Bangladesh






     Bangladesh

I would like to tell you about an adventure that I had in the Far East at the end of 1990, beginning of 1991, and I promise you that it’s true from start to finish.

At that time I was managing a Job Club in Leytonstone, during my last and final sojourn in England. The population (of the Job Club that is) being a good old mix, mainly of ex colonies and extreme skinheads, I was rather well served and my patience was tested daily. During the time I spent with this adorable group taken from Dad’s army, It Ain’t half Hot Mum, and A Thousand and One Nights, I made friends with a certain Monju Majid, a lovely woman, very platonic and very cultivated, having been in childhood a television star in her native Bangladesh, lately somewhat impoverished and in search of her lost glory.

I had had a last, and final, run-in with my Mother after having spent my time, energy and cash doing up her house in a remote London suburb, only to be stabbed in the back for the nth time, and I was exhausted, not to say depressed, with yet another failure to understand her genius for nastiness! The cash wasn't really important, but the emotion was draining and I left with the feeling that I had been used and abused, again.

Having discussed this with Monju she proposed to introduce me to Bangladesh, in Bangladesh, for Christmas 1990 and the New Year 1991 and I thought well why not? It was a way of changing air and ideas. I had already spent some time in India but never in what was, in pre war times, East Bengal, and the post 1948 East Pakistan.

We bought the tickets in a seedy delicatessen in central London, but afterwards I had the right to a VIP visit to the Bangladesh Embassy in Kensington for my visa.

Boarding the 747 on Christmas Day the plane rolled onto the tarmac, and we waited,…and waited,…and we came back to the terminal with an on-board computer failure! 5 hours later, and still Christmas Day, we lifted off for a stop-over in Dubai. The flight went well but the airline had forgotten to signal to the ground crew that there were, amongst the travellers, those who were not carnivores! I myself being a part of the ‘those’ I was a little frustrated at ‘having to do’ by picking out the minuscule, almost microscopic, pieces of animal flesh from amongst the contents of the ‘in flight service’!! My Christmas dinner consisted of salad and something else not very well defined, but “certainly not meat sir!”...Yes...I can believe it.........!

Finally arriving in the United Arab Emirates at the Dubai International airport the plane taxied to a terminal and was immediately surrounded by very professional looking soldiers with their arms raised, and I don't mean that they were waving at us! It was a very comforting welcome and one could sense the diplomatic tension and the political intrigue that a group of Bangladeshi and European tourists might create!? Whisked off to a hotel for the night, or what was left of it with 5 hours delay, to sleep for the 3 remaining hours before being woken for breakfast at Tiffany’s (hmmm, that sounds familiar!!!) and being whisked off again to the airport with an armed escort, (just to make sure that we wouldn’t try to stay clandestinely in the tiny but very wealthy state), we were on the plane and up and away for the Boxing Day dinner without really having had time to digest the Christmas Day enigma and the somewhat ex-‘Continental Breakfast.

On arriving at Dacca International, which was about the size of Biggin Hill, the cameras and the reporters were waiting in number! Not for me of course, but for my charming companion, Monju, who was still treated at that time almost as a goddess in Bangladesh. It turned into more or less of a riot! Once the news had spread that ‘Monju’ was back in Dacca it was as if someone had leaked that the Beatles were back together! Off to the television centre where her cousin is, (was?) The General Director of programmes, and a quick tour of the studios just to meet old friends (of my hostess that is) and finally to a suburb of Dacca to put down the suitcase and to SLEEP.

Unfortunately for me Monju had decided that I needed a little cultural stimulation to perk me up a bit!

Off to the theatre we went. I came to understand that it was a cultural soap opera. It was a piece based on the experiences of a family and their neighbours, all living in tents in a run down neighbourhood somewhere in the world, but probably not far away from where we were sitting. The daughter who wanted to run away with the son next door was willing...but the big brother of the little sister went and told his dad..who as not, and wanted to dissect the future impromptu fiancé... who denied any knowledge of a plot to disappear... but was terribly in love with the daughter... whose mother was in reality the ‘mistress’ of the father...of the daughter...etc., etc. All very slapstick and Whitehall farce for me, even if I didn’t understand a word of what was being related. The exaggerated facial gestures and the upper members being thrown wildly around the stage were deliberate enough to serve adequately as translators. And of course laughter is so contagious! We don't often think that other cultures like to amuse themselves, especially the ancient cultures. But I can attest to the fact that the belly laughs were incredibly catchy and inciting that evening there.

