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Of itchy palms and greasy wheels

  • Published at 12:01 am September 12th, 2016
  • Last updated at 01:32 pm September 15th, 2016
Of itchy palms and greasy wheels

An Australian NGO worker, who has been residing in Bangladesh for some time now, asked me an interesting question the other day: “Mushfique, can you tell me what Eid bakshish is?”

Maybe some street urchins had demanded Eidi from him or something, I thought: “It’s something you give to kids during Eid.”

“No. No. I’m not asking about that. Is it a tradition in your country to hand out extra money at every office to get your work done?”

Oh boy.

I felt ashamed. “It’s an ‘informal’ tradition,” I told him. He smiled, clearly understanding my implication.

Even though I minced my words to him in an attempt to save face, this “informal tradition” is the norm in nearly every municipal office here in Bangladesh. Bribery isn’t anything out of the ordinary for us, but it takes a special meaning during the Eid seasons.

“Bakshish” is a word you hear pretty much everywhere in the run-up to the two Eids. From rickshaw-pullers to your building’s waste management staff, you have to pay up a bit more if you want people to do their work for you. During the holidays, the normal rate for bribery skyrockets at every workplace, and the reasoning used in these instances is nothing short of baffling.

An employee from the Department of Land Records and Survey once demanded an extra Tk1,000 as bribe. “You know Eid is celebrated next week. You will celebrate Eid, and so will I. Why not give me some more money so we can both celebrate it happily?” was his splendid attempt at bending logic.

Upon asking if he gets an Eid bonus from his employer (ie the government), he said: “Yes, but the amount is not enough. We can’t manage with such a small amount.”

I tried to explain how it’s not feasible for an average schmoe such as myself to pay up at every “bakshish stop” in every government office -- he turned sour and threatened to rescind his services to me. “Geeb ekshtra maani or I no do your work.” He tried to sound commanding, broken English and all.

Sensing his middle-class rage, I told him: “I was just kidding! Of course you will get the extra money! It is the duty of the average citizen to make sure you get to celebrate Eid properly, after all,” I said, with a smile on my face but pain in my heart.

For people with limited income, such as myself, Eid is a difficult time. Bakshish rates increase every year, but incomes not so much

During the last Eid-ul-Fitr, the watchman in my building got real angry with me. I gave him Tk200 on the occasion of Eid but it seemed it wasn’t an amount that had pleased him. He would often be deliberately late in opening the gates for me and barely spoke to me for over two days.

And then it hit me.

I gave him a further Tk300 and apologised to him for not having his “required amount” when I gave him Tk200. Talk about a turn-around. From then on he opened the gates for me with a beaming smile.

The local city corporation staff that collects waste from my house didn’t bother to collect the festering pile of filth from in front of my apartment for almost four days after the last Eid-ul Fitr holidays.

My neighbours told me that their waste was being collected. I didn’t know what was wrong. I met the trash guy and inquired about his obvious flippancy in doing his job right.

“I thought you would take care of your own waste,” he shot back at me with enough snark to make Robert Downey Jr consider a career in children’s TV. This made me angry. The guy demanded Tk100 as Eid bakshish! What other option did I have but to cave in to his demand?

For people with limited income, such as myself, Eid is a difficult time. Bakshish rates increase every year, but incomes not so much.

But it’s hard to not enable this culture of bribery and forced hand-outs when, at the end of the day, we’re still a very poor nation in general.

Mushfique Wadud is a journalist currently working in the development field.