Archive for June, 2005


June 29th, 2005



This evening, I was interacting with seven seventy-year old (and plus) women of the Communist Party. Comrade Tara had invited me to talk to her women’s group about my visit to Bangladesh and what I had seen there.

I have known Comrade Tara for a while now, about four months. I like her a lot. She is perhaps more than seventy years old, but is very active, sharp, vibrant, alive and most importantly, playful. Both of us like each other, but her way of expressing her liking for me is indirect.

Comrade Tara and her six seventy year old friends are politically active and alive. They write articles and plays. Some of them walk with walking sticks, but the spirit of life is evident from their talks and their belief in what they are doing.


I landed at the venue ten minutes late. They were busy with their meeting. “Ten minutes, and I shall introduce you to them and them to you. They thought it is a lady who is coming to talk with them. I told them she is a young girl, mulgi , not any lady!” and saying this, Comrade Tara started laughing, the usual playful laughter which I completely adore. She is my heroine.


Ten minutes later, Comrade Tara started opening her huge bag and brought out two plastic bags with some snacks in them. “Here,” she said, handing over the bags to her colleague, “Eh listen,” addressing me, “We eat these everyday at home, but I have got them for you especially,” and I know that she is showing her affection for me. Comrade Tara, who believes in shaking hands with me instead of giving me a tight hug to show what she feels about me. Comrade Tara, my friend!


As we each took one of the fried pieces of the snack, she suddenly asked one of her colleagues, “Eh, is your shravan (Hindu calendar month of fasting, vegetarianism) going on?” “What shravan ?” her colleague replied surprised. “Why not?” Comrade Tara responded, with a bit of irritation, “This poornima has gone so now shravan .” Her other colleagues began to say, “Eh, this is ashaadh . You are jumping months,” and they did some calculation to prove that this was not shravan . Comrade Tara bit her tongue and started laughing, “I don’t know these things!”


I bit into the snacks and realized that they were chicken kebabs. Perhaps that is why Comrade Tara was asking her colleague whether it was shravan in case she was following it and was supposed to maintain vegetarianism. We each enjoyed the kebabs. After finishing mine, I began to fish for a tissue or kerchief to wipe my hands. Unable to find anything, I began to close my bag when one of Comrade Tara’s colleagues started whistling out to me, “Tch, tch, eh, you, mulgi ,” and she began gesticulating to me, suggesting that I simply wipe my hands with my dress. I started smiling. Usually at home, I am a clumsy person, wiping my wet hands with what I am wearing. But outside, manners take over. Perhaps there is a sense of consciousness, the feeling that I am being watched. I actually wiped my hands with my dress, after the cue from the lady. It felt quite nice, the feeling that what the heck, the emperor is naked!


When Comrade Tara came in again, her colleague said to her, “Wonderful cutlets!” Comrade Tara shouted back, “Arre, do you know the difference between kebabs, cutlets and pattice? These were kebabs, actual kebabs!” This is what I enjoy about Comrade Tara. She is straightforward, no-nonsense and playful!


Sipping our teas, we chatted with each other about my trip to Bangladesh . I began to mull over the space that had been created between us, a kind of public space in that little room. Perhaps then, public space is that space which facilitates meeting of minds, between different peoples. But more than public space, my thoughts were focused around aged persons, whom we now call ‘senior citizens’. Sitting among these women, I realized that there is an immense value which elderly people bring to our society, to our lives. They are important for the growth of our individual selves as well as for our society as a whole.

For some days now, my thoughts have been focusing on how identity formation takes place and how we become ‘independent individuals’. Independence is about an internal belief system which we develop for ourselves – a belief system which defines us, our convictions. It is like forming a backbone. Living with people is a process of individuality and learning to grow with differences. Standing by our convictions in the face of differences, as a matter of principle and not out of stubbornness, is one of the processes of identity formation and growth.

