There is a saying among people, especially expatriates, who come to Dhaka-“You cry when you land and you cry when you leave.” When I moved to Dhaka with my daughter in 2014, in the wake of my husband’s job, I was dry eyed but dubious. Bangladesh, though our neighbouring country, was still a mystery. I was more ignorant than I cared to admit and the nonchalant response from the few who had visited earlier, resulted in subsidised expectations underneath my optimistic facade.I did not know what to make of this place that seemed, on the outside, so much like home, yet was an alien land.
Three years later, as I get ready to leave Bangladesh, I feel as though I am parting from someone who during the course of our interaction has grown from being a stranger to someone I might call a friend. It is at the moment you have to say goodbye that you realise that time has gone by quickly just as after an interesting conversation with a fellow passenger during a long flight. Though there are questions unasked and unanswered, swathes of interesting terrain still to be explored, in that space, during that time, you have gathered memories and accumulated experiences that will linger after the journey is over.
Apart from a sheaf of jamdani saris, strings of pearls and crockery sets from Shinepukur, what do I take back from here?
[caption id="attachment_73423" align="alignleft" width="450"]
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain[/caption]
Of forests and festivals
An image of tangled tree roots from the Sundarban forest. A clutch of grey spikes poking up from the ground like quills on the back of a giant dragon. I was a part of a group of 30 adults and children who had travelled to the Sundarbans. A flight to Jessore, a drive to Khulna and then a two day boat ride on the Kokilmoni, sailing across the Bay of Bengal. Despite our fervent hope, we did not sight the elusive Sundarban tiger. I ruminated instead on the nature of human roots, the invisible lines that bind us to a land, a community, to an idea of a nation and the visible markers that unite us in a new land.
Sounds of voices raised in song in a melody both strange and familiar. Two years ago, I had been a part of the Pohela Boishakh celebrations at Ramna Park and pushing through the throngs of people clad in various shades of white and red, I saw groups of women, wearing saris, with teeps on their foreheads, white jasmine in their hair, singing songs of Tagore. It was a celebration that embraced the spirit and culture of a people, without the usual religious or nationalistic overtones. A nation does not have a single story.
I was fortunate to be a part of the Dhaka Lit Fest for the past two years. While the confluence of thoughts, ideas and conversations with authors from different parts of the world were invigorating, the festival was also a celebration of freedom of expression and the triumph of reason over radicalism. The pen, I realised, was perhaps mightier than the sword.
The Dhaka Art Summit brought the best of world art to the city and showcased the work of local artists to the world. I had been enraptured along with thousands of music lovers through the night in a large stadium listening to classical music at the Bengal Classical Music Festival that binds the musicians and their audience on a scale that I have not experienced before. At the Folk Festival, I tapped my feet to the beat of Joler Gaan from Bangladesh and Abida Parveen’s soulful Sufi melodies, mingled with the zesty scales of the Manganiyars from Rajasthan. I knew the music indeed has the power to breach boundaries and unite souls.
[caption id="attachment_73424" align="aligncenter" width="485"]
Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu[/caption]
Language, loss and learning
A cumulus of words in Bangla. I am not fluent but have been learning Bangla for over a year now through weekly classes and informal conversations with guards and helpers. Bangla has proved to be easy and tough - my knowledge of Hindi has made comprehension easier yet the same knowledge made it difficult to dislodge old constructs. I have experienced the serendipity of coming across kalo, nil and laal and yet being befuddled by the shada and sobuj. I have struggled with reading the alphabets and also felt that piercing joy as a strange string of characters on a billboard suddenly made sense. Learning a new language opens up new pathways in the brain, it gives a road map to understanding a culture.
A new insight into the meaning of resilience. For many people, especially those who live in the tri-state area of Gulshan, Baridhara and Banani, life in Dhaka will probably be divided into the period Before Holey and After Holey. I know that we live in turbulent times where life is precarious, yet this was too close to home. Our fragile little bubble had burst with the shock, horror and panic that ensued after the terror attacks, but we chose to stay back in Dhaka. I learnt to live cautiously and challenged myself to find freedom amidst all the restrictions. Over the past year, the fear which loomed over us like a monster has become a loyal little dog, always at our heels. Along with the rest of the nation and visitors from different countries, we set to the business of life with hope and prayers, knowing that we cannot live forever in the shadow of terror.
[caption id="attachment_73427" align="alignright" width="551"]
Students and teachers of Faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University are preparing for celebrating the upcoming Bangla new year festival through selling arts and crafts for fund raising. Photo: Syed Latif Hossain/Dhaka Tribune[/caption]
A manuscript. New experiences have served to germinate the seeds of inspiration, especially for writers. I have collected stories here, stored observations and gleaned gold from chance conversations. I have been working on a novel about the friendship between three women- Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi in contemporary Dhaka, seeking to explore how the political affects the personal; how the conflicted past of our nations still impacts present relationships. As I have been working on it, I have seen the world struggling to cope with the ideologies which infiltrate our daily lives. It doesn’t matter if it is India or Bangladesh or Pakistan or any other country; we cannot give in to the demands of those who seek to impose their ideology of hatred, we cannot allow polemic to pass off as patriotism or condone violence in the name of religious fidelity. The process of exploring and writing has left me with a sense of responsibility to stay courageous, keep my heart open and find a new hope for our neighbourhood.
Till we meet again
Wrapping up this chapter in boxes feels surreal. Our daughter does not want to leave, she has grown to love the inclusive diverse environment of her school and cherish the strong bonds with friends here. I too feel a profound appreciation for the connections I have made here, friendships with some amazing people from different parts of the world that I hope will last long after I leave. I part with a sweet sorrow, knowing that this is the way of all journeys. I take leave of a place that has made me feel quite at home. As I go back to the place that was once home, I am reminded of what TS Eliot said, "The end of all our exploration is to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time."
As gratitude for all that I experienced mingles with something almost like grief, I know in my heart that this is not a final farewell. Dhaka, abar dekha hobe.