It was a plaintive question, part of a dialogue in a television play. And yet it was reflective of the pain that has marred the lives of millions of people in our part of the world. The middle-aged boatman, unable to draw people to his old-fashioned, rickety boat --- it is not driven by an engine and it has no sail to allow the winds to make it move faster through the waves in the river --- waits all day on the river bank in expectation of sudden good fortune. He calls out to people as they emerge from the village market, importuning them to get on his boat for the crossing to the other bank of the river.
A couple of men respond, only to inform him rather cruelly, 'We will go by that engine-propelled boat.' The boatman watches all those people --- men, women and children --- make a beeline for that engine-driven boat. Sadness drips from his eyes. There is little of the future in the sinking sunlight bathing his forlorn features. He goes back home, pushing his boat in lonely silence through the gurgling waves. At home, his young daughter serves him rice, watches him eat. Suddenly the thought strikes him, of his daughter's need for that self-same rice.
'Bhaat aase?' That is the question he pushes her way. 'Is there any more rice?' The reassuring response of the young woman is not reassuring enough. It is that old, tradition-bound image we spot in that scene. A father has lost his means of livelihood, for no one will use his boat to cross the river. A daughter knows that filial duty matters. She will not eat. Her heart tells her of her father's hunger. He needs to eat. For those of us lost in watching such unfolding sadness, that question --- 'bhaat aase?' --- could well be applied to the misery which appears to be enveloping the lives of millions in the country today in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. It is a question which surely rises in hundreds, perhaps thousands of poverty-stricken homes even as we speak.
There is the recent story, splashed in the media, of a young schoolboy compelled to abandon education and take to pulling a rickshaw in Mohammadpur in the nation's capital. His father has lost his job at a garment factory, like so many others, and thus the family cannot afford to have him carry on with his education. For that matter, the loss of that job has pushed the family into worrying about food on the table. One does not quite know if this boy, with all those dreams of a happy future once brilliant in his eyes, will ever be able to return to the classroom.
One can be certain there are others like him. Many sit on urban pavements trying to sell vegetables. Many others have trekked off to the villages, in search of tentative security through coming by work of some kind or the other. Young middle class boys, studying in colleges and universities and tutoring school-going children and so supplementing the family income, have lost that employment. Hence the question, 'bhaat aase?'
The miseries that life embodies in societies like ours come in ceaseless manner. There are the 25,000 workers of jute mills who have just been told that they need not return to their workplaces, for those workplaces have been decreed shut by the government. That euphemism, a golden handshake but really paying people off and bidding them farewell, has sent these workers home. Their protests in places like Khulna have not worked. And, yes, there are those elements who have heaved a sigh of relief at the closure of the mills, for those mills were being run at a loss. But for these 25,000 workers and their wives and children and siblings and parents? That money passing into their hands, the labour of years of back-breaking work, through that golden handshake will soon dry up. When that happens, that grim query, 'bhaat aase?' will arise once again.
We are passing through some of the darkest of times in recorded history. Our schoolteachers, both in the towns and villages, face an uncertain future because they can be asked to leave their jobs at any point. Parents worried about family finances must yet cough up semester fees for their children at the private universities or else those seats will simply go. Women in the middle and lower middle classes, afraid of seeing their families slip into unforeseen misery, have gone back to sewing clothes in the hope that they will get orders from people, from neighbours who would like their family clothes stitched. Looming poverty is pushing all of us to unimaginable extremities of activity.
The middle-aged house help, or the woman traditionally referred to as the maid servant --- in that politically incorrect fashion --- calls her employer in the expectation of a reassurance of salary as the month nears an end. She has not worked, indeed has been asked to stay away in the face of the pandemic and yet has been paid in all this time. But for her that is no guarantee she will be paid her wages again. And so she calls her employer. Her family's survival in the slum it has lived in for years, the uncertain guarantee of food, the fear of hunger and of unemployment --- all of these thoughts assail her.
The bright, decent young man who bicycled his way to homes every morning delivering newspapers before joining his classes at college is not seen any more on those familiar streets. Those mornings were a promise of meagre earnings for him and for his family. Perhaps they translated into his monthly fees at college?
'Bhaat aase?' It is that perennial question, one that many of us have tried answering in our own childhood. Fathers, unable to cope with rising prices, borrowed money from relatives and household necessities on credit from neighbourhood shops; mothers made sudden discoveries of inelegant vegetables among the weeds in the backyard and turned them into meals which children ate with dry rotis, without complaint. Rice was absent at the bottom of the beaten old box cobbled out of tin.
Is there any more rice? Bhaat aase?
The question shoots forth from that gloomy hut in the slum, hitting us all in the face with its ferocity. Has that schoolboy now pulling a rickshaw had his meal? Has his family had its bare minimum of food?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.