Friday, June 17, 2005

Positively the last Dhaka Diaries ...

(... for the time being)

The way it goes in Blogworld, reading follows browsing. Then come comments, curiosity, interaction, perhaps mail. Eventually, personalities emerge from the cyber-haze – at bloggers’ meets, in airports, once (as mentioned elsewhere) at a cricket match.

With me, of course, it has to happen the other way round. We met at the conference in Dhaka, exchanged smiles, pleasantries, bitched about the arrangements. Some time on the second day, my Net deprivation crossed reasonable limits and I took over the only available machine. Whereupon I was told, in passing, that there is a Blog. I went. I read. I laughed. I like. Check it out.


The other high point was dinner on the last night. S- (confusing, that. The three young people who were shovelling the shit for the conference all have that initial. One of them is even a descendant of a Chief Minister of Bengal) led me to Dhanmundi to buy CDs and to gormandise. The 'mall' could have been 'AC Market' in any given Indian city in the early '80s, except that it wasn't AC. And that there was a cornucopia of products that were all, pre-1991, very definitely for the phoren-returned.

The restaurant was tucked away on an upper floor of what seemed like an office building. The lighting was dim, there was a smell of smoking generators, the table-cloths were pink and blotched. Half the stuff on the menu was not available.

We ordered (in my case, with much trepidation), went outside to light up for a while, came back in ten minutes to find a procession of dishes arriving. S, my apologies once again for doubting you. I’d wondered why we were ordering what I considered ‘North Indian’ cuisine. We were served superb naan and a daal that tasted like haleem, a dish that overshadowed even the beef bhoona and the traditional Bangal muroger zhul. (And yes, if I visit Dhaka again I shall dine at Mama Haleem’s.)

The piece de resistance was a Bong fantasy, the kind of thing that Mr. Haldar from Paikpara and Mrs. Baidya from Akhon Bazaar moan about in their restless dreams, a dish of rui kaaliya that overwhelmed with its Brobdingnagian bounty. I felt like Cap’n Ahab in the MAD Magazine version of Moby Dick – ‘Now you’ve GOT it, what are you going to DO with it’. (We ate all of it. Eventually)


I wouldn’t go for a walk in Dhaka. Not, at least, in the town itself. North of the clutter, however, there are places that could pass off as Jodhpur Park or even Vasant Vihar. Past a pile of masonry that used to be one of the Gates of Dhaka; apparently there was a time when Dhaka was closed down at 10 p.m., the gates were shut, “nor all your piety nor wit” could get them to open again till 6 o’ clock the next morning.

Past tatterdemalion commercial districts, brash with neon and trailing wires and hoardings in execrable English, shop-fronts like painted ladies. Past a vast field ghostly under floodlights, while the Jatiya Parishad building loomed dark and unlit beside it. Past a million rickshaws, autos, Toyotas, pedestrians, even a couple of double-decker buses that could have pulled up at Gole Park or Dunlop Bridge.

I mentioned this to a friend and his answer made me think. “Dhaka has no Marwaris.” True. Nor the Tamizh cadences of Lake Market nor the Punjabi bustle of Bhowanipur. Calcutta survives as part of India, and I’m profoundly grateful this is not a Bangali ghetto. Kudos to Mumbai for rejecting Bal Thackeray’s insider theory.


Many uniforms. Every wing of the police - immigration, traffic, security - has a different uniform. Smart new uniforms, too, with flaps and epaulettes and wide belts. Apparently, every time the government is reminded that the police are paid so little that they HAVE to resort to graft to survive, they hand out new uniforms. My new friend was mugged a month ago. He says there was a policeman three feet behind him who just looked the other way.
A tribute to Bong innovation ... in Noo Yawk the women carry Mace to ward off muggers. In Dhaka, muggers carry Mace and pepper sprays because they work just as well in the other direction. *Shrug* Simple, innit?

Strange - Bangladesh has the 7th-largest standing army in the world. That's good in terms of employment potential, but the Bangladeshis I met did not seem to feel exceptionally secure. "Yeah right, our army's going to be very sharp if, like, China dumps on us. Or - oh boy! *and much rolling of eyes* - India wants to walk in and take over!" I coughed politely and changed the subject.

