Poor Immigrants in America: an Ongoing Story

I’m using my blog space now to publish a Bengali story I recently translated. This is important for me as a first-generation immigrant because even though Said Mujtaba Ali wrote this story at least fifty years ago, the situation has not changed much when it comes to poor, new immigrants’ lives here in America.
I hope you have time to read it and let me know your thoughts. Also, this is one of the dozens of Bengali and Indian stories I translated with hopes to publish them as a book.
Thank you. I’ll come back soon to continue on with my regular blog.
Sincerely Writing,
Brooklyn, New York
Salt Water
Said Mujtaba Ali
It was the good-old Goalanda-Chandpur steam ship. I knew the liner for the past thirty years. Even with my eyes closed, I could reach for and find the water tap, the tea stand, and the poultry cages. Yet, I was not a sailor– only an irregular passenger.
Over these thirty years, everything else had changed except for this small group of mail-dispatch steamers. They made a few little redesigning here and there on the deck or in the cabins, but the smell of all the vessels stayed just about the same. It was a kind of wet, a sort of grimy feeling, and then the thick, garlicy odor of chicken curry cooked on board, a smell that pervaded everything. I’d often thought that maybe the ship itself was a humongous chicken, and they were cooking its curry within its own cavity. One could easily find the stench at Chandpur, Goalanda or Narayanganj[1] – any of the regular stops. Indeed, these ships were living, visible mementos of the old times; the only thing that noticeably differed was a sparser crowd on board.
I took my afternoon meal, lay down on a deck chair and looked at the distant horizon. Poetry never came to me: I’d be hard-pressed to find beauty until Rabi Thakur[2] made me appreciate it. I therefore liked the music box more than the moonshine. I was about to bring over my portable gramophone when a mangled literary magazine, like an unescorted woman, caught my eyes. Well, I thought, what’s the harm even if a stranger me had flirted with her for a little while – would it really annoy her lawful companion?
In the magazine, a new young writer nicknamed Bystander wrote a compelling story about steamship drudgers who worked like dogs. Wow, I said to myself, this guy got to be talented – how could he describe so much in such a meticulous way? How did he manage to dig out so much? Boy, it’s a big scoop…a pure scandal! As far as my writing talents, even putting together a leave of application would be overwhelming. The stuff this guy wrote though…was it true? It was massive injustice; why didn’t the laborers fight back against it? But pooh…these naïve idiots would fight against the cunning, powerful British merchants?[3] That’d be absurd.
My eyes fell on the Second Officer of the ship – they called him the Mate. He’d probably had a day off. Wearing his silk lungi, cotton shirt and embroidered Islamic taz, he was taking a leisurely deck stroll. He glanced at me a few times too. Well, I thought, why not ask this fella how much of the Bystander story was for real and how much was hot-air fluff.
I cleared my throat a little loudly and asked him, “Hello Mr. Mate Sir, I hope the boat ain’t doin’ late.”
The man quickly walked up to me and wrung his hands, “Oh Sir, please don’t call me Sir, Sir. I haven’t seen you more than a couple of times, but I know your dad and brothers, Sir. All of them have been kind and generous to me, Sir.”
Needless to say, I was quite taken by his modesty. I asked, “Where do you come from? Do you have time to sit down and chat a little, or you’re perhaps too busy?”
Right away, he squatted down on the deck with a thud.
I said, “Oh brother, why, bring a stool or something…you don’t need to sit on…” I didn’t finish my sentence and he didn’t bring a stool either[4]. Then we had a talk. He was a fellow Bengali Mussalman[5]; so we of course talked about our lives, our common pleasures and sorrows. Finally, I took the opportunity to read him the entire Bystander story. He listened to it with great attention, so much so that it seemed he was following his Mullah’s sermon at the mosque.
Then he sighed a very long sigh, put his right hand on the forehead in reverence to the Almighty and said, “Sir, you mentioned lack of justice; but then, where do you find justice in this world? Those who have the most from Allah are the biggest promoters of injustice. Then, who knows what kind of justice Allah has provided for whom?…Did you know our Samiruddi who lived in Mirika for many years and became rich?”
The word Mirika, or America, helped me remember the name. “Wasn’t he from the Chauthali area or some place like that?”
The sailor said, “He was from my village Dhalaichara, Sir. The money he made overseas was…like very few people could make that kind of money. We both went to the Kolkata Khidirpur Dock and signed up together to work aboard.”
I asked, “What happened to him? I don’t quite know the whole story.”
