[Originally I wrote it for Dhaka Courier]
The Journey from Mojammel to ‘Mojo Mama’
Let’s face it, people don’t turn into millionaires overnight as depicted in the Bollywood-esque Hollywood movies (and one of them even ended up winning the best picture at the Oscars some years ago). People, by that I mean you and even your chauffeur, ‘work’ for a living. The struggle for economic solvency is true for people of all walks of life; from the more affluent people to even the iconic figures of Dhaka – the ‘rickshaw-wallah’. So, when it comes to struggles, nothing separates the rich from the poor. This is a story of a triumph, a triumph of one of those millions who migrated to Dhaka for a better livelihood – a story of a man who made it to the upper middle class from living below the poverty line, not in one night but in a span of more than two decades of hard work.
It was back in 2007 when I first met Mojammel while I was trying for admissions at different universities in Dhaka. In the arduous battle for admission, I found myself outside North South University which was in Banani back then, having bought an admission form. Looking across the street, I noticed three tea stalls – one being quite large, the second being somewhat typical and the last one was nothing but a middle aged man with a kettle and some cardboard boxes. Surprisingly, the majority of the crowd (that included some of my friends who used to go to the infamous ‘permanent campus-less’ private universities) gathered around the last tea stall which had only one individual and some street children as its authority. That man was Mojammel and he was introduced to me as everyone’s favorite ‘Mojo Mama’. The crowd gravitated to the little man not only for his simplicity or not merely out of sympathy, but he was the first person who had introduced something that is currently known as ‘Cha-Fee’ (an amalgamation of tea and coffee) in Banani and arguably in all of Dhaka. From that day on, I had kept close acquaintance with the man and seen him grow into a prospering entrepreneur. It is 7 years later that I figured that his story needs to be told.
Mojo Mama was born as Mohammad Mojammel Hoq at Ukill Para in Bhola. His birth year cannot be properly traced back, since, for most of the “little people” who had migrated to Dhaka from outside the centralised capital, his parents did not bother to write down the birth year, let alone the birth day. However, he figures that he is 45 years old in 2012 as he had to make up a birth year nonetheless for a national ID card which he was ecstatic to get, since that’s the only documentation of existence the government has provided him with as he has no driving license let alone a passport. He recalls his father Mohammad Nurul Islam who passed away when he was 14 and worked as a sharecropper in the fields of the robber barons making life hard for him and his mother who had four children including Mojammel. Mojammel had to abandon his studies in class eight and start working as a waiter in a local restaurant (commonly known as a ‘hotel’). Later, when he realised that he will remain in a stagnant state in Bhola, the dream of a better live in the capital city came over him and he migrated to Dhaka.
“It was 24 years ago when I set foot in Dhaka with my old mother and found shelter in a little shack at the Karail slums in Banani. Few days later, I bought a thermostatic tea flask with all my savings and went out with a flask filled with raw tea made by my mother,” he reminisced. In 1988, there were no such things as private universities, no fancy shops or boutiques in Banani like we have today. He wandered the streets with the hopes of finding a thirsty pedestrian who would be kind enough to be his customer. However, Mojammel’s luck started to change in 1992 when he set up shop in front of North South University from the very day of the institution’s inception. He did not expand for about 15 years, remaining at the same spot in front of ‘Sher Tower’ in Banani. Even though Mojammel remained at the same location for one and a half decade, the neighbourhood evolved. Universities such as Prime Asia University and AIUB started sprouting up all around his tiny stall near the old NSU campus. His competitions started to settle in as well. However, Mojammel argued, “the stalls beside my stove were run by nice people. They knew I was alone and they, respecting my mother who just would not stay home and force me to take her to the stall with me, were congenial to me. I never felt that business was a competition.” “It was the students who named me Mojo Mama as an expression of love and friendship. Without the help of the students, I would wither,” said Mojammel with a smile. ‘Mojo Mama’ was a name known to almost every student among some 10,0000 private university students (along with faculty members and administration) who went to the area of Banani for education and work between the years of 2000 and 2010. “The number is so high because I have seen students turn into ‘Professor shahebs’ as I stayed at my spot in front of these schools,” said Mojammel with pride as he had seen several alumni pass by.
