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Dhaka: Diary of Conflict

People assume, not unreasonably, that academics can live an ivory tower existence. These days, researchers are probably more efficient at their job in some ways sitting at their desk, with access to online materials.
   This was not always the case, particularly in some areas of study. Several times, I went to Bangladesh to interview people and visit places in conditions that were dangerous - and at times, life threatening.
   No-one who hasn't experienced circumstances where there is no effective rule of law, no guarantee of personal safety even in a police station, the presence of bombs, small arms fire and other deadly weapons can appreciate what this is like, especially if you are on your own and have to take on trust the word of people you do not know.
   I have been in these conditions. I wrote diaries and kept records of events. Some of these may seem implausible in our safely cocooned society in Australia. Some things may even seem melodramatic.
   Reading back through my 1996 diary, when Bangladesh seemed on the verge of a civil war I was trapped in, there was nothing melodramatic about it at all from my point of view, yet there are things I wrote then that I probably would have written differently with more maturity and understanding. Yet I have not edited these out as I may as well leave it as an historical record and not something that looks more polished and benefiting from the wisdom of hindsight. Remember also that descriptions of Bangladesh are from 1996 and not now, 15 years later!
   My Bangladeshi friends may think it is overstated in places, but that's because the majority of them have lived with extremes all their lives, especially those who were part of the holocaust in Bangladesh in 1971 and have subsequently witnessed political violence and death on a scale practically no-one in Australia can start to imagine unless they have covered an active war zone.
   Here is one academic who didn't live his academic life in an ivory tower.

March 6, 1996. 6.15 am

First day

I've thrown open the old wooden doors to the patio so I can get the last of the fresh morning breeze before the day starts to heat up too much. It will get hot later, but nothing like as hot as it will be in a few months time.

There's a noisy chorus of crows regaling the dawn and reminding each other who owns what part of the tree or pole they claim for themselves. They must be Muslim-aware crows because they seem to have waited for the call to prayer and the morning observances to be complete.

Soon, the human population will take charge of proceedings. This time of the morning there is still peace and quiet on the road, but it won't be long before the cars and trucks and the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws will start competing with the cycle rickshaws for their ephemeral inch of the road - that inch around each vehicle which acts like an invisible force-field miraculously separating each from the other. Most of the time, anyway.... More on that later.

There are a few mosquitoes around - surprisingly few inside, although this room is easily accessible from outside, and if I go onto the patio I can see them buzzing around. Maybe they're Hindu mosquitoes... vegetarian. No such luck.... I put on the ceiling fan occasionally to drive them away, and remind myself to take my malaria tablet with breakfast.

The fan itself looks like a relic from the Raj; it has only one speed, and that is ON. Very on. But that's the way it has to be when the weather gets stiflingly hot in the summer months. I try to imagine what will happen if it detaches from that height as it shakes and vibrates - will its weight enable it to decapitate me at a single stroke, or will it float down and slowly slice me up like a carrot?

Perfect surroundings

I'll try to describe what my surroundings are like.

This is an upstairs room, basically the whole top floor of a traditional old-Dhaka (as distinct from new-Dhaka) house. It has 4 metre high ceilings (about 14 feet) and the big overhead fan hangs from the centre of the room. The walls are coconut-ice pink as only South Asian interior wall colours can be, and the ceiling was originally white. It's not very, any more, but it's a long way up there!

I've been loaned a radio-cassette recorder - very similar to Sylvia's if not identical and the radio is tuned to the BBC. In the corner is a bed about as big as Sylvia's. It has the hard straw mattress that all beds here have. Usually you spend an uncomfortable night on them the first night and they feel great from then on.

This time, for some reason, I have adjusted immediately, and slept well. Mind you, that's not surprising after the rigours of the last few days. The room itself is about 8 metres square. The doors that I've opened face west, so later today this part of the house gets the full force of the afternoon sun.

The moon is setting, and Holi festival has begun for the Hindus. They usually throw colours over everyone - rather like a water-fight, only with coloured powder. Not that it's celebrated these days in Dhaka - not publicly anyway, though it was in the early days of Bangladesh when in was better fun being a Hindu than later.

The day kicks off

Ah, the first motorbike has started up outside. Pity. Dhaka is about to put on its daytime face. And the first plaintive wail from the horn of an autorickshaw indicates that we are about to roll. The news has switched from English to Bangla, and it is playing Bangla songs.

On the opposite wall is the door that leads out to the bathroom through a narrow aisle. There's an ante-room rather like a change-room where you can put clothes while you shower, and where a wooden stand sits to hang clothes on.

Top floor

The wiring is 1940s vintage and anyone who has been into houses of that era in Australia will recognise the switches. The walls have little recesses around in which Hindu deities would have been placed in earlier times - small shrines to Siva or Vishnu or perhaps Sarasvati, goddess of learning. Now they are empty (except for my tiny good-luck Buddha), for this part of the house has not been used for several years. It shows it, of course, though Ira (the Russian daughter-in-law of the Bhattacharyas) has come in and freshened it up.

The floors are concrete or at least the sort that water can flow over and do no damage. It's a floor made for bare feet. Mine are. It feels good.


The bathroom is plain and simple - just perfect, in fact. A large red bucket sits under a tap, with the dipper to pour water over yourself. The toilet works fine except that it doesn't flush automatically; Mrs Bhattacharya has asked the plumber to come and fix it and is embarrassed that he has failed to arrive and that the process has to be done manually, with the bucket. I've reassured her it doesn't matter to me in the least - which it doesn't - but she still feels it keenly.

She asked me whether I want hot water for my shower - I have refused, because it means not only that I would have to call for hot water from downstairs from the servants, but that my shower time is limited to when I call for water, and also because the water from the tap is a perfect temperature for a shower anyway - just at that point where you feel the chill for the first pour and you say "aaaah!" and it feels great from then on. I've always felt that it's the nicest way to shower in a warm climate. And the climate is Dhaka now is definitely on the warm side - and getting warmer daily.

Mrs B’s hospitality.

She was also a little distressed about two other things - firstly, that she couldn't walk up the steep stairs because she has a knee problem - to see if everything was all right with my room or to bid me goodnight - and secondly, because there was no bell up there to summon a servant if I needed one. Needless to say, I reassured her that we could bid each other goodnight perfectly adequately at the foot of the stairs, and that I don't need servants very much.

Perhaps this gives a slightly misleading impression of Mrs B., as if she were some relic of a bygone era, but she is gentle and sweet-natured, though strong in mind and spirit. She is simply concerned for my comfort and that everything is as it should be for me.

She has a really sunny and bright nature and is kind to everyone in the household, especially the servants and to the families that live in the houses round the yard. At 70 years of age, she is one of those women who was always a feminist, especially concerned that the women in the household are not made to work too hard. There's a story there, I'm sure of it. There seem to be no men servants - chowkidar or anything like that - just the driver who comes as required.

Mr B’s character

Mr B. is also a great personality. He's 81 and a little shaky but looks younger, and treats everyone in a kindly way as well. Everyone respects him enormously, you can see that. He is something like a guru in the way he talks, and he has had a fascinating background - science, economics and law degrees, judge, jailed for two years in the early 50s because he was a communist... There's a story there and I hope to find it out too.


The attitude to servants in this household is different to any that I've seen elsewhere on the subcontinent. Sometimes in other places they have that beaten down look, obsequiously submissive and fearful, but here they do their work quietly and so it seems to me on first glance at least, happily, and the children skip in and out, and treated more like grandchildren, really. They all hold their heads high, and live in quarters downstairs surrounding the house, simple but substantial concrete dwellings like the main house.

Facing the day

Anyway, by 6.00 am all ablutions on the first day were complete, and I feel great. Considering that my body is still on Eastern Australian time, which is now approaching 10:00 am, to rise early here on Dhaka time is hardly a trouble.

Now that the sun is up, I've taken my chair onto the patio. I can hear the sweeper downstairs and hope that the servants don't come out here for the moment. They have their washing lines here and I see that clothes that were hanging up earlier have already been removed. They might think that they can't come here if I have taken over the space, and that would be a pity.

This is a learned household, and it emanates a wonderful gentleness that is impossible to describe in words. More on that later as well - if I find some words for it.

Amazing! Even the dogs in this neighbourhood are friendly. Normally they are miserable and mean, but the one here wags its tail at you and trusts you, which is more than they do in other parts of the city. (Nor would you trust them!) There's one curled up near my feet at the moment, quite comfortable under the edge of shade of the big mango tree. (Now that I've moved back inside, he's sitting guarding the door for me. But I think the servants will give him short shrift when they come by.)

Getting there

Let's go back a bit. The flight to Singapore was fairly uneventful, though it was one of their more recent planes and the technology might interest you. Now there is a colour LCD screen on the back of the seat in front of you, and a handset that allows you to watch any of the latest release movies, news services, teletext, computer games (just great for the kids) or find out essential information that business persons want to know, flight info, travel info - all that sort of thing. I watched The Bridges of Madison County and something else, and the time passed pretty quickly.

Singapore is bustly and fast and modern, a huge contrast to Dhaka in many ways, but I'm not sure all to the good. Not that I was there long, arriving late at night and leaving early. Ishtiaq was very kind and I realised that I had met him in Dhaka on my last visit; he lived then in Dhanmondi. I didn't sleep a great deal because I was a bit nervous about what was to come. Eight years is a long time since the last trip, and much had happened.

I got to Singapore airport in plenty of time. Of course, there was extra paper-work for the Dhaka flight - more bits required so that officials in Dhaka would have something to do with them - or appear to at any rate.

It's a bit amusing to see the contrast between the plane that came from Australia to Singapore and the one I was in for Dhaka. As it turned around in Dhaka, it was occupied (pretty sparsely, given the tense political situation) with Bangladeshi men, a few with wives in tow, a very few disconsolate/apprehensive whities like me (including an Australian woman with three kids who has lived with her husband at Mymensingh for 6 years on some project - but she wasn't apprehensive!)

The hydraulic system groaned all the way to Dhaka, the hostiles (now that's a Freudian slip!) hosties (willowy Singapore Airline Chinese glamour-pusses for the most part) were sullen and unenthusiastic about heading for Dhaka (well, their smiles were less than sincere at any rate). Bangladeshi men, businessmen especially, don't always make the best clients to be looked after; they do not bring home perfume for their wives nor whiskey for themselves, but invest all money possible into what consumer items can be brought back on the plane.

In spite of the fact that the plane was half empty, I was seated beside a curious but friendly young Bangladeshi guy who was working in Borneo, and of course put me through the third degree as to why I was going to Bangladesh. (Can't blame him I guess!) I gave him a business card to shut him up and then realised that he would want me to put my residential address in Dhaka on it. I didn't want to because I was staying with a Hindu family and didn't want to draw non-Hindu attention to the fact. I'm definitely out of practice with being evasive in these ways.

But the ghosts of 1989 still haunt me, in terms of the bad old Ershad days and being shadowed by Internal Security when I went to meet people who were persona non grata with the Ershad regime. If you don’t know what that’s like then you won’t understand.

At the airport

It wasn’t a bad flight notwithstanding - it made it to Dhaka anyway, and that's pretty vital. "We HOPE you enjoy you stay in Dhaka," the captain says as we taxi in, and you can almost see the crooked grin on his face, because he's pretty damn certain you won't. And he's not staying, that's for sure - he'll be back in the air within hours.

By the time the aircraft had slowed down, half the passengers were standing up ready to make a bolt for the door the earliest possible moment it opened and the stewards had virtually to restrain them forcibly.

