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.
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.