As far as the eye can see, there are happy looking people loitering about. This place is not the usual tourist spot with its collection of shops selling souvenirs or haute couture items. This is a small corner by the Little India area of Singapore, and today is a Sunday. Thousands of Bangladeshis have assembled at the small open ground next to the Mustafa Center, drawn by the attractive force that people from the same country of origin typically exert on one another, a force particularly strong if they are in a foreign country.
Most of them are labourers who have come to work at construction sites in Singapore. They are the best examples of the human spirit; willing to take risks; willing to work hard; willing to endure the hazards and the humiliations; powered by their massive desire to have a better life for themselves and their dear ones back home. In this bustling city, where the glitzy cars of the super rich move alongside vans packed with labourers brought from distant countries, the Bangladeshis, immensely outnumbered by the other major races in Singapore, have formed their own little oasis.
At this mere two hundred square metre slice of the world, they have created a small replica of Bangladesh, a country with an area of over one hundred and forty thousand square kilometres. The shops lining this area, with their names written in Bengali, offer on sale products that have been touched, turned and worked upon by Bangladeshi hands; cheap Bangladeshi sweets, vegetables catering to Bengali palate, river water fish, and the traditional colourful and flowing clothes. There is a makeshift roulette wheel where people can win cigarettes and electric torches. The immensely proud Bengali culture is undivided here as people originating from both Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal crowd impatiently for their chance to buy Bengali dailies and film magazines. The centre of gravity at this place is the seller of audio and video cassettes who plays the pick of the week in a small television set facing the street. A massive crowd gathers around his shop to get their weekly entertainment, standing on their toes to watch crudely produced musical comedies and religious sermons in Bengali.
Even the unbelievable population density of Bangladesh is replicated here as human bodies occupy every square inch. As one walks through this human mesh, every step has to negotiate between the forces exerted by surrounding human bodies and every breath has to draw from the air thick from the millions of other breaths. A stampede may appear imminent but the entire atmosphere is extremely jovial and brotherly. Brothers are moving around holding hands. The hands free from holding each other are carrying large paper cones containing puffed rice mixed with onions and green chillies. This one dollar worth of puffed rice mixture is being shared by four people. Several pairs can be seen reading the facing sheets of the same newspaper, each forming his own opinion about the world. Groups of three or more people are passing around the same cigarette. Yes, there are no sisters in this square block.
This is their day off from work. And free from working long hours in the fierce tropical sun under oversight of their employers, they talk. They talk among themselves about simple pleasures of having bought a new mobile phone or a new pair of jeans or shoes. The politics back home is discussed in simple but strong words; quality of calling cards and methods of transferring money home are also discussed with equal passion. Acquaintances who have found local girlfriends are discussed extensively with a sense of both inspiration and contempt. As the words from these conversations collide with one another, they form a homogenous sound signature for this assembly, a signature denoting life at its prime.
At this place and at this time, they forget their hardships and their alienation. Here they are protected, though thinly, from the displays of opulence from the others, the ones who have already prospered in this city. And the existence of this place, when described over that weekly phone call, provides the necessary comfort to their unfortunate mothers.
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