Bangladesh Slideshow

20 February, 2012

Celebrating 21st February

Today I will tell a tale of love. Love for the language. Love for the country. It is a tale of unity and strength. Of defiance and sacrifice. It is a tale that still brings people close six decades after it happened, transcending boundaries and communities.

Once upon a time there was a country united by religion. But it was separated by geography, split by culture, and most importantly, divided by language. When the central government declared that one particular language was to be the state language for all, those speaking the other language (who also happened to be the majority population) erupted in protest. They demanded that both languages be state languages, but no heed was paid. Thus began the famous Language Movement of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1948 - culminating in a bloody tragedy on 21 February 1952.

At the forefront of the Language Movement were the Bangla-speaking university students, and they took to the streets in strikes and demonstrations. The central government’s next, and equally unacceptable, proposal of writing Bangla in Arabic script was also vehemently opposed. Posters voicing the demands of the nation covered walls around the major cities. This was the sole topic of discussion everywhere in the province - from tea stalls to university dormitories to elegant living rooms. There were also clashes between the police and the public. The authorities responded by arresting the protestors and imposing a ban on various Bangla language periodicals.

In February 1952, students in Dhaka called for a provincial strike. The government responded by imposing a ban on gatherings of more than four people. Defying the ban, hundreds of students marched in processions around the Dhaka University area, chanting the slogan “Rashtro Bhasha Bangla Chai” (we want Bangla as the state language). The general public marched shoulder to shoulder with them, boiling in resentment at the audacity of the government! "Ora amar mukher bhasha kaira nitey chay" (they want to snatch away the language I speak). This was 21 February 1952. A day that was to change the course of history in the Indian subcontinent.

Around 3 pm, pandemonium erupted. A group of armed police, upon the order of the district magistrate, opened fire on the processions marching past Dhaka Medical College. A number of students and public were instantly killed, their blood staining the streets crimson. Tear gas shells were also fired to disperse the crowds. News of the killings spread like wildfire across town and soon there were more people on the roads than bullets in the police guns. Outnumbered, the police retreated, taking a few of the dead bodies with them. The remaining dead and the injured were rushed to the hospital. One body could not be identified because the head had been blown off (he was later identified as Abul Barkat).

Fearing that these bodies too would be taken away, students mounted a vigil at the morgue gates. But they were no match for the armed troopers who stormed the morgue at the dead of night and took away the bodies at gun-point. The students were not to be thwarted so easily. Some followed the police jeeps on foot to the local cemetery and marked where the bodies were being unceremoniously dumped - without any funeral prayers. The following morning, masses of people went to the cemetery to pay their tribute to the martyrs. Funeral prayers were also offered. Friends and family of the deceased broke down in tears. Resentment and anger boiled anew.
The elderly parents of martyr Barkat.

Disorder spread across the province as large processions ignored the ban and condemned the actions of the police. More than 30,000 people congregated at the Dhaka University campus the very next day. During the continued protests, police actions led to the death of four more people including a child. Police also severely beat up those marching in the processions.

Later that week, a monument was lovingly built in the honor of the martyrs only to be destroyed by the police within 48 hours.

Undeterred, the protests continued for two more years, with 21 February being celebrated all over East Pakistan. Sectional tensions in the country were further aggravated by such declarations that anyone who wanted Bangla to become an official language would be considered an "enemy of the state”. It had little impact. If the majority population turned state enemies, there was not much that the minority could do about it. On 7 May 1954, the constituent assembly finally resolved to grant official status to Bangla, and the language was finally recognized as the second official language of Pakistan on 29 February 1956. The sacrifices of the language martyrs did not go in vain.

The Language Movement was a political and cultural movement that centered around a broader reaffirmation of the ethno-national consciousness of the Bengali people. It also led to an intensification of the political and sectional rivalries between the two wings of Pakistan. The Language Movement of 1952 also had sown the seeds of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

A monument for the language martyrs was constructed in 1963. It was inaugurated by the mother of language martyr Abul Barkat. This symbol of love and gratitude was razed to the ground by the Pakistani army during the 1971 war, but rebuilt in all its glory after liberation. The design includes half-circular columns made of white marble to symbolize the mother with her fallen sons. The Shaheed Minar (literally, the martyr's monument) stands tall and proud and is one of the city's most important monuments.

In Bangladesh, February 21 is commemorated annually as the Language Movement Day. On the anniversary of the language martyrs' death, students and teachers of the Faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University colorfully paint the Shaheed Minar premises with intricate designs.

Floral tributes start pouring in at the Shaheed Minar from midnight on 21 February, called the Probhat Feri (the early morning march), starting with the head of the state. People wear black and white, and come bare-footed as a sign of sorrow and respect. The famous song "Amar bhaiyer roktey rangano Ekushey February, ami ki bhulitey pari" (how can I forget 21 February reddened with the blood of my brothers) is sung with such depth of feeling that it never fails to bring tears to our eyes. Throughout the day, people of all ages and from all walks of life visit the Shaheed Minar to pay tribute to those who gave their lives for Bangla language.

