I was called recently by a cousin living in Dhaka. It was the day before Eid and the tone of his voice conveyed a mild desperation. He had just lost his job at a garments factory and worried that he could not buy his children clothes for Eid celebrations. He hoped I might send him money.
I was a little taken aback. I had rarely spoken to him over the years. He was a first cousin on my father’s side. I had visited every few years or so. There was a previous occasion many years back when he and his sister took me aside to ask if I would buy them a new television, fearing to ask my father for such a luxury good. I said I didn’t have the money then, which was not unreasonable given I was a university student.
I couldn’t offer the same excuse now. I had observed all my life the complexities my parents encountered with regard to sending money back to the relatives. My parents often fought about the topic. My mother complained that my father too easily sent money to relatives without accountability or a plan and it was merely wasted. There was a clash at times between the needs of his immediate family and the wider clan based in Bangladesh.
He had created his own mini welfare state within his bari, or ancestral village. It wasn’t always clear what the extended family spent the Australian dollars upon, but on return visits there were often no visible signs of improvement. The mud huts remained, employment was limited and demands endless.
"There was a clash at times between the needs of his immediate family and the wider clan based in Bangladesh."
I understood it from their point of view. We were walking piles of money in their eyes. They had little idea of the challenges of living in the West, the greater pressures of working life, the unaffordability of domestic help and the anomie of metropolis living.
It wasn’t always clear the relatives were particularly grateful either and a sense of expectation had been built over many years. It created tension within the extended family, for the usual weaknesses of envy and rejection. Cultural norms meant hierarchies needed to be observed and the eldest brother was responsible for the distribution of funds, but grievances were not easily aired and lay dormant.
I was exposed to this every few years when we visited. Various relatives I had only vague familiarity with, from a distant ‘mejo kala’ (aunt) to an obscure ‘nani’ (grandmother) twice removed to somebody else who lived vaguely nearby, all tried to extract gifts or money on occasions. It was always innocent and cordial and it was fun to buy relatives things on a whim.
It was nice to see new brick rooms, Western style toilets and even laptops in latter years, usually funded in part from my father’s money. It did feel like our money was proving useful in some way. In this respect, for a country so dependent on remittances from overseas workers, our personal story reflected much of the country, where money transferred to relatives was often spent showing off with big, new rooms or televisions with little of it being channelled into more productive investments.
I could even see that my father became a little disappointed when, over time and with more relatives living overseas, those still living in Bangladesh were not as dependent upon his money. His role as a distant, international provider had been steadily diminished which should have always been the aim. I do wonder sometimes if I will need to take on something of my father’s role one day in the future, or even if that expectation might exist among my relatives, despite me living in Australia for over three decades.
Money as a symbol and resource can obviously stir every emotion, from love to envy to rejection. When the added complexity of large,extended families and the ensuing family politics are added to the mix, I would imagine such challenges are magnified.
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