As a kid growing up in the little village of Baktabali in Bangladesh, Salim Javed often wondered about life on the other side of the Dhaleshwari River.
Why did so many people from his village take the five-minute ferry ride across the 1.5 kilometre-wide river every day? And why did they always seem to come back with so much more?
Why was Shidullah, his older brother, always trying to move away permanently?
“When I was a student, I used to swim across.”
“There is no swimming pool in our village, so this was the only way for me and my friends to enjoy the water.”
To many villagers, crossing the river and not turning back is one of the easiest ways to a better life.
Looking at the choices available in Baktabali, which lies about 20 kilometres south of the capital Dhaka, it is not hard to understand the villagers’ sentiments.
When he was about 14, Salim was a fisherman for about two months. After that, he also had a short stint on his father’s farm.
The other possible places where he could have worked were the brick-making factory or the jute mill. He also contemplated jobs such as food seller, rickshaw puller, barber, carpenter, boatman.
But none of this would have paid anything close to what he earns today, as a construction foreman in Singapore.
In retrospect, leaving Bangladesh to come to Singapore in 1996 was more like a spur-of-the-moment thing – one fuelled in part by a long-standing disagreement with his brother over life choices.
Older than Salim by 13 years, Shidullah, now 48, married a woman from Dhaka and moved out of the village many years ago.
“He was always talking about doing business and getting rich, but he never finished what he started,” Salim explains.
“I got tired of hearing his excuses, so I decided to go overseas and prove to everyone that it was useless to just talk and complain.”
There was one other big thing that separated the two brothers – what they were looking for in an ideal wife. Salim, now 35, always wanted a woman who would stay at home and help to look after his ageing parents. His brother preferred someone more worldly.
“Family is most important to me,” Salim says many times.
Perhaps he always knew that he would have to work overseas one day, and that marrying a woman who was willing to give up everything else to become part of his family would be the most important criterion.
Money was of course another issue that contributed to the lukewarm relationship.
To finance his dream of working in Singapore, Salim borrowed a few thousand dollars from his father, who had just sold a few plots of family land.
He also received help from Soma – a cousin, immediate neighbour and close friend – who had worked in Singapore a few years earlier.
When Salim arrived in Singapore in March 1996, he focused on earning money and led a thrifty life, saving most of his earnings and sending them back to his parents.
A substantial amount of his salary also went to support his younger brother Shamin’s tertiary education.
With a bank loan and a design by Shamin, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering a few years ago, Salim also managed to build a house across from his parents’.
Although the original plan was to have two storeys, with the upper floor reserved for Shamin and his future family, Salim had to postpone the second phase as he ran out of money.
Putting his family first also meant a conscious effort to avoid falling in love.
“Many foreign workers in Singapore have girlfriends,” Salim says, “but having a girlfriend costs money and I cannot afford it.”
Even if he had fallen in love with someone in Singapore, there could not have been any happy ending. She would most likely have been a transient foreign worker like himself and they could not have married as long as they were in Singapore.
His only opportunity would be with a woman from home – but how was he going to meet anyone and start a meaningful relationship when he was here and she was there?
Three years ago, after nagging from his family, he finally agreed to marry Jorna, then a 20-year-old village girl his anxious mother had found through matchmakers.
“My mother was going to give up on me after many tries.”
“She said that if I rejected her again, she would stop trying.”
To Salim, romance or courtship are over-rated.
“Of course if I have a girlfriend who likes me and I like her, then it is very good.”
“But it is a problem if she doesn’t get along with my family members.”
While he was in Singapore, his parents presented a ring and other gifts to Jorna’s family.
Several months later, in February 2011, he flew back to meet and marry her. They both have good memories of their first real meeting.
“She came to the airport to greet me. I think she has a good heart. I like her.”
Jorna’s first impression was that “he is more handsome in real life”.
Before that, he had only seen her photos but they spoke daily on the phone, often for hours.
Salim’s views about marriage are not without reason or merit.
“I work overseas and my brother also intends to work overseas,” he elaborates, “so it is important that our wives are good girls who can look after our parents.”
And the definition of a good girl, in Salim’s book, includes the willingness to give up her own dreams.
“She will stay home and look after my parents lah.”
That, and to make many babies.
Salim’s views represent those of most people in his village, which has been an active exporter of labour to Singapore, Dubai, Saudi Arabia – indeed, anywhere with jobs.
