In 1971 as America entered its second decade of the Vietnam War and American families were entertained by Archie Bunker and “All in the Family” on their TV screen, in Bangladesh, a freshly independent nation, on the other side of the world as we reached our teenage years, a bleak future greeted us. The new nation’s economy broke down, politicians became corrupt and nepotism became the governing force of the day. We became the latest saga of an all familiar post colonial countries: another national story of nepotism, corruption, and inept administration mismanaging the nation’s resources. The nation in the midst of a famine, with its economy hitting the ground, and with seven children at that time, my parents had no more money to afford new clothes for all of us. Situation compelled us to be innovative and adapt to new ways of living. One such new adjustments was to buy clothes from the secondhand market that we called “Taal Company Bazaar”.
The Chittagonian (local Chittagong dialect of Bengali language) word for huge unsorted piles is “taal” and thus the name of the whole marketplace for used clothes imported from the West was “Taal Company Bazaar”, a name never officially sanctioned, but a name that resonated in the hearts and minds of millions of poor and beaten down middle class; an unpretentious name, a name that conveyed the simple truth and symbolically portrayed the status of the whole nation at that time. These vendors of old clothes imported from the West used to line up their stores in shacks on the two sides of dark dirt alleyways piling in large heaps. The clothes were all mixed together, shirts, t-shirts, pants, slacks, sport jackets, formal wears, undershirts, under wears, pajamas, all together, auctioning off sometimes one piece at a time, sometimes in a bulk to individuals whose self-pride and dignity had been beaten down by the realities of failed economy of a newly liberated country, a country that promised them prosperity not poverty.
At the very inception of this market this was a shopping place only frequented by the very poor, destitute and marginalized segments of the society, the ones you see living in the slums, in card-board shacks near the swear drain, the ones near the garbage dumps, and yet ignored by the society as if they were non-existent in this world. Now, with the economic worsening of the nation, what US secretary of State Henry Kissinger dubbed as “basket case” even the middle class started loitering in these dark alleys of used clothe market. For the middle class, at the beginning buying and wearing second hand clothing from the West was embarrassing and shameful, something less than dignified. A middle class in Bangladesh in those days was the one who still had the stubbornness of mind to tolerate hunger and not begging for help openly. A poor was one who had accepted his fate and was not hesitant of begging anymore.
As proud members of the middle class, with great consternation in our hearts, we started visiting this market in the most unpopular hours of 2 or 3 pm when the heat and humidity was intolerable turning the black pitch of the road into a soft dough consistency, hoping that no acquaintance discover us in the act of buying old clothes. This was the time with intense tropical heat and people preferred to stay indoors and avoid outdoors. To avoid the discovery, it was a common practice among the middle class to alter them to the right size and then wash and starch them meticulously so as to pass it as new. Although the first users were all poor, later with further deterioration of the economy, young boys, girls and teenagers of beaten down middle class started shopping and frequenting in the dusty smelly hills of used clothes. It was still a taboo for adults or anyone with sense of self-dignity to wear them not to say for the rich.
Once I discovered this bazaar, I liked it outright: my fashion started changing in such an obvious way that people around me took notice. At the beginning like any other middle class with a sense of self-pride, I started altering them to fit my size, at times my mother used to undertake the task herself using her skill of sewing facilitated by the rare fortune of having a Singer sewing machine powered by foot paddle. Then as I evolved with the changing of time, and as I got more and more amorous with the notion of the United States, perhaps by age 17, I refused to alter these clothes any more. By now the middle class children have also evolved and the shame, stigma and embarrassment associated with the use of secondhand western clothes had dissipated largely, although not completely from the middle class who were aggressively competing with the poor to get the best pick out of the pile of old used clothes by the side of the dusty road. As the years went by, new industry and culture grew around this Taal Company Bazaar including tailoring business for instant alteration, tea stalls, fruit and snack stalls and what not and within a span of few years it evolved into a whole new shopping experience complete with all amenities of shopping. Around this time, one could watch the occasional whole families shopping in these dark alley ways, the stigma and shame was finally gone.
