by rahnuma ahmed
Josna, isn’t Josna feeling cold?
I didn’t know what to say as I sat beside Josna’s mother on the curb, outside the Emergency department of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). It was slightly chilly, the last cold wave of January was making its appearance felt.
The breeze seemed to blow away her words, but only as far as outside appearances went. They clung to the inner recesses of my mind.
I shivered, but not because of the cold. Josna, 16 years old, a garment factory worker at Smart Exports in Mohammadpur Beribadh area, was lying cold, on a metal trolley inside the morgue.
Saydia Gulrukh (PhD student), Kanon Barua (Polytechnic student) and I had rushed to the Emergency building. We walked rapidly into a maze of ill-lit corridors, ?rubbing shoulders with patients, family members, doctors, nurses and floor-cleaners, stopping at each turn to ask, where’s the morgue? All fingers pointed ahead, finally, a left turn which proved to be a dead end, and we came across “Morgue” written in Bangla on the wall facing us at the end of the corridor. We rushed and joined a small group of men and women miserably huddled outside a collapsible gate. Our eyes followed their gaze.
Josna lay on a metal trolley inside the morgue. All alone. Dead.
The locked iron gate stood between us and Josna, it prevented her family members from entering the room, from holding her closely, from clasping her lifeless body, hoping against hope that their cries, the tears streaming down their faces, would somehow bring her back to life.
But they possessed neither the class-ed clout nor the political connections which can, and do, unlock locked gates.
I looked at Josna’s body through the grill, a young girl dressed in a yellow and white flowery shalwar-kameez, her head turned away from us, thick long black hair half-coiled, half-spread outwards on the metal tray. She reminded me of a sunflower.
“She’d just returned to the factory after eating lunch. The fire started five minutes later,” said her father in a low voice, no trace of emotion on his face. “Where we live, is a short distance from the factory,” he added impassively.
Saydia and I had heard of the fire at Smart Exports soon after it broke out, but we weren’t sure whether there had been any casualties. We’d planned to go to Dr Christopher Pinney’s lecture, “Archiving project in India” at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, part of Chobimela-VII, the international festival of photography. But as we raced down the stairs of our flat, already late for the lecture, text messages kept pouring in. ?Unsure about their accuracy, but more than anything else, having gone to Nischintapur a day earlier (January 25, 2013) to demonstrate against deaths and missing workers, to mark the second month of the Tazreen Fashions’ fire, we found it incredulous that yet another blaze, yet more deaths could have occurred. It couldn’t be true, it was impossible, it meant nothing had changed, not in the slightest.
We decided to stick to our lecture plan, but I thought it wise to text activist friends at large, “Fire at Smart Fashions in Mohammadpur Beribadh, 2-5 workers dead. Pls? inquire, go there if you can. Saydia and I can’t at this moment” (in the first rush, Smart Exports had been reported as “Smart Fashions”).
But at 4:42, only a few minutes after we had finally managed to seat ourselves in the auditorium, when my eyes had barely adjusted to the darkness and I could make out the lectern and professor Pinney, both Saydia and I received a text message simultaneously. It was from Baki Billah, a CPB activist: “One died a few minutes ago at DMCH, 5 dead bodies at Sikder Medical Hospital” (transl).
We decided to leave. It would be impossible to concentrate. Our own project of archiving deaths caused by limitless greed in the here-and-now, seemed far more urgent.
Josna, isn’t Josna feeling cold?
The dead, we know, do not feel anything, neither hot nor cold, nor fear nor pain but how long does it take for a mother to learn that? To accept that her child is truly beyond everything, beyond this material world as we know of feelings, emotions, thoughts, acts, working, toiling, earning, eating, smiling, laughing, caring, thinking, dreaming… How long does it take for a mother to accept it?
Feelings never die, an actress friend had remarked many years ago. While another friend had related stories of how her mother, who’d lost one of her daughters, a science student, in a high-school laboratory accident, would often, even many years later, walk out of the house suddenly, oblivious of the fact that it was only hours away from midnight, oblivious of whether she had sandals on her feet, of the fact that her sari was crumpled after a hard day’s housework. She would go out into the darkness searching for her daughter. Where are you?
