Perceiving Paradise

Ferry in Bagerhat Somewhere

Paradise’ is an overused word. Often it embraces ‘tropical’ and refers to some speck of land fringed by idyllic beaches suitable for postcards. But on Earth there is no paradise.

It’s strange when a sentence alters your way of seeing. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally a string of words, perhaps uttered unthinkingly by a random person, can cause a small and initially unimagined shift in the psyche. Sometimes a few words are all it takes to set a life-marker, dividing the past and future, stealthily adding texture to the latter. I’m thinking of something that happened years ago on my first trip to Bangladesh in the winter of 1995-6. I’m thinking of three simple words.

It was probably the longest day of the journey, the three month jaunt through northern India and Bangladesh with my school friend Lachlan. It was the longest day because it was more than just one day: the ship journey from Chittagong to Barisal, the continuation by bus to Khulna with no break.

At the start, time was measured in the tick-tock waves and metronome rock of the ship; sunset and sunrise traced overhead by easy seabird circles. Communication was the salt breeze and progress the dull engine. A journey by ship is like no other.

The ship was jammed with people and goods: there was a litter of noise and smells, a chaos of boxes and bags. There were families, elderly and young, beggars, workers, pan-chewers, porters and touts. Our advantage: we’d managed to book a cabin. With our overloaded backpacks we’d moved through the crowd like salmon struggle upstream.

People were helpful. They made what little space they could. People stared: they were many and their gaze intense. Bangladesh was new to us; we were new to them. People jumped from wharf to vessel; they climbed the ship’s exterior with inexplicable urgency. They called ‘hello’ and asked where we were from, en masse.

Think of it: in most of this country every grain of earth is a water-gift, painstakingly carried by thousands of kilometres of rivers, from the high Himalayan hills, from exotic places like Devprayag, Xigazê and Haridwar, through the thickly-populated Uttar Pradesh plains or the Assamese valleys, to be deposited, grain by grain, to become Bangladesh. There could be no better way to experience this, the land of water, than a journey by ship.

We’d found Javed on his way home to Sandwip and chatted about his passion, cricket. A few hours later smaller boats came. There was jostling on the main deck; people pushed towards the gate. Javed was amongst it. People pushed out and down some metal stairs lowered over the side and ending just above the water where the smaller wooden boats were. Javed followed. He waved as he disappeared, headed for the Sandwip shore.

Currents meander, in the air, in the water; choppy liquid circles are dug out of the sea by the engines, to disappear and reappear. A ship journey frees the imagination. Exactly what choppy thought-circles populated that journey to Barisal years ago I can’t say, but there was a theme: it was in what people said. On that first trip, many people said, ‘you must help me get a visa to Australia.’ ‘I’m so sorry for our country,’ they said. ‘I wish I had your skin,’ they said.

It was confronting and awkward. We explained Australian visas were a difficult proposition; when we asked why they were apologising for their country, and they replied because it was poor, we could say honestly it was perhaps poor in money, but rich in people, culture and nature. I had no idea in those days how much that was true. As for the skin, we tried to convey its impracticality, prone to sunburn and skin cancer; but of course it’s not what they meant.

I was on deck to see the water colour change, although if it was before or after Sandwip I could no longer say with certainty. There was a stark line; from the grey-green sea to the brown of the river. This wasn’t the mouth of the river I thought, but its very lips. The lips of the Padma, Jamuna and Meghna: the children of the Himalayas from Devprayag, Xigazê and Haridwar.

We’d brought snacks: bread, chips and bananas. Excepting the bananas, all was gone before the Bay took the sun. Lachlan found me on deck later. ‘There’s no chance you nibbled at one of the bananas is there, through its skin?’ he asked. ‘That didn’t happen, did it?’ We had rats! I suppose a ship is hardly self-respecting without at least one rat, but for me it meant a night without sleep.

