Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In Search of the Bhutti Cow

I first heard of the Bhutti cow two years ago from a bicycle store owner in Bongshal, old Dhaka. He said that this beautiful petite cow shows up occasionally at Eid cattle markets. I asked several other knowledgeble people - well, as knowledgeable as city people could be about cows, I suppose - but no one had heard of it. As this year's Eid drew near, the Bhutti cow stirred my imagination. Was it real? Or is the Bhutti a Kutti(*) myth?

One of my literary heroes, Peter Matthiessen, had scoured the Himalayas looking for the elusive snow leopard, while another hero, Redmond O'Hanlon, put himself in harm's way in African jungles looking for the elusive Mokele-mbembe dinosaur. If they could do it, surely I could brave the smelly mess in Gabtoli's Eid cattle market (the largest in the city) in search of the elusive Bhutti cow, no?

I set out, ready with camera to record my discoveries. The bus dropped me a kilometer away from the cattle market. Long before I saw the sign, I smelled the cattle stench. But the entrance was just as impressive:

...and it seemed the market extended for miles in all directions.

There were decorated cows...

...and hungry cows...

...and maybe some sneaky ones!

The bullshit potential was astounding...

...and you really did not want to get stuck at the wrong place.

Well, anyways... After lots of searching I did find a Bhutti cow. It was less than half the size of a "normal" bull.

Here is a close up:

So there you have it. What's my next adventure you ask? I am told that the "monkeys" in Lawachherra National Forest are, in reality, the only native ape species in the entire subcontinent. Sounds far-fetched, but I plan to check them out soon...

(*) Kutti - pronounced KooTTee - is the name given to people and culture of old Dhaka, specially their witty jokes.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eid Faces

Eid Mubarak everyone. Hope you have a good one! Here are some kids from the Bus Terminal today, ready for the holiday.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Kite-flying was an exciting winter ritual of my childhood. The crystalline sunny days were perfect for flying and fighting kites.

You fought another kite by letting the string of your kite slide along the string of another, high above the ground. As the kites moved to and fro, friction between the strings eventually tore one string. The detached kite glided to the earth on its own will, a crowd of cheering children chasing it for claiming when within reach.

The winner, meanwhile, continued to fly his kite until another challenged him to a duel.

What made one kite a winner over another? Maanja - the application of a thin but gritty paste over the length of the thread. Once dried, Maanja made the thread tougher and sharper, enabling it to rip another thread with a lesser Maanja. Expert kite-flyers had secret formulas for Maanja which included crushed glass and sand. Today's kids also use shirish (resin?) and ground tapioca, but sand has fallen out of favor. (Come to think of it, sand always yielded a lousy Maanja, but we had few alternatives.) Use of color was not so prevalent in my childhood as it is today.

Kites have been driven out from the center of congested, claustrophobic Dhaka, but step just a little outside, and you will find the ritual in full swing. I caught this kid on the edge of the city, purple Maanja still wet, going for the maiden flight.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bangladesh and Vietnam

I just finished reading Andrew X. Pham's book Catfish and Mandala. When he was ten, Pham and his family escaped from Communist Vietnam two years after the Fall of Saigon, subsequently settling in the US. This book is about a bicycle trip through Vietnam that Pham made after reaching adulthood.

In Vietnam, the author has a wide range of adventures as he bicycles his way up the country. I was startled by the similarity between what he reports and life in Bangladesh. Some examples:

Arrival: As his flight approaches Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese passengers behave just like Bangladeshis do when their flight approaches Dhaka. They grab their overhead luggages, scurry up the aisle into seats closer to the exit and, as a group, stand up as soon as the plane lands and taxis. The flight attendants shout and scream at them to sit and fasten seat belts. Hmmm. Doesn't this happen on every international flight into Dhaka?

Line in airport: Everyone tries to go over everyone else in the immigration queue at HCMC. We are a little better, but I still see people at ZIA jumping queues shamelessly.

Traffic: In HCMC "Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly towards his destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble." Sounds suspiciously like many Dhaka intersections.

Buffering: A technique I use while bicycling in Dhaka traffic - when crossing dangerous intersections always try to go parallel with a car/bicycle/person, keeping them closer to oncoming traffic. Pham describes a similar technique used by motorcycles in HCMC.

Pham describes strings of villages that resemble our villages very closely. "The countryside opens up with an endless patchwork of four- or five-acre farms, the houses hidden among the willowy trees and banana palms.."

And the children: "Mile after mile, children sprout out of the land like weeds. They tag each other town the road to school, sit and play cards right at the edge of the blacktop, paying no mind to the buses roaring by and d spraying them with dirt."

