Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Strange Day

I had some errands to run yesterday: get something professionally packed at Homebound in Tejgaon, pick up my camera from the repair shop at Purana Paltan, and get printer ink from Elephant Road.

At Homebound, they were polite and professional as always, and did the work thoroughly. Then off we (me and the driver in our car) went to Purana Paltan. Around 11am, the roads were not too jammed.

The camera was repaired (btw, an excellent feat by Mr. Bashar of Asia Camera). Two down one to go. Now it was off to Elephant Road. So we made our way through Segun Bagicha towards Ramna Park. That's when things started getting weird.

We were at the stop light in front of Fisheries ministry, waiting for at least 15 minutes while police directed perpendicular traffic (from Kakrail Mosque towards Foreign Minstry.) Directly across us, the road around Suhrawardy Udyan towards Shahbag was suspiciously empty. Hmmm. Maybe some VIP was coming? After our long wait, the policeman motioned us to turn right towards Kakrail Mosque. No, you cannot go straight. Drat, that means we would have to go in front of Sheraton and then turn into Elephant Road.

Off we went, smack into a nasty jam behind Sheraton. After 30 minutes, we had crawled past the hotel and turned right into VIP road. Another jam at the Shahbag traffic light.

A screaming ambulance came from behind and made the right turn into Elephant Road. It was then I noticed no one else was turning right. Most cars just seemed to be stuck. Some were trying to take a U turn. I beckoned a policeman in duty. "Aren't you allowing cars on Elephant Road?" "You won't be able to go, sir, the students are smashing all the cars there. Take a left here." Uh-oh, I realized that the troubles in DU had spilled over. Later I heard Nilkhet, Dhaka College areas were also affected.

While a lot of violence was going on in DU and surrounds in the morning, the rest of the city went about its business nonchalantly. No one mentioned anything. Not even the shopkeeper in Elephant Road whom I had called to check availability. So while I had been waiting - sometimes impatiently - to get through those jams, a lot of people had been getting hurt not a mile away.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Sudden Rain

I was out one sunny morning last week. This being rainy season, storm clouds gathered suddenly.

Soon it was pouring. The rickshaw-wallah found refuge quickly...

... and some others were prepared in the rainy season.

But others got caught ...

... and moms rushed babies to cover.

The watch repair shop closed early...

...but the umbrella repairman was doing brisk business.

Some wondered if it would ever end!

But it did end soon, and shopkeepers rolled up the market shutters.

Adults tried to save their sandals while walking in the mud...

...but of course kids had a different idea - both sandals and...

...clothes were fair game!

These two girls celebrated with a sprint.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My Photo Gallery

Has been up and running for about a month - here. Please take a look and, if you have a minute, let me know what you think. Many thanks.

Literary Pranks

Recently a story in the Guardian caught my attention. Someone had submitted for publication Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - almost verbatim, with minor changes - to 18 distinguished publishers in the UK, and it was turned down. Only one had actually recognized the famous first sentence, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Oh well.

This kind of prank is quite common. Mahmud Rahman told me that there was a prank in Australia recently. I Googled: someone had submitted a chapter of a famous novel by famous Australian author Patrick White - under the anagramic pseudonym Wraith Picket - to twelve publishers. Ten rejected it and two did not reply.

My friend Alvis adds another twist: years ago, a well-established Barbara Cartland took up a friend's challenge that her new novel would be rejected by her own publisher if submitted incognito. Her publisher did as the friend had predicted. Cartland then independently printed it anyways to prove that it would sell and it was a big flop.

Perhaps the mother of all literary pranks is from our own Rabindranath Tagore, who, at 16, wrote a series of poems in the style of Vaishnava Padabali (old Bengali poems from 14th-16th century) under the pseudonym Bhanusingha. He acted as if he had discovered these poems by Bhanusingha when researching in a library, and people took them seriously enough that one (Indian) PhD student at a German university used them as a reference in his thesis (and was awarded his doctorate.) The 16-year-old poet gave us the classic songs "Shaono Gaganey Ghoro Ghanaghata" and "Maranare Tuhu Momo Shyamo Saman" in the guise of Bhanusingha.

It turns out Tagore himself was impressed by another prank by the 18th-c English poet Chatterton, who had passed off his own poetry as that of a 15th century monk. This may have inspired him, as I am sure the (real) Vaishnava poets, such as Vidyapati and Jaidev, also did. (But unfortunately I cannot remember anything by the real Vaishnavites, although I remember a good deal of Bhanusingha's stuff!)

Chatterton got into a lot of trouble for his prank. Tagore did not. Today if you are an aspiring novelist and pull one off, who knows, you might get those fifteen minutes of fame needed to attract the real attention of a serious publisher (or is that serious attention of a real publisher?) :-)

Monday, August 06, 2007

"Oh Yeah, I Read That Book!"

I was talking about flooding with my friend M when he mentioned that the Jamuna had gotten a lot bigger after the big earthquake of 1871(?). "Huh?" I said, puzzled. "Yes, a novel I am reading is partly set around the Jamuna and it mentions this. It's called ChilekoThar Shepai."

"Oh yeah, I read that book!" I recognized it instantly. "But wait a second, isn't it set in old Dhaka during the Shongram?"

"It is set in both old Dhaka and the Chars."

Whoops. I had read it twelve years ago. It was a hard read. I remember that it portrayed the life of the Dhaka subaltern very well. But I had completely forgotten about the char part of the book.