I discovered the reason as soon as we made it into the Immigration queue. There were three flights scheduled that day and they had arrived within ten minutes of each other; returning hajjis from Mecca, Saudis and fifteen football teams, queued up a mile long at the desks, three for foreigners and four for Bangla nationals. I suspected that we were in for a long wait.

Miraculously, half the line I was in turned out to be wrongly queued Bangladeshis (poor sods, they ended up at the end of their queues) and people with non-Bangla faces were picked out and a special queue created in front of people who had no pale faces (infuriating several Bangladeshis holding US passports, and I don’t blame them!) and we slipped through with the minimum of fuss.

Of course, this part of the procedure is irrelevant if when you get to the luggage area, there is nothing coming off. A light showing our flight was above a shuddery carousel but all that was coming through was a multitude of consumer items and a few cases. Eventually the light changed and we turned to another carousel, which had assumed responsibility for us.

Then there was nothing to be done but wait - nervously, because we could see what was happening to the bags as they were being off-loaded from other planes. As the ranks of the waiting thinned and cries of ecstasy were uttered by people reunited with their belongings, each of us left there grew more and more worried, thinking of the nightmare to come if the bags weren't there.

"Disembarking passengers are reminded that the following goods imported into Bangladesh may attract import duties: CD players, TVs, Home Entertainment Centres, etc., fridges, stoves and toilet pedestals (I kid thee not about the toilet pedestals [or the others])" - the list went on and on; not surprisingly because there was at least twenty of every item coming down the chute (though I can't honestly say I saw a toilet pedestal.)

To cut a long wait short, my luggage did come, I saw, we conquered. Not having imported a toilet pedestal, I simply picked up my bag and strolled past everybody, looking into a sea of several zillion faces, when Debapriya asked the guy in front of me, are you Professor Denis Wright? Oh joy! I quickly put him straight, happily leaving the guy he'd asked to his fate, and we left the terminal.

The way to Wari

Outside was a sight sufficient to strike terror into the heart of any rookie traveller to the subcontinent. Inside was a sea of faces, but outside was the entire Pacific Ocean of humanity; not all that pacific, and all waiting for someone. I can't tell you though, what a relief it is to get your luggage looking remarkably unscathed one minute, and your host latching onto you the next.

Suddenly we were off into the dusty streets of Dhaka, and here we came into contact with things I had kinda forgotten about, but which will come out later no doubt.

This may read like a first ever trip to Bangladesh, but I had made quite a few since 1973. The last one having been in 1989, it just seemed in 1996 as if it were unfamiliar.

There is an old Bengali story that whereas most of the world shows its health in its body, the Bengali shows it only in his face. The airport road is the face of Dhaka - treelined and reasonably wide, with traffic lights that cars obey, more or less. It is the face that leaders want visitors to remember.

Once you get into the city itself, then the free-for-all begins. Traffic police stand on corners with a stick in their hand, occasionally doing something to sort out a particularly bad scramble, but mostly they let the traffic settle its own disputes. Motijeel, the commercial centre of the city, is a cacophony of continuous horns, rings of cycle bells, protests of baby taxis, demands by buses and trucks for their moving space. Above all, the fumes of traffic dominate your consciousness - if it were any worse, you'd be unconscious!

As the traffic thins slightly towards the old city, the streets become narrower, the roads more broken up, and the rules even less clearly defined. Rankin Street, where my hosts live, is a higgeldy-piggledy lane bordered by dingy concrete dwellings. In front of these lanes, humanity in various forms spill out. The rickshaw re-wheeling man is on the street itself, and many other enterprises work from the space where a footpath normally is, but which is encroached on constantly by vehicles.

The house at Rankin Street

We turn into a little cul-de-sac, at the corner of the house of my host. We enter the front gate - the gate-within-a-gate that people go through instead of opening the whole gate. Servants' quarters are immediately inside, adjacent to the street wall. The main structure of the house is an apparently slightly decrepit white-washed-though-no-longer-white concrete that would make you think you are entering something pretty primitive, but I know better than to judge these places by their outside, which is impossible to keep clean and neat and no-one tries too hard.

We go in the door, and there we meet the smiling Mrs B. Mr B is sitting just inside. The ceiling is 20 feet (6 metres) high and the ceiling fan is on. A TV is showing World Cup cricket. As I sit down on a comfortable rattan lounge, I notice the sparrows fly in and out the door up to the high ceiling corners, where they obviously nest permanently. We are welcomed with a cool drink, while a servant takes things upstairs. I wonder about my heavy case and my documents in the small bag no longer in my possession, but I know they are safe.

Geckoes (very cute little lizards) chirrup to each other on the wall and hunt for insects. (Australian geckoes were mute, as I recall - the ones that used to be on our walls when we were kids.) A curtain flying in the fan-made breeze indicates a large room inside, richly bordered by high bookcases full of books - law books probably, because Mr B was a Supreme Court judge.

Ants are everywhere, mostly looking for some moisture - they even run in and out of my computer. I wouldn't mind that except that they might short something and that would be the end of this!

And here's an odd thing - there's not a moth or beetle in sight. At night here at this time of year, almost no insects come to the light, and what few are there are tiny - barely enough for a gecko meal.

Now it's time for breakfast, but I am enjoying the peace and quietness here so much that I could stay for another hour. I will probably stay till 9 anyway. Mrs B. has had tea and digestive biscuits sent up less than half an hour ago with the girls who pulled down the mosquito netting and made the bed for me (I was going to do it for myself but they beat me to it. Making the bed I mean).

(Please be assured that each day will not be described in such detail as this!)


March 7, 1996 8:10 PM

The battle of the toilet cistern

Well, Dipen said that it may be necessary to be resourceful. There have been a couple of challenges. The toilet that wouldn't flush was fixed, but to flush using the lever required a fair bit of a push. On about the second go, the whole bloody cistern came out of the wall, into my arms.

There I was, really left holding the baby, knowing that if I let it drop, it would smash the whole caboodle, but not having much to work with to keep it up there. The basic problem was that the screws that had held it all these years had rusted out of the rawal plugs holding it onto the concrete wall. I tried putting it back into the same holes but it wouldn't go (I remind you that a cistern made of porcelain with a heavy porcelain top and full of water is by no means light!

I managed firstly to make the flush work, just to get rid of about 20 litres of water (this was a BIG cistern!) and that worked, though of course it had come away from the bowl at the bottom, so all that went on the floor - not that that mattered as it's the shower floor in any case and it was clean water.

There was a solid length of wood that is used to bar the door when the house is under attack from miscreants (as we call hoods in this part of the world) - every door has one of these. I used it to jack under one side of the falling cistern, and then with one hand picked up the full bucket of water, placed it on the pedestal and wedged it under the front edge of the cistern. It was precarious but it held so that I could at least let go of the thing!

The problem then was that until I jacked the cistern back up, I had no loo, which after a few days might start to become a bit urgent. A further problem was that both Mr and Mrs B were too old to get up the stairs to inspect, and further to that it might worry them a lot because with night coming on and the hartal (general strike) still in force, they would be able to get no-one to fix it till morning at least. I didn't want to lay that on them, especially with Mrs B's heart condition.

So I got my computer case strap, a wire coat hanger and another longish piece of wood, forced the cistern back up as far as it could go, and then jury-rigged the bar through the window bars and the water pipe, which lashed it reasonably securely and gave (limited but adequate) access to the pedestal. Whew. First problem solved.

Timing the explanation

More difficult was the timing of the announcement of the trouble. Servants always know everything that is going on and could at any time tell Mataji that the white foreigner had wrecked the toilet. She would then wonder why I hadn't passed on the good news straight away. I decided to wait till breakfast when we were going through the schedule of things-to-be-done-today.

Breakfast of parathas and fried onion, bell fruit milk drink (kinda like pawpaw and milk, sweetened with sugar I guess). I told Mrs B the sorry tale of the toilet, and even showed her my sketch of the problem, lest she imagine the whole toilet was in bits all over the bathroom. She seemed relieved that I had told her because the word had already got around in any case (servants prepare the netting for the bed at night and nip in and out a score of times during the day for one reason or another) and my guess that she might find out something was amiss earlier proved to be correct.

These might seem petty matters (and they are of course,) but there is are protocols and diplomacy required in a subcontinental household that have no parallel anywhere else, especially where you are staying with elderly people who want nothing more (or less) than that your every need is met, and who you have to protect as far as you can from the trials that that can cause for them. In such a household you assume the role of son. That has its own set of responsibilities.

3:55 PM March 7, 1996

Crossing the street

I think I just failed the Dhaka 1996 test. Or maybe, having survived, I passed it; I'm not sure which.

To be frank, I just couldn't cope with the crowds and fierce traffic in the busiest part of town, for the first time in my life. Dhaka traffic is not new to me. I have never seen anything like the frenetic battles that humanity undergoes daily on the streets of downtown Dhaka, and I have seen them battling with adversity for twenty years.

I intended to walk to Elephant Road; I simply could not cross the street down near the Sheraton Hotel; I went one direction to find it going into piles of dirt and evil smelling drains, and the other a water main had burst and the road and footpath were flooded. People, like water, spill out on to and use the road to walk, but that requires a skill of judging rickshaw axle length that I have lost in seven years, and I wasn't ready for that. (If you misjudge the distance from a rickshaw then, Ben Hur-like, you will be cut off at the knees by the axle end as the rickshaw passes. I know. I still have the scar to prove it from when I was there in the early 80s.)

I have always been able to walk in Dhaka before, and certainly I would still manage it on the quieter(!) streets round here, but in Motijeel or that street, I simply was not game to put my foot onto the road to cross over. I jumped into an auto-rickshaw and came home. If I had taken a room in the Sheraton, I wouldn't have been game to go outside. I'm sure the few who are staying there, except if they are businessmen or rich Bengalis, don't go more than a hundred metres from the door.

The street battlefield

I have to try to describe what it is like so that you might get some idea of the way the traffic behaves. Imagine two gigantic armies - trucks, jeeps, motorbikes - right down to infantry, the myriad of pedestrians - imagine them now forced into long columns coming toward each other, on a narrow path full of obstacles - potholes, trenches, cobblestones. Now imagine them passing through each other, vaguely keeping to the left but, generally speaking, occupying the whole road, and in particular, the miniscule fraction of space that opens up in front of them.

Now put yourself in the centre of this sea of humanity and churning wheels. In a car, it's not too bad because you feel some measure of protection offered by the car itself - many ordinary cars have a sturdy narrow bullbar instead of a bumper, and you bump into someone or something several times per trip (usually quite gently), so start also thinking the dodgem car principle - bouncing off each other if necessary.

Of course, the only real rule in this encounter with the road is "Might is Right". If a truck is coming through, then believe me, it is coming through. Most other vehicles joust for space but generally they do manage to push through their own space without bumping anything else. The more vulnerable the vehicle, the more they have to give way and the more cunning and agile they have to be.

In fact, just about every driver is quite remarkably skilled - no doubt the Darwinian principle applies here. If you can't hack the driving, you get driven, or take a cycle ricksha. And in fact, you rarely see just ordinary cyclists any more in the centre of town; negotiating the streets has become a specialist art, and those specialists are the kings of the road.

The Driver - king of the road

You even see this in the way they hold their heads high when talking to their masters, who are the owners of the cars. They are the gladiators who may serve someone with great loyalty, but in the end that someone and his family depend for their lives on the skill of The Driver.

Good ones can command good money. They have narrow resolute eyes and a steely appearance - perhaps I should call them the samurai of Bangladesh. They have to judge at every moment what is required to get into and hold a space as the traffic flows around them, constantly changing and switching in all directions, the only expected thing being that the unexpected will shortly occur. Of course, from the car owner's point of view, it is important that their car gets through each trip as unscathed as possible, especially the shiny new cars that you occasionally see. The master berates the driver roundly if anything comes into contact with the car.

