It’s back to the stay-out NS life, and that also means I’m back to the Thursday nights spent at Rowell Rd.
It’s a small little dilapidated shophouse in the Bangladeshi enclave. A ramshackle South Indian restaurant operates on its first floor like the many others plying along the street and the streets around it. It’s packed to the brim with paying customers and non-paying S-pass workers with soup kitchen tokens.
At the shopfront, hemmed by pillars plastered with Bengali notices on the NGO and its services are two round oil-stained tables. On one table, a diverse bunch of volunteers are seated, passing out tokens and fresh apples, stamping cards, recording names and FIN numbers, injury statuses. They are two uni students, a bearded middle-aged, bespectacled North Indian and a pair of white-haired elderly ang moh women.
At my table, a social worker sits with a worker with a laptop, registering a new employer abuse report. Alex chats heartily with another worker, snapping portraits of him with his point-and-shoot for the database. And there I am, writing furiously while interviewing Alam.
He announces to me in soft broken English that he would rather have died than face the cries of his newborn over a telephone card call stretching some 3000km to a little town near Dhaka.
And there I sit forlornly, unsure of whether I should give this wet-eyed man a hug and I instead steer the conversation away from shaky ground with an abrupt prompt on how much has his half-severed wrist recovered since the accident.
Half-an-hour later, I have enough material for a compelling story on Alam and he excuses himself for his dinner. As the crowd thins out, Alex starts chatting with me again, pulling passing volunteers into the conversation. They complain of intransigent, idiotic lawyers; they bring up their pet projects, how they want to improve social media outreach of the NGO, how they want to explore mediums such as video, how they want to initiate different approaches to advocacy.
I on the other hand have engaged only with stories of misery. I see only images and faces of torment. There’s nothing humanising about it. Nothing. It’s just damning, distant and disempowering. Blame it on a language barrier, call it social ineptness, point a finger at my empathy gap.
I know that while my work on the research team will go lengths in informing and hopefully improving public policy, my role here as a writer is vacuous to me. I do no more than delay their dinners, while trying to pry out painful quotes from their reticent mouths just so that I can churn out a little inconsequential story. There has to be more to this than just single digit reader views and a self-serving exercise in attempted empathy.