Bangladesh Slideshow

26 February, 2008

Sailing to St Martin's

I've planned a trip to St Martin's, Bangladesh's lone coral island. This small island lies approximately 6 miles south west of the southernmost tip of mainland Bangladesh.

It will be a short trip (three days, two nights) and I am looking forward to the break, but as always, my heart is heavy about leaving the puppy behind.

23 February, 2008

Ekushey Boi Mela

The month of February is probably when Bangladeshis feel most Bengali. It is when we pay homage to the language martyrs who gave their lives on a bright spring day in 1952 defending the right to have Bangla as the state language. This unprecedented sacrifice to defend the mother tongue was the turning point in the political history of the country, and led eventually to the War of Independence in 1971. Since 2000, the day has been observed as the International Mother Language Day throughout the world.

This month is commemorated in Bangladesh by various academic and cultural programs and a month-long book fair organized by the Bangla Academy in Dhaka. Flowers are laid on the language martyr’s monument on 21 February by people from all walks of life. The Ekushey Padak is awarded to distinguished personalities. The Ekushey Boi Mela had initially started as merely a book fair, but it has evolved into a national festival which reflects the cultural spirit of the modern Bengali nation. It is an event much looked forward to by writers and readers (not to mention publishers) alike. This year there are 362 book stalls!! And as you can imagine, hundreds of new titles. This year, the count stands at 1,445 today. And there is still a week to go!

I am an avid reader and for me the Boi Mela is a literary fest where I gorge, literally!! I buy newly published books, as well as ones from my childhood, and the classics, of course. In short, most everything that takes my fancy (Yes, I'll take these three, and those five, please.). I usually get to visit the fair only once (sob sob), as other demands on my time make it near impossible to make multiple visits. I make a wish list on the eve of my much anticipated visit. It is impossible to visit every stall and look at every book, but this year there is very helpful “wall” - listing new releases by publisher, as well as a diagram showing stall locations. Moreover, the stalls are numbered this year.

So I sallied forth with husband, and a big canvas bag. The RAB personnel at the entrance cast a wary look at the empty bag (well, we have become a bit paranoid about security, and it was a really big bag!), and then smiled when I explained it was to hold my purchases. I had just that morning been repaid a loan, and it seemed a sign from above to spend, spend, spend! Two hours later, we left the fair with a bulging bag (and lighter wallets) and on my part, a happy, happy heart! Oh the smell and crispness of new pages, the nail-biting indecision which to read first, and the eagerness to read them all! This year, 53 titles were added to my shelves from that first foray.

Yes, first foray is what you read. For I was fortunate enough this year to make a second trip. On which I bought 50 more books. Oh yes, I do look like the cat who ate the cream (it may actually be the ‘swallowed the canary’ look, but I prefer the non-violent version), but who can blame me? And before I forget, the tale would be incomplete if I did not admit that on an earlier trip to the Etc. Discount Store, I had picked up 23 half-priced English books! It was a most generous gift from the husband (he had offered to buy me a dress, I asked for books - as I usually do).

My bookshelves look so beautiful with the glossy titles. With many-a-promise between the covers, they twinkle at me, singing the siren song, beckoning me to drop everything else and pick them up… I hoard new books like a miser, lest I be left with nothing new to read (that sad occasion eventually arrives, but is offset by more happy trips to the bookstores). However, with a total of 126 new acquisitions this month, that sad day is far off. I am indeed a happy trouper this month.

P.S. I've read 8 books already! Yikes!!

21 February, 2008

Tick Tock

I got married well into my 30s. That is very unusual for a Bangladeshi woman. My wonderful parents let me pursue my own interests, and even though my mother succumbed to social (read interfering busybody paternal aunts) pressure from time to time and begged me to settle down, my wings were never clipped. I was able to soar to academic heights, and enrich my professional life both at home and abroad. I also rode on an emotional roller coaster and finally returned home for good in 2004.

I ran into my future husband at a workshop in December of the same year, and while we were nothing more than colleagues at one time, a spark was lit this time around. A whirlwind romance followed and we got married in 2005.

Almost overnight, people started wondering when we would start a family. Heavy hints were dropped, oblique references made, and outright questions asked. We were not to be allowed a period of newly-married bliss. “Your case is quite different”, quipped my sister-in-law (in a not-so-veiled hint about my age), who had gotten married barely out of school, and took nine years to ‘enjoy’ married life and a career before starting a family.

