Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Dhaka traffic

Yesterday I went to the Parliament building. It is by Louis Kahn, and is a very nice building. It was too hot out to enjoy it. I am told that it is usually not too hot at this time of year, but that summer has arrived early.

On the way over we noticed some students marching with a banner that had a picture on it. It seems they were upset about the death of a fellow student. We rode past them on the rickshaw (cycle driven) and had no problem.

On the way back, they were a problem. We were in a CNG rickshaw (aka baby-taxi, auto-rickshaw, tuk-tuk in different countries). The driver became agitated by the inability to move, which is unusual here. Mostly drivers will honk, and try to get any advantage they can in the slow moving mess, but they don't seem to become upset. This jam was so bad though that a car being pushed by two guys was able to keep up with traffic. Our driver was yelling at the driver of a cycle rickshaw, who then got off his seat and walked up to our vehicle. The CNGs here have a sort of cage, apparently to protect the driver from his passengers, so our driver was pretty safe I suppose. In any case I was waving my arm palm down, hoping that what I think of as "calm down" was not a rude gesture to a Bengali.

Eventually we arrived back at the office in time for lunch, and I neither threw up nor passed out, however much I felt like I was about to. The heat was one thing, the exhaust from the cars and buses right next to us was another. One travels for "experiences" and that was for sure one, albeit a rather unpleasant one.

Last night Mahbub took me to a performance of an Ionesco play. I suppose the only thing more absurd than absurdist drama is seeing it in a language you don't speak. This play dealt with a young woman who wants a doctorate in three months, and the professor who tries to teach her arithmetic, and the philology of neo-spanish (there was a precis available in English). I was able to understand a small percentage of it, including the part where he tries to teach subtraction by asking how many ears she would have if he pulled off one of them.

On the way back we took a rickshaw until the traffic halted, then walked a bit and took another until we had to get off because rickshaws were banned from the rest of the street. The second rickshaw was driven by an older gentleman, who at one point received an assist from a bus passenger who seemed to be under the impression that if only he gave us a push, the Bus would be able to make better progress. It seemed an unlikely hypothesis to me, as we were far from the only rickshaw on the street, but it did give a momentary thrill to suddenly accelerate from the rather leisurely pace that is the norm for the cycle rickshaw.

Perhaps a few more words on them is in order. They are three wheeled vehicles, with the front for steering (just like a bicycle) and the rear two are driven by a chain. There is no gearing, so sometimes at starting, or on a bit of a rise (Dhaka is very flat, so this mostly seems to be at bridges) the driver will dismount, and push the cycle forward. Other drivers will back pedal a bit at the bottom of every stroke, so they can get more leverage, and avoid the point when the pedals are vertical.

One sees all manner of goods being transported manually. Last night there was a cart with bamboo poles that may have been thirty feet long. Just like the Fireman's system for ladder trucks, where there are drivers at both ends, there were some fellows by the cart pushing it, and some at the far end of poles, way in front, pulling and steering. And yelling at each other, the other drivers and so on. Rather an amazing spectacle.

The museum here is not too great, but it has a mix of things you don't see in western museums. Stuffed animals, birds, rockes, minerals, paintings, dioramas, tools, historical documents and so on. There was even a poster for the movie made of the 1971 concert for Bangla Desh, which was produced by Phil Spector. I don't recall it. There was plenty of mention of the rebels during the "War of Independence" but no mention (none I could see) of the Indian Army, which defeated the occupying Pakistanis in what they call the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

Bangladesh has a bit of an identity crisis, in that it was originally formed as part of Pakistan, in other words as part of the nation for Indians who are Muslim. Within just a few years there was trouble though, as the Pakistanis wanted Urdu to be the national language. In a way that is perfectly natural, as Urdu is the most common tongue of the Muslims in the sub-continent, and it is related to Arabic, and so on. The Bengalis were of a different opinion however, and many of them protested this plan. Some were martyred and that is why they have a "language day".

At this point one has to ask, if India is a multi-religious, multi-linguistic nation, including both Bengali speakers and Muslims, than why shouldn't Bangladesh be a part of it (East Bengal, in particular). Obviously there is history, and national pride, and the fact that India doesn't really need another 140 million mostly poor people living on land so poor that rocks are not even available.

Reading the newspapers here is a very interesting experience. I had always assumed that corrupt governments went hand-in-hand with an unfree press, but that does not seem to be the case here. The press reports relatively freely on the depredations and incompetence of the government (there was a ferry sinking here in the storm a few days back, the ferry was apparently aged and unseaworthy, but was fully certified by the government) and also on the evils of the previous government, now in opposition (they had handed out gun permits to god-fathers and criminals and party hacks). The most embarrassing news for this country was the story about the donor conference in Washington DC, to which the Bangladeshis were not even invited.

In case of power cut, I will post this now.


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