It is winter and Dhaka is full of lights. Shaheed Minar, the memorial commemorating the Language Movement that led to the independence of Bangladesh, glows a bright orange. In the posh neighbourhoods of Gulshan and Baridhara, entire apartment buildings are illuminated to celebrate winter weddings, but these are overshadowed by the bright lights of new shopping malls. This is the city into which I have just landed – lit up, hopeful and humming with electricity.
I am a sheeter pakhi – a bird who has flown east for the winter. Every year I travel home to visit my family and reconnect with Bangladesh. There’s something about this country that inspires a deep longing, and whenever I am pulled back, I come home to take stock. This year, on Bangladesh’s 40th anniversary, I ponder the great changes that have occurred here, ponder the brightness and vitality of a country that no one expected would succeed. But succeed it has. Its dramatic transformations – imperfect, yet to be fully realised – are testament to the resilience of its people, and to the great power of democracy that is hard-won and home-grown.
As always happens when I land in Dhaka, I am immediately struck by the sense that something exciting is about to happen. In early February, the city is abuzz with anticipation because the ICC Cricket World Cup will kick off at the Mirpur Stadium in just a few weeks. People are scrambling for tickets. Municipal elections mean that every available intersection and telephone pole and exposed brick wall is festooned with political posters and slogans.
This year the agents of change seem to have raised their voices, and I realise something has shifted in the tone of the country. The stakes are higher, people are restless, poised for even greater transformation. In the meantime, the things that are difficult – that make you avert your eyes – are as apparent as ever. The city is full to bursting, and everywhere there are signs that the changes have not reached everyone: not the children picking through rubbish heaps on the side of the road, not the women who cook dinner over roadside ditches, thin sheets of blue plastic the only thing between them and the bitter winter evenings.
Bangladesh was born out of a brutal war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. During those nine months, the Pakistani army conducted a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, killing up to three million civilians and forcing as many as 10 million into exile in neighbouring India. Two days before the war ended, knowing they were on the brink of defeat, the retreating army assassinated hundreds of academics, physicians, artists and journalists in order to give the yet-to-be-born country as little chance of surviving as possible. The new prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was welcomed by a population on the brink of famine. These are the factors that led Henry Kissinger to peer into the newborn country’s cot and declare it a basket case.
Since independence, instability has pervaded the political climate. Sheikh Mujibur was killed in 1975, along with 19 others, including 16 members of his family. Less than a decade later, his successor, General Zia, was also assassinated. Coups and counter-coups were followed by the long military rule of Hossain Muhammad Ershad.
And yet, somewhere along the way, the tide turned for Bangladesh. In 1990, a popular movement for democracy, not unlike those we’ve seen recently in Tunisia and Egypt, ousted Ershad’s nine-year-old dictatorship. Since then, aside from a brief period of army-backed civilian rule, power has been handed back and forth peacefully between Mujibur’s party, the Awami League (led by his daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed) and General Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist party (led by his wife, Khaleda Zia), in a series of increasingly transparent national elections.
Now, four decades into nationhood, there are many things to celebrate in Bangladesh. The economy has enjoyed 5-6 per cent growth for the past three years. The ready-made garments industry is thriving, surpassed globally only by China and Turkey. And last October, Bangladesh was given an award for the strides it has made towards reaching the UN millennium goals in health (notably, in reducing child mortality rates), education and women’s rights.
Perhaps even more importantly, there are strong movements to restore Bangladesh to its secular roots. Last year, the High Court and Supreme Courts banned fatwas and legally returned Bangladesh to its founding status as a secular republic. Later this year, a war crimes tribunal will begin trying the men who collaborated with the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh genocide. For the past 40 years, politicians have been bragging about their past as war criminals, daring any government to put them on trial. If the tribunal is a success, this culture of impunity may finally come to an end.
This is not to say that all is well. Bangladesh has a well-documented history of corruption at all levels of political and civil administration. Opposition forces are often brutally suppressed, and there has been a systematic abandonment of ethnic and religious minorities. Every day, troubling stories emerge about the excesses of the Rapid Action Battalion, the paramilitary police in charge of law and order and anti-terrorism.
