Migrant Notes: Memory and Culture

A section of people called migrants spend most of their lives away from their families and country to build, support and teach other societies whom they adopt. My parents have done that, for twenty five plus years, where your adopted home, is lost within no time when your job finishes, you retire and you head back to a country that you have left in the pink of your youth, a country which you do not recognise anymore. Millions of Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and especially Filipinos build other countries across the Middle East and Southeast as well as North America (paramedics in the United States especially nursing professionals).

Anthony Bourdain’s anthropological enterprise ‘Parts Unknown’, where there is more B Roll, than actual time eating and cooking food, in its episode on the Philippines got me teared up, where it focused on the flight of the overseas Filipino Worker, sending balikbaliyan, the Christmas parcel, to make sure that their gifts make them real and relevant to their families, during a season of bonding in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation of 80 million people, of which 10 million are OFW’s.

I grew up in Muscat, next door to a Filipino Family which deeply liked their karaoke singing on a weekend eve. Shared emotions and experiences have a certain ingrained pathos and commonality. The subaltern diaspora communities from Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road to the Malls of Dubai, have a common end, serving the families left behind.

Artists as Migrants in Singapore

I observe a lot of migrant related activity (if not activism) over the past one year in Singapore, with plenty of events, competitions and citizen centric engagements, which brings the migrant regularly back into the mainstream conversation. Most of these events are kind, create mini celebrities out of migrant brothers, who release books, music cds and perform in theatrical plays. We ‘like’ them on social media, sometimes without realizing that many of these brothers have attended college, and have been performing/published artistes back home. They are made migrants due to economic realities back home. I am fortunate to know them in person and are a delight interacting. They are also normal writers and artists who are innovative in plying their trade and have a day job to their bills. Many of the strategic diasporic elites do that too, right?

Navigating migration through language

Language is the first barrier for a migrant as soon one lands up and clears passport control in an alien land. For a migrant from the hinterland of South Asia, English is familiar but not a friend; and English becomes a cultural resource, and a tool for survival.

The local variant of English makes the language known to the migrant familiar. ‘Singlish’ is a bridge between the local population and the migrant. I have met migrants who speak fluent ‘Singlish’ as having lived in the island for a long time. The lack of knowledge of the language, becomes a constraint in communicating with their bosses, public sector agencies and the wider community in their everyday life.

When a migrant does not have an understanding of English, he forfeits the ability to convey the symptoms of his sickness to the doctor, or standing up to the unfair behaviour from the superiors.

The things that we take for granted such as writing a letter, is a matter of life and death for the migrant.  Due to this communicative inequity, the worker’s contract is substituted without his knowledge and legal papers are being forced upon his throat, as he does not understand the language of power, the Lingua Franca called English.

I would like to illustrate a case in point, a migrant brother known as Sromik Monir, a poet with the Bengali Language Literary Group ‘Banglar Kantha Cultural Foundation’ communicates with his superiors and fellow workers in Chinese; the language which he had to learn upon landing in Singapore from Bangladesh as most of his fellow workers are from China.

There are Bangla to Chinese Language books available in the community grocery shops in the mini Bangladesh neighbourhood of Desker Road and Rowell Road. They call their  all powerful Chinese bosses as ‘Long Chong’ which has entered the local lexicon of the migrant.

Banglar Kantha, the local Bengali Language newspaper in Singapore publishes a section in the paper on learning the English language. Singaporean Social Enterprise Social Development Initiative conducts English Language Classes for the migrant community. Other Non Profits/Faith Groups also conduct similar language classes for the respective community groups for migrants.

This will be thus truly, empowerment through language.









The Subtle Politics of Migration

Imperial conquests by the European countries especially Great Britain left an indelible imprint on the Asian Subcontinent. Bengal was the first territory won by the British in 1757 at the Battle of Plassey, almost a century prior to the mutiny. Millions perished in the 1943 Bengal Famine while food grains were diverted to the front lines in Europe during the war.