Even his 22-year-old cousin Katha, a fine arts and theatre undergraduate who considers herself quite progressive and liberal, thinks there is nothing wrong with her cousin’s logic.
As for Jorna’s family, her father Ahsanull Faker worked in a toilet bowl factory in Singapore from 1996 to 2000. His two sons still work in Saudi Arabia and his other son-in-law also used to work there.
While there aren’t any official records, Salim thinks more than 100 men from his village have worked in Singapore, with the first arriving as early as the mid-1980s.
Most still talk passionately about their time in Singapore, although not everything they experienced was positive.
Salim’s brother-in-law, Md Jahingir Alam, 38, spent five years working in Singapore’s shipyards, including a stint in Keppel FELS.
“The money in Singapore was good but I never saw my son,” he says.
“My wife and I talked about it, she cried, then I cried.”
“In the end, she said, ‘Lots of money we don’t need, you come home first’.”
But he hopes to return to Singapore to work again in a few years’ time, armed with newly acquired skills in electrical wiring.
He even wishes to move to Singapore permanently with his family, but at the moment, just getting himself a job here may not be as easy as before.
That probably explains why everyone looks up to Salim, who is, in the eyes of his villagers and relatives, the perfect son who has made good in Singapore.
By his own admission, he makes more than his fellow villagers, but most people also think that he deserves it because he is hardworking and trustworthy.
In Singapore, Salim has worked with the same small construction company for the past eight years. He is now a trusted supervisor, with a small army of workers under his command.
His boss, Michael Soh, considers him more a family member than an employee.
For his wedding, the company directors gave him extra money, which came in really handy.
The lunch that Salim’s family hosted for relatives and friends cost S$3,500, the decorations at his family compound S$500. Salim spent another S$2,500 on new clothes for relatives and S$10,000 on gold for his wife.
Three months after his wedding, Jorna arrived in Singapore for a one-month visit. Again, his employers gave him extra money and helped with her visa application.
Mrs Habibah Mahmood, a kind, elderly Singaporean whom Salim had befriended while working on a project in Opera Estate, offered the newlyweds a nice bedroom in her house. She even decorated it to look like a wedding suite and made sure they had home-cooked meals.
To let them have the maximum amount of time together, Salim’s bosses also gave him flexibility with his schedule.
They knew that he would repay their kindness many times over and he did.
In March 2013, Jorna came back again for a longer visit and this time, Salim’s employers rented a small flat in Little India for them.
Soon after she returned to Bangladesh, Salim found out that she was pregnant.
“Made in Singapore,” he jokes, “I think I know which day and where.”
While it was planned and welcome news, having a new family member also means more expenses to come.
But Salim wants only the best for his family, at least to the best of his financial ability.
While he doesn’t have a television set in Singapore, he bought a 32” Sony for Jorna to bring home when she last visited.
“Even after paying $300 tax, it was still cheaper than buying one in Bangladesh.”
Salim also helped to finance part of his father’s pilgrimage to Mecca.
Instead of going to a public hospital, Jorna delivered at a private hospital in Narayanganj, the big city across the river.
Private hospital is better, Salim says, because it means seeing the same doctor for all her check-ups.
The hefty bill left him with much less for the rest of his family when he went back in late December 2013, three days after his daughter Samyra was born.
Some relatives, who were used to Salim’s earlier generosity with his money and time, became a little unhappy with the new father, and they didn’t hide their displeasure.
A few days before he left Singapore for home, an aunt called to ask for a new blanket. Others also called with different requests.
“I don’t have much money to spend this time,” Salim told them, ”maybe only around $1,000.”
“I already spent a lot on the baby.”
On the first morning of his recent home visit, Salim found himself in an uneasy argument with his mother, who had not seen him since his wedding.
In between peeling potatoes and chopping up chickens for lunch, she was sobbing and complaining, and occasionally lifting her head to glance at a few other relatives who had come to see Salim.
She would also look at him from time to time, and her expression could be described as bittersweet.
It was clear that he was getting an earful, and equally clear that everyone else appeared to agree with his mother. But they were also trying to defend him.
All things considered, it was not a big argument.
Nurjahanbegum (in Bangladesh, ‘begum’ is an honorific added to the given names of married and widowed women) had missed her son, but she also needed to tell him about the pressure she had been under during his absence.
That morning, the conversation centred around the complaint she had been hearing non-stop from Salim’s mother-in-law.
“She tells everyone that you never call her.”
To an outsider, it sounded like a really petty issue, some would say even an unreasonable one.
