Turtles and evil spirits

TURTLES WAITING to be fed at the Baizid Bostami shrine.-VIJAY LOKAPALLY

How can one conclude a tour diary of Bangladesh without sharing an experience of the most sensational objects of mobile threat on the roads in Dhaka? Not the dreaded buses, real monsters, spreading terror on the roads, but the autorickshaws. Over to VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

May 23: Baizid Bostami is one of the most revered shrines in Bangladesh. Legend has it that none returns disappointed from this mazhaar (shrine), a structure that is said to have been built in 1831. In Chittagong, people — friendly to the core — take pride in hosting tourists, and then they also politely mention the legend of Baizid Bostami, a saint who lived 1100 years ago. The mazhaar is located on a hilltop and at the bottom lies a pond that attracts hundreds of pilgrims daily. The visit is incomplete if you do not feed the turtles in the pond, and there are hundreds of them. To be precise, there are 350 tortoises and they float at the edge of the pond, waiting to be fed. There is a tale related to the turtles too. The locals regard them as descendants of evil spirits who incurred the wrath of the saint. By feeding them one is supposed to ensure protection from the evil spirits. Religion is not an issue here, just as it is not at the Hazrat Shah Jalil shrine in Sylhet. It is a peaceful place, in keeping with the character of the Chittagonians.

May 24: We leave in the middle of the night. The bus journey to Dhaka with 35 cricket scribes from India and Bangladesh is borne out of necessity. Biman is notorious for cancelling flights and it is hardly surprising when once again the National carrier lets down its passengers. Former Bangladesh skipper Akram Khan comes to the rescue of the scribes. He is a joint owner of the Silk Line Bus Service, which has a big fleet of luxurious buses, as modern as they come. "It will fly,'' assures the `pilot'. The take off is delayed but once the ride begins there is no stopping, barring a halt at 4 in the morning, at midway point. "Upstairs please,'' and it is some sight upstairs. A table is laid out with all the delicacies you can imagine. "Sea food very good.'' It must be, but at four in the morning! There are some takers though and soon we are on the way to Dhaka. As dawn breaks, the fascinating countryside comes alive. Rural Bangladesh is at its best as one encounters long stretches of lonely road, no brakes and no honking, and miles and miles of greenery.

May 25: The Sher-e-Bangla Stadium is just not the place to be in. It is hot in the morning, hotter by noon and hottest in the afternoon. Cricket in the middle is pedestrian and there is no respite from the heat for the spectators, who have bravely turned up in a decent number to watch Test cricket in such exacting conditions. Drinks breaks are plenty as the players struggle to stay on their feet. Two batsmen retire from cramps and the bowlers too take turns to rest and recover. The players grumble but refrain from complaining, for the big bosses, watching from air-conditioned boxes, are not convinced that this is just not the time for cricket. It is a tribute to the spectators that they endure such unpleasant conditions to support the cause of a game that needs to have a rethink on the scheduling of its international calendar. A remarkable feature at the stadium is the sightscreen at both ends. Spotless sheets are strung together in a huge canvas to form a massive white background, the biggest sightscreen that you can ever imagine.

May 26: The building is as modest as the man. The house in Dhanmondi Road No. 32 is preserved as a national museum now. It was the home of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the Father of the Nation. The official brochure hails the house as a symbol of the greatness of the Bangali nation. Bangabandhu moved into this house on October 1, 1961 and it was from the study of this historic building that he sent his declaration of independence to the nation on March 28, 1971. But the same house witnessed the gruesome massacre of the family on August 15, 1975. None was spared and they were shot in different parts of the house. In 1981, Mujibur Rehman's daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was handed over the house and in turn she gave it to the Bangabandhu Memorial Trust, which now keeps alive the memory of the great leader. Road No. 32 has been given a new name, they say, but mention the old address and you are taken right to the doorsteps of Bangabandhu's home.

May 27: "Gentlemen, due to technical reasons, the air-conditioner will be switched off for 10 minutes.'' The announcement irks some of us but the polite Baby bhai, with his sweet demeanour, provides a greater cooling effect than the AC. Courtesy from all quarters makes the media box the best place to be in even as India finishes the contest in a mere three days. There is another helpful soul inside the media box — the genial M. M. Monzur Morshed. He has a solution to all your problems. He guides you to the best shopping arcades and even offers to accompany you. He knows the ideal restaurants for vegetarians and the happening joints for the young journos. But that is not his vocation. He is essentially a technical executive with Global Online, the company that has sponsored the internet connections for the scribes. The laptop refuses to boot and one is in an agitated state, but Morshed takes over and puts his mind to the job with a determination that matches Rahul Dravid's resolve at the crease. It takes him almost four hours but he restores the machine. "You can work comfortably now,'' he smiles and yours truly is relieved.

May 28: These are pirates of a different kind. They steal music and movies, and deliver them at an incredible price. Music and video piracy is a flourishing business. There is a law that prohibits video piracy in Bangladesh, but it is an open market. Neatly packaged in attractive covers, these CDs and DVDs are made in Bangladesh and the pirated copies are sold in well advertised shops in almost every shopping mall. It hurts the pocket of the legitimate musicians and the producers but it is booming business in Bangladesh. The mp3 format is popular too. Singers and music directors have been protesting in vain for a long time. The entertainment business is suffering huge losses but then the lawmakers have not given a thought to this menace. You can buy a three movies in one DVD featuring a wide range, from the black and white classics to the latest block-busters, for as low a price as 50 Takas, which is less than a US dollar. Effectively, you can watch a good print of Superman 3 or Cheeni Kum for as low as 10 rupees in the comfort of your drawing room.

May 29: How can one conclude a tour diary of Bangladesh without sharing an experience of the most sensational objects of mobile threat on the roads in Dhaka? Not the dreaded buses, real monsters, spreading terror on the roads, but the autorickshaws. The infamous Blueline buses of Delhi would pale when compared to the autorickshaws in Dhaka. They call it CNG, because it runs on CNG. But it actually flies. Going around on the roads in Dhaka and Chittagong can be a thrilling experience, depending on the size of the vehicle you are in. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger your say, but not when confronted by a CNG. It will have its own way and say, no lane, no indicator. The idea is to push the nose in and then begin the battle for space. It can be terrifying. A CNG just swings about and the traffic swings along with it. The speed is the most gripping aspect. It is in top gear even when it spots a soul wanting to cross the road or when it nears a traffic signal or a roundabout. Cross a CNG's path at your peril. And before one forgets, the driver of a CNG is comfortably ensconced in a cage like compartment. Why? Well, he needs protection from being mugged and also to save his vehicle from being hijacked. But what of the daylight mayhem he creates? But if you are late for a flight, call for a CNG!