Every day, as Bangladeshi supervisor Bikas Nath scrambles in and out of vessel holds at the shipyard where he works, all he sees around him is sweat and grime.
But in his mind’s eye, the 22-year- old glimpses the vistas of his homeland: dust storms, bright mustard flowers, the heady scent of jackfruit in the air.
Late at night in his dormitory, he stays up trying to put his memories and misery down on paper. “My life, my youth are held hostage,” he writes in Bengali. “And yet I long to love.”
His words found voice at last on Sunday, when his poem Keno Probashi? (Why Migrant?) won the first prize at the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition.
The annual contest began in 2014 as a showcase of the literary talents of 28 Bangladeshi and Indian migrant workers. It later expanded to include other groups such as maids.
Due to an increasing audience, it was moved from a room in the National Library to the National Gallery Singapore auditorium, which was filled with close to 200 people on Sunday.
The contest is organised by a group of volunteers.
Local advocacy groups, such as the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, Transient Workers Count Too and Aidha, help to publicise it to workers.
Bikas’ $500 award, as well as the $300 and $200 prizes for second and third places, were sponsored by the United States Embassy, while the National Gallery Singapore provided the venue for free.
This year, the contest received 70 entries in seven languages, including Tamil, Chinese and Visayan, of which 17 were shortlisted to be recited on Sunday.
The poets spoke of love, longing and loneliness. Many were choked with emotion as they read.
Indonesian maid Nur Hidayati, 35, could not hold back her tears as she read a poem for her four-year- old son, whom she left at home five months ago to work in Singapore.
“I had to leave him behind,” she said. “If not, how can I make a better life for him?”
For others, the contest was a chance to express the unsaid.
Engineer Luo Lai Quan from China, who has been in Singapore for a year, confessed his homesickness in a poem about his mother.
“This is not something I’ve actually told her,” said the 32-year-old in Mandarin. “On the phone, we talk about simple things, like her health. I don’t want her to worry.”
Contest organising committee member Shivaji Das, 38, said it plans to work harder next year on reaching out to groups such as migrants from Myanmar and foreign sex workers, who, due to the limitations of their work passes, stay in Singapore for only a few months.
The committee is also working with volunteers in other countries to start similar migrant poetry contests. A Malaysian version has been running for two years now, while an Abu Dhabi edition is slated to start next year.
Poet Alvin Pang, who judged this year’s entries along with playwright Haresh Sharma and last year’s Golden Point Award Chinese poetry winner Chen Yu Yan, was heartened at the bigger venue and bigger response.
Pang, 44, said: “I’m glad to see more and more people aren’t taking these workers for granted, but understand they come from cultures and traditions that are deeper and more artistic than our own.”
He added that he was happy to see women made up two-thirds of the entrants. “So many of us have domestic helpers, but don’t imagine they have an intellectual life. This blows that wide open.”
Indonesian maid Susilowati, another finalist, scribbles fragments of poetry on the backs of supermarket receipts in her scant free time.
“Most of the time, I just throw them into the dustbin,” said the 26- year-old, who learnt of the contest through Aidha this year.
“Until now, I didn’t know there was a poetry competition for people like me.”