There are of course dissimilarities. The Vietnamese drink much alcohol, becoming rowdy and obnoxious (and turning red). More importantly, they call the overseas Vietnamese Viet Kieu and usually treat them with a mixture of contempt and greed. Compared to this, Bangladeshis treat NRBs much better. The Vietnamese carry deep scars from the war, which may contribute to their treatment of Viet Kieu. They try to cheat the author many times, including overcharging him for hotel rooms, food, even medicines when he is sick.

It is not clear what year Pham went on his trip. It was sometime between 1991 and 1999 - I am guessing 95 or 96.

The book is really more about Andrew Pham than about Vietnam. It moves fast and is chockfull of anecdotes and stories from the road, as well as painful family history. I have to say, though, the book paints an unflattering portrait of Vietnam and her people. I imagine things have improved a lot in the intervening years, because today's travellers to Vietnam (including several Bangladeshis I know) sing her praises. Could it be that in ten years, Bangladesh will be where Vietnam is today?

Monday, November 26, 2007

What Will These People Do?

In the days after Sidr, as it became clear that the loss of life, while great, was smaller than previous natural disasters of this proportion, there were two schools of thought that I heard. They went like this:

a) Most of the survivors are as good as dead because they have lost everything needed to make a living. Their lives are always hanging by a fine thread. Ownership of a cow, couple of goats, and a roof over their head, plus some means of livelihood - eg, a chicken farm, or a shrimp farm - these things took them so long to acquire that it would be impossible for them to recover from these losses.

b) The people living down south are always prepared for disasters and are very resilient. Therefore, they are down but will recover. It could have been a lot worse had it struck during high tide.

Who knows what the truth is? I don't. I can't even begin to imagine the misery, despair, pain they are going through.

I just talked with a friend who spent four days in Sidr-struck places. This is someone who gets around, and has seen a lot of Bangladesh. He said that his perspective on our poverty has completely changed. He can't fathom how the poor people he saw can ever pull out of it - whereas even a month ago he was very optimistic about the future.

One of the questions he can't find an answer to: what will happen to survivors who get going and then - because of changing world climate - another Sidr or two strikes next year? Then what?

I also hear that right now the US helicopters are the best bet to prevent the survivors from starving to death. Those who survived the last eleven days, that is.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Upstairs, Ujan Bhati Goes Upscale

Ujan Bhati is a restaurant/rest-stop in Ashuganj on the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, just to the east of the Meghna. It is a landmark on this highway because all buses stop here.

Until recently it was a low-profile, low-cost place that did its job: restrooms which stank but worked and a cavernous dining room where the waiters get you food in 5 minutes so you can be on your way in a hurry. And they made a great cup of tea.

I visited after a two-month hiatus and had my cup of tea at my usual spot in the back of the dining cavern. Then I wandered upstairs (where they had been doing construction for as long back as I could remember) for a view of the surrounds. I was pleasantly surprised to find an upscale restaurant there. It had opened on Eid day (Oct 15).

The dining room was air-conditioned and decorated with fashionable chairs and cool lighting. The restrooms had good fittings, did not stink at all, and even had Savlon hand-soap dispensers (needed some paper towels or a hand-dryer.)

The menu had all kinds of food: Bangladeshi, noodles, Indian, and a special fast-food section with burgers, rolls etc. All were priced around TK 100-200, with the Fried Pomfret topping out at Tk 360. When I asked if all the items were available to order, they said they were still working out the kinks, so about half the items were available.

On my way back, I took my tea upstairs, and it cost me Tk 15 instead of the Tk 10 it cost downstairs.

(BTW, their tea is good because they make it with fresh milk which has been boiled and thickened. The thickened cream (shor) is part of the tea. Those familiar with Kashmiri Tea of old Dhaka will recognize a distant cousin ;-) )

Here are three pictures. The new Upscale Ujan Bhati (or Ujan Bhati Upstairs?) is a nice addition for people travelling inside Bangladesh. I hope they are successful.

Stairs leading to the restaurant.

Entrance to the upstairs restaurant.

View of the dining room, around 5pm. I sure hope they get more customers than this during mealtime.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Color or B/W?

Some days ago I argued with a photographer friend. I was saying that when you take pictures in black-and-white, you see differently (that means, look for different things to fill the frame) than when you take pictures in color. He insisted that it did not matter, you should just take the picture, and you can just as easily take a good b/w picture of the same scene as you can take a color picture.

Since I had spent many years shooting pictures in b/w before switching to color, this gave me food for thought. So I took a couple of color pictures and converted to b/w.

What do you think? Which ones work better?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Conversations in the Bus

Me: Does this bus go to Sadarghat?
Conductor: Get in, get in, sir! And you over there sir, get in! And you back there, too. Emptybus, emptybus! Everyone can have a seat. Get in get in!

