Bangladesh – Friday, February 15, 2013 – Kushtia
The last twenty-four hours have been full of activities and surprises. I needed to go to some of the seed shops we had observed out past the hospital on an earlier walk. I needed the seeds and some urea fertilizer for the agriculture classes. Alo met us about 6pm and we headed out on foot. It wasn’t long before we encountered a traffic jam ahead. It was the railroad crossing. Everyone has to stop at the crossing gate in anticipation of the train going by. We’re not talking a minute or so ahead. It’s more like 5 minutes before the train is to pass the crossing gates are pulled down. A few pedestrians sprint across the crossing. But all the rickshaws and baby taxis line up for blocks. The daily train that goes by is much like the pictures we’ve seen of Indian trains. There are people jammed into each car with arms hanging out some of the windows. On some of the cars there are passengers on the roof. After the train goes by and the crossing gates go back up it takes 15 or 20 minutes for the three abreast jam of rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians to clear out. Finally we were on our way dodging motorbikes and bicycles in the narrow road. We were able to get some bean and radish seeds at the first shop. At the second shop we found mustard and rice. But of course the seed shops don’t carry fertilizer. The fertilizer shops are in the wholesale section at the other end of town. So we set off walking again. In one section there are many pharmacy shops clustered around the main hospital. They all sell about the same thing. We passed clusters of woodworking shops, also making identical objects. Further on were at least a dozen tanneries, some with fresh cow hides they were processing. We passed a Hindu temple and attempted to go in. But it was closed for preparations for the Saraswati festival today. Past the temple we found the shop that makes all the statues for the festival shrines that were being set up around town. The statues are made of straw and clay and brightly painted. They varied from three to twelve feet high. I’ll include pictures soon.
After making a wide loop around the NE area of town we arrived at a small shop that sells fertilizer. After making our purchase we heard a voice across the street calling us from a second floor balcony. It was one of the school students calling from his home. So we had to stop and visit. Rahul, a sixth grader, has been very quiet in class. We’d learned that he’d spent time in the Rajastan area of India and had volunteered during an exercise that he had his own plants at home. Now we met the real Rahul. His mom invited us in. So we met his whole family. Rahul and his older brother took us up to their rooftop where indeed that had a garden. It is an extensive roof garden with a whole variety of plants in pots. They have small trees, various medicinal plants, bonsai, roses, succulents. We were quite impressed. After spending time in the rooftop garden we were seated and served a wonderful home cooked vegetarian dinner with both familiar dishes and new discoveries. Throughout the visit Rahul was bubbling in conversation with us talking about his activities and family. He had a lot to say. Deni’s got his number now. He’s going to be expected to be more open in class. This is his first year at the school so he’s been reluctant to speak up. But now he’ll certainly feel more at ease. Alo has been to Rahul’s home before. But this was a special treat for them to have both the headmistress and two American teachers at their home.
Deni now – Coop’s gone to buy toilet paper – we seem to go through a lot of it.
It was amazing the extent of the spread that Rahul’s mom put together with no warning. And I had to laugh as she urged (demanded?) that Alo eat more. Alo has been doing the same thing to me, so it was good to see someone doing it to her. And I’m not talking just the usual “Oh, do have a little more of this whatever.” No, it’s a take no prisoners assault – you will have more, you will eat it, and you will like it. Here, let me put heaping spoonsful on your plate. Let me look crushed if you don’t eat all of it. This appears to be a Bangladeshi thing. Coop will tell you about what we did today, but let me say this about the food part of it. No matter where we went, we were immediately presented with food – and expected to eat it. In fact at the singer’s house (more about that further on), his wife physically placed slices of fruit in our mouths!! At the temple, after the ceremony which seemed to involve pelting the goddess with flowers, we were fed the fruit that had been left for her. There was more food at the “uncles” house and at our host’s house – twice!!! And finally, there was food to take with us on our hour-long trip back to Kushtia, just in case we got a little peckish. Needless to say we didn’t need any dinner.
Chanchal, whom we met a couple of days ago on the street, picked us up at the school this morning in an “auto rickshaw”. We took the rickshaw across town to the bus stop. There are no signs or maps for bus stops. You just have to know where the stops are and which bus to take. There are many different bus companies. We got on the bus which goes south towards Jessore. It’s the bus we’ll take when we take a Jessore trip in a week or so. It takes a little over a half hour to travel the 25 kilometers out of town to Islamic University. Though full size, it’s a private university that is smaller than the government university and takes only honors students from high school. It is called “Islamic” university, but it is not exclusive by religion. Chanchal and his wife are Hindu. He got his masters degree there in political science and she is s a lecturer in Computer Science working on her doctorate. The University was closed when I was here in September. It had been closed by the government for opposition radicalism. It reopened in December after being closed eight months. The universities are a major source of government opposition. So closure is a common ruling party tactic to squelch opposition. We met a couple of the professors who were at a roadside tea stall. Then a poet of local fame joined us. With poet in tow, we climbed on a flat bed rickshaw (no seats) and went to the home of a musician, Paresh Biswas, who’s a long time friend of Chanchal. We were seated in a room where there was a set of the traditional Bengali musical instruments. The visit turned into a private concert that included a composition of one of the poet’s poems and some Lalon Shah pieces. Paresh’s wife joined him on a couple of the pieces first with finger bells and then taking over the harmonium while singing with Paresh. At Lalon Masar and here at SunUp school I’ve been watching the harmonium accompaniment figuring out the minor keys they use. After Paresh and his wife were done singing I started playing the harmonium in B harmonic minor, just improvising. Paresh immediately took up the tabla and we played together for a bit. We made an immediate musical connection. And it seems like we’ve got friends for life now. We begged off eating a meal with them since we had other places to go. We climbed back on the flatbed and went to the university campus to the Hindu shrine that had been set up for the festival. The festival was already over at this location, but we were assured we would be going to another one which would be held later. Paresh and his wife ended up sending food with us. They want us to come again and join them for a meal and music. We understand that Paresh has appeared on Bengladesh TV and radio.
