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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 40, September 25, 2010

Pathways to Bangladesh

Tuesday 28 September 2010, by Punam Pandey

Bangladesh depicts a story of two brothers who were sharing a passage and front area of the two houses; a dispute arose between the two families, and overnight a wall measuring 10 feet with gates emerged on the scene. But unlike the neighbourly wall, this wall is manned by security forces and a number of formalities follow before entering into the other’s territory.

With financial grant constraints, instead of taking airways, I had to undertake a bus route to reach Dhaka. The bus started at 1 pm from Kolkata. The co-passengers in the bus were reminding me of the old days’ village visit where people would carry cloth-made bags instead of the present-day modern carry bags. In fact, so many passengers could be seen in lungi (prevalent in many parts of South Asia, mainly used by men for wrapping the lower part of the body) with medical reports. I was in the second row; two people—one an old man and another a young person—were sitting in the first row seat.

When the bus reached Petrapole in West Bengal at 5 pm, I was astonished to see thousands of trucks lying fully loaded with materials. I came to know that these loaded trucks were waiting for customs’ clearance. There was a small shop in the corner where the Indian rupee can be exchanged into dollar or taka directly. Our passports were taken by a security guard and we had to get down. I came to know that we had to board another bus.

Then we proceeded towards customs’ clearance. Already it was past 5 and getting dark. There was an officer who was highly irritated with passengers and telling in Bengali that nobody would be allowed because the gate was going to be closed. My nerves went numb thinking where I would spend my night seeing the condition of the area all around. There were only four female passengers in the bus including me. Two females were in veil. One seemed to be completely indulgent of her husband.

Then I enquired from an elderly uncle who seemed to understand Hindi, English along with his native knowledge of Bengali. I enquired from the uncle as to what would happen if he did not allow us to cross the border. Being a regular traveller on this route, he discounted my fear and assured me that we would be crossing the border; anyway the gate-closing time was 6 pm. But the way the customs’ official was scolding the people in Bengali, I was wondering apart from two-three people like me, all of them were Bangladeshis and, according to Indian tradition, they were our guests, but instead of treating them as athithis, he was insulting them with harsh words. For the customs’ official, the travellers in the bus seemed to be beasts of burden to be treated savagely as per his mood and whim. I was horrified by his behaviour. In spite of being in my own country, I was not able to speak anything to them because of lack of knowledge of the local language. My Bengali is limited to an old Hindi film song which runs like this, what is called love in Bengali (Ami tomake bhalobashi). I was wondering whether I should celebrate the co-existence of diversity or feel irritated for not knowing the language.

Another important thing worth mentioning is that the moment I got down from the bus, the people were ready to carry the luggage; I assumed these people were from the other bus to transport our luggage. The guy who carried the luggage left it before the customs’ checking and asked for money. I had to pay him and from there another boy volunteered to carry luggage which consisted of only one air bag but a little heavy for me; he left the luggage exactly at the door of customs’ checking. Two people were allowed inside the checking area at one go. Everyone had to undergo the detailed check. When I went in, the angry officer called me. He asked me: “Why are you going to Dhaka, how many dollars do you have?” He also asked for the visa, and still unsatisfied asked me to show the luggage to him. By that time it was completely dark outside. Immediately after the Indian customs’ clearance, there was a gate which led to the Bangladeshi side. The uncle companion was waiting for me at the customs’ gate. I asked him why the customs’ officer asked me for dollars, luggage and other things. He said: because you were female and a student, he did not ask for money. Otherwise it is tough.

We had to enter though a gate opening into the Bangladesh office. A boy and I went together to the clerk who was checking the luggage and in another place visa checking was being done. I observed the boy was paying to the clerks at all the counters. I asked the boy: “Why are you giving money to all counters, he said that if we do not pay, they would manufacture problems either related to passport, visa or with your luggage. To avoid all these things, it is better to pay them. They ask for chai-pani.” I asked: “Why nobody complains?” “It is a cycle, people from top to bottom are involved, whom to complain,”

The office would lead to an open space. It was now pitch dark. People were roaming around. There was no organised system. I was astonished with the situation because technically being in a foreign territory, I did not feel the difference in the people and the language which I had just left across the border. When we entered the Bangladeshi side, the same kind of episode—people coming to hold your luggage and they would drop your luggage within five minutes and ask for money. This was repetition of the story on the Indian side.

THIS was my first visit outside India and I was not aware of the formalities required to be done. It was not clear where I had to go now. No proper light, only a few bulbs were lighting the area. The uncle companion really helped me to get all the formalities done. He had come to India for a Spanish visa interview because Bangladesh does not have a Spanish embassy. These people were working in a dim-lit area. The boy took me to an emigration counter where I had to deposit the passport along with others. The office resembled a roadside corner shop. After half-an-hour, I got my passport back. Signboards were written in Bengali. This was the emigration office.

Later when I met different people in Dhaka, I came to know the money-coaxing measures adopted by people across the border on a regular basis. While talking to some people, they revealed how people have to struggle for an Indian visa. People go with bricks to form a queue in front of the Indian High Commission at midnight. Clashes among visa seekers for breaking the queue is a normal phenomenon but sometimes it leads to violence. But there is a solution of this problem if you have money. You can pay 5000 takas and get a visa within two-to-three hours. Agents are roaming around for visa work. It is surprising when an agent can get a visa for somebody going to India within hours, why is a humble being going to India mainly for medical purpose not able to get it? Somebody quipped: there is connivance among or between agents and the officials issuing visas; otherwise how can some people get visa for other people?

