Karim Miah has always wanted to go back to his lush green village and work the paddy fields in Rangpur’s Peeganj. He will one day. “As soon as I can save enough and repay my debts,” Karim says over the shoulder of his tattered polo shirt drenched in sweat as he paddles hard towards his shanty in Rayerbazar.
The lithe rickshaw-puller lives on the Beribaadh near the river with his wife. The Tk3000 per month dingy six by seven has a fan and a television. A lone naked light bulb hangs from the low tin sheet ceiling. There is barely enough space for the couple to move around with the bed and a meat-safe. Karim pays an extra Tk300 for electricity. Toilet and kitchen is of course in the common area of the slum.
Karim’s lithe body and wiry muscles belie his 50 years and several grandsons. His salt and pepper cropped hair glistens with sweat. “We generally don’t let occasional bouts of illnesses come between the day job.” Together with his wife, Karim toils day and night to pay off Tk3 lakhs of debts, most of which came during the weddings of his two daughters.
At least they are well, Karim says with satisfaction about his daughters vindicating his extravagance at their weddings. However, extravagancce is something that he cannot afford anywhere else. Beef comes once a month, fish is on the menu more often.
The man admits there is a little more support he gets from home so he manages to get by. Karim owns about 10 decimals (0.1 acre) at home where he grows paddy. “I go home often and bring back some rice, which sees us through for a while.”
One of those trips went horribly wrong. “I could not get a seat in the bus, so I decided to travel on the roof. It was cheaper too. But then I fell and hurt my leg.” Karim had to nurse his injuries for two months. That was when he got further into debt.
By this time Karim is at ease and opens up to an old question. “You know, on days I make Tk300 in a jiffy even before I know it. But then on days I come back with barely Tk100.” It depends a lot on the weather and traffic on a particular day. “But on average it’s around Tk 400 and Tk 500.”
Karim is better off than many others since he owns his rickshaw and hence does not have to pay the daily deposit which is between Tk70 and Tk100. But there are other daily expenses that Karim can’t dispense with. He ends up spending over Tk100 on food in between the trips. There is a monthly garage rent of Tk300 for the rickshaw and he ends up shelling out another Tk1,000 for the rickshaw maintenance.
Karim Miah’s earnings are supplemented by his wife who works as a domestic aid at four to five houses mostly cleaning and laundry. But his earnings seem to dwindle. “I am not as fit as I used to be. Age is catching up. I can’t work as hard as I used to before.” He also has to spend a substantial sum on his gastric pills, says Karim.
With whatever is left for the, the elderly couple manages to have rice for all three meals. “Rice is what gives me strength and energy. So why not?” But besides that, its just leafy vegetables most days for Karim and his wife, who cooks the meals before she leaves for work at 7am. Sometimes he gets fish. The common fare is pangus or tilapia. “Just half a kilo, when we have enough money.”
Karim admits he likes beef the most among meat but he can afford it only once a month or so. “Sometimes we even have beef twice a month!”
But this man is among the lucky ones to have it so easy. Most of the hundreds of thousands of rickshaw pullers of Dhaka have it far worse than Karim and hardly manage to make ends meet. Karim is only too aware of that. All he dreams of are the undulating fields of Peerganj. “As soon as my debts are paid, and I have a little saved, I will be off to my village,” says Karim, his tired cloudy eyes staring at a distance as he blows out a mouthful of bidi smoke.