Letter from Dhaka: The bangle seller
Surrounded by metal and glass bangles glinting in the afternoon sun sits a woman of indeterminate age, with sturdy hands and a green bindi on her forehead. ‘Those are too big, see if these will fit you’ – she hands me a half-dozen striated glass bangles in tangerine and coral. But I want another colour, so she pulls several more plastic bags from under the shelves of her light beige pre-fab cupboard, trying to find my size, half a smile skating across her face.
‘It’s been a while since I last saw you.’ I don’t know her name, nor does she mine and I suspect she doesn’t really recognize me because at one point she recalls me as a child, an impossibility, because I have sporadically visited her bangle stand only since my mid-twenties, which is now over a decade ago. I don’t correct her. She probably figures her practised familiarity is good customer service and it doesn’t bother me. I also can’t tell if she looks older than all those years ago.
What I can tell is that there has been a visible upgrade to her business from selling bangles out of a couple of wicker baskets to an L-shaped plywood shelf and cupboard stand, a somewhat more permanent set-up. But her spot is subject to the benevolence of the handicrafts store in front of which she plies her trade, seven days a week, no days off except on rare occasions. Sitting under the store entrance awning, there is partial protection from sun and rain, but not the heat or sudden gusts of wind or downpours. On a day like this, a fiery 37 degrees Celsius, there is also a waft of mulch from the plant nursery a few feet away, with a stronger top note of refuse from a lake farther back, choked by ‘development’.
Previously she sourced her bangles from the non-Bengali Urdu-speaking traders of Dhaka’s Azimpur neighbourhood, refugees from the 1947 partition of India and their descendants. Until the 2000s they were mostly stateless in Bangladesh because during the war of 1971 many of them had sided with Pakistan, leaving them stranded in a newly independent country – the lapse of time hardly lessening the lingering effects of British colonial mayhem.
But now, she says, the bangles come from India, adding ‘I have a card’ in order to stress that her ornamental imports are legal. Legality, a concept always curdled with power, wouldn’t serve her, but she must know the price of non-compliance. In late April, the Indian Border Security Force pulled out all 10 fingernails of a Bangladeshi man with pliers for trespassing and alleged cattle smuggling. When the Bangladesh border security finally rescued him after three days, all they could do was send a note of protest and propose a flag meeting. It’s better not to find out what the punishment for a few, or hundreds or even thousands of bangles would be, although the value of ‘illegal’ cross-border trade between the two countries is almost half a billion dollars despite the watchful – or averted? – gaze of the states.
We talk about rest. There is, she reminds me again, none for her with three sons to raise on her own. There are also micro-loan repayments and rent. ‘Nobody to feed and support me, you know.’ Rest would be nice but there is no time to think about it and she prefers not to. In glossy women’s empowerment narratives all it takes for women’s liberation is to get them to work, but what happens when work is all there is with none of the benefits it should bring – leisure, rest, a comfortable income, a safety net and things that should be affordable? She has done well and for that she is grateful. ‘I had absolutely nothing,’ she says, and now there is this business. It is this progress we latch on to, the curse of work as salvation. ‘Why are your wrists so thin?’ she says, but not exactly as a question. I shrug, smile and say goodbye.
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