Friday, September 29, 2006

30 Years

Here is a photograph taken in 1975, the first national-level Basketball team in Bangladesh. Yours truly (in the circle) the youngest of the lot. (I was just past SSC, everyone else in university.) Big guy in the front is Coach who came to train us from the Soviet Union (those were Basketball heydays for USSR - they had beaten the US in 1972 Munich Olympics.) Anyone recognize who is third from right in middle row? (A second "schoolkid" in the team, Dastagir, was absent on Photo Day.)

Here is another photograph 30 years later, in 2005. The group of friends in Silicon Valley who I played with for a few years. This time yours truly (in circle) the second oldest of the lot. And feeling emotional because these guys had helped ease me back into the game after a 25 year break, but now it was time for me to leave.

When the USSR was breaking up in the 80s I found myself often thinking about Coach. He was a decent and proud Russian. Surely it must have been hard for him to watch his country disintegrate and lose its place as Superpower.

Second Ramzan

This is our second Ramzan in Bangladesh. The fruitsellers and Iftar sellers and just about everybody else (except the bottled-water-suppliers to the offices) are doing brisk business. Everyone has gone on a slightly laid back pace. But the first few days are hard for many fasters, so sometimes tempers run high. The second day of Ramzan I was walking in the streets near Banani around noon, and noticed that people were a little less patient, and more prone to starting arguments or just being rude to each other. Or maybe it was my hunger playing with me!

I enjoy the Jamburas, Pomegranates and Aamra at Iftar, as well as Halim/Chhola/Peyaju of course. There are many elaborate Iftar items floating around. Fancy restaurants in Gulshan set up table-top iftar items that can be brought home at Iftar time. Perhaps I should check out old Dhaka at Iftar one day to see what they offer.

But I do miss those plump Medjool dates we got in the US. The dates here, which are imported, are not too good. Sort of a bland vanilla variety.

Long Live Siddiqua Kabir

Siddiqua Kabir's (no relation) "Ranna Khadyo Pushti" is a famous Bangladeshi cookbook. When we were living in the US, it provided us recipes for many standard Bangla dishes.

Funny - after we returned to Bangladesh, the book has enabled us to recreate many "foreign" dishes. This is a great help, particularly for our kids, who grew up with Western food.

For example. our children like pancakes for breakfast. Back in the US I used to make them buttermilk pancakes from a mix. But how to find the mix here in Bangladesh? No problem! Mrs. Kabir's book has a recipe for pancake using locally available ingredients. All you need are flour, egg, baking powder, salt, sugar, milk and oil. In 30 minutes or less you will have pancakes that taste as good or better than the ones in the States.

Her Chinese recipes have also turned out to be accessible and tasty.

So... if you are contemplating returning home from the West, and are worried about what your kids will eat, worry no more because Mrs. Kabir's book covers a lot of territory.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Estimates of fishermen lost in the Bay of Bengal in this week's sudden depression (was it really that sudden? Weather was also crappy the week before...) have ranged anywhere from several hundred to three or even four thousand.

Hundreds of fishing trawlers are lost.

These guys bring in the fish that feeds many people in Bangladesh.

How big are these trawlers? Do they have communication gear? Did anyone ever get any warning? Were they too far out to make it back on time?

A very sad story, indeed. Ok, so you can't fight weather, but can't more be done in the future to minimize risks to these brave souls? We see the Atlantic hurricanes being tracked for days and days. Are the BoB ones more sudden?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Books Here, Books There

After many attempts I finally started reorganizing my disorganized books today. While doing so I reflected on how my book habits have changed in the year I moved back to Dhaka.

The single most important change is this: back in the US, I relied on libraries for a large chunk of my reading matter. In Dhaka I am on my own.

So, if I want to read a book I don't own, I must buy it. English-book selection in Dhaka - while better than before - it still modest. I monitor the stores carefully, pouncing on new and interesting titles when they show up - assuming they are priced right.

Yes, English books are expensive here. Dropping USD 8 on a book in the US was not a big deal, but out here, spending Tk 500-600 on a book somehow does not feel right. Luckily there are breaks to be had. I picked up Ian McEwan's Saturday for Tk 325 (from Omni) and Amitabh Ghosh's Hungry Tide for Tk 450 from Aziz Super Market.

Ah, yes, Aziz Super Market. This is the new book mall in Dhaka. It is truly wonderful. And if there are not enough English books, the shortage is made up by the Bangla books of all kinds.

