Dhaka through fresh eyes

It has been almost a year since I first arrived in Dhaka. I came here, a little apprehensive, unsure as to whether I would make it my home here for the next few years. New India is unabashedly pursuing wealth and prosperity. I was leaving behind the steel and glass structures of Gurgaon, a bristling suburb replete with malls and condominiums, the temples of a modern nation. A new government had come to power with the prospect of “acche din” ahead. We heard noises about progress, growth, about our country taking her rightful place on the world stage.

When we said that we were moving to Bangladesh, people were sympathetic, as though we had admitted to an unfortunate disease or a demotion. If Pakistan carried the image of being a frightening, dangerous place, Bangladesh had associations of poverty and sorrow. Many people had been to Nepal and Bhutan as tourists but most were quite ignorant about Dhaka. Our friends and neighbours could tell us how to live and settle down in Singapore, London and USA but no one I knew had even visited Dhaka.

The few pictures I had seen on the internet were not promising. An acquaintance who knew the place warned me not to have any expectations. During my first visit, I looked at the city as an outsider, my eyes noticing only what I saw on the surface- battered buses, scarred and wounded like old warriors, the weary clatter of rickshaws, the black wires that festooned the buildings like strange necklaces and the overwhelming crush of people everywhere. Dhaka seemed like an old city, dragging itself into a new century, unable to unshackle itself from the past.

Recently I heard Prime Minister Modi’s speech during his visit to Bangladesh. It was surprising to see every other remark of his being greeted with claps by the crowd which had more Bangladeshis than the Indian diaspora. The mood seemed upbeat. Strategically, India and Bangladesh are important for each other. Politically and commercially, our ties should grow stronger. If we are to be more than just neighbours who can share the same boundary wall without coming to blows, we need to forge a connection from the heart. A true partnership comes from a deeper understanding and respect for each other.

Over the past year, I have realised that the treasures of Bangladesh reveal itself only if you have the patience to dig deeper. You need to slow down so that you can see clearly. My experience is limited to certain parts of Dhaka and a trip to the Sundarbans, but I do have some sense of the nation. It is in the cultural and social arena that we can connect better with each other.

There have always been historic connections, a shared past, similarities in culture, especially with the Indian Bengali. Today, Indian popular culture has also found its way into the Bangladeshi consciousness. Most of the Bangladeshis I have met are well informed about India, many have visited an Indian city and can speak with some knowledge about Calcutta or Mumbai. Bollywood songs play at the department stores and our Kareena Kapoor and Deepika Padukone appear on the billboards promoting soaps and shampoos. A Bangladeshi lady spoke to me about her addiction to Indian television soaps. Hindi films are shown at the club down our road. I saw the women swaying happily to the tunes of Sunidhi Chauhan at a concert here, mouthing the lyrics and singing along. A few months ago, I attended the Bengal Music festival, where thousands of people sat through the night listening to leading exponents of classical music from India. While most Bangladeshis will not cheer for the Indian cricket team, they have an opinion on each of the players. They are aware of the Indian political scenario. Many of them would like to travel to India more often.

While India might loom larger in the Bangladeshi consciousness, I also find many areas where we can learn and be inspired by the culture here. If, we are to have a relationship with an equal footing, as Mr. Modi declared, we should tap into what Bangladesh can offer us as well.

There is a deep and abiding love for the Bengali language. While English is fast emerging as the lingua franca of the urban Indian, here Bengali continues to flourish. A Bengali book fair stays open for a whole month. I have started speaking more of Tamil and Hindi here with my family and Indian friends. I see how language connects to something primal, a deep need to feel connected to your roots. While I don’t see English as an alien language, being able to acknowledge your own linguistic identity gives you a stronger sense of self.

While many Pakistani actors and singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Veena Malik have been well received, I have not come across many Bangladeshi artists in India. There are some extremely talented musicians here who can sing both hard rock and Rabindra sangeet with equal aplomb. There is a rich tradition of folk songs- the Baul singers show with the same passion and intensity as the Sufi singers who have been quite popular in India. Art is flourishing, whether on the walls of the Charukala academy or through the lens of the talented photographers. We need more cultural exchanges from this side of the border.

I see a genuine desire to be secular and inclusive. Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul Geeti are both sung with love and reverence. The sari and teep are worn by both Hindu and Muslim ladies. The lungi and the Panjabi coexist. Women seem comfortable both with and without the hijab. Buddha Purnima is a national holiday and people can take off on Saraswati Puja. Despite the attack on secular bloggers, despite the murmurs of rising religious fundamentalism, there is still a sense of freedom and ease in the way the common people conduct their lives. The Bangladeshi has been able to separate the religion from extraneous aspects of culture and honour both. This is something worth emulating.

Too often, we hold a stereotypical image of the Muslim woman- shrouded in the burkha, oppressed by patriarchy and injunctions of her religion. Last month, during a radio interview, I was asked about the differences between Indian and Bangladeshi women. I had to struggle to spot any significant difference. You don’t see as many women in public spaces here. Most of the women do dress more modestly in deference to the religion. At a conference on Leadership for women, several prominent women spoke confidently and comfortably about their roles and challenges-no different from anywhere in the world. More women are entering public and professional spaces due to economic compulsions and individual ambitions. There are the similar issues of harassment and discrimination but I also see respect. I don’t feel uncomfortable while walking on the roads of my neighbourhood or speaking to guards, rickshaw pullers and shopkeepers. The issue of sexual harassment during the Pohela Baishakh celebrations was horrific, yet the protests against it by men and women were a sign of hope. There is so much energy and enthusiasm here to be nurtured and channelised towards the growth of the women and the nation.

Healthy relationships with neighbours are based on a spirit of give and take, of cooperation and collaboration. What helps both neighbours share the same space is an acknowledgement that our similarities are more than our differences, that we each bring valuable things to the table. What affects one, impacts the other as well. What remains to be seen is if we can move beyond just peaceful coexistence and truly enrich each other’s lives, not just as neighbours but as friends.

This article was first published on the Dhaka Tribune