PanaJournal – They are migrant workers who are also poets and writers. While they toil hard for the rest of the week at shipyards and construction sites; every Sunday; from early evening, they gather to recite the poems they have written over the week.
IT’S A SUNDAY and at Little India in Singapore, thousands of migrant workers, from Bangladesh, India and other countries have assembled, drawn by the immense attractive force that people from the same country of origin exert on each other once they are in a foreign country.
It is the only day off in the week for migrant workers and this is their favorite place to socialize, idle around, and indulge a little bit. It is early evening and the place has become a human mesh. I am negotiating every step through the forces exerted by this enormous blanket of human bodies. I am brushing against men in loose untucked shirts, moving around holding hands.
A tight circle has formed around a street vendor selling jhal muri; the national snacks of Bangladesh, a mixture of puffed rice, raw onions, and mustard oil and green chilies. Four men are sitting on the curbside, reading the facing sheets of the same newspaper, each forming own opinion about the world.
Long queues are forming and breaking outside the shop houses, the ones that double up as brothels; the men in the queue gawking at the series of elaborately groomed women sitting on the steps.
But in one shop house along Rowell Road, something unique is happening on the second floor. I have been coming here often on Sundays and I am always greeted by the same scene.
On the floor, two migrant workers are sleeping. Next to them a group of men are rehearsing a song, their ensemble comprising of the instruments popular in Bangladesh; harmonium, tabla, cymbals and an empty water drum.
Facing the musicians is a book shelf with over three hundred Bengali books. Further on, at a desk, Mohsin Malhar, a man in his early fifties, is busy working on the computer. Next to him, a group of eight men are sitting around a big table; they are a group of migrant workers who are also poets and writers.
While these workers toil hard for the rest of the week at shipyards and construction sites; every Sunday; from early evening, they gather to recite the poems they have written over the week, collect and give feedback, and celebrate on occasions like Id or one of their birthdays.
This place is called Dibashram, a place for migrant workers to practice arts and culture. It also offers emergency shelter to workers who are facing issues with their employers. Once, Dibashram even organized a wedding over Skype between a migrant worker in Singapore and his bride in Dhaka.
I am here today to check on the preparations for the first Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in Singapore that I am helping to organize together with Banglar Kontho, The Literary Centre (Singapore) and venue sponsor, The National Library of Singapore.
Banglar Kontho is the only Bengali newspaper in Singapore, run by Mohsin, who first came to Singapore as a student. Under the platform of Banglar Kontho, he encouraged the migrant workers to form activity clubs such as the Banglar Kontho Cultural Forum and the Banglar Kontho Kobi Porishod (Poetry Association) to cultivate appreciation and practice of the arts and culture among the workers.
There are over 980,800 unskilled foreign workers in Singapore. They often pay fees as high as US$4,000-US$5,000 to the employment agents back home. Once they are in Singapore, they earn anywhere between US$1,000 to US$2,000; from which they have to pay off their expenses, loans taken to pay the agent, and send some money home.
They work mostly in the construction and marine industries; tough labor made tougher under the tropical weather conditions of Singapore. When things are going fine; the workers manage to buy a smartphone and save a lot more than what they would have done back home.
But when things go wrong; they can go really wrong. Some end up getting paid a lot less than what they were promised by the agents. Some, when injured, face months of uncertainty over their case, and could face situations like denial by the employer that the injury happened at work; not being paid proper compensation during medical leave; not being given proper treatment by company-affiliated clinics; and occasional reports of being bundled to the airport to send them back to their home countries by repatriation companies.
The government has been responding by enacting measures such as mandatory provisioning of itemized pay slips and in-principal-approval letters for migrant workers stating the precise terms and conditions of employment before the workers leave their home countries for Singapore.
However, xenophobic sentiments have been becoming increasingly visible in Singapore, particularly on social media where migrants were being blamed for crowded public transport to general erosion of civility. This reached a climax during the Little India Riots of December 8, 2013; when there was an outpouring of anti-migrant feelings on Twitter and Facebook.
The contest had received submissions from 28 poets; well beyond my initial estimate of 10. Some had submitted up to six poems while the contest rules allowed only three. We had set up a well-designed website with a submission form; but none of the entries came through it. Contestants sent in their entries by either scribbling it on paper; scanning their past work and sending it by email; and even over Facebook chat.
Over the last few weeks, I had got to know the poets better. They add me on Facebook. I see pictures of them with their children; typically everyone is smiling but occasionally with drained-out eyes, the father cheek to cheek with his young daughter, in pictures taken just before he took the flight to Singapore.
