This is the end of my third day in Dhaka and I’m back to my little room in BRAC Inn, a guest house facility of BRAC. We had long discussions in the morning about parliamentary oversight and consented on a set of recommendations to be given to SAARC countries’ parliaments to increase transparency and openness to civil society / people / media. The deliberations ended with a comprehensive document carrying specific recommendations for each country in South Asia. On the previous day, broad framing of issues had been done around Judicial, parliamentary and government regulations. There were around 30 delegates from all the SAARC countries save Bhutan. As usual, the discussion was dominated by Indian and Pakistani delegates. Pakistani delegation was led by revered I. A. Rehman and comprised Advocate Asad Jamal, Mukhtar Ahmad Ali, Executive Director CPDI and the author.
Among the delegates, Yamini Mishra immediately got my attention due to her focussed approach and for her knowledge on budget and government accountability. Also, my eyes kept slipping from one face to other looking for Amitabh Behar, for his first name – he is namesake of my favourite actor !
Well, all these details need to be pushed to a later writing for we had an excellent evening after the session that deserves a mention here. Shaheen Anam and Hameeda Hossein were worried about me ending up in overspending on sarhis. Shaheen zealously kept on jotting down names of shops and marketplaces where I can get good variety of Jaamdani and silk sarhis in reasonable prices (little did she know that I have already spent major chunk of my cash on the first day, in Arung!). Hameeda was concerned about my ability to get to a roadside shop to get matching Teeps. These passionate women wanted to be as much of help to me as possible. Sweet!
Before I could barely move out of this crowd, Rehman uncle was seen suddenly leaping towards me against all odds- the randomly placed chairs in a tight Board Room. I was alerted for a moment, did I say something wrong during the discussions? God, how should I control my emotionally charged harangues during political discussions? Well, lets see what did I do recently to deserve a chide from Rehman uncle in his usual slight way. And he has reached where I am. Tick tick tick… please uncle speak up . . . Ji Khatoon, kia programme hay aap ka? What? Aahh . . . Rehman uncle actually wants me to accompany him somewhere! He wanted to get a shopping comrade to go to Arung with him, where he wanted to buy something for his grand children. As soon as we snaked our way out of the Board Room, we saw a de-hyderated Asad Jamal and a routinely calm Mukhtar who too wanted our company.
It was very humid but pleasantly airy outside. For the first time I did not mind absence of a car. I normally use rent-a-car service of the hotel I’m staying in, when I travel in our outside the country, for being an extremely lethargic person. But today, it felt really good to be with people, walk along crowded roads without footpaths lined with encroachments and with lungi clad men, sarhi clad women waiting for transport. Public transport is in shambles. Busses can merely move, taxis are few and very expensive, auto-rikshaws are abundant still not enough for an ever increasing middle class of Dhaka city, cycle rikshaws are most popular and most abundant. I could not make it out. Around the world, everything that involves human hand and effort, is far more expensive than the machine based work. Here, cycle rikshaw was much much lesser in price than any other transport! From Mohakali to Beli Road, we had given 250 takas to a taxi, an auto rikshaw (I checked later) would charge around 100 taka, while a cycle rikshaw would be extremely happy if you give him 30 takas instead of his expected 20 takas.
Anyway, we kept waiting for any transport to be available until a fan of Rehman uncle reached out to us and sweetly offered a lift in his small Maruti sized car. Before uncle or any of the gentlemen could say anything, I accepted his sweet offer, in an equally sweet manner! He dropped us at Arung in Gulshan. We got stuff from there and moved to the road once again to get a transport back, while holding all those bags in our little hands! While waiting for an angel at the road, Asadf got this brilliant idea of eating out. I called Usman to guide us to a restaurant, who immediately took it upon himself to host us a dinner. So sweet!
After an effort, we were able to get a taxi. We were unable to convey the taxi driver that we want a drop at Street 7, Gulshan 1, while he has to take Uncle back to Mohakali . . . language barrier. Most of the Bangladeshis do not understand Urdu, hindi or English. Their education is largely in their mother tongue – Bengali – till graduation, except few science subjects, which too are not enough for communicating in English without difficulty. We somehow managed to drop uncle first and then going to street 7, where the rendezvous with Usman was a book shop Words and Pages – city’s only big book shop.
Words and Pages was a small sized deserted shop which did not have most celebrated works like Nazrul, any history book covering pre 1971 period and about personalities like Sirajud Daula, who had hailed from Bengal. The culture of reading, the sales manager told us, was rapidly diminishing from Dhaka. We could not find anything that we were excited about. One badly printed version of Lalun ( a sufi saint poet of Bengal) and Tagore was surely there. A corner was allocated to the music CDs but sadly, we could not find Firdausi Begum, Shehnaz Begum or Nazrul geeti sung by anyone, Tagore Shongeet etc. Big disappointment indeed.
One thing that I could not miss in Dhaka was, women engaged with all aspects of life. Economic activity, intellectual discourse or arts, women are everywhere. Gender segregation practically does not exist. Music is a pet of every household. A very religious practicing Muslim, Nirupama Abdul Waheed, wakes up early in the morning to say Fajar prayer, and cannot think of missing her riaz on harmonium immediately after namaz. People’s names are quite misleading as well. Nirupama Abdul Waheed, Uttam Biswas s/o Ghulam Haider . . . and many.