Monday, August 31, 2009

Dialectic Discourse in Rally Bagan

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(Mohammad Sujon and Ashan Ullah sitting in their tea shop in Rally Bagan.)

Quite by chance, at a tea stall in Rally Bagan (Narayanganj), I get involved in an interesting little argument while having a relaxed cup of tea with the two gentlemen who run the shop. It is an oppressively hot day and I ask this and that to make small talk. But the question: “How old is that slum?” suddenly provokes a vexed discussion between the two men and the people who are bunched up around me and my translator. Bengali words are flying quickly between Mohammad Sujon and his uncle Ashan Ullah. Soon, the people who are standing close by all have their own opinion to share. I do not understand anything and even my translator can hardly follow. It turns out that the term “slum” (bustee) is the bone of contention. While Mohammad considers Rally Bagan a “quarter”, Ashan insists it is a “slum” in which they are living. In fact, the British company Rally Brothers built brick-made houses to accommodate workers from their big jute mill more than one hundred years ago, and Mohammad argues that a quarter is “a place where the employees live”. Although the Rally Brothers and the major jute industry of Narayanganj are long gone, the place still looks different from the “slums”, he maintains. In contrast, Ashan insists that “slums” are “places where the poor people live, so Rally Bagan is also a bustee”. The audience accepts both arguments as true. Eventually, the discussion leads to the broad consensus that Rally Bagan is a quarter (for historical reasons) but also a slum. People are poor and crowded together, and, as with other slums, extensions made from bamboo and tin can be seen, but to view Rally Bagan only as a slum is to neglect its long and unique history.

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