Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bangladesh #1

Having grown up in Kolkata, I didn't realise that the North American bubble was so successful in engulfing me during the past 9 years, until I got to Dhaka. From the very moment I stepped out of that plane, I've been able to feel my affluence sticking to me everywhere. From my polished nails, to my skin, my hair, my clothes (even if its just jeans, and a cotton shirt 'Im wearing) I can't help but know I'm different, and that everyone is staring at me. Its not just the leers from men, but it's also in the longing of a beggars eyes, in the wonder of a child's face and in the envy spurted at me from a 20 year old girl.

Most of all I'm having the toughest time dealing with the hundreds of beggars thronging the streets. We sit in an AC Car stuck at a light or in traffic, maybe it's the way the two of us look together, and beggars stick around our car much longer than they do others. As much as I would love to reach into my purse and take a 100 taka bill and give to the beggar, I know the reality. That the child in her arms is most probably rented, and that the money she is going to take from me will probably go to her handler. I also know that if I give anything our car will be surrounded by all the beggars in ou immediate vicinity, and we will not be able to get anywhere. My heart hurts, and I can't even lift my head to look into their eyes, because for some reason I'm ashamed of that sticky affluence. Then there are the ones who try to make a living - stuck in that endless cycle of going nowhere. They sell bags of popcorn, little toys, cotton candy, as they maneuver around the horrifying traffic and congestion during rush hour (which basically lasts from 8 am to 10 pm). Yesterday, while we were stuck in traffic at about 7 pm, a little boy, who couldn't have been older than 10, came up to our car, and started wiping it. He worked around the car like a friend looked at me and said, "Guess how much hes expecting? 2 Taka." Thats the equivalent of about 3.3. cents. After having done 10 minutes of hard manual labour, he came to the window, fully expecting us to say, "Why did you wipe the car, did I ask you to?" We handed him a 10 Taka bill, about 15 cents, the boy looked at us, and flashed us the most innocent, touching, brilliant smile that I have ever seen in my life...and it broke my heart. We drove away as I was sobbing because he must have a story - I'll never know his - I really cant help him.

In spite of all this, there's dignity in their labour. I look at the richshaw wallahs, the peanut sellers, the fruit sellers, the cobblers on the least they are working, they arent begging for handouts. And you can see it in their eyes. When they look at a beggar, when they achieve the small triumphs in life, their eyes are bright, and their heads are held high...and I even feel guilty for feeling sorry for them. Because I'm sure they wouldnt want me to.

I've become a Westerner. As much as I would like to think Im not - I am a Westerner. I may speak the language, and I can try as hard as I can to blend in, but at the end of the day I'm not one of them...and the sticky affluence sticks to me with all its might.

Then theres the other side of Dhaka, the rich side. In the last three days, We have eaten in at least 3 restaurants, where 99% of the population could never dream of eating. These restarants are never at full capacity, but there is no dearth of them anywhere. They even have a Baton Rouge here! Yes, it's the real Baton Rouge chain. There's a Movenpick - which only sells desserts, a KFC (which is neither fast nor cheap), and there's loads of Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese restaurants everywhere! Even Bengali food is served in shiny, glossy upscale restaurants...

But, these places employ a number of people, as cooks, waiters, bearers, cleaners, sweepers....and keeps an entire side of the economy flowing with money.

There might be an election soon. The caretaker government just banned all demostrations and campaigning until the 3rd of Dec, which means Im gonna be missing a lot of the action. A group of Jamat -e- Islami supporters (thats the political party which is made of Islamnic fundamentalists, according to the people here) were beaten up severely by the cops yesterday, I think.

On the other hand, theres another movement taking place. Last month, the 13th of October, a group of Islamic Fundamentalists tore down statues of baul (folk) singers that were installed, somwhere in Dhaka. That was a part of the anti-arts and culture movement spearheaded by groups of Islamic fundamentalists across the country. Since then Artists, specially from the city of Dhaka have created a group called, "society of conscious artists" and they are staging all sorts of demos. I dont think one has taken place yet since I've gotten here. In the meantime there was a one page ad taken out by a group of fundamentalists issuing a fatwa against the writer of a play on environmental issues. 50,000 taka offered to the person who can kill this man: less than $1000 for the price of a head!

My research is plugging along, in the middle of all this. Many appointments, many leads and many places to go. Today I might be meeting with Dr. Karunamoy Goswami, apparently the go to guy in Bangladesh on Nazrul. Looking forward to what kind of help he can give me.

Alright, I have an appointment in an hour...will write back soon.