Thoughts flitting in and out as I hear Josna’s mother call out, “Jadu” (magic), where are you?Are you cold?
I shivered. Josna was beyond shivering.
Sitting on the curb, rocking gently, Josna’s mother wailed,
Kemon koria, kemon koria/Paimu amar shontan phiraiyare/O garmentsre/Kemne khaili amar shontanre/O amar garmentsre/Kemne khaibore/O amar babare/O amar ma/O amar ma/Kemne gelore Josnare/Ore bhat-o khaiya gese /Ami kot[h]a koi/o-o bhaiera-re ki camera korte aiso…?/Amare amar Josnare kemne phiraya dibore/O amar Josna/Ke phiraiya dibore/Porantare khali koira diya gelore
How can I
How can I get back my child
O you garments
How could you eat up my child
O my garments
How it does eat up!
O my father
O my mother
O my mother
How could Josna go away
She had eaten rice
O, o, you brothers have you come to do camera…?
How can my Josna be returned to me
O my Josna
Who will return her to me
She has emptied my heart and left…
Eating up children in development-oriented present day Bangladesh is very one-sided. It is garment factory-owners who “eat up” the children of working class families. Poor people don’t “eat up” the children of the ruling business elite. They leave them alone — ?to be educated in universities abroad, to return and set up private universities here, to berate about the “culture of impunity” prevalent in Bangladesh which stokes “grievances” among garment factory workers who “riot”, “smash vehicles,” and “attack police” even though the “minimum wage [has been raised] by 80%” (K. Anis Ahmed, “Bolshie Bangladesh,” The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2010).
No mention of factory fires, of closed factory exits, of deaths caused by stampede and asphyxiation.
Of sunflowers, killed as a result of criminal negligence.
From DMCH, I returned home with Kanon, my mobile set, overloaded, had crashed, I needed to get it working again. Saydia went off to Sikder Women’s Medical College and Hospital in Western Dhanmondi.
Kohinoor, Razia, Nasima, Hasina, Nasima Akhter, Laizu, six more sunflowers dead. Equally young, aged from fifteen to eighteen.
Saydia has been looking unusually pale for the last few days, we had been busy with the demo outside the BGMEA (January 28) and it was only last night that I got the opportunity to catch up with her. She sat shivering in our flat, possibly flu, and I piled warm clothes on her.
I don’t know, I don’t have much of an appetite since Sikder. Four of the bodies were lying on the floor, wrapped in blue hospital bedsheets, they had to be put in the body bags, right at that moment, one of the guys present, I think he was a government official, no, no they weren’t kept in the morgue, it wasn’t like the DMCH, nor in any room either, it was right beside this shop at the hospital, on an empty floor space, anyway he says, por-purush (men who are strangers) shouldn’t touch these bodies, it’s against Islam, most of the people were then shooed away, relatives as well, except for Kohinoor’s sister who refused to leave, she’d been sitting cradling Kohinoor’s head in her lap, and another female relative of a dead worker, we together put their bodies in the bags,? Lima (short for Taslima Akhter, photographer, left activist) came forward and helped us as well.
Weren’t there any female nurses?
Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t see any.
I’ve lost my appetite. I can still feel the weight of these young women. I’d held them by their waist to lift them up. I can still smell the fire, the soot. It refuses to go away.
Saydia held up her palm, her wrist, I can still feel their weight, Rahnuma.
The mopping-up operation of Tazreen Fashions, in other words, “damage control” was conducted by top officials of the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) — its president, vice-president, former presidents, were to be seen day in and day out on TV talk shows. Impeccably dressed and well groomed, they blamed the rush, the panic, mid-level management, the fire brigade for having issued safety licences and so on.
They have been successful, for the owner of Tazreen fashions has not yet been arrested; not surprising since the BGMEA, being immensely powerful, has all who matter, socially and politically, in their pockets. These bit actors played their part well.