Like most married couples, we too would like to be parents. But in our case, the hope has not yet translated into concrete plans, despite the constant reminders about the biological clock ticking away. We look at baby names on the internet, we find baby clothes cute, the baby furniture at Jatra had me planning a nursery there and then. I’ve already got a number of baby books, do plan on reading them to our child(ren), and the other day picked up a book called “What to Do When There’s Nothing To Do”, which is all about keeping children of all ages happily occupied through games and crafts. But we are not yet ready to actually bring a life into this world. The biological clock has nothing to do with this mental preparedness. But can someone please tell me how to get my point across without sounding vague (soon, soon) or evasive (it will happen when God ordains it) or flippant (we have a child - the puppy!) or downright rude (none of your bloody business!!!)?

Now please don’t get me wrong. I do have maternal instincts (well, I hope I do, look how I treat my puppy!). But I want everything to be just right when our baby arrives. There should be adequate funds to cover all possible contingencies, a nursery straight out of ‘Home and Garden’, the best available nanny because I’d want to go back to work… Okay, I admit I am a compulsive planner. And maybe a baby cannot be planned the same way as a vacation. But don’t all parents want everything to be perfect for their little bundle of joy?

15 February, 2008

Aap Ruchi Khana… Aap Ruchi Pehna

For all non-Urdu speakers (of whom I am one as well), the title of this post refers to the saying that one should eat to please oneself but dress to please others. This title actually says “Eat to please oneself…Dress to please oneself”.

I went to dinner with two colleagues to Golden Rice on Gulshan Avenue. There was no electricity and the air conditioners were off. But the staff hastily brought a pedestal fan for our comfort. We ordered and then started to chat. There was a rather noisy Chinese family in the room and their frequent bursts of laughter made talking rather difficult. We embarked on a comparative sociological discussion as to how the Chinese were a noisy bunch everywhere in the world.

Our food soon arrived, although the electricity was yet to follow suit. We dug into the yummy sizzling chicken and shrimp with oyster sauce. Once the immediate pangs of hunger were assuaged, we were again able to tune back to the surroundings and began to cast irritated glances at the noisy table. That’s when I noticed that one man was sitting with his shirt off. I mean, he was sitting at the table bare-chested!!! No shirt, no vest, no nothing on the top half of his body. I couldn’t believe my eyes (maybe he was wearing one of those skin color shirts?)! I consulted one colleague and when her eyes popped out at the sight, I knew that my fear was confirmed.

What was he thinking???!!! Well, I admit it was rather stuffy with the air conditioners off. And he was among family and friends (never mind the three strangers at the far corner of the room). He appeared right at home. Not at all self conscious or anything. I was just beginning to wonder why the staff were not saying anything when the penny dropped. Finally! He was in all likelihood the owner of the place. This should have been apparent from the obsequious attitude of the waiters (it took five minutes of waving my hand in the air to catch the attention of one of the four waiters in the room). The other obvious matter was that the man cared naught for anyone else’s opinions. He would do what he pleased. Devil be damned. I wonder if he would have minded if anyone else followed his example. Or would then the restaurant rules suddenly become operational? “Please sir, you will have to put your shirt back on…or leave”.

But nevertheless, owner or not, is it too much for ordinary diners to expect that a modicum of decency be observed in a public eating place? The restaurants reserve the right of admission, but what about diners’ rights? Talk about double standards!

14 February, 2008

Travelogue: Serene Shillong

Desperate to get away from the tedium of routine life, we thought of quite a few possible destinations. It had to be within easy traveling distance - we could only afford to get away for a maximum of four days (couldn't bear the thought of being away from the puppy for longer than that!), and had to be affordable so as not to result in bankruptcy. In the end we settled on Shillong, the capital of the northeastern Indian province of Meghalaya.

Known as the Scotland of the East, Shillong lies on the eastern part of the state. Situated at an altitude of 4,990 feet above sea level, the city stretches for about 6 km on an elevated expanse. It is situated on a plateau bound on the north by the Umiam gorge, on the northwest by the great mass of the Diengiei Hills that rise up to a height of 6,077 ft., and on the northeast by the hills of the Assam valley. The city derives its name from “Leishyllong” - the Superpower or God who is believed to reside on Shillong peak overlooking the city.