Perhaps the blackest cloud on the horizon is the threat of climate change. If forecasts prove to be accurate, Bangladesh’s coastal lands will be under water in 40 years, creating a historically unprecedented refugee crisis. Already, half-a-million people migrate to Dhaka every year because their rural homes have become uninhabitable due to flooding. For the rest of the world, climate change is a distant fear; in Bangladesh it has already arrived, devastating families and landscapes. Perhaps this accounts for the frantic urgency in the air: we know that we are running out of time.
So which way is the country going? Towards progress or peril? Either way, the story lies outside the city. Although Dhaka is the beating heart of the nation, everything that makes Bangladesh what it is lies in the countryside. So, I have decided to travel to Gazipur, 45km north of the capital, to get a taste of what is happening outside the bubbling chaos of the metropolis.
It is March 19 1971. Knowing they are about to be attacked by the occupation forces of the Pakistani army, the people of Joydevpur (now part of Gazipur district) begin building a barricade on the railway line that connects the capital city to the army cantonment nearby. They use sandbags, bricks and felled trees. They work all day. Then they wait for the army to arrive, and when – finally – it does, a hail of bullets lands on the crowd. Four young men are killed, and dozens wounded, but the cache of arms that is on its way to the city is halted 45km north of its destination. Officially, the war of independence has not yet begun, but for the people of this district, a small but significant victory has already been won. For the duration of the nine-month war that ensues, the slogan “Follow the path of Joydevpur, liberate Bangladesh” is shouted from all corners of the country.
Forty years later, I have come to this district to see whether this spirit of the frontier, of being ahead of the rest of the nation, survives among these people. Somewhere between Uttara and Tongi the buildings get shorter and narrower, the malls become shops, the boutiques are replaced by shops selling toilets and basins; then there are vegetable markets and stalls with hanging cuts of meat, and in the narrow gaps between them I catch a glimpse of the fields beyond. Past Tongi, I reach the Chowrasta roundabout. In the middle is a white stone statue of a soldier, marking the place where the barricade was built, and where those four boys were killed.
My ancestral village, Dhanikhola, is several hours north of here, in a district called Mymensingh. My paternal grandfather was the first member of his family to leave the village, get an education, and practise law in Calcutta. He went on to become a journalist, and later a politician, finally settling with his wife and five sons in Dhaka. After the war, my father left Bangladesh for a job with the United Nations. These generational migrations, from village to city, from city across the seas, made my peripatetic, writerly life possible. The other branches of the family remain in that little village, fishermen and farmers and shopkeepers. We spend weekends in Dhanikhola sometimes, fishing in the pond and petting the stray goats, and I am always struck by the great twists of fate that came together to make me a visitor, rather than a resident, of that little village.
Gazipur, by contrast, is half-city, half-country. Brand-new factories cluster along the main road, advertising steel sheeting or textiles. Shops cram into every available space. Turn a corner and you will happen upon the startling green of the winter harvest, of men bending over paddy fields with nothing for tools but their bare hands. The region encapsulates the contrasts of Bangladesh: the old and the new, the agricultural economy and the manufacturing, the poor and the recently rich. Among the mud and straw houses, there are new houses of brick and cement, and behind these are farmers, and rice fields, and stories of beauty, and memories of pain.
My host in Gazipur is Jimi, a community organiser who has worked in the district for over a decade. Her NGO is housed in a squat, one-storey building with a tiny kitchen. Women of different ages, some carrying small children, crowd the balcony, waiting to go inside. Jimi greets me warmly, but doesn’t linger, and soon I am perched in a corner while she asks each woman in turn about her case. They begin by talking about their husbands and in-laws. One woman says her husband has demanded she give him 100,000 taka (£870) or he will divorce her. Jimi listens patiently. There’s another girl whose in-laws threw her out of the house when she couldn’t bear a son. No one uses the word hit or beat. “If you look behind,” a young woman named Rehana tells me, “you find sadness.”