The next morning was hectic. I woke with a headache, the heat in Dacca, in December, being a little too much even for me, sun worshipper supreme. One wouldn't say that it was really sunny, more a burning haze with a reddish-orange-ish ball of fire hanging limply in the sky waiting for somebody to hose it down. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined the inside of a cold storage room. Inside the cold storage room there was a freezer. And I tried to get into the freezer! Without much luck!!

Monju’s mother ran a school in the huge and dusty yard that fronted the house. The classes were intended for the poorest children in the centre of Dacca, but I suspect that those that I saw that first day were a little too well dressed to be the inhabitants of the shanties that I was to see at a later date during my visit. The children arrived for their lessons screaming and shouting like kids do everywhere. That wasn’t good for the headache, and buying an aspirin here was like asking for a bank loan! We finally ate breakfast and then got into a chauffeur driven car for a tour of the city. Then we went on to meet family and friends, members of the Bangladeshi high society. Then to a hotel, The Hilton of course, for lunch, where a very friendly dry cleaning shop manager insisted that he steam iron my suit jacket to take out the creases caused by sitting at table! And of course the boutiques in the afternoon all of which seemed to me extremely extravagant and ridiculously unnecessary in a country with the third lowest level of income in the world. It was luxury everywhere, except for the poor who hustled and bustled waiting for some rich European to throw them a few Takas (the local currency).

That evening, having exchanged my suit for ‘something less formal’, I was taken to a “club” somewhere in town to meet a very special old school-friend, Rabi, who “worked” for the government, but who was very, very cagey about describing his “job! Charming, generous, and completely Oscar Wilde he related his ‘visits’ in other Islamic countries with delectation, and I came to believe that he might just be a sort of “agent”, if you see what I mean? In any case, later in my visit, he was responsible for finding me a safe house and I suspect a place on a British Embassy flight back to England. We drank a couple of beers, illegal in Bangladesh except for the privileged, and we were! We talked about East, and West, and North and so on, and so on...Rabi had, I remember, a little dog that had no lower jaw and which made me think of Harold MacMillan, to whom I apologise for the analogy, but to whom I inevitably make reference concerning the canine companion of this Asian agent! Rabi is, I suppose, a sort of Mata Hari Krishna!!

The week between Xmas and the New Year passed with visits right and left, the Martyrs Memorial, The Supreme Court judge’s chambers, (from 1985 to 1987 I was with a firm of solicitors in Old Street, which gave me a certain prestige in uptown Dacca!!), Ministers, ex-Ministers, ex-Prime Ministers, future ex-Ministers, this and that and the other. Very impressive!! The evening of the New Year celebrations I was invited to a soirée with the cream of the high society (being a white European, and it’s us who are supposed to be racist!!)

Eastern music and discussions around Bangladeshi culture, the President who was under house arrest for corruption, and the Women’s Rights Movement, (these rights only concerned women of the upper and middle classes of course!) On the other hand the food was excellent and the conversation began to liberate itself with the passage of time and a few good wines. It was all very tiring and, given the funny looks that I was getting, I doubted that something wasn’t quite right. I thought it was me, of course. After the jet lag and the culture shock what else but a bout of paranoia to round off the week!!

Our friend Rabi was present and dropping openly veiled hints about an invasion in Iraq by the American army, which didn’t please the very Muslim population of the room, no more than the whole of Bangladesh, more generally!

I was due to return to England on the 7th January 1991 to get back to my job and a little occidental normality. Unfortunately, a few days before my return, and as foretold by Rabi, the Bush alliance invaded Iraq and all flights over the war zone were grounded.

This fact left me with two major problems. The first was how to contact London by telephone, with all calls towards belligerent occidental powers (as seen by outraged oriental powers that is), the UK being one of the first, and Bangladesh being one of the second, blocked. I could not let my boss know that I was stuck 6500 miles away from Leytonstone. I said to myself that it was a case of “Force Majeure” and that she would realise that I would arrive as soon as possible by whatever means.

The second problem was a little more complicated and disconcerting. The evening of the first attack by the allies on Baghdad we were comfortably watching the television news when a report showed the lynching of a Japanese journalist who was literally ripped apart limb from limb by a mob of Muslim fanatics having taken him to be an American spy. I thought hard about my situation and decided that I had no chance of be taken for a Japanese tourist!! My hosts, rapidly coming to the same conclusion, decided, with the help of the said Rabi 007, to whisk me off to the suburbs of Dacca and an apartment belonging to someone obscure. It was a large and very comfortable 1st floor palace with a view of the Ganges at about 2 miles, and from that point I could see smoke rising over certain parts of the capital, where the massing hoards were rioting. This neighbourhood, however, seemed to be very quiet and respectable, the only noise coming from the BMWs, Mercedes and Bentleys entering and leaving the larger buildings across the street.

