Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Bangladesh Diary 2

Day 2 / 14 Jan 2010

The main headlines in Dhaka newspapers this morning were about Prime Minister Hasina’s state visit to New Delhi. The papers I read as I sipped a fine Sylhet tea were much like our dailies: overflowing with the pearls that came out of politicians’ mouths the previous day. The supporters of the government claimed the visit had been "one hundred percent successful". The opposition were convinced that the PM had "sold Bangladesh to India". The op-ed pages carried some balanced views though.

One doesn’t wish to get into international politics while writing a travelogue, but it must be mentioned that there are serious concerns in Bangladesh over the proposed Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River in Manipur. It will possibly be a disaster for Bangladesh, and as many Indian experts feel, for India too. Our two-faced slippery Congress government has assured Sheik Hasina that they won’t go ahead with the construction. But an assurance is not a treaty.

The New Age reported that in New York, someone had left behind a bag with $21,000 and some jewellery in a taxi driven by Asaduzzaman Mukul, a Bangladeshi, who is also a medical student. Mukul returned the bag and refused to accept a reward offered by its Italian owner. Two years ago, another Bangladeshi, Osman Chowdhury too returned $50,000 left behind in his taxi.

In the morning, we walked in Ramna Park and around Shabagh Flower Market, which offered a tiny glimpse into the unorganised economy of Bangladesh. Men and women sat on the pavement and made beautiful garlands and bouquets under banners demanding a permanent place for flower vendors. There was a row of florists’ shops. My sister bought a bouquet of orchids for Sultana Zaman, who she had to meet on some work.

Sultana, an elderly lady, hasn’t been well of late. She was bedridden when sister went to her house. Despite her problems and the fact that she barely knew us, she did much to make our trip enjoyable.

In the afternoon, we sat in a taxi that crawled through the old city towards the boat jetty at Sadar Ghat. A Lonely Planet guide says there are 600,000 rickshaws in Dhaka, although the official figure of registered rickshaws is much lower, around 80,000. When a reporter expressed her doubt about the official estimate, a senior policeman told her, “If you think our figure is incorrect, please count them yourself.”

Rickshaws do not pollute. And as most automobiles here run on CNG – natural gas is available in abundance in Bangladesh – there was almost no pollution on roads. The old city was teeming with gorgeously painted rickshaws, the principal mode of transport there. There were horse drawn carriages, mini trucks, and hand carts with steel rods and plastic pipes. The sides of the roads were densely packed with middle-aged four to six storey buildings. The signs and vehicle registration plates were in Bangla. But for that, we could have imagined we were in the old city of Hyderabad. The Nawabs of Dhaka were perhaps cousins of the Nizams of Hyderabad. Both dynasties began around the same time after the death of Aurangzeb.

Bangladesh has two political poles: Awami League on one side and the BNP-Jamat-E-Islami combine on the other. The latter have based their politics on an anti-India plank. Our driver Idrish Ali clearly belonged to them. He was polite to his Indian clients, but couldn’t hide his politics completely. That was not important though. He exhibited enormous driving skill to weave through the chaotic traffic. With a little bit of luck, he could have driven a taxi in New York and become internationally known. I asked him how far Sadar Ghat was. He said, “Insha Allah! We should reach there in an hour.”

If you ask a driver in Dhaka how far a place is, he doesn’t answer in miles or kilometres. He tells you how long it might take to reach there at the time, depending on the mood of the almighty. And it usually takes long. Dhaka has 14 million people, two flyovers and no mass rapid transport system. Traffic jams are a way of life here. If you think of visiting Dhaka for a day or two, I will give you some free advice. Reach the city on a Friday morning. Friday and Saturday are weekly holidays and you will spend much less time sitting in a stationary vehicle.

When we reached the jetty at Sadar Ghat, the sun was going down on the other side of Budiganga. The place is something the like of which you won’t find in India. The huge jetty is a covered steel structure built on to the Budiganga River and has numbered platforms for launches. Most ferry boats reach Dhaka in the morning and leave in the evening. They usually sail overnight to reach various river ports of Bangladesh the next day. Rivers play a huge role in the life of this nation.