Perhaps we have defined our individual spaces narrowly, perhaps! It excludes different peoples from our spheres. Sitting with Comrade Tara and her colleagues, I felt the value of our interaction today lay in understanding elderly people and respecting the importance they hold in our lives. Perhaps one more nuance of courage – being able to live with differences and maintaining an identity of my own.


At the end of the interaction, despite our disagreements and differences, we were friends. Comrade Tara and her colleagues are now part of my space in my life. We shook hands with each other and promised to meet again soon. The atmosphere was light; they were child-like, squabbling with each other and then laughing at their own messiness.


I am beginning to believe that there is lots of love in this world. It just requires us to see things differently.


Discovering love and identity in a city …



June 29th, 2005



It was raining heavily. I was feeling down today. I decided to go to Marine Drive . Marine Drive – that space which offers relief and respite from the self as well as from the city and the rest of the world. I don’t know what it is about the space – whether it is the sea, the openness, the atmosphere – which offers succour to everyone who comes here.


It was raining heavily. I walked over from CCI to Marine Plaza and then crossed onto the promenade. The sea water was dark, grey and dirty. The sea was threatening to be violent.


People were sitting on the wall. I began to wonder whether the character of a space changes with seasons. I also thought about hawkers and whether they would be there today. Would they be doing dhanda amidst the rains? Shah Rukh was there. He was looking like a drenched pigeon. But he was his usual self, trying to impress people with his innocence and street-smart-attitude and getting them to buy tea from him. The atmosphere seemed more relaxed today. The MCGM surveillance van was not around. An enterprising man had set up a tava and some live coals and he was roasting corn on the promenade. People on the promenade were enjoying tea and roasted corn.


Then there were some of the joggers. The chic lady with her dog running before her was there. She was unstoppable. I am curious about her. I need to chat with her sometime. She is an enigma – in her shorts and T-shirt, she adds something distinct to the character of the promenade, just like every individual does to this wonderful space.


People were largely crowded around at the Land’s End . In between, the spaces were sparsely filled. Some “senior citizens” were on their usual walk. Perhaps this space is critical in their everyday lives – a space which is their own time to bond with their own tribe.


Burkha -clad women were also quite prominent on the promenade. I wonder whether this space has any relationship with their lives in terms of freedom, space and sexuality.


Today I came to the promenade not to watch and observe, but because I was feeling down. I simply wanted to walk, walk and continue walking in a space of timelessness. My heart was down and so was my mind. Unable to soothe myself, I resorted to a practice which I have seen people indulge in on the promenade, particularly the ‘executive types’. I took out my mobile phone and began surfing through my phone book, chatting up with people I hadn’t spoken to in a while. I walked up and down and chatted over the phone. At the end of my conversations, I began to feel much better, as if life were back in action and things seemed more on the brighter side!


I once again reached land’s end. This time, as I walked back, rains came on suddenly and people sitting on the wall at one point, just got up with fright and shock. As I walked ahead, I noticed young girls with their raincoats on, enjoying the rains and the openness of the space. In the rains, people come to Marine Drive with an agenda – to enjoy the monsoons of Mumbai!


“Aching hearts

Seething minds

Perturbed souls

Restless, busy bodies!

Marine Drive

A space where life meets life

The sea

A soothing mother

An uncaring entity

A silent friend!

And the horizon,

Out there, in the distance

Thoughts – horizon – the sea

Thoughts and thinking

The coming of nearness from a distance

Marine Drive!

A space in a city!”







June 18th, 2005

Other – Other – Other/s

Another – An – Other – Another/s – An – Other/s



Fleeting conversations in Bangladesh


We are in Dhaka . And we are meeting with my friend’s university professor Mr. Alam. Mr. Alam is a well-traveled person. He enjoys indulging in conversations and discussions. This afternoon, Mr. Alam has invited us to lunch.

