Self-respect vs reality: Lower middle class sandwiched
In a dimly lit, old, stuffy room, Selim Ahmed (Not his real name) sits on the floor of his rented two-roomed tenement with his knees folded against his chest, his downcast eyes on the verge of tears as though a heart-out cry could have relieved him of holding the weight of those heavy tears. With five-month house rent arrears, literally nothing to eat at home, and a perilously precarious future winking mischievously at him, a dejected Selim Ahmed, a destitute father, has just given his only son a serious thrashing just because the nine-year-old insisted having watermelon. A faint, yet heart-penetrating sob fills the room as his wife's nagging for some necessary groceries came to a tearful end.
This has been a household scene ever since the second wave of the pandemic hit the land for the family of my neighbour, Selim Ahmed, who happens to be a private job holder. Needless to say that this is just the tip of a gigantic iceberg, and many such Selim Ahmeds who are eking out a living with their meagre income in our neighbourhoods and beyond, make innumerable such gloomy stories of monetary crisis only to have none to be heard of.
With prices of daily essentials sky-rocketing every day and sources of income getting thinner and thinner, the lower middleclass has literally been sandwiched between their self-respect and the ruthless reality. In our country, poverty is a demon and the folks cursed by this demon suffer unimaginably. When our government is still grappling to pull the poorest of the poor, the current pandemic situation poses a serious threat to the lower middle class group of people entangling them in the cobweb of permanent poverty.
In this Covid-19-hit scenario, the plight of the poor is the worst but that of the lower middle class is not any better either. The men who, despite having an empty stomach, have to pretend to be well-fed, despite having blank wallets, have to keep their mouths shut, despite having thousands of reasons to cry, have to smile, despite having countless sorry tales, have to mean as if nothing happened, belong to the lower middle class. They don't seek help from anybody. They don't stand in queues for aid.
They don't submit their mobile numbers to local governments to get cash by bKash. They have been working hard and carrying on with their life but the current crisis has suddenly made them vulnerable. Neither can they voice their own concerns and pour out their miserable tales, nor can they keep them buried in their hearts. The unprecedented situation has placed them somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea. As the circumstance stands at such, question may unhappily pop up in our minds- what has our state done for them?
When government allocated Tk5000 core stimulus package for our export-oriented industries last year, many welcomed the move as it helped the labours keep their families afloat, especially in garment sector. But what did it do for the people from other occupations like the teachers in unaided private schools, office assistants, data entry operators, salespersons, receptionists, beauticians and many more to add to the list? What did it do for SMEs like those who run small mobile phone service and repair shops and other service providers who fall in Tk10,000 to Tk15,000 monthly income group?
While those categorized below the poverty line are getting some sort of assistance in the form of cooked food, ration or financial aid from the government or NGOs and philanthropists; an overwhelming majority of the lower middle class are left high and dry. The lower middle class is caught in a dilemma as their dignity holds them back from extending their hands to seek aid while the NGOs and philanthropists will be reluctant to give any assistance lest they feel bad about it.
Even those who, breaking the middle class norms and values, asking for some aid, are often treated in the cruellest possible manner, being thrown into humiliation. One such unwanted and unexpected instance is Farid Ahmed, an octogenarian man from Narayanganj, who called the government hotline 333 for help and, instead, received a fine of feeding 100 people by UNO. Under threat of imprisonment for three months, the man in eighties found the social ignominy so toxic for his self-respect that he borrowed money from his friends and pawned his daughter's jewelleries to oblige to the pitiless penalty handed by the UNO.
Who or what empowered UNO to exercise this punishment on him? Why did someone like Farid Ahmed have to be inflicted with such a harsh treatment? Was it just because UNO found him not qualifying for the government help as the elderly man used to dwell in a flat in a four-storey building? Did that all mean that for someone having a flat, all the doors of aid from the state are shut?
If the answers are-yes, I must say, the conscience of the state is partially blind as its eyesight can eye the tall four-story building but cannot penetrate the four-inch concrete walls around which countless unfed Farid Ahmeds keep suffering from the hunger pangs even without a word.
As the pandemic has torn apart the entire world, people from all walks of life have been badly hit. While our government is leaving no stone unturned to bring the underprivileged section of our society under the umbrella of its aid program, it, by no means, should fail to realize that there is a need to identify the needy from lower middle class and stand by them without hurting their self-respect. The prolonged lockdown has simply made it a hand to mouth existence for this unheeded class of the society.
The writer is a teacher,
English Language, ABC
International School, Narayanganj