G is for Gaibandha

Rickshaws and Baby Taxis, Dhaka street in 1999
I’ve never been to Gaibandha, and yet I feel I know something of it.

Dhaka days are filled with rickshaws and CNGs. Like for most of the rest, for me the As to Bs are best covered this way. Both transport forms are to be enjoyed, especially because each journey is so personal. Without getting hung up on the over-chargers or the ones who won’t take you where you want to go, there is so much fun to be had along the way and what’s more, it’s a great opportunity to learn something about Bangladesh, in particular the appreciation Bangladeshis have for humour. Commuting in Dhaka, despite the jams, is almost always a pleasure.

It so happened that one evening I and five of my friends should go from Bailey Road to a friend’s place in Mogh Bazar, not a great distance but enough to warrant a rickshaw. The first rickshaw-wallah quoted a reasonable price. You should have seen his face when I told him we were six and asked if that was okay. He started laughing, as did we, and of course we got the required second rickshaw. Into our journey, our rickshaw-wallah started to sing: perhaps it made the pedalling easier. Loud and to himself he sang, hare Ram hare Ram, hare Krishna, hare Ram, with the melody supplied by Bollywood. I like the way singing aloud is not taboo in Bangladesh, an activity in the west reserved for karaoke bars and the shower; so I joined in.

After several rounds of the song, and fortunately it was sufficiently late that there weren’t too many locals around to be disturbed by our little concert, a breath of silence returned to the evening. ‘Are you Hindu?’ I asked the rickshaw-wallah. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Neither am I.’ He asked the usual, where I was from, what I was doing here. We chatted as he rode on, and after some time he asked me to sing another song, in Bangla.

The request made me shy: it was one thing to torture a song in English, but it didn’t seem right to do that to a Bangla song, especially when I know the lyrics of so few, apart from the ones I sometimes invent for amusement complete with their grammatical mistakes and mispronunciations. I wasn’t singing one of those! Instead I started again, hare Krishna, hare Rama, this time to a western melody: the song from the musical Hair that most westerners are familiar with. This time the rickshaw-wallah, and I knew his name by then, joined in with me.

When we were done with the second version, the rickshaw-wallah again started asking for a song. I told him that if I sing a song in Bangla it should do for the fare, thinking it might dissuade him. He knew I wasn’t serious and agreed. And so the pressure was on: I scoured my brain for a suitable song, one of the few I know, to sing for my supper, so to speak, not that I wouldn’t have paid him as well; rickshaw riding is hard work.  There was the first part of the national anthem, not appropriate; Ami Ek Jajabor by Bhupen Hazarika of which I only know the easy chorus part; the one about Kolkata I rather like, but I knew almost nothing of those words. As the minutes passed and we finally arrived at my friend’s place it was all too embarrassing: so I piked and paid. We had a good laugh about it and promised to see each other around the city sometime, somewhere in the Mega City. And I promised myself I would learn a Bangla song or two; sadly a promise as yet unfulfilled.

One day after work I jumped on a rickshaw heading for Farm Gate, knowing that my friend who’d arrived in Dhaka from the village was standing about fifteen metres in front: just for fun I’d pretended not to see him. Naturally enough he pulled over the rickshaw just after we’d started and got on. I suppose I am a bit mischievous because I said, ‘who is he? I don’t know him.’ The rickshaw-wallah was instantly fearful; ‘I’m not going,’ he said, thinking something untoward was going on. And here’s another thing I like about Dhaka: people help each other. A second rickshaw-wallah standing nearby had witnessed the scene and immediately came to assist. There was a split second where I thought he might hit my friend, to protect me. Then I laughed and they understood; we all laughed.

On another occasion several weeks ago my friend jumped off the rickshaw to buy cigarettes from a local shop, and while he was gone I paid the fare. We were in a rush and I thought it would save time at the other end. When we reached our destination I started to walk away and my friend stopped me, saying I should pay. Loudly I said, ‘I’m not paying that fare! It took too long; too many jams!’ I continued to walk away, my friend thinking I was being completely unreasonable; the rickshaw-wallah, from Panchagarh, was beaming with delight.

Each rickshaw ride, CNGs too, is a mini-encounter never to be replicated. There was the old CNG driver forced to continue his occupation because his children working in the Middle East would not send remittances; there was the driver proud of his son who was studying at the cadet college in Comilla; and the guy who ever so sincerely invited me on a fishing trip to the beel near his village house. It’s a pity I’m not an angler.

Of course a normal part of each conversation is to ask which part of Bangladesh the driver or rickshaw-wallah is from, for most Bangladeshis are very much attached to their home districts. It’s an interchange of learning for me; sometimes I ask what there is to see in a particular district or why it’s special. Gopalgonj is peaceful I heard, because in the home of Bangabandhu everybody supports Awami League, Kishoregonj is a land of haors, Tetulia is cold in winter and Jessore hot in summer: such things are rickshaw-learnt.

And well, I discovered something else, in the course of my completely unscientific study: a good percentage of the best rickshaw drivers, the ones who refuse to nominate a price before you leave, saying, ‘whatever you wish to give,’ and mean it; the most sincere and polite who never overcharge… well, as a tendency, they seem to be from the north. In my area it means in particular many are from Gaibandha.

You won’t believe me but sometimes you can imagine it before you ask… a look of honesty in the face or something… and sometimes I ask the rickshaw-wallah’s district before saying where I want to go; to determine what sort of ride it might be.

It happened so commonly in my area that after a while I started giving a little extra, a kind of Gaibandha-bonus for excellent service, when the service was excellent. I even toyed with the proposal of featuring a big ‘G’-sign on Gaibandha rickshaws so you could choose them off the bat; but ultimately I gave up even on the bonus system since there were so many great rickshaw-wallahs from Rangpur, Dinajpur, Nilphamari and other northern districts too, so the temptation was to ever expand the geographical eligibility of it, and it was not really something on my local salary I could afford; and of course there were other excellent drivers from everywhere else as well.

Nonetheless, the consistency of Gaibandha service was enough for me to start asking why; why are people from Gaibandha seemingly so inclined towards politeness and honesty? One Gaibandha driver said that in the north people treat each other well, whether rich or poor, and that there is less social distance between the two than in the city. Another said it’s because north Bengal is more traditional. In fact I wouldn’t know because I’ve not been there; what I do know is that Gaibandha rickshaw-wallahs are able ambassadors for their district. I really appreciate them and all the others for their hard work and more, for sharing snippets of Bangladesh and adding a little light-heartedness to almost every day.

And before you scoff further at my generalisations, I should mention the day one of my friends and I were trying to get a rickshaw in Naya Paltan, and the first five or so wanted to over-charge: that friend is a long-term resident so he knows. I was just telling him my Gaibandha theory, and he was as sceptical as you are, when we stopped the sixth rickshaw. The rickshaw-driver gave the exact rate first time. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked. ‘Gaibandha.’

Two days ago in the midst of bustling Kawran Bazar I was alighting from a rickshaw when another rickshaw driver rushed over to me and said, ‘I went home!’ He was really happy about it. ‘Panchagarh,’ he explained, seeing the puzzled look on my face; it was the rickshaw-wallah I’d refused to pay because of the traffic! I wish I had a memory for names. He asked after my friend and I inquired of his parents, and that was it: one more micro-encounter that proves that unlike just about any other big city the world over, and only if you look, Dhaka retains the human connectedness of the village, especially it would seem if you’re dealing with someone from the north.

There's no doubt, there's a lot to learn from Dhaka's rickshaws.  Or maybe a bit of escapism at the cinema?

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: G is for Gaibandha

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