Alam the CNG wallah.


Alam came to Dhaka from Sonargaon almost two years ago to support his family by driving a CNG around the city. We were stuck in an unusual traffic the other day when he started to talk to me as he lit a cigarette. Through the cage-like barrier between Alam and myself the passenger, his first question was, Apa you are not from here, right? Why do you think so? I asked back. You don’t talk like the woman here, and you were just on the phone. You don’t speak Bangla that well, he responded in the ever brutally honest way that people here in Dhaka sometimes do.

After the usual introductions- where he is from, where I am from, he asked me why I was on a CNG. Well, I suppose it’s easier, and I don’t have a car. But you have money, apa, he said. I work, and that doesn’t mean I have money.

Well, not all women are alike. If I were educated like you, I wouldn’t be in a car either. This was his response me taking a CNG home on a path filled with other cars around me with their tinted shades. What do you mean? I asked Alam, as I did not understand the connection between an educated woman and modes of transportation. He finally looked me in his mirror, made a quick eye contact to determine if I was offended, and didn’t respond.

So are you married? He asked, smiling an apologetic smile for the first time as we made a turn into my neighborhood. No, are you? He said no. But my brother married before me, and I work in Dhaka to feed his wife, Alam explained with a laugh. I want to get married but I am the only one who decided to come to Dhaka.

Where did you study apa?

In America, I said.

Wow, America? I want to go abroad too.

Why do you want to go abroad, I asked Alam while directing him to my house.

Everyone wants to go abroad, apa.

It’s not that easy, life abroad, as you think. Not everyone is happy there, and when they come back to their villages, they never tell the real story, I explained to him, recalling my interviews with laborers in Saudi Arabia from Bangladesh.

But you went abroad. And you aren’t the one driving a CNG. I am.

We reached my building and I gave him a final look. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he did let me take a photo of him. You are a writer too? Sometimes, I said and he thanked me for taking his picture. Alam lives in Jatrabari, near Old Dhaka and earns about 500 taka per day after giving the owner of the CNG a certain percentage. His final words were, apa I hope to see you again, sorry I asked so many questions, really I just wanted to know where you were from.