Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Ibrahim Store

Government Dighee, Monpura.

“How will we stay in contact?” asked 29-year-old Salman Hossein Saju, who said he was a fish businessman – which sometimes means politics. He has 125 coconut palms and twice took me for refreshing green coconut water, for daber pani at his place.

Others preferred the “Will we ever see you again?” version. I’d known them for four days. I suggested we could stay in contact by phone but Saju needed a demonstration. He snatched somebody’s mobile from the tea shop table and gave it, before putting his phone to his ear to commence the skit by way of example of the real calls that would occur.

Think quickly! You’re in the company of islanders now.

“Hello,” he said into his phone.
“Hello,” I said into the one he’d given me.
“How are you?”
“I can’t hear you – network disturb.”
“Climb a tree,” he said. I did that.
“Can you hear me now?”

The crowd at the Ibrahim Store, a tea shop in Badher Bazaar on the small island of Monpura, Bhola District, in the Bay of Bengal, were delighted with the ad lib performance.

Keora forest in Hazirhat town.
There were a few trial runs – Feni, Kurigram, Jamalpur – I’ll tell you about those later; but in Monpura I really considered I’d begun a new journey, to the 64 corners of Bangladesh. Monpura was the first easy notes of this flute song.

It seemed as well to consider a Monpuran beginning. Any journey starts with small steps within sight of home. From Monpura one can see Hatiya, where lies the village that adopted me years ago. Monpura is the final stop before Hatiya on the Dhaka launch. I’ve passed by many times, taken tea at the ghat at dawn. I’ve always wanted to visit.

By motorcycle the island can be covered in two minutes, west to east. North to south it’s about 20 kilometres. Life is a struggle for most of the probably 120,000 islanders, farmers and fishermen – yet, as is small-island inevitable, everybody knows everybody and in Monpura goats are left roadside during the night. There’s no anticipation of thieves.

I’d arrived for Durga Puja, thinking it would add festivity to my setting out. There would be Ma Durga’s company in the first four days and it befits: ultimately all journeys start with mother.

Yet to be a truly Bangladeshi journey… well, starting out without completing tea doesn’t have much Bangladeshi sense to it – that’s what led to the Ibrahim Store.

The keora forests make Hazirhat unique.
After I sat, the crowd of ready-to-meet well-wishers gathered. They watched me jotting notes – taking to pen and paper because electricity only runs from 6 p.m. until after midnight. I heard one villager on his mobile telling the caller, who must’ve enquired of his whereabouts, “There’s a foreigner here. I’m watching him.” He said it so matter-of-factly, as obvious an activity as watching TV.

By tea shop account it’s rare to find a foreigner – apart from the Nigerian who’d arrived three months earlier for a football tournament, a bideshi might arrive every five years – and usually only stay for a day.

Observations were made I didn’t hold my pen properly – I never mastered that in childhood. Observations were made I had good health since I could drink several cups of tea without relieving myself. “When we drink two glasses of water,” said Saju, “we must leave at least one behind.”

There were many questions – do I speak Bangla? How old am I? What is my salary? Do I know Ricky Ponting?

Word spread of my Hatiyan history and it proved easy to relate to. After the 1970 cyclone – the most devastating to hit Monpura, the most devastating ever recorded worldwide – only those with the strength to cling to trees survived. There weren’t any cyclone shelters. “There were no women left,” said Mohammed Hasan, 34, sitting to my left. He’s a high school teacher: social science. “They brought new wives from Hatiya by boat.”

It’s another reason for Monpura to be a good start – the regions affected by the 1970 cyclone have a special relationship with the birth of Bangladesh. The failure of the Pakistani government to properly respond was an immediate factor that combined with longstanding issues to push the independence movement.  In a way, Bangladesh itself once took tea at the Ibrahim Store, on its journey. 

Keora tree roots in the mangrove forests of Hazirhat.

The Hatiyan wives in turn brought their language, which mingled with the Barisal-Bhola based Monpuran Bangla version. There was discussion – of the Hatiyan penchant for pronouncing ‘p’ as ‘h’ and light-hearted criticism of the unusual, Noakhali-style sentences that the wind blew into their heritage. Bujjenni? Do you follow?

Monpura was affected by the 1991 cyclone and Cyclone Sidr, but the sea didn’t rise like in 1970. Water is more dangerous than wind. In 1970 one woman was found floating at sea, unconscious, seven days later. She survived.

I asked how many Monpurans go to shelters these days. Hasan suggested about 40%. People don’t readily leave their homes in times of peril.

As we chatted there was a signal 3 in place for the Bay; but Cyclone Phailin chose to take the introduction of Odisha. In Monpura it brought a welcome breeze.

I discovered another commonality with Hatiya: most betel leaf and nut is ship-delivered from the gardens of Bhola. The man opposite helpfully suggested it wasn’t wise to drink tea soon after chewing betel since the limestone paste, the chun used on betel, when it mixes with the tea’s sugar, forms stones in the stomach.

I was curious about Monpura’s main town, Hazirhat, which might be the most attractive hardly-a-town I’ve seen in Bangladesh. Hazirhat features large tanks and, more uniquely, stands of keora mangrove forest in the middle of town. At night the forest stretches are pitch black; in the daytime buffaloes wallow – before and after is the settlement.

Badher Bazaar used to be a small islet, Hasan said. People used to cross by boat to Hazirhat. In 1978 then Barisal District Commissioner Nasir Uddin Khan commenced work to close the river. The result is really praiseworthy. It’s in the name – Badher Bazaar means Dam Market.

An old man contributed his story of giving Pakistani soldiers, in 1971, fruit mixed with unbearably hot spices; and there was a strange tale of a Bengali called Kissinger who went to Australia and took two litres of ‘milk’ from a bullock.

There was discussion of marriage: in Monpura almost all are married by age 16. “We are lucky if we live to be 50,” said one villager, forlornly, “so we have to start early.” “But the government says it’s better if we marry at 20,” said another.

Hasan said Monpura’s dogs are descended from a large variety introduced by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century – though the dogs looked no larger than usual. I have doubts Monpura can match the 3,000 years of distant Sandwip; more likely it is a younger landmass like the 150-year-old nearby Hatiya.

“The Portuguese found such abundance – fish, milk, rice – they were astonished,” Hasan said. From it came the name Monpura – because their mon or heart was touched.

Yet the mon in Monpura isn’t difficult to find. It’s everywhere, even in the Ibrahim Store. Philosophy, humour, history and wit – I’m contemplating a new theory – controversial – that the best adda or chatting in Bangladesh is on the islands.

But Durga Puja is not in the Ibrahim Store. Even a journey that starts with tea must inevitably progress to the first step…

Monpura, Bhola, Bangladesh.

This article published in Star Magazine, here: The Ibrahim Store

1 comment:

  1. c'est un bon reportage et qu'il est tellement bien fait qu'il n' y a aucun mauvais commentaire à faire que de l'apprécier. Aussi que ça m'a permit de connaitre mieux sur le Bangladesh et ses habitants.