Another issue is protecting books that I already own. They require vigilant maintenance. For example, while reorganizing my books today, I purged a good many of
cockroach eggs, and ended up lining the shelves with roach-killer poison. Then I worried about the books getting poison on them, the story of the King and his Doctor playing in my mind.

Any travel outside the country presents an opportunity to acquire more books of my choice. Careful lists are written and re-written, often to be superseded by the books that I see on beguiling displays at the actual bookstore. Sometimes my "list" books are no good - Don DeLillo's Underworld was disappointing - while a displayed book - such as 1599, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare - turns out to be a treat.

Then there are books that I could have, should have bought while I was still in the US, but did not. But maybe that direction is best left unexplored.

More heartbreaking is when I look for a book I know I have but cannot find in my shelves. I lost it - or maybe even gave it away! - while in the US. Or perhaps they were lost in transit. A bundled edition of Updike's Rabbit novels, a 100-year retrospective essay collection on Paul Strand the photographer, along with Edward Said's Orientalism, are some that I search my shelves for in vain.

I have much to be grateful for, though. All my autographed books have survived, including those by Syed Mujtaba Ali and Ansel Adams. I had had the good sense to
pick up all of Garry Winogrand's exceedingly rare photo monographs. The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book of words and photos by Langston Hughes and Roy de Carava is a book I love much and turn to often. It was a lucky day that I decided to splurge on that one.

Finally, the entire world of Bangla books is now open to me. It is a joy to discover new talents as well as the works of older, established writers (well some of them anyways :-) ) And I have already started collecting autographed copies: the first two were Syed Manzurul Islam and Muhammad Zafar Iqbal.

So I ask myself, isn't it nice to come home, and proceed to complete the reorganization.

[King and Doctor story: many many years ago, a King had a trusted doctor who took very good care of the King. The King liked the Doctor which made others in the Court jealous. So they conspired and convinced the King that the Doctor was a Bad Guy. The King decided to behead the Doctor. The Doctor said, please grant me one last request. I want you to read a book that I will leave for you, but read it after you kill me. After Doctor is beheaded King sits down to read the book, finds pages sticking to each other. So he moistens his index finger by licking it and uses it to separate the pages. The book is the Doctor's life story. At the end it mentions the unjust beheading, and says that the Doctor got his revenge by lacing pages with poison which the King has by now ingested. As the King reads this in horror, the poison starts to act and he dies.]

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Taxi Driver

Sometimes I commute in a taxi or CNG and get into conversations with the drivers regarding their occupation. They rent the taxis from the owner on a daily basis and pay for all expenses of running the vehicle for the day.

Daily rental: CNG: Tk 600; small blue/black taxi: 800; yellow cab: 900-1050;
Gas (CNG) expenses: Tk 120-150
Daily take-home: Tk 200-500 (after paying daily rental, gas, food)
Biggest pain: 2-3 hour wait at CNG station to fill up
Biggest joy: a long "khep" - to Norsingdi, Bhulta, Tongi, Savar, etc (assuming they don't get caught by a cop for breaking the routing rules)
Busiest day: Friday, when a lot of people go "home" for weekend; others just go out
Slowest day: Saturday - no one wants to go anywhere
Rainy days: can't handle all the people who want a ride
Working hours: 7am to 10 or 11pm.
Working days: alternate days since they need rest after 16 hours of driving
Kms covered in average day: around 300

The masses prefer CNGs over the taxis because of ventilation and mobility/navigability. But on winter days taxis are more in demand, since the open sides of a CNG cannot protect the passengers from cold.

Why do so many drivers say "No" to passengers when their vehicle is empty? Most drivers claim it has to do with the destination. If the passenger wants to go to a location from where it is hard for the driver to find another fare, then they say No. (Hmm, next time I hear a No I might try offering twice the metered fare - that should work, right? The trouble is as soon as I hear that No I am so irritated that there is no way I want to talk to the guy or see his face again!)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Homegrown People Mover

In some villages near the intersection of Turag and Balu rivers, I saw these people movers. I was told that engines meant for pumping water for irrigation were modified and used for this purpose. They run on smaller roads where there are no buses and rickshaws are too slow; and there are no CNGs because of lack of CNG stations. The drivetrain and cabin are locally designed and made. Fares run Tk 5-8 for a 2-3km trip. They run on diesel. On a good trip they can carry 10-12 people.

I could see that this piece of local ingenuity was very useful for the village people. Even on Friday, I ran into dozens of them which were running full house.