by Rahad Abir
You land in London with £210 in your pocket. It is the year 2009. You are able to pay the first month’s rent for the room, but not the deposit. You have to share it with an acquaintance from Dhaka. He arrived a week prior.
It is a three-bedroom unit in a terraced housing in Forest Gate. With two large windows, the room upstairs is sunlit, spacious, and has two separate beds. The floor is carpeted and clean. Hassan and you will split the £320 monthly rent.
You notice three cans of Foster’s under Hassan’s bed; one is missing from the four-pack ring. He follows your gaze and smiles.
“I bought them the day I got here,” he says, “to replenish the energy I lost from the plane journey.”
“Didn’t know beers work as energy boosters.”
He laughs. “Beers are super cheap here. One pound each.”
The reality is coming from a Muslim-majority country such as Bangladesh where drinking is a taboo and restrictions are prevalent people become overwhelmed when they see alcohol sold in stores just like cokes.
You have a next room neighbor—two girls, also students and Bangladeshi. You discover later that none of the room doors in this flat has any lock.
“How weird,” you say to Hassan. “Aren’t the girls scared to live here? What if a guy enters their room at night?”
“This is England, brother,” he says, “not Bangladesh. You call 999 and you will see a flashing police car outside your house within a minute. Housing is expensive around here. Most students live in shared arrangements.”
Mahboob comes for an adda in the evening. He is Hassan’s cousin and the leaseholder of the flat. He lives with his girlfriend in the drawing room downstairs. Of course, both their families back home are unaware of this. Living together without marriage is against Islam, against Bengali tradition.
Over Foster’s the conversation veers toward London life. Mahboob talks about the steps to take for Hassan and you to settle down in the UK.
You see a chance to open up and share your financial state. You are concerned about the rent. There is a friendly air about Mahboob. He understands your situation and says not to worry about the deposit now.
“Oh, only one request to you both,” he says in Bangla. “Please bathtub-e mal felben na.” He asks you boys not to masturbate in the bathtub.
The following week Mahboob takes you to Stratford to open a bank account. After a five-minute wait, you hear your flatmate’s name being called.
My-boob! A woman, a buxom brunette, smiles at both of you from her seat. You and Mahboob sink to the couch before her desk. She looks comfortable, and so does Mahboob. The Anglicization of Mahboob turns the “h” silent. It should have been pronounced “Maah-boob.”
At that moment, you, Mohammad Robiul, decide to Anglicize your name, shortening Robiul to Rob. In fact, if possible, you will legally change your entire name to Rob Ryan. Unlike home, where people are called by their last names, you learn that here in the English world they prefer being addressed by their first names.
“Call me Rob,” you tell the bank clerk.
The woman smiles beautifully at you as if she knew you. She asks, “How are you today?” You feel you can almost ask her out on a date. Back home, you remember, when you visit a bank or any institution, the person behind the counter looks as if they pity you. Consider yourself lucky, the look says, for I am serving you—that is the impression the tellers wear on their faces there. They never smile. Never greet. Just the necessary talk in a sulky mood. And they never say thank you. Besides, if you go to a state bank to cash your check, the teller asks for some cha money.
One late evening, Mahboob takes you and Hassan to an Indian disco bar. It is just across the street from the house, an uncrowded commonplace. A few drinkers, all Asian, are scattered around a stage watching a girl dance to a Hindi song Ho Jayegi Balle Balle. The girl, clad in short and sexy clothes, is pretty young. She looks underage and unprofessional. Her small face, coated with thick makeup, is incongruent with her unenthusiastic eyes. Her movement is mechanical; though with the tempo of music, she tries to bring rhythms to her bosomy breasts and meager buttocks, to entertain her viewers. The audience, however, seems oblivious to her effort; some are watching just because they have nothing better to do.
Why is this girl doing this? you wonder. Does she earn enough? Is she on a student visa like you? An illegal immigrant? You bother not to bring it to your boys and sip slowly from your beer bottle.
On another evening, Mahboob takes Hassan and you to a strip club in Whitechapel, just opposite the Altab Ali Park. There is a £5 entrance fee. Mahboob takes care of that and the drinks. Hassan and you promise him not to breathe a word about this to his girlfriend.