Consequently, Mojammel’s business started to flourish. Selling more than 500 cups of tea a day besides biscuits, sweets and betel nuts, things were looking up. He acknowledges a particular group of individuals who helped him through his journey. Mojammel gave asylum to the street children by providing them with employment. Being the entrepreneur that he is, he did no social service but helped them earn money and made them study at night schools. “Ibrahim and Mosharrof were my two sidekicks from the ages of 9 and 7 respectively. I found them all dirty and whiling their lives away by being ‘tokais’. So, I figured that, if they could work for me, it would be a help for me and them as well,” asserted Mojammel, but in a melancholic tone. He burst into tears when he looked back into the death of young Ibrahim who passed away at the age of 11. “All I wanted was the kid to have a future. He had no guardian but a negligent uncle when I gave him support, but one day he did not show up for work. That evening I was notified that he was dehydrated to death having falling victim to diarrhea. I later paid for his proper burial. I could not work for a month after his demise. Who dies in today’s world in Dhaka city due to diarrhea?” cried Mojammel. He remorsefully claimed that even with his support, he could not change the fate of the child. This is Mojammel’s cry to the higher authorities or “boro manushjon” as he calls them; to pay heed to the kids they calls ‘tokais’.
Even though business was flourishing, everything seemed to fall apart for Mojammel when he heard that NSU was being shifted to their permanent campus in 2009 as more than 50% of his loyal customers were from that institution. He wanted to relocate but he learned that the new campus will be off limits to outsiders, let alone a ‘cha-wallah’ like him. “At the darkest times, the ‘sirs’ came to my rescue,” said Mojammel with gratitude. He mentioned that Tashfeen Hussain, Senior Lecturer of Department of Business Administration and Iqbalur Rahman, Senior Lecturer of Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science of North South University, who were his customers too, came to his aid. Tashfeen Hussain exclaimed in his interview with Dhaka Courier saying, “Mojammel was a part of the NSU family and we wanted to keep it that way. That is why some of us, the faculty members, asked the authorities for permission to let Mojammel expand his business into the new NSU cafeteria at Bashundhara in 2009. Naturally, our request was not turned down”. Consequently, Mojammel was granted a little spot at the new campus making him an ‘official’ part of the institution.
But it would be a fallacy to maintain that Mojammel is a property of a single institution. Mojammel has three privately owned tea stalls, each having enough space to accommodate more than 10 people at the Bashundhara Residential Area. Students from both NSU and AIUB make the majority of his customers. It is the students, who are callously called the “brats from private universities” that transformed Mojammel to Mojo Mama and he acknowledges their love from the bottom of his heart.
Today, ‘Mojo Mama’ who started off with nothing but a flask full of tea has land to his name and a two storied house of his own in Mawa, Gazipur. He rents a two room apartment near his enterprises in Bashundhara. Mojo Mama is not alone. Mojo was lucky enough be able to find his significant other making a ‘Mami’ for all his student friends besides the ‘Nani’ who was already famous among students. He has two daughters and a son. His eldest daughter Taslima has passed SSC last year and is now pursuing higher secondary studies; son, Nuruddin is an SSC candidate this year while the youngest Tania is in primary school. Mojammel wants nothing from this world but bright futures for his children. He asserted, “Even though I could not pursue education myself, it was the students who made me who I am. I want my zest for education to be reflected on my children.” “When I look at the cafeteria full of laughter and joy along with ‘books’, I see my own children in those faces,” articulated Mojammel.
Upon my quirky question about his political views, he asserted something very interesting. “I do not stand for any particular party. I am for the ‘belly party’ that is any party that can keep the prices of everyday amenities within the reach of the general people like me,” said Mojammel. This is probably an assertion not only of one man but of thousands of apolitical people who are simply trying to get by and cannot afford the extravagance of time to discuss politics.
The ‘rags to riches’ story of the triumph of Mojammel is not an exclusive one. Stories of people like Montu Mia of Curzon Hall in Dhaka University are almost analogous to his. Mojammel is a representative of the millions who have come to Dhaka for a better future, a better life. They do not dream of ruling the country or changing the world but want their children to have a shot at those privileges. The journey of Mojammel is the embodiment of a dream elucidating the message of hope that there is prosperity in Dhaka city given diligent labour and honesty. When we are complaining about how the centralised city is at decline, how the politics of the country has gone astray – there are those who do not stop to think and whine. They simply cannot afford it. These are the people who made Dhaka the booming metropolitan that it is today and they are still all around us.