Remembering Mahmudul Haque (1941-2008)

"One day everything becomes a story"

An abridged version of this article appeared The Daily Star on 2 August 2008.

Three years after partition, a ten-year-old boy nicknamed Botu moved from Barasat, now across a border, to Dhaka, settling with his family in the new flats built in Azimpur for government employees. At West End High School, the teacher slapped him. "That was my shopnobhongo." His crime, he learned later, was that he had gone to school in half pants and did not wear a Jinnah cap.
     He also found the teacher hard to follow. To his ears, Dhaka rang with strange new dialects. Dialect could bewilder, though later he would learn that it could infuse richness in his own prose. In Mahmudul Haque’s writing you will thrill to the melodious voices of 24 Parganas, Bikrampur, and Dhakaiya.
     If Pakistan meant such abuse, he wanted no part of it. Without any money, the boy set off all by himself to reverse the journey that had brought the family to Dhaka. Train to Narayanganj, steamer to Goalundo, train to Barasat.

Yaba Sundori: real life clobbers fiction

One hot release at this year’s Boi Mela was the novel Yaba Sundori.
     The phrase had only been coined last November with the police campaign against the methamphetamine drug marketed as Yaba. That was our News of the Hour, the Sensation of the Month.
     What a sensation that was. It began with a circle of upper-class youth arrested in Banani. Then a midnight raid in Gulshan bagged a drug kingpin. There were rumours of pretty women as suppliers. The aura of sex fringed the whole affair. In one arrest, the seize list included One Viagra Tablet. I hadn’t realized Viagra was illegal. If so, it must be to preserve the monopoly of the thousands of ‘homeo clinics’ in Bangladesh that promise you local medicine for a harder, longer dampotyo jibon.
     Then came the Really Big Drama. The ultimate Yaba Sundori hiding out with her lover. And just as they were about to surrender, the RAB netted them and paraded them before the cameras.
     She came into our lives as Nikita. A village girl from Brahmanbaria who climbed up by marrying an MP. He gifted her a Banani flat. She acquired internet skills and found her way to an online affair with a probashi in Korea. The marriage collapsed and she rejected the lover too. Her final catch, the hotel MD. He had her skin whitened in Bangkok. Flew her to Japan. Showered her with jewellery.
     Thanks to the RAB commander and our informative media, we learned of her taste in lingerie. From Brahmanbaria to Victoria’s Secret — here was our own B’Sharpe. Perfect material for a reincarnated Thackeray.
     Would Moinuddin Kajal’s book deliver? Topical novels are tough. But this is Dhaka where authors and translators churn out three, four, seven titles in one year.

Brushes with Faith, Sin, and the Weird

I’m in my car, driving. The cell phone pressed against my ear, I’m listening to a funny story about Muslim speed dating in Houston. The next minute, my eyes take over. Just ahead, to my right, is the tallest cross I’ve ever seen, its metal body gleaming in the morning sun. A few dozen people are gathered at the base. Some are praying on their knees.
     I return my attention to the highway, Interstate 40 headed east. On the third day of my drive from Los Angeles, I had just entered Texas. The desert landscapes of New Mexico had given way to ranching land, dotted here and there with trees. The exit sign says Groom. Thinking anything’s possible, I wonder if the next town will be Bride. 
     After my trip is over and I have time to look things up, I will discover that the Groom cross is 19 stories tall, the second highest in the western hemisphere. The tallest — by eight feet — can be found in Effingham, Illinois.

Limits of satire

On Tuesday, September 18, Arifur Rahman, a 20-year old, was picked up from his Uttara residence, interrogated by police intelligence, and then sent to jail. His offense? He was the author of a cartoon that appeared in Alpin, the weekly satire supplement to Prothom Alo, the largest circulation Bangla newspaper in Bangladesh. The sub-editor responsible for Alpin was fired from his job.
    The government banned the edition of Alpin and the Law Advisor told a gathering that included members of the Islamic Oikyo Jote, an Islamist political party, that there was a conspiracy to destabilize the government.
    The implication was clear: Arifur Rahman was part of such a conspiracy.
    The actions against Alpin and Arifur Rahman have been justified on the grounds that the cartoon offended the religious sentiments of Muslims.
    Why are we a people so prone to exaggerate? So ready to create storms in a teacup? Anyone who lives here knows how small our teacups are.

Looking backwards: 1947 and after

When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada — really my Nana, my mother's father — lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
    Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
    For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
    There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.

Why do people smash cars?

On the second and third day of the protests last week, there was widespread bhangchur.
    I like the sound of that Bangla word. It's not in my Bangla dictionary but the way it sounds echoes the meaning of the word. Bhangchur evokes the sound of sticks on steel, the shattering of glass. There are other words like that in Bangla. Hochot, for example, the word for stumble. In English, the word shatter evokes the sound of its meaning, too.
    Dozens of cars were smashed up. Some buses set on fire. Some businesses had their windows smashed. At least one looted. It seems the violence was most widespread around Dhanmondi.   
    I heard officials say that in no civilized society do people take to the streets and smash and burn cars and businesses. They suggested that such violence proves the existence of organized destructive forces.
    Is that really true?

