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Thursday, 2 June 2011


The Road to Sylhet

The road from Sylhet to Dhaka seems oddly familiar. I cross many a winding river, traversing a countryside rich with the emerald of tender paddy crops. The nagging sense of déjà vu makes me realize why: it could, in fact, be a road anywhere in eastern India. A green and yellow patchwork quilt spreads on either side of the road – the green of the paddy contrasts vividly with the yellow of the mustard in full bloom. Green-painted domes of mosques and tall minarets festooned with mikes occasionally peer through dense banana groves and swaying coconut palms. Gaily painted trucks and over-loaded rickshaws jostle for space with state-of-the-art SUVs on highways that are often choked and potholed. I feel I am at home.

The driver of our gleaming Land Cruiser is loquacious. He keeps up a running commentary on the many big and small rivers we cross: the Surma on the outskirts of Sylhet, the Kushiyara and the Ichchamuti. In Bangladesh, he tells us with a laugh, when you don’t know the name of a river you call it the ‘Ichchamuti’ for it means a river, any river, that flows according to its own will, meandering hither and thither, changing its course as it wishes. Once, there were many more Ichchamutis in Bangladesh with plentiful waters. Now, they are drying up, their waters are being pulled up by India, our driver tells us. Even the Padda (aka Padma) which yields the delicious hilsa (served to us for lunch in Sylhet) is drying up and the famed fish delicacy becoming exorbitantly priced. A heavy silence falls in the car as all eyes turn towards me.

Several high-powered talks between the governments of the two countries have failed to solve this contentious issue. The gigantic delta that is Bangladesh is crisscrossed by 230 major rivers, 54 of them originating in India and three of them emptying their waters in the Bay of Bengal. The sharing of these waters between the neighbours has resulted in numerous treaties, yet no lasting solution has been found to a perennially vexing issue. The ghost of the Farrakka Barrage Treaty haunts all such negotiations. The building of dams upstream on the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra and Irabati rivers, too, has had devastating consequences on the fragile ecosystem of Bangladesh.

India is everywhere in Bangladesh: The black grapes being sold in such abundance even in the small hamlets we pass by the highway are from India. The TV channels are awash with Indian serials. Indian film stars and models are advertising everything from soap to insurance. The lobby of my hotel is milling with Indian businessmen and entrepreneurs. Despite the preponderance of Indian goods and people, I am struck by the curious love-hate relationship between the two countries. Despite the Indian hand in the liberation movement of 1971 when the Mukti Bahini guerillas worked hand in glove with the Indian military forces, several contentious issues arose early in the relationship. While equal sharing of river waters has always been a big issue, there has also been the added strain of the Teen Bigha Corridor and the terror outfits that India alleges have been operating from Bangladeshi soil. At a personal level, what irks many Bangladeshis, I suspect, is how much they know about India and Indians and how little we Indians know about them. This unequal-ness mars the tone and tenor of Indo-Bangladeshi dialogue.

My plane from Dhaka to Delhi is delayed. All the way back from Dhaka, I find myself reciting Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s haunting, conscience-stricken ode to the newly-born, bloodied Bangladesh. Written in 1974, Dhaka Se Wapsi Par is one of the most hauntingly poignant poems, and brutally honest too in its admission of neglect and wrong doing, as also an overwhelming sense of loss, defeat, shame, guilt:
Hum ke thehre ajnabi itni mulaaqaaton ke baad
Phir banein ge aashna kitni madaaraaton ke baad
Agha Shahid Ali’s elegant translation from his book, The Rebel’s Silhouette, carries some of the ineffable sorrow of the original:
After those many encounters, that easy intimacy, we are strangers now –
After how many meetings will we be that close again?
When will we again see a spring of unstained green?
After how many monsoons will the blood be washed from the branches?

The seasons have come and gone for close to four decades. The sub-continent has changed in more ways than one. The healing words have long remained unspoken. But life goes on. Faiz’s fervent prayer has been answered. The ‘spring of unstained green’ lies dappled all across Bangladesh. I saw it with my own eyes – in the fields of tender paddy and bursting mustard.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

(Rakhshanda Jalil travelled to Bangladesh in early January 2010 as part of a Regional Study Group organised by the Asia Foundation.)

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