Conductor to old woman: Can I have your fare?
Old woman offers 2 Taka.
Conductor: Where are you going?
Woman: Gulistan
Conductor: That's 4 taka from here.
Woman: No, it is 2 Taka. You did not even stop at the right place. I
had to run to catch the bus.
Conductor: 4 Taka please.
Woman, after a pause: I don't have it.
Conductor, incredulous: You don't have it?
Woman: No, I don't.
Conductor: Oh, why didn't you say so in the first place instead of all your big talk. You could have just said you don't have any more money.
Leaves the woman alone after the insult.
Conductor: Your fare!
Man reading newspaper: Why are you yelling?
Conductor: I have been asking - where is the fare?
Man: Hey, don't you know how to behave? Why can't you ask politely?
Conductor: I have asked many times - your fare.
Man: Here! And don't bother me again.
A man gets in, but all the seats are taken. A nine-year-old boy is
sitting next to his Dad.

Man: Hey, you told me there were seats when I got on!
Conductor (looking around): Hey you, Uncle, your boy is on a child ticket. Pick him up on your lap, he can't take up a full seat.
Dad picks up boy and puts him on lap, somehow. New man takes boy's seat. Life goes on.
A woman and a man are sharing a double seat. Man gets up to exit. Another man tries to take the seat. But woman keeps the empty and yells, "Chachi! (Auntie!)" She saves the seat while her Auntie comes from the front of the bus.
Man looking to sit down considers wringing her neck but thinks the better of it, mutters and looks out the window.
Man: You know, I love to come on this bus.
Me, surprised: Why?
Man: Because I used to live here (near Malibagh-Bonosri) when it just started developing - lots of memories.
Me: Oh. So you are on the bus on a pleasure trip of sorts...
Man: No, I have to go to the bank. I kept an account open in this branch near my old house, so that every once in a while I am forced to come here to the bank. I love this place so much, but if there were no business I would never come here all the way from Tongi!
Passenger gets a call on the mobile: Hello
Passenger (energized): Slamalaikum sir, yes, I am on my way, you did ask me to come at 9am right? (it is 9:15).
Passenger: I am just crossing Gulistan on the bus - will be in Sadarghat in just a few more minutes. Yes, yes, no problem sir. You don't worry about it at all.
(Bus was nowhere near Gulistan - quite a bit behind).
Passenger hangs up, having contained that fire.
Bus stops at Bahadur Shah Park. Still a kilometer away from Sadarghat.
I suddenly notice everyone has de-bussed except me, and the conductor is beckoning to me.
Me: You said this bus goes to Sadarghat.
Conductor: Yes, sir, and we are here.
Me: This is quite a distance from Sadarghat.
Conductor: Sir, all the buses to Sadarghat actually stop here. See, all those buses turning aroung the Park?
I see that indeed, there are two Sadarghats in Dhaka: the bus Sadarghat which is a kilometer away from the Launch Sadarghat. Argh!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Kids with Guns

The photographer William Klein has a great photo of kids playing with guns. It is a vivacious picture, and Roland Barthes comments on it in Camera Lucida.

I always think of Klein whenever I see kids playing with guns. But it is a stumbling block, because he has done it so well. Is it worth for me to even try?

Well, I ran into some kids playing with guns at a festival and couldn't resist...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Discovering Chekhov

Years ago, I read a searing Bangla story which went like this: a newly married young man lives and works in the city to make ends meet while his wife and extended family live in the village home. During a holiday, he takes the train to the village, where he gets all of one day to spend with his family. Even though the young couple desperately want to spend time with each other, in the end the husband's holiday gets consumed by everyone else - parents, uncles, aunts, nieces, neighbors - and he gets not one free minute with his wife before it is time to leave.

This story plays itself over and over in my head when I read the short stories of Chekhov. His tales of everyday life in Russia, specially that of the downtrodden and the underprivileged whose destinies are bound tight by the ropes of fate, resonate with startling details and observations. There is beauty in the poetry of everyday existence, however miserable that existence may be.

I have discovered Chekhov's works thanks to Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. I should say re-discovered, because I read Chekhov in college and even as late as last year without perhaps fully appreciating his depth. You have to know what to look for, and Prose helps. If you are expecting stories with surprise ending a la Saki, Maupassant or O'Henry, you will be disappointed.

Chekhov's characters fight battles on many fronts: material needs, social mores, demands of the job and family, and the cruel Russian winters. They rarely emerge as heroes in the conventional sense. People live "small lives", not "big lives" as in Hemingway or Maugham. As Prose points out, the stories follow no particular pattern. If you set down one rule a writer should follow, Chekhov breaks it in the next story you read. Yet his genius is that his stories work so well.

For example, in the story The Heartache a poor coachman, all alone in the city, cannot get anyone to listen to the story of his sorrow - at having lost his only son. At Chekhov's hands, the story is neither sentimental nor maudlin, but strong with its human touch. How many times have I heard a similar story in Dhaka, where a man has to work, leaving his family in the village, and suddenly a close relative, maybe a child, dies? Does anyone even have the time to listen to his story?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Homeward Bound

Kids leaving Dhaka by bus, headed for their village homes to celebrate Eid or Puja holidays. Mohakhali Bus Terminal, Oct 10 and 12, 2007.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

(Not so Obscure) Objects of Desire

Shopping for Eid and Puja?