We are enjoying a sumptuous Bengali lunch. Mr. Alam starts talking with us about the Middle East where he has traveled a bit. “Saudi, Dubai , Riyadh and Abu Dhabi , I have been to these places. Dubai is cosmopolitan. Saudi is conservative and rigid,” he said. “How is it in India ? I have heard a lot about North India . How is the food there? What kind of people are Punjabis?” My friend and I start to wonder how to describe North India . Within the region itself there are considerable differences. My friend says, “Punjabis are different people. They are enterprising, gregarious but they can also be aggressive.” I say, “Punjabis are different in different places in India . There are Punjabis in Pakistan as well. If you ask my father, he has a list of biases against Muslims. His top- most dislike and prejudice is against Punjabi Muslims, those in Pakistan .” Mr. Alam sprang up from his seat and said, “That is it! That is it! Punjabis! Even our independence struggle against West Pakistan was really against the dominance of the Punjabis. You know why we won independence from Pakistan ? Because we told the Pakistani army that we are mainly against the Punjabis. And they surrendered. Yes, Punjabis it is!”


I have often perceived the hatred that Bangladeshis have against Pakistanis. My friend tells me, “In an India-Pakistan match, Bangladeshis will support India because they hate Pakistan . That’s the only reason they will support India .”


I think about history, memories, ‘The Other’ and borders …



We are in Khulna . My friend’s classmate, Shona, and I are talking with each other in her house. We have been invited to a davat , a dinner party. Shona talks to me about Bangladeshis love going to Kolkatta because ‘shopping is very good there.’ Bombay is too distant for Shona. She can imagine it. “There must be many Hindus there, isn’t it?” She has a look of suspicion on her face. I am trying to read beyond the look. What is the suspicion about? “Yes, there are Hindus. Most of my colleagues and friends are Hindus. My cousins and siblings are wedded to Hindus. My origins are from the Hindu lineage,” I tell her. But that does not change her look. I am a Muslim to her. I don’t know what more to tell Shona.

Back in India , when people ask me about Bangladesh , I perceive a similar look of suspicion on their faces about Muslims in Bangladesh . “Aren’t Hindus being targeted and killed in Bangladesh ?” What do I tell them that the culture in Bangladesh is far from being Islamic? If anything at all, it is truly Bengali culture!

Diya, a friend from Dhaka , had narrated this incident to me during my first visit to Bangladesh . “We are a research institute. We had visitors from Delhi . Among them was a Hindu lady Neeta. She had her own perceptions about Bangladesh . She thought that all the women here wore veils. She thought that we are strict about prayers and religious customs and behaviour. When she came here, she was too surprised to see us wearing sarees. She had asked, ‘Sarees? Is it okay to wear sarees?’ I had told her how we Bangladeshi women look for occasions to wear sarees. She was even more surprised to see us wearing bindis (a Hindu symbol on women’s foreheads). And then I informed her that each one of us, men and women, have a Bengali name in addition to an Islamic name. And we are referred to more frequently by our Bengali names. She was too surprised and it was very hard for her to believe what she saw.”



I am in Chittagong now. We are sitting in the now famous Foy’s Lake . It’s evening time. Mithu, Shumon and me are chatting and passing our time, watching the crowds and frequently indulging in ice-creams! Something happens and MIthu talks about Mujeeb-ur-Rehmaan. “Yeah, he was your independence struggle leader,” I remark. Mithu is surprised. “How do you know?” “Come on,” I tell him as a matter-of-fact, “We study the Bangladesh liberation war as part of our history syllabus in school and college.” “Is it?” he remarks sarcastically, adding, “Tell me more about what you have studied?” I tell him about the election results where East Pakistan had acquired a majority and General Zia tried to suppress these results and impose the West Pakistani government. And then Mujeeb and others rose in revolt. “And India supported the rebellion and sent its army to help,” I end. “Yeah, India sends its army huh?” Mithu says. For a moment, I am a bit taken aback. But I realize that my tone is one of patronizing and Mithu is not impressed with this. I begin to perceive the big-brotherly aka Uncle Sam attitude which India has on South Asia overall. Mithu reads the same attitude in my narration of history. And he does not like this.