Most of the strippers are European. A little embarrassing thing happens. Every time a new stripper is about to get on the pole stage, she prances around the viewers with an empty wine glass. And the viewers are supposed to drop tips there, starting from £1. You make it the first two times, then Mahboob gives you an idea. Why not head for the bathroom the moment you see the girl coming to our table. The ingenious technique saves you and Hassan some quid.
A week later Hassan tells you that the place Mahboob works is an adult bookshop in Soho, which is called London’s red-light district. He then titters.
“What?” you ask.
“Mahboob gave me an artificial vagina.”
“And you tried that?”
“A couple of times, yes.”
“How does it feel?”
“It’s rubbish,” he says. “It’s fucking cold inside. Cold enough to kill your erection.”
Whitechapel and its neighboring areas have the biggest Bengali community in London. There, you visit a few Bengali recruitment agencies, hoping to have some luck finding a job. The small stuffy rooms are damp and dingy. In almost every office, the person in charge is chewing paan against a backdrop of peeling walls. Their appearance and posture are oddly unprofessional. They speak in a casual manner; words emit from their mouth at a lazy pace, through their red-stained teeth and lips.
Most of these shabby little offices are owned by Sylhetis. Always packed, boisterous, unfriendly, and uninviting, these agencies mainly offer jobs in Bangladeshi restaurants outside London. It seems that they never want to miss an opportunity to take advantage of hapless jobseekers, often skimming hefty commissions in return for “services.”
You are not the right species for these jobs, you know right away. You leave and wait for a bus at the Whitechapel station. You spot a familiar face 15 feet away—one of your IELTS students back home. So, he is here too! you sigh. Here you two are in the same boat—both admitted to some no-good cheap colleges, and both are here in search of a better future. You turn your face and walk the other way in haste.
That evening you hear harrowing stories from Mahboob about the newly arrived Bangladeshi students. Some students are coming straight from the airport to the Altab Ali Park where they are told to wait to be picked up by their contacts. Since the arrivals have no phone numbers and as sometimes their contact persons are late, they have to wait for hours in the park bench.
Not everyone is lucky to have any acquaintances here. Perhaps the person the arrivals have contacted from back home is a friend’s friend or a distant relative’s friend or as such. Maybe they get stuck in some emergency business or are coming from outside London. When the arrival manages to phone the person, he is told to spend the night in a nearby hotel and he will come to pick him up the next day.
The mosque by the Altab Ali park is getting many of such visitors. Some are allowed to stay overnight as they don’t have enough to pay for a hotel. Some then hurry off to the dodgy recruitment agencies in the Bengali neighborhood and pay a good amount in hopes of getting a restaurant job. Usually, these under the table low-paid restaurant jobs outside London come with free accommodations.
You are horrified to hear about these miseries of your fellow countrymen. International students are pouring into the UK in thousands. It is October. Though the sessions have already started, students are still coming. Whenever you go to the train station, you notice newcomers, evidently students with heavy luggage, fresh off the flights. With a little different outfit, they—full of wonder, confusion, and excitement—look about for familiar things. “Everyone is getting a (UK) visa”—you remember the catchphrase when you were preparing your papers in Dhaka.
“When I came here six years ago,” Mahboob says one evening, “getting a UK visa was not easy. So, jobs were available.” He tells that in those days, restaurateurs, when they learned that some Bangladeshis were coming, would go and wait at Heathrow to find their prospective employees.
Three days later, you are in Whitechapel for some reason. Since you have all the time in the world, you visit Altab Ali Park. Quite small and surrounded by high-rise buildings, it is more like a breathing space, some spacious sitting area by the street. A Shaheed Minar memorial stands in a corner in memory of the martyrs of the 1952 Bengali Language Movement in Dhaka.
You stroll through the walkway. The place is a little crowded—some lounging on the park benches, some chatting with others, some talking on the phone. All Bengali faces. A flock of pigeons are sunning and foraging next to an overflowing bin. You look at one bench where a guy is reclining, flanked by two expandable suitcases. You notice him as you walk past his bench: his eyes on his phone in hand, and earphones clinging to his ears. Ahead, under the shade of a tree, you see a young boy, pants hung low from his hip, and a girl in burqa and hijab, in an embrace. They both can’t be more than sixteen.
When you exit through the gate to Whitechapel Road, your gaze falls on another guy with an oversize backpack over his shoulders. Your eyes meet his. He is wearing a hooded black parka that must have been bought from Dhaka’s Bangabazar. You have the same kind in blue at home (now you have a windbreaker on). His face is unshaven, and his back is arched from the weight of his pack. The guy approaches you, scratching his stubbly jaw. A smell of sweat from him hits your nose.
