6 December 2012


Milon’s “quarter”, a tent with attached kitchen in the locality of Bholaganj in northern Sylhet, close-by the India border

Arrival and exploration of the sand-and-stone extraction fields where Milon stays and acts as sardar, or middleman, during the winter season

At inception of the extraction season, when coming from all north-eastern districts of Bangladesh, they reach in thousands, the fields of Bholaganj must offer a spectacular natural view. In the background, Meghalaya’s hills covered with intact-looking forests; descending from there and spreading in the sandy plain, a river splits up in smaller branches that reflect the blue of the sky and the green of the hills and fills up the deeper areas, creating artificial lakes; small sand dunes, the products of human intervention – digging up further the extraction holes is in fact one of the first tasks upon arrival –, accentuate the interplay of sand-red-grey-yellows and water-green-blue-whites. What these thousands make out of the place, not to “civilise” it of course, but to make it habitable for the next three-four months, might be even more impressive though. Propylene sheets, bamboo and wood are the materials by which a huge camp, equipped with one small clinic, a few pharmacies, tea stalls and food joints, grocery and even barber shops is set up in a few days’ time; little by little comes the “hardware”, i.e. water pumps and pipes as well as slides for the heavier stones that for the rest of the year, are stored in the only concrete buildings around.

The tent, epitome of temporary, improvised and low-input as well as low-impact dwelling, is assembled in one afternoon and dismantled in even less time; in Bholaganj, each crew build their own and stay there together. Milon’s tent is of average size: it accommodates 24 people and avails of a water pump and of an attached “kitchen” – gas cylinder and stove protected by another propylene sheet, spices, rice and lentils in plastic containers – where breakfast, lunch and dinner are cooked. As sardar, he supervises and pays for the daily purchase of vegetables, meat and other items for the entire crew; they won’t need to spend money but for having tea, which is served at numerous stalls spread all over the camp.

That we are at the national border between two countries of which one worries about continuous illegal immigration and trafficking from the other, is reminded by the numerous jeeps of the Bangladesh army that patrol the zone; in the evening, also Indian officers make their appearance for what seems to be a routine check-up. But while we accompany Milon on his inspection tour, observing his close interactions with the young lady he’s introduced as the crew’s cook and whose features reveal she’s a hijra, a hermaphrodite, I realise we’re walking along, or have probably already trespassed, the edge between another two worlds: the “conformed” existence of Milon-the-village-man in the haor and the slightly subversive one of Milon-the-sardar in the camp. These two space-times don’t seem to conflict at all in his mind: apart from the rare phone calls from his wife, they don’t have any contact point. I wonder whether such a split-up would be feasible (for him) and socially tolerable (for others) if Milon would migrate to Dhaka or Sylhet city, and not to this end-of-the-world parallel habitat, installed every year by brave and desperate men who’ll mess up nature’s course for a few months and then go back to their homes.