Book Review

Anton Chekhov’s ‘A Gentleman Friend’ and workers of RMG sector

Muhammad Kamruzzamann | Published: 00:00, Jan 13,2019

Book review

On Tuesday, January 08, 2019, readymade garment workers protesting for a better minimum wage in Airport Road, Dhaka. — Abdullah Apu

A short story by Anton Chekhov deals with a woman’s obsession with expensive clothing and her outlook. To connect the story with the context of Bangladesh, Muhammad Kamruzzamann points out the contribution of our garment industry and their poor treatment by the state   

DANA Cummings is explaining to Christian Wolff, how she has managed USD 2000 to buy a fancy dress that she wore once in her life. Christian asks her, why was the dress so important to her? Dana replies, ‘It wasn’t about the dress. I just wanted to walk into the gym and have everybody say “Wow!” I was trying to belong. I was trying to connect. I think no matter how different we are, we’re all trying to do the same thing’. While watching Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant (2016), this hammering conversation between Dana and Christian reminds me the character of Nastasya Kanavkin of Anton Chekhov’s short story, ‘A Gentleman Friend’.

Chekhov’s ‘A Gentleman Friend’ revolves around the character of ‘the charming Vanda’, Nastasya Kanavkin, who, having no home and money, finds herself in a deficient position in the time of leaving the hospital. At first, she pawns her ‘turquoise ring’ and gets only ‘a rouble’ in return. The narrator states, being in such a miserable position, the lady doesn’t have any strain regarding the issues like food and shelter. Nonetheless, she has been troubled by the thought that, with a ‘rouble’, she won’t be able to buy ‘a fashionable short jacket, nor a big hat, nor a pair of bronze shoes’ and she claims, without those things she would feel like being undressed. She also thinks that because of her plain attires, horses and dogs would laugh at her. Wittingly, the narrator uses ‘personification’ as a tool to criticise the people of that certain period by introducing the idea that ‘the … horses and dogs were staring and laughing at the plainness of her dress’. ‘Horses’ and ‘Dogs’ personify, obviously, those socially constructed people who judge people, inhumanly, according to their dressings.

However, to overcome such misery, she needs some money; but with plain dressing, she wouldn’t be able to enter the club, ‘Renaissance’, where she might get financial help from her friends. So, she decides to visit one of her friends, named Finkel, who is a dentist. Unfortunately, her dentist friend does not recognise her. He treats her like an ordinary patient. Nastasya becomes furious, but revealing nothing, she says that she has got a toothache. The dentist pulls out one of her teeth and the lady gives him the rouble as the fee of the treatment and gets out into the street. That lady, walking along the street, (thinking about present-day insult and the upcoming future of her ‘ugly … wretched life’), becomes frightened. She utters, ‘Oh! how awful it is! My God, how fearful!’, But the very next day, Nastasya Kanavkin, wearing ‘an enormous new red had, a new fashionable jacket, and bronze shoes’, enters the club and be ‘taken out to supper by a young merchant up from Kazan’.

In addition, in this writing, the ideas linked with outfits have been dominating. Let’s talk a little about those people, who are indeed coupled with the word ‘Outfit’. In the Bangladeshi Readymade Garment Sector, around 4.4 million people are employed and notably, 80 per cent of them are women. Moreover, around 20 million people, directly or indirectly, have a dependency on this sector. Significantly, the RMG sector contributes over USD 32 billion to the economy of Bangladesh. In 2017, the RMG sector contributed 83.49 per cent of the total exports. But the question is that whether the 4.4 million workers, who literally are contributing their best for the betterment of the country, hold the same percentage of importance –– that they deserve –– in the minds of the authorities, government, financial organisations, owners and others, associated with this sector, as well as the social recognition both as human and as one of the contributors to the economy of the country.

The minimum wage for the RMG workers was set TK 8000 on October 2018. In January 2019, workers will get their salaries according to the newly published gazette. But why don’t they get according to their contributions? Moreover, recent protests for the loopholes in the newly enacted wage structure, as of now one worker was shot dead, are mention worthy. It’s not always about the government or the owners who contribute the most. There are notable contributions from the working class too. Do the workers get anything except their salaries from associated institutions and the country as well? The workers of the RMG sector make it possible for the government to say, ‘In 2017, Bangladesh’s export earnings were USD 36.66 billion’. How much of the workers’ contributions are invested in their livings, health issues, security issues and their children’s future? Is there any real plan for the workers?

Let’s get back to the story. There are a few striking elements in the story those portray some self-contrasting social viewpoints. Number one, Nastasya, being in a lost position, never becomes terrified of having no home and money, but of her lifeless style. The reason could be that she is well aware of the social traditions of her time that with good attire she will get everything she needs. For example, in the very next, Nastasya, with good appearance, gets an admirer and circumstances have changed. Number two, Finkel, the dentist, couldn’t recognise Nastasya in her plain outfits. There could be for two reasons: firstly, that dentist didn’t recognise her because he had no idea about the unornamented Nastasya or secondly, he pretended that he didn’t recognise her, though he did. The dentist could have sensed that she is at his place for help. The confusing idea is that Nastasya claims, Finkel is one of her friends, but his approaches were not friendly at all.

Number three, the name of the club, ‘Renaissance’, itself is a satire, because the word ‘Renaissance’ refers to some ‘artistic or intellectual revival’, but the club, characteristically, does not belong to that class. Lastly, the author, deliberately, used the word, ‘Vanda’ to demonstrate the character of Nastasya. The word ‘Vanda’ refers to the Vanda genus of the orchid family. And interestingly, orchids are of a showy type with a very short lifetime. The word, ‘Vanda’, metaphorically criticises every single character, because all of them are orchids in terms of their showy attitudes towards fascinating elements. All of them are empty from the inside, but, contrastingly, loaded with ideas concerning the matter of outfits.

In the book, Walden (1854), American writer and social critic Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) writes, ‘The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward’. In which group, do we belong? What are our philosophies of living or do we have one of our own? Where are we heading? This writing does not claim that there is anything wrong in becoming fashionable, but only to be loaded from outside is not an intelligent idea either. There has to be a proper combination of things –– an honest attempt among people to become sound from inside too.

Finally, economically marginalised people of our country who are becoming poorer because of the unequal distribution of wealth, where they –– directly and indirectly –– contribute their undivided best, but remain discriminated; and get very little in return. The policies are always on the sides of the big fishes, as the policymakers had and always have to secure their subjective interests. In doing so, socio-economical scenarios are becoming worse continuously behind the rising conflict between subjective and objective interests of the legislators and their admirers.

Muhammad Kamruzzamann is a recent graduate of the department of English at Premier University.


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