a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
August 1, 2008
From the skies, Bangladesh looks like a wound. The patches of green forests and rice fields resemble a soft welt submerged in something as grey and bleak as bathwater. But when you lose some of the elevation, the same landscape reveals its one-of-a-kind loveliness and gives a sense of why so much of this country’s poetry and music have paid tribute to this water-soaked beauty. With the plane’s gradual descent, the bathwater seems to be transforming into a temperamental sea, its waves look determined to swallow the emerald-green land. I am sure the air down there feels smug and sticky, as if little pools of glue have deposited themselves all over the body, and for the skin to breathe, it has to work its way through several coats of sweat before oxygen can reach it. I try to imagine what Bangladesh will smell like: warm and salty like seawater? Or will it reek of decay, of moisture staining every seam?
I am en route to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city and biggest port. From the window seat of the tiny 30-seater plane that I have boarded from Calcutta in India, my first impressions of Bangladesh can be summed up in this solitary word: water. I now have first-hand reason to understand why even a casual mention of Bangladesh, to a Western audience in particular, conjures up visions of typhoons, floods, and famines.
As I look at the deceptively gentle and placid landscape, I am reminded of the fact that Bangladesh is the largest delta on the planet. Because it has been blessed with the most intricate and generous network of rivers and tributaries—all of them originating in the Himalayas—Bangladesh also has the highest density of rivers in the world. But this claim to fame comes at a huge price and one that Bangladesh pays every year when river and ocean erosions wash away nearly twenty thousand acres of land and displace about one million people. At present, from eighteen to twenty percent of the country’s land lies within a meter of the sea level, and if global warming goes up by a few more degrees, Bangladesh along with Tuvalu and the Maldives will be among the first countries to go under. In purely environmental terms, the vanishing of Bangladesh would mean the complete disappearance of the Sunderbans, which is the world’s largest mangrove forest; the annihilation of the magnificent animal known as the Bengal tiger; and the possible extinction of a few hundred bird, animal, and plant species. In terms of human loss, approximately thirty million people would be displaced, either directly because of the increase in water level or due to the loss of significant rice producing areas.
But Bangladeshis are hardy, although it may be more by force than by choice. They are not perturbed by facts such as these that are alarming to the rest of us. Years of being sandwiched between corrupt governments and natural disasters has made them capable of confronting everything with mind-numbing clarity and resilience. It is either because of this inbuilt mechanism or because Bangladesh isn’t terribly advertisement-worthy that such apocalyptic projections aren’t frequently discussed except among environmentalists.
But who am I to accuse anyone? I myself would not have confronted this dire truth had I not been flying over Bangladesh’s aquatic skyline and grasped the unnerving nature of a country that is less land and more water. For the most part, my selfish concern has been only to ensure that I reach my destination safely, find my ancestral home, and claim some lost part of myself.
The plane’s wing dips sharply towards the water, and I feel my stomach turn with the loss of altitude. Almost instantly, I am reminded of another threat that this land poses at present. Bangladesh is the new breeding ground for terrorism in South Asia. Just one week ago, in the latter half of July 2008, a series of bombs was detonated in two Indian cities—Ahmadabad and Bangalore—and initial reports suggested that they were the handiwork of Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami, a fundamentalist terrorist organization headquartered in Bangladesh. While Ahmadabad recorded sixteen nearly-simultaneous blasts that blazed through, among other places, residential areas and markets, in Bangalore seven bombs exploded to sabotage India’s IT and outsourcing capital. The bombs were unsophisticated in their construction but not in their potency or planning, and as a result, nearly fifty people lost their lives. Another seventeen bombs were supposed to go off in Ahmadabad’s sister city Surat, but those were tracked and destroyed.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries of the world, and although this poverty does not breed terrorism on its own, it provides ripe conditions for wealthy foreign sponsors to set up shop and fund extremist organizations. This has led one of the country’s ex-prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina, to comment wryly that Bangladesh is undergoing a process that can at best be described as “Talibanization.”
Since January 2007, the country has been in a state of emergency with one political crisis directly leading to another. Given the enormous density of its population, Bangladesh has also emerged as a perfect sanctuary for those needing to lay low or simply disappear. In the past, India has claimed there are close to two hundred terrorist camps in Bangladesh. These camps not only spawn anti-India sentiments but also provide active support, both military and economic, to guerrilla organizations operating in various parts of India, particularly the northeast, which in many places shares porous borders with Bangladesh, thus enabling easy passage of men, money, arms, and ammunition.
Possibly to take advantage of the recent turmoil, Pakistan—India’s neighbor to the west— attempted yet another infiltration along the Kashmir border. Given the degree of internal and external turbulence in the country, most Indian cities had been put on high alert. The Calcutta airport this morning looked so forbidding in its fortified and militarized avatar that it instantly reminded me of most large airports in America, where I have often encountered ground staff that has seemed semi-hysterical and particularly suspicious of anyone with brown skin and an Asian passport.