I see a Facebook post by Masud Parvez Opu, a singer who has also written the lyrics for many popular songs in Bangladesh, “Mother, I am always scared that you will leave before I can see you again. Don’t leave mother, please live till I come again.”
Jahangir Alam Babu, 41, the leader of this gang of poets, is a polymath who writes poems, short stories, and features for newspapers back home. He has written and directed plays. He has also written lyrics for songs and given tunes to them.
Monir Ahmod; 27, a construction worker who writes mostly poems of rebellion under the pseudonym ‘Shromik’ or worker once told me, “I am always thinking about what to write and use my time during the commute to work and during coffee breaks to write poetry using my mobile phone. My favorite poets are Kazi Nazrul Islam and Sukanto. As you see, they are also rebel poets.”
Mohor Khan, 33, once told me, “I write only sonnets and they are usually about injustice and social ills. I feel a lot of pain when I see or think of poverty anywhere in the world. And poetry is the only way I can take that pain out of my heart.”
Mohor has not seen his wife and son for three years, “Imagine all these tall and flashy buildings here, elder brother. They have not been built just by stamping on the ground. They have been built by stamping on my youth and the youth of other workers like me. I have buried my youth under these buildings for the sake of a little comfort for my family. What can be more tragic for me?”
N Rengarajan, 28, is the only Tamil contestant. His poems are often satirical and make fun of politicians and social ills. His favorite poet is the Tamil poet and lyricist Vairamuthu. He has the habit of saying, “Ok, ok, ok, ok, ok,” in every sentence.
Syedur Rahman Liton, 30, once told me, “I haves been writing since I was fifteen. I write because I believe that writing is a way for me to influence this world in a small way by either calling for positive action or by protesting against injustices.”
Asit Kumar Barai (Bangali), 33, is also multi-talented like many of the workers here. He writes poems, novels, short stories and also plays tabla and the plastic water drum. He has acted in over twenty plays in Bangladesh and Singapore. Asit told me once, “I always keep a pen and paper in my chest pocket so that I can write poems whenever I have an idea.”
Asit is always in a jovial mood. He talks to me about his love escapades in Bangladesh, “Many girls have requested me to write a poem dedicated to them.”
He tells me stories from his childhood, “When I was twelve or thirteen, my father scolded me heavily one day. I became very angry and left home. I decided to walk all the way to India. I bought a small plastic bag with a map of Bangladesh printed on it. I really believed that this map would be enough to find my way to India. But within 10 minutes I was lost and scared. My uncle found me crying by a small road and then brought me back home.”
Mohiuddin, 26, also a construction worker once told me, “Writing is my favorite pastime but I also enjoy nature and solitude. I love the sky. I love this earth. I love people.”
Md Mukul, 24, always has the glint of innocent youth in his eyes. He has written a novel, Buker Simanaye Sukh (Happiness at heart’s edge) and a poetry collection Apurna Vasana (Unfulfilled desire) that has been published in Bangladesh. He told me once, “I miss my mother a lot. So, most of my poems are about my mother. Sometimes I spend the whole night writing.”
Soft spoken Rajib Shil Jibon, 28, is one of the most versatile among the poets. He writes profusely; on every theme, from romantic, patriotic to day to day life as a worker in Singapore. One of his poems, ‘Life of a Dustbin’, had won awards in Bangladesh. Jahirul, always carries around a thick file of all his poems, neatly written in white sheets.
On the day of the event; it is a full house at the National Library with only standing space available. More than one hundred and fifty people have turned up. Most of them have heard about the event only through social media. I see people from all races and age groups but the majority of the audience are young, college going teenagers.
Most of the poets and their cheerers have come wearing a kurta resembling the flag of Bangladesh.
“Elder brother, how close shall I stand from the microphone?” Rajib asks.
Mohar asks, “Elder brother, Can I say a few words before I start the poem to explain what it is all about?”
Sohel Rana, a construction worker, and also a lively singer whom we have invited to perform a song to add to the vibrancy of the event, asks me, “Elder brother, will we singers also get some certificate?”
The event comes to a climax with rousing performances by the singers, who sing about their pride in Bengali culture. The audience, perhaps with limited exposure to this proud and sophisticated culture prior to this event, join in, clapping with the beats. When the singers can’t control their enthusiasm and begin dancing on stage, some from the audience can’t control their hands and feet too.
The winners are announced soon.
