A stormy greeting in Dhaka

The morning I flew into Dhaka after a 10-hour flight from London, rain drenched me as I dragged my bags outside the airport gates. Within hours, the rain would burst into a three-day storm, with wind howling through tree branches and sheets of water that I thought would never end. Though it would shut me in for my first days here, I must confess: I had long missed this kind of rain.
    A cyclone had hit the southern coast and the news was grim. More than a thousand fishermen were lost at sea, and bloated bodies began to float towards the coast. The official death toll hovered near a hundred before the news about the storm largely disappeared from the media. I remember a time when such storms would inspire a storm of human activity, as people mobilized for rescue and relief. What happened to that sort of response. Has the country simply become weary of disasters? Are people just focused on their own lives?

After the rain came heat, the temperature rising each day into the mid 30s Celsius. I am not used to the metric system, but I didn't look up the conversion. I knew it was just very hot. I tried to remember how to dress and go about in this sort of heat. Muggy weather is a quick teacher.
    Within days came Ramadan.
    A few people I came across fasted, others did not. On the streets I found people in a celebratory spirit, as they bought delicacies for the breaking of the fast. In glossy newspaper inserts, fancy restaurants advertised menus loaded with calories and fat. The wealthy gobble them up. In the future they will pay with heart disease and diabetes, the rates of which are both climbing across South Asia.
    Meanwhile the Hindu community celebrated Durga Puja. I learned with some sadness how dozens of statues of Durga have been attacked in many villages and small towns. The vast majority of Bangalis have long joined in the celebrations of one another's faiths. But there are coteries of people with hateful agendas who wish to harass minority believers. Perhaps the opposition is right, these hateful people want to signal to minorities, vote right in the coming elections or else.
    With the increasing heat came more frequent power outages. Nearly every day the power would go out several times a day. In some areas, power goes out for longer periods. In the countryside, people are lucky to get power for a small part of each day.
    Heat and power outages in the midst of Ramadan and Puja — they would prove to be a lethal combo. Unable to stand it any longer, people in many neighborhoods of the capital and other towns swarmed into the streets, burning tires, setting up blockades, laying siege to power offices, and smashing cars. The police went at them, with sticks, water cannon, rubber bullets. But the rebellion did not calm down. There were calls to get rid of this government. People sang songs to parody the Prime Minister and her son (the head of the ruling party) who people have nicknamed the Crown Prince.
    The Prime Minister travels around the country speechifying that she has brought massive development to the country and that her party is certain to return to power.
    The politicians make me feel like I have entered a theater of the absurd.
    Mullahs still debate the decision of the official moon-sighting committee on whether it was right to start the fast on the day they chose. The opposition, sensing some potential gain, shamelessly joins the argument.
    In his speeches, the Finance Minister seems to delight in a response he gave to the World Bank head about corruption in Bangladesh. "Close down the Swiss banks." No doubt. Clearly, if such banks did not exist, the cronies of the government would never find a way to loot this country.
    But the stakes are high. It is people's lives and livelihood that are balanced on the edge. Food prices have climbed beyond the means of the poor. Garment workers rally in the streets each day to press their demand for a meager 3,000 Taka monthly minimum wage ($46). In the northern district of Dinajpur, the people stopped an open-pit coal contract with a British firm that would have devastated a large area and its residents; seven people died from police bullets. Daily a few alleged criminals are disposed off in 'crossfire' incidents with a special police force. A university professor was shot in his bedroom after a hit squad made its way into his house. While the poor worry about the price of rice, dal, oil, and salt, those with money tremble in fear of muggings and assaults. And everyone has a story about how they needed to bribe someone to get something done.  A rickshaw puller says it used to cost 2 Takas to pay off a traffic cop to cross a road that does not allow rickshaws. Now they want 5 Takas. In this "holy" season, even the bribe rates have gone up.
This is the city into which I have arrived, a city, a city that tosses up a million stories each day. Through conversations and from the newspapers, even from a stranger who calls me after midnight, I encounter more and more of these stories as I settle into Dhaka, city of my birth, for the first time in over three decades. While the city greeted me with 'big' stories, I look forward to the small ones. I have already been inspired by one or two that reveal remarkable courage and thoughtfulness.

In my own life, the shape of things is fairly mundane.
    I read novels I brought with me. From newspapers in English and Bangla, I learn of heartbreaking stories of pain and endurance. I absorb biographies and memoirs. I visit old friends from childhood and adolescence. I roam neighborhoods looking for "to let" signs, seeking a quiet central place to live where I can write. I conduct research for my novel. I stay in touch with friends I have left behind over e-mail. I fight jet lag and coffee withdrawal. I work on my novel. I have conversations with my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew and his new wife who I have just met for the first time. We catch up, we share news. Some of the news is grim: several old friends from childhood are dead.

I finish this post with the news that an old friend found me an apartment that looks like it will be ideal for my needs: quiet and secluded with enough space and openness to it. The verandah (balcony) even overlooks a mango tree. Wish me speedy progress in moving in.


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  1. prachi

    Hi Mahmud,
    Surfed to your blog after a long time, and am looking forward to reading all the posts of your travels. I wish you were in Oakland, but I also hope you will have a productive and good year in Dhaka. Good luck! The news everywhere is indeed bleak, but I hope just being back there will make up for it somewhat.

  2. hibiscus

    Everything I read about Bangladesh politics resonates with the muck of Indian politics that I’ve seen over the years – more of the same, differing only in quantity and scale as one goes higher or lower down the hierarchy. The worst, possibly, is the twisted, unredeemably corrupt dictatorships that even local self-government bodies have become. Let alone state governments, when even the panchayat can’t help, it’s each to his own. And so, in the land where I grew up, it is anarchy. Loot or be looted.

    Ah well. Best not to look!

    Hope you’ve settled in at the apartment, Mahmud, and good luck. 🙂

  3. Rufiena

    Hey Mahmud, I’m happy you made it. It sounds like a lot is going on. I was sharing a nice hotel room here in Chiang Mai with a few grantees when I heard that the Prime Minister, I think, I said the job is just too much. People were in the streets and I thought, Mahmud. I come to Thailand and there’s a coup, you go to Bangladesh and there’s people rioting in the streets. Life just keeps on, doesn’t it?

  4. Jaya/Joya :-)

    Visited your site and read this entry after a long gap. Very enjoyable read. Do update it with all the Dhakai mosholla and hoi-holla. And the naach-gaana promise (a la Bips in Beedi) at your shaadi stands.\n\nCheers!

  5. lois

    Came here from Shahnazz’s blog, and found this post very interesting, even though I know that you are now more settled than you were in October. Good luck, as always.\n\n\n\n

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