The Colgate Scene
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The author, visiting with the son of a small poultry farmer in Rajberry.
Economist Karl Borden '68 and his wife Sandra, a nurse
practitioner, spent three months in Bangladesh researching village banking and
money lending practices and providing medical care along the shores of the
remote Maghna River. Through these excerpts from Karl's journal a unique place
and people emerge.
On the train to Chittagong
I'm seated next to a window with a good view of the countryside as it passes by and am taking notes. On the way out of Dhaka, we passed mile after mile of the most miserable slums I have ever seen. I've been to Mexico City; I've seen Caracas. They don't even come close. I'm told Calcutta is worse, but I don't see how you go down from here.
We stopped at a small station on the outskirts of the city and the usual crowd of beggars has converged on my window. Mendicancy is everywhere in this country. On every street corner, in every eating place, in the shops, as you ride in a rickshaw. As you walk down a street or lane you are accosted by a constant stream of beggars. Emaciated men, pitiable children with big eyes, the very old, the less old, women with children, the firm and the infirm alike. They extend their hands, they bow their heads, they plead, they whine pitiably. They touch you on the arms and in your heart.
But if I begin, where do I stop? As I write this line in my notebook, a man is standing at the train window moaning a plea for assistance. One of his arms is gone at the elbow, the other at the wrist -- but he extends his stubs to me, a cup tied to his single forearm. How do I say yes to him, and no to the little girl five yards behind him, and no again to the legless man behind her pulling his body along in the dirt with his arms? All this is in front of my eyes as I write this.
I have learned to slap their hands and arms gently away -- fail to do so and they will press in on you in increasing numbers and literally engulf you.
There is a vendor selling candies and other snacks, working the windows of the train. He pushes through the crowd of supplicants to get to me. Under the watchful eyes of cripples and children I buy a candy bar and close the window to their pleas.
Abdul Hazim Khan, the 114-year-old Kabuli Walla Karl Borden met in Kustia.
Stalking the Kabuli Walla
It is the 13th, a lucky day for a Colgate alumnus to be starting out this next stage of my trip. I am taking a taxi over to Nizam Ahmad's in a couple of hours and we will depart for Kustia. Nizam -- the one-man-show known here as M.O.E.R. (Making Our Economy Right) -- runs a free-market institute sponsored by the Atlas Foundation in the United States.
Nizam has offered to take me to meet someone who had in the past borrowed money from a Kabuli Walla. The Afghan traders roamed northern India during the past century or more and were frequently a source of short-term capital (mon-ey lending) for local peasant farmers. The Kabuli Wallas largely ceased functioning after independence, when many of them were killed by the Bangladeshi nationalists.
The night before my trip to Mymemsing I slept at the home of Aziz ul-Haque and his wife Husna. Aziz is a former government minister who is now 80 years old. Husna was a university professor of English and is now almost 70 years old. Aziz said he remembered the Kabuli Wallas well from his childhood in his native village. They were, he said, always imposing men -- tall and regal. They dressed in flowing robes and always traveled through town with a large walking stick. The stick served as both a walking aid and a source of intimidation.
Aziz said these men made monthly rounds through their territory, selling wares, making loans and collecting payments. I asked what they did when someone didn't pay, either for goods sold on credit or for a loan, and he said the Kabuli Walla doubtless resorted to physical means of persuasion when necessary. But their first means of exacting payment would be to go to the village cemetery, where he would pound with his fists on the grave of the borrower's father (or other appropriate male ancestor). This, Aziz said, was considered a great insult -- a suggestion that the sins of the son would be visited on the father in heaven. This also, of course, announced very publicly to the rest of the community that the debtor was not paying his due -- sort of an early version of a credit report. The social pressure to pay one's debts was (and remains) considerable in this culture, and the grave-pounding often had an immediate effect.
Just spoke to Nizam. He said that a friend of his in Kustia has actually located a Kabuli Walla who is still living and has agreed to be interviewed! He is, I am told, 100-plus years old and living in the area.
In Kustia now. We drove for four hours, then took a river ferry for an hour, then drove for another two hours to get here. In the most interesting event of the evening, Nizam's cousin said that the Kabuli Walla we were to interview was there at 5 p.m. to meet me. We were concerned that we might have given an insult by not showing up on time, so Nizam decided we should go to his residence to apologize and arrange the interview time for tomorrow.
We walked down a muddy path to the side of the building, the smell of trash and stagnant water all around us, and slipped along a dingy corridor. The door opened into a single, filthy room with dripping walls and flaking plaster. Inside was an old cable drum used as a table, odds and ends of unrecognizable junk and debris on the grimy ce-ment floor. The 114-year-old Kabuli Walla was sitting cross-legged on the greasy pad that covered the raised wooden board that served as his bed.
The Kabuli Walla unfolded his legs and rose to his feet in a single, sweeping gesture. Almost as tall as I am, his head wrapped in cloth and his dirty robes flowing to the ground, he extended his hand and greeted me with a huge smile and all of his teeth. We spent only about five minutes in his room, with Nizam conveying our regrets at having missed him earlier, and arranged to meet again the following morning.
Abdul Hazim Khan grew up in Kabul and lived and worked there for more than forty years as a small trader and businessman. Somewhere between the world wars he decided to move his activities to India (of which Bengal was then a part, of course). He says, "Pakistan, India, Bangladesh -- it is all one country. I do not understand why these borders are here."
He was what my grandmother would have called a "tinker" -- rotating through his territory of villages every month or so bringing new wares, taking orders for goods from the city and making deliveries at a profit. It is exactly what I had been expecting from the descriptions of the Kabuli Wallas. Khan first moved to Calcutta and was a small trader. He told many stories of trading with both the British and the Indian armies during World War II and in general had contempt for the former and grudging respect for the latter.
"The British were stupid. It was very easy to fool them. They would buy anything at any price. I sold them a lot of things and I always got whatever I asked. They were very stupid."
I asked, "Did you also sell to the Indian military?"
"Yes, they were much smarter. It was more difficult to fool them. I made money, but not as much when I sold to the Indians."
I asked why he had come to this particular area to do business and why so many other Kabuli Wallas had done business here as well.
"The people in the region, the Bengalis, were very easy to intimidate. They were easy to abuse. If you yelled at them, they cringed. If you raised a hand, they cowered. It was easy to sell to them and easy to collect from them. It was more difficult with the Indians in Calcutta. This was better business. I made a lot of money here."
Later in the conversation he said again, "The people here are easy to handle. They were gullible, trustworthy and easily intimidated and controlled. I would abuse them and they would pay."
I spent some time getting as much detail about money lending activities of the Kabuli Wallas as I could but the process was substantially hampered by my "translator." I am still uncertain whether Abdul Hazim Khan himself engaged in the practice. I am certain, though, that he denies it, and does so very emphatically. "Moneylenders! They trade in shit! They are like shit! I would not take interest, and I would not charge it!"
Well, maybe. Under better interview circumstances I might have been able to probe this all with precision and get a better feel for the veracity of his statements. I will only say that the detailed knowledge he had of the Kabuli Walla money lending activity and interest rate practices, combined with his clear disdain for the local Bengali people and his frequent references to how easy it was to intimidate and abuse them, suggests to me that his experience with money lending may not be as removed from the personal as he claims. That, however, is speculation on my part.
Abdul Hazim Khan goes down as the most fascinating personality I have met since Sandra and I left our home on this trip more than six months ago. I don't know whether he's 114 years old or not, but if God grants me his mental acuity and physical prowess at 90, I'll be happy.
The Bordens are on the faculty at the University of Nebraska. Their journals can be read at http://serenades1.pmzinc.com.
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