The auto-rickshaw - the Bangla buccaneers

Also known as the baby-taxi - a three wheeler you see all over Asia - is the most lethal invention ever devised, an object of loathing that is probably the most efficient people mover you could get - efficient at getting people quickly in heavy traffic from A to B, I mean, but the motors are foul, the ride appalling, the pace frenetic and the horns disgusting - but they actually get you there faster than anything else. That said - and I have just returned in one from the other side of town - the city would have been immeasurably better off without them.

Their fumes are second only in killing capacity to the buses and some particularly evil types of trucks that send clouds and clouds of choking pollutants, most notably carbon monoxide, into the atmosphere so thick that you can't see down the road any further than you would in a heavy fog.

And people live in that daily, breathing air so foul that their lives must be shortened by 50% or more. The cycle rickshaw drivers must be the worst off as a result of their introduction, because they not only take their trade away from them but they make the air unbreathable, and how in the middle of the summer the rickshaw drivers can do anything at all in the worst parts of town is beyond me.

The thought of breathing that stuff in deeply gives me the willies - and the rickshaw driver, with only his muscle to move his machine, has to really suck the air into his lungs to do his work. It must be a short life, and not a merry one. Which makes the rickshaw driver, especially in the heart of Dhaka, one of the most amazing survivors in the urban jungle.

The cycle rickshaw driver - miracle workers

I have nothing but admiration for these guys. They carry three or four people in a seat designed for two little Bangla bottoms (but often holding three or four), they negotiate every object on the road, cursing and tinging the bells when there's a holdup - because of the effort required to get started again.

They can judge within half a centimetre the width of a space, and even though they ride so skilfully, it is hard to believe that they can compete with every other vehicle, but they do. They are constantly on the alert and move into spaces they have calculated twenty metres before, like a chess player calculates three moves or more ahead. They are usually tiny and wiry and unbelievably tough. And there are so many of them, they carry you vast distances for next to nothing. Of course, I always "overpay" them. Wouldn't you say that a guy who has sweated and toiled to take you 7 kilometres in boiling conditions deserved a 15c tip on his 50c fare?

If the driver misjudges what is ahead and slams into the rickshaw in front of you, you have to be alert and have a foot wedged against the frame, otherwise you will be thrown forward so rapidly that you'll end up in a very compromising position piggy-back the driver, clinging round his neck for all you're worth.... Very amusing when it happens to other people. No, it's never happened to me - not yet anyway.

The 24 hour Hartal (general strike)

Yesterday's hartal yielded about ten dead and hundreds injured. It built up steadily with trucks of young guys roaring round the streets making sure everyone knew they were there. The chants were orchestrated and remarkably vociferous - now I know why armies in the old days used to shout at each other so much - it makes you feel good and it can strike terror into the heart of the enemy.

I should say first of all that the opposition protest strike that was held yesterday was due to be held tomorrow, but because the government backdated their demonstration to avoid it, then it was also backdated, whereas the government changed its date once more, and the opposition tried to match it. This cat and mouse game might have gone on forever except that when you are planning a huge demo, sometime you have got to put it on when you say, otherwise you are likely to get half a demonstration or no demonstration at all.

Bombs and shootings

Anyway, it built up and up and finally burst into violence here and there - we only saw a small incident like that, but a fairsized bomb went off two blocks across and a smaller one, which was probably no more than a container of petrol being thrown, went off nearer to home. People don't even bother to talk about such small and frequent occurrences, and they don't get reported in the papers.

But there is a very sinister sound to a bomb going off in an urban centre. The echoes and vibrations, the silence that follows, the howling of pariah dogs, and the cautious return to "normalcy" - which means a return to an incredibly noisy city - it vibrates with noise, like some maniacal machine that churns for no other reason than that it can and must.

I should mention that one of the few positive side-effects of a hartal is the decrease in noise, because only rickshaws are allowed on the street at that time (I suspect because they simply have nowhere else to go for the most part.) But at least the rickshaw drivers benefit.

In other places, it was much worse. There was polling in postponed elections and the opposition parties tried to intimidate people into staying away - not that there were many turning up anyway because the government isn't exactly flavour of the month. When they tried to take away the ballot boxes, the troops fired on them and killed some - needless to say, many more were injured. Even a poor old man was hit in the crossfire, women and small children too - this is especially frequent in firefights between rival gangs, who use what are called "cut weapons" here - sawn-off rifles mainly, of disturbingly high calibre.


The modular lifestyle

With such a large population crowded into a small area, there is a critical need for personal, family and community living space in Dhaka. The higher up the socio-economic scale you are, the better your chances of getting it. This has reinforced what has always been the mode of living in Bangladesh and I suppose increasingly everywhere else in the world, so it seems, but Armidale - the modular lifestyle.

Everyone who can afford it lives and moves in modules. The home is a cocoon, enclosed in a high steel fence with locked entrance. Each room and each cupboard or closet has a lock and each door is heavily barred. This provides protection from within and without. Inside, certain things must be kept away from the eyes or the fingers at least of servants. Outside, the world is an uncertain, indifferent or whimsically malevolent place, where there are some who would happily liberate your possessions from your person or house.

The Bangladeshi Hindus

No-one knows this better than the Hindus of Bangladesh. They have traditionally been part of the upper classes of this area, believed by the Muslim majority to be wealthy, elitist, willing to exploit the poor. Of course, the rich are always capable of exploiting the poor, not that all the Hindus of Bangladesh fall into this category - either as exploiters or as wealthy. Nor that all Muslims are poor - far from it. But I'll come back to that, because living amongst Hindus in Bangladesh has given me clearer perceptions of what it is like to be one of them. I am reminded a bit of how the Chinese are treated in Indonesia - how they are regarded by the non-Chinese and how they suffer discrimination as a result. I know this well because I travelled all over Java with Chinese friends and have seen it first hand.

Back to our modules. The household represents the vital, secure living space for almost everyone who has a house to live in. And no-one could feel that more keenly than I as I came back through the doors after dicing with a million tiny deaths on the roads back to Rankin St, Wari. To enter that space and go upstairs where there is peace and quiet makes you very fond of it. I love being as alone as I want to be.

So you want to go somewhere, outside your house. If you're rich enough, you have a car and, of course, a driver. The barred gates are opened and the car is backed up to the door of the house. You get in it there and the chowkidar closes the gates behind you. In that cocoon you watch with interest as you proceed to your destination, for it is something of more than passing concern to see how mortal you are on the streets of a city like this. Mind you, given the fact that in the heaviest traffic you can move only at snail's pace, it would take a pretty determined juggernaut to take you out. It happens. Large gaily painted diesel trucks are not to be messed with.

The car takes you inside other gates, or as close to the intended destination as possible - usually another person's house. You enter another cocoon. Even the shops that you might want to visit are secure little refuges from the stream of humanity outside.

In short, no-one actually makes contact with the roadside humanity except other roadside humans, if it can be avoided at all. Space is something to be contained, observed, and negotiated.

You have to be in a financial position to do that, which of course means all whites, whether they want to be so contained or not. I've never wanted to be protected before, but I did today. Not from any danger (although I was carrying 8000 taka, an amount that would pay a servant for many years....) except for the danger caused by unfamiliarity with the way to get about on foot and how the traffic actually manages to get around each other. On a personal level and in the street, I rarely have ever had concern for personal safety. Well, as long as I can get across the street!

10:45 PM March 7, 1996

Tangail trip postponed

I have lots more to say but need to go to bed. I am still jetlagged, in the sense that although it's not late here, my body tells me it's 3.45 am. First though I should say that we are not now going to go to Tangail - I was invited to go by Mrs B, although the circumstances weren't too propitious - the death of a relative meant that they were supposed to go there to pay their respects after three days' mourning. Because the family is in mourning it means that they in the village cannot give us any meals, but that would have been fine by me. I was looking forward to the trip because I have never been to that part of the country before, nor really among Hindu villagers in Bangladesh.... But when travellers' advice is given about Bangladeshi roads when political violence is at its height, it does pay to listen.


Here we have just experienced our 6th blackout for the night, and this is one of those unique occasions when I am actually typing into a computer by candlelight. The advantage of the old Toshiba is that if it loses AC power, then it switches to its own without missing a beat. Still, I can't see the screen at all - just typing blind. Tangail is about 100 km away, which would mean a three hour trip. Anyway, Mr B was just seeing people - he is a patron of many charitable things, and has many meetings daily - and they advised him that the roads were too unsafe, as there was fighting on the way and we were likely to run into too much trouble. 

I suspect that my being with them makes them extra cautious for my sake, but Mrs B remarked that this was the first time he had ever taken cautionary advice about such things. The danger is real, though you could very easily do the trip and see and hear absolutely nothing to alarm you. But as in Cambodia, it only takes one band of thugs with guns to come on to a car full of Hindus (and one albino) - and who knows what they might decide to do.

So the Tangail trip is off. This means that I could have gone over to Dhanmondi after all to see if I could read email at the Daily Star. But my contact is not there - it is Friday and this, in a Muslim country, is as near as you can get to the equivalent of our Sunday. Sunday is a normal working day. That's always hard to get used to if you grow up with the notion of weekends.

March 8, 1996 7:13 PM

Well, where were we? Six blackouts in a row last night and I decided it was a good idea to go to bed. So I did. After half an hour, I was a bit restless because there were drums and shouting not far away. One large bomb exploded somewhere about three blocks away and then a string of gunfire. Lights and crunching boots - shades of gestapo and all that....running and shouting and blowing of whistles coming towards us...lots of agitation in the voices. In these circumstances you can't be sure whether this is an isolated incident that means nothing, or the beginning of something serious.

Political violence

In the longer term, it was not serious, except for the two who were killed in the firing and the 100 or so who were injured. It was an Opposition rally that was disrupted by Government activists. Sheikh Hasina, the Opposition leader, had to take shelter in a nearby house. Given that her father was assassinated as the nation’s leader, this is violence is fairly normal, apparently, but it takes a bit of getting used to. If it turns communal, then the Hindus will be attacked, and this is a Hindu area. So far it has not been very communal, though there have been isolated incidents that have been, such as attacks on Hindu student hostels at Dhaka University, where Hindu students have been beaten up.

This morning I tried to ring my Daily Star (newspaper) correspondent, but he was not there, so I rang Zahir instead. He was about to go off to a meeting of the Independent Lawyers Association, to be addressed by Sheikh Hasina. He asked me if I wanted to come. Mr B's driver took me to the Supreme Court Bar Association rooms. 

There I met Zahir, and he steered me down right to the front of the huge marquee, where a seat is being kept for him, with some lesser dignitary ejected (politely) from his seat to make way for me (embarrassment...). In this large gathering of Bangladesh's finest legal minds, I was introduced as a leading professor from Australia, authority on Bangladesh, come to give my blessings to the proceedings.... (more embarrassment. Never have I felt less like an authority on anything Bangladeshi). If this clip is somehow shown on TV I may be persona non grata with the Government....

It was stiflingly hot in that tent, little ventilation and the sun pouring down on the roof. I thought I was going to die of the heat, as one after the other speakers had their say (in Bengali, of course). My Bengali was rusty but what was said didn’t need translating. 

Zahir said we should go, and we escaped to his (air-conditioned) house in Dhanmondi. Sheikh Hasina was due to address this meeting, but that was not for who knows how long, so I was glad to be away. If I had never seen her before I might have been disappointed, but I have interviewed her and met her socially several times in the past, so it was no big deal.

