This interview with Harinder Baweja was done before the extension of her visa (due to expire tomorrow) by the Indian government. She is confined to a safe house and she does not how long the extension is for. She was awarded the Prix Simone de Beauvoir by the French government for her writing but was not allowed to receive the award from French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he visited India last month. Here is an excerpt from the interview.
Do you think you have become a political pawn?
I think so. And I am not a political person. I am a writer. I donâ€™t do politics. I just love to live in Kolkata because my language is Bengali. And I love Bengal. I am writer who writes in Bengali not in English. I want to be with my readers, with my Bengali friends. And my relatives from Bangladesh can come to see me in Kolkata. So I feel at home in Kolkata. I donâ€™t want to do any politics. I donâ€™t want to be used for political purposes. I begged many times not to use me for any political purposes. I am a simple human being. I write for humanity and human rights. I want to live on my own and also write whatever I believe in. So I am not harmful for society, I want to do good for it. I want to write about womenâ€™s rights and freedom so that they can get self-esteem, strength. There are so many women who love my writing. So itâ€™s important for them and me. Also I can find meaning in my life if I could live here peacefully. I was living here peacefully until I was used for political purpose.
Sheâ€™s a gorgeous slip of a thing, with huge brown eyes and unusual colouring…
Yes. I am not kidding. That is what the article says…..Ok ok here is a more useful quote from the interview:
She is frustrated that too few people understand the difference between Fairtrade fashion and ethical fashion. The latter is about meeting legal minimums such as the International Labour Organisationâ€™s convention on labour rights and basic health-and-safety regulations, she explains patiently, and no doubt for the umpteenth time. Fairtrade, what People Tree is all about, goes a step farther, using fashion as a tool for social development and to provide an income for marginalised communities.
G is from Faridpur. She came to Dhaka to work as a domestic maid. Her employers left to go abroad for a while and gave her permission to take up another day time job and maintain the house as well. She found a job as a “helperi” in a seventh floor garment factory in London Plaza, Uttara. She worked there for two months. The experience left a deep impression on her.
She has three recollections of the place. The constant swearing, her docked wages and the cruel treatment of a girl suspected of theft of a small amount of material. When she recalled the episode of the alleged theft her eyes filled up with tears. One day during her time at the factory at about 8 or 9 in the evening, a certain girl who worked near her was caught by the “checkup” person at the gate with a piece of cloth of the size of a woman’s petticoat in her bag. She was immediately accused of stealing the piece of cloth. The girl denied it vehemently and insisted it was a plant. “Justice” was summarily dispensed. She was beaten by the “line-chief” using his hands and a thin cane. She was made to stand on a table whilst all the operators and helpers stood around to watch. He proceeded to cut her long hair. She begged to be beaten and for her hair to be spared as she was married but the line chief was not in a mood to listen. He cut her long hair. He then threatened to tar her as well - using what G calls “alcatra” or pitch bitumen as used in road works. He was “persuaded” not to.
When I asked G what the other workers made of it, her answer was surprising. There was no sympathy for her. She deserved what she got was the general mood. And it got around quick that she had quarelled with her husband and that despite coming from a good family background she had come to work in the factory. Both these things counted against her. There was no solidarity amongst the workers - rumour and innuendo worked against that and of course there was no organisation to represent her interests. G also wonders about the social outcome of that day and how difficult it would have been for the girl to go back to her husband and explain her punishment.
G harbours her own grudge against the factory. She said that leaving the premises was not an easy matter. Gates were locked including the emergency ones and that you needed the management’s permission in the form of a “gate pass.” The gate pass is additional to a red card which entitles the carrier to enter and leave the premises as an employee. Once however she managed to leave the premises on an emergency with only her red card. In her rush she did not take a gate pass but did explain the situation to the guard at the door when leaving. When she returned the next day, her punishment was swift - the management docked a month’s wages. She thanks her luck that she had a place to go and sleep and food to eat.
Read the other “Stories from Dhaka”
Mofidul Hoque wears many hats. He is a prolific writer, a publisher of books, a translator of books, a cultural pundit and many other things. I caught up with him the other day when he had on his curatorâ€™s hat for Dhakaâ€™s Liberation War Museum. I went to see him on some matter but took the opportunity to get him to fill out my â€œfive things interviewâ€ sheet - hastily typed minutes before I saw him. I threatened to put it up on this blog if it was remotely interesting, which it was bound to be, and he politely, but I guess a little reluctantly, agreed.
Mofidul Hoque in London earlier this year at my all time favourite piece of sculpture - remembering those who fell in the International Brigade fighting fascism in Spain . Taken with Nokia 6680.
For those of you who donâ€™t know, the Liberation War Museum is an institution with potential to be of great societal value given the current circumstances in Bangladesh. As well as the preservation of relics and artifacts of the liberation war, the museum has an inspiring outreach and oral history program. If you are wondering about the circumstances I refer to above, let me quote Yvette Claire Rosser from her 2004 monograph “Indoctrinating Minds, A Case Study of Bangladesh: “…the history of the genocide, the bravery and camaraderie of the Liberation War of 1971 is in jeopardy of being obscured.” Yup. Correct. There has been a concerted attempt to induce a memory loss regarding those times. In this context, the LWM is a critical and essential project. Anyway hereâ€™s the â€œ5 things interviewâ€ (answers received 27 February). Next time I see Mofidul Hoque, I will need to ask him what â€œneutrality in depicting historyâ€ actually means. Isnâ€™t history a contested space? (more…)
Suraya got married when she was twelve. Her husband, a first cousin and 28 years of age, left her one month after the birth of her child having married someone else. One and a half months later he took the child away without her knowledge. In the weeks and months following this kidnap, Suraya became withdrawn and would not stay at home. She would wander around the village and in the fields. She would not talk to anyone. The child is now 5 years old, and was only re-united with Suraya a year ago after a death bed plea by the father of the ex-husband to reunite mother with child. The child went back to Suraya but had no feelings for her. He acknowledges her as his mother but does not call her mother. Indeed, he prefers to stay with his paternal grandmother. And a few days ago, the paternal grandmother took him away again. Suraya provided for his schooling in the year that he was with her family but he receives no schooling at his grandmotherâ€™s.
At 14 she went to work for a garment factory in Mirpur, Dhaka. No one asked her age when she enrolled in Vision. She could pass for a thirteen year old today, and four years ago she must have looked younger. The â€œregimeâ€ at Vision was tough.