By Roshni Khan @biryani.soul
“Amakey maaf korey den”, I heard a small voice behind me as I settled into the dusty guesthouse living room near the Bangladesh border with India. If memory serves me right, it was the Mahadepur Custom Station.
The border connecting Bangladesh to India was filled with trucks…lots of people…lots of men to be specific and just filled with hustle and bustle. I was fortunate enough that family was able to arrange for a trip close to the border to experience what goes on.
Unfortunately I had given in to the stereotype from Bollywood movies of border drama… visualizing that once I arrive there is going to be some Raja trying to win his Rani back across the border. I fantasized running in with my camera to be able to witness the drama.
Much to my disappointment, it seemed a lot more “normal” to me.
Lots of people. Lots of colors. Lots of trucks decorated with colorful depictions of chunky Dhallywood actors. Richshaws ringing their bells like a 90s dying cordless phone and baby taxi drivers with fancy reflective aviator sunglasses on trying to race with trucks twenty times their size. Oh, and lets not forget the infamous Lambada song blasting as a horn.
Yep. There was no Shah-Rukh khan or Salman Khan trying to dramatically cross the border for a light skinned damsel in distress. Just regular folks going about their business. And lots of staring. If its one thing I can credit my peeps for, we can throw on a mean stare-down.
As I consumed the scenery around me, I found myself startled at the little voice I heard trying to grasp my attention. I turned around and saw Khushboo staring at me with her large brown eyes almost filled with tears.
If anything, I was baffled.
“Ki holo? Ami bujhinai…?” I said with my best bengali accent
“Naa, amar paa apnar shathey chui-se je. Apnara etho boro manush” she responded meekly “Amarey maaf korey den” she pleaded.
Khushboo with her hair tied in a soft bun, caring for my cousins three month old could have have not been more than 17 years old her self. She was asking me for forgiveness because her foot touched mine. Hearing her words just broke my heart.
Like many other house help in Bangladesh, Khushboo has been programmed to think that they are less than their “masters” or “owners”. They don’t operate without permission. It’s almost as if their existence is based on our will. And this is the way she has been taught to survive. Dont argue. Just do as you are told. She is only seventeen. She is caring for someone else’s child so she can have bhaath to eat for the day.
I blinked back tears, she should be in school. What was I doing when I was seventeen? Studying for 12th grade exams, planning to apply to Universities and trying to create my own journey towards freedom.
“Naa, oshubida nai. Eta maaf korar jonno bolthey hobey na” I responded. Not expecting the answer, she quietly replied “khalarey bollen na, nahole amar upor raag korbey”
I felt so conflicted. Do I console her and tell her to be brave or would that land her in more trouble with the family? Or do I just go about and pretend nothing happened.
Not knowing what to do, I became quiet and smiled at her.
To break the awkwardness, I asked her
“Etho hashi khushi ki bhabey thako shara din kaaj korey?”
Her long working hours, just like any other house help, bothered me. If I speak to my aunt about her working condition, she may become homeless with no support service. I may be accused of throwing my “western thoughts” around and “tomra bairer manush egula deshio jinish bujhba na”. If I dont, she is going to continue working as househelp to her own detriment.
Khushboo with her big brown eyes and the mid afternoon sun softly landing on her face replied “shokaley utey prothi din nothun shuru kori. Porer din abar nothun korey shuru kori. Aager din buley jai”
Its a new day everyday my friend…its a new day
Over the years of my visits to Bangladesh and I have had a difficult time accepting the way house help is treated. It was also one of the reasons I would avoid visiting Bangladesh, I felt helpless seeing these things. What I described may seem minor but there are many house help who are mistreated viciously.
They eat separately in the kitchen, they sit on the cold concrete floor to eat, they sleep sometime on the floor or very thin mattresses that wrecks their back even more after a long day of work. They work non stop with no days off. And above everything, they are not entitled to dignity…somehow it is the employer/owner that bestows that upon them.
Eventually I walked away. I felt like a coward. I felt like no matter what I said and did – it would fall to deaf ears.
Forgive me Khushboo, for I have failed to give you even the kindest word of encouragement.