People

Foreign worker who published book started by scribbling poetry on bags of cement

Through his book of poems, Me Migrant, Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine hopes to convey the perspective of the foreign worker and also keep hold of what is dear to himself. The book was launched here on May 1.
Through his book of poems, Me Migrant, Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine hopes to convey the perspective of the foreign worker and also keep hold of what is dear to himself. The book was launched here on May 1.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

S'pore publisher brings out book by 25-year-old foreign worker

Angry at a former boss for threatening to cut the workers' pay, Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine started scribbling poetry on the bags of cement he was carrying in 2014.

After a long day's work, he would stay up late - sometimes till 3am - working on his poetry.

His poems can now be read on paper instead of cement bags after the 25-year-old became the first foreign worker to have a poetry collection brought out by local publisher Ethos Books.

The poems in his book, Me Migrant, were further refined in English by local poet Cyril Wong, based on translations from Bengali that Mr Mukul had paid a lecturer back in Bangladesh $500 - or half his monthly salary - to do.

It was launched on May 1.

Through his poems, Mr Mukul hopes to convey the perspective of the foreign worker and also to keep hold of what is dear to himself.

A WAY TO REMEMBER

For a long time, I have lived in another country. Hard work made me forget my feelings. It was a way to remember my family, my friends.

CONSTRUCTION WORKER MD MUKUL HOSSINE, on why he wrote the poetry.

UNPREPARED FOR PHYSICAL TOIL

I was a college student in my home country. On the fourth day, I fainted because it was so hot.

MR MUKUL, on his first job experience at a construction site.

HONEST TO THE CORE

Mukul's central quality in his writing is his honesty, which can seem both impassioned and quietly introspective at the same time in his poems.

POET CYRIL WONG, who helped Mr Mukul refine his poems further in English.

EVOCATIVE

I am reminded of some Singapore pioneers who came from China and built a new Singapore, yet never lost their culture and love for the country of their birth and the memories there.

PUBLISHER FONG HOE FANG, who printed Mr Mukul's collection of poetry.

"For a long time, I have lived in another country. Hard work made me forget my feelings. It was a way to remember my family, my friends," he said.

In one poem, he rages against unfair bosses, writing: "I want to stand against them... I want to be king of the poor."

In another, he yearns for his mother, evoking the "unending solitude" of the "stranded immigrant".

Mr Mukul, who hails from the village of Panbari in Bangladesh, has been writing poetry since the age of 12 and has two books published in his home country.

The second youngest of nine children, he dreamt of being a writer or singer. But his parents, who are farmers, said they could not afford to send him to university in Bangladesh and that he would have to go abroad to pursue his dreams.

The first attempt to send him to work in Singapore in 2008 cost them $10,000, which the family raised by selling their land. But the firm he was to work for went bankrupt and his work permit was cancelled before he could recoup the money.

His father told him: "Don't worry. Even if I need to sell my blood, I will make your dream come true."

That resolve would be sorely tested, as more attempts to send Mr Mukul overseas failed.

One attempt in 2009, which cost his mother her last gold necklace, went awry at the airport. His ticket was cancelled because the work permit had been inexplicably revoked. By then, the agent that had acquired it for him was nowhere to be found.

"I felt like I was rubbish," Mr Mukul said. "I spent a lot of time crying in my room, not able to show my face, because people would say, 'Why did you take money to go to Singapore and bring nothing back?'"

In 2010, he finally made it to Singapore and started work at a construction site. But he was unprepared for the physical toil of carrying heavy metal rods, painting walls and building scaffolding under the hot sun.

"I was a college student in my home country. On the fourth day, I fainted because it was so hot."

He could not sleep in the crowded dormitory, which smelled of rubbish and sometimes of vomit. Nor could he stomach the meals at his worksite. "The food was smelly and the rice dry," he said.

He tried to channel his misery into his writing. As he could not keep a notebook on site, he scribbled on cement bags with a constantly vanishing supply of pens and copied the words into his cellphone when he had the chance.

Slowly, Mr Mukul grew to like Singapore, especially after he began to write poems for local monthly Bengali paper Banglar Kantha and attend local literary events.

It was at one such poetry reading last year that he met Mr Wong, a Singapore Literature Prize winner, with whom he struck up a friendship over soft drinks at a coffee shop.

Mr Wong said: "Mukul's central quality in his writing is his honesty, which can seem both impassioned and quietly introspective at the same time in his poems."

Mr Mukul approached Ethos Book publisher Fong Hoe Fang last year. Mr Fong said he was struck by the "universality" of Mr Mukul's thoughts on loneliness, missing home and being invisible in a different land. "I am reminded of some Singapore pioneers who came from China and built a new Singapore, yet never lost their culture and love for the country of their birth and the memories there."

Mr Fong, who founded Ethos Books in 1997, does not know of any other books by foreign workers published locally.

Mr Mukul hopes his poetry can challenge the sometimes negative perceptions Singaporeans have of foreign workers, especially in the wake of the arrests of Bangladeshi nationals for suspected terrorist activities. Last month, eight radicalised Bangladeshi workers were detained for setting up an Islamic State of Bangladesh cell here.

Besides writing, Mr Mukul volunteers weekly as a translator at the non-profit HealthServe clinic at his former dormitory in Mandai, even though he has moved to Sembawang and it takes him an hour to get there after work.

He first went to the clinic nine months ago while suffering from indigestion and was moved by the work done there by community doctors. "I think that if I help many people, maybe God will help me too."

Mr Mukul, who is now working on a book of short stories, dreams of carving a niche for foreign workers in the Singapore literary scene.

"I cannot say my father is an engineer or a lawyer or a pilot. But I want him to be able to say one day, 'My son is a famous writer'."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'He started scribbling poetry on bags of cement'. Print Edition | Subscribe