A Weekend Away from Dhaka – Bangladesh
I am feeling particularly adventurous today. I'm up at dawn off to the bus station. It's a national holiday on Sunday, giving us a long weekend, and I have decided to revisit Rajshahi, up in the North. The air is fresh this early morning, and I am carrying my weekend things in a small bag. Surely this, at last, is proof of my integration. Only outsiders carry big bags, I have decided.
Once, in Africa, a passing nomad looked at the sizeable briefcase I carried to class, and asked if I was going away for a month. But not anymore, oh no. I arrive at the ticket office in good time to catch the little feeder bus out to the station on the outskirts. There are lots of people there. They all have small bags. The shuttle bus comes along and I hop nimbly on. I am pleased with myself – here I am leaping on and off local buses in the sunrise, with my small bag.
It is only when I reach the bus station itself that the clerk looks at my ticket and informs me calmly that I have hopped on the wrong shuttle bus, and am on the opposite side of town from where I ought to be.
Never fear, there is still time to counteract this, ahem, minor setback. I jump into a taxi and ask the driver how long it would take to get to the other station. "Forty-five minutes. On a good day." That's about all the time I have! For once I am actually urging the driver to drive faster. He, in turn, needs no further encouragement, and so we hare across town, through impossible gaps, collecting a few scrapes to prove our valour, like notches on a weapon. He is true to his word, and I arrive at the Green Line office with three minutes to spare. It takes a while for my heart to stop knocking, at least after the bus has eased its way on to the open road.
A round man sits down next to me and stretches out a hand. "As we are travelling together, should we not get to know each other?" Years of painstakingly avoiding travel talk crumble under this simple and benevolent logic, and we chat for a while. The bus eats up the miles, and I settle down among the lime green curtains and wine-coloured velour seats. The call to prayer rings out from the speakers and floats oddly among the chords of the song in my headphones. Lone farmers, thigh-deep in the water, a woman, motionless, holding a cow. We pass a young couple on a motorbike, her arm sinuously round his waist. Cyclists wobble along the village paths, luminous in the silver early mist.
Now and again there's a bustling township: a melee of rickshaws, watermelon sellers, shouts and the blasts of the horn as the bus battles through. A man lifts a huge and battered tin pot on his head and begins to walk, spitting a powerful jet of red betel juice. Snack wallahs selling samosas and cucumbers shout up to the bus, taking advantage of our momentary stasis. Then we ease beyond them and plunge back into the palm-crowded countryside. There are sudden glimpses of purple flowers in a field – the villages blurry in the distance. Above us the skies brighten and expand. I am, for a moment, indescribably content.
Life out here is slower – there are more people sitting, taking things in. But this apparent rural idyll masks a harsh life, under the pitiless sun. A more conservative and devout life too – far more veils and beards are seen.
The hours pass, and eventually, lulled by sleep, we roll into Rajshahi. It’s a laid-back, green and elegant provincial town, dotted with old British buildings. There are hardly any cars and the Padma (known elsewhere as the Ganges) flows by, broad and lazy as the Mississippi.
Getting down from the bus there is no need to head straight for the hotel. I make first for P’s house (he was the guard at the college where we worked) bearing gifts of milky sweets. Sitting in his tiny slum, I am fussed over and smiled at, once they have gotten over their surprise that I am no longer the chubby-cheeked person they knew. "Are you ill?" P. asks with genuine concern. Here you are only considered well if your belly bulges. Slim people are worrisome – like ravenous ghosts.
I look around this small room in which three grown people (their 10-year-old daughter I once knew has blossomed into a 16-year old) spend their entire lives. There is evidence all round of the careful systems of managing life in a confined space. Above are cooking pots. Bedclothes for the one double bed shared between three (no parental intimacy here) are folded neatly in the dresser. Dog-eared books are stacked on the table, which serves as food, study and storage. For decoration there are a hundred bright little trinkets, and photos, torn from a magazine, of Aysharawya, the beautiful film-star queen of Bollywood. A faded poster of Tower Bridge nestles incongruously next to a gaudy portrayal of Mecca’s main square. An old-fashioned square clock on the wall has stopped at 10:30, although we are now early in the afternoon.
