August 28, 2006

Amar Shonar Bangla

Where I dig into my archives and repost stuff I like. This one’s from August 2006, when I’d spent some time in both sides of Bengal.

Nine in the morning, every morning — a chef in Sirajgonj district’s “only acceptable hotel”, the Hotel Anik (Residential), cooks me a breakfast of two parathas and two eggs. My decision to omit a dish of “vegetable” (pronounced “va-gee-tay-ble”) caused many eyebrows to be raised, when it was first heard, as if you could even hear cooks and waiters alike exclaiming in Bengali: “What? No vageetayble? Is she mad?” It’s one of those cultural idiosyncrasies, when it comes to food — waiters puzzle at how we can possibly eat roti or naan with only tandoori chicken (bread and tandoori, both considered dry), without a gravy, and leaving out any component of the rice-vegetable-dal holy trinity is considered absurd. Until we foreigners came along with our ketchup and eggs (sunny side up) inside parathas or rotis, rolled up, trying to form a pita wrap. Even India, so used as she is to hosting a wide, mostly eccentric array of foreigners for decades, still noticeably struggles to figure out her guests. The bashful new kid, Bangladesh, at 35 years of age, naturally has even more issues on that count. Especially out here in rural Sirajgonj.

I looked forward to Bangladesh with the earnestness of a long time lover of all things Bengal. Bengali culture, poetry, their towering figureheads — I worshipped people like Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen; almost melted and died of shock and ecstasy the first time I heard Tagore recite the Gitanjali at his Nobel Prize reception. I sat in the cars of my ex-boyfriends, as a teenager, often suspecting I liked the classical Bengali music which emanated from their fathers’ CD collections in the car, more than they did. As a familiar lover of Bangladesh’s cultural cousin, Calcutta, I felt the need to get on The Other Side of West Bengal.

I knew Calcutta’s accents, her dingy streets, and felt at home in her local tea shops where three cups of tea and three biscuits cost me only seven rupees every morning. I knew Calcutta’s history, her public infamy and private fame; I knew how she woke up and went to sleep. My SIM card was considered by the telco to be in its “home circle” whenever in West Bengal, be it Calcutta or Darjeeling, even in the states of Sikkim and even Assam; her street food comforted me, as easily as a cup of fresh misti doi did at the end of every meal. It is in Calcutta where I land, pick out the exact change for a prepaid taxi (Rs 210) then head for the hotel that is my home every time I’m there, change, freshen up, and go out and see friends. The staff at the Blue Sky Cafe whoop and rush up to shake my hand the moment I walk through the door, leaving the French volunteers’ pancakes to become cold. I wolf down a quick breakfast, then go to look for Sanju and her children, spending my next few hours sitting down on a pavement sharing a cup of tea with the family. Not entirely a scenario that is difficult to imagine, until you find out that Sanju is a beggar that lives outside my hotel, but who has never asked me for money. I connect with her for reasons I cannot explain, other than how she is 21, as young as I am, has two young children, and has the look of a fighting woman, the sort I look up to. If cities and countries are languages, Calcutta is the one I have learned well, the one where I have begun to imitate her inflections of speech and colloquial habits.

Dhaka was a shock, coming from Calcutta. Bangladeshi roads were smoother. The city even seemed cleaner. The air did not have as much pollution — an index I know from how the contents inside my nose at the end of every day were not as dark as they are in Calcutta. Everyone smiled, or stared. But there wasn’t time for Dhaka, we had to be shipped off to Sirajgonj, one of Bangladesh’s 64 administrative districts, two hours away. Sirajgonj was a dusty town not unlike the other dusty towns in developing Asia, the ones I spend so much time traipsing around. Only the very old or the very young could be found here; only the enterprises of family, and family business; no venues of extravagant leisure or recreation, no places for the young to mingle and socialize, for the opposite sex are not to mingle so freely. Cycle rickshaws happily stopped, even with passengers in tow, to stare indiscriminately at my foreign face — the passengers don’t mind, they want to stare too, a practice I attribute to how television channels in developing countries have not yet exposed their viewers to the Global Village.

It’s never easy to be a foreigner anywhere. To be a foreigner in a place with no tourist or business appeal, no culinary highlights or natural beauty, a place such as Sirajgonj, was simply to court attention with a capital A. For six nights we hid in the Hotel Anik, tired of stares, tired of the attention. It was to be in any village, trying to escape the mob by sliding off for a fag in a quiet corner, then looking up to find 200 or more people staring at you having a fag. Conditions did not improve even as we moved from one part of Sirajgonj to another, then through Bogra, Rangpur, Syedpur, Nilphamari. The same things happened with such uniformity: everywhere, people stared, hung around. One evening, after what seemed like our millionth village mob, done with work and done with shouting over 10 heads at a time trying to get answers from interviewees, my escape plan backfired dramatically. I had tried for a stealthy exit but before I could take my second step out of the village compounds about a hundred and fifty adults children had gathered to give me a memorable send off — children surrounded me, running alongside and behind me, whooping as I indulged them by letting my camera and camera flash go off in their general direction. Young disabled children hobbled around on their wooden twigs pretending to be walking aids, running much faster than I could have on two feet. My British colleague, still scarred by his country’s poor showing at the World Cup, decided that if the Union Jack could not be raised at Germany this year, he would at least try to make her name resound through the country of Bangladesh, and led the chorus of children in chanting “England, England”, even if they did not know what it meant. To them we must have appeared a duo of whacky looking characters out of a movie, who for no particular reason, decided to appear in their village to teach them a chant about England.

As “England, England” resounded through the village of Rudapur, I drifted away. My phone rang and a familiar voice I had loved said, “You’ve probably been to more parts of Bangladesh than I have babe, welcome home.” My head was bursting to say, “Oh? Apnar gram naam ki?” (What is the name of your village?) yet I had to remind myself I was here, sitting at 1.30 in the morning having a bowl of century egg porridge at Crystal Jade — a sign that I was “home”. Not long before that I was sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Anik, bottle of contraband Indian whisky in hand, and together we sang a song. “Sometimes… I look into your eyes, I swear I can see your soul…”

Sirajgonj, the district that loved to stare, left me alone for the first time, or so I thought. A family standing on the roof of the building across from me caught wind of two mad foreigners singing James and Radiohead anthems on their rooftops. It was that evening that I learned to wave madly before they did, and returned the stare for the first time.