Fast Forward – Alone in Dhaka – Fri 15 Jan

The muezzin, dogs and chickens wake me at my hotel and I try to catch yesterday before the tide of images recedes …

My guide Tuhin is a short man in raybans and a beige pullover

His accent is thicker than soupless dahl

We walk to Kemal Attaturk avenue to a CNG and an ATM

Twenty men pull at ropes to raise a sign into place above a shop.

He gives me his card: Green Bengal Tours.  He’s a director.

‘Do you have a map?’

‘Yes, but not with me at this time’.

Alone in Dhaka, with a guide.

Down the boulevard we spin, wide lanes of cars with Dhaka dodgem bars

Past the pot plant gardens of Banani below the apartments of the rich

Billboards announce the arrival of American Express.  Dhaka has fallen

Through roundabouts that make the Arc d’triomphe provincial

The traffic stutters then freezes.  ‘After ten years it will be numb,’ Tuhin says.

Into the bazaar and the unbulldozed lanes of the old Hindu artisans

The women wear bangles – a semantic quirk – a Hindu thing with conch shells

The white rings sit in glass cabinets, underwhelming

The bare flesh of the vermillion dotted women is brazen

Its volumptuousness deeper for the restraint of Rajshahi

Down a passage into a home.  A man bathes at a well in grey clean water.  Orange marigolds are offered in a dish by the rim.  The women sit on the bed watching tele.  Incense.  A temple.  Men in shops being shaved, selling radios, wearing football shirts

We stop for shingarar.  Delicious.  I strike another nut and fear death, very briefly.

A man sits in the street with a sheet where sit hide of an armadillo, civet and deer, the jaw of a small shark, a piece of cuttlefish, a deer antler, and sticks of unnameable trees.  With an egg and a marble he essays a magic, producing vials and amulets, shaves his elements into a potion he promises will make men last longer and more fertile.    Here?!?

A beggar appears on all fours.  I offer 50 taka.  Tuhin says that’s too much, he will never change it.  I’m not sure about that but cannot argue in Bangla.

We stop at a museum.  It’s closed.  I’m relieved.  I can smell the oily, fetid harbour.

The fruit market has mounds of coconuts, fibrous, albino cannonballs, plates of plums, hands of jeweled Hindi girls

A shop sells paper bags made from recycled newspaper.  A roaring trade.

Friday is the quiet first day of the weekend but everywhere is commerce.  The river of people constant

The water itself, about 100 yards across, holds beaten old ferries and low wooden canoes.  Barges shift sand.  Men wash, inured to the tannery upstream.  ‘Green Condom’ is advertised on the pylon of the bridge

We walk onto a ferry, men play cards, kids sleep, the boat next to us arrives, squeezing its way between vessels full of clay jars of date palm molasses

The detritus of the city mixes with swollen water cress at the shore line – hyacinths? – where boatmen wait for a ride, gossiping, smoking, haggling

I step in and rock the boat, a more delicate step is required

The boatman tells us there are no fish.  It used to be clean 15 years ago

Shopping centres have been built on the other side.  The sea is 200 kilometres away.  Tuhin sells me a trip to the Sundurbans but cannot guarantee I will see tigers.  I’m not buying

Plastic bags, banned in the city, float by with the water cress.  Hyacinths?

Tuhin refers every now and then to the Lonely Planet guide.  I wish he would stop.  But I wish he had a map.  I wish he had the wit and the option to reimagine tourism

Out of the boat and through the traffic.  Accidents deftly avoided by the second.

To the Armenian church.  An oasis of calm.  Only 9 families left, but thriving once.  This place of trade, of piracy, of conquest and occupation.

Biriani follows with lunchtime locals, each eating with their hands, in western clothes.  I am asked if I would like my coke ‘cold or normal’.

We discuss Grameen – not everyone is a fan.  Some say it is just a business.  Tuhin does not agree:  people are very proud of Dr Yunus.

The main mosque is shut.  Mosaic florid.  Mt Fuji in the tiles.  No minaret: the builder thought that people should know the time of prayer.

Then a circumcision celebration.  Still happens – at 5 or 6.  Poor boys.  The families are exuberant.  Girls happy – relieved no doubt – and insist on photos.

A young man stands at a newsagents, looks cool, in tshirt and jeans, could be at Tottenham Court tube waiting for the rest of his band.

The national temple next, to see Durga, Krishna and co, behind wire.  The riotous polygodhead screaming its colour to invisible singularity of Allah.  The divide made vivid.  Oodles of clay Shorshotis – goddess of learning.  It’s entrance exam season here, children compete for places at the public schools

Pushing on to the fort.  Once the local Tower of London, with its own tunnel to the river.  Now a place of leisure, full of picnics, lovers and vital games of cricket.

A rickshaw finds us in the Universty zone, where parliaments of students sit in strangely neat circles discussing religion and politics.  A student was killed by a student mob in Rajshahi the other day.  Danger lives on here.  Boulevards of rain trees.  The national museum appears, home to the 11th Dhaka film festival.  I think, ‘Coming out in Dhaka?  That would be brave’.

A blue eyed henna handed young woman sells us a program for 7 taka.   Inside a display from the dye industry shows coloured bottles and skeins of silk. People chat, richer, better looking.  Another Bangladesh.  After projection problems films appear on a small stand up screen beaming from an apple mac.  The history of Al-Badr, a death squad in Dhaka, killed teachers and academics in the war of 71.  They talk of the martyrs: 3 million died in the war for independence.  Members remain in politics.

The Mirpur killing field. The home of Grameen hosted these deaths.

Children follow, young horse riders of Dhaka.  The boys – non-actors, real people – appear, take applause and go back to their lives.  A two minute piece on the garbage children.  Even in Rajshahi, kids work all day picking out what can be sold from garbage.  Aid should build schools and hospitals and housing for the world’s poor. Business can wait.  Those things would build businesses.  Enough.

Time to return to my hotel.  Past the Sheraton, the tunnel of western capital.  Stopping at parliament, where the opposition will not sit on Sunday and the prime minister will return from India.  The first year of a new government.  The second most corrupt country in the world.

I am welcomed warmly at the desk.  I eat dahl and watch cricket, read my emails, rich and warm, alone in Dhaka.

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