Sunday, March 27, 2011

South Asia Diaries - Rongpur

The flight from Kolkata, India to Dhaka, Bangladesh took approximately forty five minutes. We had returned to Kolkata from Jaipur, attended a wedding for some days, and then it was time to say goodbye to India.

As we descended the steps from the small plane, and entered the airport, the differences between Kolkata airport and Dhaka airport (now inexplicably called Hazrat Shah Jalal International Airport), were stark.

Dhaka was clean.

Yes, surprisingly, it was very clean. Even the city, as we drove through it to my uncles' place, was surprisingly neat and tidy. Maybe it was just the comparison with Kolkata, but more on Dhaka later. This post is about Rongpur.

Rongpur is my ancestral city, that I last visited over three years ago (day 1 and day 2). This time, after a day of resting in Dhaka, we (us, my cousins and my uncles) headed for Rongpur.

A boat on the rivers of Bangladesh.
Picture taken by my cousin Asrar Chowdhury.
©Asrar Chowdhury, 2011.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early to explore Rongpur. It was cold - 8 degrees C! And villagers live here without central heating or hot water.

A fog descends on Rongpur. These villagers are taking their produce to the weekly market. It is now bitterly cold, even to this Canadian.

Returning home to eat some bhapa pitha, with gur inside.

Later on, it was time to see the fishermen of the village do what one called "exercise for the fishes". They take this huge net and surround the pond with it. For my wife and I, this was something we haven't seen before. This "exercise" is to help the fish grow bigger, so as to fetch a good price when sold, and to help cull the diseased and smaller fishes.

The net is drawn closer and closer around the pond until the fishermen close in. Fishes jump about and jump out of the net into the pond (and thus are forced to become active even if they were lazy (hence the "exercise") and it also helps identify the ill fish).

The remaining fish that lie on the net are checked for illness or size. Culling of fish with undesirable characteristics (such as size, weight) is carried out.

The fish that did not make the cut. These fresh fish will be taken to the market and sold, while the rest are returned to the pond. You can see these are fresh Tilapia, sold in Canada for $2.99 - 4.99 per lb!

We bought this long fish, called "shoal" in Bengali, as well as some Tilapia.

After this 'show', it was time to start touring the village. Many of my relatives still lived here, so we had a long list of houses to visit.

A couple of cows are kept warm with their "sweaters" (which are really rice sacks redesigned to fit over their humps).

I also learned something interesting about the way the villagers prepare rice. Do you see these grains are that are spread on to the road? These are rice grains. I found that there are two steps to separate the rice grains.

Step 1 involves placing the rice grains on the road (seriously), and being separated when people (and goats, cows, chicken, etc.) trample on them (yes, that's what you eat). So here's some grains absorbing sunlight and ready to be trampled.

The separated rice grains are now swept up and collected.

Using these tools, stage 2 (finer separation) is now done. And I hope - cleaning.

Rice, ready to be stored in sacks and taken to the market.

So there was I, roaming around the village, photographing stuff, when suddenly some kids shouted, "Snake"!

Can you spot the snake in this picture? I intentionally kept the size larger so readers can have a shot at it.

Brave kids who offered to hunt and kill the snake for me. I politely declined.

These "sticks" are dried cowdung that are used as fuel in ovens to cook food. Yes, they are environment friendly, you control the heat by controlling the amount of dung, and since they are dried solid, there's no 'yuck' factor or smell. And yes, the food we ate was cooked in such oven.

FOOD! The best part of any visit to Bangladesh. If you visit a Bangladeshi household, you will see there HAS to be several items on the table. On this day, can you spot FIVE (yes, FIVE) different species of fish alone?

Rongpur was beautiful. It was clean, the air was crisp and unpolluted, the night skies amazingly clear and the stars visible, and the fresh food (fresh fish, freshly laid eggs, and had we wanted, freshly slaughtered cows!) were amazingly delicious. It was a great departure from the busy cities we were visiting, and a nice break. After a couple of days, we were ready to go back to Dhaka.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Can a Bangladeshi Support the Pakistan Cricket Team?