“Excuse me, bhai,” he says in Bangla. “I need to call someone. Can I use your phone, please?”
You look at his messy hair and nod. You grab your phone from the pocket, unlock, and hand it to him.
The number he dials doesn’t respond the first time. It is picked up after the second try. He asks the other person if there is any update about getting a job for him. He then begs him to do something for him. His voice almost cracks, saying he is out of money. He doesn’t know where he will stay after tomorrow.
“Thank you, bhai.” He returns the phone.
You look at his sad and suffering face. You hesitate to ask him any question, fearing he may ask you for some favor.
“Can you give me a job, brother?” he says plainly. “Anything, any job would be fine.”
You tell him that you are in the same boat, looking for a job, too.
“Oh,” he said with a deep sigh.
You learn about his situation. Before landing in London, his contact, a man from his hometown, promised him a restaurant job with accommodation in Brighton. After his arrival, he is told that someone has been taken up for the job. Since he knows no one in London, he has no place to go. Three days he stayed in the mosque, then a good Samaritan allowed him to sleep in his living room only for the night. By tomorrow he must find another place to sleep. He has no money left. He’s already paid to an agency for a possible employment, but no luck yet.
“Where do you eat?” you ask.
He says that he has bread and a jar of strawberry jam in his backpack. That’s what he is living on, mostly.
A voice in your head tells you to leave. The more you stay here the more you will get depressed. You have a ten-pound note in your wallet. You believe he needs it more than you do. You hand it to him and turn to catch a bus.
It is the second week of October. You have paid the monthly rent and split the grocery expenses with your flatmates. Now you have only £20 in the world.
The next week, throwing three dozen paper CVs in your backpack, you are out on the London streets with your roommate Hassan on a job-hunting mission. Pubs, bars, and restaurants in central London are your target. The process is simple and straightforward. While sauntering down the street, if any eatery or bar seems to have possible employment opportunities, Hassan and you walk in, look around and linger until there is any staff available to talk.
“Can I help you?” Some staff will approach.
“Yes, can I see your manager, please?”
Out comes the manager.
“Hi, we are looking for work.”
“Do you have any CV with you?”
“Sure.” Hassan and you hand him two CVs.
The manager flashes a smile and says, “Thank you. If anything comes up, I’ll let you know.”
Sometimes the manager is busy or not available. Then the person at the till says, “If you are looking for jobs, you can leave your CVs.”
Over a week and a half, Hassan and you try different areas of London every day. One day north, another day south, and the day after, west. Often, if the bus goes through some place where a great deal of bars and pubs are noticeable, you two decide to get off and try your luck.
One day, Hassan and you are wandering around Farringdon. It is past lunch, and both of you are hungry. By a roadside bin Hassan spots a carton box full of sandwiches. It is certain that the nearby sandwich shop left this here. Hassan checks the date on sandwiches, all expiring today. He grabs three French baguettes and quickly hides them into his backpack.
Sitting on a nearby roadside bench in the sun, you two enjoy the sandwiches. They are not bad though.
One Friday, Hassan and you come to Canary Wharf, the financial capital of London. The docks of Canary Wharf are studded with hundreds of fantastic bars and restaurants. It is a dazzling place indeed.
“We’ll definitely get some job here,” you tell Hassan. “See, every eatery and pub are crowded.”
“IInshallah, I hope so,” Hassan says. “We should drop our CVs at every bar. We need three days to cover this area.”
That night, you modify your CV. Earlier, in your work experience, you mentioned your journalistic and teaching background. What have these skills to do with a barman’s job? Adding some relative job experience might help. You lie in your CV putting a Bangladeshi restaurant’s name and adding some waiting experience.
On your second day in Canary Wharf, you arrive early. You walk in a pub decorated with beer kegs. After you two hand your CVs to the manager, he smiles and says, “Let me give you a piece of advice. Can I?”
“Sure, sure,” Hassan replies.
“Do not go looking for work together at the same place. Try one at a time.”
Hassan and you see the point. From then on, if you drop your CV at one pub, Hassan selects the next one.
Two weeks fly by. You both hear nothing. No phone calls or emails from any prospective employer. Traveling in London buses is not cheap. Your £20 has come down to £2. You must find a job by next week. The biggest worry is the rent.