He said, “Listen Sir…
The story you just read to me about injustice on ship laborers was all valid and true. However, nobody can describe the extent of the suffering one goes through here especially when they start working…nobody would know how hellish it is if had he not done it himself. The guy who stands next to the boiler for hours and dumps coal into it – have you ever seen how his whole body sweats? And here upstairs on this same ship with both ends wide open, with sweet breeze blowing across from the river Padma. At the same time, in that cavity, in the engine room, it’s dark, all the doors are shut tight, and no air can enter. Nobody can imagine how big that boiler room is for these ten or twelve thousand-ton steamships, and how terribly hot it is. Children of the rivers, free spirits we are – suddenly, one fine morning, we discover ourselves thrown into a hell full of huge, black, oily machines and iron shafts.
The first few months, everybody simply passes out. They pull them out on the deck and douse them under the water tap. After they regain consciousness, they feed them with lumps of salt; all the salt from the body comes out with the sweat – without the force-feeding, they’d die.
Or, you see someone dumping coal into the boiler quite normally; then suddenly, he drops everything, shoots out and runs up the stairs to jump overboard. He’s lost his head in the intolerable heat. Sir, we sailors call this Emokh.”
I asked, “Is this the same as the English word Amuck? But then people running amuck might try to kill someone!”
The sailor said, “Yes Sir, they do. If you want to stop him at that time, he’d grab anything he can find and kill you.” After a little pause, he said, “Well Sir, we’ve all had this bout once or twice and others have calmed us down by dumping water on us. But Samiruddi never ever had this problem – that’s how strong he was. Did you ever see him Sir? He was as slim as an eel, but his body was as tough as the turtle shell. We had a giant-like Chinese chef – Samiruddi could lift him with two hands and throw him down on the floor with the blink of an eye. His leopard-like strength came from doing gymnastics in the country with bamboo poles. But the reason he never fainted in the boiler room is not because of his physical strength but rather his mental firmness; he had determination that he would make money by any means, and that he wouldn’t faint or fall sick, ever.”
The sailor continued the story of his voyage, “After going through hell for the first few weeks, we finally reached the city of Culum.”
I asked, “Where’s Culum?”
He said, “Sir, in Bengali it’s called Lanka.”
I said, “I see, it’s Colombo.”
“Indeed, Sir. Our accent is not as refined as yours. We call it Culum City. They let us get off for a while, but kept a close eye on us, the first-time workers. Samuriddi however didn’t even get off. He said, ‘Getting down would mean unnecessary spending.’ And he was right: sailors off the ship blow money like crazy. Those who never saw a five-taka[6] bill in his entire life now have fifteen or twenty in their hand. He wants to buy a crow!
At the port, we ate to our heart’s content: especially vegetables. We don’t see that stuff much on the ship – it’s practically non-existent.
Then we sailed from Culum to Adun.”
I knew he meant Port of Eden.
“From there, we crossed the Red Sea over to Suso’s Khadi – on both sides was nothing but the desert and piles and piles of sand, and in the middle there was this narrow canal.”
I realized Suso’s Khadi was the Suez Canal, the way he described it.
“Then we went on to Pursoi where the Khadi ended. It was a swell port city. We got off to have vegetable salads. The veterans slipped out to commit sin.”
I noticed that the sailor knew about the famous red light district of Port Said. By that time, I sort of got a hang of how English and other foreign terms were transcribed in his Sylheti[7] dialect. I’d realized he was now talking about Marseilles or Hamburg. I also noticed that he’d mastered the names of the ports directly from French or German and was using the original pronunciations, unlike in the distorted English way we call them.
The sailor said, “All the cargo was disembarked at Hambur. We reloaded the ship there, and crossing over the big ocean, arrived at the port of Nu-Awk – in the Mirikin country.
But they wouldn’t let anybody – either a first-timer or a veteran – get off at Nu-Awk; they were too strict. And why not? Mirikin country is the land of gold. Even idiots like us could easily make five to seven hundred there. People with a darker skin color – much darker than us – make even more. If they let us disembark, all would take a flight and disperse around the country, like a swarm of bees, to make money. That would hurt Mirikans a lot. So, they kept us confined on the ship.
Just before we dropped anchor at the port of Nu-Awk, Samiruddi got a bad stomach flu. All of us had often faked illness to avoid work, but because Samiruddi never did it, upon any excuses, the doctor allowed him to take off from work and rest.
The evening the ship arrived at Nu-Awk, Samiruddi called me over, asked me to swear to Allah, and whispered that he had a plan to escape. He explained it to me.
You wouldn’t believe Sir how meticulously he’d crafted it. He’d already bought from Kolkata’s flea market a nice-looking blue suit, shirt, tie, shoes and socks. I only helped him to get a large, brass soup pan. When it was dark, Samiruddi put on his swimming trunks and climbed down into the ocean away from the shore side. He put all his clothes and a towel in the pan. He’d push the pan through the water with his chest and drift half a mile away from the crowd to get on shore. Once he was there, he’d wipe off, sink the pan and swimming trunks, and walk merrily into the city. A friend from Sylhet would wait there for him; he’d already sent him a message from Hambur. Until the cops gave up on chasing him, he’d just hide there for a few days, shave his beard and go to a place far from Nu-Awk, a place where Sylhetis lived and made money. He’d of course run the risk of being caught ashore, but once he managed to put on his suit and dissolve into the street, nobody could think of him anyone but an ordinary beach-goer.
