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.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Dhaka Busses

I have started using Dhaka's busses. Thirty years ago, I was a regular, riding from Mohammedpur to various parts of the city every day. In the intervening years, just about everything about these busses have changed.

Take, for example, the newer buy-your-ticket-before-you-get-on busses (also known as Counter Bus, because they have "counters", ie, sidewalk ticket-sellers with a table and umbrella, at all the stops.) So the "bus conductors" who pushed and shoved their way back and forth to sell tickets have disappeared. Too, passengers actually queue up to wait for these busses, although in time-honored Bangla fashion they break the queue and push and shove each other into the bus when it actually shows up.

Another change: the old "Ladies Seats" are gone, and women seat anywhere and everywhere in the bus. During a ride on the "Winner" bus from Science Laboratory to Notun Bazar yesterday, 40% of those seated were women. And they are quite outspoken. A younger woman - getting on the bus - encountered a male student type on the stairs blocking her way. A sharp "side den-na!" ensured he moved the six inches required to avoid body contact.

In a crowded bus, after the seats are gone, people tend to congregate around the six or seven fans that dangle from the ceiling. In my bus yesterday, the blades of the fan were designed ingeniously so that without physically moving the fan sent out air in an oscillating pattern.

Some habits die hard. When I finally sat on the rearmost bench, the guy to my left - on the window seat - had a large bundle of bedding. I could tell we were approaching his bus-stop because he started getting his stuff together. But he made no move to get up and walk towards the door. As soon as the bus stopped, he opened the window, threw his bundles on the sidewalk, and then jumped out the window, barely missing a shocked pedestrian. (Then everyone walked away nonchalantly as if it was the most natural thing in the world.)

My fare was Tk 14 (about 20 cents.) The same distance costs Tk 80-90 on a CNG, 100-110 on a small blue taxi, over TK 120 on an airconditioned yellow taxi and perhaps Tk 10 on a lower grade bus (murir tin.) And of course the CNGs and taxis are rarely available when you need them.

Here are some pictures of graffiti inside the bus.