“Why should a son-in-law call his mother-in-law regularly?” Salim wondered.
“I have to work and I can get really busy,” he tried explaining. “Besides, I call my wife everyday, a few times a day, and very often, we talk for hours.”
But that was not his mother’s point.
“You were matchmade, and I promised Jorna’s parents that you are a good son. But you never call them.”
“I call my wife daily, that is more important.”
Like all doting mothers, Salim’s mom agreed and sympathised with her son.
Just having to bring up this topic pained her.
She knew that the sacrifices he has been making for the family were necessary, and that they had all benefited. She knew she should not complain again. After all, he was just back for a short visit.
“Working in Singapore is easier for me,” he says jokingly. “Back here I have to make many people happy.”
“Everyone wants to see me, everyone wants me to go his house.”
He could not have visited one cousin and not another. So even if it meant popping by for five minutes, he had to do it.
For the first two days of his recent visit, his sister Sume avoided him and Salim thought that she was upset that he seldom called her. But there could have been other reasons, such as the fact that he had not been able to help her husband get a job in Singapore.
For his cousin Fatima who lives down the road, seeing him was a chance to get updates about her son Hussain, who also works in Singapore.
In her modest house, a portrait of young Salim occupies a central spot. She sleeps better each night knowing that Salim will help to look after her son.
In turn, Hussain’s twin sister Pinke helps to look after Jorna, and now baby Samyra as well.
With many husbands, sons and brothers from the village working overseas, those who are left behind have learned to help each other. The migration of the male population in the village often means the reconfigurations of family lives and roles.
The family of Soma, the man who helped Salim move to Singapore in 1996, lives between Salim’s parents and the new house Salim built.
Hussain, Soma’s 21-year-old son, worships Salim like a hero. Now training to be an engineer in the merchant navy, he sobbed uncontrollably at Salim’s wedding, for fear that he would have no place in Salim’s new family.
Soma’s youngest son, six-year-old Albi, sees Salim as a father, clinging onto him wherever he went during Salim’s recent visit home. He recently even phoned his dad to say that “from now on, I will call you ‘Uncle’, not ‘Daddy’.”
“Albi often spends time with Jorna, so whenever I call her, I also get to speak to him,” Salim explains.
Soma, 44, certainly doesn’t mind that his son seems closer to Salim because it means having an extra adult to help look after the boy.
He tells Salim, “Albi can be your son, no problem.”
Salim says, “Of course Soma always calls home, but not as much as me lah.”
Mimi, Soma’s daughter and a college student, babysits Samyra whenever possible and runs errands for Salim’s parents.
The two families share a kitchen and cook for each other.
Young Albi has also decided that Samyra is his new sister and that he needs to protect her.
When the people of Baktabali look at Salim, they see a model of success – someone who has made it abroad, an example to be followed. As long as one can cross the river, he can have access to Dhaka, and through Dhaka, the rest of the world.
It is not difficult to understand such feelings when it is clear that for every one male adult working in Singapore, it means a family of six or seven not having to starve in Baktabali.
In the village, a brick worker earns S$5 per day, or about S$150 each month. The goat that was sacrificed to celebrate Salim’s daughter cost close to that monthly salary. There was no way an average family in the village would be able to afford that.
But being separated from their loved ones is a reality that Salim and many of his friends have learned to accept.
Getting time off from work to go home for these guest workers is rare, so whenever they are back in their villages, they scramble to do as much as possible.
In the two weeks that Salim was home in December 2013, a lot had to be accomplished.
Even if they had wanted it, Jorna and Salim hardly had any chance to be alone together. Traditionally, a new mother must be surrounded by friends and relatives, so their room was always full of other people.
So Salim did what he does best – helping people and making people happy.
The locks for the new house had not been installed for the past two years because Shamin is now a teacher in a small town seven hours away. Salim got them done in the first week he was home.
It is also traditional to buy new clothes for female relatives on such a happy occasion. Salim trooped down to the bazaar near the river with his sister and Soma’s wife Ohidabegum, and paid for eight new pieces of clothing.
An elderly aunt was warded in the same hospital where Jorna had given birth, so he popped in for a quick visit.
Despite his many obligations, there was no doubt that Salim was happy to be home.
In fact, given a choice, he would not have returned to Singapore.
Everything he needs to be happy is in Bangladesh but he also needs the money even more now.
“I will work in Singapore as long as my bosses need me lah,” he always says.