This Wednesday, March 23, 2011, Pakistan played West Indies in a quarter final match of the cricket World Cup. It was a knock-out game - the loser would go home and the winner on to the semi finals. The venue was Dhaka, Bangladesh. However, one could be mistaken for thinking Pakistan was playing a home game, with the 25,000 fans at the stadium solidly behind the men in green, some even painting the Pakistan flag on their cheeks or waving the star and crescent flag [source: Dawn].

On Facebook, I posted a Youtube video of a Bangladeshi spectator and a Pakistani visitor exchanging T-shirts. I was also supporting Pakistan over West Indies. This prompted a discussion by some people that these Bangladeshi supporters of the Pakistan team were a "disgrace to the nation". As a Bangladeshi, I was told, I should not be supporting the Pakistan team (which I was in this game).

This is why.
…… we were told to kill the hindus and Kafirs (non-believer in God). One day in June, we cordoned a village and were ordered to kill the Kafirs in that area. We found all the village women reciting from the Holy Quran, and the men holding special congregational prayers seeking God’s mercy. But they were unlucky. Our commanding officer ordered us not to waste any time ...
- Confession of a Pakistani Soldier

Gendercide Watch has an account of the genocide unleashed by the Pakistan army on the civilian population of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971. Information can also be found on Genocide Bangladesh.

The details are horrible. The number of dead in Bangladesh in 1971 was almost certainly well into seven figures. It was one of the worst genocides of the World War II era, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66) [Source: GW]. Apart from the killings, as many as 400,000 women were raped (and these figures are from unbiased Western sources; Bangladeshi numbers quote a higher number).

Now why do these atrocities, which occurred over 40 years ago, still have a resonance today? In particular, these are due to the shameful attitudes of modern day Pakistani citizens and their government. For example, if you talk to an average Pakistani, his or her attitude to 1971 can be categorized as one of the following:

1) These atrocities did not happen. The numbers are wildly exaggerated (possibly an Indian conspiracy to destabilize the "brotherly relations" between Pakistan and Bangladesh). Yes, there were some deaths, since this was a military action, but not anywhere close to the numbers mentioned here.

2) The army only had orders to kill Hindus.

3) Yes, these atrocities happened. But so what? It was a long time ago, and I, a modern day Pakistani, had nothing to do with it. So why should I apologize?

4) This was a shameful chapter in Pakistani history and I am truly sorry. Pakistan should formally apologize to Bangladesh and acknowledge her actions.

Sadly, not enough Pakistanis feel like the last scenario. Recently, former cricket captain Imran Khan has demanded an official apology from the Government of Pakistan to the people of Bangladesh for the atrocities allegedly committed by the Pakistan Army in 1971 [Source: 1 and 2].

As for (1), it's just not true because Pakistan's own Hamoodur Rahman Commission agreed that genocide occurred and recommended their leaders to be tried. As for (2), so what? Killing "only Hindus" is supposed to make genocide acceptable?

It's (3) that provokes debate. Should citizens today apologize for actions committed by their government years ago? I believe that in the absence of an official apology by their government, for actions that occurred with full support of the elite amongst the citizens of the time, likely their fathers or that generation, today's generation bears some responsibility to acknowledging the hurt and shame of 1971.

Why did, then, Pakistan get such support in Dhaka on Wednesday? I believe it was due to several of the following reasons.

1) They were playing West Indies, who had badly defeated Bangladesh in the group stages. People therefore wanted to see West Indies similarly humiliated.

2) In the absence of their home team, people support their neighbours or those they feel a cultural closeness with. This is why Sri Lanka, India or Pakistan get good support in Dhaka, or why Pakistan enjoyed good support when they played in Colombo.

3) It's been 40 years. If we still remained angry we wouldn't support England in any games (you could write an encyclopedia on the atrocities committed by the British Empire, apologies for which are still to be dragged out in many instances), or even Australia (the descendants of the worst of British convicts).

Personally, I keep politics and sports aside, and I genuinely like this Pakistani team. They play good cricket, are led by a terrific captain (who leads from the front), are a bunch of talented athletes that have overcome huge hurdles in their God-forsaken country to reach this stage. The Bangladesh cricket team would do well to learn from the attitude and resolve of these players.

