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?