But my trip to Bangladesh does not concern any of this. My purpose for being on this plane that will land in Chittagong in less than half an hour is neither to investigate any terrorist organization nor to develop groundbreaking theories about global warming. My concern revolves around something entirely different. Something that in my mind defines the word “sacred” and because of its sacredness, it has haunted me for most of my adult life. Because here’s the truth: Bangladesh is where I would have been born, this is where I would have been brought up, and its people are the people I would have lived with had it not been for the events of 1947 when my grandparents were forced to escape from this country and become refugees in the country next door, India. There, over a length of time, they peeled off one layer after another that identified them as immigrants, straightened the mismatched threads of their lives again, built new homes, and had their children and grandchildren, including me. In the process, they lost a language or two, some family, and several friends. But they also acquired, in their distinct ways, a somewhat constant need for permanence.
As far back as I can remember, I have been impatient and restless, and over the years, I have found the idea of being too rooted in any one landscape to be neither charming nor inspirational. Yet I contradict myself when I admit my need for Bangladesh. When my gut instinct tells me that it is in this country that I will instinctively feel at home because I will know all the flavors and spices of the local food, because I will be able to read the monolingual street signs, because of my doubtless familiarity with the sounds and syllables of the language, and because no one will ask me, “So where are you from? Originally?” I am confident that in Bangladesh I will be able to better understand my own world. Who knows, perhaps, here I will find the reason and the motivation to dig permanent roots and control all the impatience and restlessness. I just need to get off this plane and touch the ground beneath.
The very next moment though, I tell myself to calm down. I remind myself that the story is in the details and that there are a few details of Bangladesh that I have already seen and not liked. For example, the adventure at the Bangladesh High Commission last week where I went to procure a visa. Indians are not required to pay any fees for a Bangladeshi visa; however, paperwork is still involved along with the mandatory Q & A session. Although I reached the office fairly early in the morning, the lines outside the two relevant windows were already sweaty, serpentine, and off-putting. Given the accents I heard, it seemed as if most of the people were trying to pass themselves off as Indians but were doing a fairly poor job of it. “Illegal immigrants,” I muttered to myself, and not only did I curse them for lengthening my waiting time, but as the heat progressed and dribbled down my forehead and dampened my shirt, I began to curse them for inundating India. As I filled out the visa form, inquisitive eyes that would not have considered themselves to be inquisitive decided to relieve their boredom by paying attention to me instead. They peered over my shoulders, stared over my head, and gazed in rapt attention as I wrote my name, my address, and ticked the appropriate boxes for gender, marital status, etc. When I glared back, in the hope that they would be embarrassed enough to look away, their eyes settled into mine again and continued to stay there with an expression that conveyed both politeness and puzzlement. Their stance was clear; it said to me, “And?”
But the need for answers is probably an essential characteristic of the sub-continental psyche. It cuts across the complicated differences of class, age, gender, and even nationality. I am reminded of the several conversations I have had with my grandparents in the recent past. They have interrogated my reasons for wanting to go to Bangladesh. We have meticulously gone over maps and details while I have tried to justify the fact that I need their story because without its firm foundation my own story will cave in. In turn I have acknowledged that I know I am appropriating their voices and their words, and I have wanted the reassurance that they are agreeable to that.
My grandparents are both in their eighties but are extremely alert and active for their age. In addition to their real-world obligations, throughout their lives they have both been writers, so they recognize my need for this story. Yet, understandably enough, they are nervous that I am about to go visit the country from which they were uprooted, where in the months immediately before and after August 1947, human rage assumed incomprehensible forms. It pulverized libraries and volumes of sacred literature into worthless, powdery ash. It littered the streets in the name of religion with hacked bodies and limbs. Since then, my grandparents have visited Bangladesh only once, and it’s been twenty years since that happened. They are unsure of the Bangladesh of 2008 and the recent political crisis in the country has exaggerated their concerns. They have also told me that it might be unsafe for women to travel on their own even in the streets of big cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong, especially for those that can be identified as unmarried or Hindu or Indian. I belong to all three categories, yet I feel brave not because of any deep reservoirs of courage within myself, but because in Chittagong, I know that arrangements have already been made for me to live with some of our extended family members who did not migrate to India in 1947. They have been gracious enough to extend their home and hospitality to me while I conduct my research. I am intrigued by them and by the fact that in spite of sharing the same blood lines, our passports and identities are different. That we need visas before we can share food around a common dining table or cook in each other’s kitchen. I wonder if they are made of a tougher moral core that helped them decide to stay on and not give in to the pressure of migration when that’s what most of their friends and family were doing in 1947 and for years after that. Or why did they not migrate later when Bangladesh started showing the first signs of the Talibanization process? Why did they not escape to the predominantly Hindu country that stood barely an hour’s plane ride away? Or was the lure of this land such that leaving it behind was never an option?
