Sunday, 5 January 2014

Village Flute Behind the Scenes: Kurigram

Photos from Kurigram Town:

The Kurigram College Vice Principal and head of the English Department introduces me, to speak to a joint class of all the English students at the college.

What do people eat in Australia?

Why do you live in Bangladesh?

What do you think of Kurigram?

Are there any jobs going at the newspaper?

Notes: "Kuri" is an old-fashioned word in Bengali meaning "twenty" - though the word is still used in the Paschimbangan (Indian) version of Bangla. "Gram" means "village". Kurigram - twenty villages! Of course there are far more than twenty villages in the district.

Kurigram is one of the poorest districts in Bangladesh, potentially the poorest of all. Perhaps the main reason for this is that it is crossed by numerous rivers including the enormous Brahmaputra which has always hampered communication and development. It is also far from Dhaka. 

Also, the rivers cause extensive erosion so that people living anywhere near a river (basically everyone) is at risk of losing their homes and land. Most of Kurigram town was swallowed by the Brahmaputra and has been relocated. The new town is leafy, spread out and quiet.

Like some other northern districts in Bangladesh, Kurigram has traditionally suffered from "monga" which is an annual, seasonal famine that lasts for a few months. In those months there is no food to be had from farming - although it was suggested to me that the actual problem is the number of landless people, that ownership of Kurigram's land resources is too much concentrated in the hands of a few. The landless normally rely on day wage labour but this is unavailable during the monga season when agriculture has no need of it. NGOs and successive Bangladeshi governments have been working to overcome monga throughout the north, with some success.

The government has also paid special attention to training for young people in practical skills like better farming techniques and different crops. It has helped.

Nonetheless, Kurigramers often migrate in search of employment and it was said that every Kurigram family, just about, has at least one daughter or son (mostly daughters) working in the garments sector in or around Dhaka. Garments workers' salaries are not usually very high but to an extent the industry keeps Kurigram afloat.

In Dhaka, the majority of rickshaw drivers come from North Bengal, including Kurigram. Rickshaw riding is hard work but the profession employs about one million people. 

Street scene in Dhaka. Most rickshaw drivers are from North Bengal.
As with other northern districts, the people of Kurigram are famous for being forthright, sincere and honest. It is common when dealing with a rickshaw driver from the north for them to respond to a "how much" before you start out or after arriving at the destination with a shrug and a "give!" which means, give as you wish to. It is traditional Bengali manners!

One major crop that alters the Kurigram scenery somewhat is the golden fibre: jute. Bangladesh is the world's largest producer of jute and Bangladeshi scientists in recent years have decoded the genome for jute, with hopes to bring benefit to the industry.

Anecdotal evidence for the relative poverty in Kurigram is a lack of mid-range restaurants in the town - for example, there are no kebab houses. It would seem that there is not much disposable income around for "luxuries". Another noticeable difference is the lack of a decent internet service - speeds are very slow - unusual in tech-savvy Bangladesh.

Foreigners being rare in Kurigram it was an easy matter to be invited to speak to the English students at Kurigram College. They were very polite and enthusiastic, and seemingly pleased with my answers. In particular I remember explaining to them that one significant difference between Australia / the west and Bangladesh was the strength of human relations - in particular because western culture is built on the individual while in Bangladesh its relations with others that traditionally defined people. Bangladeshis from birth are usually surrounded and supported by an extended family network that is very close - and each particular relationship from maternal older uncle to paternal younger aunt has cultural meaning. Some relationships are 'serious', for mentoring or support, while others are 'joking' relationships with a larger element of fun in them. 

The difference is even there in the language. In Bangla, as in other South Asian languages, the question is not "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" but "How many brothers and sisters are you?" And the answer is not "I have 2 brothers and a sister" for example, but "We are 3 brothers and a sister." It is something an English speaker needs to get used to. Yet it is rather nice that the emphasis is not on the possessing, the "having" but on the being, "we are" - and that the sum, the "we", is the total not excluding the person being asked, rather than in English where the centre of the answer is the "I". 

Families and communities are tight in Bangladesh.

The interesting thing for me was in explaining this, the college students understood it very easily - in part they were intrigued to think of the different emphasis in the English language they were learning; but more than that, it reminded me of a hugely pleasing developing consciousness in Bangladesh that things previously taken for granted are actually both unique and very special. Twenty years ago I had trouble making Bangladeshis really appreciate the above point - because their strong relationships they took for granted. Now they know - things are different elsewhere. And the college students were very much happy and a little proud when I mentioned that point - although each system has its advantages and disadvantages.

Kurigram is also rich in traditional Bengali culture - I was lucky enough to witness this at a concert at the local Shilpakala Academy where young students of singing and music were able to perform... on again, off again through a few electricity cuts... Their skills were impressive. There is a local form of folk music in the north called bhawaiya - famous from nearby Rangpur and also to be found across the border in places like Jalpaiguri, India; but the Kurigramers assured me that bhawaiya from Kurigram was "the best in the world."

