Down by the riverside

Just as a disclaimer, all is well in Dhaka. It is still unclear exactly how many people died and I won’t engage in any more speculation than I already have. All I know is that political turmoil, especially in the developing world, is confusing. Over the course of the uprising, I have heard enough stories ranging from nothing happening at all to us being evacuated within days.

To escape the craziness and chaos that characterised Dhaka during those days, a couple of interns decided to take a boat trip. It was organized by one of the only tourism agencies around. Having a monopoly isn’t usually the best in terms of customer satisfaction but it worked out great. The boat was large enough to comfortably fit all twelve of us and we were served tea and lunch during the trip.

Our first stop was in a town that used to be predominantly Hindu, as evidenced by the architecture. Also, we got to see a municipal vill from colonial times which was converted into a college. The entire place was set in an environment of lush trees and plenty of man-made lakes. Also, we noticed how quiet and slow everything got. People walking by, curious as to our appearance but extremely friendly and relaxed. We were followed around by this one little boy who had become the resident expert on cameras and amassed quite a collection of photographs. We drifted on and eventually got to a village that makes a special type of sari. The houses in which they made the saris were brittle and cramped, with 8-10 people sitting in front of their apparatus. These workers work from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, for little more than minimum wage (24 dollars a month, which is yes, less than the magical one dollar a day). However, the people seemed happy enough to show us their wares and were delighted when we spoke a few words of Bangla. More on that later. The kids were also adorable and I had to take a lot of pictures to meet their demands.

The most enjoyable thing about the cruise was actually being on the river itself because it was the most relaxing thing I had experienced in a long time. The landscape drowned us in its sheer greenness and the climate, while hot, was still pleasant and we spent hours just drifting along and chatting. It was great to see that there is more to Bangladesh than just Dhaka and that life can move a little slower than you’re used to. I hope the pictures that I will post later will do it more justice.

Quick rejoinder on the language: It is a fascinating topic here since Bangla is so tightly intertwined with the identity of Bangladesh itself. This is evident in the name itself. Bangla is the name of the language while -desh means country. Thus Bangladesh is the country in which Bangla is spoken and therefore defining its country’s identity on the basis of language rather than ethnicities. To be sure, ethnic identity still plays an immense role in day-to-day life but the overall concept of Bangladesh is based on its language. When India was partitioned in the late fourties, not only was Pakistan founded, but also East Pakistan was created out of the state of Bengal to accomodate the Muslim minority now fleeing India. The two Pakistans existed as one political entity, controlled from Islamabad in Pakistan and had an uneasy relationship from the start. Then, in the early seventies, the spark that would ignite the powderkeg was lit when Pakistan insisted on Urdu being the national language. Bangla being the official religion in East Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh did not take to this kindly and started protesting. The government of Pakistan would not budge however and started to suppress the demonstrations and protests ever more violently. This eventually snowballed into a war of rebellion that killed mor than 2 million Bangladeshis. A scar this deep does not heal easily or fast and even thirty years later, the country views the War of Independence as if it was yesterday. The graffiti and drawings of the war adorn building walls and I’ve even come across business cards that list freedom fighter among occupations, I kid you not. In a move that is strange for me as an outsider to understand, even the officers who were sadly killed in the uprising were immediateley declared martyrs. I assume martyr has a different or more widely applicable function here than it does back home but the fact that this terminology is used so readily underscores the ferocity with which the people of this country hold to their independence.

In more bland news, I have arrived at the half-way point of my internship, a very scary fact that made me reflect on some things. Looking over what I have written so far made me realize that Bangladesh doesn’t exactly come out of this report as an outstanding country to be in. And while there are a myriad of problems, many of them so complex and deeply entrenched that it makes you want to scream in frustration, coming back from the boat-trip and going back to work after the weekend made me realize that there is nowhere else I’d rather be right now in my life. I like what I do, I love the people I’m with and I learn something everyday. My Bangla has improved to the point that I can communicate fairly effectively with the rickshaw driver, making communication less stressful, and I am consistently in awe of the different perspectives I get to hear and experience every day. Also, on a more selfish note, buying two high quality T-Shirts for 4 dollars from a fair-trade store just feels good.


1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Nancy Everett (Chris' mom) said,

    Dear Lorenz,
    I am learning so much about Bangladesh. You are a fine writer and a wonderful teacher. Enjoy the pictures too.
    Be well and stay safe!

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