The plan worked out, Sir. They started looking for him the next morning. By the time, the bird flew out of his cage and hid into the woods. There was no trace of him. It was like, maybe the cops could catch the bird back from the woods, but not Samiruddi from the wilderness of the big city.”
The sailor stopped for a while and left for his Zohr prayers[8]. He returned quickly and resumed it without any further ado, “After that Sir, I spent a full seven years on the ship. A few times I landed at Kolkata’s Khidirpur, but never got an opportunity to go home. There was no reason for me to go home either: my parents were dead, and I hadn’t married at that time…so nobody to visit, really. I always sent money to my dad when he was alive; he spent his last few years happily. Peace Be Upon Him, Sir, the old woman still cried for me. Well Sir, someone like me who’s never distressed by the vast ocean salt water couldn’t be distressed by a few drops of tears, could he?”
Of course, he said that, but then I saw a few drops of salt water moistening his eyes.
He continued, “Anyway, what I learned from people over the years was that Samiruddi had made tons of money; he’d often sent money back home, but he’d settled in the Mirikin country and would not return. To be honest, I never regretted his decision because who’d know where the Almighty found food for us?
Then, one day at work, I slipped on an oil spill in the bathroom and broke my ankle. I had to leave my cargo-ship job, came back home and then got a job on this dispatch steamer. A few days later, I was getting ready to wash up for the early-morning prayer – I was stunned to see Samiruddi sitting on the deck. Wow! I ran up to him, gave him a big hug and said, “Samiruddi, Brother, you’re here!” In an instant, I remembered how much I’d loved him and cared for him.
But I was even more stunned to see that he didn’t even respond. He sat there just like a piece of wood and stared at the sea. I said, “I never heard you got back. And now where are you headed – Kolkata? Why? Didn’t you like to be back home?”
But he didn’t say a thing. He sat there still and silent, like a fakir, a saint. He kept looking at the ocean, as if he didn’t even see me.
I knew something was wrong. However, for the time being, I didn’t bother him. I dragged him to my cabin and put a variety of food on the table: fried eggs, paratha[9] and all — things that he always liked. But he wouldn’t even touch it. Yet, very slowly, like a mother feeding her stubborn child, I put some food in his mouth.
That afternoon, I didn’t let him get off at Goalanda: I remembered how he’d escaped and disappeared in Nu-Awk.
Samiruddi opened up late at night, and that too, rather abruptly.”
The Mate paused, maybe, to catch a breath, or for some other reason. I didn’t push him either. Then he said, “Sir, I don’t know how I can describe his hurt and sorrow in the best possible way. I still remember how he told me his story in the darkness of my cabin that night. His words pierced through the dark and hit me hard, even though he didn’t speak for long at all.
In seven years, Samiruddi had sent more than twenty thousand to his brother at home. I don’t even know how much twenty thousand is; I’ve never seen it in my life…”
I interrupted, “Neither have I.”
“There you go, Sir, so you know how many lives it takes to make that kind of money…
He first sent five hundred and wrote his brother to get the family house out of the lender’s mortgage. Then he sent about two thousand to buy the wasteland next to the house; then a lot more to dig a lake out of the wasteland, and gradually even more to build in the village an urban-style, brick-walled, tile-roofed house, and in the back a pond only for women. He sent money to purchase cows, barns, rice fields, warehouses and so on, and finally, five thousand to build a cement-made mosque in front of the lake.
For seven years, Samiruddi labored in Mirika two or three shifts a day, like an animal. The money he made was all clean, uncorrupt; the money he spent on himself was pittance – even beggars in Mirika can afford more than that.
All the money he made, he poured in to build the house, to buy the land. He thought just like the people in Mirika who live in their own house and plough their own land, he’d do the same once he went back to his poor village.
His brother back in his village kept writing him letters that he’d been taking care of everything and things were sure being built one at a time. Finally, the day Samiruddi learned that the mosque had been completed, he left Nu-Awk to return home. Samiruddi was a highly skilled worker by now and with the recommendation from his previous employers, easily got a job on the ship. He disembarked at Kolkata in the evening and went straight to the rail station. He spent the night at the station platform, and the next day, took the Chittagong mail train to Sylhet. At three o’clock early morning, the train arrived at the local station in Sylhet. Without waiting for a minute, he started walking to their village Dhalaichara: he’d reach there around sunrise. He’d have to walk across a rice field just before his village could be seen.
At the crack of dawn, Samiruddi walked across the rice field.