On occasions, I have seen a few borders which India has with Bangladesh . We are too close to each other. A few kilometers away from Chittagong , our host takes us to a place where there are hills and waters. There is a golf course there. And it is an army patrolled area. It is now a picnicking spot along with boating and fishing activities. From atop the hill, our host points out to us: “Look, look beyond that boat. That is Bay of Bengal . That is India.” I realize how ‘in the face’ India is to Bangladesh . “We are totally surrounded by India , on all sides,” one of my Bangladeshi friends had said to me during my first visit to Bangladesh . It is the perception of fear, of territory terrorizing and of potential conquest. Wow!


Memories, borders, history, identity, territory … Other – Other – Other/s – Another – An – Other – Another/s – An – Other/s …



June 16th, 2005

language, hindi cinema, television, et al

(Porous borders)



I am now on the other side of the border, in Bangladesh , thirty minutes ahead of time. Yet, the differences are not that great. The landscape is similar to that of Bengal . And the culture is essentially Bengali, not Islamic. Bengali language rules here. You either speak the language or no other option. During my first visit, I had learnt that the first revolt which the Bangladeshis had launched against the tyranny of West Pakistan was that of language. The Bangladeshis refused to submit to the authority of Urdu. They blackened all Urdu signs and hoardings, the walls of cities on which Urdu was written. Bangladeshis are proud of their language. From my second visit onwards, I was beginning to perceive that English and Hindi were slowly creeping into the everyday lives of the people there. I started spotting advertising hoardings in English and came to know of the popularity of Hindi television serials and movies. The famous song “ Kaanta Laga ” had been translated in Bengali. Each day as I would walk the markets of Khulna , I would hear more of Hindi music. One day, the Daily Star, a popular English daily published from Dhaka , carried an article where the author complained of the prevalence of Hindi film music and the decline of Bengali music and poetry.


During each of my visit, my various hosts would ask me to speak Hindi, “the way it is spoken in television serials”, they would insist each time. I have always been dumbstruck on this request. I hardly watch the television serials. So I don’t know what kind of Hindi is spoken. Moreover, Hindi is not a homogenous language. It has its dialects, accents and it is spoken differently in different places and regions in India .


Hindi TV serials of STAR PLUS, SONY and ZEE are heavily popular among the womenfolk and children. “From Monday to Thursday, 1 PM to 5 PM , it is like a film show for them – all the TV serials they watch,” tells me my host’s brother-in-law in Chittagong . One evening, there was no electricity. In the heat, amidst fanning ourselves, the elder daughter-in-law of the house asked the children to sing and dance to Hindi film songs. Mithila, the little girl, began to sing, as if reciting poetry, ‘if you want to be my lober, lober (lover, lover), if you want to be my lober, lober … saaniya dil mein aana re, aa ke phir na jana re … ” I was trying to understand whether Mithila understood what she was singing. It strikes that may be she is constantly exposed to the song and has picked it up subconsciously. I think this is an interesting feature of cities – we are constantly amidst sounds and noises. Often, we subconsciously pick up information and often, we don’t filter everything – it’s just about the noise!


Hindi films are popular in Bangladesh . But the youngsters tell me that while earlier films were remembered for popular dialogues, today’s films are based on star power. Amitabh Bachan is heavily popular in Bangladesh . Each day when I would pass by the Moila Putta Street in Khulna , I would notice the huge Pepsi hoarding with Amitabh Bachan smiling out of it. The hoarding promised, “Drink Pepsi. Get lucky, meet Amitabh in Kolkatta!” As Amitabh smiled out of this hoarding, I began to realize that Amitabh is not just an icon; he is representative of a nation. He symbolizes the nation itself. He is the nation – he is one face of India to the Bangladeshi people.


