Some of my more literary acquaintances have recently mused about the reasons we all write. It strikes me that in one sense the task of the writer is to chase down the thoughts that flitter, moth-like, among the thickets of the subconscious and collect them for display to the world. We are the unacknowledged entomologists of the imagination.
"Ooh! Get you!" my less literary acquaintances are probably saying to themselves by now. In my defence, I shall quote the title of this posting - said drunkenly and tearfully by someone at an office leaving party I once attended in India - and point out that this week I find myself in highly literary Bangladesh, among the highly-literary Bengalis who produced Rabindranath Tagore to name but one. (OK, so Tagore was from West Bengal, now in India; but that hasn't stopped Bangladesh adopting one of his poems as a national anthem).
Permit me to direct you to the highly literary blog of my Dhaka-based friend and colleague, the highly-literary Mr Amaro'to Kotha-chhilo by way of evidence.
Among the less poetic elements of the country, I should point out by way of balance, are the airport baggage carousel and the free-form scrum that formed around it (an hour and a fricking half to retrieve one bag! I ask you...); and the fact that the office is only a short walk from the hotel, but across eight lanes of homicidal traffic. Having lived in Indonesia, I feel quite at home. I have readopted my erstwhile tactic of adding myself to a large group of locals to get across, reasoning that while a driver may be tempted by the target of a lone westerner, they're less likely to mow down a dozen of their own. Although tragically, pedestrians in many parts of Asia seem to be regarded as an expendable commodity.
Yesterday's main English-language paper carried a surprisingly colonel-esque headline: "GUNBATTLE AT JU [Jahangirnagar University] AGAIN". It was the 'again' that caught my attention - as if one isolated inter-student gunbattle would barely be worth reporting. The article also contained the inescapably arresting detail that 50 had been injured in the shoot-out, "five of them with bullets". This says volumes about either a shortage of ammunition or a serious perception gap about what guns are actually for. (I think the university should introduce a short course taught by a retired colonel: "Firearms 101 - How to load the bally thing with bullets, point it at yer intended target and pull the trigger, you long-haired nicompoops!" or some such.)
The calls to prayer from the city's many mosques are, as always, hauntingly beautiful. When I lived in Indonesia the sound of 15 or 20 mosques within earshot all going off at once, as it were, was a constant delight; forming a kind of accidental found choral music of Messiaenic beauty. Here, the effect is marred not a little by the incessant honking of horns and whooping of 'VVIP' motorcade sirens. Not that anyone moves aside for them, of course. On the way into town from the airport, I saw the faintly pathetic sight of policemen in an escorting truck waving batons listlessly at the oblivious traffic, with the forlorn expressions of men who know full well that they're just going through the motions.
Tagore himself said of Indonesia when he visited it in the early 20th century "I see India everywhere but I do not recognise it." At the time, of course, Bangladesh was part of the India he meant. Looking at Bangladesh, I understand him perfectly.