In third place, is N. Rengarajan and his poem ‘Lessons from Circumstances’; with three anecdotes; one where he asked a firefly if she burns in fear of the dowry she has to pay for her daughter’s marriage; the second about the modern nuclear family that pushes out the old mother who had once picked up the son whenever he fell down as a child; and the third about ‘money’ which he says is the only disease, unlike cancer, AIDS, Ebola, and even love; that kills by its absence rather than its presence.
The second prize goes to Rajib Shil Jibon, who in his poem titled Aadho Aalo Aadho Adhar (Shades of Light and Dark), talks about the sensation of falling in love as a twilight experience:
Perhaps I will see a kite looking for its string
A rain drop paused, a search waiting in front of me
The magician spreading a mountain of illusions
And calling us by waving its discarded feathers
The first prize goes to Zakir Hussain Khokon, who talks about the loneliness of migrant life and his longing for his wife in his poem Pocket that has the lines:
I remember when I returned this time
my heart dissolved in your tears
The pocket of my shirt was wet
Reaching the end of my memories
I wear that shirt every night and write love poems to you
Do I really write poems
Or do my poems cry with me?
After the event, I talk to some people from the audience. Treepti says, “It was hair-raising. It was such a revelation; I could never imagine that they could have such depth of thoughts. I was so humbled.”
Tammie, a student, tells me, “We couldn’t imagine that they are so cultured. It is so heart-warming to see that migrant workers have such talents outside their jobs. And in a way, it is a bit shocking that we could relate to their poems so well.”
Ryosuke, a migrant worker from Japan, albeit a high skilled one, tells me, “I thought they would be nervous and may be difficult to approach. But they were always smiling to each other and everyone else. I don’t think they felt like this was a competition. I felt that they were just so happy to be presenting to people like us, who they don’t have a chance to communicate with in their daily lives. And this friendly attitude of theirs spread all over the room.”
George Szirtes, the Hungarian-born British poet and winner of T.S. Eliot prize, who happened to be at the event, writes about the poets in his blog, “They are confident in delivery, some dramatic, some songlike, some gesticulating, some very still. …. The [best of them] have idea, images, a sense of place and of complex emotions. Some are particularly moving but all are moving. Here they are, for the very first time in public, recognized for the creative human personalities they are, not just lost figures in the distance.”
Zakir’s supervisor Mr Jonathan Tan writes a poem as a congratulatory note to Zakir; it’s titled ‘Wish for Pocket’ and has the lines:
You write poem so that she can read your heart,
Your teary, hurting heart,
And she says, come to me you weary soul, rest in me.
The event is covered by the local media extensively and also by the major newspapers in Bangladesh. Local poets Alfian Sa’at and Zhou Decheng translate the winning poems to Malay and Chinese as a small gift to the poets.
Congratulatory comments start pouring in; for the poets and the singers for their performance and for Singapore and its residents for hosting such an event. There is also some good humor; messages on Facebook asking the poets to be mindful of their safety at work and not get lost thinking about a poetic line.
HUMAN EMOTIONS AND FEELINGS
After the event, Rajib Shil Jibon says,
“Elder brother, life as a migrant has been a mixed bag. But do you know the saddest day of my life here? A few years back, I was having my lunch during the break one day. My supervisor came to me and gave me some work right then in a rude way. I was very hungry but had to leave my food right then. I was very angry but stayed quiet. I just kept singing our national anthem, Sonar Bangla, softly, till I finished the job. I was feeling very worthless that day. But then, when everyone at my workplace saw my photograph in the newspaper with the award, all of them, people from different races who work with me, came to congratulate me. Then I recognized this happy-bird called respect. This will forever remain as the sweetest memory in my life.”
When we had begun preparing for the contest, most people including myself were referring to the contestants as ‘migrant workers.’ I noticed that with time, most including me had begun referring to them as ‘poets’. So perhaps there is also a case for organizing a poetry contest for Investment Bankers or Digital entrepreneurs, professionals normally considered to drench the soul dry.
Maybe that is why we held this poetry contest for unskilled migrant workers. Perhaps after listening to their poetry; we would not see them as mere components of an economic machine. Perhaps, we would understand again the universality of human emotions and feelings.
Perhaps, at the same time, we will also relish this diversity of human expression, through this brief exposure to a not too familiar culture. Perhaps, we will not think of arts as an elitist endeavor but as something capable of energizing a life around all the drudgery. Perhaps, the migrant workers too, once they see a full-room of listeners, will appreciate that this wealthy society doesn’t consider them as mere disposables.
Perhaps, it will be a gentle nudge for everyone to be more compassionate.***