Hassan’s situation is different. He brought around £2,000 cash with him from Bangladesh. And he always has Mahboob there to help him.
Mahboob’s girlfriend works for Burger King. On occasion, she waits through an agency. She manages to sign Hassan and you with the agency. On a fine Monday, both of you arrive at the agency’s tiny office in central London. The manager is a Croatian. She cannot assure you any jobs right now, but she is hopeful that during Christmas there will be some good news. For more than two hours, she talks about server’s etiquette, gives you some basic training—how to set up a table, serve food, clean the table, all of that.
You never get any job offer from her, but her training helps you a great deal to work in this catering field later.
A friend of a friend works at an Indian restaurant in central London. One evening, on his recommendation, you land a trial job there. You put on a black shirt with the restaurant’s name inscribed and an apron. You are asked to serve food from the kitchen to tables. You carry a black tray to the ordered table, put it down and head back to the kitchen. One waiter comes running after you.
“Hey, hey,” he says. “Never leave the tray on the table.”
Then he shows you how to do it. You try to imagine yourself as a customer, and it strikes you that you have never seen any waiter leaving the tray on the table with the food. You say sorry and thank the guy.
Next, there is a drink order for such and such table. You do your best to balance the tray of bottled Kingfisher beer in one hand and walk to the destined table. As you lift one bottle to place it on the table where a couple was dining, the tray tilts and the other Kingfisher slides off, soaking the girl’s top. The girl lets out a muffled scream and gets to her feet.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” you keep saying.
The manager darts to the table and sends you inside.
Five minutes later, he meets you and says, “It’s alright. You can have your food and go home.”
But you do not eat. While you change into your clothes, you know you have bungled the job.
You walk about Oxford Street, then slink to Soho, where Mahboob works at a small adult bookshop.
“Hey, what’s up bro?” Mahboob says. “How was the job trial?”
You tell him what happened.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “Keep trying. You’ll find something.”
A man enters and stands before the till. Mahboob turns to him. You browse books on a shelf.
“Fucking London life,” Mahboob says, when the customer exits the shop. “It’s been six years since I came to London, and still, I’m a student.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, I have to. To keep my legal status. I don’t wanna go back to that country. Just four more years, bro. I’ll get my residency and no more fucking school then.”
After three weeks of futile job-searching, you think out of the box. You have seen rickshaws or pedicabs plying the central London streets targeting tourists. A thought strikes you when you spot one or two Bangladeshi students in that line of work.
Your rent will be due in two weeks, and you have no money left whatsoever. You are desperate to do anything—take the oddest of the odd jobs.
One day, early in October, you borrow £70 from your roommate and come to a parking space of a building in Warrant Street at a given time. A Turkish man there, thin and stubbly bearded, owns 15 rickshaws. You hand him the copy of your passport and the weekly rent of £60 in advance, and he hands you the key to a chain lock.
The following afternoon, you shake the Bengali vanity off your body like a dog shaking off after a bath. And you set for a toilsome London life. A degree from Dhaka University, a profession in journalism, a decent life in Bangladesh is nothing but a memory now.
The moment you sit on the driver’s seat, you want to hide your face. You dread soon that many of your fellow Bangladeshi acquaintances will recognize you, remember you, that they will spread this around. Beyond the borders of Britain their words will reach the ears of your folks in Bangladesh. You will be forever tagged as a rickshawwallah, a slur back in Bangladesh.
You are on Oxford Street when you hear a taunting comment from a pedestrian in Bangla: “Kemon lage?” How does it feel, eh? You shoot the man on the walkway a hard look and ache to spit out: “You bastard!”
The first day you don’t earn anything. Nothing on the second day either. What you can’t do is talk. Other rickshawwallahs are expert at smiling and greeting passersby. Plus, you still don’t know all the streets. You get around China Town, Covent Garden and Soho. You buy a map. Some drivers use newly arrived iPhones to navigate. That is beyond the ambit in your current situation. The problem about using the physical map is it doesn’t tell you which streets are one way, which are not.
You pedal around to familiarize yourself with the streets. Once, you come out the wrong way on the main road to Oxford St. and your rickshaw runs into a police car. The officer yells at you: “What the fuck are you doing?” You panic. “I’m so sorry, so sorry, so sorry,” you say, “it’s my first day” (It is your second day actually.) You turn your rickshaw straight away and move toward the right direction of traffic.