When they come to the centre, Jimi helps them to find jobs and negotiate with their families. If they want a separation or a divorce, she arranges legal advice. She has persuaded the local police to intervene when she encounters a woman in imminent danger, but the key to change, she tells me, is finding jobs for the women. Rehana works at a beauty parlour down the road. Another girl in a black hijab with perfectly groomed eyebrows tells me she has refused to marry; she wants to save up and start her own business.
One of the biggest changes in Bangladesh in the past four decades has been the degree to which women have become the wage earners in their families. Some 97 per cent of borrowers from Grameen Bank’s microcredit schemes, which lends small sums of money to the poorest of the poor, are women. The other sea change has been prompted by the ready-made garments industry, which employs 3 million people, the majority women. Wake up early enough in Dhaka and you can see the factory workers – colourful lines of young women walking along the footpaths.
Jimi takes me to the village of Burulia, a 10-minute drive from her office, to meet a former freedom fighter called Yusuf Ali Sarkar. His house is at the end of a thin, paved road, beside a grove of sesame trees. At the turning we see a lone man knee-deep in a ditch. He is shovelling, the muscles on his back and arms sharply defined. He doesn’t look up as we walk past. We enter Yusuf’s compound and find him dressed simply in a half-sleeved shirt, but when he sees the photographer he quickly goes inside to put on his jacket and watch. As soon as we sit down, he starts telling us about the barricade on the railway line. The young Yusuf was shot in the thigh that day and taken to hospital, where the doctors declared him dead. But he survived, spending the rest of the war training for battle and hiding arms in his house. His wife of 40 years – a plump, round-faced woman in a shalwaar kameez – speaks up. When war broke out, Rokeya Begum was newly married and three months pregnant. “But I wasn’t afraid of the military,” she says. At school, she was used to doing sports. “Now I’m a retired teacher, but I can still beat anyone at jump-rope.” Yusuf and Rokeya laugh together. They have been married for longer than the life of Bangladesh. The country is only five years older than me. Its grey hairs have not yet begun to show.
When the war ended in December 1971, only five people in the village had ever gone to school. Now Yusuf’s daughter is a lawyer. The family are looking for a bride for their son. “I want a praying girl,” Rokeya tells me. They show me around their property, a neat compound with an internal courtyard. Yusuf points to several buildings in mid-construction. “We’re making a market here,” he points, “and that’s my chicken farm.” Although his home is simple, he is a very rich man: land prices in the area have doubled every year for five years.
As we leave Yusuf’s compound we pass the market he’s building. There do not appear to be any shops, only a small tea stall. An old woman hovers over a stove, stirring a vat of milky tea. She waves. In the distance, past the paved road, lie a few plots of paddy. When we pass him again, the man who was digging is fully underground, the ditch now as deep as he is tall. He is shrouded in loneliness, a checked cloth wrapped around his head.
“This is our migrant worker training centre,” Yusuf says, pointing to an empty building. The building is shut, because jobs abroad have temporarily dried up – a consequence of the global recession. Still, it is the ambition of many young men to travel abroad and work in the construction industry. Along with the garment industry, the bulk of Bangladesh’s economy rests on the money that the six million migrant workers in the Middle East and Asia send home. These remittances are estimated at $10bn a year.
Our final stop is a women’s community meeting in a neighbouring village. A group of about 30 women are sitting on a large jute mat. They are all married. I ask them how things have changed in Gazipur. They tell me that most of them did not get an education, but that their children – girls and boys – are enrolled in school. “Also,” one of them calls out, “our husbands help out a bit more.” “Does your husband cook?” I ask, and hear her gasp.
Back at Jimi’s centre we eat lunch and meet some local politicians. Salma and Sabiha look like they could be sisters, both tall and heavy, with deep, bellowing laughs. Salma tells me that when she hears of a wedding taking place in the neighbourhood, she makes it her job to find out how old the girl is. If she is underage, Salma goes to the police headquarters, fetches an officer, and shows up at the wedding to stop the ceremony. She has stopped many illegal marriages, she says proudly – sometimes even after the guests have arrived and the bride is about to be given away. “As long as I live,” she shout-announces, “no underage girl is ever getting married in this district!”