After the quick stop at Islamic University we headed off on flatbed rickshaws to Chanchal’s family compound. We turned off the main road then threaded through rural homesteads, rice fields, canals and ponds to reach the family compound. Nearby was a Saraswati shrine and people gathered. We were assured we’d be able to visit later. Chanchal’s family was assembled in the family compound. He’s one of four brothers who live there with their families and his mother and aunt. His four sisters live in their husband’s compound. His father and one uncle are deceased. Chanchal and one brother have advanced university degrees. His father and uncle were both educated. Though Chanchal, his wife, and their two year old son don’t often live there now, they have a bedroom in the compound. After spending time there with much eating and picture taking we walked over to the Saraswati shrine. The villagers had been waiting for us to make our homage by throwing marigold flower petals and leaves at the statue and over the food offerings. Once we had done that the food was distributed to all the participants. We then found out that everyone had been fasting that day until the food offerings were distributed. So we had been delaying the finale. They were very glad to see us once we arrived.
I’ve always figured a rural “goodbye” takes about a half hour. In rural Bangladesh it definitely takes more like an hour and a half because of the required tea and eating everywhere you go. We still had to eat more at the family compound and then look at the farm fields. It’s a beautiful setting. Farms in Bangaldesh are tended and manicured exquisitely. No land is left to waste. The compounds and farm fields are kept clean and manicured. Farming is a millennial tradition. And it’s done carefully. Most operations are done by hand. It’s rice transplanting time right now. We’ve seen many lightly flooded fields where there are groups of people planting the individual plants in very regular rows with exact spacing for optimum yield. After observing the fields and eating a last bit we headed out. Chanchal took us on a flatbed rickshaw out to the highway and down to the bus stop. A bus was just loading so we hopped on. He made sure we were comfortable. We said our goodbyes then he hopped off at the next stop. Part way through the trip back to town the young men standing in the aisle next to our seats asked if we would talk with them. They are English Literature students at Islamic University. They were heading back to town. We ended up talking about Moby Dick, Thomas Mallory, and Charles Dickens with them. Deni found it a bit surreal. The students were very excited to talk with us. In Kushtia we got off at the same stop as the students did. They volunteered to help us get to SunUp school which is across town. We all shared an “auto rickshaw”. They know of SunUp school and have met Madam Alo. They’ve also met Chanchal since his wife is a lecturer at the university. We stopped at the school and they insisted on paying for the rickshaw. They were quite appreciative of our willingness to talk English with them. There’s no way we can learn much Bangla here. So many people want to talk English with us. What a day full of experiences. We never quite know what the day will bring. But they’ve all been fantastic.
Alo just called – it’s 9 p.m., but we’re off to do something or other – it’s not quite clear what. More later.
We headed out to see the last of the Saraswati festivities. We toured what appears to be a Hindu dominated section of town around where student Rahul lives. On many of the streets families had set up a shrine with an illuminated statue. Each shrine was accompanied by shrieking music blasting from big speakers. I guess the idea is to attract people to their shrine. One of the shrines was successful as there was a small crowd packing the narrow street and some of the young people were dancing. The deafening noise was too much for us so we headed back across town around 10pm.
By this time the streets were pretty well deserted with most of the shops closed up. Then we arrived at a place surrounded by vehicles and containing bright lights. It was a badminton tournament. Alo’s husband, Moni is the head of the local sports league. There he was out on the badminton court officiating. We arrived just as the game was to start. We watched for about an hour. We’re not talking picnic badminton at the park. This was serious sport with young men spiking the shuttle cock and fast action. The players were dripping with sweat though the evening was cool. There were at least 200 spectators surrounding the court. We had court center seats. Deni and Alo were the only women on ground level. The women spectators were separate from the men on the balcony and second balcony level of a building facing the court. I can see one reason badminton would be popular here. The court is much smaller than a tennis court. So there can be a modest indoor court like we observed the other day. The outdoor court is also modest in size and better matches the amount of space available in high density towns like Kushtia. After watching for an hour Moni joined us and we went back to our apartment at the school. Moni was going to have to go back when the tournament was to end at about 2am. He was already tired from his long journey from Dhaka. He had arrived in Kushtia just a short time before he was to start officiating at the tournament.
I’ll end this posting here though it’s already Saturday when I’m finishing this. There’s lots more to talk about in the next post.