Upon crossing the border at Tamabil (the Bangladesh border town in Sylhet), we rented a Tata Sumo jeep from Dawki (the Indian border town) for Shillong at Rs.1000. The jeep comfortably seats 7 people and their luggage. The road climbed steadily up, the temperature took a welcome drop, and then became quite chilly. Fortunately, we had our jackets out and on they went. The road wound its way through impossibly tall betel nut trees, deep gorges, limestone mountains, coal mines, scattered tribal dwellings and evergreen forests. The going was quite bad in a few places as road works were on, with massive chunks of marble and limestone in use. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking! From a lush canopy of trees we emerged into blinding sunlight reflecting off gurgling brooks The mountains kept changing color as we went on climbing - here they were of pure white stone, just a few miles away they turned dusky pink, then a greenish grey and then different shades of blue. I am not a rock collector, but had I been, the diversity would have had me in total ecstasy.

The forecast had warned us that the first day would be a little cloudy, with some precipitation, and true enough, around noon, passing through a small town, we were climbing through CLOUDS! Not mist, not fog but real clouds! I kept winding down the window for a feel of a piece of the sky on my face. Of course, it was quite cold and we were traveling at 60 km/hr, so after 10 seconds or so my face would start to get numb and I had to reluctantly draw my head back in and roll up the window again. We reached Shillong at 130pm, and the taxi dropped us off at town square, as agreed. We had emailed a few hotels and everyone had rooms available, so we decided to look at a few hotels in Police Bazzar. In the end we settled on ‘The Grace’, situated on Jail Road, a two minute walk from the zero-point of Shillong. Our room was spacious, with a sitting area and windows overlooking the street, and the spotlessly clean bathroom had running hot water (not the sort where a running room boy brings it in a bucket!) It cost Rs 900 per night. We could have stayed for Rs 450, but personally I prefer a comfortable room to come back to at the end of a long day.

After a quick shower we headed out for lunch. Good food is plentiful and reasonably priced in Shillong, and the street food (chow mein, veg momo, pepper fry, aloo tikki) is finger-licking delicious! On average, it cost us Rs. 300 per person per day to eat, and we ate quite well. Shillong is full of Bengali restaurants, and the food is very cheap. Of course, the cooking style is West Bengal-Bengali rather than Bangladeshi-Bengali, but it is similar enough to qualify as home-cooking. There are authentic Chinese restaurants, pizzerias and even a kebab place. Most of the better hotels also have good restaurants.

Stomachs full, we exchanged dollars and with our pockets flush, did a recon of the town center. Getting around in Shillong is easy as one can practically walk around the whole city (it's only 10.36 square km). Police Bazzar is the main shopping district of Shillong and has everything from pricey, exclusive boutiques to makeshift stalls with their ware spread on the streets - selling everything from Chinese sandals to exotic orchids to luscious strawberries to shawls and handbags. For handicrafts, cane work, hand-woven shawls and orange flower honey, there are various state emporia like Meghalaya Handicrafts, Khadi Gramodyog and Purbashree. I am a compulsive shopper (as the readers of my blog well know) and confronted with such variety, I was in heaven! Only the outrageous tourist prices brought me down to earth. I would have browsed endlessly but unfortunately all shops wrap up their trade - literally 7-ish. There really isn’t much to do after that except have dinner and watch tv in the hotel room.

The next morning, we left on the Cherrapunjee tour at 8.00am. Also known as Sohra, the town is situated in one of the rainiest rain-belts in the world, 1,300 meters above sea level. It's a pleasant drive through winding mountain roads. We passed a number of small waterfalls (they would all swell in the coming months with the monsoon rains) and numerous coal mines on the way, and the undulating terrain of tall pine conifers was such a welcome change for eyes used to concrete jungles of Dhaka. The weather proved mercurial, sunny one minute and dark clouds threatening rain the next. The temperature also rose and fell dramatically.

A little further down the road from the Ram Krishna Mission to the Nohkalikai Falls, we were awed by a series of giant pillars or megaliths that had been erected. Such megaliths are a common sight in different parts of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and are usually erected to commemorate great deeds or to honor dead chieftains. We were quite amused when our guide told us that the larger vertical pillars represented male members, the females are represented by smaller, horizontal pieces. I winced mentally, thinking that even in this matrilineal society, where inheritance passes from mother to the youngest daughter, men are held in higher esteem, even in death.

