I am in the middle of writing a small book about Dhallywood, believe it or not. It began as quite a fun project even though it dealt with the serious issue of censorship. In the course of researching it, and as I talked to more and more people, I am finding that Bengali intellectuals remain located in a statist mode, and only a few are able to think seriously beyond the state. Bizarre and sad - and I will explain why elsewhere. You will hopefully read it ( and buy it!) at some point next year.
As part of this I went to interview a couple of banner artists in old Dhaka. They are a dying breed, and I discuss their woes in a small section in the book. There is of course nothing like wondering about in old Dhaka. It is unfailingly interesting, and never shows the meanness and arrogance that I see in Gulshan.
These chaps were on their way to Riyadh when i met them. They come from Tangail - just north of Dhaka. They had a wait of 15 hours at Kolkata airport for their connection. The airport’s airconditioning was far too cold, and they complained many times but to no avail. In desperation they got their towels out and tried to keep warm. They told me - Sir, this is not the worst of it. At least we are being fed here. In Dhaka we had a wait of five days and often with erratic food delivery.
I asked them if they knew what they wouldl be doing - they replied that they would be faciliatating the pilgrims on hajj in Saudi for the next month, and then after that cleaning work. They had no idea what their wages would be or where they would be working. Anything was better than being jobless at home. Being powerless is part of the package. You are at the mercy of middle-men and employers, and that is the way things are done. This is globalisation. Like it or lump it.
And in Dubai I saw hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims clad in white sheets and towels. Acting out of a force as inexorable as globalisation these chaps are on their way to Mecca. It was an awesome and overwhelming sight. Allthough I am not religious at all, I could not help but be moved by this devotional act. All dressed in simple white garb, it was an affirmation of how insignificant/powerful we are.
I missed my connection in Dubai and Emirates put me up at Le Meridien. In my room there was a little arrow indicating the direction of Mecca for prayer purposes. And downstairs, in the foyer, Filipino migrant workers were entertaining the 5 star guests to Christmas carols. I listen moved by their efforts. I wanted to stay but I had to rush off to Deira for a recce of what is to come next year for me.
I got home in the nick of time….and so, merry xmas from bonnie Scotland.
So it is finally finsihed. And I am on my way home. Bostrobalikara: the garment girls of Bangladesh is the final title.
How do I feel? Right now - exhausted. It has been quite a process, and you will hopefully watch it and judge it. I will give my own comments after the premiere in Jan in Dhaka. And yes, I am capable of being self-critical! And I have a lot to be critical about!
Documentary making is strangely a bit like academic field work. You meet people, you establish a rapport, you peer into their lives and then you move on whilst their lives remain the same. Something desperately not right there. And I think of Nadia in particular and the other characters in the documentary.
I feel sorry for old Pat Butenis. I really do. I never thought I would feel sorry for an ambassador of the United States of America but, goddamit, I do. Check the US envoy’s latest comment. It is one of exasperation and disbelief. Christmas is around the corner and she is mired in Dhaka having to put up with politicians who between them have less maturity than say your average hoodlum in the deprived areas of New York or Los Angeles.
I am an optimist by nature, and my observations reflect that optimism but my outlook on life is often severely challenged by your politics. (Quoted in The Daily Star, 18 December)
Indeed. Of course the politics of the US of A severely challenges every notion of decency and honour and what it is to be human but those are small things and we needn’t go into all that here. Nor do we need to reflect on the mature deeds or indeed outlook of Pat’s boss, a certain George W Bush - a man who can’t even eat a pretzel. No. Question is do Bangladeshi politicians need a ‘mom’ to discipline them? Possibly. And you have set yourself up as that mom, Pat, so don’t moan too much. (By the way, why can’t americans spell mum correctly??) Will you keep a diary
mommy Pat? Ah all those tea parties and nocturnal trysts in various Gulshan residences to decide the nation’s fate - and all those guests, including those who have mates in Gitmo….best seller material at least in Dhaka?
GMG Airlines took off late from Kolkata. It is always annoying to hear such an extended islamic prayer being offered before the crew address the issue of safety and other flight information. I mean what the hell? I was cold, hungry and exhausted. And those same words escaped my lips when I saw my friend’s car come to pick me up at Zia International. I know she has a wicked sense of humour but what the hell was that Bangladeshi flag doing on the car bonnet. She is a bureaucrat but this was her private car. And she knows very well my views about nationalist symbols. And then her sms text registered on my phone:
sur jodayeo tumi, sur jateo tumi O amar Bangladesh prio janmovumi. Amader muktijudhher shapnogulo purno hoak, purno hoak.