I turn my head away from the window to study the inside of the plane. It looks like a more austere version of the kind of private planes in which Hollywood celebrities zip around to attend each others’ secret weddings and forbidden parties. At any moment, I half-expect to see an anorexic Victoria Beckham or at least a Nicole Richie pop out of the cockpit in a cloud of perfume, dangle a huge bag and a pair of oversized glasses and let out a high-pitched “Surprise!”
Almost immediately after takeoff, our air hostesses had served us lunch and I notice that some of my co-passengers are still eating what I had devoured within minutes. I had relished the flavorful mutton biryani, the meat browned just right, the rice with the perfect bite, and the spices having been measured out with precise order and balance. The accompanying cucumber yogurt raita was ice cold and mildly flavored with mint, a delicate partner for the robust biryani. My mind meandered yet again and compared this food with that available on domestic flights in North America, where stewardesses offer juice and water with a kind of euphoria that is both uncomfortable and, if you think about it, almost maniacal. In spite of being thousands of miles away from them, my ears can hear their gushing-with-joy voices: “Would you like some cranberry juice or water?” I think back to a long flight I took from Toronto to Phoenix where passengers were asked if they wanted to buy five dollar lunch packages. There had been a choice in the matter. We could buy either chicken sandwiches or a cheese and crackers platter. By the time they reached my aisle, expectedly enough, the sandwiches had all been sold out. Having been forced to buy the almost crusty pallid cheese, I had spent the next hour trying to moisten its dryness.
Given the quality and quantity of food served by this tiny aircraft taking me to Chittagong, it would have probably served five times the amount if the duration of the flight had been five hours instead of one. This is obviously lesson number one. Bangladeshis have a definite idea about how to show they care. They feed.
* * *
I have landed. But contrary to what I had imagined, I am not breathing in any salty seawater, nor am I swabbing at a constantly sweaty forehead. I do not feel instantly at home, as I had romantically assumed I would, although I am standing on Bangladeshi soil. Well, at least technically, because under my feet is the tiled floor of the Chittagong International Airport and all around me is dry, air-conditioned perfection. Disappointingly enough, this airport like its counterparts spread around the globe, appears to be just another conclave of luggage, lines, and disinterested looking airline staff. The steel structures feel cold, the stairways and escalators aloof, and the restaurants unfriendly. I have to be careful because I have been warned that in Bangladesh, Indians are seen as objects to exploit. A part of this sentiment arises because here India is perceived as a land of plenty; therefore anyone coming from India is potentially a repository of unlimited wealth. Thus, by extension, a source of unlimited bribe. Which is probably why attempts are made to stop me at a dubious looking counter named Declarations, wherein I am expected to declare nearly everything I have brought from India. But then I too have grown up in the subcontinent, and so my gut reaction is if anything looks dubious it must certainly be so. I proceed to indulge in some straight-faced lying and manage to get out of the counter without making or committing to any declarations.
I am supremely uncomfortable with this tag of a “wealthy foreigner” mostly because of my current status as an impoverished graduate student. On another level, it’s confusing because for the last couple of years I have been living in the US where sometimes I have had encounters with people who have assumed suitably sympathetic expressions upon learning that I am from India. It’s as if a part of their brain has beeped to them, in secret of course, “Remember not to ask about the poverty and the starving children. Instead, look happy, pious, and interested in her life. All at the same time.”
I check the local time. It’s 3:30 pm, meaning 3 pm in India. I consider making a call to my grandparents to let them know that all is well here so far and that I feel I already have enough evidence to prove that for many Bangladeshis an Indian is a good neighbor and therefore an honored guest. I must remember to tell them about the three different families that befriended me during my three-hour wait at Calcutta’s international airport this morning. They were going to board the same flight as I. All of them were locals from Chittagong returning to their homes after having spent time in either Calcutta or some other part of India to shop, or to enjoy a holiday, or to take care of medical needs. Two of these three families ended up inviting me to their homes for dinner.
And then, there was that customs officer who finished interviewing me about five minutes ago. When I walked to his desk to complete the requisite paperwork, I found him running his fingers through his slight crop of oily, silver-grey hair. He had a small, pinched head and he smiled broadly when I handed over my passport. Even from the distance I could smell the tobacco and betel leaf in his breath. Undoubtedly he had acquired a taste for them eons ago, because his upper jaw seemed to have discolored into grey and the lower jaw appeared to have only three teeth left, all of them stained a depressing shade of flax. But his continuous smile made him the first likeable customs officer of my life.