Night fell, and I felt myself very solitary. What if “they” knocked at the door? Or not knocked at but knocked down the door? I pondered as to whether it would be possible to defend oneself in such a situation and then I stopped thinking. The images in my head were too real to be contemplated seriously....

I asked why it was that I found myself in such situations as at present, not exactly, and not for the first time, but I didn’t have an answer that made any sense. So I stopped thinking again and decided to sleep! That was a great success, I can tell you! There I was, comfortably laying on the bed, still fully clothed, turning over the events of the last couple of days, WW3, Fascist politicians on all sides, media intoxication, mass propaganda machines, etc., etc. All designed to bore me to sleep of course!

Suddenly I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye at about 7 feet above the floor. I said to myself that it couldn’t possibly be an ‘Hashashine” (cannabis smoking killer from which the name ‘Assassin’) and so it couldn’t be that dangerous!!! What a relief to find that it was only a Tarantula about the size of a saucer, and I exaggerate not, taking its evening stroll around the property. I can’t say that I was very happy about its presence in the room but it was somewhat reassuring to know that at least one threat was in view. I can’t remember having had many friends who are able to say that they’ve shared a bedroom with an arachnid so well catalogued, and deadly!!

After four or five days of observing the comings and goings in the proximity of my hide out, my safe house, my haven, and the destruction in the distant centre of the capital resulting from anti Infidel manifestations, I still hadn’t been dismembered, so I decided to try to get back into Dacca. I found a lone ‘taxi’ and gesticulated furiously enough to ensure that the driver understood my intentions and desires. Finally, we arrived somewhere that seemed familiar and so I was able to reintegrate with my protectors, who were very surprised and somewhat troubled to see me there in the centre of town.

I found the atmosphere very heavy and menacing. Perhaps I was a little bit worried that I might finish like the Japanese journalist, but my friends were very clearly aware of the extremist movement’s activities and all that the anti-European lobby was planning. The father-in-law of one of the daughters of the family had been the finance minister in an earlier government, and another member of the family, as I have already stated, was president of the Bangladeshi Broadcasting Service, a sort of mini BBC, so the information was at least first hand and by this means I was able to avoid problems with manifestations and riots, etc.

My hosts decided that it might be wiser to go to the southern provinces for a while, considering that it was impossible to get a plane for anywhere west of Karachi, Pakistan. The trip was arranged at the speed of light Bangladeshi, that is to say after 3 or 4 days, and so on the morning of the15th of January 1991 I found myself on a train bound for Chittagong. The first class carriage was ‘homely’! A little like the guard’s cabin in our older wagons. And seats! We each had a seat! We were 5 and that meant, with me being European, that we had the right to half a carriage and, given the family origins of those travelling with me, a curtain to limit the curiosity of the other passengers. It did no good! It only attracted the attention of those who wanted to know what was hidden behind it, and why was I, a middle class white, given priority over a middle class Bangladeshi !? It was an outrage for some indignant trekkers, and I have to say that I agreed with them, which didn’t do anything to appease the situation. I was insulted all the same. Bah…

We ate on the train, a real but sole luxury on Asian rail transport, and with the afternoon heat starting to invade the carriage with its unique form of air conditioning, that is to say no windows, the warm breeze took me off to slumber-land for an hour or two.

Arriving at Chittagong station the difference was apparent at a glance. The people waiting to demand money from the tourists were much less aggressive than in the capital, and proceeded with a gentleness that was striking and pleasant. I was delighted to be able to give a little, meaning a lot to those who have nothing. I couldn’t know at that moment that 4 months later the whole region, the flattest lands in the world, would be devastated by a tidal wave, a Tsunami, and floods that would eliminate between one hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand of these poor and gentle people. Nobody will ever know the exact number.
Green and lush, the town of Chittagong is surrounded by hills that lead directly across the Burmese border. Unfortunately Burma is under the control of a redoubtable dictator who refuses access to the Burmese jungle to most outsiders. I would have loved to have been able to make the excursion knowing that my father had served in the region during the Second World War, and I was disappointed not to have been able to do so. I think I might have felt his presence, however illusory.

