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A tour of REHAB fair

Mohit Ul Alam

The classic fiction on life for a house is V. S. Naipaul’s time-honoured novel, A House for Mr Biswas (1961). In the novel, Mr Biswas’s obsession with owning a house of his own becomes a symbol of asserting his identity in life. From being a dependent son-in-law of the Tulsi family, Mr Mohun Biswas, the protagonist of the novel, wants to live in his own house.

The theme of the novel therefore becomes the leitmotif to describe the most dominant passion of the earthly man—owning a house. In Bangladesh, the passion for a house can be marked as the biggest dream haunting the lower middle class upward to the richest families. And to ease the materialisation of the dream REHAB (Real Estate Housing Associations of Bangladesh) held a four-day Fair, from 16 June to 19 June, at the Bangabandhu Conference Hall, which I happened to visit on the last day.

Dear readers, please do not assume that I went there to book or buy a flat or plot, I rather went there by default. There was another seminar going on in the same premises, in a different hall, and I, having attended it, thought of just taking a trip to the Fair.

At around five o’clock there was still a big crowd jostling inside and outside the fair. I bought a gate pass for fifty taka and entered. I read in paper that there were more than two-hundred real estate companies participating. And I saw that each company had its stall, a ten by ten sft box-like structure, with a serial number stuck on the upper right corner of the stall.

The stalls were decorated in the fanciest way. In addition to colourful paper works, each stall was attended by male and female staff, smartly dressed with ready smiles, to attract buyers as well as to promote their sales. Most of the companies were generous in offering nicely printed brochures, or fliers, or posters for us to carry home and study and then to make up our minds. Some companies were even more generous. They offered pens, water bottles, key rings and toys. I was most happy to be given a blue-coloured plastic ball by one stall, which I would carry home for my grandchild. At one stall I noticed that the crowd was heavier than in other stalls. A young girl was holding a camera, ready to take a snap. Following the direction in which the camera was set I saw another girl taking a pose beside a very good-looking smart young man. He was wearing a white half-sleeved shirt with a neck tie, and his black trousers also fitted him well. I noticed that all the staff of that stall were dressed up in the same outfit, white half-shirt tucked inside the black trousers. Somebody called me inside to take some rest as, he said, I was looking tired. Taking that as a very polite gesture, I stepped inside and shook hands with that smart-looking young man. No sooner had I shaken hands with him, I realised that I saw him somewhere before, though where exactly I couldn’t tell for sure.

To relieve me from that momentary confusion, the young man announced, “Sir, I’m Reaz.” Oh! Then I could at once place him as the popular film hero, Reaz. He was very eloquent and explained to me that their company was doing very well and they had also procured lands on the outskirts of Dhaka where big institutions like hospitals and universities could be founded. They offered me a bottle of water and a pen as feel-good gifts, and I left their stall, while thinking to myself that going to cinema halls to watch movies disappeared from our life style, and that’s why I had never seen a film starring Reaz, though I knew him by his reputation.

From another stall a young man with a smiling face invited me to talk with them. It was the stall of a frontline real estate company, and just out of curiosity I asked for their brochure. The young chap asked for my requirements. And as I gave my specifications, he calculated on his little machine and quoted me a figure, which ranged somewhere between impossibility and greater impossibility. Then I wondered how come that there were so many people when even the cheapest flat looked to be beyond the means of a common regular job holder. About people who, despite their ill affordability, are given to that vice called ‘drinking’ on a regular basis, it is said that their money is provided by ghost. I believe, in everything where some kind of human passion is involved, money finally does not stand in the way. If these many people were not buyers, then there would not have been that many housing companies. I was relieved to feel that anyway my countrymen have gained some purchasing power.

As I understand, every purchase of a flat or plot, in most cases, is backed up by the loans offered by banks and financial institutions. So that makes sense. In the past, the tradition was to first retire from job on full pension, and then to buy lands with that money. That is, our fathers’ generation would have come to grab a house finally when they were into the sixth decade of their age. About fifteen years ago, when I was looking for an opportunity to buy a flat then a banker student of mine advised me to take loan and become the owner of a flat. His logic was that in the middle years I still retained the energy and had the willpower to work harder to increase my earnings with which I could pay off the loans by the scheduled installments. It is in my nature that I always listen to pragmatic advice. And I did listen to my former student.

I have read in paper that the real estate is going through a hard time. Most of its raw materials like rod, steel, and other items come from scraps of old ships. As the ship-breaking industry is polluting the marine life and plant life of the coastal Chittagong, the government has stepped in and has curbed the rampant growth of the industries. But that has in a way backfired because the iron and steel manufacturing industries and real estate businesses are hampered seriously. Thousands of workers in these two sectors have gone jobless, and the real estate business is almost floundering.

The other picture is not very happy either. It is being reported that many of the companies have not been approved by Rajuk, but still they participated in the fair. REHAB, however, issued a statement that no such fake company took part in the fair.

As I returned home, I found that I was carrying almost a dozen of packets full of gift brochures, pens, toys and key rings. My grandchild was very happy with the balls.

And while I was taking my evening shower, without realising I was humming a popular song by Hasan Raja, “Loke boley bolere ghar bari bhala nai amar . . . / . . . Banaito dalan kotha shunnero majhar loke bole bolerey ghar bari bhala nai amar.” (People say, I don’t have a good house. But what house should I make in the middle of the vacuum? So, thinking about that I’m not making any house.”

Nobody has ever listened to the spiritual meaning of the song: What’s the use of having a permanent house when life itself is temporary?

Dr. Mohit Ul Alam is Professor and Head of English, ULAB, Dhaka.

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