Tuesday, 17 February 2009

"All Bengalis are poets"

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.

7 comments:

No Good Boyo said...

Sounds like you've found a home from home, albeit it one floating on a jute mat three inches below the water line.

The muezzins of Tashkent had been corrupted by Communism and a reliable power supply, and so the call to prayer was a cruelly amplified recording blasted out while the clergy slept at a good distance.

For me it served as a cue to untruss and water my bedmate of the night before letting her return to her husband.

How's the fish curry?

scarlet-blue said...

That's gross Mr Boyo!
Sx

No Good Boyo said...

On the contrary. Bangladesh is noted for its Macher Jhol, Scarlet, and it's quite delicious.

scarlet-blue said...

Tut! You knew what I was referring to! And yes I did have to google Macher Jhol....
Sx

Gyppo Byard said...

Boyo - the machher torkari is excellent - machher jhol is basically a soup, much prized for resembling the consistency of the country as a whole. But it's very nice too...

Scarls - see above. It's not gross at all, unless you object to spicy food as a whole.

Gadjo Dilo said...

West Bengal is as "out east" as I've ever been, and I found it a fascinating, smelly place, where to escape the crowds I sat and read some Tagore - very nice stuff, though slow-burning. Sorry to hear about the runing gun fight at the Students Union bar; can't you send over a few British indie bands to calm them down of a Friday? Or get your gamelan out?

Gyppo Byard said...

Ah Gadjo - you can get a feel for what I'm going through then... I do like the Indian Subcontinent, but for me the East really starts a bit further over. Try Thailand some time...

Word on the street has it that the student union fracas was really about which faction of the ruling party youth wing controls the beer supply. Imagine 'Porterhouse Blue Meets The Godfather' and you'll get the picture.