Sunday, June 24, 2007

Making Peace With Sylhet

My Sylhet essay made it to the Daily Star Weekend Magazine.

Special thanks to Mahmud Rahman for his inspiration.

Back in the USA

We are back in the US for a short vacation. Nice to see old friends after so long. We are overwhelmed by their warmth and hospitality.

Even though I lived here for 28 years, living in Bangladesh has changed my inner calibrations.

The first thought as I hit the highway from the airport: "Where are all the people?" Everything seems so empty after the Bd crowds.

Now that I live on the receiving end of Global Warming (Bd will be one of the worst-hit countries) I look askance at all the large cars on the highway. As a Mercedes E65 passes, my momentary car-enthusiast's joy is replaced by schizophrenic nagging: "What was the necessity for a 6-litre 4 passenger car?" vs "Does it do 0-60 in less than 4 secs?"

(Speaking of Mercedes, they have screwed up their line-up once again. In the mid-90s they had so many models, it confused their customers. Late 90s brought streamlining - E, C, S, and ML classes - and clear focus. Now I see a R class (ugly!), GL, SLK, CLK, in addition. Haven't spotted a Maybach though.)

There are many joys of this visit: seeing old friends, brainstorming with Silicon Valley types, an abundance of good chocolate (yes!), bookstores, books for sale on the sidewalk at Berkeley for 25c, reminiscing with the old gang from Sun, surfing the net on connections that actually run at decent speeds (shame on the Dhaka ISPs for not providing customers the benefit of the much-delayed, much-ballyhooed submarine cable.)

Children of friends have grown suddenly. They graduate from high-schools and colleges - little nappy-headed boys and girls of yesteryear delivering impressive speeches at each other's graduation parties and us, the parents' generation, basking in the glow of it all.

A staggering blow in the midst of it all: the accidental death of Derek Abraham, the talented Eagle Scout son of my friends Gordon and Sabra, in a kitesurfing accident. I pray for the curly-haired, high-energy, friendly Derek as well as his family. I cannot begin to comprehend what his parents and brother must be going through.

Yet the California sunshine is as sweet as I remember, and the air smells fresh. It is good to be back (in my second) home.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Food Adulteration

Food adulteration, whether intentional or not, has been my biggest concern since I returned here. My strategy has been: a) don't eat too much of the same thing; b) avoid large fish and c) eat fresh fruits/veggies and avoid processed food as much as possible. One particular nasty news was when Rokon Ud Dowla got a formaldehyde detection kit and discovered a large amount of tainted fish in the fishmarkets. A few days ago, I read about mangoes being ripened using Carbide. (But then, don't they ripen bananas using sulfur dioxide while transporting them North to the US?)

Imagine my surprise, then, at reading this article, complaining about food adulteration and contamination all over Asia. So we are not alone (but does my kidney care?)

Although the article implies a certain purity in food in Western countries, I don't think things are all that different. I am reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma which discusses American food habits, and raises some serious concerns. An example: Chicken McNugget is made from 38 ingredients, many of which are completely synthetic chemicals.

Pollan also discusses how the discussion went from "What foods are good for me?" to "What nutrients are good for me?" The two are quite different.

His advice: don't eat anything that your grandmother would not recognize as food!

So next time you open a wrapper and start munching, think whether it passes the grandmother test.

(btw, my grandmothers would recognize chocolate, so I am safe heh heh )

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Do IT People Make Lousy Poets?

A few days ago, I met someone, a poet, who writes a poetry blog. While chatting with him, I told him that I am not into contemporary poetry - particularly if it is English. I love Tagore, Nazrul, Sukanta and particularly Jibananda (and maybe some Neruda and Langston Hughes in small doses) but that's about it.

He listened attentively and smiled. Then he gently asked me if I was an IT guy. When I confirmed, he said that he found IT people to be less interested in poetry.

The next few days I mulled over his words. I realized I did not like them. But although I knew IT people who have gone on to be novelists, directors, farmers, photographers, musicians, and other kinds of artists, I did not know one who had become a poet.

Was he right?

Poets come out of other professions all the time. William Carlos Williams, for example, was a doctor who kept index cards in his shirt pocket and wrote poems on them whenever he got a break.

(Incidentally, I first read Williams in an IT book - the front of Linear Systems, by Stanford's Thomas Kailath.)

Noodling around the Web, I found a computer scientist who is also a serious poet. One Richard Gabriel, once a Distinguished Engineer at Sun, now at IBM. (And now the programmer in me says, hey, if he is a poet, maybe he is not that good a programmer - did he write any interesting programs? Ha ha.)

Programming is very much a creative process, as is poetry. I can't think of a reason that programmers cannot be poets. Maybe there is something deeper going on? Or have I simply missed a lot of IT poets? Comments?

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Voice For Us ... and Us

I just finished reading Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age, and will write down my thoughts while they are still fresh.

The book is a novel based on the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. With the tumultuous events as a backdrop it traces the lives of some families who were deeply affected by the war.

I believe this is the first English novel about 1971, published by a reputable British publisher and well-publicized and well-received internationally. The story of Bangladeshis' courage, sacrifice and humanity has been told many times in Bangla, but not so much in English - and certainly not in a popular medium such as this book. Tahmima is thus a voice for us Bangladeshis, specially to the rest of the world, where our story is not as well-known as it should be.

More than that, this is a powerful war novel. War brings out the best and the worst in us humans - and Tahmima has characterized those extremes in a believable and humane manner. You feel deeply aghast at the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army, but you also feel infinitely uplifted by the good deeds that common people do - both in Bangladesh and neighboring India. In that sense, hers is a voice for us, humanity.

If you are at all interested in the story of those days, you should get a copy of this book. It makes a difficult period accessible to us - without being overly heavyweight, but with grace and compassion. The author succeeds with "less is more" - without laying it on too thick, and having great effectiveness as a storyteller and chronicler of a not-too-distant past. For example, as the night of March 25th (when the massacres started) unfolds, the dinner scenario with roast goat is not at all gruesome, yet it is one of the most disturbing and bloodcurdling patches of fiction I have read.

Visual details like this one also make the novel a good candidate for a movie.

My congratulations to Tahmima. I look forward to reading many more good books by her.