Friday, 3 January 2014

Compass Points

Coloured stuffing for sale in Ulipur.

Who am I? Well, originally I come from 9,272 kilometres away, give or take some kilometres, almost precisely in the southeast direction.

I’m assuming for the moment that the centre of the universe is at geographic coordinates 25°39′30.05″N, 89°37′08.52″ E, give or take a second or two, at the precise spot known as the Al Shad Hotel on College Road in Ulipur, Kurigam. While the needle might always gravitate northwards the compass has to sit somewhere. It’s not much of an assumption – for both management and regular customers the centre of the universe the Al Shad just about is.

Centre of the universe: the Al Shad Hotel on College Road.

I come from coordinates 33°51′35.9″S, 151°12′40″ E, a place that’s referred to as Sydney, Australia - but at the Al Shad it’s called ‘bidesh’ – the foreign zone.

A convenient geographic descriptor, bidesh covers all areas beyond the borders of Bangladesh absolutely and may also find application to Bangladeshi areas outside Kurigram District depending on how humorous the conversation has become. Sydney is ‘deep bidesh’ – one hundred percent exactly.

There was time to eat breakfast at the universe’s centre before finding my bearings.
Who is he? Bideshis are guests at the Al Shad. They’ve travelled far – they might need three napkins during the course of their lentil, egg and roti-bread breakfast, while for customers from nearer coordinates one will do. The water glass should be refilled or replaced after even a sip is removed – it’s important they feel welcome. And they certainly do!

The small town of Ulipur, Kurigram, Bangladesh.

Side view of the munshibari in Ulipur.
What’s his story? It’s impossible to communicate with bideshis since they don’t speak Bangla – to be assumed – but the bideshi’s life story can be gleaned from tiny details. For example, if the bideshi is wearing a t-shirt with a miniscule “Feni Leisure Club” logo on its sleeve, it’s certain enough to tell others he works for the Leisure Club in Feni and is on Leisure Club business in Ulipur.

If however, by way of some miracle he does speak some Bangla then it’s all the more enjoyable. The Al Shad manager can ask what he’d like for lunch since they could make something special – and the stool beside the counter may be offered for chatting.
What does the compass say? To the north northeast on the Dharanibari Road, roughly at coordinates 25°40′12.68″N, 89°37′49.17″ E is the decorative munshibari, the gentrified manor dating from the mid-1700s that was home to the local ruling family, by title - Munshis.

The munshibari estate in Ulipur.

The original 34-acre combined estate was first granted by the sixth Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, of the Afshar Dynasty, Nawab Shirajuddaula – to Bonwari Munshi who came to the area for hunting initially, so it is said.

Sri Brojendra Lal Munshi
As Bonwari Munshi had no child, a son, Binod, was adopted for inheritance. Binod in turn was without an heir so adopted probably the most renowned Munshi, Brojendra Lal - a dusty portrait of him is to be found inside. Brojendra Lal also fathered no son and his younger daughter followed that fate – adopting a son to inherit.

After 1971 the property was ultimately taken over by the government. From 1987 the local Revenue Office has been situated inside. A single officer sits in a large room at a weathered desk.

The home is in a state of disrepair, but its charm plants in one bideshi’s mind the foolish notion that it would make a nice boutique hotel – that there could be a string of such hotels at historical homes across Bangladesh. The unique tourism experience could be marketed internationally. Of course, there is little organised activity for the bideshi in the villages but the scenery, culture and friendliness are untapped major drawcards.

Jute truck, Ulipur.

How do bideshis eat? Being from so far away nothing can be assumed. It’s considered that bideshis don’t eat in the normal way, with hands. He requires cutlery – and there being no full set available, at the least a small aluminium fork can be brought on a plate and placed in front of him. On second thought – do they even have forks in bidesh? It might be worthwhile to mime putting the fork into the roti and then into the mouth to ensure he is exactly certain of the utensil’s utility. He’s sure to enjoy the meal!

Eroded road in Hatia Union, Ulipur.
And then? To the east northeast on Anantapur Road I find the serene walled garden of the Sri Sri Kali Siddheshwari Hindu Temple complex, a good place to pause. The ruins of the original temple dating from around 1700 are nearby. Beyond in Hatia Union one meets the majestic Brahmaputra at approximately 25°40′39.97″N, 89°41′23.62″ E. But it’s not so regal a river when it is explained that the half-remaining riverside road was just a week earlier a full road, since devoured by erosion.

Meanwhile at the Anantapur tea shop is a dispute: one villager is arguing that all people can speak Bangla. The other says, “Not all people speak Bangla! If he speaks English, will you understand it?”

And when local Mohammed Nazi Hossein speaks of the severe erosion there should be no humour in it: yet he doesn’t speak grimly. “The river used to be five kilometres away, four or five years ago” he says, “and now my kids can take their bath in front of the house!” I am left to wonder if there isn’t a poet inside every Bangladeshi villager.

How does he take his after-meal tea? It’s an important consideration at the Al Shad. It should probably be double-size, in the glass with no chip in it, with extra milk and any flavoursome tea spices that may be around – he will certainly be unable to say afterwards that Ulipurians didn’t do their best. He will admire the kindness!

Street scene in Ulipur.

Where to now? To the west at some seconds away is the bustle of Ulipur, with coloured stuffing in sacks for sale, the lively buzz of traffic and the crowd and jute being loaded onto a truck up a long ramp. See the modest pond, the dighee behind the mosque that the congestion doesn’t reach!

The tank behind the mosque, Ulipur.

Alomgir at his betel and cigarette stall.
Do they chew paan in Australia? Alomgir the betel seller on the street outside the Al Shad has curiosity. When the answer is no, he suggets it would be no trouble to take a bunch of betel leaves to Australia since they are easily packed together and tied with string – a convenient knotted carry-handle can be included. When it is explained that plant and animal material can’t be taken into Australia – that it would be confiscated at the airport – well, it’s frankly puzzling. It may be the general rule but “What could they care if it’s only betel?”

Doesn’t the compass needle ultimately point north? Yes, and to the north at coordinates 25°44′52.18″N, 89°38′00.12″ E, quite some distance from Ulipur is the Zia Pond, a large dighee surrounded by trees that must for the townsfolk be an enjoyable picnic spot.

Zia Pond, north of Ulipur.

But the forces of the universe are many and even at its centre unthinkable things can happen. The Al Shad is without chatter! All faces are frozen – without exception pointing in one direction. Has the universe collapsed? Has time ended? No, it’s the TV that has them engrossed, without exception, to a man, to a face – they’re watching the BBC series “Walking with Dinosaurs”, one hundred percent absorbed in considering things Jurassic.

Because, from the centre of the universe it’s fascinating to look outwards – and dinosaurs are not less interesting than learning about bidesh from the bideshi who’s just walked in again.

Zia Pond must make for an ideal picnic spot.

Yet it’s Alomgir who has the final say. “Of all the places you’ve been,” he asks, “Isn’t Ulipur just the best place of all?” And right then – for that singular moment – the bideshi wonders if Alomgir isn’t one hundred percent accurate.

View of the Brahmaputra from a tea shop in Hatia Union.

Boat on the Brahmaputra.

This article published in Star Magazine, here: Compass Points

Loading jute in Ulipur town.

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