Soon after, the home minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir said, arresting the owner would be fruitless (bdnews24, January 29, 2013). The Tazreen fire may have been a “scandal” for the international fashion industry (“The fire in Bangladesh is a fashion scandal,” The Guardian, December 5, 2012) but for the burgeoning Bangladesh fashion industry, hell no, soon after the fire, I watched on TV news a very well-attended programme organised by the BGMEA at a five star hotel, more damage limitation, the camera lovingly lingered on internationally acclaimed fashion designer Bibi Russell, and a host of other strikingly dressed beautiful looking soft skinned bejewelled women — fashion designers, beauticians, models, TV celebrities, loadful.
It’s known as the soft side of capitalism, to make us forget by their allure , their commodified charm, the fires, the screams, the charred bodies. To make us deaf to a mother’s wail, Porantare khali koira diya gelore…
There were other bit actors as well. For, how can one forget ATN News, a private TV channel, and its reputed anchor Munni Saha who kindly obliged by being the first among the media to dig out and interview Delwar Hossain, owner Tazreen Fashions, providing him thereby the opportunity to cry bucketsful in front of the TV camera? A well-informed journalist told me about fifty plus journalists who had been wined and dined at Dhaka’s top Westin Hotel by the BGMEA. One of its officials had generously extended the invitation to her but she politely declined.
To seal matters (pun-wise, nailing the coffin would be abhorrable here), the BGMEA has produced a probe report on the Tazreen fire which lets the owner off the hook by declaring it to be a “sabotage.”
Those in charge of damage control at Smart Exports, not a BGMEA member, seem to have been less successful. As I write, news breaks out of the arrest of Smart’s chairman, Mohd Sharif, and managing director, Zakir Ahmed. This, despite the presence of Begum Monnojan Sufian, state minister for labour, the highly-influential Jahangir Kabir Nanak, state minister for local government, rural development and cooperatives, at Sikder Medical when the bodies of the six sunflower girls Kohinoor, Razia, Nasima, Hasina, Nasima Akhter, Laizu — were handed over to their family members. The hospital’s emergency department, said Saydia, had been cordoned off by hundreds of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) and police personnel.
It would seem that ruling party leaders enjoy far less damage control ability than the BGMEA, which reportedly lavishly contributes to the election coffers of both the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP (Bangladesh National Party).
An eighth worker of Smart Export was transferred to the better-equipped Apollo Hospital on Monday. This sunflower is fighting for her life. If she fails, will Apollo, which is rumored to keep patients on life support to up their bill, keep her on life support as well for several days, until public anger has subsided? Buying time is an essential part of damage control exercises.
But, so what, if Smart Export, which had no trade license, no fire extinguishers, no fire safety exit, is not a BGMEA member? According to press reports, seven members of BGMEA had subcontracted to Smart Export the production of clothes for western buyers: Centex, MHC Apparels, Mac-Tex Industries, EnergyPac Fashions, Fashion Store, Mrinmoy Fashion, Concorde Creation Ltd (The Daily Star, January 30, 2013). “Bershka” and “Lefties” labels owned by the Spanish apparel giant Inditex, “Sol”s label owned by the French company Solo Invest, “Fox & Scott” label registered to Sylvain Scemama in Paris have been discovered on the burnt-out floors of Smart Export.
Is that why the BGMEA is compensating the families of Smart’s deceased workers? The BKMEA (Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association) as well, for, its president has promised to give a month’s salary and 1 lakh taka each to the seven families.
Josna’s mother, her father as well, had dignity. Despite their hearts having been emptied, they did not curse the garment owners or all others for “eating up” their children. They did not wish that they too, have to huddle miserably in the cold for hours — outside morgues, hospital buildings, emergency departments and police cordons, for receiving ?jadu no more. That they too, be treated like shit by all those they encounter in the process.
They did not wish that their children too, die of fires, stampedes, asphyxiation.
Out of respect for them, and for our sunflower daughters, neither will I.
Published in New Age, Thursday, January 31, 2013.