We were taken through the Mawsmai Caves - limestone caves, and it was an eerie experience to crawl through the stalagmites and stalagtites, with tons and tons of solid rock all around, shiver shiver! We visited the Seven Sister Falls, and the massive stone (almost a mountain really) called Khoh RamHah from where you can get a glimpse into Bangladesh. There is also a Cherrapunjee resort where people stay and go for a guided trekking (easy but long) to the "root tree bridge" village (overnight stay at Cherrapunjee is required). It is a fascinating bridge which is basically a network of tree roots on both sides of two hills to connect two villages. We unfortunately couldn't do this because of our time constrraint.

For getting around town, we were advised to negotiate with taxis, and on our second day we found a driver who spoke excellent English (our Hindi is so pathetic as near non-existent!) to take us around the city . We went to Shillong Peak (10 kms from the city, 1965 meters above sea level, which offers a panoramic view of the scenic country side, and is also the highest point in the State) , Elephant falls (a mountain stream that descends through two successive falls set in dells of fern covered rocks), Ward Lake (which has a charming winding walkway in the midst of flowerbeds bursting with color), Lady Hydari's Park (which has a small museum, a small zoo, an aviary, and a deer park among the tall cedars and pines), Bara pani (a large lake formed after a hydroelectric dam was built across a stream). Car hire turned out to be pretty cheap compared to Bangladesh and the drivers do not usually ask too much to start with (the old story of supply exceeding demand). I am always eager to find out about the socio-economic conditions of the general people wherever I go, and engaged the driver in long conversations. He had studied upto class XII, the car was his own, he lived in a 3-room rented house with his wife and two small children, and managed to save money for their education. He was interested in visiting Bangladesh and Cox's Bazar, and asked if it was true it was the longest beach in the world. I also extolled on the virtues of St.Martin's island (even though I've never been there!) and the Sunderbans, tooting the eco-tourism horn for my country.

After coming back from the sightseeing trip, we went shopping. I went a bit overboard (yeah, so what else is new, you ask). I won't bore you with the details of my shopping, but will admit we had to buy a big bag. Well, our two small (read, tiny!) suitcases were already full with all the winter clothes we had to bring with us! And I also bought a dozen orchids, carrying them with trepidition, lest the border men refuse them entry into Bangladesh. On our way back, we made an early start, and as we wound down in the morning sun through conifer forests, I kept lamenting how I would love to have a pine tree of my own. The driver (the same one from our sightseeing trip of the day before) took pity on me and stopped the car - there were infant pines growing amidst the towering ones, and we dug out a few and put them in a small plastic bag along with some soil. I have made many a purchase in my life, but the tiny pines made me the happiest ever. The saying is true after all: the good things in life don't cost money! (Okay, now please don't spoil it by saying the Shillong trip itself cost money.)

We reached the border around noon, and were back on board a Dhaka-bound bus by 3pm, leaving the exotic capital of Meghalaya far behind, but carrying small pieces of it in memory, and of course, in the form of my acquisitions!

A few travel tips: before you reach the border at Tamabil, make sure your travel tax is paid and you have the money receipt with you. There is no bank at the border and you have to travel 12 km backwards to Jaintapur to find the nearest bank. Eat a heavy breakfast before leaving Sylhet for Tamabil. The next meal is likely to be past midday. And the mountain air quickly brings pangs of hunger. The Tamabil-Dawki border is a relatively quiet one, and they only process about 20 people on an average day. Since Dawki is a quiet border, all good taxis get nabbed by the early birds. Aim to cross the border by 11am at the latest. The roads for the most part are pretty steep and winding and I recommend you prepare well if any of you suffer from motion sickness. There are no money changers en route, so make sure you have at least Rs 1500 with you. And in Shillong, only the State Bank of India (main branch, opposite Shillong Club) encashes foreign currency, and their working hours are 10am-4pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am-2pm on Saturday. Remember the 30 minute time difference. Hotels in Shillong often have windowless rooms - known as standard rooms. If possible, look over the room in person before taking it.

One last word of caution: Shillong is subject to vagaries of the monsoon. The monsoons arrive in June and it rains almost non-stop until the end of August. The downpour often results in landslides and road blockades. The climate is hot and humid during summers but quite cold during winters. October-November and March-April are the best months to visit.