Post Colonial histories are different in the sense the theaters of suffering have shifted. Post independence countries of the Asian Subcontinent did not meet the aspirations of their populace, with the noted exception of Singapore which is an economic miracle.
Countries such as Bangladesh which won its independence in 1971 is a major manpower exporter along with Philippines, Indonesia and Nepal in this region. Migration at any cost occurs due to economic despair. The burning hunger to provide for the family drives the migrant to sell precious assets to render the economic cost of migration.
The migrant arrives in his host country with hopes and dreams, often to be shattered due the unfair information asymmetry between him and the recruiting ecosystem. The exploitation begins from his village, often perpetrated by his family friend or distant relative. The migrant is at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy in the host country. He is the ‘Subaltern’ in this context.

He was not born a worker, as his family is capable to pay his migration cost. He took on hard labor oriented work as he wanted to earn his daily bread. He can write, sing, act and draw as he is a talent like any other.  The local activist sees him as resource for the ’cause’. His muted voice is co-opted in global advocacy themes. He does not understand the issue as his language skills are a barrier.

The academic converts his story into a case study and artiste groups are interested in performances which have an exotic element.

But where is the migrant in all these contexts? After all, He is the migrant who ‘can’t speak’ in a Spivakian vain.

Mobile, Mustafa and the Migrant in Singapore: Side-notes from the Globalization Narrative

It was a crowded Sunday evening (as usual) in Singapore’s Little India area at one of the major bus stops perpendicular to the iconic Mustafa Centre on Syed Alwi Lane, the retail cathedral of the South Asian Migrant, which is also an organizing node for social interactions on the weekly off for the migrant worker. Evening was receding into the night, the bus stop was getting crowded by the minute with migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh in India and Bangladesh as the sense that their precious Sunday has flown away and the early morning commute on Monday morning dawning on them. The motley cacophony of these different linguistic sounds define the ethos of the area, and which without any doubt is very South Asian. It is a lively part of the city, which may be too lively for my Singaporean friends who try to avoid the area on weekends due to the crowd and some taxi uncles have often complained to me regarding the sheer disregard that the migrants have of traffic regulations as the crowd often spills on the street. One taxi uncle of Indian decent once quipped: “This is not India, in Singapore you have to follow rules”. May be the impact of the Little India Riots a few years back is still fresh in the consciousness of people and hence there are  (recently imposed) restrictions on drinking liquor across the Little India area in Singapore on weekends after a certain time in the evening in the interests of maintaining public order.

These hundreds of thousands of migrant workers build and maintain Singapore’s global infrastructure such as the Marina Bay Sands, Public Housing Estates, Hospitals and Universities. But these workers stay far away from the city centre where they live in dormitories on the outskirts of the city-state near the Malaysia border. These dormitories are on the lines of integrated, self-contained townships some with even a cinema hall, screening South Asian Films at a subsidized cost. Not all the dormitories are that fancy though, with cramped accommodation being a defining characteristic. But, the Sunday ritual of traveling to the Little India area for the South Asian Migrant is a sacrosanct affair, and no matter the distance and the time required, the migrant will make it the Little India area to catch up with friends and buy their weekly provisions. It takes almost two hours one way on public transport to reach the Little India area from Tuas Industrial area on the fringes where the dormitories are located.

I really enjoy the atmospherics and the cultural milieu of spending Sunday in the alleys of Little India perching my self next to Khana Basmati, a prominent Bangladeshi Restaurant frequented by migrants, as I observe deep fried and oily snacks (Bhajiyya in Hindi or Tele Bhaja in Bengali) being sold as hot cakes. The fried snacks however brutally unhealthy are lukewarm but remind me of street food in Mumbai/Kolkata. Hence, on a Sunday late evening a crowd of workers converged on the bus stop.

