Published in The Weekend Independent on 25 November 2011
I’d taken two steps past my driveway when I noticed a rickshaw puller conveniently parked on the opposite site of the road. Our eyes met in that “jabo” kind of way and he slowly pulled a singlet over a toned chest before wheeling his way over with a smile.
I immediately sensed there was something different about him. He hadn’t manically rushed towards me for a “foreigner’s” fare, and when I asked to go to Tejgaon’s Nabisco, he replied, “Sure thing” in English. But it was more than just that.
While many rickshaw pullers in the diplomatic area (which is not where I live) have a good command of English, journeys with such persons almost always involve a barrage of questions that are loaded with taka-giving hints. The finale may consist of a dramatic (if not theatrical) scoff at anything but a blue coloured note.
So I was a little surprised to travel in total silence until we’d almost reached Nabisco. The rickshaw puller waved at the factories opposite and said, “The power is out along this side of the road. I’ve no idea why.”
I was startled – his English wasn’t just good, it was casual and thus, excellent.
“Where did you learn English?” I finally asked.
“I used to work for the UN,” he replied.
I gave him my business card and asked for a call: I was intrigued by this softly-spoken man.
Our first interview took place a few months ago and it was conducted entirely in English. Monir arrived 10 minutes early, wearing a crisp striped shirt, smart trousers and perfectly polished shoes. He said he’d taken the day off work and looked as though he’d arrived for a job interview. Indirectly perhaps, it was…
Monirul Islam Monir was born in Aichgati village in Khulna. After finishing Class 10, he came to Dhaka four years ago because there was no work in the village he still loves and misses. This sad state of affairs propels most of Dhaka’s rickshaw drivers towards the capital from their rural homes. The trend is so common that Dhaka has unofficially become “the rickshaw capital of the world,” with somewhere between half a million to a million rickshaws plying its busy streets.
However Monir initially had his sights set on something higher than merely pulling a rickshaw. While in Khulna, he met an inspector from “Group for Security,” which transports cash to banks. Monir received training and began working as a guard for “Cash in Transit” in Dhaka.
Monir was then sub-contracted to work as a security guard for UNHCR. He earned Tk 8,000 a month and worked both day and night shifts. Time passed (undoubtedly slowly), and Monir missed his family. He applied for 12 days leave but was only permitted five. When he returned from Khulna after a 10 day absence, his manager had already appointed a relative to take his place and Monir was out of a job.
Monir then found work with Security Services Limited. He guarded the Indian embassy on 12 hour shifts before shifting to Brunei’s embassy. His monthly salary was only Tk 7,000, but he kept the job out of sheer desperation. He quickly accumulated a debt of Tk 10,000 at local shops and realised his situation was unsustainable.
While standing guard in front of Brunei’s embassy, Monir got chatting with rickshaw pullers parked nearby. They spoke of foreign clients paying “handsome amounts” – up to Tk 500 for a single journey. As the rates are extravagant, Monir said many rickshaw pullers linger outside foreign clubs and embassies, irrespective of how many hours pass before a customer arrives.
Monir said there aren’t any specific “rickshaw gangs” in the wealthy areas and he’s witnessed very few altercations or rifts between rickshaw pullers over “territory.”
He said, “There’s an unwritten rule that drivers have certain customers. Everyone knows everyone.”
Although Monir was swayed into becoming a rickshaw driver, it’s simply not in his nature to hang around for hours on end. Monir generally works in Gulshan, Banani and Mohakali, and explained that, “I fix the amount I have to earn each day, which is usually Tk 300. It could be less if I’m feeling weak. I don’t wait around, though sometimes I make a round trip around the guesthouses.”
When I ask whether pulling a rickshaw is difficult, he simply held up his palms to reveal a thick band of calluses.
“I think it’s taking a toll on my health and I should stop,” says the ardent non-smoker.
Traffic police are also a major source of irritation in his working life.
Monir said, “Traffic police don’t even treat us as human beings.”
He likened their abuse of power to “a king and his subjects.”
He said intimidation is constant and he was once struck by a baton for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He could have just asked me to move,” shrugged Monir.
So what does Monir really want to do with his life?
“My qualifications are small,” he said, “But I’m interested in computers. I like graphic design and browsing the internet. I need a computer of my own.”
When I asked how many times Monir has used a computer, he turned coy.
“Once I secretly used a computer at UNHCR’s office.” He’s had one or two further opportunities since – and can’t wait for the next one.
Monir hasn’t heard of Facebook, but said he “hopes to [know about it] one day.”
Nor is he aware of Digital Bangladesh, though he describes Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as his “favourite,” along with the Father of the Nation.
Monir dreams of owning a small business in IT that could provide a steady income for his wife and three-month-old daughter.
“I would like my business to have its own website. Or maybe even two sites…” he trails off wistfully, before explaining that setting it up would require an initial investment of Tk 50,000 – a vast, unattainable sum at present.
Thus his focus is on the immediate future. Monir said he could lead a “good life according to my standards” on a monthly salary of Tk 15,000, but he is yet to come close to earning it. Nevertheless, he believes that his honesty and diligence – and, I would add – a keen intelligence – will eventually lead him to the “right path.”