This is an occasion to fondly remember the language martyrs, whose sacrifice allows us to proudly speak Bangla today. It is a day to remember those brave souls with love and eternal gratitude. We are a very emotional nation, and the long queues of people from all walks of life, of all ages, laying down their silent floral homage, often with tears clouding their vision, speak their own story.

But it is not just a sad occasion, but also one to revel in to commemorate the victory of unconditional love and faith. Of setting a goal and moving towards it. Of not being dejected by setbacks or even death. Of unity. Of faith which does move mountains. Of jubilation. It is a celebration of the beautiful musical language that we speak as our birth-right. A golden monument stands in the Bangla Academy grounds honoring for eternity the language martyrs Rafique, Salam, Jabbar and Barkat. In commemoration of the day, Bangla Academy also holds a month-long book fair and organizes literary and cultural events throughout the month. We cry on Ekushey February. But we also laugh. We lament. But we are also grateful. And we pray for the eternal salvation of those brave souls.

In 1999, February 21 was declared the International Mother Language Day by the United Nations. The language martyrs of 1952 must have held their own party in heaven on that day to celebrate this global recognition of their sacrifice.

14 August, 2011

Highway to Death

Bangladesh used to have very good road networks – compared to its level of development. That unfortunately, is a thing of the past. Oh the roads are still there on the map. Whether you can use them to go from one place to another is a different issue altogether.

Of the things that bother me about Bangladesh, lack of safety on roads is near the top of the list. Poor road conditions, old vehicles, inept drivers and reckless driving make our roads deathtraps - both city roads and highways. Not a day goes by that we don't hear of a road accident claiming multiple lives. And it gets worse in the monsoon season, when heavy rains aggravate the problem. Around 12,000 people die in road accidents every year and thrice that number are injured.

I am NOT exaggerating!

44 schoolboys were killed and 15 seriously injured just last month when the truck they were traveling in skidded off a highway and plunged into a six-feet deep canal in southeast Chittagong district.
The boys, aged 10 to 13, were from the Mirsarai sub-district of Chittagong and were returning to their villages after watching their school take part in a soccer tournament. The villagers were stunned into silence - too shocked to even mourn as the small white-shrouded bodies were lowered into graves. Will life ever be the same there?

In the same month, three separate road accidents in Bogra, Gazipur and Narayanganj left 24 people dead and 65 others injured. In Bogra, a bus collided head-on with a truck on Dhaka-Rangpur highway, leaving 17 people dead and 30 others injured.

In another accident, a head-on collision between a truck and a bus on the Dhaka-Tangail highway bypass road in Gazipur, left four people dead and 20 injured. Another head-on collision between a bus and a truck on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway in Narayanganj left three more dead and 15 injured.

And just yesterday, renowned film-naker Tareque Masud (of Muktir Gaan and Matir Moyna fame) lost his life when a bus turned a corner at high speed and rammed into their vehicle on the Dhaka-Aricha highway in Manikganj. The impact of the collision flattened and nearly tore the smaller vehicle in half.

Of the four others who died on the spot was media personality Mishuk Munier, the best thing to have happened to journalism in Bangladesh in recent years. Three others were critically injured in the crash including Tareque's wife Catherine, co-director and film editor.

Our political leaders dutifully express shock at the accidents, pray for the salvation of the departed souls and express sympathy for the bereaved families. Empty promises are made to punish the guilty (bus and truck drivers somehow always manage to escape and evade the law enforcement agencies). Enquiry committees are sometimes formed to investigate the accident. The public never hears the committee reports, and I doubt the government pays any heed to their recommendations - if indeed, any are made.

The government knows perfectly well what should be done. There must be improvement of the enforcement of traffic laws - including driving rules and vehicle condition. The training of drivers (especially for heavy duty vehicles) must be under rigorous inspection (it's laughably easy to get a license in Bangladesh - even if you can barely drive). Capital punishment for reckless drivers should be reintroduced (at least for the time being) for its deterrent value. And last but not the least, physical conditions of the roads must be optimum. This should be done. But will it get done? Corruption has so deeply penetrated this sector (as others) that it is hard for the people to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

According to one study, the annual fatality rate from road accidents in Bangladesh is 85.6 per 10,000 vehicles, making us one of the most road accident-prone countries of the world. However, apart from the human tragedies, the economic costs of such accidents are also quite high.

Many of the country’s highways are in a sorry state. And when I say sorry, I mean hiding-away-in-shame kind of sorry. Sloppy construction and lack of maintenance for years have led to this state. A part of the 120 km Dhaka-Mymensingh highway has deteriorated to such an extent that buses and trucks are overturning in the potholes (well, they are more like craters!). A two-hour journey takes eight or nine, sometimes more. Little wonder that transport owners have suspended services until the highway is repaired to a motorable condition. Transport owners have also suspended service to a part of the highway serving northern Bangladesh. I won't be surprised if transport owners in other areas of the country follow suit.

