Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My Stomping Grounds in Sylhet

My hometown is Sylhet. I lived there until about ten, but after we moved to Dhaka, I gradually became estranged from Sylhet. This was partly because Shawkat House, my grandfather's sprawling estate of several bungalows where I spent my first eight years, was sold in 1973. With it went a lot of my childhood memories. Another reason was that I hardly had any friends left in Sylhet. Also, in the 80s and 90s, due to poor infrastructure development and population pressure, Sylhet became congested and unpleasant. This has improved significantly in recent years.

Since returning to Bangladesh I have made several trips to Sylhet to rekindle the relationship, as it were. Here are some pictures of the stomping grounds of my childhood.

The only remaining original Shawkat House bungalow. This was the "outer" building and my Father's office.

This gate led to the inner bungalows and courtyards. Unfortunately the entire inner structure has changed so much that I could not recognize it.

Across the street from Shawkat House is the pond where I learned to swim. I also did a fair amount of pearl-diving here at the ripe age of eight and gave the largest pearl to my Mother. She had a ring made around it and, years later, gave it to my wife.

Next door to our house was this "moholla" called Shekh Para. In the front there were several date palms and a large pond. I was happy to find a palm standing.

But the pond was filled in with sand.

Out of Shekh Para came several illustrious people, including the Qureshi family, now in London, which has three elected London City Councillors from the same family. Must be a record of some kind!

A few doors down from Shawkat House was Shadhu Babu's house. He is a friend of the family, and his daughter married R. P. Saha's son. (R. P. Saha was a prolific industrialist and a prominent philanthropist of Bangladesh. Both Mr. Saha and his son were killed by the Pakistan Army in 1971. Shadhu Babu is alive.)

The compound of Shadhu Babu's house had a massive "Bokul" tree. My grandmother and I used to stop there during our morning walk and pick the tiny, fragrant flowers. The tree is gone, leaving this patch of land.

My first school was Blue Bird School. The school moved several times when I was attending it and occupied this building - now a dilapidated government office - when I was in 4th and 5th grade.

Our Assembly took place in the hall just inside this entrance.

Nowadays Blue Bird (located in a nice new location) is a BIG school, going all the way to 12th grade :-)

Also within walking distance was "Nanubasha" - my maternal Grandparents' home. There were many children my age there. Hence I went there every chance I got. This is the entrance with the large "dalan" structure dating back to 1911. My Nanu, and several families of my Nana's relatives, lived in separate bungalows in the inner house, taking the path curving around the side of the Dalan. (My Nana passed away before I was born.)

Another view of the "Dalan", made in 1911 with stone, bricks and sand before cement became available.

Nanubasha is formally known as "Ahia Villa". Mr. Ahia, also known at Jeetu Mia, was one of the most colorful and eminent residents of Sylhet in the early 1900s, and the first one with a motor car. This is the tomb of Mr. Ahia and Sara, his first wife.

Two or three years ago, an incredibly ill-conceived government plan was drawn up to build another bridge on the Surma that would effectively destroy Ahia Villa (due to road widening required for this bridge.) It boggled the imagination that such a historical house - Gandhi had spent time in this house, Dr. Syed Mujtaba Ali had studied there - could be cast aside so casually. Luckily a storm of protests followed, and the plan, while still alive, has been slowed. It needs to be stopped.

Incidentally, if you write a letter to someone in Ahia Villa, it is enough to address it as "Ahia Villa, Sylhet" and the post office will deliver it. The only house in Sylhet for which you don't need a numbered street address!

(I am grateful to Dr. Shama Ali for pointing out the R. P. Saha connection.)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

To Share or Not To Share...

... that is the question :-)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lychees (photos)

Lychees have ripened. They are selling for between Tk 160 and Tk 200 per hundred (1 USD = Tk 70 approx.) Here are some pictures.

Yummy baby!

They are all over the place. Above you...

and behind you...

... there are doubledecker lychees...

...and lonely lychees.

Adults love them...

... and so do kids!

"You toucha my lychees I puncha your nose!"

Lychee leaves and anchor.

The sellers were out in force. "They are Kora (extreme) sweet!"

"Here, try a sample if you don't believe me."

"Heck, they'll even grow hair on your chest!"

