Things to do in Bangladesh
Many of us working in the West look forward to a trip to Bangladesh at the end of the year. December to February is a very popular time to visit Dhaka for most of us. For many students, particularly from North America, May to August is another popular time for a home trip. Whenever it is, most such trips are consumed by visiting family and friends. And quite understandably so: some elderly relative had passed away and condolences need to be paid; friends, cousins, siblings get married; couple whose wedding was attended last time has kids now and there are birthday parties. Then, if it happens to be the time for Eid or other festivals, then there are accompanying obligations. And some need to venture out of Dhaka for such obligations. Beyond these commitments, we want to have some time for shopping. Whether it is clothes, music and movies, or books, we want to spend some time at the city’s new malls and old markets. If we are so inclined, we may want to catch a play at Baily Road, or go out to the Fantasy Kingdom or Baldah Garden, or visit the Shaheed Minar and Boi Mela if it is February.
Dear reader, these probably take up most of your very limited time in Bangladesh. But if you have more time, let me suggest a few activities, in no particular order.
1. Take a public transport – BRTC bus, private bus, tempo – and randomly roam around Dhaka for a day. In the old town, you’ll need a rickshaw. Listen to the conversations of fellow passengers. Find out from the rickshawpuller his story.
2. Try to observe how politics actually happens at the grass root level. Talk to the party members and activists at the ward level. Attend political meetings and election rallies if you get the opportunity.
3. Talk to as many army officers ranked major or captain as possible. What do they think about various issues ranging from grand historical narrative of imagining our nation to micro level day-to-day running of law and order or traffic management etc.
4. Go to a border district. In fact, go all the way to the border and see for yourself how porous the border actually is.
5. Talk to as many people in their 80s as possible about partition. Ask them at what point did they stop being Muslims who happened to speak Bangla to become Bengalis who happened to be Muslims.
6. Go to the Mirpur Bihari colony. It will probably shock your nationalist sentiments. After you get over that shock, try to figure out why they maintain the fiction of Pakistan in the middle of Bangladesh.
7. Do a survey of as many produces market (kacha bazaar) as you can. Do it on a regular basis so that you have some idea of price movements. See if these movements gel with what you read in the press or the official statistics. Also find out where the produce comes from, and by what mechanism.
8. Talk to businessmen in their 30s. What are their outlook about the economy? What are their views about corruption and reforms?
9. Try to accompany someone in the search for contrabrand intoxicants (bangla mod/ganjah/dail).
10. Cross Padma on a moonlit night in a government ferry — Bangladesh is never more beautiful than this.
11. Attend at least two waz mehfils or orus: one Jamaat-linked / Wahabi style, one Sufi-styled traditional pir type.
12. Attend as many Jumma prayers in as many mosques as possible, and make note of the khutbas.
13. If you get to go to a village, find out when the village got connected with the neares town by pukka road, or when electricity came to the village, or how many people from the village live overseas, or when did it get a school. Also find out what the arsenic situation is, or how much damage was there during the last flood.
14. Go to the local bank and see how utility bills are paid. Go to the post office and see how money orders are sent. Go to the local government office for some service. In fact, just go and observe what goes on in those offices. Go to the courts as well. And don’t forget to go to a public hospital.
15. Check what your primary school student cousin/nephew/niece is studying. Compare that with what you studied or what is studied at west. Compare it with what the kid at the government primary school in a poor neighbourhood studies.
Personal disclaimer: I did all of these to various degrees in my first trip home after 9 years. But that was 8 years ago, and trips since then have been regulation family-shopping type, so another is long overdue.