By then there was the night sky to measure time, the stars near and far, long ago to more recent light emissions reaching the eye; the spectacle was sufficiently impressive for me to brave the winter chill. I was on deck when the ship arrived at Hatiya.

The Hatiya shore, not far off, was a wafery panther crouched and stock still against the barely perceptible motion of the river. From it, here and there, came the flickering glow of kerosene lamplight.

The metal stairs were lowered again: wooden boats filled quickly with people, sacks, bags, nets and crates. Labourers passed cane baskets directly over the side and into the boats. Their arms weren’t quite long enough, so the baskets would freefall slightly before the outstretched arms of the boatmen caught them. There was a small risk the Meghna might claim one. As my arms were slightly longer I crouched, arms under the railing, to help. It was easy work. The boatmen smiled gratefully as they took the baskets, beckoning to me, pointing ashore in a wordless invitation.

It was an auspicious offer, for in the coming years Hatiya would make itself my Bangladeshi village home; and that was the first time I saw it. With a wink and a nudge, time was saying something, revealing a flash of the future. But I didn’t understand.

Morning meant Barisal port and a thin grime of dirt that covered the body like a fungus. We were travelling too fast; we would have to bear it until Khulna. The bus ride seemed unending; it was exhausting and there was another passenger who wouldn’t stop talking. Khulna had seemed closer; the bus was of the type called a murir tin: factors that didn’t bring comfort. In those days there were several ferry crossings, for the journey like the hour marks on a clock.

There was a salesman with an uncountable number of small items pinned to his coat: pocket torches, pens, razors, hair clips... He stood in the aisle and opened his coat. To our astonishment his portable shop continued inside: padlocks, combs, toothbrushes… His wares were pinned in rows down each side. He was ingenious, but the concoction of surprise and exhaustion made us laugh. He said we should give baksheesh for his giving us laughter. We probably should have, to support his entrepreneurship. Instead I said laughter was free.

Somewhere around Bagerhat it happened. The bus stopped for a ferry. We were probably out finding something edible in one of the Ramadan-curtained stalls. The exact circumstances I can’t tell, and I don’t much remember how he looked or who he was, for we spoke but a few short minutes while Lachlan was busy elsewhere. ‘What do you think of Bangladesh?’ the stranger asked, and I told him, beautiful nature, friendly people: my usual and sincere response.

He replied, and these are the three words, the sentence, that struck. He said, ‘Bangladesh is paradise.’

The power of that sentence! How it stood apart from all the other sentences, how much it was unlike the others. How could it so bravely stand alone? More intriguing, what did its speaker see that I couldn’t, because for me, remember, exposure to the material poverty in which many Bangladeshis live was still shockingly new. How could two people from the same world see so differently?

The bus left; there was no chance to clarify. I told Lachlan the sentence and he was unimpressed. But that sentence stayed, the question of perception, values in life and what made contentment. That sentence crossed borders, hiding somewhere in my luggage. It came back in quiet moments and stared like the crowd on the ship: the questions it raised inevitably wandering away again unanswered, unanswerable.

The final ferry was outside Khulna town. As we waited a crowd gathered to observe, probably the largest we’d attracted anywhere. Maybe thirty people stood and stared, not threateningly but of curiosity, and, encouraged by their numbers, came closer, until a couple of them gently touched my arm. They wanted to know how it felt, white skin. ‘It’s the same as yours,’ a simple sentence I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the words for them to understand.

I’d like to thank that gentleman for the paradise sentence; for its questions of perceptions. It might’ve been the most important thing that happened on the first trip but for what happened next. For in Khulna one of the questions it raised was unexpectedly reversed: how could two people from such different worlds see so much the same?



This article is also published by Star Magazine, here: Perceiving Paradise

This article is the final piece in a series of five about the first trip to Bangladesh.  The earlier parts are here:

Bangladesh Waiting (Part One)
Bangladesh, the Tourist Guide (Part Two)
The Village View (Part Three)
The Song of Chittagong (Part Four)




People getting off the Ship in Sandwip






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