Thursday, 9 April 2015

Where People Are Still People

Dinajpur District hosts many elaborate Durga Puja pandals every year.

Initial observation: it was deep night as the bus from Dhaka crossed the border of Dinajpur District. A few minutes later a woman needed to get down. It spurred discussion among the driver, the conductor and other passengers. Was she sure? Was it okay to leave a woman alone on a dark road?

She repeated the place name. It was right. She got out.

The bus moved forward. The bus stopped. The bus reversed. No, it couldn’t be done. She was delivered instead to the safety of a late night barber’s shop nearby. And I wondered…

I’m not alone in anticipating that assuredly considerate temperament from people of the country’s northwest. Simply mentioning a person is from Dinajpur is a kind of character reference.

This writer was determined to find out: what makes the Dinajpuri?

Goods for sale at a Hindu fair.

Observation: in Dinajpur town no rickshaw driver asked for more than the exact fare; one can’t say that of all regional centres. Indeed twice I was unexpectedly called back. “You paid too much,” rickshaw drivers said, referring to the little extra knowingly given. Now that has hardly happened elsewhere…

I asked our local The Daily Star correspondent Kongkon Karmaker his opinion; and he himself exhibits many of the admirable qualities one might associate with Dinajpur, albeit just between us there’s a bit of Barishailla in his blood.

He spoke of Hindu families preparing shemai, vermicelli, for Muslim Eid al-Fitr; of Muslims leading Durga Puja committees, with some taking the chance to perform aroti dance in front of Ma Durga’s pandal. The town’s prominent temples seem to confirm religious tolerance.

“Dinajpur has one of the highest percentages of Hindus in the country,” Karmaker says, “Disharmony is rare.” The district is also diverse with ethnic minorities, principally the Santhals. Meanwhile, according to Karmaker, local hijras are better accepted and less pushy than elsewhere.

Perhaps there was more to learn in the villages.

Locals at the Nurul Mudir tea shop in Taiabpur, Birol.

At Mahadeppur village in Birol Upazilla, at a nameless shop in the row called Bashudev Supermarket, proprietor Sanatan Chandra Roy agrees to the premise, “People are good here. There’s no conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Why I don’t know. It just is so.”

“What’s in Birol?” proposes a customer. “Everything is here: betel, cigarettes and tea.”

And history agrees. The Dinajpur District Census Report of 1961 as reported in the government Gazetteer observed that Dinajpuris are “nostalgic to a degree, and unless they are very hard pressed they do not leave their homes.”

Kali Puja, Dinajpur. 
“Few experience the pangs of hunger as our own countrymen do in times of distress,” wrote a Briton, Major Sherwill, about Dinajpur, much earlier in 1860, “They may wholly abstain from labour for weeks or even months and still manage to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Their wants are few.”

According to the Gazetteer land has traditionally been more plentiful and population density less than other regions. Have these factors influenced an easygoing attitude?

“There is no district in Bangladesh as thanda [cool] as Dinajpur,” says Md Fazlul Haque at the Nurul Mudir tea shop in Birol’s Taiabpur village. The Upazilla administrative officer spent years in Khulna, which he liked, but “Dinajpur’s people are best.”

Dinajpur's Kali Temple.
His hypothesis: “People are occupied with their own business. Nobody has intention to harm someone. We don’t like conflict.”

“At any Durga Puja pandal,” interjects shopkeeper Mozammel Haque, “for every four Hindus there must be eight Muslims. Everyone enjoys. We are one.”

“The land is good,” he reflects, “That’s why people are gentle.”

“People here are very simple,” suggests farmer Sri Manmohan Chandra Roy of village Andharmucha in Chirirbandar Upazilla. “People are not much desperate so we don’t quarrel.”

Observation: evening on a narrow road in town and I’m surprised by overpowering music blasting from a red-light flashing amplifier, street-side. “Inconsiderate,” is the first thought, but then I notice the other side of the street: the long concrete wall of Dinajpur gaol. Perhaps somewhere inside a prisoner was smiling from hearing the distant rhythms of their favourite Bollywood and Bangla dance numbers? Perhaps a prisoner was having a birthday, knowing they were not forgotten? It takes volume to conquer concrete.

Motorcycle parking area at a Hindu fair. 
And yet the Gazetteer mentions mass migration into Dinajpur, especially at the time of Partition’s upheaval. It lists periods of famine. And news out of the district over the past several months is peppered with instances of violence, some political, others not. Surely such facts remind us: every rule has exceptions.

Regardless, in Dinajpur you’ll find it in general: that helpful, sincere majority – a little more tolerant perhaps, a little more peaceful perhaps…  Exactly why, I’m still unsure.

Kali  Puja in Dinajpur. 

 A ride at a village fair. 

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