He started with the routine questions: “Is this your first time in Bangladesh?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And you are here for?”
I ran the response in my head first because after numerous such interviews, I have learned that tourism is always the easiest and friendliest answer.
“A holiday,” I said, “I am here to meet my family.”
“Wonderful. Wonderful. Welcome to Bangladesh.”
“But otherwise you are from Calcutta?”
“At present I am coming from Calcutta, yes. But I am from New Delhi. My grandparents are in Calcutta.”
“Then what is this about Idaho?”
“Yes, I live in Idaho.”
“So you are not from New Delhi?”
I took a deep breath. “My grandparents live in Calcutta. My parents live in New Delhi, which is where I have lived most of my life. But since 2006, I have been living in the US, at the University of Idaho. So right now you can say I have come from a combination of India and America.”
“Very nice. Wonderful.”
By this time, a mini crowd had gathered around my interviewer’s seat. There were two janitors, one of them a woman, and three other officers. They stood in a circle, their elbows neatly balanced on the cubicle’s top-most panel. Perhaps their break had coincided with my interview, perhaps they liked to watch all interviews, perhaps they liked to watch when women were being interviewed, perhaps they liked to watch interviews of those coming from India, I am not sure. But they had gathered to watch, and obviously nothing was going to be done about it.
My interviewer asked another question: “And where in Chittagong are you going?”
“I will be in the city for a few days. But my ultimate destination is actually a village in Chittagong district itself. It’s called Fatehabad. Do you know it? That’s where my family is from.”
“Of course I know it. Fatehabad is one of the biggest villages. Also one of the prettiest. But you have come at the wrong time of the year. It’s the monsoons right now, the rivers are at their wildest.”
“I am sure my family will know what to do.”
After a pause while he put in some more numbers on a sheet, he asked, “Are you planning to make some purchases while you are here?”
“Maybe. I am not sure. Maybe some cottons.”
“Excellent idea. Wonderful, wonderful,” he smiled again affectionately, as if I was the daughter who had just brought home the annual result and had topped my exams yet again.
I smiled back all the while considering why he was keen to know what things I wanted to buy in Bangladesh. Did he have a partnership with someone who ran a store? Was he going to get a commission out of the whole deal?
But he laid rest to all my cynicism when he asked, “Do you have conveyance to go to your relative’s house right now? Because if you don’t, we can arrange for something. We don’t know just when it might rain again…you might get stuck somewhere. You are from India after all, you are our guest.” The audience that stood behind him, with their elbows placed next to each other standing in compatible silence, beamed. The woman nodded enthusiastically.
Now, I am aware that airports are artificially constructed environments. They deal with a similar kind of paperwork and for lack of a better term, humanwork, no matter which hemisphere or which part of the hemisphere they are located in. If you think about it, there is perhaps nothing stunning or unique about the modus operandi, nothing that can distinguish one airport from the other. They are bound by a common need for discipline and punctuality, and for keeping tabs and accounting for numbers. Yet, nothing in this world gives a more accurate sense of a country and its people than an airport. And although kindness at airports is not a rare feature it’s also not the most prevalent virtue. That would have to be the desire to keep things moving, and fast.
But as I stared at the crowd, and at the customs officer in particular, I almost wanted to exchange phone numbers, ask him if he was on Facebook, and add him up at the first opportunity. Instead, I said, “Thank you. Thank you very much. Yes, my family would be here. I am sure they are waiting outside. But just in case I cannot find them or I think I am getting lost, I will get in touch with you for sure.”
He smiled again, and as I circled away from his cubicle and began walking towards the exit, someone from that mini gathering called out, “Good luck in Fatehabad!” I turned back, smiled at all of them and waved. Then I pushed open the heavy glass doors and stepped outside.
The visual details were new and immediately arresting. I was face to face with the visitors’ area, and it was packed, which made sense given that it was Friday and therefore the weekly holiday, as in all Islamic countries. Several of the men wore skull caps, the kind favored by devout Muslims in most parts of the world. There were very few women, and those that I did see were either accompanied by male chaperones, or were cloaked in restrictive-looking black burqas, or both.
And here I was—standing by myself, without a veil on my head, wearing high heels, and dressed in a red that must have been startling in its brightness. I adjusted my scarf around my shoulders and scanned the crowd for someone, anyone, who might call my name.
Sayantani Dasgupta’s hometown is the wonderfully chaotic Delhi, India. She teaches creative writing, and South Asian history and literature at the University of Idaho. Her writing has appeared in journals such as Gulf Stream, SN Review and Blood Orange Review, and two of her essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
Credit: The essay Touching Down first appeared in Taller, the Centrum Foundation Literary Journal in March, 2011.