Pirated VCDs of Hindi films reach Bangladesh before they are released in India . The route is apparently Pakistan where the films are pirated. I remember Aymen Khan, the taxi driver in Amsterdam telling me of his visit to Dubai . “I had been to one of your underworld don’s younger brother’s house. There were suitcases, black ones, piled with film reels. That is how they make their money. Films are released in Dubai by these people.” The experience in Bangladesh and Aymen’s story make me feel that films and Bollywood are an important aspect of the political economy of South Asia . Films, TV, cinema, these in a way contribute to the porosity of borders that exist within South Asia . In 1999, during my visit to Korea , a Pakistani colleague had said to me, “ZEE TV, it is the unifier between India and Pakistan . Else, there was always a distance!” I don’t know in what ways films and television contribute towards the understanding of other. I don’t know how television and cinema reduce distance (or whether they do at all?)? I wonder whether cinema and television assist in making ‘the other’ appear more comprehensible? What????


While I can understand Bangla and if I speak, I wouldn’t be doing a bad job, I feel conscious when I speak the language. Ladies of the houses I would visit would tell me, “Speak Hindi, no problem. We can understand. We watch the television serials.”


This time around, a new cellular phone service was being launched in Bangladesh . It is called DJuice and is a service of the popular Grameen Phone service. DJuice advertises in Hindi. Bengali on its advertising pamphlets is written in English. For instance, ‘ Khoroch Koto (what are the expenses?)’ is written in English instead of Bengali. One of the boys in the University said to me, “I refuse to patronize DJuice. They are spoiling our language by writing Bengali in English. What impact will it have on the coming generations? Already I see the decline in our language. Given the TV serials and films, I am convinced that the next three or four generations will be Hindi speakers.”


I wonder whether borders are porous … Are cultural borders in South Asia porous?



June 15th, 2005

Borders No More …


I am sitting in front of my PC, in my house, in Byculla, Mumbai, India. While I am attempting to write, my mind races back to my home guard friend Vijaya’s experiences of patrolling Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Mumbai. “Platform number one, very danger. They (the authorities) asked me to take on permanent duty there. But I refused. Very danger,” was Vijaya’s final opinion. Vijaya and her other colleagues believe that platform number one is a danger zone. It has many pickpockets and drug addicts. For some days after hearing from Vijaya and her colleagues, I was wary of being at platform number one. A friend responded to me on hearing this story. She said, “That is perhaps how boundaries get created. We define zones and spaces in our minds and practice them regularly. Soon, they acquire that character.”


I am attempting to write of my recent experience of visiting Bangladesh. Bangladesh – perhaps a far away place for a Mumbaiitte, a place that can be imagined and read about in the newspapers and seen on television. I fell in love with someone there and love drove me to Bangladesh. On my first visit, I started out from Mumbai to Kolkatta in a train. On the way, there were conversations between a co-passenger and me. “Where are you headed?” he had asked me. “Bangladesh,” I replied. After a while, he had said with a tone of disgust and anger, “All the bloody terrorist activities in Assam are sponsored by the Bangladeshi government.” I did not react. He stuck firm to his opinion. An old Bengali lady traveling with us in the same compartment happened to ask him where I was going. When she heard that I was going to Bangladesh, a look appeared on her face. I can’t describe that look in a word – there is no word for that look. It was mixture of memories, history, identity, past, nostalgia, pain, longing and desire. “Bangladesh” is all that she said to me with that look.


I reached Kolkatta. My host received me at Howrah Station. On our way to his home, we were speaking of how Muslims are usually perceived. He said, suddenly, “ Door se dekho to har cheez ajeeb nazar aati hai (When seen from a distance, everything appears strange).” These words have remained with me ever since then.


