This Ramadan I decided to stop my busy UK life in its tracks and go home for Eid. Six years without Ammu’s Eid shemay was more than the legal limit of self-deprivation. My homesickness was so severe that even hearing a Bangla song was making me howl like someone had died. The cure? A milk drenched bowl of vermicelli dessert. The problem? A thousand miles of distance.
One day after what felt like a particularly isolating work travel to Aberdeen that made me question everything in my life (the things a nostalgic heart can manage to conjure!) I threw caution to the winds and spontaneously bought a ticket to Dhaka. Surely the world (read: the Husband and air traffic control) could live without me for a week?
Desher Bari Koi?
As I gathered my shoes and bag outside Heathrow security, an Asian ‘brother’ greeted me enthusiastically. ‘Sylhet?’
‘Dhaka,’ I replied, with a firm shake of my head.
The obviously Sylheti guy tsk-tsked and walked away with a teasing smile. I paused for a second, deciding whether I should take offense or not. I decided I could not be bothered.
If you have ever flown Biman Bangladesh Airlines from London Heathrow, and your destination has been the capital city of Dhaka (the only other option being Sylhet), you have probably felt like I did at that moment – a minority.
Such an encounter is not uncommon if you find yourself as a Dhaka-bred Bengali in Sylheti Bilet. Biman generates a huge chunk of its revenue from its Sylheti passengers and they outnumber the Dhakaites by a large margin. Most non Sylheti Bengalis opt for Emirates, Qatar or Turkish Airlines to avoid the notorious delay-induced miseries Biman is known to inflict upon it passengers. For Sylhetis, however, the miseries are worth the trouble – Biman is the only airline offering a direct London-Sylhet flight. BG 00X takes off from London Heathrow and heads directly to Sylhet in the north eastern corner of the country, before turning towards the capital, almost as though as an afterthought.
Bengalis are curious cats by nature. We harbour a need to ‘place’ other humans in certain categories in our inherent quest to suss out a person’s personality. Often the first placement is determined by your ‘desher bari’ – the village/town where your baap-dada (ancestors) were born. It doesn’t matter if you have never set foot in said desh er bari. Bengalis believe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Take this British born brother at security for example. Even he has picked up this inherent Bengali habit and quickly placed me as a non-Sylheti.
In the past I have bumped into strangers in buses who have tried to convince me why Sylhet is far greater than Dhaka. As someone born and raised in the capital, I feel taken aback by the need to wage this Sylhet Vs Dhaka war (*cough* Dhaka is far superior duh *cough*). I don’t care who hails from where and I am happy to be identified as a Bengali rather than a ‘Sylhoti’ or a ‘Dhakaiyya’. Unless I am calling a friend Noakhailla when he/she leaves shortly after dinner but that’s just a joke, right?
Biman – Your Home in the Air
My family and I have had a long standing relationship with Biman Bangladesh Airlines. My grandmother, her sister and my aunts have served the company in various capacities spanning several decades. My Choto Khala (mother’s youngest sister) has served the airlines as an air hostess since the early 90s. We were room buddies since the day she moved into our home after a death in the family. The memories of her ironing her starchy sari and taking off into the night for journeys all over the world used to excite and inspire me. Back then Biman used to fly as far as New York and covered European destinations like Brussels. The world came to my room inside her black stickered suitcases. Her generosity knew no bounds. We were pampered with fancy soaps and shampoos and ate English shortbread dipped in our thickly brewed deshi chaa.
It would be very hard to explain how fond I am of Biman. And even harder to explain how all that love still failed to excuse the embarrassing reputation it had built for itself. It makes flying with Biman a conflicting experience for me. On one hand, the familiarity of the passengers, the saris of the cabin crew and the smell of the plane food overwhelms me with a sense of belonging. On the other hand, Biman disappoints, consistently. The food in economy can be quite bad (Dhaka-London route menu was much better), and the crowd is always a little difficult. Somehow the most educated, civil souls take to behaving like complete idiots, something they would not dare to do aboard other international airlines. The fault lies with both sides. Both the airline and its passengers need to sort their shit out.