Besides (other than cricket) Bangladesh now no longer has any need to have an inferiority complex of Pakistan. By ever standard our country is in much better shape than theirs. The Guardian congratulated Bangladesh on a vibrant economy and a strong women's movement on her 40th birthday, something unimaginable in Pakistan. It's no longer a basket case. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently compared Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Pakistan can only look on in envy. This is why today most Pakistanis support Bangladesh and wistfully imagine how different the scenario would have been had the two nations prospered together, while Bangladeshis are proudly marching ahead charting their own course.

Of course, on March 30, 2011, when India take on Pakistan in the semi final, I will be fully supporting India, inshAllah. :-)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

South Asia Diaries - Jaipur

Jaipur was to be the last Indian city we would see on this (very short) tour before heading back to Kolkata for another wedding. We only had three days, so we spent one in Delhi, one in Agra, and now one in Jaipur. Even though Jaipur is only a 4 hour ride away from Delhi (same as Agra) we had chosen to fly. Why? Well, when I booked the tickets, booking the flight from Delhi-Jaipur was just CND$10 more. And boy, were we lucky!

The day we were supposed to travel to Jaipur, there were some protests around Delhi (over the price of onions!) and the onion farmers and resellers had completely blocked the highway from Delhi to Jaipur, even the rail tracks, so the only way to go there was by flight! Lots of people at the airport, trying to get last minute tickets, and here we were, having tickets by chance!

This, being India, things are of course never smooth. You have read of our "adventures" boarding the Kolkata-Delhi flight. Here, we were barely on time, and made it past security. So there we were, sitting on the plane, when the pilot announced there was something wrong with the plane, and they are going to, believe it or not, "reboot". And for some reason, the metal in the terminal was "interfering" with the readings (I think the pilot was a Dell technician in his previous life), so the plane was going to be towed to another location, and we all had to exit the aircraft.

Long story short, 2 hours later, we got another aircraft (thank God), and were finally underway, and reached Jaipur around 10.30 in the morning. And here is one thing you have to know.

The Indian exchange rate to the Canadian dollar is AMAZING! We were in the top luxury hotel in Jaipur, and it cost only $90 a night. This is five star luxury. The wife went for a spa treatment at the hotel with the works - it was $20. I booked a whole day's taxi for 8 hours - $40. A four course meal sent up to the room - $10!

Our tour started with the beautiful Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace).

The original intention of the 700 or so windows was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen, since they had to observe strict "purdah" (face cover).

This pinkish colour of the bricks, present throughout EVERY house of Jaipur's Old City, behind the walls, is what gives Jaipur its nickname of "The Pink City". It is something to see, where EVERY building is the same colour and quite old.

Jaipur was also quite dirty - which was surprising after the clean Delhi. Perhaps Delhi was cleaned up for the Commonwealth Games 2010, but there were lots of tourists in Jaipur, and it was a shame they had to see the magnificient ancient stuff amidst dirty, really dirty, streets. Rubbish was scattered beside each street, flies were buzzing around and people just threw their litter wherever they wished.

Thanks to the strikes and blockades of the highway by the onion protests, there wasn't too many tourists in the city which made our visits really pleasant - none of the places were as crowded as they should have been. Our next stop was Jantar Mantar.

These are observatories made for the study of the heavens. As an amateur astronomer, it was fascinating. You don't need to spend a lot of time here, but it's something unique. There were structures made parallel to the earth's longitude, stairs that pointed north star, etc. As usual, I have posted a lot more pictures on Facebook.

Right next to Jantar Mantar was the City Palace, our next stop. It was the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur (he still lives there!). It also houses a big museum.

Do these walls look familiar? The Bollywood epic Jodha Akhbar was shot on location in this city.

The vibrant colours of the palace reminded me of the multi-coloured houses of Venice.

A traditional puppet show in City Palace (traditional, yet they had a Michael Jackson puppet!).

Our next target was Amber Fort (also known as Amer Fort). This is where Jodha Akbar was primarily shot - and it's a bit away from the city.

We had to share the road with elephants!

Amber Fort is known for its artistic style, blending both Hindu and Mughal elements. The fort borders the Maota Lake.

Courtyard of the palace. The song "Azim-o-shaan Shahenshah" was shot on location here.

Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) - a section inside the fort full of mirrors of intricate design and artwork all across the walls (and ceiling).

A garden where the Head Queen used to relax with her maidens and sing songs for the Maharaja (or so the guide told us).

A window where the Head Queen used to sit and watch the goings on in the courtyard while observing "purdah".

