar attached to the wall, with two men, one presumably in his thirties and one older, keen to chat up. The room has small and congested with a bunk bed and a table with two large containers with rice and fish curry.

 

They immediately detect that I do not come from Bangladesh from my accent, and rather from across the border. The younger ‘food entrepreneur’ made a slight pitch commenting that many successful white collar professionals especially with a precise emphasis on ‘engineers’ from my country come to him to buy food from his eatery. The hygiene levels were certainly not the best, which reflects in the reasonable price structure affordable for the migrant worker. Migrant Diasporas configure their own social infrastructure to recreate a semblance of home, in the near abroad as a coping mechanism.

 

My friend ordered a fish curry and a vegetable dish, skipping on the rice, which he gets, from the restaurant that he works. He avails three square meals a day there, all south Indian hence he comes to this informal eating place to pick up food native to his home country. He however was keen in nailing the economic cost of migration to come to the Gulf on the way back after picking up the meal.

 

‘The Bangladeshi, himself is to blame for his predicament’ my educated friend indicts the racket called ‘Adam Bepari’ or the agent.

 

The friend or relative extorts a huge sum to bring the worker from back home. This is a disease inflicting Bangladeshi Migrant Workers from Singapore to the Gulf. The migration cost for a work visa charged by the Bangladeshi ‘Adam Bepari’ is in the range of three lakh taka upwards, much lower than Singapore though where certification costs bump up the costs. The worker often takes three years to pay back the migration cost, often taken as a loan from a bank or having sold off the family silver. When the worker cannot pay back the sum, the worker goes underground after absconding from the sponsor. My friend who is middle class and educated and should not actually be serving tables comments that Bangladeshi boys often do not do anything back home apart from indulging in non productive activities such as politics should work hard and take up work back home especially in the garments and tourism sector to earn a living instead off coming overseas. He was nostalgic and optimistic about Bangladesh’s potential.

 

With a glint in his eyes, we bade good-bye, as my friend taught me more about migration than many a PhD educated human geographer in this conversion.


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