Beyond the crowded jetty, the river was buzzing with activity. Daylight faded into a misty horizon. Countless boats rowed by dark wiry men carrying passengers and cargo in gunny sacks were on the water. There were many more on the bank, waiting for clients. The large ferry boats at the jetty, many of them draped in colourful banners, were ready to sail off. Boatmen were shouting the names of towns they will take you to. Vendors sold fruits and snacks. Men and women boarded boats after a trip to the capital city. What brought them here? Are they going back with the satisfaction of having done what they wanted to do?

Within a couple of hours, when night descended, the boats would have sailed away and this jetty would be empty. One could smell transience in the air.

Later in the evening, we were with the other half of the city and the world: at a poolside barbecue in Dhaka Club. The food was superb. Well-dressed, well-heeled people drank and smoked. It looked no different from an upmarket place in Kolkata or any other Indian city. Women were in gorgeous saris, some with gimlet in their hands. And then it struck me, in the whole day, I had seen hardly any woman in burka.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Bangladesh Diary I

Day 1 / 13 January 2010

Our flight to Dhaka was delayed because of fog. As several aircraft had just landed at Zia International airport around noon, there were long queues before immigration desks; we stood behind a hundred people. As it always happens, our queue was the slowest; it took over an hour to reach near the front. And then there was some problem with the man at the head of our line … we stood rooted to the same spot for a while. Someone had noticed our plight; a policeman came and led the first ten of our queue to another counter that had just been opened. It was good to see a helpful policeman. For a change!

As we walked out, we met two old friends: Sachin and Laxman. They were on their way to join the Indian test team. But we couldn't talk to them as we were in a hurry.

There was a milling crowd outside: anxious relatives in shabby sweaters and gaudy scarves waiting to receive workers returning from the Middle East. One of the biggest exports of Bangladesh are blue collar workers.

Every human is related to everyone else in this world because we breathe in the same air that’s now rich in carbon dioxide. But my sister, who was with us, has a more serious kinship with Sultana Zaman, a social worker in Bangladesh. They are alumnae of the same school in Kolkata. Sultana is about twenty years older and just about knows my sibling. She had sent a car to receive us at the airport.

As we hit the three-lane road leading to the city, we met with a solid traffic jam. The PM was returning home after her visit to India. There were rallies to welcome her with “floral good wishes”. (This weird phrase is a translation of an equally weird Bangla expression seen on many a banner: phulel shubhechcha. Politicians screw up not only our life, but also our language!) The tailback created by Sheik Hasina’s admirers extended to miles. Our car inched forward. A fog and a prime minister took away one eighth of our holiday.

The road was excellent, but congested, to put it mildly. Drivers jostled for spaces that didn’t exist. Yet, there was absolutely no bad mouthing. Bus conductors too were far less aggressive and noisy than their counterparts in Kolkata. There were all kinds of vehicles that have been invented in the last few centuries, from cycle rickshaws to the latest SUVs. Auto rickshaws are putatively called CNGs in Bangladesh, they run on CNG. They have wire mesh all over and look like cages on wheels. The system is user-friendly, but unfortunately, it would have made life difficult for chain snatchers. Almost all the local buses were crowded, battered, and bruised. (In two days, I saw one freshly painted bus in Dhaka.) Taxi cabs too were ramshackle. But there were also quite a few imported cars and SUVs. For some reason, most of them were Toyotas. They looked more impressive in the midst of their poor cousins.

A good public transport system bears the stamp of a thriving middle class. Mumbai has had one, rather two, for as long as one can remember. The rising middle class forced governments to build metro rails in Kolkata, New Delhi, and Bengaluru. My first hour in Dhaka conveyed the impression that people in Bangladesh are either rich or poor. There may not be many in the middle.

The little discomfort we had during the journey was wiped off by an excellent lunch with ilish machher jhol and bhat. The service was even better. The waiters treated us as if we were their personal guests.

My cousin had a semi-official meeting with Tahmina Rahman, the director of the Bangladesh chapter of ARTICLE 19, a London-based human rights organisation. ARTICLE 19 specifically focuses on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of information. It takes its name from the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

To be a serious human rights worker is no mean achievement in the third world. In Bangladesh, which has a history of de-facto and de-jure military rules, it would perhaps require a lot more courage. Tahmina is a gutsy woman who seemed to be doing very good work. She is also building a team. It was great to meet her.

Tahmina not only organised our transport, but also took us all out for a superb Thai dinner.

Bangladesh, poorer than my poor country; does it have a richer soul? I would try to find out during the next few days.