This home to that
I had worked from my ‘Southampton home’ that morning, made the 2.5 hour long bus journey to Heathrow, and dutifully arrived 3 hours prior to my overseas flight. At that point on a Friday night, fasting through the toughest summer solstice, all I wanted to do was get on the plane and pass out. Instead I found myself looking to board a plane that had not even arrived. I waited impatiently at the boarding gate as the complaining crowd around me grew more and more restless, culminating in a skirmish between an elderly Bengali man and ground staff. Biman was once again living up to its reputation as an airline that never managed to land or take off on time.
When the boarding call was finally announced, a collective sigh of relief rose from the weary passengers. I boarded quickly and managed to find an empty three seater. This was my third day trip to Heathrow from Southampton over the last three days. I had conducted site surveys all over the airport earlier in the week, inspecting power and comms supplies in nooks and crannies that couldn’t look any less glamorous from the flashy lounges and duty free images of Heathrow airport. I had been waiting for this moment to finally give in to my exhaustion, relinquish all the behind the scenes experiences and shift into passenger mode. Yet, as I leaned over and peered through the window out into Terminal 4, my eyes automatically started darting across the taxiways, trying to seek out the areas where I had been loitering around with my colleagues just yesterday. Could we potentially stick an antenna on that lighting pole? Would that give me coverage in that cul-de-sac?
Goodbye Europe, Hello Asia!
We took off 2 hours past our scheduled time. Iftari and Seheri timings were declared on the plane. A tough summer Ramadan had left me weak so I chose to take a rain check and postpone my fast to a date more suitable for me.
As we neared Sylhet, the day grew lighter and lighter until the world outside came into clear focus. I could not help but smile at the characteristic flat landscape intertwined by the ubiquitous water bodies. Hello, South-East Asia. I have missed you so!
As the 777 swooped lower and lower to land into Osmani International Airport, sharper details emerged from the clouds – boats, trees and floating houses. So fragile, I thought. So beautiful and so achingly prone to nature’s wrath. Only last month a landslide had taken hundreds of innocent lives. The nature was both our friend and foe, fertile and ferocious, nurturing and destructive.
After an hour long layover in Sylhet, we finally took off towards Dhaka, a mere twenty minutes away. Compared to aerial city views of other capital cities, Dhaka was all over the place – a mass of haphazardly built buildings with no neat lines or intersections. You could tell this was a pretty poorly planned city, the lack of order evident even from the heavens. It was similar to the map of my multitasking brain. It’s chaotic but it works!
The green and red livery of the Biman fleet greeted me cheerfully as we touched down. After 1.5 years, I was physically connected to my home. The Bangladeshi flag blew proudly over the main terminal. The aircrafts parked on the manoeuvring area, so different from the big international planes I was used to at Heathrow, reaffirmed how far I had flown to get my cure.
While getting off the plane, I came across a female passenger dressed as a bride, complete in wedding sari, jewellery and the ‘ghomta’, a big scarf pulled over one’s head and set loose on the sides. Bengalis are never the ones to shy away from attention, I thought with a chuckle.
A friend whom I had tipped off ahead of my flight received me at arrivals and whisked me off to home, a stone’s throw away from the airport. My mother nearly jumped out of her skin when she came running out of her room upon hearing my younger sister screaming like a banshee. The daughter who was supposedly asleep in a far-away English city was suddenly standing in front of them in flesh and blood. Her shemay’s pulling power had done some bat-shit crazy trick and was she glad!
Eid like it should be.
Ramadan 2017 consisted of 29 days. But I had to observe a full month of 30 fasts in Dhaka where Ramadan starts and hence ends a day later than the UK. An extra day of fasting was not an issue for me by any means, however. After 6 years I was fasting with my family, iftar shopping for haleem and doibora, breaking fast with juicy summer fruits – lichu, kathaal, taal and mangoes. We were celebrating chaand raat (Eid Eave) with friends and family and putting on mehendi (henna) on each other’s palms. This was Eid like it should be.