Wow! Has Zahir upgraded that house since the last time I was here! If I had been coming to Dhaka to live in super-luxury for a few weeks, this would definitely have been the place to go. It is like a veritable palace - even my room upstairs where I stayed for all that time here in Dhanmondi in 1989 has been refurbished like a $300 a day hotel. But that's not the object of the exercise for me at all. To be truthful, the price you pay for that luxury is to be on the go constantly, meeting people you don't always want to talk to, however eminent they are, and divorced from a lot of other realities.

In a sense, I would lose my freedom to do anything different from what I did in 1989 - which isn't to devalue that experience at all. Largely thanks to Zahir I have met every Prime Minister/President of Bangladesh since the nation came into existence in 1971, except Ershad. After my 1989 experiences with his security service, I have no desire too either. 

But here, in my simple, comfortable, peaceful Wari room, I can do as I please, fairly untroubled by the demands of outsiders.

My biggest problem is being plied constantly with food that I am expected to consume, including a sizeable tiffin round 6.30 pm which would normally do for my evening meal.... but dinner usually comes at 10.00 pm. I have never quite managed the art of negotiating when to stop being given food in Bangladesh - and what excellent food it is!

March 9, 1996 11:11 AM

The Hartal

This is the day of the hartal. The Hartal - the big strike, which will go on and on until something breaks. The irresistible force is now pitted directly against the immovable object. "The two ladies" as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are called universally here - pejoratively. It's as if we men know that they must inevitably mishandle things because they are women, and a woman's place is really in the home, not in the public arena, the space reserved for men.

One might expect that we would be sitting, silent, tense and gloomy, waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall, but we are not. Drivers have been paid off and have taken the buses back to their villages, for there is always food in the village where none might soon be had in the city. A ticket for a seat in the bus for a journey of some 100 km costs TK250 (about $9). If you don't mind standing for the entire trip, it will cost you TK100; a ride on the roof will be TK50.

There will be many on the roof, and the morning papers will no doubt inform us in the small par about how Muhammad Latif, recently employed as clerk in the office of Beauty Mechanical, was unfortunately dislodged from his position on top of the bus to Mymensingh, was found lying by the roadside in a critical condition, and in the local District Hospital finally succumbed to his grievous injuries at 2.30 am. People who die with gunshot wounds, or clubbings, or accidents in the Dhaka Central Jail unfortunately Succumb To Their Injuries routinely, as reported by the Daily Star.

So there's comparative quiet once more in Rankin St. There is no school, so the children love the Hartal. The Young Scholars Tutorial and High School opposite our residence, whose motto is "Education Civilisation and Moral Courage" is deserted, and the children play happily all around. Even the servant children join in, because somehow their work is less as well. So far, the Hartal is a Holiday, a time for fun.


March 9, 1996.


Of course, there is something else that creates a festive mood in the household about the Hartal. Today is the day for something far more significant in its way.  

Right now everyone has stocked up on food, so there is no concern on that score (a piano is playing somewhere – Bach. Amazing!) No, today is the day for the World Cup quarterfinal between India and Pakistan. Not much else has been talked about for days, except for Sri Lanka's world record-breaking runfest over Kenya. There is much sympathy for the Sri Lankans, over the Australian boycott of matches in Colombo.

Right now, contempt for the Australian cricketers is apparent in many ways, because they, by subcontinental standards, chickened out, disgraced their country's name (for this is not sport, a game - it is national integrity we are talking about). However much their skills on the field may be admired, the Australian cricketers are despised for their cowardice in not defending their country's honour against a few bombs and a possible bullet from the crowd - don't people here do that every time they go out to a rally? The West Indies is regarded with less culpability, as if for some reason they were put up to it by the Australians, and in a fit of strange absentmindedness, went along with the Australian ban.

The fact that Australia plays New Zealand is irrelevant to the real match of the decade - it is seven years since there was a match like this. The Muslim community of Bangalore in India is praying for an Indian win, because if the Pakistanis carry the day, enraged Hindu supporters may take it out on the nearest Muslims. Most Bangladeshis will be wanting a Pakistan win, because of the old Muslim links, but the Hindus will be cheering, quietly no doubt, for India.

This is much more than a game here. I doubt if any outsider can understand how much it means to each side to win this one. (Oh, explosion outside right now. Not a big one. Ho hum. The rickshaw bells are still going, so it can't have been anything much.) The citizens of Bangladesh who have access to a TV - and that probably means many more than you would think, as we are in 1996 after all - will be glued to their televisions. This is cricket; and it is national pride. The first day of the Hartal has probably been arranged to coincide with it.

The political game

So, the real spirit of the hartal will probably not manifest itself until tomorrow and beyond, when the harsher realities set in. There are many ways it can go. Much depends upon the way the government reacts. Khaleda has already conceded a good deal, on the surface at least, but there are many loopholes in the offers she makes. The opposition wants the latest election results declared invalid. They have a point, for fewer than 10 per cent voted and that hardly constitutes a mandate. So far Khaleda has offered to hold fresh elections, but there is no date set and certainly no clear willingness to formally acknowledge the illegitimacy of the previous election result.

March 10, 1996 11:22 AM

Hartal, Day 2

It is a normal Dhaka March day, not yet hot up here, but that will inevitably change. Second day of the hartal. (Hell! That was close! That bang made me jump. The dog sitting at the door is barking nervously as a result. I don't know what it was, but everything soon gets back to normal here so you wonder whether it's nothing more than a gas bottle exploding by accident - and it may well be.) I was just about to say that it was peaceful and calm, and that the President has called the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader together – well, for him to talk to them separately, at any rate. They have agreed to that. It may lessen tensions a bit in political circles. It may even create a longer-term solution. We can but hope.

Off to Deb’s place

Yesterday afternoon was the big cricket match, starting at 3.00pm. Debapriya invited me to go over to his place on Elephant Road to see it with him and Ira and their daughter, Sasha. Deb is quite tall for a Bengali and enjoys his food, so is quite big as well - not enormous by any means, but bigger round the middle than most Bengalis (not that that would be difficult!) He has inherited his father's liking for sweets, but his years in Moscow as a student have given him a taste for western style foods as well, and the combination usually produces an increase in body weight.

He is very clever – everyone in this family is. Ira is fair and Russian; he met her in Moscow because they studied together. (This, incidentally, explains why all the bookshelves in my room here are covered with books in Russian.) Ira is also very clever and nice, and we get along well. Her English and Bangla are both good.

Sasha has acquired quite a lot of Bangla characteristics as compared to the Caucasian of her mother, and she looks more like a fair Bengali than a darker-skinned Russian - she is a beautiful child. The kids of such marriages seem always to be beautiful. She is also (surprise surprise) highly gifted.

Their flat is probably three-bedroomed though I haven't seen it all, in a high new block, with security very heavy. To get in, you have to go through the security men on the basement level, and they take you up. The furniture that they have is top quality and the flat is beautifully done. It is easy to understand how Ira can see her move from what was the Soviet Union to Dhaka is a great jump up the scale in every way, because their environment is comfortable and elegant, and they have everything they could possibly need - a standard of living impossible to have in Moscow unless you had huge money behind you.

Of course, that includes what everyone has here (take note, underprivileged Australians!) they have satellite dishes which give them about 32 channels, including everything that you could want to see, whether BBC London or American, or Indian - you name it, they have it - and the reception quality is excellent. I invite you for a moment to consider the effect this access has and will have to the culture of this region.

Riding the rickshaw

Anyway, I get a rickshaw from Wari to Elephant Rd. Mrs B has negotiated a fare TK 13 (A$0.35c) for the trip and off we go. This being the hartal day, only cycle rickshaws can ply, except for a very few baby taxis who carry journalists and the like.

If only Dhaka could do it, this to my way of thinking is how the streets should be. No trucks, buses or cars, just rickshaws and people walking - wonderful! Dhaka could make more money out of tourism than all the evil industries they have, apart from garment-making, if they could only dispense with the heavily motorised transport - but that's never going to happen because they believe firmly that what has a motor is more sophisticated and efficient than what doesn't, and pay the price in smog and noise. I guess they have a point. I’m dreaming.

Anyway, he gets lost a couple of times and I am glad that I wrote out the address so that when he asks the way, a swarm of helpers reach a consensus on where he should go - well, a sort of consensus because there are one or two minority reports from dissident opinion - anyway, off we go and he gets lost again - the minority reports were right.... But more discussions with a new army of advisors gets us in the right direction, and ultimately we arrive. Bangladeshis are always wonderfully helpful, but their convictions about directions sometimes outstrip their precise knowledge of them.

Deb and Ira

Mrs B's carefully negotiated deal of 13 taka I know probably won't stand so I give him 15 in any case. This cut off any bargaining though he probably hoped to extract more than that from me. Anyway, I enter the luxury module and am met by Deb. Coca Cola is the universal drink for guests, or 7 Up (lemonade). We watch cricket. We eat vegetable rolls. We have a large pizza that Ira has made. All this before dinner, which we will have shortly.... Oh, I forgot, Deb has also a very good cupboard of spirits, and I have a whiskey and soda, as he does - one of the best whiskeys I've tasted for a long time. A couple of whiskeys-and-soda, in fact. The first half of the match is over, and India is on top. Everyone is happy - in this house at least. Pakistani supporters will undoubtedly have been less sanguine and will not enjoy their dinner near so much.

To be truthful, I could not enjoy my dinner as much as it deserved either, because after what was a normal dinner for me with the entrees, another one was somewhat excessive. That was all the more regrettable because of the wonderful quality of the food - fine minced spiced rissoles, boned fish, delicately prepared seafood, vegetables - all superbly cooked. I have to apologise to Ira for not doing it justice.

Cricket – it’s all in the timing

When Pakistan bats, they start well, and it is the turn for the household to become concerned that India may be defeated. But as the match wears on, it becomes obvious that Pakistan will almost certainly not be able to overhaul the Indian total.

What is happening in the cricket is of critical significance for the timing of my departure. No car is allowed on the road because of the hartal. I will be taking a rickshaw back to the maze of tiny streets of old Dhaka, late at night, when few who are not locals in their area will risk going out at all.

I am not really concerned, because the danger is usually exaggerated - you have to be unlucky to be held up with a gun or knife, and in my many years of riding rickshaws in Dhaka, I have never been threatened on the streets. I would feel a hundred times safer on any street here than in the backstreets of Kings Cross in Sydney (not that I’ve had the experience to make that comparison!) Of course, I am carrying nothing but what I have to - a little money that can be lost if necessary. I made a mistake by wearing my watch. I put it in my pocket, so that nothing ostentatious shows.

The problem is that if Pakistan loses, as it seems likely to do, then the streets might be extra mean and a little more dangerous, if some hoods decide to take out their disappointment on the Hindus, whom they are sure will have been supporting India. Wari is the place to go to find some Hindus - not that too many Hindus will be out if they can help it, especially if India wins. So I time my leaving in such a way that I will get back to Wari near the end of the match, while every Pakistan supporter is still in a hopeful mood and still focused on the TV.

Such are the calculations that the cautious have to make when the danger stakes go up. A few rickshaw drivers are asked - most are not interested in going to Wari, because of the risk and because they have made a lot more money today, being the only transport allowed. And they are tired, of course, with the extra work. We find one who will go for TK20 (about 60 cents Australian). I promise to phone Deb when I get back to Rankin St, just to reassure him.

Back to Wari

So off we go.... the streets are fairly quiet - almost deserted, by Dhaka standards, because anyone who has TV access will be glued to them now. We go through Motijeel, wonderfully silent for a change, and then into the old city. I pray that he comes in by the right end of the street, otherwise I won't know my landmarks in the darkness. In the old city, there are still hundreds of people swarming about in clumps, great congregations where someone has a TV hooked up.