The great Bangladesh Rifles are not very popular either. I mentioned the murder of a BSF officer at a flag-meeting some months ago. "We never hear about that kind of thing here ..." So check the Internet, friend, you're supposed to be the new generation!

I mention the middle-years paradigm of the effectivemess of an elected government, that in a five-year term the first year goes for consolidation and the last two are spent preparing for the next election, leaving just the middle year-and-a-bit for hard decisions. "Here the entire five year period is spent with a single objective - making money. Why do you think we consistently rank as the most corrupt country in the world?"
I point out that greater visibility could be a factor, since there are so many international agencies working in Dhaka. He doesn't agree.


Wednesday 15th June

The hotel lobby, deserted except for flight crew from an unidentified airline. The women dark-eyed and sassy, two husky blonde pilots and a huge African, all chain-smoking. Helpful check-out desk, urging me to have a coffee while I wait for the airport shuttle.
Bunch of Americans munching stolidly in the coffee shop. How can ANYbody have breakfast at a quarter to 7 in the morning?!

All day for the last two days, there has been a sweating man in knee-high waders cleaning out the ornamental pool. Water occasionally slops into his waders as he moves. He worked on even when the rains came down.
The tables in the lobby, however, have not been cleaned since last night. I have to ask for a bunch of tissues to wipe away the glass-rings and the chanachur.

A flavour of Dhaka even as I leave. Twice, a car draws up to the porch and the (smiling) bell captain washes his hands in invisible soap as he ushers me to the door. As I step out of the door and my glasses fog up, the car zooms away. Back to the lobby …
Cloudy skies and a faint drizzle as the car finally pulls away from the hotel.

This time I have a seat ahead of the wing. The air-conditioning works. The plane takes off on time. As it climbs, the water-world appears below, all too briefly before the damp clouds wrap the windows in grey. All too brief, actually. I want to come back.

Perhaps in the cold weather. Walk under the coconut trees with people from my other home-land, search a map for the village where my grandfather was born. And sit on a steamer deck all night long, while the wind blows the moonlight over the Padma and bhatiyali songs float up from the after-deck.




...and pigs have wings said...

'clouds wrapping windows', very nice indeed.
try for the last page of outlook?

KM said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KM said...

That I does it! Now come what may, I must look up my ancestors... Bikrampur, Barisal... here I come!

Disappointed said...

Why no more Dhaka diaries?

Ph said...

What a treat!

(Happy to see the foodie in you emerging on the blog.)

S said...

well, it's interesting to be referred to by my first initial. if you really want, i'll feed you more information on dhaka so you can keep your dhaka diaries going, since people seem to want it. cheers.

the still dancer said...

There was a time, when my way of testing the comprehensiveness of any "comprehensive dictionary" was to check whether it had an entry for tatterdemalion. I positively thought it'd gone out of the language in the 13th century and is now used only in CAT papers. Untill now, that is. You astound me, o profound prufrock.
Where is the book-post, by the way?

PrufrockTwo said...

"Tatterdemalion": It's been such a long time since one has come across that word. WOnderful.

S said...

you should come back. this time we'd hit the rural areas. sundarbans, hill tracts, the lot. and anyone who wants to take the moby dick challenge, let me know.

Gati said...

Strange, this hierarchy of "civilizations". The tone of this commentary is exactly the same as that of a westerner describing India - the same emphasis on the lack of urban amenities, the same adulation of the exotic. The same absence of an attempt to find the character the land (I do believe every people have their own, beautiful, uniqueness).

Weirder still, that this is your "other home-land". Do NRIs look at India this way?

Parii said...

So you're here! I visited your old blog only to find it hadn't been updated in ages. How're you, and the little angel?

NoHairBrain said...

dhaka mein daka daala ? :) Wassaup JAP u old fart! Havent been quite regular at ur "diaries" of late.. but I promise to kiss and make up :P Oh! and dont bother visiting my page .. am still churning out mushy stuff. One of these days .. I shall come up with something worthy and we shall have a .. aaah! brodbingnagian laugh! wot ?

the still dancer said...

and now you've been word-tagged too

vAgue said...

aha. templte tweaking i see. bhery ghood bhaiya. it shows commitment.
your other blog?
chalo, yeh bhi delkh lete hain...