I spent a week or two not really thinking about the war in the Gulf and all that, but knowing that I had to get back to England relatively soon in order not to be signalled as missing in hostile territory. The ex minister, in whose house I was a guest, and with whom I was able to explain my dilemma, attempted to contact London by force, but with very little success, and I just had to be patient for another 10 days. I visited places and people and took hundreds, if not thousands, of photos of all and everything.

My host had a real, savage, menagerie in his back garden, which extended to several tens, if not hundreds, of acres of cultivated gardens and wild plantations. I found interesting an almost, I imagine, unknown tree, (unknown to Europeans!) which gives a very refreshing coconut drink in early morning. Nothing unusual perhaps, except that if you leave the liquid until the evening it becomes an alcoholic beverage which is just as delicious with dinner as it was with breakfast. Stranger than fiction?

I decided that I would like to buy a genuine sitar, and the rounds were done of all the local lutheries, with visits to the workshops, tea with the patron, dinner with the family, tears at the door, and promises for tomorrow…..! I finally found an instrument that I could ‘relate to’ and I paid in American dollars, which was a little ironic given the animosity that was being shown towards all that is American!!

The time passed and the wind started to change direction, the Desert Storm that is. The ‘war’ was rapidly fought and lost and things started to come back to a sort of relative normality. We took the return train back to Dacca, and started the long haul to find a long haul that would dare to take off for London. Bangladeshi Airlines was out of the question, and Air France, with whom I had arrived, was persona non gratis. The only foreign line that had the possibility of landing, and taking off again, was, ironically, British Airways, being at once the airline of the head of the Commonwealth, and still somewhat respected even if the British reputation for impartiality had become a little tarnished.

Bush the father was not happy, and risked to be less than cooperative with the ‘Muslim’ world, even those countries that had not openly criticised the military action in Iraq. Such was the case for international long haul flights from the Asian sub-continent.

The first and only flight available to me was a British Embassy ‘wives and children’ charter stopping at 22 cities between Saigon and London.

The day of my depart I said goodbye to my hosts not really knowing when, or if, they would be able to get back to London.

I boarded the plane with a little hesitation. It was already full, and from what I could see from the front of the cabin there were effectively a lot of women and children, young babies and senior citizens. I felt out of place, but that was nothing unusual for me. I took my seat and waited for the flight to commence. From the porthole I could see columns of smoke rising from the suburbs of Dacca and I thought of my friends still in the city.

The flight was a nightmare! Anguished and frightened people! Babies crying for lack of sleep and food. Overcharged and under stress we were a little storm making our hazardous way through uncertain skies. We stopped off at about 18 airports, dropping off and picking up this one and the other, and after 24 hours when we finally arrived in Helsinki it was almost daylight again. The 31st of January in what could be described as the Arctic Circle is not inviting. We couldn’t descend from the plane, not even to stretch legs and air the grey matter. A lot of passengers were getting very disgruntled and rude. Solidarity was at zero and it became an ‘everyone for him or her self’ with regard to comfort and privacy. Not bad for the country’s diplomats, eh!!? The hostesses did a great job of trying to keep things in order, and really deserved a medal. And a pay rise!

We finally took off for Oslo, Stockholm and London, Heathrow. I couldn’t wait to arrive. And when the door of the plane opened to reveal the tunnel leading to the terminal I was gone. It was night again, around 6 pm and it was snowing at the airport. Nobody was there to meet me and I had to get back to Woodford in East London. I had my baggage as well as my newly acquired sitar, for which I was obliged to pay Import Duty of around £90, which was a very nice welcome home present from the part of the British government.

I was home but my problems were not resolved. I still had to face my boss and explain my absence, and she was not pleased that I had taken more than a month to get back to England.

Having got back to London, by hook or by crook, I had to deal with my boss, Rachel, who, as I said earlier, was as expected in a steaming rage. Irresponsible, stupid, arrogant, dangerous! What she didn’t say about George Bush, the father, was nothing as to that with which she lashed my neurones! Abandoning a job, like that, and going off to the end of the universe wasn’t what she considered reasonable. And she hit hard! No longer employee, I became self employed! ‘Bourgeois’, cash in hand, on the nail, every week. No tax, no insurance, etc.

So what can I do? I start saving for my French dream. 150/200 pounds a week, the lolly starts to build itself into a neat little pile. After the first three months I start looking for a truck to convert into a camping car so that I can, finally, cross the channel and have somewhere to live on arriving…..who knows where?!

(c)2005 GDHewstone






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Posted on 2010-06-10, By: *

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