There are kiddie shoes...

...and big people's shoes...

Smart looking hats...

... and cool blue jeans...

...with the belts to hold them up!

Pretty ornaments for the neck... for the ears...

...and religious trinkets for the soul.

Beautiful dresses - some ready for a party...

... while others hanging lonely for a buyer...

...yet others looking downright sultry.

But toothbrushes? We don't need to steenkin' toothbrushes!

Wishing you and yours a very Happy Eid and Durga Puja.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Something in the Air

Goodness, the days of these went very quickly...

...and this day is almost upon us :-)

Eid Mubarak everyone!

Transparency International Comments

Recently my school friend Ali Ashfaq raised some interesting questions about how TI has ranked Bangladesh. Here is his letter in its entirety (published in The Daily Star on Oct 7).

TI rankings

Kudos to Transparency International (TI) for its efforts and success in bringing the adverse affects of corruption to everyone’s attention! But why is there a lack of transparency in the reports of Transparency International? This year’s TI report Corruption Perceptions Index 2007 ranks 180 countries. All the headlines of news articles state that Bangladesh is ranked 7th this year. This means 6 countries are ranked worse than Bangladesh, right? Wrong! Actually 13 counties are ranked worse than Bangladesh, not 6! Any teacher of mathematics, or student of mathematics, or even non-mathematicians, knows that this means Bangladesh is ranked 14th, not 7th. So why does TI rank Bangladesh 7th instead of 14th?

Before we try to answer the above question, let us at first understand the calculations behind TI’s rankings. There are actually 6 scores worse than Bangladesh’s score of 2.0 - these are 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8 and 1.9. On this basis TI ranks Bangladesh 7th. Perhaps TI feels that if Bangladesh’s rank is shown as 14th instead of 7th then it will result in false optimism, leading to lack of effort in future to improve the score.

There are many arguments against TI’s rank calculations. In example 1, if Somalia drops from 1.4 to 1.3, TI’s calculation would move Bangladesh’s rank from 7th to 8th. Why should Bangladesh’s rank change if the number of countries worse than Bangladesh remains unchanged? In example 2, if Syria, Paraguay, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Cameron (all with current scores of 2.4) had actually scored 1.4, then TI’s calculation would have kept Bangladesh’s 7th rank unchanged. Shouldn’t Bangladesh’s rank improve if 5 countries with current scores above Bangladesh actually score below Bangladesh? One could go on and on exposing the fallacies in the logic of TI’s rank calculations.

I am not suggesting that we rank Bangladesh 14th instead of 7th so that we all feel better. Far from it! Bangladesh’s absolute score of 2.0 is nothing to feel complacent about. Any score below 3.0 suggests gross corruption is prevalent. We should target to score above 4.0 within 5 years and above 6.0 within 10 years. Why shouldn’t we rank 14th from the top in 15 years, instead of 14th from the bottom?

But let us call an apple an apple, instead of calling it an orange. If Bangladesh’s rank is 14th from the bottom this year, then let us recognise this instead of ranking Bangladesh 7th. I hope TI officials will read this letter and amend TI rank calculations in future.

Ali Ashfaq
Gulshan, Dhaka

Monday, October 08, 2007

A New Phone

After years of using very basic mobile phones, I have gotten my hands on a Java phone, the Nokia N73 (Music Edition.)

It has two cameras. Here is a grab shot with the main camera (3MP) taken through a window. And of course it does videos.

It has a FM receiver and headset so I can listen to local FM stations when stuck in traffic.

It has a clock that shows the time on several cities around the world.

Best of all, I downloaded an ebook reader, mobipocket, which runs on this phone. So I can download ebooks (there are lots of free older ones on and read them. Mobipocket has an adjustable font, so I don't have to squint. And get this, it has an autoscroll feature so I don't have to flip pages.

(BTW, if you try this, make sure to convert Gutenberg's text files into the ebook format by using mobicreator, a free program from the same site.)

And of course you can run any number of Java or Symbian applications on it for doing a lot of different things.

I signed up for GP's GPRS service to try it out. It costs Tk 1000/month for unlimited uploads and downloads. So I can check email, browse the web. It also supports various news feeds (something I have not explored.) For gmail, there is a separate client that one can download, so it is a lot faster than going through the browser.

Two things missing that I would really like: a) a way to adjust point size for all text; and b) some navigation capability. Also, the basic phone functions that were so easy on my old phone are a little more complicated (it asks you too many questions, and you have to keep on clicking.)

But a very nice toy overall.