The boy told me that first we have to go in a small vehicle to catch the bus at a particular place, from there we have to catch a big bus. We got into the bus. The uncle showed me the place where the killing of Bangladeshi people takes place on a regular basis. Our bus moved through a dark forested area. When I got up suddenly I found myself alone along with a few passengers. Having got a window seat, I just looked down because sounds were coming from there. I saw people standing there. We were in the middle of water. Later I came to know that this was a ferry service because no connection between two rivers was available. The bus was running on a streamer. That was unique and gave a thrilling experience. Our bus reached Dhaka bus stand around 2 am, according to Dhaka time. I spent the rest of the night in the waiting room of the bus stand, not bothering local host at an unearthly hour.

When I visited the Dhaka University I was surprised to see the students, both boys and girls, talking, moving about freely with each other. A very different scene from what one generally associates with a proclaimed Islamic society. Except for a few-veil clad women, other girls were in normal salwar-kurta attire. I asked someone in the faculty as to how much percentage of population consisted of Hindus; he said eight or ten per cent. I expressed my surprise to him. Then I said considering that, you have lots of Hindu female teachers and students. He asked: “How did you come to know about that?” I said I saw so many girls and teachers wearing bindi. He explained that in Bangladesh bindi does not signify a religious symbol. Here everybody puts on bindi irrespective of religion. This open culture, unlike any other Muslim society, is worth noticing.

Being a vegetarian and staying in Dhaka is a tough challenge. When I was discussing my food issue with somebody in Dhaka, I said I was not able to eat anything substantive because of my being a vegetarian. He said that there were so many vegetarian restaurants where vegetarian food is available. Then I said that here everything was written in Bengali; how could you expect a non-Bengali person to understand the writing. He explained that “our nation has been established out of language nationalism”. I said that is alright, “you should have big headings in Bengali to show your nationalism but in small letters you should write in English. Otherwise it shows that you are not welcoming people from outside whereas in the present-day globalised world, everybody is moving everywhere.” He nodded in agreement but pointed out that “everything is politicised here”.

I happened to visit the home of one of Dhaka University’s Professors. I was surprised to see that his sister and wife were watching Hindi-television serials. I came to know that Hindi movies, serials and songs are so popular that fundamentalists are against these serials because deity worships showed in the serials were not good for the country. He explained further that no government would dare ban these Hindi channels because if they do so, they would become highly unpopular. They were talking about the Indian serials about which I was not even aware.

The Professor was explaining the extent of influence the Hindi films had on the Bangladeshi society: during the Id period, the mashakali—which an Indian Bollywood actress had worn in Dilli-6—was so popular that a school teacher’s daughter demanded the dress. He said that half his salary went in buying the dress. Unfortunately the shopkeepers thrive on people’s sentiments by charging exorbitant money this way. With hundred per cent duty, the simple pen that costs Rs 5 here, costs 16 takas in Dhaka.

One can sense the palpable feeling of dissatis-faction among students for not getting a good grounding in English because they think that’s why they are cut off from the rest of the world. Because of this only private universities, having collaborations with foreign universities, are present in large numbers. Though these private universities charge fifteen times more than the fees in Dhaka University, the middle class people prefer to send their children to these universities rather than the government universities.

Like parks in our cities, Dhaka has a large number of water bodies like lakes. Unfortunately these lakes are being filled up in most of the places. New multi-storied buildings are being constructed. Unlike India you will see only big cars and SUVs. I was amused with this kind of paradox. With climate change Bangladesh is one of the countries to be affected badly, but instead of making efforts to reduce the pollution level, everyday new big vehicles are being added on the roads. Somebody commented: “Here people do not like small Indian cars. They prefer Toyota, Ford etc.” These cost on an average 22 lakh takas.
Though poverty is visible in and around Dhaka, there is an island of prosperity in areas like Gulshan. Here only big bungalows and apartments have been built to house the elite of the society. The other distinction of Dhaka is that it is a city of non-governmental organisations. Many offices of non-government organisations are situated in these areas. These areas show the wealth of the upper class people but the moment you step out of the posh areas, rickshaws, big vehicles, bicycle, buses, number of CNGs (autos are called CNGs), taxis are jostling with each other without any regard to traffic rules and regulations for a space on the narrow road. I asked a Vice-Chancellor, I think in Bangladesh there are two kinds of people—rich and poor. He replied: “No, there are middle-class people but their life is a constant struggle.”

Not having a very smooth bus journey I decided to take the airway during my return journey. It took fifteen minutes to get inside the airport because no guard present at the airport was able to understand this simple question: from which gate would one enter to get into the flight from Dhaka to Kolkata. In the end, one gentleman, who happened be catching the same flight, helped me to get there. There was a lady security staff who asked me: “Do you have dollars?” I had learnt from my earlier experience; so I replied: “No, I do not have any money left.” Since in the course of conducting interviews, I had to visit many people’s houses from Foreign Ministers, Members of Parliament to Professors, I found some similarity. One thing which is common on both sides of the border is feudal human relationship with domestic helpers. There is common behaviour on this score.

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