Students from Shilpakala Academy in Burungamari perform in Kurigram Town.

With the skills shown that evening, it was easy to imagine a few future stars were among us!

Photos from Char Parbhotipur:

Setting out: from the boat to Char Parbhotipur

Abdul Wahed, our local correspondent who looked after me in Kurigram.

On the Char Parbhotipur boat.

With Md Abu Taleb and his family in Char Parbhotipur.

Notes: There are many "chars" or sand shoals in the Brahmaputra River - maybe one hundred? Living conditions are very basic on the shoals. We visited the nearest (and presumably most developed) one, Char Parbhotipur. 

It was interesting for me because my Bengali village is in Hatiya, Noakhali in the south of the country but ultimately Hatiya is also a "char", albeit a much larger island that has been around for a few hundred years. Nonetheless around Hatiya too are newer chars, some of which are inhabited / newly settled.

But Char Parbhotipur was significantly poorer than is usual these days in Hatiya - more like how Hatiyan families used to live twenty years ago. As Hatiya has not had a major cyclone since 1991 and has the benefit of sea as well as river fishing it has become significantly richer and more developed.

The family we visited in Char Parbhotipur, meanwhile, could not even offer tea - which is basically unthinkable in Hatiya, even if visiting the poorest families.

It was incredibly hot with sun glare such that you had to squint on the day we visited - it only took a few hours but I was tired soon enough. Nonetheless, I wished I'd had more time, had gone their alone and stayed the night - or even on a more remote shoal. The local people would easily look after you with somewhere to sleep, and safety is a non-issue - one would only need to bring food supplies as there was no shop there. Maybe next time...

Photos from Ulipur:

Hanging out at the Ulipur fire station.

Trying kheer mahan at one of the competitors to Pabna Sweets, with Makbel.

Pithas of a local variety made by Makbel's wife.

Discussing Kurigram's food with Md Shohidur Rahman at the Al Shad Hotel. It was the start of the shutkani adventure!

Notes: I've already written much about Ulipur! One thing I did not mention is I had a friend, Hari Pada there - I know him from Dhaka. He works as a police sub-inspector and has worked his way up from constable, which isn't easy. He was posted in Ulipur and helped me a great deal even though his duty seemed to run almost 24 /7. 

Although he is also from North Bengal he is not from Kurigram. As he was not an Ulipurian he could not help directly with my quest to find Kurigram food in a village; nor could he call upon local friends for the task since he has only been newly posted to Ulipur. Indeed, just quietly he reckons the Kurigram food is to salty for his palate - though I suspect he hasn't tried the genuine traditional shidal and shutkani fare such as I managed to - his is possibly more of a reaction to the canteen arrangements at the police station. "I keep telling the cook to put less salt in," he said, "but no result..."

We did, however, go just about everywhere on his Honda... a great help, transport was easy!

And in the words of his boss, the Officer in Charge at Ulipur: "There is basically no crime in Ulipur apart from domestic and land disputes."

Proof that I did help with the cooking (slightly).

Crushing jute leaves... like an expert?

With Shohidur Bhai and Bipul Bhai in their house yard.

Notes: I am laughing at the Kurigram photographs of me for two features: first is the "Honda hair" and second, for the really observant, is a slight redness to the lips! It is from chewing betel leaf - a habit I have grown to enjoy now and then (while... ahem... Hari Pada barely stops chewing betel!) The photograph below is a typical "betel photo" in that you want to keep your lips closed a little tightly to prevent the "red lip" phenomenon in the photo. Cameras are yet to be designed with a red lip reduction feature...

With my friend from Dhaka Hari Pada, at a tea shop in Hatia Union.

Sub-inspector Hari Pada buys betel from Rana Bhai!

Betel leaf and nut (paan and shupari).

Photos from Chilmari:

The Chilmari ghat, where boats leave for the other side of the Brahmaputra.
Captain's chair!

Motorbikes and roof-riding!

The other passengers in the boat, before the remaining twenty of them arrived.

Notes: To the south of Ulipur is Chilmari. It is possible to take ferry boats from the constantly eroding basic ghat there, across the Brahmaputra River to the two isolated Upazilas of Kurigram that lay on the far side... Raumari and Char Rajibpur. 

These Upazilas are sandwiched between the Brahmaputra, which takes over an hour to cross by boat, and the black fenced border with the Indian state of Meghalaya. The scenery is beautiful because nearby Meghalaya offers a hilly addition to the horizon, while nearer Bangladesh is flat. 

To travel this way is an alternative route back to Dhaka, since buses head south to Jamalpur District where the main northern highway runs south through Mymensingh and Gazipur to the capital. The road from Kurigram to Dhaka is a much longer route in distance (not time) due to the need to use the Banghabandu Bridge far to the south - the only bridge across the Brahmaputra (which is called the Jamuna River further south).

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