His father prefers to leave it to God when asked whether he would like Salim to stay in Bangladesh. His mother thinks that he should do it for another two more years.
Jorna more or less agrees with her mother-in-law, although she was also quick to tell Salim that now that they have a baby, she won’t have too much time to miss him.
Perhaps it is her way of reducing his worries.
Besides, they really do need the money.
Salim makes no pretence about where he wants to be eventually: back in his village, where his wife and other family members are.
“Jorna doesn’t like to live in Singapore anyway.”
“Visit okay, but to stay, no.”
For now, he has to make sacrifices, work hard in Singapore, and deal with the loneliness of being away from his loved ones.
When the opportunity arises, the couple also hopes to have another baby, preferably a boy.
When he eventually goes home for good, he wants to build houses with Shamin, for clients as well as for speculation.
“Property is good investment, sure make money.”
“But I have little cash now, I must work some more.”
Years of working in Singapore meant that when it was finally time for him to tie the knot in 2011, Salim could afford to present Jorna with a house designed by his brother Shamin, whose university education had been financed by Salim. He could even indulge in some luxuries, such as a bridal bed filled with roses, decorated by his good friend Rajo. After the wedding, Salim preferred Jorna to stay at his home and help care for his elderly parents in his absence. However, he also understands when she goes back for longer visits with her parents, who live about 30 minutes away on foot.
Separating Baktabali, Salim’s village, from Narayanganj, the big city – and in some ways, the world – is the 1.5 kilometre-wide Dhaleshwari River. To get to the other side, where the bright lights and action are, villagers usually take the five-minute ferry ride. On most days, visibility is poor because of the pollution from the brick fields, as well as other factories along the river. That ‘fog’ makes life on the other side seem even more mysterious and appealing to the young people, who often dream of leaving the village in search of a better life. When the Muktapur Bridge, located southeast of Baktabali, opened in 1991, it provided an alternative route to the big cities. However, it is still rarely used because the journey takes two extra hours; moreover, very few villagers can afford to own a car.
Salim returned to Singapore two weeks after his wedding in February 2011, but the couple was soon reunited when Jorna arrived for a one-month visit that May. To facilitate her visa application, which is more complicated because she is an unemployed dependant of a transient worker, Salim’s employers acted as her guarantors. In general, visits from spouses of foreign workers are rare because it is expensive. In addition, because the workers are mostly housed in dormitories with other men, accommodation during such visits is problematic.
When she heard about Jorna’s visit, Mrs Habibah Mahmood, an elderly Singaporean whom Salim had befriended while working on a project in Opera Estate, offered the newlyweds a nice bedroom in her house. Although she had never met Jorna before May 2011, the widow, who is in her early 80s and has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in different parts of the world, welcomed her with open arms. She treated the couple like her own children and made sure that they always had homemade meals. During Jorna’s visit, with the blessing of his employers, Salim stayed with Jorna instead of at his dormitory.
In his 18 years in Singapore, Salim has resisted the lure of the bright lights, choosing to lead a simple life. While he doesn’t even own a television set for himself, he bought Jorna a 32” Sony TV to bring back to Baktabali when she last visited. With many mouths back in Bangladesh to feed, he spends as little as S$300 per month on himself. He seldom eats out, preferring to prepare his own meals in his dormitory, which is usually just a bed in a house being built by his company. “My bosses also give me extra money for things like transport and lunch,” he says, “so I don’t have to spend much.”
Salim is a role model to many young people in his village and their conduit to the outside world. Through him, they learn about new things, new words, new technologies. At Salim’s wedding in 2011, his cousin’s son Hussain (right) was visibly affected and worried that his hero would no longer have time for him. But in the last two years that they have been apart, the teenager has matured into a young adult, and is now an engineer-in-training for a merchant navy. To welcome Salim back last December, Hussain took time off from his company and met him at the airport, together with a few young kids from the village.
Eager to see Jorna and their newborn girl Samyra, Salim headed straight to Medistar General Hospital in Narayanganj, immediately after touching down in Dhaka. Although the private hospital is further away from their village and more expensive, Salim insisted on sending them there because it meant that Jorna was able to see the same doctor for all her pre-delivery check-ups. Baby Samyra, who was conceived in Singapore during Jorna’s two-month visit, was born three days ahead of schedule, when Salim was busy building another home in Singapore. Her name, which means “pleasant community”, was picked by him, from three names Jorna had shortlisted.
