Byline by M.J. Akbar:A Dhaka Diary
Allah, worried about the fate of the faithful, called a conference of leaders of Muslim nations. The President of Iraq had only one question to ask: "When will I see peace and prosperity in my country?" Allah looked at him compassionately and said that would happen in about a hundred years. The Iraqi President began to weep, saying, "Alas, it will not happen while I am alive!" The President of Pakistan had the same question, but the answer was different. Pakistan, said Allah, would become peaceful and prosperous in about a hundred and fifty years. The President began to wail, "I will not be alive to see my country prosper". The President of Bangladesh was next. Troubled, despondent, beset by bandhs and the impossible deadlock to which no one had either a key or a clue, he asked when Bangladesh would become the dreamland of its founding fathers. This time, Allah began to cry.
The ability of the suave Dhakaiya to laugh at himself is only one of his endearing traits. No one needs to enumerate the political crisis caused by the inability of its two principal leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda to cooperate. They hate each other with a passion that verges on the homicidal. If it were a personal matter, no one would bother. But their politics has shut the country down and led to a quasi-military regime. But nothing can defeat the spirit of the urban Bengali. Dhaka is not the capital of a rich country, but it is a capital with a rich heart.
The big debate in the city is: Has there been a sharp increase in the number of women wearing the hijab or the burqa? While there was always some incidence of both, Bangladeshi women have generally ignored the veil. On the face of it, to use a too-obvious phrase, the answer is no. Young women are as fashionably dressed as their circumstances will permit, and models pout sexily from hoardings. But friends insist that there has been a rise in the public appearance of the burqa, if not in upper strata Gulshan then certainly in other parts of the city. The familiar explanations are trotted out, from America to identity-assertion. But a thoughtful friend asks a lateral question. Could this also be because some conservative women, who never went out before, are beginning to do so now, and will only do so in a burqa? The implication is that this is a step forward, and the daughters of these women will eschew the veil altogether. We shall see. The rural areas are easier to understand. The veil in the village is a sign of affluence. Poor women have to work, and cannot afford the luxury of seclusion. The moment there is upward mobility, a woman flaunts her new status by covering up. But there is one reason over which there was no dispute: the impact of Saudi Arabia. By now, millions of Bangladeshis have worked in Saudi. Among the first gifts sent home by those employed there seem to be burqas for their wives, mothers and mothers-in-law.
How utterly enthralling to meet an unrepentant Stalinist. Badruddin Umar was an academic, and is now a political activist and author of the Communist persuasion. His father, a colleague of Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, was a prominent leader of the Muslim League and later the Awami League. He has written learned books on the historic language movement of Bengal for the Oxford University Press, which is the reason for my visit and the proposed subject of our conversation. Beside a portrait of his father in the drawing room is a line drawing of Stalin. I point out that Stalin is not quite a politically correct figure these days. "I admire him," he responds without ambiguity. "They say he killed a few million people. If I had been in his place I might have had to kill a few more," he adds with a chuckle. Nothing personal; just historical necessity.
There has apparently been some interference in the historical inevitability of a revolution in Bangladesh, and one man credited with the interference is the Nobel Prize winner Dr Mohammad Yunus, managing director of Grameen Bank whose micro-credit schemes have brought him world fame. Badruddin Umar would prefer to describe it as infamy. He thinks micro-credit is worse than the usury of the old mahajans, a fraud on the poor heavily disguised with capitalist hype. He quotes Yunus as admitting he charges 20% interest. In September 1991, Yunus apparently said, "Of course we charge 20% interest. If anyone considers it high, well it is high. I don’t feel much embarrassed by that. After all, we don’t force anyone to borrow from us". As Umar archly added, the old village usurers did not force anyone to borrow from them either. Grameen Bank also collects over 80 million taka as a fee from its members. "What is the ultimate destination of this money and the interest derived on it?" Good question.
It remains to be noted that every single word of abuse from the classic Marxist dictionary — imperialism, reactionary, bourgeois et al — is included in the monograph published by Badruddin Umar.
Is a permanent traffic jam a sign of prosperity or despair? Both: there is a new prosperous class able to buy cars, and a government that is unable to provide the infrastructure. You cannot have traffic chaos without an urban middle class ready to spend good money on vehicles, although the city’s rickshaws can do a fairly competent job of snarling up all activity given half a chance. It has reached a point where the sensible stay in their part of the city. No one disputes traffic as an excuse for delay, which provides a lot of leeway to those who simply got up late. You can recognise the city only on the weekly holidays. The only solution that one could think of was to increase the weekly holidays to three, and give them on alternate days, with an additional twist. Half the city would get a holiday on one day, and the other half on the next. Only half the working population would work on any working day. Its productivity would probably double.
This has to be the most useless secret of all time. The British high commissioner to Bangladesh sent out an invitation for dinner for a select, elite group. Nothing unusual, for high commissioners dine often and well in the service of their nation. There was a curious lacuna though: the name of the guest in whose honour the dinner was being given was missing. Why? Security reasons. The guest of honour was the visiting British foreign secretary David Miliband. How did everyone know? Because the British foreign secretary’s face was in the morning’s papers, that’s how. There is something ludicrous about the current security paranoia. Did the securitywallahs at the British high commission seriously believe that one of their guests for dinner was an undercover terrorist who would leak delicate details of the prospective meal to a gang of unnamed terrorists in masks? I don’t know if anyone turned pale with fear after receiving the invitation, but I do know that a lot of people could not stop laughing.