This was also the time around which people had incredible thirst for news and information. Knowing all well that they could not trust their government owned radio broadcasts, people resorted to listening to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America (VOA). The public habit started around the tumultuous days of liberation war in 1971 but even after the liberation and creation of newly minted Bangladesh, the situation never improved dashing all hopes of prosperity. So, people continued to listen to these foreign broadcasts for the real news. In those days we had no television, but what we had in our family was a three band shortwave transistor radio through which I could travel the world and listen to broadcasts of news and music from around the world and in languages that I could understand and not understand. This three band shortwave transistor radio was a gift given to my mother by her older brother became an escape for me from cruel realities of the real world I was living in. This was my gateway to the bigger world that existed outside. The warbled voices coming from the farthest corners of the world were the magic carpet of Aladdin for me taking me around the world in my own imagination.
As the time went by, I realized the idea of America and its indispensable position of USA in the existing world order. I appreciated the position of America as the seat of knowledge, its uncontested leadership in science and technology. By now, totally in love with USA, my mind totally exiled and extricated from my own country of birth, I became bolder and started wearing the used clothes bought from the Taal Company Bazaar, completely unaltered and unadulterated. Soon, it drew attention not only from my friends and families but even from my college and later medical school faculties. At this time, if I was ever asked, my answer was a stubborn shameless one: “The clothes made in USA should not suffer the indignation of alteration in a third world country, they are best the way they were, they deserved originality and I’m going to wear them whether it fits me properly or not”, an answer emanating from my deeply felt self-empowerment. With such arrogant of an stance, some were amused, some were hurt, some thought I am out of my mind and yet others were outright angry at my answer especially the ones who thought it is an insult to their country. Coming out of the vain pride and cocoon of the middle-class, I, on the other hand, felt very liberated, immensely empowered. My new found liberty of mind made me quite comfortable in living with “American exceptionalism”, a style of living that brought me new fans who appreciated my unconventional candor and new enemies who felt alien to my ideas.
The clothes that I bought in Taal Company and combined with my incessant and compulsive listening of the Voice of America played a major part in my evolution as a human being in the tumultuous days of my young adulthood. Combined with my parents’ constant encouragement of being enlightened and myself, being a direct witness of the suffering of the general population in a newly independent nation and having experienced its aftermath, and being influenced by the stories of American success and ideas, a faint flame of “American Dream” kindled in my own heart at that time even in spite of living in the neglected farthest shores of the Bay of Bengal, in the city of Chittagong. These experiences catapulted me to the first wave of “globalization”, a word that was still elusive from the common vocabulary of the world, and will not be heard commonly until the next few decades.
In the 1970s, before the era of globalization, three fourths of clothes in USA was still made in USA and while visiting Taal Company market, I would only buy “Made in USA” rejecting others. Through these clothes my young mind was seeded with a dream of a new world: a world of freedom, luxury and world free of poverty. This is a dream I dreamt every day, a dream born in imagination of a young mind, a dream of a better life, a dream of audacity and arrogance, an audacity and arrogance to rid oneself of scarcity of basic necessities.
This was a dream of arrogance and defiance, since it meant to ignore the reality of shortage and short-comings in hand, and looking past it. It was an audacious dream of uplifting myself and my family from poverty, a dream born out of and indoctrinated in the household of school teachers eking out a meager living, a dream reinforced by my mother, and a particular luck endowed by being born in a household where two generations of females have worked both inside and outside home tirelessly to improve their families. In the chaos of the nation, its entrenched poverty and famine, its unstable politics from one party state to coups and counter coups, this dream was a life line thrown at me from the divine; this dream was my “eyes on the prize”.
Among the myriad of clothes I had purchased over the span of many years from the Taal Company market, one was a particularly favorite of mine. It was not a formal wear, neither was it a casual shirt, but a mere T-Shirt it was, a T-shirt of bright yellow color with an etched image of Abraham Lincoln, an image drawn in a sketch of black, a portrait of a patriarch with mournfully melancholic eyes watching the humanity. Drawn up by an unknown artist in the background of an eye-catching flavescence on the cotton material and below the etched portrait in block letters were: “Camp Abe Lincoln”. I suppose it was some youngster’s summer camp t-shirt which had lost its value as soon as the camp was over and so was abandoned in a donation pile destined for an unknown third world nation.