His brother had written about a tall tower of the newly built mosque. Samiruddi had an Egyptian engineer friend in Mirika who did the design for him; he drew the design based on a famous mosque in Egypt. You would see the tower from far, just the way they’s see it on the Egyptian desert.
But Samiruddi was baffled not to see the tower. Then he walked some more toward the village and found neither the new lake, nor the brick house. Everything remained just the about same as ever before.”
I stopped the Mate and asked in great surprise, “What was the matter?”
It seemed the sailor didn’t even hear me. He carried on, as if in a daze, “Nothing – none whatsoever. It was the same-old, rundown straw hut – it was even older now. The day Samiruddi left home, the hut had four poles to prop it up; now it had six. Could it be that brother had built the house and all in another locality? Well, in that case, wouldn’t he ever write him about it?
At this time, he ran into Basit Mullah, an elderly man and village priest. He recognized Samiruddi, ran up to him and took him in his arms.
First though, he didn’t want to divulge anything. Then, at Samiruddi’s insistence, he broke the news right there in the middle of the field. The brother blew away all the money. In the beginning, he did it at nearby towns – Sylhet, Maulavi Bazar – then in Kolkata…spent it all on gambling, cheap women, and what not.”
I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. I said, “What in the world are you talking about, Mate? It must’ve been too much of a shock for him. But tell me, why didn’t someone from the village write him about what was going on?”
The sailor said, “How’d they know why and how much of the money was coming in the first place? The brother kept telling them that Samiruddi had made millions in Mirika and sent just a small fragment for him to have fun. He didn’t even show Samiruddi’s letters to anyone else, and even though Samiruddi himself was illiterate and had someone else read and write for him, he’d sent his brother to school. Still, Basit Mullah and some other village elders were worried to see the brother throwing so much money away, and did advise him to build a house or buy some land. But he said that Samiruddi got married in Mirika and would never return. Even if he did, he’d bring another million and put three houses together in a matter of weeks.”
I said, “Oh my God, that is so evil!”
The sailor said, “Samiruddi didn’t set foot in the village. He slowly got up, and walked back to the train station. The Mullah must have requested him not to leave, but he wouldn’t listen. He said he was going to go back to his own country now.
The Kolkata train would come at night; he’d wait the entire day at the station. Meanwhile, Mullah and a few other men found the wretched brother and dragged him down to him. The brother sobbed and wept, fell to his feet and sought thousand apologies. Mullah said, “Son, if you want to go back to Mirika, that’s up to you; we’d understand. But please stay back for a few days before you did.”
I asked, “How did that shameless criminal come to see him in the first place?”
The sailor said, “I had the same question. But Sir, do you know what Samiruddi did? He didn’t slap or kick his brother or yelled at him or nothing. He simply said that he would not return to the village, and asked the village elderly not to insist.
It was the next morning I saw him, like I said before, on this ship. He sat there still, like a ghost…like a puppet they sell at the country fair.”
The sailor took a deep breath and said, “Samiruddi told me the entire story in a few minutes. But in the end, he muttered a few words I didn’t quite understand. What he said in effect was that the street beggar dreamed that he’d suddenly found riches, only to wake up the next morning in his own old, real world of rags. He said, ‘I sent money home to buy property, to become a rich man. Where am I going to be, now that the future I dreamed of is shattered?’ That was the last time I saw him.”
The Mate stopped. If it were a fiction instead of a true story, I probably would’ve stopped too. But because it’s not a fiction, I must write the rest of it. Or, it wouldn’t be fair on anyone.
The Mate said, “It’s been so many years, but seems it was just the other night Samiruddi sat here, telling me his heart-wrenching tale.
But you mentioned justice, Sir. Can you please tell me where to find it? Listen.
Samiruddi went back to Mirika, and in ten years made another thirty thousand. This time, he wouldn’t send the money to anyone; he kept it in a bank. Finally, he set out to return home, but couldn’t make it: he died on the ship. The news reached his village, and because Samiruddi had no other direct relations, his money eventually came back to his brother. He blew it again.
Justice, Sir? Where is it?”

Across the Seven Seas...In Search of Gold...


[1] Port cities now in Bangladesh.
[2] Nobel Laureate poet and author Rabindranath Tagore.
[3] In pre-partition, undivided Bengal – a then-British colony – the shipping companies were owned by English owners. On-board laborers were brutally repressed.
[4] Traditionally, younger people would not sit at the same level with the elderly or someone respectable.
[5] South Asian synonym for Muslim.
[6] Bengali currency: now official currency of Bangladesh. Indian West Bengalis still call the Indian Rupee a Taka.
[7] Sylhet is an eastern district in East Bengal, now Bangladesh.
[8] Devout Muslims offer prayers five times a day.
[9] Fried hand-made flour bread.