Why Bangladesh? everyone asked. True, it wasn’t exactly a tourist hotspot, but I was increasingly curious about what once was East Pakistan, and proved to still be, in a way, Bengal.
From the amazing airport — every bit as international as Kolkata airport wasn’t — with its free Internet access courtesy Grameen Phone, to the broad roads, the city struck me as a slightly more ordered version of Kolkata. Of course sections of it — the crowded bazaars, markets like Bongo Bazaar — are as congested and squalid, if not more, as parts of Kolkata, reminding me immediately that this is a country even poorer than India (the rupee is worth more than the local currency, taka). And just as overpopulated, at least 12 million at last count. The World Bank adds that Dhaka has the highest population growth in the world.
It’s an even more class-oriented society than ours, I was warned not to talk to the maids, who would steal from me, or chat with the drivers, who were sure to misdirect me — but people are generally very friendly in Dhaka. Everyone from the ladies at the Dhaka beauty parlour to development sector officials expressed an interest in my visit here, ‘all by myself’ as they kept repeating.
Shopping is a big draw here; local handicrafts are affordable and often exquisite, and there are several boutique type stores, among them Aarong, which boasts everything from the famous Dhaka muslin to decorated leather jewellery boxes, and Jatra, outside of which a lone Baul often plays his ektara.
I hadn’t chosen the best time to visit — winter is when one can best tour Bangladesh enjoyably. It is too hot to travel much in summer, so I spent much of the day indoors; except for a weekend visit to a tea estate in Sylhet, replete with country meals of Bangla style fish, not very different from Bengali style fish. I cruised for a day (and I mean the whole day) through the well-maintained National Museum, and recommend it highly. Here, together with a memorial of the liberation war, a display of Bangla art from old times to new, and a rich collection of ethnic clothing, I discovered such archaic delights as the arshiata, a cloth wrap for mirrors and combs, and the boska katha, a similar wrap for books; also the now-commodified batua, a pouch for money etc, which I later saw replicated in a boutique.
The self-proclaimed ‘boringness’ of things in Dhaka — idle gossip does seem to do the rounds here — is belied by a small, almost underground circuit of young people and marginal subcultures. Perhaps the most intriguing ‘rumour’ I heard was of the Dhaka swingers’ club. There are a fair amount of cosmopolitan young people around, ‘foreign returned’ and ready to do their bit to give back to their Bangladesh. As for subcultures, I spent an evening with an enthusiastic group of local writers, called Writer’s Block, at the invitation of the assistant editor of the national English language paper, The Daily Star, son of Pakistan’s first woman barrister. A diverse group, my companions for the evening ranged from filmmakers to the author of Dhaka’s first chick lit novel — tales of Dhaka ‘fast girls’ abounded, but again I had little proof, though I did glimpse a few of what could possibly have been this risqué lot at the Westin and in and out of swish, lounge type establishments.
But leave aside the elite; even the much-beleaguered. Every Bangla seemed very concerned with progress, how to make things work better, how to make their many NGOs function better.
Here is a country to watch, as its tourism industry opens up and takes people to the Sunderbans, Rangamadi’s hill tracks, and more. Sometimes, neighbours are deceptively like yourself — and then they surprise you.