The Eid vibe in Dhaka was electric but my chauffer seemed unimpressed. Eid in his village was far more fun than here in the urban capital, he said. In the towns and rural areas, the streets came alive with fireworks, people and hawker markets. They raised money from families and went for joint picnics, celebrating with big tubs of khichuri and beef curry. ‘Eid at home’ was a different concept to different people even within Bangladesh but to each person it was the best Eid one could have.
On the auspicious day, I woke up to the beautiful, sleep-deprived morning feeling that always follows a chaand raat, the grogginess infused with the smell of mehendi and sweaty discomfort from a night-long struggle alternating between the comforts of the AC and the fan. Three hours of sleep would make me ill on a normal day but this was not a normal day! I had the most beautiful opportunity to pray Eid prayers at the mosque with my family and I did not want to miss that. Although lethargic and slow, we managed to shower, dress and arrive by 8am. The roads in Uttara, recently rejigged, were uncharacteristically empty. I thoroughly enjoyed the short rickshaw ride from our home to the mosque.
The last few Eid prayers I had attended were at East London Mosque with a multitude of Muslims from all over the world. In our small mosque in Uttara, the turnout was 100% Bengali and hence a completely different setting. My mother introduced me to her fellow buddies in the mosque and I received a lot of attention. The khutbah (religious preaching before prayers) was primarily centred around anti-terrorism and how strongly Islam condemned killing of innocents. Somehow it both surprised and impressed me that such a small mosque in such a small part of the world was doing its duty so diligently to promote and uphold Islam’s true values.
We returned home from prayers feeling ravished. Ammu served us polau (pilau). The nap that followed was the most delicious, carb-enriched sleep of 2017. We visited family in the afternoon but stayed at home in the evening because my grandmother was very ill. Then I fell ill and was bedridden by diarrhoea. This is almost an expected ritual that happens to me every time I am in Dhaka and life generally goes on, interspersed with some damning toilet trips. But this time it was deadly enough to keep me in bed feeling weak and utterly sorry for myself. I spent half of Eid day 2 alternating between the toilet and my room. I received private messages and calls advising me on which antibiotics to take. In Dhaka your problem is everyone else’s problem too.
On Eid Day 3 it rained and I made a big deal out of it on social media. Rain in UK is annoying. Rain in Dhaka is romantic. The Dhaka rain falls in torrents, creating a rim-jhim melody. The grey clouds roil and rumble, the pretty canvas setting up a relaxing mood. After the rain subsides, a wave of heat rises from the ground with the unmistakably fresh smell of damp dirt. This earthy fragrance has got to be one of life’s most pleasing scents. It’s oh-so- familiar, it takes me back to a place where I can only visit sporadically, and that moment and that time is so rare, so precious, I would bottle it up in a jar and take it away with me if I could.
Rain in Bangladesh gets everybody excited. A rainy day in Dhaka would never get missed in UK because the social media gets flooded with pluviophiles expressing their joys. I guess rain in a hot land is bound to be met with happiness, so much so that we have dedicated food to go with such auspicious occasions. Even today when it rains in the UK, albeit a pathetic, day-long drizzle, I crave for khichuri and gorur bhuna (beef curry). The rain cravings made me reckless so I got off jau bhaat and went back to normal food. I even went as far as experimenting with roadside fuchka against the Husband’s vehement warnings.
Everything is so loud in Bangladesh, my voice broke trying to be heard. There is a permanent background score to life consisting of noise from the streets, homes and people. I remember being woken up the first morning by loud Bollywood music from the neighbour’s. This was a regular occurrence according to my sister. No one complained.
I thoroughly enjoyed dressing up in kameez and dangling jhumkas, outrageous eye shadows and loud lippies. More is more in Dhaka. Devoid of the stretchy pull of dryer European weather, my skin felt smooth and hydrated. Every morning I woke up without that taut feeling, and I could almost get away without moisturising before going to bed which eliminated one more thing from my routine-centric life, freeing up more time to indulge in staying up late doing literally nothing other than addabaji.
I was stupendously excited about Uber although I did not get a chance to ride one. Uber is EVERYTHING for me in the UK and discovering it in Dhaka was super exciting. I feel immensely happy every time I see Dhaka falling more and more firmly in step in advancing and experimenting with the rest of the world. My mother is now a savvy online shopper who gets her goods delivered at work, as she announced proudly. Digital Bangladesh FTW.