Bangladesh is a distant dream to a Mumbaiitte. I did not even know that there was no embassy in Mumbai. Maybe that many people don’t go to Bangladesh. From Kolkatta, the route to Bangladesh requires you to have a hundred rupees in your pocket. Board a local train to Bonga from Sealdah. The ticket costs Rs.17. on reaching Bonga, cross the railway tracks and take a share-an-auto to Haridaspur border. This ride costs you Rs.20. The border area is lush green. It looks like a transport hub. There are people who have houses and homes around the area. And there is regular trade, exchange and activity taking place there. When I first reached the border, I was too surprised. In my mind, I had imagined the border to be a deserted place. But here was something completely contrary to my desert imaginations. Later I was told that people living around the border regularly cross here and there. Some Bangladeshi laborers pay fifty rupees to the border officials in order to come over to Kolkatta just to catch a night show Hindi film in Kolkatta. They return back the next day. An Indian beggar was once helped to cross over into Bangladesh where he now begs and regales the local Bengalis with his Hindi and tales.


Haridaspur on the Indian side; Benapole on the Bangladesh side – these are the names of the borders that you need to write on your immigration form.


You start your journey at Haridaspur with exchanging money and getting immigration forms. There are several touts who make their living by asking you pay fifty rupees and with that amount, you shall cross over the immigration and the customs on the Indian side of the border with absolute ease. Actually, the fifty rupees is to save you from useless harassment – there is always a commission in the fifty rupees for the officer on the table. After you cross immigration and customs on the Indian, you land to the gate. This gate has emblems of the Indian flag. It is always closed. I don’t know how borders and boundaries get created in reality. I don’t know who decided that the gate should be put there itself. But the gate is there – in reality and a few kilometers away, at Bonga station and beyond, in West Bengal, the gate exists in the mind and, that gate in the mind is also closed.


I show my passport to the Border Security Force guard. He checks for the immigration stamp and clearance. He turns my passport up, down, checks the front page if the photo in the passport is the same as the person standing before him, looks at the last page, some address and then, he opens the gate. As I move beyond the boundaries of the gate, I land into the infamously famous ‘no-man’s-land’. No-Man’s-Land, I ask myself. At one level, I am filled with tears and at another level I wish to laugh out aloud, as if that laughter is only another darker manifestation of my tears. I stand on that space – the no-man’s-land. Apparently, I have no identity once I am on this patch of land. I belong nowhere. There are some labourers working on that patch of land. An old lady is snorkeling there, sifting among the bushes and shrubs, trying to find something. As I stand firmly on that piece of land, I ask myself for my own identity. And a sense of strength prevails all over me. I know my identity – I am Me. But the funniest part of nationhood is that I need proof of my identity – some papers, with some stamp, with some authorization, to prove who I am.


I move slowly from no-man’s-land and I am confronted with another gate which is open and has emblems of the Bangladeshi flag. I am now officially landing into Bangladesh. The transfer is not just physical. I need to wind my watch thirty minutes ahead. I hear the muezzin’s call to prayer. The landscape is still the same – lush green, but the language is completely Bengali. I pass through Customs and Immigration and with a few bribes, some amount of harassment, some amount of story telling, stamps are put on my passport and I am now in another country altogether.


I have been to Bangladesh thrice in my life thus far. When I came back to Kolkatta after my first visit, my host introduced me to his friend. His friend said to me, “Wow! You have some nerve. It really requires love to take you to Bangladesh. Otherwise we, sitting here in Kolkatta, never dream of going there and you, from Mumbai went there …” He had gone ahead to ask me about whether Hindus were being killed in Bangladesh. My host intervened and said, “Hush, hush. Why talk about all this now? Let’s eat dinner.”


Each time I come back from Bangladesh, I am struck with this one question: Bangladesh is so close to people in Kolkatta. Each one of them has an ancestral, a historical connection with Bangladesh. Yet, when I narrate my Bangladesh tales to my friends in Kolkatta, I see in their eyes that same look which is a mixture of memory, identity, history, past, pain, desire, longing and nostalgia. And that look makes it seem that Bangladesh is so far. It so far that it can only be evoked as a place of the past. It is so far that it is only a place which lies in memory, in the past. It is so far that it cannot be reached. The gates are closed … it appears forever …