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Letter from Dhaka: The bangle seller
Parsa Sanjana Sajid has bought her colourful bangles for over ten years, but behind the bangles is a life of hard work.
A woman of uncertain age sits surrounded by metal and glass bangles in the afternoon sun. ‘Those are too big, see if these will fit you’ – she gives me five or six glass bangles in tangerine and coral colours. But I want another colour, so with a smile she takes more plastic bags from her cupboard and she tries to find my size.
‘I last saw you a long time ago.’ I don’t know her name and she doesn’t know mine. I think she doesn’t really recognize me as she remembers me as a child. But I have visited her bangle stand only since I was in my mid-twenties. That is now over ten years ago. I don’t correct her.
I can see that there is progress in her business from selling bangles out of two wicker baskets before and now to a shelf and cupboard stand, a more permanent situation. But her stand depends on the kindness of the handicrafts store. She sells her bangles in front of the store seven days a week, no days off except on a few occasions. There is some protection from sun and rain under the store entrance, but not from the heat or sudden wind or downpours. On a day like this, a hot 37 degrees Celsius, there is also a smell from the plant shop a few feet away, with a stronger smell from a lake farther back.
Before she got her bangles from the non-Bengali, Urdu-speaking traders of Dhaka’s Azimpur neighbourhood. They are refugees from the 1947 partition of India and their families. Until the 2000s they were mostly stateless in Bangladesh because during the war of 1971 many of them supported Pakistan and so they were living in a new independent country. The passing of time didn’t really make any less the problems left by the British.
But now, she says, the bangles come from India. She says, ‘I have a card’ to show that her bangle imports are legal. Being legal is always an idea with power behind it and it doesn’t help her. But she must know the price of not being legal. In late April, the Indian Border Security Force pulled out all 10 fingernails of a Bangladeshi man for trespassing and cattle smuggling. When the Bangladesh border security finally rescued him after three days, all they could do was send a note of protest and suggest a meeting. It’s better not to find out what the punishment is for a few, or hundreds, or even thousands of bangles. But the value of ‘illegal’ cross-border trade between the two countries is almost half a billion dollars even with the watchful or maybe not watchful states.
We talk about rest. There is no rest 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. Stories of women’s empowerment say all it takes for women’s liberation is to get them to work. But what happens when work is all there is with no benefits – leisure, rest, a comfortable income, safety, and things that she should be able to afford? She has done well and for that she is thankful. ‘I had absolutely nothing,’ she says, and now there is this business. It is this progress that we look for but it brings negatives with it. ‘Why are your wrists so thin?’ she says, but not really as a question. I smile and I say goodbye.
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