P. has not worked in the last few years, and so sits at home feeling sorry for himself. His long-suffering wife claps her eyes heavenwards when he says he will come to Dhaka to see me and find work. "'Him? He’ll never go anywhere, just you see." By contrast, their daughter has just sat her exams and has a rosier outlook. Maybe she will break free from this corrugated-iron confinement.
Later that day I go to the hotel and catch up on some sleep. I am struck on the outskirts, by the absence of something, but I can’t work it out at first. Then I realise; there is no sound of hammering. This little corner of Bangladesh is not a building site, so I am able to fall into a pleasant late afternoon sleep. Time passes and the sun moves through the room. It casts angular slabs of light slowly bathing my face waking me up.
In the evening I head off to see S – a colleague back when we worked here. She is a large, imposing woman with a bold laugh. Since the birth of her daughter, she is now even larger. She walks through these dusty streets like a galleon in full sail, her voice ringing out.
We stroll for a while, talking of family and friends, and of life in Bangladesh, and then return to her house. The walls are pale green and scuffed, the furniture set back hard against the walls, at formal right angles. Her mother comes in bearing a tray of sweets, bananas and apples. Another impressive figure, her teeth stick out independently of each other at improbable angles, but her face is knowing and generous.
It is evening by now, and as we sit, the power suddenly fails. I lean back and observe the fleeting shapes in the black room. They are rapid, practised movements and candles are soon mustered, so we remain where we are and talk in the flickering half-light. A gecko scuttles across the wall; feet splayed, past the calendar showing the poet Tagore, and is then lost in the gloom.
S. suggests we sit on the flat roof, so up we go, pull two old metal chairs into place, and enjoy the cooler evening air. But the day is dying, and the darkness moves in on us like a sea. In the distance, frogs have started up their croaking chatter around the pond. S. sits talking, now just a silhouette in the slate-blue light. We are ust two voices. The brittle stars wink overhead. Finally silence.
I fall into bed and sleep untroubled by dreams. When I wake it is sunrise – a liquid orange glow seeping into the room. A new day, but, in the surprising way these things take you when you are on the road, a sudden feeling of overwhelming loneliness. I somehow manage to shake it off despite a melancholy breakfast of rubbery fried eggs, sweetened bread (not recommended) and rather bitter brown coffee. I’ve had better, but by the time I am out on the dusty road into town, rolling along in the morning breeze; my spirits are as high as crows again.
Today will be a day full of house visits – one which will see me return home exhausted at 10.30 p.m. Bangladesh is, after all, about people. The countryside can be stunning but there isn’t a whole lot to look at in the towns – the architecture is undistinguished, there is concrete everywhere and the roads are honking and congested. The true wealth of the country lies in its incredible welcomes, its friendliness, and its humanity. So if you don’t want to get to know the people, you’d be better off in Bangkok, or Basingstoke.
The rickshaw hits the old town of Rajshahi and we ply down narrow winding streets. The rollers on shop fronts clatter as they are raised to greet the morning. The heat is already cranking up. In a dingy barber's shop, a man patiently raises his arm while the barber shaves his armpit. A woman in a small shack at the roadside brews some tea for the men squatting around. There are loud voices and laughter.
My first port of call is J, who was our cook when we lived here. She lives in the Mission, with its tidy little church and its tended lawns. Being Christian, the people call out Namaskar, a greeting they share with Hindus and Buddhists as an alternative to Salaam Aleikum.
J, is divorced, lives with her family in a small neat compound, four rooms surrounding a little yard. There are bales of hay, earthenware-cooking pots, and a flyblown fluorescent light. The sun is warm on my face and arms as we sit and talk. She is an outstanding cook, but at the moment, is again out of work. The Swiss natural resources expert she worked for has now moved on. She keeps an eye out for the next foreigner to move in – I promise to look out for her in Dhaka too. Will she mind moving away from this family hearth? "Not at all – first you have to earn, then you can enjoy your family."
More visits follow all day – for each one I buy sweets, and then am force-fed copiously as we sit and talk about old friends and old times, until it is at last nightfall. I heave my body, like a ball and chain, back to my hotel. I can face no more food for a week at least.
The fun over, I am up once again with the sunrise, and off to the bus station for the hurtling journey back to what is now my home, across the diaphanous green countryside towards the beckoning capital.