The Bus number 66 came; I was pushed and shoved without any regard for the orderly etiquette of the queue in Singapore, which reminded me of my days in a bus stop in South Asia certainly. The workers probably were panicking to grab a seat on the bus, as their journey back to the dormitory would take a while. The bus was theoretically a spacious, double decker one, but with hardly space to breathe, let alone breathe.  In this rather limited space, my South Indian looking neighbor took out his android phone and started reading the news on Dina Malar website, a prominent Tamil News Paper in India. Within my eyesight as well, I saw a Bangladeshi man reading news on Prothom Alo Online, the premier Bengali Language Daily in Dhaka. I saw a few others too reading news on the phone during my thirty-minute bus ride with my South Asian compatriots. The migrant keeps in touch with the daily developments in his home country due the smart phone and the reasonably priced high-speed 4G data connectivity in Singapore. Almost every migrant carries a smart phone now a days, resonating with the actions of Syrian refugees in Europe who will hold on to their smart phones at any cost, as it is their last connection to their old lives.

sunday little india Migration is a development resulting out of poor employment opportunities in their home markets and slightly better pay in manpower importing countries such as Singapore. The feeling on being connected with their families on Skype on their phones (such as one I saw on the bus) or reading the news of their native districts back home, surely make the burden of being a migrant more bearable. I am a second-generation economic migrant with my wife in India and parents in Oman, and do understand the sentiment very well.

An Artsy Sunday Afternoon

Today was an usual Sunday Afternoon. I woke up late, grabbed lunch at my local kopitiam mamak stall out of sheer hunger having skipped dinner last evening. The lunch plate is modelled on the banana leaf, on which ‘Sapaad’ or the lunch spread is served upon in southern India. The plate however, was a melamine one, and the fish curry and the fried fish was bleeding colourful. The gravy was on the rice, just as I like it. The fried papad was crunchy.

The Anna or elder brother (as i address him) who runs the Indian Muslim Mamak stall at the Block near to where I reside at Sunset Way, was over keen and served an additional portion of chicken which was not needed honestly. I had this meal with my favourite ginger tea and the Sunday Straits Times, eagerly checking whether I missed any story online, which is there in print.

After a late lunch, i took a cab to avoid the heat to Little India to a space which doubles up as the office of the only Bengali Newspaper in Singapore; Banglar Kantha and the Cultural Space for Migrants- Dibashram, which translates roughly translates to as the day shelter for migrants. The Editor in Chief of the Newspaper Mr. AKM Mohsin, is a community pioneer, leading many cultural initiatives for the Bangladeshi Migrant Worker Community in Singapore.

So, i walked up to his office located at a strategic intersection on Rowell Road in Little India area, located above a popular Indian Restaurant where I drink tea whenever I drop by this area.  Mr. Mohsin had not arrived yet, so i wait for him while a couple of migrant workers play the harmonium and sing folk music loudly, all while i read Amit Chaudhuri’s ‘Calcutta’. Quite a combination and a prelude to the latter half of the day.

Mr. Mohsin walks in with Mr. Dewan Mizan, an art teacher and performing artist from Dhaka visiting the region on an exhibition tour. The artiste and a couple of 12004150_10207133714128919_7409693190157143696_nothers huddle up as they put together an exhibition of his sketches. The windows of the space converted in to an impromptu art gallery looked unique in a sultry afternoon

The plan was to perform art while a small skit was being performed by Bangladeshi Poets touching upon pressing issues faced by the Bangladeshi migrant. The Poets, enacted the skit in flesh and blood, with the flair of a professional, hardly revealing that they are battle hardened construction site engineers to boot. The emotional flair of oratory indicates a duality, typical of the migrant, who straddles multiple existences with ease.

It was surreal to experience the power of art, transform the ambience in an instant and bring out everyday issues in a silence shattering way.This initiative by Mr. Mohsin and Banglar Kantha/Bangladesh Centre Singapore/Dibashram is to be applauded as the event indeed was special.

I was on the introductory panel for the exhibition opening, explaining to the non Bengali speaking visitors in English. I believe though art transcends language, and the friends who did not understand Bangla, understood the vibe if not the precise content matter of the conversations.

Globalization has many downsides, but the confluence of migration narratives in an art form, certainly made my Sunday afternoon richer.