Salim’s mother Nurjahanbegum (in Bangladesh, “begum” is an honorific added to the given names of married and widowed women) spends most of her time in the kitchen, preparing meal after meal for the family, and interjecting her daily routine with passionate conversation about her children, especially Salim. Although she thinks that he should return to Bangladesh permanently in two to three years, she also understands that it will be very difficult, especially now that he is a father and has more mouths to feed. Nurjahanbegum is 67 and has some minor health problems. With her eldest son living in Dhaka, Salim in Singapore and her youngest son teaching in a village seven hours away, it is rare for her to be able to see all her sons at the same time. Fortunately, her husband Abdul Ali, though 73, is still relatively healthy and able to run the household.
Childbirth is a big family affair, and Salim and Jorna are lucky to receive help from both their families. In the private hospital where Jorna gave birth, her mother and grandmother, Salim’s sisters, as well as their cousins all took turns to stay over. On the map, the Medistar General Hospital in Narayanganj looks like a short ride from their village, but the actual journey, in a van Salim had rented, takes more than three hours each way. They could have saved 1½ hours on the journey by taking the ferry across, but Salim would not entertain the idea of putting his wife and baby through the crowded and uncomfortable journey.
Compared to the older buildings in the village, Salim’s new house is modern-looking and includes facilities not commonly found in other homes, such as a flush toilet and hot water. Designed by his younger brother Shamin, and funded by Salim’s savings as well as loans, the house has three big rooms on the ground floor, one of which is his and Jorna’s. The plan for the second level, meant for Shamin and his future family, has been shelved due to a shortage of money. Staying by herself in such a big house is lonely, but Jorna is lucky to be surrounded by Salim’s family members. However, before her delivery and Salim’s return, Jorna went back to her parents’ home for an extended stay, as her own mother is younger than Salim’s and therefore physically more capable of taking care of her.
Abdul Ali, Salim’s father, is a local landlord, businessman and farmer who never goes anywhere without his red and white keffiyeh. He uses this path linking his village and the Baktabali bazaar near the river almost daily. Lined with houses and potato, canola and parsley fields on both sides, the unpaved mud road is also surrounded by brick fields, many owned by locals who have returned from long working stints in Singapore. Though the soft-spoken Abdul Ali is 73, he still walks spritely and only hires a pull-cart when he has a lot of things to carry.
Esti, Salim’s young nephew, has always been able to find ways to amuse himself and he becomes even more animated in the presence of visitors. But his parents – Salim’s sister and brother-in-law – hope that his world will be bigger and more exciting than just climbing trees and performing multiple somersaults outside their house. They worry that if Esti stays in the village when he grows up, he may be stuck with a low-end job such as being a brick worker, who makes only about S$150 monthly – approximately the price of the goat that was sacrificed to celebrate the birth of Salim’s daughter. Esti’s father worked in shipyards in Singapore for five years and knows about the opportunities available overseas. He hopes to return to Singapore to work soon and even dreams about moving the whole family here.
In the villages where the men work overseas, the women stay behind to raise the children and look after the family. Despite their exposure to the outside world, local society remains rather traditional and conservative, and gender roles are clearly defined. When Ohidabegum (extreme left), Soma’s wife, and Taslimabegum (second from right), Salim’s elder sister, go to a public place, such as to the bazaar to choose new saris for the family, they have to don niqabs, but their children, Albi (second from left) and Shanta (extreme right), are exempted.
As a student, Salim took this scenic road to school every morning. On his trip back in December 2013, when his former teacher from secondary school invited him to visit, Salim took Albi, the six-year-old son of his good friend and cousin Soma. Now 44, Soma arrived in Singapore two years ahead of Salim and was instrumental in helping the latter settle in. He doesn’t mind that his son seems closer to Salim because it means having an extra adult to look after him. Similarly, Salim will not be there when Samyra takes her first steps or has her first tooth, and he will have to rely on his relatives to step up and play a bigger role in his absence.
As a transient worker, Salim is used to sleeping in makeshift places, but he didn’t expect to be sleeping on a sofa during his last visit home. Despite building a new house with his hard-earned money, Salim found himself room-less because many relatives came to visit and he wanted everyone to be comfortable. In the end, he slept on the couch in his living room for several nights, entertaining himself with games on his mobile phone when he couldn’t fall asleep. When she could tear herself away from their baby, Jorna would sneak out of her room and sit next to him, and the couple would chat into the wee hours, something they also do on the phone when they are apart.
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