No room for mistakes

I am riding the No. 6 bus between Gulshan 1 and Farmgate. The bus is crowded, though I managed to get a seat. At Mohakhali, the bus gets into a race with another No. 6 bus. They edge past one another. First the other one gains the advantage. Now ours does. Meanwhile, traffic around us is stalled, so the race doesn't exactly take place at break neck speed. Passengers are however frustrated by this pointless exercise. The bus driver is having a bit of fun. I hear curses under people's breaths.
    At the Mohakhali turn, our bus gets the advantage and leaves the other one behind. We head towards Jahangir Gate, turn left, zip along Airport Road. Our bus still has the advantage. The other one's been left behind.
    At Bijoy Shoroni, our bus driver makes a blunder. For some reason he gets into the middle lane. The middle lane however is for those who will take a right at this intersection. There are cars and buses ahead. Now the other bus comes up from behind, takes the left lane and roars past us. Our bus has lost the race. But it's also now stuck at this intersection until the policeman allows the middle and right hand lanes to move again.
    Now the curses start to really pour from the mouths of passengers. Break the leg of the driver. Hit the helper on the head. Son of a bitch. Swine. It's all words of course, but with words like this, in certain circumstances, words can turn to action. This is a volatile country.

A trivial event?

I am trying to make sense of the events that started with the Dhaka University students flaring up in protest on Monday, August 20.
Nearly everyone calls the initial event that sparked the rebellion a 'tuccho ghotona' – a trivial or insignificant incident. The next morning, when I wrote in my journal I found myself accepting that description. I called it a 'petty incident.'
On thinking about it more, I'm not so sure.

Support the BNWLA shelter campaign

My friend Andrew Morris, originally from Wales now living in Dhaka — a teacher, writer with a keen eye and a fast pen, and a musician with a mean mouth on the soprano sax — has launched a campaign to raise funds for a new shelter for survivors of trafficking, rape, domestic slavery, and exploitation. The shelter will include dormitories, school and training facilities, garden and play area, and an auditorium and multi-purpose hall.
    I would like you to visit the campaign's website and donate what you can. There's a PayPal link, but you don't have to sign up with PayPal. You can use a credit card. The campaign's made a great start, and while the target is ambitious, I'm confident they will carry it through.
When Andrew introduced me to the campaign, I'd already been reading his articles describing his visits to the present shelter. I asked if I could come along one day.
    On the first Friday in May, a day when the heat passed the 100 degree mark, four of us set out from the Daily Star office towards Agargaon just a couple of miles to the north. Three of us — Hana Shams Ahmed on one side, Andrew on the other, me in the middle — squeezed in the back of a green natural gas driven three-wheeler. The fourth, Zahedul Khan, rode his own motorcycle. He followed us at first, then we lost him in Dhaka's traffic snarls. Hana is an editor at Star Weekend Magazine, Zahed works there as a photographer, and Andrew is a regular contributor.
    Our destination was the shelter of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA). Hana and Zahed came along to prepare an article about kids at the shelter. Star Weekend Magazine has done a terrific job hammering away at the slavery-like conditions faced by domestic workers in Bangladesh.
    It was the story of one abused child worker that brought me together with this crew. Last fall when I first arrived here, the magazine carried a story about two children found lying on the ground next door to an apartment building in Dhanmondi. Moni, fifteen years old, was dead. Ten-year old Madhabi survived, her bones broken. They had been servants in the building next door. When Madhabi was in the hospital, her employer managed to grab her back. The child was persuaded that she had 'fallen' from the sixth floor roof. Over a four-foot high railing, mind you. The BNWLA rescued her and she recovered in their shelter before returning to her family. The murder case about her co-worker is still pending. Hana told us that not a single employer has ever been convicted of the murder of a domestic worker. Nearly every month there is news of at least one such murder.

Waterlogged Dhaka

Thursday the 7th of June, it rained 109 mm in Dhaka. Leaving a literary event at the Sheraton I sought a ride home with a friend. Since the entrance was flooded, we agreed to cross over to the other side where his car would pick us up.
    We took off our shoes and I led the way, stepping into the murky water. But I miscalculated the depth and tumbled in, getting wet up to my waist. I skinned my knee but managed to keep my shoes dry. Retreating, we chose the prudent course, walking along the footpath towards the intersection. We crossed there, stepping in knee-deep water in front of buses and cars forced to slow down.
    The traffic barely crawled. Making it only to Karwan Bazaar by 11:30 p.m., it became clear it would be faster to walk to my home in Nakhalpara. On the way, I spied stalled buses and cars being pushed by boys and men. Near Bijoy Shoroni, the footpath was again flooded. I stepped gingerly into the water, remembering that not so long ago there were uncovered manholes in the vicinity. I would read later that at least three people fell into manholes that night. When I went to bed, past midnight, I was thankful that my apartment was above water. Thousands of others, with water above their floors, are of course not so lucky.
    The monsoons have only begun. What will the rest of the season be like for the hapless citizens of Dhaka?