Salim & Jorna: The Story of Love

It is a good thing that Salim Javed is not a Singaporean because his view on love and marriage would have gotten him into a lot of trouble with Singaporean women.

A Bangladeshi construction worker who has worked here for almost 15 years, he doesn’t really believe in romance or courtship.

“Of course if I have a girlfriend who likes me and I like her,” the 32-year-old said, “then it is very good.”

“But it is a problem if she doesn’t get along with my family members.”

Two years ago, he agreed, without an actual face-to-face meeting, to marry Jorna, a 20-year-old village girl his ageing mother found through matchmakers.

Last Friday, they got married in Baktabali, Narayanganj, a village 20km southeast of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

“As far as we know, he never had a girlfriend,” said Azmain Azad Katha, Salim’s favourite cousin.

Salim’s thinking is not without reason or merit.

“I work overseas and my brother also intends to work overseas,” he elaborated, “so it is more important that our wives are good girls who can look after our parents.”

And the definition of a good girl, in Salim’s book, includes the willingness to give up her own dreams.

Jorna, until recently a college student, will have to quit school and concentrate on being a good wife.

“She will stay home and look after my parents lah.”

That, and to make many babies.

Like it or not, Salim’s view represents that of most people in his village, which has been an active exporter of labor to Singapore.

Even Katha, the 20-year-old fine arts and theater undergraduate who considers herself quite progressive and liberal, thinks there is nothing wrong with her cousin’s logic.

Sitting along the Dhaleshwari River, the village has few job opportunities, apart from low-level work in the brick, agriculture and textile industries.

While official record is fuzzy, Salim thinks there are about 100 men from his village who have worked in Singapore, with the first arriving as early as the mid 80s.

Most talked passionately about their time in Singapore although not everything was positive.

Jahingir Alam, 36, spent five years working in shipyards, including a stint in Keppel FELS.

“The money in Singapore was good but I never saw my son,” he said.

“My wife and I talked about it, she cried, then I cried.”

“In the end, she said, ‘lots of money we don’t need, you come home first’.”

A distant cousin of Salim’s, Jahingir spent $4000 of his hard-earned money on a short course in electrical wiring, with the hope of returning to Singapore with the new qualification.

The pain of being separated from his family is not as bad compared to the pain of having no money for food.

He added that he wishes he can move with his family to Singapore permanently, but at this moment, even getting a job for himself here may not be as easy as before.

That probably explains why everyone looks up to Salim, who is, in the eyes of his villagers and relatives, the perfect prodigal son who has made good in Singapore.

By his own admission, he makes much more than his fellow Bangladeshis, but everyone also thinks that he deserves it because he is hardworking and trustworthy.

Working with a small construction company for the past seven years, Salim is now a trusted supervisor, with a small army of workers under his command.

Michael Soh, Salim’s boss, considers him more a family member than an employee.

For his wedding, Soh and his fellow directors gave him extra money, which came in really handy.

The lunch that the family hosted for relatives and friends cost S$3500, the decoration at his family compound S$500.

Salim spent another S$2500 on new clothes for relatives, and S$10,000 in gold for his wife.

But the big ticket item is a house he is building next to his parents’.

“It will cost S$45,000 but I don’t have enough money.”

Right now, the planned two-storey house is one level, until he can sort out a bank loan to finance the second phase.

The grand plan is for Shamin, a younger brother he dotes on, to live on the second floor when he eventually settles down.

Shamin, whose university education was financed by Salim’s hard-earned money, worships his brother and hopes to follow in his footstep and find a job in Singapore.

The recent civil engineering graduate designed the house and supervises the building process, while Salim is working hard on other people’s homes in Singapore.

But being separated from their loved ones is a reality of life that Salim and many of friends have learned to accept.

Time–off from work for these guest workers is rare so whenever they are back in their villages, they scramble to get as much done as possible.

In the one week that Salim has been home, a lot was been accomplished.

First and very significant was of course, finally meeting Jorna in person.

“She came to the airport to greet me. I think she has a good heart. I like her.”

A lot of his relatives have also been asking for favours, including many requests for jobs in Singapore.

“I will see lah,” he said, “I must hire good people for my bosses.”

In about two weeks, on March 7, he will leave his new wife and return to Singapore. His home for the next few months will be a construction site in Geylang, where his company is building a project.

He is hoping by then, Jorna and him would have conceived their first child.

Salim is fully aware of his added responsibilities and hopes to work extra hard to impress his bosses even more.

He has started a small potato growing business in a few small plots his father had given him.

The plan now is for him to visit his family every six months, and for Jorna to visit him in Singapore.

Salim makes no pretense about where he wants to be eventually, and that is his village, where his wife and other family members are.

But for now, he has to make sacrifices, work hard in Singapore, and endure being treated less than well at times.

Everything has a price and he knows that better than most.

This is part of a personal project to document the foreign workers who helped to build our house two years ago.