By Ritu Sharma
In a quest to explore shared culture and history of all the territories that once formed part of an undivided Indian sub-continent, I chose the easiest one — Bangladesh.
First, because a Pakistan visa was unlikely to come by, considering my family’s history deeply steeped in Indian defence forces.
After fending off the questioning looks of friends and family, as I applied for the visa, I was confronted with a familiar question — “Why Bangladesh?”
“Tourism,” I replied. The official looked unconvinced but I was not denied the permission.
The Agartala-Dhaka bus, started in 2015 and which was supposed to be a daily service, has been reduced to thrice a week because it found few passengers.
I decided to enter Dhaka by land which also helped me to acclimatise to the sweltering heat there. I crossed the border on foot. The India-Bangladesh border is quite unlike the famous Wagah one between India and Pakistan. Here border guards discourage people from jingoistic sloganeering during the flag-lowering ceremony.
After entering the country, which appeared familiar for an Indian, I took a CNG (as Bangladeshis call their auto-rickshaws) to Akhoura and thereafter a bus to Dhaka.
The double whammy of heat and humidity sapped my energy reservoir in the “first class bus”.
The next two days in Dhaka were nightmarish. And it seemed familiar too with huge traffic snarls.
I somehow managed to visit Sonargaon (the golden city), the administrative and commercial centre of pre-British rulers that finds mentions in the travel memoirs of Ibn-e-Batuta and Ralph Fitch.
It also has Panam City which houses a cluster of around 52 mansions inspired by European architecture, built in the 19th century. Hindu cloth merchants stayed there once upon a time.
But today an eerie silence wells up from the locked premises. World’s Monument Fund has put it under the 100 most endangered sites.
The next on the list was the Liberation War Museum for a sneak peek into the 1971 Bangladesh liberation movement, where the Indian Army fought alongside the Bangladeshi Liberation Army named “Mukti Bahini”. The museum doesn’t seem to have fared too well. But apparently, a new one is under construction.
The next stop on the itinerary was Sylhet, in the northeast of the country, surrounded by beautiful tea estates and hills. The city is also a source of a staggering number of Bangladeshis abroad who contribute a major portion to the country’s remittances.
Religiously, it seems more diverse. The city is dotted with many temples with idols of Goddess Kali and her consort Shiva being commonly sold on pavements.
I entered a temple which looked more like an armoured bunker. I was immediately identifiable as a stranger. After a few queries, I was ushered into the room of the head priest.
“When the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, our temples were razed to the ground here,” a priest said.
“This temple was demolished completely and lots of Hindus were killed. We collected funds and have rebuilt it. And the strong grills around the temple are for protection,” he said, requesting not to be named.
“Both the communities (Hindu and Muslim) love Hindi serials and movies. But whenever something happens in India, reverberations are felt here in Bangladesh,” he said.
This simple statement coming from a temple priest in Sylhet underlines the intertwined fate of the people of the two countries that were part of the same history and political geography once upon a time.
Modernising India and Bangladesh too have to move forward together.
A young man Bacchu, who didn’t give his second name, said whenever a riot or conflict between Hindus and Muslims happen in India “we are targeted here”.
Sylhet, apart from being a major tourist attraction, was a part of the 1971 war theatre. It was the scene of the first heliborne operation of the Indian Air Force (IAF). It was here too that Gorkha Rifles won the day for the Indian Army in the Battle of Sylhet.
My travel to Bangladesh turned into a walk down the lanes of history and I felt as if the two countries continue to be linked through an umbilical cord. They continue to define themselves on the basis of the other.
After celebrating the Bengali New Year in Dhaka with delectable Hilsa I bade goodbye to the country. I will be back some day.
Ritu Sharma, a freelance journalist