A view of the city below from the Maharajah's chamber.

Traditional Rajasthani bangles sold in what was the Royal Kitchen.

Our final stop of the day was Jal Mahal (Water Palace). The idea of visiting it in the evening was to see the lighting that makes for nice pictures.

Unfortunately, like many areas of India, it started to get shadier and shadier as darkness grew, so after waiting sometime we decided to retire to our hotel. We only caught the beginning stages of the lighting (pictures on Facebook), but it was still a nice sight.

Overall Jaipur was a nice stop. Many tourists do the whole Rajasthan trip, which includes Udaipur, Jaisalmer and few other cities (particularly for fans of the Satyajit Ray movie Shonar Kella). If we had time, I would also have done the same. It could get repetitive, with same type of fortresses, palaces etc. so you have to mix up your itinerary. You don't really need to book via a group travel agency, as everything is online and hotels take care of everything. However you have to stay in the top hotels which has the good facilities suitable for Westerners, otherwise Jaipur can be very backwards.

Once back in our hotel, they put on a Rajasthani dance show for the patrols, as well as a cultural show; not to mention a palmist - which every hotel had. Overall, our stay in Jaipur was a very pleasant one.

South Asia Diaries - Agra

Agra is anywhere between 3.5 to 5 hours drive away from Delhi, depending on traffic. We booked a taxi from the hotel in Delhi, to leave around 6.30 am in the morning. We ordered breakfast in bed (thanks to the fantastic currency exchange rate, a deluxe breakfast fit for a king cost 1.5 Canadian dollars). Then we were off.

The drive was - fascinating - and eventful - especially near some of the state borders where the drivers have to stop and fill out paper work, and you can be entertained (if you wish) by dancing monkeys. I had chosen a private taxi from the hotel rather than a chartered bus because the bus does other Agra sight seeing, whereas we were interested in only the Taj Mahal.

I also found it very amusing that everyone in Delhi (from taxi drivers to rickshaw wallahs) spoke a dialect of Hindi that was much like what Salman Khan spoke in Dabangg!

This is The Great Gate (Darwaza-i-Rauza), or the entrance to the Taj Mahal. This, though red, is also made of marble. There were LOTS of louts near the area, pretending to be guides (seen Slumdog Millionaire?) and promising they will get you to skip the lines. I saw some of them slipping bribes to the guards with their clients.

The first sight of the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is known throughout the world as a symbol of love. Do you know how MUCH love? It was built in honour of Emperor Shah Jahan's THIRD wife, who died giving birth to their FOURTEENTH child.

This is a view from far, just upon entering the complex. You can see the beautiful gardens and the pool leading to the Taj, The whole complex is made in a symmetrical design.

Viewing the Great Gate (Darwaza-i-Rauza) from inside.

The 'reflecting' pool. Shah Jahan was one of the first to use pools and fountains as places of tranquility in architectural designs. It had now become quite dirty.

The Taj Mahal looks the same viewed from any direction. This is from inside the mosque, to the side of the Taj Mahal (there's a mosque on either side of the Taj, mirror images of each other).

A quiet corner in the mosque.

Passages from the Qur'an are used as decorative elements in the Taj. The texts refer to themes of Day of Judgment and God's power, end times and death.

A very rare sight - at least for someone visiting from Kolkata - Indians standing in a line in an orderly fashion

A view of the masjid (mosque) to the right of the Taj. A mirror image exists on the other side.

Overall the Taj Mahal is a beautiful piece of architecture, a moment of magic captured in time forever, and the long trip back and forth from Delhi is all worth it just to see this splendid tribute to human imagination. Pictures fail to do it justice - it really is a wonderful and glorious place to visit.

There are some things to be cautioned about though - outside the Taj is a place known as a den of thieves, so come with a private taxi and keep a hold on your valuables. You don't need to take a rickshaw to go from where cars are not allowed to the Great Gate - it's just a ten minute walk - and you will see peacocks! And be very aware of those louts and "guides" - politely decline all attempts to skip the line and you really don't need a guide. If you are a white skinned person who does not speak the language be prepared to pay through the nose for everything. Sometimes it pays to be mistaken as an Indian! You have to pass through the worst of India before you can see the best of India - but once inside - it's all worth it.