We career down the bumpy back lanes until we get to Rankin St. The rickshawallah has gone past his last landmark given by Deb to him. I am the one now to find the house, and believe me, one looks very like another in the dark. He turns to me. "More? Go more?" I signal him to go on. I am looking for a large palm tree that is opposite the house. "More? Yes, go more?" There are several palm trees on the way, but the Little Scholars establishment is also opposite. Yay! There it is. I breathe a sigh of relief. It would not be fun to be lost in old Dhaka tonight.

A fit of generosity

The fee is TK20, but I want to give him more, and I do. He is old and grizzled, and looks like he hasn't had a square meal in years. I have a hundred taka note in one pocket. That's about $3.30 Australian but he would get $50 worth of value out of it here at least - maybe more. Why shouldn't I do something madly generous just for once? A cup of coffee in the Sheraton here cost me that amount the other day.

I give it to him and he starts scrambling around for change. Take it, I say - you have chele? Sons? Han. Yes. Koto? How many? Panch. 5 sons? Nahin, - doh chele, tin maye. Two sons, three daughters. Then take it. Ekhane. Here. His eyes light up and he can't believe his luck to have driven someone so crazy as to give away five times the fee. Who knows what he will do with it? But for sure, he has doubled his day's takings. He may ride home tired, but he'll be happy.

Hell, why can't I feel like a benefactor sometimes, instead of fighting over the equivalent of 10 cents as some westerners do. I'm just glad to be home, and next time he meets a foreigner, he's going to look after them. Mind you, he may be disappointed that they don't do something insane like the mad white man who wanted to go to Wari in the pitch black night.

The cricket is still on when I get there, fortunately. India will certainly win and everyone is in good spirits. Deb rings just then to reassure himself that I've arrived. I go to bed pretty soon after, feeling good.

Oh, it's Sunday, by the way. Normally Sunday is just another working day, Friday being the day off for Muslims, but with the hartal, it's not a working day, 'cept for me. But I'm doing the work I like.


March 12, 1996 9:45 AM

The hartal continues

It's a week since I arrived in Dhaka. In some respects it seems longer than that, but in other ways it has gone fairly quickly.

Now that the hartal is into its fourth day, things are really starting to come apart at the seams. Power and water supplies have been interrupted at an increasing rate - in this part of the city anyway, and violent incidents on the streets are increasing.

Increased violence

There is now some risk in going out during the day as well as the night. The worst problem is the gangs of youths who face each other with guns and knives. They are usually nothing more than hoods - or, as they are often called in South Asia, goondas or miscreants, who take advantage of the situation to rob and kill people. The chances of getting caught in times of political upheaval are minimal, even for murder. Travelling in rickshaws has the disadvantage that they can easily be stopped, especially by someone with a gun. 

Getting out of town

Debapriya has gone off to the airport this morning bound for Japan, for a week. He has taken a rickshaw, which is the only way he can travel. It is about 20 km, so a fair haul for the rickshaw driver. Mrs B is worried that there are goondas on the airport road who will steal his luggage at least. I simply don't know how well grounded her fears are, but even though coming from a community that is constantly under threat and without any real rights when it comes to a showdown, it is probably not as bad as she thinks. Still, the newspapers are full of incidents of this sort.


I might try to describe my routine for days when I don't go out; it may be of some interest. I get up round six, which is cool and quiet and pleasant, do a little exercise but not as much as I should, have my shower and sit down and do a little work while listening to the BBC, which gives an excellent news broadcast each morning and tells me better than anything else what's been happening outside our door here through the night. I unlock the outer doors so that the servant can come in. At round 8, she brings a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. Normally I wouldn't eat the biscuits but this is a good opportunity to take my malaria tablet, which must be done with food.

By that time, activity is evident everywhere. Sometimes I get a phone call and have to hurry downstairs to take it. If Kabita [sp?], the servant's daughter, comes up to get the tray, and I have left the computer on, then I know she's been, because wherever I stopped typing is ';12g\jh'''// and a few other evidences that the keyboard is irresistible.

I have breakfast at 9.00, which is as early as Mrs B likes to be. Breakfast is a smorgasbord of things, with plenty of variety - fruit like pawpaw and banana, egg and noodle, bread or toast, yoghurt or spiced sweetened rice - things like that. Always more than I can eat (but I believe I am expected to eat anyway.) I read the papers after breakfast - the English language one at any rate.

I then come up here and work or write things like this till lunchtime, which is about 1.30. In the meantime, I will have been given cold drinks, tea with biscuits - never get a chance to get hungry, which I really would like to do. After all these years on the subcontinent, I have never learned how to refuse gracefully repeated pressure by a charming host to have more food. Ah, the diplomatic subtleties of food on the subcontinent!

After lunch, I may do what everyone else does in the heat of the afternoon - have a nap for an hour or so, and then do some more reading and writing. (At last those book reviews are getting done!) A cup of tea will have come round 4. I am called downstairs to meet with visitors round 5.30 pm, and usually am plied with some other (quite substantial) snack.

I may work or talk or watch TV until 10.00 pm, when we have dinner. Everyone goes to bed straight after dinner. Well, I usually do a little more work before going to bed, but I don't stay up too long because the early part of the day is really better for working than the humid nights.

That may not sound exciting, but it is really great for me to be able to work so consistently. I have slept well and my health so far is tops. The thought of getting sick is too terrifying to contemplate. Apart from the fact that there is no way to be transported to hospital and that the hospital is on skeleton staffing (an ominous phrase!) the chances of getting sicker there rather than better are high. I was upset to hear in Singapore from Ishtiaq that one of my friends here from Jahangirnagar University went into hospital here in Dhaka to have a routine gallstone operation, the wound got infected, and he was dead within a week.

So, I have no intention of getting sick. Let's move on - it doesn't bear thinking about.

About last night....

Last night was rather eerie. I opened the two wooden security windows, one at the top of the bed and one at the side. It was so warm that I needed to do so. There is a beautiful breeze that comes in through them at night. One of these windows looks out on to the patio.

Round 2.00 am there was a lot of shooting and whistleblowing going on nearby. I couldn't help wondering if someone were being chased and had got over the fence and up the mango tree or stairs onto the patio. If so, they would see me through the window sleeping there. I didn't feel comfortable about that and ended up closing that window.

It’s not that hard to get spooked when times are unpredictable.

I had slept with the windows closed for several nights, simply because I was not aware that they were there, behind the curtain. When Ira was using the room, I think they had the windows screened as well as barred. Screens for mozzies, bars for people. Here, as in Hollywood, security is everything.

I had strange dreams of being on a rope suspended over the edge of something - it's not hard to put some construction on such a dream. Daylight brings things back to equilibrium. (Though which is the reality - the night or the day??)

Today I go to the Daily Star office, which means a fairly long rickshaw ride to Dhanmondi. It's not anywhere like so nervewracking when you are actually on the road.

March 13, 1996 11:59 AM

Running the gauntlet

The trip yesterday to the Daily Star was successful - leastwise I made it there and back without a real hint of trouble. Going over in the rickshaw there were two rival demonstrations about to come together and I was glad when we were past them. The riot police were ready there with shields and rifles, teargas and rubber bullets. The demonstrators are armed with all sorts of things.

The most danger is in bombs that might be thrown at that point - or at buses that are running the gauntlet and defying the hartal - the government has given them the inducement of 20 litres of free petrol to break the strike, but some of them at least are finding that it's not worth it - last night one bus was bombed and the people inside were injured along with the driver.

It simply doesn't pay in this country to defy a hartal. But that's the time when you, as a bystander, don't want to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

After the rickshaw driver finally found the Star office, I met Arif Masud, the Daily Star reporter with the email connection. He's a young guy, longish hair, typical in many ways of the Bangla intellectual - courteous and hospitable, and it was good to be able to get on to an email connection and say hello to everyone. Bravo for email in 1996.

Children working - the dilemma

It seems rather ironical to have spent the last twelve months studying child labour and publishing a book about it, presently to have a child of about 10 at my feet washing the floor over. She is the daughter of the servant, and I asked Mrs B about them. "They are a bit of a problem for me", she says. "The husband is a permanent invalid with no income. I let her and the children stay here and do the work even though she is not the best person for the job. That allows the family to survive. The children learn to read and write in my school, but of course none of the schools are operating at the moment. So today the child helps her mother."

We said that child labour was a complex issue, didn't we? Without her compassion for the family, they would be in a desperate plight. So the children help. Not that the future looks rosy for them, but they have playtimes and good food and the kindness of this family.

'Bengaliness' crosses religious boundaries

The Bhattacharyas are so highly regarded by Hindus and Muslims alike in Dhaka that their immediate family did not suffer any casualties during the 1971 holocaust and after, though they were hunted by the Pakistani forces and marked to be killed, as were many Bengali intellectuals. They were protected by Muslim families whose friendship was much stronger than the thing that might have separated them - religion.

In this household, Mrs B takes in Hindus and Muslims alike - for example, they have a student who is a Muslim living in a downstairs room, whom they feed and look after - and these are the things, and all their charity work, that make them deeply respected throughout the entire community.

They have had some rough times though. When Mr B was imprisoned as a political detainee for two years, Mrs B had to earn the family's living as a teacher and rear the children (not a novel situation for women everywhere, I know) but in the early 50s it was, here in Dhaka. When he was reinstated and allowed to practice again, then she stopped teaching (on his wishes, and she obeyed, as a good South Asian woman does. Not that she is the least downtrodden, I might add - she is a very strong personality and gets her way in many things - and they still have great debates about the merits and failings of communism.)

During the 1971 struggle they were forced to stay in one room of a Muslim friend's house, completely unknown to the outside world, for about three months. Then they had to lie in the hold of a small river craft for four days and get sailed down the Padma to Calcutta in India. How difficult that was can only be imagined. Mr B continued to practice in Dhaka after liberation (he moved his practice from Mymensingh) and was invited to become a judge, ultimately of the Supreme Court.

There is a twist to that one, of course. Having agreed to do so, on a salary far less than what a good barrister makes, he was forced to retire when Zia came to power in 1975, because there was a wave of Islamisation at that time, and once you become a judge then you can never go back to being a lawyer - it is one of the conditions of the post. So he retired, fortunately having sufficient means to do so, and they devoted the remainder of their lives to various charitable organisations, chief of which is the Ramakrishna Mission, known universally for its non-sectarian acceptance of all faiths, and its good works.

Back to night time hartal

There was a long blackout round 9.00 pm and I lit a candle and sat on the bed by the window, the only cool place, for there was a stiff breeze blowing occasionally, and I was hearing the voices all round, people peacefully going about their business in the quietness that the hartal has generated in the evening.

Capturing the mood

Then I felt like I needed to capture this moment, and so I typed blind into the computer, leaving the cool window, with the sweat soon trickling down my arms and legs and body:

From all around, you hear people - everywhere. You cannot understand Dhaka and feel for it unless you know its sounds and hourly moods. Only the ringing of the rickshaw bells lets you know that there is anything on the road. It is like one gigantic village that has come to life in a very special way. Children call to each other and play, adults sit and talk quietly, for there is really nothing much else that anyone can do. Some may take the newspaper and sit and read by the light of a candle.

I am sitting in my room, lit only by candlelight, while all around is the noise of a village without electricity. The ceiling fan is of course stopped because the blackout is on, and in this corner where the computer still is going on its own power, I can see the sweat glisten on my arms in the candlelight, for this corner has little air. I have been looking out over the residential blocks bathed in soft candlelight. It is peaceful tonight, somehow, where usually you can hear the explosions and the rattle of small arms fire as rival gangs engage in firefights. But not tonight, or at least not so far; this is almost the Satyajit Ray Patha Panchali village of fifty years ago.

