Saturday, 28 February 2015

Coal Street

Coal Street, Barapukuria Coal Mine, Parbatipur, Dinajpur.

Coconuts, jackfruit, fish, papaya and rice… there’s generosity to its geography. Bangladesh has a landscape that perpetually gives.

It’s the morning and I’m sitting in Saju’s living room. It’s not his Dinajpur Town residence but the old cottage in a row of old cottages at Phulbari’s Barapukuria Coal Mine: the place he calls home on workdays.

The housing strip is called the old staff barracks. It currently houses various employees unable to be accommodated elsewhere. Forty-three-year-old Md Shajiul Islam, Saju Bhai, is the mine’s assistant manager in the mechanical sector. He’s been working there for just short of eleven years.

The minor concrete laneway features cute front gardens of vines and fruit trees – papayas and mangoes – but the street has no name. Unimaginatively I’m calling it Coal Street.

Inside, from the thought-about check curtains, the spotless cane sofa set, the general order, you can tell Saju’s wife has been there. But she’s not there now – she’s in town. Breakfast is done and I’m sitting alone. Saju’s gone off somewhere, promising to be back soon.

It’s strange to be in Saju Bhai’s living room. For one thing there’s a guest house at Barapukuria, where the mine managers suggested I should stay. Foreigners usually do. There’s a club, a large pond and long tree-lined driveways – Barapukuria has those British-style trappings almost as though wishing it were a tea plantation.

But it’s better to stay in Coal Street. It’s more personal, more real.

The simple life in Coal Street.
It’s also strange to be there because I only met Saju a few days earlier. It was largely coincidental. Like many in Dinajpur I’d taken to spending at least a part of each evening at the enormous Boro Math – the colonial-era field not dissimilar to Kolkata’s Maidan. The Math is the town’s pride and wholly suitable for adda, the art of chatting.

Funnily enough we’d just been talking about how I might visit the mine when Saju arrived. It was Friday. He was home. Everything settled automatically and immediately, with no more effort than a ripened coconut falling. Hospitality is a second gravitational force in Bangladesh.

Unusually, as it happened I wasn’t at a total loss as to visiting the mine. A friend in Dhaka had seen on Facebook that I was in Dinajpur. He had a friend working at the mine – they’d once done a short IT course together and in Bangladesh any engagement that gets beyond a “hello, hi” holds significant risk, like a monsoon raincloud heavy and ready to burst, of becoming the start of a long friendship. My friend thought to ring me so I could meet his friend. It was only a matter of digging out the guy’s number.

I’d considered waiting but it all proved unnecessary and when I mentioned my friend’s friend’s name – Kamol Mollick, Saju said he was his next-door-neighbour.

Bangladesh is diverse and chaotic but somehow among the huge randomness of 160 million it’s often there’s some sort of contact or connection waiting nearby. It’s difficult to comprehend entirely how it works but there’s always that innate village-ness proximity lurking.

Saju Bhai.
Sitting in Saju’s living room I’m contemplating the previous evening – a small, strange thing in particular – a mobile phone charger. Off his own bat, Saju thought to enquire if my phone needed charging. When I said maybe it did, he sought the specific charger to fit. Someone on Coal Street had the right one.

It’s such a small thing but the charger seemed symbolic: the living room snacks before the dinner in the coal canteen (with apologies that Saju’s wife wasn’t there to provide a home-cooked main meal); the checking every detail for sleeping in the guest room – extra blanket on the side in case of cold snap, internet access… electronic repellent or mosquito net?

Bengali hospitality, is it culturally-genetically coded? There’s a genuine happiness from another’s happiness and comfort from the comfort of others. I’m wishing I could be more like that. I know for a fact I’d never think to ask a guest if their phone was alright.

I suppose I grew up in Australia. Much of Australia is ruggedly beautiful – there is hospitality too but it’s different. It arises more infrequently, less expectedly, from a harsh geography.

In between thoughts, a middle-aged woman with a round face and rounder body, in a pleasant green sari, wanders in off the street through the open door leading to the garage. I wait for her to say something but she doesn’t. She crosses the small living room right in front of me. I wonder if she’s a burglar. I wonder if I should disturb her at all, if, in Bangladesh, even a burglar might not expect to feel welcome.

Australian thinking cap on: it’s strange. Bangladeshi thinking cap on: it is as it is… and I’m smiling a Bangladeshi smile at the thought.

I’m slightly pleased when I see her open the fridge door. It’s surely not usual for thieves to primarily target refrigerated foodstuffs no matter what the cultural context. She seems to be loading various vegetables in her arms. She’s taking the lids off plastic containers in the freezer that might contain fish or meat.

I wait to see what happens next.

Arms fully loaded she turns back toward me and as she finally starts to speak I notice a few teeth missing. “Is your home far?” she says.

By this stage I’m almost certain she’s no criminal. What I don’t yet comprehend is that she’s cooking my lunch. She looks after Coal Street when wives are away. She leaves as unceremoniously as she entered.

Koi fish, shing fish, chengra fish, tiger fish, a not-sure-of-the-name fish and turtles… Kamol’s house next door features an aquarium and when I met him on the previous evening there was some talk of its inhabitants. He’s thirty-five, an assistant manager, electrical sector who was also batching that day – his wife on a home visit to Khulna. His twin girls normally tear around the little street, so I’m told. Coal Street must have been missing their noise.

Friend of friend equals friend… Friend of neighbour equals friend… I was doubly qualified and it was no small feat to persuade Kamol not to make tea. In any case, word had travelled Coal Street and there needed to be a visit across the road to Sattendra Barman’s house – he is also an assistant manager.

Friend of neighbour equals friend… Friend of friend of neighbour equals friend… With his wife at home, all hope of not having tea was lost.

She was once supposed to study in Australia but at the last minute she couldn’t go. It might have been good for her career but I wonder if it wasn’t a happy twist of fate.

I know, yes I know… Australia is the dream country, I hear it often. Yet it can only be from taking the little things – the important things – for granted; from assuming it all just continues on the other side of an ocean. Life in Bangladesh can be a struggle, of course… but Coal Street… who is it that would need to leave that? Big house, flashy car… what I’ve never properly understood: Why?

Later that morning I visit the mine. There are known-people to wave hello to as I do the rounds.

And afterwards there’s feedback from Mr Mollick via my friend in Dhaka. “I only wish I could have done more for him.” I should have let him make the tea.

Could the Bangladesh government perchance, or the Barapukuria Coal Mining Company perhaps, not send some foreign aid to Australia to teach Bangladeshi hospitality methods? I wonder. Feeling guilty: at my place will have to do better than coffee and biscuits… will need to think about other people’s mobile phone batteries.

Coconuts, jackfruit, fish, papaya and rice… sorry for distractions… I’m supposed to be writing about coal…

The distraction of Coal Street.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Coal Street

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