Bloody hell. I had forg otten of course. It was 16th December - well about one hour left of it. Our victory day. It is so easy to forget. A national malaise sadly.
It was an adventure this morning for sure. My brave taxi driver was scolded mercilessly for breaking the bandh by a bunch of CPM
lumpens comrades. They made me get out of the yellow ambassador taxi, and I then walked most of the way to my destination. It was the best thing that could have happened of course. I have some great shots of Kolkata now. Thanks guys!
The news stations here in Kolkata have been quite critical of the bandh. The level of aggressive questioning in Indian tv is quite something to watch. One could not imagine anything of the sort in Bangladesh. Journos there have a hard time, and the kind of questioning I witnessed today would be like signing your own death warrant.
We wrap up here on the 17th, and leave for Dhaka. From the frying pan into the ….
Ah you can’t escape strikes and the like in Bangladom. We have a situation here, folks, and it is going to last 24 hours. It is a government called strike and so there is absolutely no transport. Even planes have been cancelled etc.Â Last night we found that we are at a very critical stage of our work. So I face the prospect of an 11km walk with my computer from my hotel to Anwar Shah Road where our team is. Should be fun. They say cricket matches break out like a rash in the streets during strike days. I think I can cope with the walk there but will I have the energy to get back to my hotel tonight? Watch this space and you will find out.
Grey Street in Durban is inscribed in my heart, and Serangoon Road in Singapore too but Kolkata beats both and has been one hell of an eye-opener. I am working about ten hours a day before exhaustion overcomes me. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wander the streets in the evening. What a place this is. I disturb my wanderings to listen to the news on my Zen plus. Sadly the news from Dhaka just gets more and more uncertain.
Folks, Makes a nice change to arrive in a city where the airport is not named after a dictator….but instead after Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose ( ok ok we all know his anti-imperialist flirtations with dodgy types but…) Makes a change also to see the hammer and sickle here and there…well, ok…. everywhere. A wish for a better future if nothing else.Â Yes this place has all the charm Dhaka should possess but does not. I speak of the charm a western eye finds in dilapidated colonial buildings and a street artery/architecture redolent of the roads/avenues of Europe. This place reeks of all the baggage we inherit when we encounter the romanticised Raj. Partly. And then there is Mamata Bannerjee . She is on a hunger strike here in the city, and what a show too. David Blane you are no match…
More on that later…..
Many, many thanks to the anonymous reader who sent me this inspiring link about a demo by migrant workers in South Korea against the government’s Employment Permit System. It describes a demo which took place some years ago or around December 7th this year - I can’t work it out! Anyway, the article refers to a Ms Jalal of Bangladesh who performed a song at the demo (is that her in the pic below?) :
One of the undisputed highlights of the rally was the performance of WAW (We Are Warriors, breaking the borders): a traditional song from Bangladesh modified with a song against EPS, and employer arbitrariness and demanding the struggle for a better life. The song was created as a expression dance by Ms Jallal from Bangladesh - really great it was.
The Employment Permit System Act came into effect in August (2004), giving the Ministry of Labour a legislative structure to control and monitor migrant workers for the first time. The Act allows migrant workers with visas to work for a maximum of three years, and gives some protection of basic rights. However, undocumented workers who have stayed longer than four years are liable to immediate detention pending deportation. Employers face large fines if they employ undocumented workers.
There are around two hundred thousand undocumented workers not registered with the authorities, many of whom are unemployed. They provide cheap labour, often in dangerous conditions. ( Culled from Amnesty International).
And so I am off to Kolkata. I have been saying the word over and over to myself as I tend to do when I am excited about a place I am visiting. I am experiencing something akin to sensory overload as I think about Kolkata and all that it means to me. As is always the case in such scenarios, I am disengaged from what Kolkata really is. I was there last as a five year old child. And this disencumberance from real experience is interesting for it allows me to create my expectations based around all the bits of history I am fond of and my cultural inheritance. Romantic stuff to be sure.
And now Kolkata, and I am going to sound like a real pseud I warn you, keeps bringing me back to Amitav Ghosh. And in particular his book The Glass Palace. I have found my own little angle in there about diasporic experience - those of you who are regular readers will know that I am doing a project about the bangladeshi diaspora. I can’t think of any other author who has managed to reveal so much about diasporic experience (pls let me know if you do), and in this book with the backdrop of empire and freedom - from the old Raj in Burma to the contemporary United States. If you want to flick through the book before you decide to read it, read the section (12-4) where Rajkumar loses his mother on a boat to Chittagong. That passage brings home the essential diasporic experience - the desire to survive and to create one’s destiny.