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Such a Small Country

Yeterday at a function I met a well-educated gentleman. Turned out that he worked close to a cousin (someone whose intellect I respect immensely.) I asked my new acquaintance if he knew my cousin. Of course, he said, he has been there for many years. Suddenly he asked, "So are you from Sylhet too?" When I nodded, his eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second- I could almost see some thoughts go across his mind - and the conversation somehow ended quickly.

Now, perhaps he had other people to talk to, and my Sylhetiness had nothing to do with it, but I find that for a country so small, Bangladeshis are ridiculously provincial. "Desh", the Bangla word for country, also means "village home." Often people will ask me "Where is your Desh?" when they mean "Which region of Bangladesh are you from?" "Oh yeah, my Desh is Sylhet, only 35 miles from your Desh of Brahman Baria!" Right.

Then there are the inevitable stereotypes. Tangail, Barisal, Chittagong, Noakhali, Sylhet - we all love to wrap them in unsavory flavors. One day I was going somewhere with a friend who did not know my driver was from Mymensingh. He went on for a few minutes about how stupid, idiotic, moronic Mymensinghis are (I think he was trying to contrast them to the people of the district we were visiting, who he thought were very smart.) To his credit my driver kept quiet. About ten minutes later, when I asked my driver a question, he answered with an ultra-thick Mymesinghi accent - so thick that my friend understood and went red.

All this geographical stereotyping reminds me of my good friend Sanjiv who years ago worked at Siemens. After a reorganization, Sanjiv inherited a new boss. The first question the boss asked Sanjiv was "Are you from India?" Sanjiv's "Yes" caused a flicker of unhappiness to pass through the boss's face. Thus began a very difficult relationship, with boss making Sanjiv's life hell. Eventually Sanjiv moved to another group.

Some time later, Sanjiv found the real story. Years ago, the boss's wife had run off with an Indian man!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Some pictures I took today.

Minaret of a Mosque:

A Dhaka alley. Sign on blue door says "Happy New Year" (Bangla NY was April 14)

Another Dhaka alley, empty for about two seconds!

A framing shop:

A shirt being dried in the sun:

A Tukri, used to carry vegetables for selling door to door:

Vegetables for sale at open-air market:

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Bouddha Purnima

Yesterday was Bouddha Purnima, the most important religious event for the 1 million Buddhists who live in Bangladesh. I went to the Buddhist Temple in Kamalapur to see how it was celebrated. Here are some pictures.

Picture of Gautama at the temple. He was born, became Buddha, and passed away (attained Nirvana) on this full-moon of Boishakh month:

Stupa at the entrance to the temple:

Family praying inside temple:

Mom offers "proshad" as son checks out the man with the camera:

Boys waiting in line to offer prayers:

Girl dressed in her "Purnima Best":

Party time!

Bring on the music...

Toys for the boys:

I was not clear about the meaning of the money tree, but it was part of the prayers:

Woman entering the festival:

Serious monks:

Laughing monk:

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mad Dogs, Englishmen and Yours Truly

(May 1) It must have been the hottest day of the year today. I needed to go to Nilkhet (from the Baridhara area). Since it was a holiday, I expected roads to be clear and decided to bicycle, starting out at 11am.

Unfortunately I chose the "ugly way" to get there - by way of Tejgaon Industrial Area. It was so hot that the ice cold water in my water bottle turned lukewarm in ten minutes. Heck, it was so hot that the green arrow of the traffic signal started looking like a lime popsicle to my bleary eyes.

Anyways, I got there safely and got my work done. BTW, Nilkhet is an adventure in itself. This place, home of 3 or 4 used bookstores thirty years ago (I bought one volume of Britannica here in 1974) is now a sprawling book empire of hundreds of small shops. They do everything - sell used books, copy books, bind books, make covers, cut paper, glue stuff together, sell stationery - to do with books.

On the way back, I decided to take the scenic route - turning right after going a ways past Asad Gate, along Zia Udyan, behind Parliament.

I stopped twice to refill my drinking water. The worst moments were when I was stuck in traffic exposed to direct sunlight (and in Industrial area, behind a belching bus.) I was ok when moving, because of the breeze I felt during bicycling. Here are some pictures.

Krishnachuras at full bloom.

The lake looked refreshing.

A brilliant move by the boy: cool down in the water!

Modern-day Visti-wallah (water-seller - remember the Humayun story?)