Friday, July 21, 2006

Bara Katra, Chhota Katra (Photos)

Bara Katra is one of Dhaka's oldest buildings, built in 1644 by Mir Abdul Qasem. It was originally an enclosed quadrangle on the Buri Ganga, with a marvellous entrance/gate with four wings and 22 rooms. The remains include the entrance and the tower. In a sad an delapidated state, one needs to use one's imagination to visualize the grandeur that this place must have held.

Here is the front of the entrance:

and the rear:

The tower:

Back side of the edifice:

Underside of the archway with decorations:

Living quarters under the archway. The archway also contained a few stores.

Inside Bara Katra is a Madrasa now. A kind man showed me around. Interior views:

Stairs inside Bara Katra:

Chhota Katra was built by Shaista Khan in 1663. D'Oyly mentions it in his "Antiquities of Dhaka." It is similar to Bara Katra, but even less remains.

Entrance of Chhota Katra:

Inside Chhota Katra was an umbrella-making shop with these walls:

View from top of Chhota Katra looking to the river:

Having recently visited Italy and seen the amount of tourist revenue they must get out of old monuments, I am convinced that if we take steps to save/restore these monuments, our investment will be paid back many times. Why is it that we so easily let our irreplaceable buildings slide to destruction?

I got the historical facts from "Discover the Monuments of Bangladesh" by Dr. Nazimuddin Ahmed, published by UPL.

Friday Morning in Old Dhaka (Photos)

Feeling inspired by the adventures of Mr Islam and Ms Mustoe, I took advantage of Friday morning's light traffic to bike to old Dhaka and check out Bara Katra/Chhota Katra.

On the way I ran into this life-size sculpture on Shaheed Tajuddin Rd, made entirely from rickshaw/bicycle chains:

When I reached old Dhaka, the stores were all closed, including the famous Haji's Biriyani House on Alauddin Road. It has no signs, but twice a day people line up to buy the delicious biriyani cooked in mustard oil:

Life, however, went on. Friday luxuries included a visit to the barbershop...

...and getting the ears cleaned.

And don't forget shoes need polishing too:

A man in front of a closed store sold colorful children's clothes...

...And a girl was out wearing her "Friday best"

I had to share the road with all manners of vehicles!

The sky grew dark and in minutes there was a torrential downpour. I got shelter, but this rickshawallah did not get a break.

After the rain cleared, kids came out to play soccer on the wet street.

The fresh mud was no deterrant for a good tumble!

I went on to my destination. Details and photos in the next posting.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Math Olympiad

Starting in 2001, the nationwide Math Olympiad has increased young Bangladeshis' interest in mathematics and from a national craze we have gone international. Today the 47th International Math Olympiad ended in Slovenia. Bangladesh placed 80 out of 102 countries. So Bangladeshis are competing with the brightest from all over the world - thus learning to be globally competitive.

Team site is where you can see the contestants and sign a guest book if you choose.

Congratulations to the competitors for their effort, and to the organizers and sponsors for their dedication.

Bangladeshi and Other Bicyclists

Last weekend's ChhuTir Diney magazine (Prothom Alo) had a cover story on one Shahidul Islam, who bicycled from Tokyo to Dhaka. He started in Tokyo, crossed by sea to Korea, and after biking across, took a ship to China. From there he biked all the way to Vietnam, then Laos and Thailand. The Burmese stopped him from entering Myanmar, so he had to go back to Bangkok and fly to Dhaka. Quite an adventure! He covered 4000km from 26 March to 7 June. That averages to ~50km/day, but I'd bet his average on "biking days" was much higher, because it appears he took quite a few off days. Kudos to Mr. Islam on his accomplishment. He is quite an inspiration for us.

On a related note, I just finished reading "A Bike Ride" by Anne Mustoe, a 54-year-old British woman who bicycled around the world in 1988. The understatement of the title is reminiscent of another British traveller Eric Newby who called his hair raising adventure in Afghanistan "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush." Ms. Mustoe's book is engaging and inspiring - the charm lies in her plain and straightforward storytelling. She started Eastward from the UK, through France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Then she took a plane to California and biked across the US.

Her bicycle enabled Ms. Mustoe to mix with the locals - and indigenous ones at that - at a level that we in today's world of Hiltons and Sheratons are completely shut out of. There are stories of kindness and generosity from every country she visited. However, whenever there was a side-by-side comparison (eg, Turkey/Greece, Pakistan/India, Thailand/Malaysia), it appeared that people from Muslim countries charmed her more.