Mosha! (Mosquito)

I woke up at about three this morning, scratching. Mosquitoes had obviously got under the net and after a while I turned on the light to track them down - search and destroy.

Bangladeshi mosquitoes have learnt to be agile to survive. They are a large mosquito though not as large and easy to swat as a Scotch Grey. On the contrary, they move fast and they bite for a few seconds and then fly off at the least sign that they have been detected and start again on another spot. So if there are two mosquitoes around, they are very hard to zap and they bite about a dozen times - a very itchy one too I can tell you. It feels like you have a whole swarm of them in there with you even if there's just one or two. Well, I located these guys and after a bit of hide and seek I despatched them both. There were a few little holes in the mozzie net just big enough for them to get in if they were lucky or persistent, so I got out some sticky tape and patched them up. Problem solved.

The world outside

Then I was wide awake, listening to the disturbances going on around us; in particular the policemen's whistles alerting each other to some nearby danger, the cries of fear, rage and pain, and away to the east of the city, the occasional heavy explosions that echo across the night, where all noises seem amplified and people seem no more than a few metres away. (Of course, in some cases they ARE no more than a few metres away!)

March 14, 1996 8:02 AM

The Ramakrishna Mission – and cricket

Today I am visiting the Ramakrishna Mission here and maybe some of the local temples. That's this morning. This afternoon is the cricket, which is the other semi-final between Australia and the West Indies. Last night's match between Sri Lanka and India ended in a fiasco when the crowds started to burn the chairs in the stadium when it became obvious that India was going to lose. There is some irony in the behaviour of the Indian crowds (well, they *were* mostly Bengali!) given the fact that the Indian newspapers had been blasting the Pakistanis for their bad sportsmanship when Pakistan lost their match to India. (One Pakistani shot up his TV set with an automatic rifle and then turned the weapon on himself.... Now that's patriotism!? I wonder if there's more to the story than that. I wish I'd kept the article - though it was also reported on the BBC.)

They won't be crowing so much today. You could tell that Sri Lanka was winning because whenever an Indian wicket fell, there was a roar that went up from many households in the vicinity. It was rather like being in the stadium. The whole city is a stadium.

Most Muslims, needless to say, would have backed any team that was put up against India. But if Australia beats the Windies today, all South Asia will be backing the Sri Lankans against them in the finals, you can be sure of that.

Hartal relaxed

The hartal has been relaxed somewhat so that banks and some shops can open for a couple of hours. Other places cannot. There has been some progress made in talks but I don't believe that they will arrive at a genuine solution. The best I can hope is that in the next couple of weeks, the talks will go on and the hartal will continue to be eaten away so that some semblance of normalcy can return.

I will be able to visit some of my other friends. I don’t want to put them at risk by letting them know yet I am here. There’s still plenty of time.

I guess the bottom line is that if things deteriorate, I want to be able to be guaranteed a seat on that plane on the 24th, and to be able to get myself to the airport in one piece. It isn't that I'm keen to leave, because I'm not. I have many things to do yet. It’s just that the arrangements on the other end I don't want fouled up too much.

March 14, 1996 7:24 PM

Small journeys

I spent the morning and early afternoon at the Ramakrishna Mission, which is an island of tranquillity and order in the old city. I got a long discourse on philosophy from the chief of the order, though I have to confess he didn't say anything I hadn't heard before.

I was invited for a meal there at the later stage (I thought the tea and fruits were substantial enough already, but that will probably be an honour for me to come... not one I relish, I have to confess.) Then we went to the law courts where my guide, Mr Rabindra Ghose, occupies some prominent position - I'm not exactly sure what, but he knows Zahir and everyone in the courts. The courts are not sitting because of the hartal, but everyone is there, gossiping, welcoming the opportunity to meet the foreign professor, who according to the introductions, has written a famous book on Bangladesh history and is about to produce another magnum opus.

Tea is always brought, with biscuits, at every introduction, and the conversation follows a familiar pattern:

"So, how long have you been here? "How long will you stay?" "Is this your first visit to Bangladesh?" "Where in England is your university?" (New England, Australia simply doesn't make sense.) "You are a historian? I will tell you the history of our country" which they do, unwilling to believe that if I do not hear it from their lips then I cannot possibly have got it right.

This almost always happens - I remember once when Zahir was with me last time, and someone launched into the history of Bangladesh yet again, Zahir, who had read my book, lost patience. He said, "Why are you telling him this - he knows the history of Bangladesh much better than you do!" The teller looks at him in disbelief and continues on without missing a beat “.... We were once part of Pakistan but we had a war of liberation in 1971....” But I should not complain. They are very hospitable and learned in their areas of expertise. They then, of course, ask me my opinion on how to solve their political crisis!

Political strife

While people are adapting to the crisis, this masks the underlying rift that seems destined to blow this country apart. To that, there is no solution in sight - at least, the solution that I can see as possible would be difficult to implement. The Jamaati - the most conservative Muslims - were marching today - they disturb me most in their white caps and their severe gaunt faces. As we went past them in a rickshaw and government activists taunted them, I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, because the hordes of police are all armed with assault rifles of large calibre, and if the shooting started, you could easily end up with a steaming hole in your back or head.

March 15, 1996 7:45 AM


As it turned out, fighting did erupt shortly after we returned; it was certainly looking ugly at the time but I was surprised at the extent of the gunbattles between police and the demonstrators as reported by the BBC this morning. Fortunately, we were not there at the time. I really doubt that Australians will understand the extent and depth of political activity in a country like Bangladesh, and how it involves all levels of society from top to bottom. It’s much too complicated to try to break down here so I’ll leave it.

Blackouts, sirens and false alarms

We did not see the last two hours of the semi-final between Oz and the Windies because we had a huge blackout that went on for ages. A pity, because it was the most exciting match of the series apparently, with Australia just squeaking home when they looked like losing for the almost the entire match.

Still we had our share of excitement. In the middle of the blackout, a truck with siren blaring and flashing lights pulled up outside our house and then backed into the narrow lane beside us and stopped. Paramilitary jumped out, armed with rifles of various types, from ancient 303s to some snub-nosed thing like a Uzi, and Mrs B was pretty worried. Who knows why they come?

As it turned out, they were only an escort for one of Dhaka's rare ambulances, brought in to take a woman to hospital in the apartments on the other side of the tiny lane next to us. It was nothing, but having been arrested before, they know what it is like to be taken into custody and are understandably nervous. Their house has been looted before, long ago - on the first occasion they lost all their movable possessions of any value.

A medical emergency is one of Mrs B's greatest concerns during this hartal. No car is allowed on the road for any reason, day or night, except official government emergency services. To actually get an ambulance to come, especially into the Old City, is a miracle, though as we saw and heard last night, it’s possible. Doctors cannot or will not come to make house calls, regardless of the fee offered. Her knee won't allow her to get up into a rickshaw even if she were able to sit for the journey. Ironically, even in a car a trip to the hospital in ordinary circumstances would probably take longer than you could survive, because of the heavy traffic and pollution.

No vehicles, no pollution

At least, one beneficial effect of the hartal is the much better quality of air as the trucks and buses and autorickshaws are kept off the road. Just the smoke from natural fires and the occasional bomb. You can even see the stars at night. 

Bangla English: "a wife should not be a dormant otherwise people will walk all over her." (Not really a typo - the word was repeated further down the article.)

March 16, 1996 7:46 AM

Dreams and things that go bump in the night

I went to bed last night feeling quite secure. It was a hot night and I opened the wooden shutters on all available barred and screened windows to try to get a breath of air into this room, which takes the heat of the day and seems to store it for many hours at night (it must be like an oven in mid summer). It seemed peaceful and village-like outside and I was enjoying the cool breeze wafting in through the screens. When it's like that you feel as if you must have exaggerated everything, all the dangers, misread all the signals.

I was having a nightmare. I had a gun and it was necessary to kill or be killed, and to do it in cold blood. I don't even know if I had done it or was about to do it or couldn't do it or what, but the whole thing was shattered when I was jolted awake by a bomb blast, very close, which rattled the windows and sat me bolt upright - it felt like just outside, and then another, and another, smaller ones, then crackers or small arms fire...whistles and heavy military vehicles moving down the street.

For the first time, I felt some alarm, not knowing what was going on - you see, you don't know who is chasing who, what people are after and how indiscriminate they are going to be when they open fire. If they see a person at the window, who is to say they won't take a potshot? And if Mr and Mrs B were under threat below, there is no way I can help, because this section is sealed off from the downstairs area, the only entrance by going down the stairs into the courtyard and to be admitted at the front door.

If a person jumped over the fence here (no easy feat) and got past the dog - a pretty good watchdog (or, more likely, simply shot it), they could easily climb the stairs and enter here. The latch is not that good on the front entrance up here. These things loom large in the night, which is very dark now that the moon has gone and the electricity is off a lot of the time.

Day and night

In the daytime, it seems quite different. When armed people are moving around outside in the darkness, shooting, and you don't know who they are or what their intentions are, it is a cause for concern.

The fact is that once people go to bed, after midnight, there is virtually no law at all on the streets if the police are not in the immediate vicinity, and there is absolutely no guarantee that the police will help you if you are attacked. Goondas have better weapons often than the police, and so they have to be extra careful because they could be outgunned in a firefight. Some police may also favour a particular group if it is associated with the government, and let it do what it wants. Or a coup d'etat may be under way - who knows? It's happened so many times here before, there's no novelty in it. Sheikh Mujib, Bangabandhu, Father of the Nation, and President Zia who followed him both lost their lives in military coups.

Here, your only protection at night is the security of the house you live in. Generally speaking, this place is well secured, but not against armed men with no fear of the police.

Food, more food and hospitality

It's a pleasant morning and the noises in the night have disappeared. Daylight shines on a different world. Still the hartal continues, and foodstuffs are running short. Mrs B is doing her best to keep up the variety in food - she feels she is failing in her duty if she cannot. I want to eat less because she always gives me more than she should and then it's not polite to leave food on the plate. Somehow I must persuade her that I need and want less.

One thing I have always found somewhat disconcerting when eating is the traditional Hindu practice of the wife serving her husband and guests and not eating until they have finished - to be watched as I eat each mouthful, just to be sure that everything is all right. Mrs B makes the concession that she will begin to eat when we are well on the way through our meal, but she still keeps a sharp eye on everything that you are doing and making sure that the moment any particular item on your plate goes down, it is replenished - generously. If you don't practically order her to stop, firmly, then she will assume you are just being polite and reticent, and will go on piling it on.


As it’s the dry season, everything here soon becomes covered in a thick layer of dust. My briefcase which sits on the bookcase looks as if it has been there for a year and not a little more than a week. Ten days, to be exact. More than half my stay is over. Probably. Anyway, the reason for the layer of dust is that the servants come in daily with straw brooms and whisk away at the carpet and the floor with great enthusiasm, and all that is achieved usually is that the dusk is stirred up - I guess you can say is what they do is basically rearrange the dust in the room while the dry season persists.

March 18, 1996 12:15 PM
(What happened to St Patrick's Day? How remote that seems!)

I thought I had a problem with the laptop, because it wasn't charging. Pulled it to pieces, the power supply too, but still no action, and the battery was as flat as a tack. Rewired my bodgie connector to Dhaka power, just to be sure nothing had come adrift. No luck. Then I tested it on another power point, and wonder of wonders, that was the problem. The power point had given up the ghost. Not sure why, but it is certainly deadybones.... I can think of a number of reasons. Anyway, I can charge it up and use it at any spot in the room until a recharge is necessary. I can't work at the other point.

