DOWNTOWN CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH: I am attending a wedding reception at a floodlit community center in this city by the Bay of Bengal. It’s where I was born, where I spent my adolescent years, and where I have returned for a visit after many years in the United States.
The night is pleasant. A breeze takes the sting out of what has been a hot and humid day. Guests arrive in chauffeured cars. The men are dressed alike in western-style clothes but the women in colorful saris and intricate jewelries exude well being and mystery.
Laughter floats in the air but the night-sky is strangely loud with ravens.
The food is exotic. Basmati pilaf, chicken korma, beef, mutton, kabab, fish curry, eggplant casserole, chutney, … I lose count of the dishes. In spotless whites, waiters carry food for voracious guests in an unending stream. Fruits and sweets follow in an equally dizzying variety. An enormous quantity of food is consumed in a matter of minutes.
But the sense of abundance is misleading, for just outside the gate, manned by a dozen guards, is a long, meandering line of indigents and destitute. Many are holding out bowls and pleading for alms while the affluent guests walk nonchalantly by. Emaciated children cling to their mothers, blinking at the bright lights. They are too innocent for despair but neither do I see hope in their eyes.
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is jarring. The recent flood has added to the misery of the poor but the root of poverty in Bangladesh, as in most under-developed countries, isn’t natural calamities; it is corruption and shortsighted policies. Those born poor, the majority of the population, work the hardest to eke out a living while the wealthy use their predatory wealth to become wealthier through bribery and political coercion.
The well-fed in Bangladesh thus always feed well, while the hungry is perpetually hungry.
But I find little solace in my intellectual understanding of the scene in front of me. I have just enjoyed an extravagant feast while visible hunger hovered at the door, a hunger that seemed to be saying: “Food, food everywhere, not a morsel to eat.” I place alms on some of the outstretched hands but it does not calm my conscience. I feel like a hypocrite.
As the sated guests gather to chew paan and trade the final gossips of the evening, the plaintive pleading of the indigents reduce to a whisper. They know it’s time to call it a night. The young jiggle their bowls with the coins they have collected, perhaps to convince themselves they will be able to buy some food after all and witness yet another sunrise, while the old carefully count the takasthat came their way, (1 Bangladeshi taka is equivalent to 2 U.S. cents), lamenting to anyone who would listen that it’s not nearly enough.
So while a few linger for leftover food, most retreat into the night and disappear without a trace.
DOWNTOWN SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA: I am attending a software conference for “preferred customers” at a five-star hotel. The event has also foods galore. Well-fed men and women munch on muffins and cakes and nibble on grapes and strawberries. Uniformed waiters carry trays of food and gather half-eaten cakes and fruits in garbage bags. People sip exotic coffee and tea. The silverware gleams in the morning light filtered by stained-glass windows.
We are being shown how to build businesses around customer preferences, using the Internet as a marketing machine. There are demonstrations of software that capture a “3600 view of the customer” to make selling products and services easy while maximizing profit. In spite of the dot-com bust, or perhaps because of it, the sponsors are confident they can translate our favorable reaction to their software into millions of dollars worth of business.
The conference concludes with lunch, another sumptuous affair. It takes several minutes to load our plates with items that constitute only the salad. Then there is chicken, beef, pasta, vegetables, rice … I lose count of the dishes. For dessert there are varieties of cakes, custard, and fruits. In no time we have gorged, and wasted, food that could feed a Third-World village.
As I step out of the hotel, I see him. Gaunt and in tatters, he sits on the pavement across the street from the hotel, in the shadow of a skyscraper. A sign says “Hungry and homeless. Please help.” He is holding out a Styrofoam cup for coins. Men and women in designer clothes walk nonchalantly by.
The food I saw wasted in the hotel can feed this man for weeks. He seems to know this, for his eyes are saying, “Food, food everywhere, not a morsel to eat.”
I had saved an apple from lunch. I pause in front of him and ask, “Can you use this?”
He nods and whispers, “God bless you.” I place the apple in his eager hand and hurry away as he bites into it. I feel like a hypocrite.
There can be no comparison between Bangladesh and the U.S. One is among the poorest of nations, the other the most powerful and among the richest. Per capita income in Bangladesh is three hundred dollars; in the U.S. it is twenty thousand dollars. Over 80 percent of the Bangladeshi population, about 120 million in a land a third the size of California, lives in villages. In the first ever visit by a U.S. head of state, President Clinton declared in Bangladesh in March 2000: “Poverty is not destiny.” True, and thousands of Bangladeshis, particularly women, are proof that through hard work and enterprise, one can create a viable economic future for oneself. But the odds against the poor making it are high, given the levels of corruption, nepotism, and lawlessness.
But what about the U.S.? With so much wealth and resources, how can one explain the hunger and the homelessness in this country? Forty million Americans live in poverty. In her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) getting by in Boom-time America, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich writes of the struggle for survival the working poor of America wage every day. The number of food banks and soup kitchens continue to rise as the gap between the rich and the poor widens year after year.
The reasons for poverty in the two countries may be different but the result is the same: Hunger, homelessness, and broken spirits. There is also a difference in scale. For a family of four, the official poverty line in America is set at an annual family income of $17,229. But this figure translates to enviable wealth for not only the poor, but also the middle-class, of Bangladesh. As I compare my experiences in Chittagong and San Francisco, I see two images: one, an island of plenty surrounded by an ocean of want (the wedding reception and the multitude of indigents) and the other, an island of want in an ocean of plenty (the famished man in front of a luxury hotel).
I wonder which is the sadder of the two.
Hasan Zillur Rahim is the former editor of IQRA magazine.