Things to do in Bangladesh

Posted in holiday, society by jrahman on January 6, 2008

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. 


15 Responses

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  2. Anon said, on January 7, 2008 at 2:24 am

    This list is an excellent idea. One addition:

    Old dhaka, especially shakhari bazaar area – be saddened by how the old craft is disappearing.
    Have biryani at a place recommended by a local.

  3. Bonbibi said, on January 7, 2008 at 5:19 am

    I so agree with you Jyoti – this should not only be undertaken by NRBs but be started, like they do in Kolkata, in schools! In Kolkata we’re much more aware of the ground realities because we are taken by our schools into villages where we teach, organise exhibitions, build schools.. Many schools in Kolkata now open their doors to kids living on streets and ‘bhadro’ kids have started many clus with social intent where they stay back after school to give these street-living kids an education.. I so wish this happened here too..
    I don’t agree with your point 6 – I’m now working there and its not really the case, espcially not amongst the younger generations who often are completely bilingual and have both Bangali and Urdu-speaking parents. Do watch ‘Swapnobhoomi – The Promised Land’ by Tanvir Mokammel – the subtleties about identities, aspirations and affiliations come out quite well in it.
    Do keep writing!

  4. manush said, on January 7, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Nicely written.

    I just came back from bangladesh and i noticed the mindset of common bangladeshis are very different from that of expatriate Bangladeshis. For example, the popularity/unpopularity of RAB. NRBs don’t like RAB because of their extra judicial killings and human right violations but average bangladeshis love em because they have brought back a sense of security in the social sphere. Anyways, NRBs have to make a stronger effort to get in touch with the real Bangladeshis and their problems.

  5. probashee said, on January 8, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Well, since my first trip home in 9 years is coming up in February, I’ll try to provide you some feedback when I I return. In the short time that I’ll spend in Bangladesh, I’ll try to touch as many of the items that you listed and I when I get back, may be we can compare notes…..

  6. Sid said, on January 8, 2008 at 10:56 am

    16. Spend an afternoon with the 3rd class government workers (“sweepers”) at Karwan Bazar basti and enjoy chatting with endless cups of tea. This might give you some insight into how the other 95% lives in the urban sprawl (AKA the urban planners sick joke) we call Dhaka City.

  7. Jalal said, on January 8, 2008 at 11:13 am

    This is a great list. If I may humbly add one…

    Take a rickshaw to Dhaka University campus, get off around Fuller Road, and walk around the campus, Noor Hossain Chottor, Oporajeo Bangla, Shurjoshen Hall, and then have a buttered toast in Modhu’s Canteen while listening in to the political discussions

  8. jrahman said, on January 10, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Thanks everyone for comments. I’ll definitely make a trip to Shakhari Bazaar and Karwan bazaar basti (if it is still there) next time I’m in Dhaka.

    Bonbibi, please tell us more about these Kolkata kids with social conscience. I’d be interested to know if something like that can be replicated in Dhaka.

    I’ll definitely watch Swapnabhoomi at the earliest chance. I didn’t mean to be judgemental in my point 6. As I said, that trip was 8 years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot has changed in the meantime.

    Probshee, looking forward to comparing notes.:)

    Jalal, the problem with going to DU is that amra bod hoy ekhon sir-der dole chole gesi.:(

  9. Kamal said, on January 10, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    Do all of the above — but do NOT do the unthinkable: do NOT stay here permanently. It’s a horribly unliveable country. That is why all you guys are there and not here!

    Best wishes to all of you.

  10. Bonbibi said, on January 11, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Jyoti, here’s more on the education I got in Kolkata – one steeped not just in gaining more facts about the world and learning the art of analysis but one where I was also taught how to think about the society we live in and find tangible ways to make it more equitable.

    My school principal was a leader in this domain and what she strived to do was bring about awareness amongst children going to the elite English medium schools of Kolkata.

    She is the person who sentitised me to rural and impoverished peoples’ lives and concerns (albeit those of West Bengal but completely comparable to the Bangladeshi situation). She did this by deciding that all the students attending her Loreto Sealdah (LS) school would have to go to villages.