The third day, you hit some luck. It is a wet day and starts raining a little. You are near Selfridges when a mother and her daughter approach you. Would you drop them off at Marble Arch? “Sure, please hop in,” you say. It is not easy pedaling two passengers towards Hyde Park, because that is up the hill. You are panting while pedaling. The rickshaw moves at a super slow speed. One can rather walk faster there. You worry that you won’t make it.
Exhausted and drenched in rain, you reach the destination. They pay you a twenty-pound note where the face of Queen Elizabeth is ablaze with a smile. The mother is generous with the fare. You haven’t fixed the price. You would have been okay with a tenner. Perhaps your exposed sign of overexertion and soaked clothes made her sympathetic to you.
Should I head home now? you think. You decide to stay a little longer. Like Bangladesh, you figure, rain is good for rickshawwallahs—an opportunity to earn extra. In Covent Garden you make £5 from another short ride. That is all. Though you stay until 11 at night, you get no other passengers.
Having taken the rickshaw to the garage, you are waiting at the bus stop to catch a bus home. You are shivering in the cold since you are wet. A middle-aged woman next to you is smoking. “Would you like a cigarette?” she asks. You look at her kind eyes and say yes. She gives you a cigarette and a lighter.
That night, when you get home after midnight, you are hungry like a street dog. In the kitchen you find out that no curry is left for you in the pan. There is rice. But how will you eat it without curry? In total, there are eight souls in this three-bedroom flat. You all share the grocery expenses, clean the flat and cook in rotation. They shouldn’t have eaten your portion of curry. You fry an egg to appease your ranting stomach for the long night.
Lying in bed, you gaze at the solitary window to the street. You regret coming to London. In Dhaka, you had a writing job. You wrote about theaters, plays, jatra. London life has turned you into a rickshawwallah. What a promotion!
You buy a raincoat the following day. That day you pick up three young men off the British Museum to Leicester Square. The fare is fixed at £20. It is a heavy load. You are sweating like a pig and breathing like a sick old heart. The moment you arrive at the destination, and before you dismount the saddle, the three guys run off in front of your eyes in two directions. You are dumbstruck. All you could utter is: Hey, hey, hey! Chasing them is pointless. You cannot outspeed them with a rickshaw. And you cannot leave the rickshaw behind to go after them.
Looking vacantly toward the road of their disappearance, you feel like crying.
That day you earn nothing.
You are still learning every day, mainly memorizing roads and directions. You bike around Soho, Covent Garden, Shaftesbury Avenue, China Town, Palace Theater, Prince Edward Theater, among other places. By the end of that week, you pocket only £90. After paying the weekly rent you just save £30.
It is frustrating. Would I be lucky in this business? you wonder. Am I fit for this profession at all? But what else could you do? It is at least something rather than doing nothing. You speak to your fellow rickshaw drivers. They say you will make it in due course. There is a kind of thrill in this work. Once you discover it, they remark, you won’t leave this profession.
You doubt it.
They tell you they earn between £200 and £300 a week. One of the Bangladeshi boys unveils some ways to earn extra money—how to get commission from strip bars, massage parlors, Soho walk-ups and some hotels. The amount from strip bars ranges £5 to £10. There is one hotel off Oxford St. that pays up to £30 for bringing a client.
All you have to do is get your passengers there, wait for them to check in, and you will receive your commission straightaway. You see possibilities to survive in this profession. You take the names of two strip bars in Soho and the hotel on Oxford Street, realizing why most drivers carry a plethora of hotel and massage parlor brochures with them. You are not sure how long you will have to keep carrying these brochures, how long you will have to keep driving rickshaws.
Rahad Abir is a writer from Bangladesh. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Los Angeles Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Wire, Himal Southasian, Courrier International, and other publications. He has an MFA from Boston University. He received the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. Currently he is working on a short story collection, which was a finalist for the 2021 Miami Book Fair Emerging Writer Fellowship.
*Avoid the Puddle is a photograph by Gary Knight (Creative Commons license, 2011.) A link to this original work can be found at flic.kr/p/9XmKQNat.
If you would like to submit original art for the print issue and/or feature online for this essay, check out our art contest at bit.ly/asianvoicesart, running May 1st-July 1st, 2022.