Dr Carl Hunter formerly served as an officer with the Green Jackets, and is now the managing director of Coltraco Ultrasonics. He travels extensively in Asia, and is a member of the RSAA.
Politics used to dominate Bangladesh. Politics and corruption, or politics, corruption and poverty, or was it politics, corruption, poverty and indentured labour?
Many years ago, I found myself finishing lunch on a sidewalk in a wealthy suburb of Dhaka. I heard the rumbling of a crowd growing louder, and around a corner 100 yards ahead came hundreds of shouting Bengalis waving banners. A political demonstration. As I looked to head in the other direction, another equally loud crowd approached. I was soon to be in the middle of two opposing political rallies. Politics in the Sub-Continent can become violent, but I have always felt happy there. I buttoned my suit and went to the middle of the road and advanced up to the column. Was I imagining a sword in my right hand held at the port in parade fashion? It was afternoon but I bade them Good Morning and they parted for me. Soon I was in the middle of the column feeling rather isolated but they continued letting me through and striding past me, many smiling through the shouts, and the occasional “Good Morning” returned to me.
Sylhet is the focal point of Bengali emigration to England. It began out of the agony of the Independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. It is rural, and the fields flooded from the Monsoon on the day I landed there. The plane virtually emptied. Sons with mothers on their last trip home, families and children in dinner jackets presumably demonstrating that the streets of London really were made from gold, many loaded peculiarly with duvets from England as gifts, together with Western-dressed businessmen, and tens of young adults looking bewildered as they went to their ancestral homes, perhaps for the first time. The young adults were dressed in local and Western dress. Some of the Sons and Daughters looked English in their faces beside their Parents. Imagine my surprise that for every two that passed me, one would bid me “Good Morning”. In that moment, some greater English awareness bound us. More British Bengalis bade me Good Morning that day than any amount of English people would do at home. The links we enjoy as a nation to Bangladesh are now because of these expatriate Bengalis but how little we utilize them.
In the heaving streets of Dhaka, men furiously cycling their passengers on hundreds of rickshaws jostled with the occasional rich in their four-by-fours. Not many obese here. Life a hectic rush to make enough to pay the day. The monsoon skies changing every minute, one moment clear and bright the next grey with bellowing towering clouds carrying their monsoon riches of water. I am drawn to the streets of the Sub-Continent. I revel in them. I try to see in the faces their origin. After all, no-one was really born in Dhaka, and if they are their hearts are elsewhere. But what you often see is the test that life has given them. And yet they smile. To me, they smile.
I wonder why Bangladesh is seen so differently to how we see India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. In these we see a shared history of nearly 500 years, a friendship that has seen good times and bad, but Bangladesh seems to have drifted from our memories of friendship and become Kissinger’s “basket case”. In truth, they are very much one and the same and only Partition in 1947 made them different in becoming East Pakistan, but it became not only a country of Muslims created by the British on Partition but in 1971 it became Bangladesh. Created by the Hindu superpower of India, whose Generals could not abide “two Pakistan’s on its borders”.
It was the first day of Ramadan when I arrived. In most Muslim countries this would mean far greater care by the foreigner in their smoking and eating. Meetings often break during prayer time. But time and time again in my meetings in Dhaka I was offered refreshments, and some would join me each time, “I am not fasting this Ramadan”, and in one case, “But I am Hindu, let us have tea and biscuits together”. And we did, in front of his colleagues who were fasting. No meeting was stopped for prayers. I have rarely seen such flexibility during Ramadan. This is a Muslim country with a proud Hindu minority. Said one to me, “why should my parents have left… this is our home”.
Most of the people I meet in business are from the middle and upper classes, but in Bangladesh even that is a mark of its progress. I cannot recall meeting any from the middle class 10 years ago. Then there seemed to be only 10 families who ran the country. Today there really is a middle class and it is populated by those from the country’s diaspora too; people who have decided to come home from Canada and make their wealth in the very country they had escaped from years before. Mrs Purabi is one of these. She met and married her Bengali husband in Canada and together they “came home” to build their future. The Middle Class in Dhaka today is no different to England, it has swept the Upper Classes into the corners by their dynamism, education and drive. I wonder whether their proximity to the exhausting reality of poverty drives them further.
The poverty is there. My room overlooked a barracks. The men rose at five in the morning and sat by the lake chattering and washing themselves and their clothes. They could have been back in their villages. But as the officers emerged the tone changed. The social gulf was stark. It was not the rank or the class, it was simply education. How proud I was to hear from a 17-year serviceman of his admiration for the affection and closeness between British Officers and men that he had experienced when operating alongside the British Army in the 90s.
And so flying home again. I waited in the airport lounge for my flight. A father and son came in. The Father was bearded and dressed traditionally; the son, with bulging biceps and a smart Western tee-shirt and jacket. “I knew when I walked in that I would speak with you”, he said. I stood and said how very kind but why? The Father smiled at both of us. “Seeing you made me realize why I want to go home…to London”.
So the politics remains but it is a slender shape of its past. The corruption remains but it is less overt. With greater education has come a greater middle class. The labour, though, is energized, on the one hand by the dread of poverty, but a part of it is escaping and discovering that some visions can be realized.
I left Bangladesh realizing that there our sense of shared history is diminishing there, but that our new relationship is heightened by the expatriate Bengalis living in England with their eyes on two worlds. They could be our eyes and ears to a new partnership. They want to be part of us. It is only us that can let them.