    For this she picked a group of villages in Poilan (about 2 hours from Kolkata by bus) and decided that from class 5 onwards all her school students were to go there once a month. We were divided into 4 groups, group 1 going there in week 1 and passing down what they had taught to group 2 who went there in week 2, etc. It was a very well organise system where LS school teachers were involved and had to once a week sit with their students and make charts and organise the classes their students would be teaching the village children. Class 5 students taught the KGs, class 6 students the class 1s, etc.

    Once a year, we also organised a big science exhibition with the different pupils of all the village schools, and once the exhibition was up their teachers, parents and family were welcome to visit – which they would in the thousands!

    Going to the village to teach was mandatory and our principal used to make parents sign forms before accepting their children into her school when they came for admissions. Also, she started taking 50% students who couldn’t affort to pay LS fees. And, with the elite 50% who wanted to get admitted she refused to put 4 year old through admission tests and organised a lottery so that who entered her school was not something determined by your fathers’ bank balance, your parents’ genealogy (btw, i was horrified to learn that to get in some Dhaka elite schools you have to provide your family tree!!!) or your mothers’ fame.

    We, her students became active in raising social issues and started all sorts of campaigns – one day we were cleaning streets, another day planting trees, raising awareness about the Tianamen Sq revolution through posters stuck around our school, etc.

    When the media visited our school, she would make them interview us!! Her aim was to make us responsible citizens and many of us have kept the fire she ignited and a lot of my schoolmates have gone into jobs to do with social work or have kept a social conscience.

    We students were given a free hand to take things over. Our school was next to Sealdah station and when we got to know that many children who had run away from their homes in villages to work in Kolkata were being raped and beaten up each night by the police, medic school students, random bhadroloks.. we spoke about it and our principal decided to open the school gates for them at night so that they could sleep in the classrooms sheltered from the goondas. She gave strict instructions to the darwans garding our school gates – they were not to allow any males above the age of 15 and females above the age of 18.

    After that, she opened what was called the ‘Rainbow project’ where once a week students were made to teach the children who lived on the pavements next to the school and who worked as domestic help. Each ‘pavement-dwelling’ child had a file in their name so that even if they came after a break of a few days the LS student in charge could pick up from there. We used to do this after school hours but now it has been extended to school-time hours. The children can just pop in while their boses are taking a nap in the afternoon.

    Our principal really changed the way a lot of us saw these ‘pavement-dwelling’ and rural children and we’ve kept this sensitivity she engendered amongst us. Of course many parents started complaining saying the school was going to the dogs and lamenting the fact that school results were going down because she was bringing in ‘all types’. When I left LS to go to Loreto House for my Higher Secondary a nun on enquiring where I had studied before remarked ‘oh, that circus!’.

    But I am so proud of that ‘circus’ of a school I went to – Sr Cyril’s programmes have now been adopted in many of the elite schools of Kolkata and the government has started working very closely with her. Sr Cyril – zindabad! We need people like her and like Babu Beckers who started in the 60s the first blood donation camps!!

    Sorry this has gone on so long but I really admire that woman for what she, and her ex-students and dedicated group of teachers taught me and my friends.. Have just googled her and happily found this wikipedia piece on her – look her up and if possible visit her/my school – i’ll be your guide!

  11. talam said, on January 11, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    That sounds amazing Bonbibi. How come there are no schools in Dhaka doing something similar?

  12. zafar said, on January 12, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    nice list jyoti, and i agree 100%. but you know what, it is not only probashi bangladeshis who need to do this, how many of us who actually do live here do the things you mention with any regularity?

  13. jrahman said, on January 20, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Zafar, sadly you’re right that way too many ‘bhodroloke’ Bangladeshis don’t do these. Last January I met a guy who in his 28 years in Dhaka had never seen a river or taken a public bus. That is truly scary.

    Talam, I echo your question. What is stopping Scholastica, St Joseph or Govt Lab from setting up a programme like that? Anyone out there with real life experience in Dhaka who can shed some light?

  14. jhasan1971 said, on May 29, 2009 at 12:13 am

    Interesting read.

  15. Destination Bangladesh « Mukti said, on January 24, 2012 at 11:39 am

    […] time ago, I posted about what to do in Bangladesh.  Of course, that was addressed to diaspora kids (at heart, if not literally).  Dhaka […]

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