Monir currently lives alone in a small room. The roof and walls are made of tin and the floor, brick. His pregnant wife returned to Khulna shortly before giving birth, because neither have relatives in Dhaka to help care for their baby. In fact, only Monir’s wife and mother-in-law know he’s a rickshaw puller, as the job’s status is “the lowest of all.” Monir initially concealed his real source of income from his wife, but she was quick to notice his shirt was dirty when he returned home – not to mention the dead giveaway, his callused hands.
“She cried for a long time when she found out,” said Monir sadly, but was quick to emphasise that they are very much in love.
When we meet a few months later, Monir laments that his “situation hasn’t changed much. I haven’t saved any money. If I could, I’d return to Khulna now. I don’t want to stay in Dhaka another minute – it suffocates me. But I stay because I can earn more here…”
By 2021, will Digital Bangladesh have lifted the likes of Monir out of the vicious cycle of poverty and drudgery? By learning new skills and gaining access to the technology he so craves, there’s a chance Monir could be reunited with his family once and for all. The alternative is to allow the talents of a generation to evaporate into thin air – just like the sweat of a rickshaw puller.
If you know of an opportunity that may exist for Monir, please contact me via this blog or at email@example.com
UPDATE: 10 May 2012
Shortly after posting this article, I received an email from a software entrepreneur who was born in Bangladesh and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. “Anis” – which is not his real name, as he prefers to remain anonymous, wrote, “I found your blog post regarding Monir Hossain’s dream of becoming a graphic designer. If he still needs help, I am interested in assisting him, by either:
1) Buying him a computer;
2) Offering him a job as a designer apprentice in Dhaka.”
I sent Monir’s contact details to Anis, and the two eventually made contact after overcoming some mobile network connection problems.
In April, Anis wrote to me again.
“Hope things are well. I have got Monir started with some money. The rest is up to him. If you get a chance please do follow-up with him to see how he is doing. One concern I have about him is that he is more concerned about what others think of him than what he needs to focus on. I am hoping his sincerity with his goals will help him overcome that. I would sincerely appreciate if you could reach out to him. I truly hope he is successful with his dreams. Thanks for all the wonderful blog posts.”
I asked Anis what prompted his decision to help Monir, a rickshaw puller he’s never met and likely never will.
“Pay it forward,” he replied.
I admit I didn’t know what he meant, though now realise I ought to have. “Pay it forward” is a concept that dates back to 317 BC, when it was featured in a wildly popular play in Athens called “The Grouch.” However the script, along with the concept, vanished into thin air for centuries. Fortunately, in 1784 Benjamin Franklin rediscovered the beautiful sentiment – and the rest is history. There’s even a “Pay it Forward Day” observed in 35 countries. Since it began in 2007, more than 300,000 acts of kindness have been documented.
An anonymous spokesperson for Alcoholics Anonymous offered a poignant description of what “Pay it forward” entails: “You can’t pay anyone back for what has happened to you, so you try to find someone you can pay forward.”
In my opinion, Anis couldn’t have chosen a more worthy recipient.
When my husband and I spoke to Monir yesterday, his voice was brimming with joy.
He said, “Anis gave me Tk 25,000 [US$304] via MoneyGram.”
Monir now owns the possession he desperately yearned for: a Pentium 4 computer. For years he was resigned to the fact that a computer would always be out of his reach – owning one is a source of enormous personal significance.
Monir doesn’t have an internet connection yet, but hopes to get one as soon as he can. A friend has also lent him a set of speakers. I’ll also give Monir a dictionary and some books to complement the English grammar books he bought years ago.
When asked to describe how he feels about Anis’ act of selfless generosity, Monir used the following Bangla expression, “Now I feel that my birth was successful.”
Sherpa, my husband and translator, said this roughly translates to, “My life is now fulfilled.” Monir repeatedly said how happy he is nowadays – and this is all thanks to an exceptionally kind-hearted Bangladeshi expat.
Monir said his next goal is to enrol in a computer training course, but at present he cannot afford to do so. There are many organisations in Bangladesh that provide computer literacy training for free or a minimal charge; however most of these courses almost exclusively target the disadvantaged youth or operate in rural areas. Nevertheless, I’ll send an appeal (ie, this blog post) on Monir’s behalf to what appeared the most promising computer training opportunities in terms of his personal circumstances: Dhaka Ahsania Mission, Democracy Watch, Computer Literacy Program, Bangladesh, Bangladesh Skill Development Council, Islamic Relief Worldwide, UNESCO Dhaka, D.Net Development Research Network, the Ministry of Education’s Education Board Computer Center and Bangladesh Computer Council. Let’s see who acts first!
However it may very well be the case that Monir, as a man in his thirties, is ineligible for the training opportunities mentioned above. If so, the only remaining possibility again lies with an individual. If you’re willing and able to provide additional financial support to further Monir’s professional ambitions that were kick-started by Anis, please get in touch with him. He is also interested in finding an alternative occupation that is less harmful to his health and his family’s living standards. His mobile number is 0191 8470 086.
Finally, as my time in Bangladesh is rapidly drawing to a close, I won’t be able to fulfil Anis’s request to stay in touch with Monir and offer some encouragement and advice. Monir is a wonderful person and I’m certain that forming a friendship with him will be as rewarding for you as it would be to him. Thanks to Anis, Monir’s journey to reaching his full potential has begun. Yet the road ahead is long and filled with uncertainties. However with the right support, I feel certain Monir will overcome any obstacle that lies in his path. My greatest hope is that Monir’s current pot-holed path is replaced with obstacles of an entirely different nature.