Bangladesh Slideshow

14 July, 2008

Somewhere over the rainbow

Today my family lost a member.

Tina came to live with us as a scrawny little chick on a summer’s day in 1981. She has been a part of our lives for 27 happy years, and this afternoon she passed away. None of us were home at the time, but the caretaker of the house was able to give her some water as she lay panting, and then she died, apparently of a failed heart.

When I was in school, I would save a part of my lunch for her and I remember how excited she would get as soon as I took the lunch box out of my bag after coming home. She developed strange eating habits over the years – paratha was her all time favourite, and she found all sweet things delicious. I used to feed her melted ice-cream from a spoon, she would sip ever so delicately, the little princess that she was. She even had a preference, strawberry over chocolate!!

My Dad was her closest pal, and she would start cooing whenever she heard his voice. She would nip lovingly at his fingers, and let him stroke her. The rest of us were treated to an irritated screech, “Go away, peasants!” She was obviously a one-man woman.

As she grew older, and then just old, she grew increasingly cranky, and cantankerous. She preferred peace and quiet, and solitude. We were not permitted to make any noise or even talk loudly during her nap times, having the TV on during the afternoon would call down the curses of the Gods, and she preferred the sun in the mornings and the shade in the afternoons – and heaven help the person who would be a minute late in moving her. And she loved to have showers. She would turn this way and that under the cascading waters, spread her wings, and croon non-stop. Soon after sundown, she preferred her perch to be covered, so that she could sleep in peace.

She and I were no longer close (you see, a distance had developed after I left the country to do my PhD, and out of sight, out of mind, sigh!), and she always returned my greetings with a no-nonsense squawk, “Well, what do you want now?” But I never stopped loving her. When I received the phone call telling me she had died, I actually started to cry. Rushing home with my Dad, we traded stories on the way and I cried some more.

We reached home, and there she lay, frail and lifeless. I half-hoped she was not dead. I picked her up and stroked her, something she never would have permitted while alive, and I knew that she had really died. Rigor mortis had not yet set in and she was still soft to touch. And you guessed it, I cried again. I consoled myself that she was now in a rainbow land of happiness.

We dug a little grave for her under a flowering musanda tree, I wrapped her in a white shroud (even though she had no religion, all animals belong to Allah, right?), and laid her to rest. My Dad and I both said prayers, in Arabic and English, and I covered her with soil, wincing as the first handful hit her body, before I told myself that she could no longer get hurt in this mortal world. “Thank you for being with us all this time, and bringing us joy,” I whispered as we patted down the soil. “I hope you were happy with us.”

Goodbye Tina, our feathered companion of 27 long years. We hope you are now flying free in God’s eternal garden. Wherever you are, we hope you know that we loved you dearly, and that we will miss you so very much. You will always be in our memories. And forever in our hearts.

07 July, 2008

Resourceful Lankans

Entrepreneurship is a key development concept. And in Sri Lanka I came across many such ventures.

The country is known world over for its handicrafts. These products are manufactured by applying age-old techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation. These artifacts are manufactured by using only the tools particular to them and from raw materials found abundant in nature. On the Colombo-Kandy road, the trades of these entrepreneurs ranged from the everyday to the exotic to the bizarre.

There was the Henry Batik Shop.

The craft of batik came to Sri Lanka from Indonesia; it was brought in by the Dutch at the time when they occupied these territories. A lot of work goes into the production of these hand crafted beauties. The first step in the process of batik is to ensure the readiness of the fabric to absorb and retain the color of the dye. For this purpose the material is dipped in boiling water to remove its starch-content. After this, the design is traced out or drawn out on it.

Before the application of the first round of dye or color, those areas of the design that should not absorb this particular color are covered with a 'resist' material such as molten wax or rice paste or mud. After this process, resist is removed by washing in water and re-applied in those areas which should not absorb the second round of dye-application. This alternate process continues till the entire range of colors planned for the design are exhausted. At the end of this, the cloth is dipped in boiling water and the finished product is obtained. This product is usually a multi-colored garment or material that can be stitched according to any desired style. The characteristic appearance of batik is obtained by the color seeping through the wax-resist that creates hair-line cracks on it.

The end result? Gorgeous colorful products!

I stopped at a number of family-run cane shops. They sold the most exquisite baskets in addition to furniture and everyday household wares. Alas, there would be no room in my luggage for these things.

There were leather shops, from which I bought two chair seats. I’ll add legs and turn them into tables once I'm back in Dhaka.

Sri Lanka has the most exquisite wood carvings. The expert craftsmen can turn a log of wood to a figure of an elephant almost looking alive with the help of only a chisel and mallet. I also saw cinnamon wood objects, and they smelled heavenly!

Couldn’t buy any wood carvings for their sheer weight, although the offer of having them air freighted was very tempting. I envisaged the hen-pecked hubby having a heart attack if DHL delivered an elephant to our apartment, and desisted. Oh, but they were so beautiful!!!

All the walking around had made me a bit peckish. Bought green mango from a fruit-seller. Declined the rambutan.

There were craft-stores selling masks, key chains and small wooden objects d’art. I bought the mandatory souvenirs.

I admired little papier mache objects.

My jaws dropped in amazement to find out the paper was made from elephant dung! Ugh!

I stopped at the Ishara Cashew Shop.