I still haven’t contacted my good friends Mahbub and Tahsinah. I got nowhere with one number I had. They don’t know I am even in Dhaka so at least they aren’t expecting a call. I’m feeling bad about that as they won’t understand why.

I went yesterday to the Daily Star office and to Zahir's for lunch. It is good to have the email connection, if only for a few minutes and while the screen is being watched by everyone in sight as you type. Right now it is very humid and the sweat constantly trickles down, though it is really not that hot. Occasionally I get phone calls and the 11 year old daughter of the servant is despatched from downstairs to get me. Sometimes she gets the words mixed up, so the word "phone" can be substituted by something else, which is a mite confusing.

I shouldn’t act superior. Her English is probably on a par with my Bengali.

Cricket and national honour

I was amused last night while the cricket final was on and it became patently obvious that Australia was going to lose. Everyone assumes that I regard this as a matter of considerable national honour that Australia wins - of course, I would like them to, but I don't go bananas about it like they do here on the subcontinent. Anyway, there is one good-hearted gentleman called Rabindra Ghose, who takes me places occasionally - to the Ramakrishna mission, e.g., he was watching the match with me (and everyone else in South Asia, of course). He has quite a responsible position in the Supreme Court apart from being an advocate and sometimes when excited speaks in that antiquated English that has made British-Indian comedy famous. Who could ever forget the Peter Sellers classic, The Party?

"Oh, I am hurting for you that your team is not winning. But I suppose we should not count our bridges before they are burnt."

I wish I could remember every quaint thing he says, because they are terrific. Once when Shane Warne bowled one down leg side and was appealing desperately to the umpire to give an LBW decision (Warne was just trying it on – it was a mile outside the stumps), Rabindra turns to me and says with great indignation on my behalf:

"Oh oh, he is making his request of that ungodly judge of the game, and that man is not giving his assent!"

Talking political solutions

Zahir has been quite a celebrity of late because he gave legal opinion to the BBC and the press on the technical aspects of the political stalemate. He aroused the wrath of both sides because he gave a genuinely unbiased opinion.

It has to be understood that in this issue, it is taken for granted that you are either on the government side or that of the Opposition, and even if you profess to be neutral, then it is assumed that this is merely a cover for being pro- or anti-government. The fact that he angered everyone was probably quite a testament to his impartiality. Of course, he has his own views (every Bangladeshi does, from the President to the street sweeper!), but in matters of legal opinion those views don’t count.

Anyway, we had a long discussion about it yesterday morning. He suggested firstly an ordinance by the president establishing a caretaker government (as opposed to a parliamentary session to change the constitution, which won't work, for reasons I won't go into here) and we talked about how the army could be used to guarantee as far as possible an impartial election, right down to the chain of command. I won't go into them now but it was fascinating to sort it right through. Then he got a call from someone whose name was obviously privileged information, but who is widely believed to be the person who would lead such an administration if an ordinance were promulgated. He was asking Zahir about the very things we were discussing. Zahir sketched the plan to him that we just went over.

It is interesting to think that if this scenario happens, I might have been a party to creating a solution for a country of 120 million people. But it probably will not, not in the short term at least, because it is too daring and too sane, quite frankly - and because the president, who is the PM's appointee, has opted to go down a route that cannot possibly work because it is unacceptable not just to the opposition but most people. It will make things worse.

This time next week, I guess I will be in Singapore. And still, I haven’t made contact with Mahbub and Tahsinah.

March 19, 1996 7:40 AM

Violence, blackouts and explosions

This day could be a nasty one, politically, and that will spill over into violence on the streets. Last night we had a series of blackouts that went on and on. This morning, we have already had several short blackouts. Each night I go to bed convinced that I am exaggerating the seriousness of the situation, but something always happens to jolt me into harsh reality. Before midnight there was a series of large bombs that went off probably about a kilometre away, and I am sure that the area will have been round the Secretariat. At last I have got a feel for where things are in Dhaka again.

This time there were other sorts of sirens than the usual, on their way to the location of these bombs. I think it is all a leadup to tonight, when the Opposition parties are enforcing a strict hartal at the gates of the parliament, where the government is taking this insane step of putting a hated and despised constitutional amendment through. It’s a trap for the Opposition and they know it. They cannot accept it because it means that they would have to acknowledge the authority of the parliament and the government, which they now reject absolutely.

There is now no alternative to violence on an increased scale, unless the government changes its tactics. The President as well as the Prime Minister is now discredited. The solution Zahir and I discussed is now the only one possible and plenty of others must be aware of it, but who will have the guts to do it? It will be weeks before the other possibilities are given up, and the country will go from disaster to disaster.

March 20, 1996 8:09 AM

Lots of talking

The Bhattacharya household is rapidly becoming a centre for all sorts of people to meet and discuss what is happening. Members of parliament, or ex-members, prominent leaders. All of these non-government people - no-one accepts the government here at face value and few have anything but contempt for it. They drift in and out, as is usual in Indian-style households, and the conversation is fascinating.

They speak in a mixture of Bangla and English which I can decipher most of the time, except when they get too excited and speak too quickly for me, or there are too many unfamiliar words. Justice B gets out the Constitution of the country and we go through the emergency provisions. Very interesting. If there was a president with some guts then this could be solved - in the short term at least. "Is there not one person in this entire country that everyone respects?" I ask. "None", is the reply. It can't be true, but it appears that way. The country is totally divided. That leaves only a military solution, or so it seems.

Deadlock and warnings

The country is now drifting toward civil war. The army is also divided, like every other institution here, roughly half supporting each major party. At present, the police are obeying orders and attacking anti-government mobs and activists. This may not continue if they also polarise publicly, but at present the opposition regards the police as the enemy, and as long as that is the case then probably the police will act that way.

Get out now!

The Australian High Commission is now calling, in every news broadcast, for Australian nationals to leave. It's not an unreasonable viewpoint. The danger is increasing hourly. The water supply is becoming tainted but it's still flowing, at least, on and off. Blackouts continue nightly and the TV cable lines cut out. Bombs go off at irregular intervals, mostly at night. Rickshaws continue to be the least dangerous mode of transport. Buses still run occasionally but it is madness to take them because they will be bombed at some stage - maybe not today or tomorrow, but they'll get them eventually. Scabs here put their lives on the line, not to mention their vehicles and the passengers who take the risk of being inside.

Heading for civil war

The all-too-familiar pattern occurred again last night. I went to bed fairly relaxed, though I knew there would be trouble downtown because today the Prime Minister was being sworn in, which the Opposition won't stand for. Around 2 or 3 am, I was wakened by two massive blasts somewhere towards town. The small arms fire then started and went on for so long that I thought the war had already begun. Vehicles started moving on the roads, heavy vehicles, some pulling up outside this house with considerable noise, and then going on. Believe me, there is something very ominous about an idling truck engine outside your window, when it contains fully armed military in camouflage uniform.


Because of his prominent reputation, Justice B and his stream of visitors no doubt come under some surveillance. For the first time this visit, I was sufficiently spooked to collect my passport, money and ticket and put them by my pillow in case a quick exit was required. Activists could easily toss a bomb over the fence here, or go up the lane beside the house (where my room is) and hurl a Molotov cocktail over on to the balcony here, just inches from where I sleep. The window where I get a cooling breeze at night opens on to that balcony, at bed height. I would cop the effects of any explosion, but it seems crazy, and to the locals no doubt way over the top, to shut the only source of cool air off on the offchance that that will happen.

I close it for a while, then open it again. Some risks are worth taking in the building heat.

Bangladeshis define their reality in a quite different way from anyone used to living in the sheltered existence of Australia. I don't know what sort of awareness someone who is physically remote from all that's happening here can have of it. Even day and night are two different worlds in Dhaka during the present trouble. Last night hundreds of people were injured in violent demonstrations at the Parliament house.

Making plans

I have managed to find out two pieces of information - the number of Singapore Airlines and the location of its office here. You would think all you would have to do is look in the phone book - what phone book? In Dhaka??? Ring Information? Thou jokest. In Dhaka, what you need is inside information. For just about anything.

I am due to fly out Sunday. I will go this morning to Singapore Airlines office to confirm the ticket. I don't think there is any need to go earlier than Sunday. The danger is about the same. Wisely, no-one is offering any advice on whether to stay or go.

Somehow the thought of leaving also evokes the "rat leaving the sinking ship" mentality. I am worried about Mr and Mrs B. They are helpless if things turn nasty right here, though Debapriya returns from Japan on Friday.

But I am kidding myself. I am more of a liability than a help, because they feel a responsibility for me. They have many friends who will surely look after them and it is probably easier for them mentally if I go. I don't believe that I am any great trouble to them, because I work up here a lot of the time when I don't go walkabout, and take the same meals exactly as they do, except that Mrs B thinks I need enough food for an army at breakfast time. Our relationship is easy and I think they have become fond of and relaxed with me.

On Sunday, if things go to plan, I will take a rickshaw to Moakhali as it seems that autorickshaws run from there to the airport. The despised baby taxi may be my salvation....

The shaven-headed girl child comes to tell me that l-a-a-nch" is ready. That means breakfast. Ashon. Let's go.


March 20, 1996 5:50 PM

Missing in action!

My amusing friend, Mr Rabindra Ghose is missing. Yesterday, he went to the temple and then to the big political meeting - the one where hundreds were injured and arrested. The best we can hope for is that he is arrested and is still uninjured. His wife came here first thing this morning when he failed to arrive home last night. She is beside herself with worry, of course.

Ever since then, they have been phoning the various police stations, hospitals, all sorts of places to see if they can find out what has happened to him. If he has been set upon or taken by activists then who knows what may happen. Everyone is very upset, naturally, Mrs B a little impatient with the servants, which is not like her. Mr B sits quietly. Nothing can be done on this matter but wait.

I am not sure what it means for my trip to the airline office as someone was going to accompany me. That is of no importance at the moment.

Rabin returns

Rabin Ghose is OK. He was struck by the shockwave from an exploding tear gas shell at the rally, and was knocked unconscious. They took him to hospital where he recovered fully, but by then it was in the early hours of the morning when travel was impossible, and of course there is no such thing as a public phone from which he could make a call.

So he stayed in overnight, had his breakfast there, and in his own good time, made it back to Wari. Well, HE knew he was OK, so there was nothing to worry about, was there? It didn't occur to him, apparently, that his wife, three kids, his friends and half the legal fraternity of Dhaka were convinced he was in trouble, and that quite a few people were scouring mysterious nooks and crannies for him all morning. Mrs B gave him the rounds of the kitchen when he got here, all smiles and no outward sign of injury except for a light bandage round his head. "I am here, Mr Denis! I was obstructed in my observations by an exploding shell, and I was unconscious until I woke up." But he does seem more pensive than usual. Perhaps he realises that he took an unnecessary risk or that he could have made contact sooner.

Or maybe he just has a headache.

Off to Gulshan

I discovered that he was OK before going over to Gulshan to confirm my ticket for Sunday. The son of a friend of Mrs B's went with me because it's pretty complicated to get to the new Singapore Airlines office, and Gulshan, the fancy suburb, is nearly half way to the airport. It was an hour's rickshaw ride there and the same back.

After the Ghose episode we set off about midday for Gulshan. There are buses in increasing numbers defying the hartal, but travelling at high speed except to pick up and put down passengers, so that they won't be bombed. How the passengers know they're coming, and where they will stop, is beyond me.

There are also more baby taxis on the road, risking a cocktail (as homemade petrol bombs here are called.) Other than that, it's just rickshaws. They are charging the earth now that they have made a rickshawallah's fortune in the past fortnight or so and are choosy about where they will go. You might have to ask half a dozen before you get one willing to do the job. Dhaka has never seen anything like it, for the rickshawallah is the most exploited of all in the transport system and can usually be beaten down by eight annas if the customer feels like a fight. Not at the moment.