Too bad she jumped from Kolkata to Bangkok without bothering in Bangladesh, but back in 1988 she would have found it extremely difficult to find hotel-lodging in remote places in the country.

She has a great sense of humor, describing a harmonium as a "small keyboard with bellows" and baseball as "grown men in Victorian underwear playing rounders."

Oh, here is the amazing thing: even after 20000+km of cycling she still did not know how to fix a puncture. Go figure.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Gopal Bhaar and the Mobile Toilets

This article caught my attention today. It should be a big help for long-suffering denizens of Dhaka, although the number of toilets, 50, seems miniscule for 10 million people. Kudos to those who will make it happen.

But Tk.5 for defecating and Tk 2 for urinating? Reminds me of the old Gopal Bhaar story. Is someone going to be standing with a big stick to beat them up if they try to cheat?

Given our penchant for creating distinctions between people based on class, is there going to be a VVIP model, a VIP model and a Business and Economy model? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

And you know those signs on the back of cars here, things like, "Engaged in Important Export Duty", "Under Land Ministry", "Belongs to the Legal Counsel for the XX Minister", and the ubiquitous "Press"? Are we going to have similar signs for the potties? What will they say?

What would one advertise? Let's see... perfumes? lungis? Pepto-bismol? Or Ishobguler Bhushi?

Is there an exhaust-free CNG model in the works?

(Gopal Bhaar - the court jester for King Krishnachandra - story goes like this: one day a sentry arrived at Gopal's house and sat down to defecate on his lawn. Gopal ran out of the house and asked him to stop. The sentry said, "The King has ordered that I s**t on your lawn - so what can I do? Neither you nor I can disobey a king's direct order." Gopal asked him to wait a second, went inside the house and returned with a big stick. Then he positioned it like a baseball bat over the sentry. The sentry said "What are you doing?" Gopal said "The Kind only ordered you to s**t and said nothing about urinating. So if you urinate on my lawn while carrying out your assignment, I will kill you. Mutechho ki morechho." And so the sentry gave up and left. )

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Bangladeshis in Italy

Last month, a 20-year dream came true: we visited Italy. While it was an amazing lesson in history, I was also taken by surprise at the Bangladeshis in Italy.

I heard estimates of between 200,000 and 600,000 Bangladeshis in Italy.

I saw them in Rome, Florence and Venice (but not in Siena.) The ones I saw all had small to medium-size businesses. In Rome, they were selling handbags, sunglasses and tourist material on the streets. In Florence, we walked into a store selling "Indian-looking" things - "monohori dokan" - only to find the owner was a Bangladeshi who had a chain of these stores in the city.

In Venice, they were selling trinkets - like little puppets made from balloons - on the Accademia bridge and in San Marco Square. The seller told me these would not sell in Rome, but in Venice the tourists buy them.

They were incredibly kind and polite to us. The person in Florence - much to our protestations - fed us Cokes and ice cream, and sold things to us at large discounts. When it came to prices, they said "Pay us what you want - we are so happy to see a Bangladeshi tourist here." It was a kind of haggling in reverse. One street vendor in Rome, after selling a sunglass at 18 Euro to an European person, turned around and sold me a similar sunglass at 4.5 Euro. I wanted to pay him more, but, incredible as it seems, he would not take it. I think this covered his cost, barely.

At a mini-flea-market of Bangladeshi stalls at the Tiburtina station in Rome, I fell into a discussion of the business. It costs them 1000-2000 Euros a month to rent each stall. The work is very hard, and they live frugally. So they are able to save some money which they send home. One seller in Venice said he can save up to Euro 1000 a month, but only if a lot of conditions are met (eg, he has to sell an average of 50 euros' worth daily; his food expenses cannot exceed Euro 80/month, etc etc.)

I was inspired by their entrepreneurship and touched by their generosity and hope their dreams come true soon.

Here is a stall at the mini-flea-market outside Tiburtina:

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Birthday America

It's 4th of July, hope you are enjoying a sunny day outside, perhaps a picnic or a barbecue, finishing up with sweet watermelon and fireworks!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Anwar Choudhury on Mirror Talk Show Tomorrow

Just a quick note, my better half Sonia will interview the British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury on the Mirror Talk Show on Bangladeshi TV Channel I. At 6:20pm BDT, 1:20PM UK, and 5:20 am California.