For me, another youngster, living in the true camp of a third world nation, separated by oceans and mountains, and yet harboring an American Dream in mind in spite of not being physically in America, this was a prized possession, my million dollar find that I dug out of the dilapidated mines of the Taal Company bazaar! I treated it as such: after every wear, I would carefully dry it out of my sweat, or even wash it delicately in my own two hands, with fragrant body soaps to make sure it is free of any sweat odor and carefully drying it under the sun (while growing up Bangladesh, I have not heard of machine drying!). I used to meticulously fold it to place it in a special corner of my suit case that served as the repository for all my valuable possessions and carefully closing its zippers, I used to push back the suit-case in one corner of the cement floor underneath the bed for its safest keeping.
Sometimes loitering in the bazaar of the Taal Company, sifting through the old clothes giving out a musty smell of a prolonged sea voyage across the oceans, a journey in the big crates of cargo ships where these clothes were cramped up in a compressed pile by a pressing machine, I used to choose a few of them in a single minded devotion, a move that is calculated, deliberate with a religious swag. My next ritual was to carefully examine the small tags situated at the inner side of the shirt collar or hidden in the inside of the waist line of the slacks along with the depiction of care instructions to incessantly discover and rediscover a three letter sentence, an incomplete sentence that had taken over my life and had won over my psyche, a random assembly of words that was my heart throb, a grammatically defective sentence at best that lights up my inside like a radiating 100 watt light bulb, a collection of words and abbreviations that had become the very essence of my existence by now: “Made in USA”! This, at times I read silently but at times loudly, as if unable to hold back in a transcendence of schizophrenic devotion and at the cost of the bizarre look from the vendors and buyers around me.
Clothes from Taal Company marketplace also became a way for me to express my exceptionalism and identity; it sort of became my brand in my medical school and in my neighborhood. In 1981, I found a pair of light maroon colored jean, to my surprise, I discovered in its small white tag hidden from easy view was: Made in Israel! Israel was a taboo in a country like Bangladesh with overwhelming sympathy for the Palestinians whom the common masses see as the victim of Israel, a notion prevalent in most of the world. Bangladesh had no diplomatic relation with Israel and even Bangladesh passport was not valid to travel to Israel. However, my sense of adventure and exceptionalism was rather stimulated with the Israeli jean and this is the only one of exceptional purchase I had allowed myself from the used clothe market that was not made in USA.
The world had changed a lot since the late 70s and 80s era when I grew up in Bangladesh. America does not make its clothes any more, rather they are farmed outside in the farthest corners of the world in countries name of which many Americans are not at all familiar with. I fulfilled my dream of coming to America and became an example to myself living in American dream. Bangladesh, my country of birth at the same time grew its per capita income from few hundred dollars to 1600 dollars in 2015. In fact, it became a major exporter of ready made clothes to America!
Last few decades had seen an economic elevation of many third world countries and their struggle now is to become a Middle Income nations. Certainly Asia had enjoyed a good fortune during this time. Although many African nations have improved their fate during this time also, in general Africa had been less fortunate. Bangladesh, where I used to buy these second hand clothes, has now become second largest readymade garment exporter of the world right after China. But the business of second hand clothes had not disappeared from the world stage.
Africa is the latest frontier of such trading of old clothes. Last year alone 151 million dollars of used clothes were exported to Africa from US and the Western Europe. But as many African nations are trying to develop their own readymade clothing industries, there is backlash against such dumping of old clothes in the name of protecting their new industries and protecting the dignity of Africa. Perhaps time had passed for such a trade. But I stand witness to such a world trade in my own life time and what it had done for me. It had provided me with hope, dignity and audacity. It had provided me with the arrogance and hope during a desperate time. Most of all, it had provided me with a dream, a dream that you can achieve things if you dare, work hard and have conviction. I am grateful to my hardworking parents who struggled to provide for their nine children (my parents had two additional children in the post independence of Bangladesh) and I am grateful to Taal Company, the market for thrown away second hand clothes from the West.