Titles and signs

The route to Gulshan is very interesting, through the Tejgaon industrial area, where there are garment factories and all sorts of other light industry. On Bailey Road we pass the Belly King Chinese restaurant (I think it's a pun on "Bailey" which is pronounced here "Belly".) There is also a beautifully printed sign which proudly reads "Parsonal Cempotars are here" and I notice that at Dhanmondi, "Magdonals" is a culinary haunt.

Pains of modernising

There are bustee huts on the banks of lagoons half filled with unspeakably fetid water, used by the residents of the shanty town - these traditional lagoons, which used to be a source of relatively clean water, are being filled in to make saleable plots for houses and businesses. Everywhere construction was going on (before the present trouble) but all is at a standstill now. Many businessmen are ruined by the stoppages or have suddenly fallen on very hard times. When these lagoons are filled in, the women in the bustees will have to travel far for water. Hopefully it will at least be of a better quality than what they have now.

Of course, they may simply be relocated themselves. All that takes is a heavy truck run over their bamboo and palm-leaf houses. As they are squatters they have no rights at all.

Tribal people in the city

Many of them are the tiny people of Bangladesh, tribal in origin. Mostly the men stand not much over five feet tall (about 1.5 metres) and the women three or four inches shorter. They are often the rickshaw drivers and the diggers of trenches, the breakers of roads (done with sledge hammers and spikes).

They are tougher than boot leather and prone to goitres (huge growths on their necks due to simple vitamin deficiencies) and other medical problems. Once they have had children, the women look about twenty years older than what they are. Who was it who said something about peoples' lives which were "harsh, brutish and short"?

Confirmation and return

We go into a modern building with a lift, in chic Gulshan (actually, Gulshan is looking a bit dingy already, to be truthful) up to the sixth floor. The airconditioning is on and it will be stifling when we hit the warm air outside again. There is a girl there who checks my ticket. "These are already reconfirmed," she says. "You did not need to come." Bloody amazing! One day they ask you to bring your passport and everything, which I have been defending today with my life, and I didn't need to be here at all. But better to be sure than sorry.

Back to Wari. This time the fare is 40 taka - exorbitant by Dhaka standards (A$1.33) The route is different, and interesting to me because mostly I've done this trip before in a car at fairly high speed. Or at night, in some minor cloak and dagger operations in 1989 during the Ershad era.

Avoiding the ban

Dhaka has become a city of ambulances. Because they are not molested on the roads by pickets, suddenly there are hundreds of them, not all complete with flashing lights but with AMBULANCE or AMBALANCE written all over them. Strangely, the injured inside look remarkably fit, and there are usually about a dozen of them sitting there with prayer caps on, looking a little sheepish.


On the way back we saw a huge pall of smoke over the western side of the city, and guessed it was a building on fire. But I later discovered it was a bustee suburb that went up in smoke, rendering 20,000 people homeless. Can you imagine almost the entire population of Armidale homeless in about two hours? Yet it got no more than a small par in the next day's paper. Dhaka has ten million people.

The warning by the snake

Mrs B was telling me an interesting story last night. We were talking about snakes, and she said when she was a young wife in the village, when she had the three children, she was bitten on the toe late at night by a snake. They were all, including herself, expecting her to die at any minute. Mr B was in Calcutta at the time. They tourniqued it and the usual things were done at that time. But fortunately, it was a non-poisonous snake, so she didn't die after all.

She said that in the village they had a festival every year where they worshipped the Naga (snake) god, but that year it was too wet and there was no celebration. Mr B, as a reasonably well-off young lawyer, always bank-rolled this festival. Anyway, the villagers were convinced that because she was bitten - she whose husband paid for the celebrations, it was the snake-god warning them that they shouldn't ever ignore the ritual again. They didn't.

March 21, 1996 8:15 AM

Army control

The army moved in to Dhaka and Chittagong yesterday afternoon. This is both good and bad news. Good news in that it will mean the goondas won't have it so easy on the streets, bad in that the government just sworn in will do all in its power to use the army as an instrument of oppression of the opposition groups.

If the army remains genuinely committed to the preservation of law and order only, then in may be OK, but there are serious doubts about this, and in that sense the stakes have been upped considerably by the government's taking this action. As it is the Opposition parties that are accused of disturbing law and order, then it isn't hard to understand how it is going to look when pickets try to enforce the hartal, and the army starts shooting them. Well, they're doing that already.

Arrest fears

I went downstairs at 8.30 pm yesterday to the drawing room to find an interesting group of people there - the Awami League MP who lives close by, two legal men, Rabin Ghose, Mr and Mrs B. The MP who I think is a great chap got a phone call from his wife to say that there was an army vehicle sitting outside their door, and not to come home because she feared he might be arrested. He will sleep here tonight. Other Awami Leaguers recently arrested have been released, unharmed, but other important people have been murdered in the past in Dhaka jail. We explore all the issues in an interesting discussion.

Gunfire in the night

After dinner I go to bed. The night is sultry and as usual my windows are wide open (barred and screened). I expect that it will be quieter tonight with the army on the streets, but all round me is the dull crack of what can only be gunfire. Everywhere, it seems to me. There are some bombs but not as many, nor as big. The gunfire is more consistent - the same sort of weapons being used, which I guess is the army regulation weapons, and they're rounding up anyone on the streets who shouldn't be there.

Perhaps this means that the gangs will lose control of the night for a little while, which I'm not sorry about, because the army is a bit more discriminating about who it shoots. Still there are a lot of whistles, which means that the police are also deployed. Rarely is this gunfire within a kilometre - it seems to be all around, every quarter, which is unusual, but further away than the old city for the most part, which is a change. Downstairs, Mr and Mrs B are doing what they do nearly every night - watching an old Bengali movie on Calcutta TV.


It is one of the ironies of the situation that the night is full of firing and noise, and yet people are doing very ordinary things like watching TV. (Why not? Nothing has changed much, really. This IS normal.) There has been no blackout tonight.

Then I remember that I have my little tape recorder with me and wonder if I can get a sound record of what's happening around me, because it might help people to understand. Two problems. The microphone is intended to pick up only noise within the immediate vicinity, and the battery has run out, and although I have the charger I don't have a connector for Bangladesh except for the one for the computer, and I'm not pulling it to pieces. I won't know if it recorded anything till I get the batteries recharged in Singapore.

Today, Thursday, the rickshaw drivers have declared their own hartal. The reason is most likely that they've been riding continuously for 13 days and reckon it's time for a break. So there won't be a great deal of movement around Dhaka today. Still, I can't believe the rickshaw strike can be total, so I stood outside on the balcony for two minutes. Eight rickshaws pass by, 6 with customers. Nothing ever quite stops in Dhaka.

March 22, 1996 7:27 AM

Passing the time

A quiet night last night. No bombings that I heard, no shootings worth talking about. Many blackouts, though - about six, on and off. No TV. We talked quietly. The wife of the poet was visiting Mrs B, and she sang some lovely songs while the blackout was on. Bengalis are fairly unselfconscious about singing and everyone listens. They love poetry and music here with a passion that is hard to understand outside.

Whenever someone is singing, even on TV, everyone just stops what they are doing and listens. I remember Zahir's wife spending every afternoon just watching songs being sung on Bangladesh TV. No fancy backdrops, just a musician walks onto the stage, sits down by his or her accompanist, and they just....sing! In that soft, easy way that contrasts so much with the outrageous Punjabi-pop videos that the kids watch on Zee TV. Those are a scream.

The call of the call

The early morning call to prayer - a sort of Islamic vocal wake-up call to the nation - is really something to hear and I well understand its power. It starts with a single call and then waves of sound emerge from everywhere in the city, melodious and harmonious though not in unison, increasing in intensity and power as every muezzin in the city sings his call to the faithful. It was nothing like this even seven years ago, when you heard the loudspeakers from just a few mosques. Now, from thousands of buildings, a local singer alerts the Muslims of the city to their duty. Waves of sound roll across the city like surf. When they have finished, the crows take over. The most prominent sound in the day from my window is that of crows, hundreds of them.

I am due to leave the day after tomorrow. I will go to Dhanmondi today to check the mail and see Zahir before I go. Still rickshaws are the only means of transport that I can risk using. I am concerned about the size of my suitcase and fitting it and me into a rickshaw to go to Moakhali.

All the kids have shaven heads now. It is because of headlice which break out now and again, just as they do anywhere in the world. When it is detected, the solution is simple. Every kid in the vicinity loses her hair.

I do not believe that I have headlice.... My daily ablutions invariably include a thorough shampoo!

NOTE Here's the final part to the story. I wonder if anyone noticed it was missing?

4 comments on Part 2:

Julie said...
One of the best descriptions I've ever read of city streets in the subcontinent -and I've read a lot! And the cistern incident, so typical, somehow, of how nothing much ever quite works as it should. I haven't quite decided why, once you've got over the irritation and inconvenience, that shambolic quality becomes weirdly part of the charm of the place. I'm glad it wasn't me with the cistern, though. The Bangladeshis we recently met in Newcastle had only been in Australia a month, and the man was trying to get his driver's licence. He was finding it terribly difficult to drive at the sort of pace required here to keep the traffic flowing, ie drive FAST at 60ks or so! At the same time, he has to watch out for signs and rules - TOO difficult!! He's smart though; he'll get it eventually and then they'll feel they can bring their baby daughter out to join them. Meanwhile, the culture shock....the isolation here..the emptiness.
Denis Wright said...
I had a worse experience of things falling apart one by one in a hotel room in Venice, I have to say! I understand the Bangladeshi driver's problem in Newcastle. I was at a friend's place there in Dhaka one and he'd just bought this car at a dealer's, then told me he couldn't drive. So, I had to drive them home!!! Oddly enough, it wasn't so bad because of the slow traffic speed and because I had been there for quite a while and was used to the traffic flow - even the rickshas.
Julie said...
It's true that things fall apart everywhere. I admire your success in driving in Dhaka; what a great experience:) You'd have to be so alert -but then you do here, for different reasons.
Scotto said...
Ahhh, brings back memories of untamed traffic in India. I know downtown Mysore is no match for Dhaka traffic, but I did actually ride a motorbike regularly in that throng, and I remember having to put my feet out to push away the rickshaws to avoid becoming part of the pavement! I think I have a better understanding of what a sardine might feel like, should two schools collide. Thats what it felt like. I dug though and found this snippet from my journal relating to road rules ... "While I'm on the subject, I have a theory about how Indian roads work. We look at the highway and see two lanes, but for Indians there are five. The left most is for pedestrians, push bikes, motor bikes, autos and cattle drawn carts. The next is for cars, trucks and busses (kings of the road). The middle of the road is the overtaking lane, sometime in both directions at once. The 4th lane is for oncoming cars, buses and trucks, or sometimes the really impatient. The right most lane is for pedestrians, bikes, etc going the other way. Road rules are based on size and speed. Motor bikes can often zip around most traffic, though on the better roads they are limited by their small engine size (175c is the largest bike you can buy unless you import it!.) Buses and trucks are the masters of the highway, giving way to no-one, occasionally not even each other. This usually results in horrendous accidents. Overtaking involves one game of chicken after the next. It can be pretty hair raising at times. Being run off of the road is always an option." I'm looking out the window now at the freeway in Brisbane, three very neat rows each side of evenly spaced cars and a few trucks, no cattle, push bikes, autos, ox-carts or foot traffic, all driving in the same direction, obediently contained within neatly marked out lines, an empty emergency lane to the side --- what a contrast! :-)

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't mind if each day WAS described in such detail.


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