The husband-wife operation was small but efficient. I saw a cashew tree for the first time in my life, and poked among the leaves for a glimpse of the fruit. I saw the very basic factory and applauded their efforts. Bought the plain, roasted/salted and roasted/salted with chilli varieties. Yum yum!

Eating the cashew made me thirsty. Made a stop at a road-side fruit stall and had a drink of a king coconut. Lovely ladies were also selling rambutan (viewing the rambutan tree was also a first for me).

Among the soothing stretch of greenery, came a sudden eruption of color! There were inflated animals for sale, hung on strings and swaying in the breeze. I could identify Scooby Doo, and a Dalmatian. It was a Sunday, and I understood that the wares were intended to tempt families on a day’s outing. Smart, huh?

I also bought a number of other handcrafted objects from different handicraft shops in Colombo.

The village of Pallehapuwita in Matale District is famous for Lac work. Lac is a form of wax obtained from a specific species of insect. This wax is mixed with colors and applied on wooden objects with the help of hand-driven lathe machines. I bought a handful of Lac boxes.

Another unique Sri Lankan handicraft is a fabric woven on a primitive horizontal loom. The Dumbara fabric is mainly produced in a village called Henawala by the Kinnara people in the Dumbara valley of Kandy. The fiber is extracted from a plant somewhat similar to Jute. The Dumbara mats are predominantly black and white, but may also have splashes of red, sienna and beige.

There are many NGOs working with Sri Lankan craft villages to improve the quality of life of the craftsmen and women and to promote sustainable interactions between handicraft producers and their environment. Using the creative skills and local resources available in craft villages, these organizations are also providing access to viable markets for traditionally made handicraft products.

04 July, 2008

The Colombo Chronicles

Let me ask you something. When you’re on a work-related trip, do you feel a little guilty for wanting to sightsee? I know I do. But it's amazing how quickly I manage to get over the guilt.

Fortunately, I had arrived in Sri Lanka on a Sunday and had the whole day at my disposal, plus a half-day on the last day of the visit. And everyday, as soon as the meetings were over for the day, I would leave the hotel and hop on a tuk-tuk for a view of the sights. However, it rained sporadically and light conditions varied, so not all my photos turned out good.

It was very interesting to watch an amalgam of Buddhist, Hindu, Tamil, Christian and Muslim traditions and cultures in Sri Lanka. Hinduism and Buddhism flourished peacefully side by side in the country, as did Islam and Christianity. Indeed, I found temples, churches and mosques in close proximity, often sharing a boundary wall! Also, when I paid a visit to one temple, nobody bothered me. No offers of help to show me around, no asking for donations, it was the most serene environment ever.

The Ganga Rama Temple in Colombo is 115 years old and houses a vast collection of Buddhist art and scripture. It has the most exquisite wood and stone carvings and paintings.
(I had to lie down on the wooden floor to take these last two photographs.Sigh, the things I do for blogging!)

A walk along the sea at Galle Face is a must for every visitor to Colombo, and we duly paid a visit one day to watch the sunset. The view is fantastic, wouldn't you agree? There were also snack shops, and I opted for green mango (ooh, my mouth is watering at the mere mention of it!).

In Colombo we stayed at the Cinnamon Grand, on Galle Road, and while it was a good hotel, once inside, one could have been inside any five-star hotel in any city in the world. The view from my room was fantastic, the service was as expected, the food was great, but it lacked charm. My personal preference always is for the local flavor. Put me in a family-run B&B anyday.

But the bed at the Cinnamon was one of the best I've ever slept in, and they had a pillow menu!!!

Sri Lanka also boasts mouthwatering cuisine, and I managed to sample some dishes both at the Cinnamon and outside. Everything tasted great, but unfortunately, as I cannot eat spicy food, my enjoyment of it was somewhat diminished by my watering eyes and the copious amounts of water I had to drink between each bite.

The restaurant Raja Bojun was highly recommended, and it was very conveniently located just across the road from the Cinnamon. A friend of a friend very kindly took me there. The decor and cuisine were both ethnic, there was a horse drawn cart (minus the horse), the mandatory ebony elephant, and the buffet was served in clay pots. Despite being severly handicapped with regard to spicy food, I pigged out. What I loved most was a fried egg served in a bowl-shaped dosa, the batter of which was made with rice flour and coconut milk. I definitely have to try making it at home. Why I loved it? Because it was non-spicy, of course!

And everytime I ventured out, I had a drink of the king cocunut. The water was so very sweet, but unfortunately they contained a lot of water and I could never finish one.

I also discovered a 100 percent authentic, Bangladeshi-owned and operated Bangladeshi restaurant. The Shonar Bangla is in the food court of Crescat Blvd Shopping Centre, which is right next door to the Cinnamon - very convenient! On my last evening in Colombo I had a very nice lamb biriyani there. My Bangladeshi colleagues also enjoyed a good home-cooked meal - including fish curry!

Colombo's bright colors and the cheerful spirit of the people are somewhat marred by the army check-posts every few hundred yards and numerous autometic-weapon toting army personnel on every street corner. Being stopped by them anywhere/anytime is a part of life. And even I, I suppose for my subcontinental features, was stopped twice. The civil war is taking it's toll on everyday life. I wished the Sri Lankan people a quick end to the strife and peaceful lives.