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.