Shopping in Aarong is as stereotypical as it gets for a probashi Bengali and I found myself chuckling as I realised I was essentially one of those people now. Aarong just never gets old. Its traditional Bengali goods can be found in every immigrant Bengali’s home in every corner of the world, ranging from jewellery boxes to miniature rickshaws. It is probably one of the only brands from my childhood that has survived the test of time. Bhelpuri in Dhandmondi and Dolce Vita in Gulshan were both long gone. Big Bite near Eastern Plaza still exists though its quality is no longer the same. Childhood was moving further and further back in my memory lane. It was a reminder of how much I had aged, and perhaps nothing affirmed that more than my interaction with the younger generation. I found myself asking questions to kids that I personally dreaded as a child: ‘Bolo to ami ke?’ (Do you know who I am?) and getting thoroughly pleased when I got the right answer with the right suffx (Apu, Fufu, Khala etc).
The most talked about word in Dhaka in Summer 2017 was perhaps Chikunguniya – a mosquito-borne virus that was afflicting people left right and centre. It was deadlier than the better known Dengue virus and caused a lot of pain and suffering to its victims. Luckily I managed to dodge these pesky mosquitoes during my short stay.
Café culture is now a strong force to reckon with in Dhaka. My sister and I went to the Uttara branch of Crimson Cup to soak up the café feels. A vanilla latte, white mocha and red velvet cupcake cost us roughly 1000 BDT or 10 pounds. This is equivalent to post-Brexit UK prices. The crowd was young, painfully young, and I felt like a mismatch. They think vlogs are too mainstream and UK was bad news. This is very different to how we perceived the UK when we were young and dreamt of travelling or studying in Great Britain. Of course this was BEFORE the scrapped post-study work visa and Brexit malarkey.
Carrying on in our café-hopping train, we checked out the new branch of Second Cup in Uttara and our old haunt of Northend Coffee in Lakeshore Banani. They now sell cinnamon rolls, my favourite, so I bought one for my sister to try. I find this array of new discoveries in Dhaka super exciting. And I try to introduce them to my family whenever I can. Sharing these experiences with them makes my scattered life seem a little less scattered.
So many things have changed in Dhaka, but some deeply rooted social norms have not. Wherever I went, people commented on how my younger sister had acquired a tan. Her skin colour had become duskier, dirtier etc etc. Someone referred to it as rong chepe gese (her colour has shrunk) which would have been hilarious had it not been so offensive. I tried to tell people it didn’t matter but my sister looked disappointed. This whole dark/fair conversation was still so deeply rooted in our culture, I wonder how many more decades it will take to make it better.
It rained again. And again. Each time I felt the excitement anew, felt the rumble of Dhaka rain in my bones. It doubled the feeling of peace I felt being physically close to my mother, as though my heart and soul, used to her voice, touch and smell back when I had not fully developed senses of my own, had found its true home. There is no peace greater than curling up in Ammu’s lap and falling asleep to the lullaby of the rain.
By Saturday night traffic was coming back to normal. Eid was over and most people were going back to work on Sunday morning. I had planned my escape before the madness of the Sunday rush hour kicked in. The traffic less streets of Dhaka is far more enjoyable! It made my one week of stay more efficient than my usual three weeks. You get so much more done when the traffic cooperates, which is like, mostly never. Only twice a year for a few days during the two Eids.
Till we meet again
A week-long stay is too short for an Eurasian journey. But you know what? Even three weeks in Dhaka felt the same. Like there was still so much left to do. So many more hugs to give and so many more fuchkas to devour. There is never an easy way to leave my home and my people behind. But you learn to make it better and better. As I bade my family goodbye at the airport, we parted with happy promises of meeting sooner next time. No more 1.5 years breaks if I could help it. I smiled at the Biman plane that had arrived on time on this occasion, ready to whisk me off far, far away. I had spent Eid at home and stuffed myself with my Ammu’s Eid shemay. Nothing else mattered.