Song of Chittagong

Photo: the Daily Star
I remember those mornings confronting the rush of Sydney trains on the way to the office. Bleary-eyed and stony-faced I'd make my way to the station and wait on the platform just where the rear carriage would materialise, where there was the best chance of scoring a seat. For approximately fifty minutes, I'd sit squeezed between businessman this and businessman that, doing my best to ignore the moderate discomfort.

It required distraction, something all the regular commuters knew. Some would struggle to read newspapers in the cramped space, papers half-open or awkwardly folded so as not to accidentally elbow their neighbour while attempting to turn a page. Others more practical brought books or read them on palm pilots, and occasionally an industrious lady could be seen knitting her way towards the city centre. Nobody spoke to each other.

My introduction to Tagore, unfortunately in English translation, occurred in that space. He provided relief as stations went by and the train became even more crowded. There was a drawback however, for during the day when I was supposed to be busy with paperwork, I could find myself pondering instead what Kadambini might have done to prove she was alive, aside from dying. Tagore was a valued companion for those days of repetition.

When Tagore was done, the only anthology of his works I could find on Sydney shelves completed, I took my walkman, hoping music could cut me from the immediate surroundings of the train, something like how the poor of South Asia turn to Bollywood for a few hours respite from the difficulties of their lives, although mine was more tedious than difficult. Sometimes it worked. Songs, I learnt, could remove us from the world, obliterating the present with their rhythms and imagery. Songs gave distance; but songs could also span distance, I knew, and bring people together, for that was what had happened in Chittagong.

It was years before the Sydney-Kadambini job, on my first trip through the Subcontinent in the winter of 1995-1996 with my school friend Lachlan. After two months in India, the hospitality of Dhaka and Comilla, we found ourselves checking into a cheap hotel in one of the laneways near Shadarghat in the port city, one afternoon at the start of the holy month of Ramadan. The hotel had little to recommend it: rooms were Spartan, from memory the mosquito nets had a few too many holes, and I can't guarantee all the fixtures were in working order. But the rates were cheap and, most importantly, the staff friendly.

Coming from the west, where labour costs are expensive, it was easy for businesses in Bangladesh to appear overstaffed. Some eateries, for example, had so many waiters in such a small space it was difficult to understand how they could possibly all work simultaneously; at times waiters could even outnumber customers. It left a positive impression, never having to struggle for a waiter's attention, never having that ten-minute wait to get service as can be found in Sydney; but there was a negative side, for the excellent service was sometimes a little too excellent.

Australians eat differently than many Bangladeshis: tea is sipped slowly through a conversation, food is eaten with pauses, and nobody feels the necessity of polishing off a glass of water in one go. It was on more than one occasion that, while I was busy chatting across the table, my half-finished tea or water or even food, disappeared from the table at the hands of an overly-enthusiastic waiter. With time, and perhaps not on the first trip, I learnt the habit of keeping one hand on the glass or the tea cup as I chatted, to ensure it wouldn't vanish without my knowledge! The problem seems to be rarer these days.

At the small hotel in Chittagong staff members were likewise plentiful: there were at least four of them besides the manager, and not exactly a huge number of guests requiring attention. They had reception, porter and nightwatchmen duties, but much of the rest of the time was dedicated to waiting to be needed. We weren't helpful guests in that regard either, for although we'd seen the buzzers in the rooms, although we knew staff members could be sent out on errands, for bottled water, food, anything, we didn't really appreciate the point of it since in the west only the very rich can afford not to do such things for themselves. We were used to being independent: we even carried our own baggage despite the protest of hotel staff.

They were villagers and friends: Karim, Mainuddin (from memory) and the other two (or perhaps three). As usual, ours was a hotel where foreigners weren't common, and their curiosity combined with our lack of needing anything made it inevitable they would take time to chat. It wasn't easy because of the language barrier, but after a week in a village near Comilla we knew at least the basic Bangla words needed to properly share the few photographs we'd brought from home: our families, houses and our city. Where words weren't enough, there was enthusiasm on both sides enough to carry us through, and as evening arrived we found ourselves invited to iftar: my first I believe, and most probably where I learnt the word.

Onto a newspaper spread out between us they poured muri, placed a few jilapi and piaju: all new food items for us. We sat there without many words to share, but food enough to enjoy ourselves, especially as they tried to teach us how to properly position our right hands for muri-munching.
Iftar became a daily event, even though we weren't fasting. In the day we'd explore Chittagong, do some shopping, we'd been for a few days to Cox's Bazar too; and at evening time we'd sit around the unfolded newspaper with our new friends.

It was during one iftar I confronted the whistler: Alomgir (not his real name) was a university student (like us) who spent his days, or so it seemed, wandering up and down the laneway outside the hotel adding music to the city, happily whistling away at the same tune. We'd heard him when leaving in the morning for a day's exploring, and when returning to the hotel, and often as we prepared to eat iftar.

Bangladesh is not like Australia, as strangers talk to each other more easily in Bangladesh, and travelling is not like catching a Sydney morning train, as travellers will talk to anyone. I believe I called through the open window something like, 'excuse me, what song are you whistling?' It's how we met.

Perhaps I should mention how much I enjoy the expressiveness of Bangladeshis, even now. It's so common when out and about to hear people singing, sometimes quite loudly, to themselves. It always brings a smile to my face because if you did that in Australia people might think you mad. Here, when people are in the mood for music, they make their own.

As it turned out, Alomgir lived a little further down the laneway by the hotel, and better still, he could speak English. We spent a few days with him, visited his family and when he suggested it would make a nice day trip to visit the Hindu temple at the top of the hill in Sitakunda, we did that too. Alomgir impressed upon me some of the realities of life in Bangladesh: he was head of his household since his father had passed away, and had to balance his studies with trying to find enough money to support his family. He spoke of the difficulties of finding a good job, of pursuing career ambitions. Our lives, clearly, were much easier than his, and yet he was the one whistling his way through his days.

And the song? It was that Bollywood classic, 'pardesi, pardesi, ja na nehe.' He taught us the words; he wrote them down. I didn't understand the Hindi, but with practice I could sing it. Perhaps the whistling helped him temporarily forget the challenges he faced in life, much as I would later use music to counter the unpleasantness of the Sydney rush.

Each year thereafter I would receive in Sydney an Eid card from Chittagong, which brought to mind a certain song. But our immediate future, Lachlan's and mine, was the ship to Barisal; and for me, it was unknowingly in the direction of, several years later, a Sydney train, more music, the characters of Tagore and an introduction to Kadambini.


This article is also published by Star Magazine, here: The Song of Chittagong

This article is the fourth part of a series of five.

The preceding related articles are here:
Bangladesh Waiting (Part One)
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