The message that is ringing out loud and clear to the government is that negligence to maintenance of infrastructure (and our infrastructure is already inadequate to begin with) must stop and repair work must take priority. Is the government paying heed? Doesn't seem like it.

Our government is so ‘concerned’ about the big things - rewriting the Constitution, debating what to call the indigenous people of the country, sewing up tight corruption cases against top opposition leaders, harassing the one 'wrongly awarded' the Nobel prize… They seem to think they can, and should be, forgiven for viewing road maintenance and safety for the people as a low priority! Winning the next election at any cost is their life’s objective. If corruption has to run rampant in the party (and in the bodies that will help the party achieve its goal) then so be it. But I wonder if they have considered that at this rate, there might not be anyone left to vote for them come election time? And those who are left alive, might just say no to a party who has failed so spectacularly to ensure safety on the roads?

11 August, 2011

Rain Rain

The sky is overcast with clouds and the rain is ceaseless.

It is the Monsoon season in Bangladesh and the skies have well and truly opened up over the past few days. We get 80 percent of our annual rainfall during this season (the Bengali calendar months of Ashar and Srabon begin mid-June and end in mid-August) so this isn’t a surprise really.

We love the monsoon. It brings a welcome respite from the intolerable summer heat. It irrigates our crop fields and breathes new life into flora and fauna. This is the season which Bengali poets have written most about. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore is often called the ‘Monsoon Poet’. See how vividly he describes the rain:

Sullen clouds are gathering fast over the black fringe of the forest...
The crows with their dragged wings are silent on the tamarind branches, and the eastern bank of the riveris haunted by a deepening gloom…
The sky seems to ride fast upon the madly rushing rain; the water in the river is loud and impatient…
The road to the market is desolate; the lane to the river is slippery.
The wind is roaring and struggling among the bamboo branches like a wild beast tangled in a net.
(Rainy Day)

We have monsoon songs and monsoon dances. It is traditional to stage a “Borsha Boron” program - welcoming the monsoon.

With the advent of dark rain clouds, peacocks start their courtship rain-dance.

Children also have great fun in the rain.

As do dogs :-)

We have monsoon flowers (Kodom).

And monsoon food - fried hilsha and fried aubergine, served with khichuri.

Of course, on the other side of the beauty lurks the dark side of Monsoon.

Waterlogged roads.

Floods caused by overflowing rivers.


Heightened misery of slum-dwellers.

And as heavy showers continue to lash the towns and villages, waterborne diseases raise their ugly head, with children falling the easiest victims.

But despite the hardships, rain clouds touch a happy note in our hearts. Parents lovingly name their children after the rain (Brishti) and even the floods (Bonna). The beauty of rain is truly a sight to behold.

So I sing: Let it Rain. Let it Rain. Let it Rain.

(Most of the photos in this post are mine, but some I took from various sites on the internet.)

03 August, 2011

First Day of Ramadan

Yesterday was the first day of Ramadan in Bangladesh and I’d been cranky all day. First, I had to wake up at 4am to drink a glass of water (I don’t eat Sehri - the pre-sunrise meal, but my Mom absolutely insists that I have to take something), and then had trouble falling asleep. Second, my stomach doesn’t yet know it’s Ramadan and had been growling (sometimes embarrassingly loudly) since noon. Third, I’d been thinking all day about what I would eat for Iftar (the meal with which we break the fast) and berating myself simultaneously for having such un-Ramadan-like thoughts.

I stopped at a couple of restaurants on my way home and bought more food than we could possibly eat in one meal. My excuse (to myself) was that we were going to have a guest for Iftar. It was also convenient to pretend temporary amnesia - you see, I had instructed the cook to prepare a number of items before I left for work in the morning.

So, all in all, this is what the Iftar table carried:

Chilled lemonade (it looked great and tasted even better!!!)

Ajwa Dates - from the Prophet Muhammad’s ((PBUH) own gardens (we bought these from Saudi Arabia). A fasting body benefits from the date's high level of natural sugars. Dates are also high in vitamins A and B6, folic acid, and a number of minerals. Eating dates is like taking a daily dose of natural multivitamin.

Fresh cucumber slices - another thirst quencher. Cucumber has a high mineral content - ideal for a starving body.

Sliced Orange - the Vitamin C rush!

Chhola (cooked chick peas).

Piyaju (deep fried mashed lentil and onion patties).

Beguni (batter fried aubergines) - my favourite!

Muri (puffed rice) - an Iftar staple.

Mutton Haleem - meat cooked with a wheat/lentil mix.

Vegetable Khichuri (rice and moong dal with carrot and potato).

Grilled Chicken.

Crunchy Jalebis - deep friend flour and curd batter. They just melt in your mouth!

Mitha Tukda - bread slices in thickened milk with almond and pistachio.

and Birthday Pastry!!

Number of Iftar items: 14. Number of people eating this Iftar: 4.

Did I eat all that? Of course not!! But I really do need to practice not being so easily tempted - especially during Ramadan.