Friday, 21 November 2014


California started as an idea. Photo: Ron Eagle.

California. The first known mention was in the 1510 romance novel “Las Sergas de Esplandián” by Spaniard Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. In the novel, California was an imagined island populated by black Amazon women, without any men. West of the Indies, California was the closest thing on Earth to paradise. California started as an idea.

A street in Dinajpur.
Moulvibazar. I’d taken the opportunity to wander the Kulaura back blocks – my last evening. The dark, dog-legged roads wound through fields interspersed with Londoni mansions. What percentage of rooms in those homes was unoccupied at any given moment? I’d taken the opportunity to be alone: not an easy feat.

It was a usual highway-side shop in one of those under-construction buildings. It could’ve been a mechanic workshop or a hardware store. But TV was showing cricket and cans of Danish condensed milk lined shelves along the far wall. There were maybe five customers.

A Californian rickshaw wallah, San Diego. Photo: Ron Eagle.

I ordered tea, sitting on the bench by the door – and the finale to my solitude lasted approximately thirty seconds: inevitable Bangladesh! The man covered in sawdust started the usual run of questions – where I was from, what I was doing – that deshi curiosity that sparkles with genuineness, as common as water.

After a minute of talking he said with a big smile, “Please let me pay for your tea. It would make me happy.” I gently refused several times to no avail. An invitation to visit the furniture workshop across the road followed. Ah, the hospitality – I know, I know, it’s everywhere...

Meanwhile there was genuine regret when the tea wallah didn’t have my cigarette brand. He felt the need to explain his stocking arrangements – why it couldn’t be available.

Meanwhile at the bus stand the ticket seller thought to say, “If any stranger gives you food along the way, don’t take it!”

Moulvibazar. In days we’d made a tiny shard of history, her and me. The way things go.

A street in Dinajpur Town.

They spoke in Sylheti and I’m going to miss it. With the scraping over the ‘kh’ it felt delectably Arabesque – I couldn’t speak it of course but the simple sentences mostly found their meaning, if I couldn’t always identify every word.

Sylheti language seems to carry urgency – perhaps languages do when you can’t understand them clearly. A basic ‘hello, hi’ sounds terribly important. It’s so important that there’s no time to open mouths much or bother pronouncing every syllable. I was thinking it would be an ideal language for farewells at train stations, you know, that movie scene when the train starts moving and the friend on the platform starts running to keep up with the window where the passenger is. In Sylheti it seems they could say so much more in those final seconds.

And any Sylheti aboard the Titanic probably narrated the entirety of their life story in the last moments before jumping onto the lifeboat. Well, ahem – first impressions...

On the several occasions I was asked about Sylheti I’d taken to responding, “Eta haglami bhai! Noakhaillar Bangla sobche shondor!” “It’s foolishness! Noakhali has the most beautiful Bangla!” The first part got them laughing, particularly the haglami which should be paglami. The second part got them started... but... “jaitanno, khaitanno,” it always sounded more like a Sylheti trying to imitate a Noakhali accent than the genuine article.

Dinajpur. Maybe it’s better to look forward? It’s time to head west to a new idea. It’s time to find my Banglafornia.

Dinajpur sunrise.

I’ll be heading for the sunset across the great plain right to the end. There’ll be miles of road to cover, hours of tar disappearing under wheels. There’ll be rivers to cross and excitement. It might take a while to get there. It may be hotter – perhaps there’ll be palm trees.

A San Diego trolley car waits for rickshaws. Photo: Ron Eagle.
The idea of California has changed. It’s like, bikini roller-blading women on beachside strips rather than Amazons. There are surfer dudes, like, listening to groovy music. Everyone is attending, like, thrice-weekly therapy sessions and injecting botox. They “do” lunch and liposuction. People say “like” a lot according to the preconceived California cliché.

Dinajpur is a thought to explore. So what do we know? Well, there’s the distinct disadvantage of high expectations. You see, I’ve hardly met a person from Dinajpur I didn’t like. They seem so straightforward and thoughtful: I’m expecting sincerity on the whole. I’m thinking there’ll be a bit of Santali culture, a dollop of archaeology. Thinking there’ll be a tolerant blend of Hindu-Muslim and not expecting language troubles.

The Dinajpur idea is so strong that in Dhaka when a rickshaw wallah says they’re from Dinajpur I don’t bother pre-negotiating. You just expect fair price, said once, money in hand not looked at. Indeed on the handful occasions where it’s not proved true, I must confess I’ve been known to criticize, “But how can you make trouble? You’re from Dinajpur!”

But is it really like that?

And yeah, okay, so Dinajpur’s a bit more northwest than California would be. It’s really more of an Oregon. But hey, who knows anything about Oregon?

Lily More, Dinajpur.

Will a Californian rickshaw wallah take his money without looking at it?

This article is published in The Star magazine, here: Banglafornia.

No comments:

Post a Comment