I leave Gazipur on a high, feeling a sense of protean possibility, Salma’s proclamation ringing in my ears. It is easy, in moments like this, to ignore the other things I know about the country: the punishing inequalities, the deep strain of authoritarianism that runs through the political system. Instead I say to myself: damn you, Henry Kissinger, for calling my country a basket case.
And then I hear about the case of Mosammet Hena. Mosammet was a 14-year-old girl who was whipped for allegedly having a relationship with a married man. The village cleric who ordered the fatwa against her did not believe Mosammet’s claim that she was raped by her cousin. He sentenced both Mosammet and her cousin to 100 lashes. The cousin – a known rapist who had married one of his former victims – ran away before his punishment was meted out. Mosammet had no such luck. Two days later, she died in hospital.
There are two countries here: the country I saw in Gazipur, and another country, a shadowy other. There is no way to get a definitive answer about which of these two faces of Bangladesh is the real one. Like any country, it is complex, it has its beauties and its ugliness, but I am struggling to get my head around the extremes it seems to straddle.
Debopriyo Bhattacharya is one of Bangladesh’s finest economists, and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, the leading liberal think tank. Debopriyo can’t tell me if what I saw in Gazipur was an illusion, but he can tell me that the fundamentals of the country have shifted. In 1971, Bangladesh was an agricultural, aid-dependent nation with an exploding population and almost no infrastructure. It took 20 years for the nation’s farmers to dramatically alter Bangladesh’s food output, and although the population has doubled, the agricultural sector is now keeping up with its demands. And despite the political instability, there has been a consistent and determined investment in education. The shiny billboards, the swanky factories along the Tongi highway are a result of that. “The fact is,” he says, “Bangladesh has proven its social, economic and political viability. We proved that we have something to contribute.”
Progress, however, is fragile. If I needed a reminder it comes with the government’s attack on Mohammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate and pioneer of microcredit. He, along with others in microfinance institutions, stood accused by the prime minister of “sucking blood from the poor”. A targeted campaign is launched to oust him from his position at the Grameen Bank, which he founded. There is reason to believe the motive is political. Yunus launched his own party in 2007, and though he subsequently withdrew from politics, he has been viewed as a threat and potential rival to the establishment. By the time I return to London, Yunus will have been sacked as MD at Grameen. The photographs flooding the airwaves and the internet will show him looking perplexed and deeply wounded. What sort of country vilifies its most devoted and faithful ally?
Now, on the 40th anniversary of its birth, if anyone asks me which of these countries is the real Bangladesh, I would have to answer that they both are. It is the country of Jimi, who fiercely protects her small community, and the country of Mosammet Hena, who was whipped for being raped. It is the country that has gone from famine to microcredit to mobile phones, a country whose citizens travel the four corners of the world and send their money home, a country that has overturned years of dictatorship and yet cannot free itself entirely from autocracy. And yes, it is also a country where the floodwaters have yet to come, and if the land goes underwater, there will be no rice to till, no water to drink.
It is time to go. At the airport, I wave goodbye to my parents, promising to see them in a few months when they visit me in London. My mother cries. Two weeks or two years, she always cries. All around us, behind the steel bars that keep the visitors from the passengers, women in cheap saris and rubber sandals sob quietly into their hands. They clutch their husbands and sons, then push them away gently. There will be no summer visits, only a patchy phone call every once in a while, and, perhaps in five, 10 years, a voyage home.
Soon after I return to London, the World Cup kicks off in Dhaka. Bangladesh lose to India, and are then humiliated by the West Indies. The West Indies’ team bus is stoned, when angry locals mistake it for the home team’s bus. A week later, there is a nailbiting win for Bangladesh against England. The port city of Chittagong is closed for several hours as people dance in the streets. And so it goes, up and down. Coaster, roll on. Watching the games, I remember Debopriyo’s parting words: “We’re a 747 sitting on the tarmac,” he said. “Engine is running. We just need a runway.”
Tahmima Anam’s second novel, ‘The Good Muslim’, is published by Canongate on May 19, price £16.99