So, while I keep racking up the "Books I Have Read" list, the "Books My Memory Has Undone" also keeps growing, ready to embarrass me at the right moment :-)

BTW, looking through ChilekoThar Shepai, I find it a lot easier to follow the dialog now than I did 12 years ago living in the US.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bus Nomenclature

During my recent Dhaka-Sylhet trip, I paid attention to the busses (well, if you are going on any highway in Bangladesh, you have no choice, because, by their aggressive driving, busses make sure you pay attention to them.) But cussing them gets boring after a while, so I started reading their names. Soon I had a list.

For some, family was important:
BAI BAI (brother-brother - or, wait, maybe it is meant to be BYE-BYE)
Mayer Doa (Mother's blessing)
Ma Babar Doa (Mother's and Father's blessings)
Mayer Doya (Mother's kindness)
Mayer Achol (Mother's sari's corner)

Stand out from the crowd:
Ovi Motors Welcome You Are Welcome
Dhaka-Habiganj Special
Rimjhim Special
Shyamoli Special
HI Deluxe
SU> Deluxe
Avizat Motors (Aristocrat Motors)
Hanif Exclusive Business Class
Rahbar Symbol of Aristocracy

Some names had religious connotations:
Allah Varosha (Depend on Allah)
Allahr Daan (Gift of Allah)
Holy City (reference to Sylhet)

Some used proper nouns:
Masud Shohel
Lovley Eva

Names to denote speed:
Birotihin (non-stop)
Agradut (the one in front)
ARABIAN (like the horse?)

Entering Dhaka I saw the bils:
Ababil (a bird)
Anabil (free)
Salsabil (?)

What was this doing inside Bangladesh?
TRTC, Govt of Tripura

My Absolute Favorite:
Emon Lemon (A Lemon Like This)

If I had my way I would call them:
Get out of my way or else
Brakes? What are those?
Take no prisoner
Roadkills R Us
Disowned by Mother
Don't be a Sissy - being crushed by a bus never hurt anyone
I am BIG you are small NYA NYA

It would be fascinating to ask the bus owners the reason for the name they had bestowed on their bus. But if I ever meet an owner, it would be even more fascinating to grab their collar, shove them against a wall, and ask them why they had hired the most dangerous drivers on the planet to kill people - erm, I mean, to drive their busses.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Sun Comes Out

The sun finally came out, though I am not sure if it is too late to prevent a Megaflood that everyone keeps talking about. The big floods are determined by the level of the major rivers when they crest for the season. With floods ongoing in Assam and Nepal, I can't help being pessimistic.

Then of course a lot of people are already suffering. Last Wednesday I was at my friend Bappu's office when his phone rang. It was his friend from Sirajganj, on the western side of the Jamuna. The friend was calling from the second floor of his house - the ground floor was already submerged. Ouch.

Nevertheless the sun did come out yesterday and today. Here are some pictures from a short trip I made to Sylhet the last two days.

Train crossing through paddy field near Habiganj. When we Sylhet division and entered Brahman Baria, the paddies were replaced by miles of water.

Clothes being dried in the sun. As soon as the sun came out, people frantically started drying things. On the highway, they sometimes took over small rectangular patches to dry fresh-cut paddy - leaving just enough room for a bus or car to pass. They also dried lots of wood, skewered patties of cow-dung, and a reed-like plant used to make string and rope.

Sun peeking through the trees at a tomb in Pir Moholla, Sylhet. Hajrat Shah Jalal, the famous holy man of Sylhet, had his first base around here.

View of the Khasi-Jaintiya Hills (in Meghalaya) from Tamabil road.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Conversation

I am standing at one of my favorite streets in the city, in front of a tailor shop. Although the shop is open, there are no customers this early. Instead, a friend of the tailor visits, and they both stand at the shop entrance drinking tea. The tailor talks with his better-dressed, well-heeled friend - both in their 20s. Suddenly the conversation gains ten decibels becoming an argument.

I don't move away - instead, stand at the foot of the stairs, ostensibly watching the morning crowd go about its business, but really eavesdropping. What are these guys saying?

"How can you say the (caretaker) gubmint is doing any good?" the tailor is complaining, "everything is so expensive here! Look at this cloth for a 3-piece suit. Costs Rs 200-300 in India and here it's Tk 800."

"But the gubmint needs some time to straighten things out - everything is such a mess. The country was crawling with crooks." his friend clearly liked the gubmint.

"Oh, but look at all the poor people - they can barely buy enough to eat. Have you seen how much the prices have gone up?" - Tailor

"Of course, prices are going up all over the world! Where have you been? Didn't you hear that even a country as big as China now has to export food? And now with all this rain we will have flood-schmlood (bonna-Tonna) - and prices will of course go up more." - Friend

"What will happen then? People will suffer even more. We just need enough to eat, and can't even get that." - Tailor

"And no one here pays taxes either. Look at Partex and [couldn't catch other company names], holding back millions in taxes, and threatening to shut down factories and firing thousands if anyone says anything. How can a gubmint do anything if citizens don't pay taxes." - Friend

The tailor is momentarily taken aback by this turn, but regains his stride swiftly. "Koitasi to, there is no future for this country. All full of corruption and poor people. And a good-for-nothing gubmint."

Friend is optimistic:"We have come a long way. Just look at all the cars and buildings and clothes that people wear. And everyone is well-fed. Just take a look and remember how poor we were. We will go a long way."

Both have noticed me standing around, and I can't help suspepcting the conversation has taken a pedagogic tone for my benefit. I decide I have heard enough and move on while my glass is half-full (or was it half-empty?)