Friday, March 27, 2009

Chittagong Chow (urban): Cooking up a storm on independence day

Trying out a situationist approach on the 38th birthday of Bangladesh, we decided to start the day with a walk! It seems, though, that wherever we go we create quite a crowd of gawking young men, all asking us “your country?”, education, marital status, favorite color, mother's middle name, personal idol, astrological convictions, and of course general opinions about Bangladesh. Everyone wants to indulge us in the Bengali hospitality and sometimes it can almost be a little intimidating. Today was rather exceptional, as we actually had someone admit to us that he had been following us from a student protest rally to a little cha shop - for our own safety.

This year’s independence day was met with mixed feelings around the country; due to recent political unrest all large gatherings were prohibited in the capital, obviously obstructing any big celebrations. In Chittagong however, the feast went on, or so we were told. Exploring this on a local level, we found very little different from everyday life. A lot of shops were closed, but there were no real signs of anything else being different. Deciding to photograph some of the street scenery instead, we got interrogated by a local man who felt insulted that we should be taking photographs of alleys and closed shops, instead of the richness of people living behind these facades. He convinced us to go into one of the houses and photograph a woman with her goats.

After meeting the whole neighborhood, we decided to move on to the center and see if there was anything going on. We were met by a student road blockade, carrying big signs and shouting slogans. Having set out in search of a good party and only finding protest rallies, we decided to take a break from braving the pressing humidity and stop for some tea. There we met the aforementioned student who told us that for our own security he had accompanied us there. This felt a little awkward as we had never had any cause to feel unsafe in Bangladesh.

We decided to leave the tea shop (unfollowed) and go to the national stadium. Outside of the stadium there were many cars with official looking men giving speeches and rallying. Chittagong played a very important role in the independence of Bangladesh as it was here where independence from West Pakistan was first proclaimed in 1971 over a Chittagong radio station. This was followed by a nine-month war, where between 200,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis were killed (depending on whether Pakistani or Bangladeshi sources are being used). This was the final separation of the country after being dominated for centuries respectively by Mauryan, Mughal, and British Empires, and finally 24 years of West Pakistan governance.

The 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent in many ways created more problems than it solved. The division in which and West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) were united as one country (because of shared religion) was mainly due to political circumstance. It caused one of the largest cultural migrations in history. The division of these countries has implications for all aspects of modern Bangladesh. Being almost landlocked by India, water management of the three main rivers that flow through Bangladesh has proved very difficult without mutual cooperation.

Pondering these thoughts as we finally headed into the stadium, we found the action had already taken place. A little confused, we headed back home, were the pressing weather exploded in a thunderstorm of black rain, seeming strangely appropriate.

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