On January 20, 2015, I landed on the airport amidst considerable uncertainty and chaos in the country. Back in Calgary, my wife was very concerned, following the gory incidents on Internet and sending alarming emails after emails, pleading with me not to go out.
In Dhaka, I was at the invitation of ABUETA to attend its 2015 Reunion, in which I would be given a crest for professional achievements and completing marathons (each 42.2 km) in all seven continents. I was also planning to visit my childhood villages in Matlab and Bishnupur, the Tagore Museum in Shelaidah, Kushtia, and do some scoping work on arsenic problems, in collaboration with ICDDR'B.
Dr Khaliqur Rahman, a BUET alumnus, was the first to visit me at my Gulshan hotel. In 2014, he had fasted for two of my critical adventure marathons: one in Antarctica and the other in South Africa, which was run among wild animals: leopard, lion, buffalo, rhino, and elephant, collectively called the 'big five', as they are difficult to hunt. He wanted to see in person the person for whose successes he had fasted. He did what his mother did for him in similar situations, like important exams. Over buffet dinner at Long Beach Suites Hotel in Gulshan-2, where I stayed 13 nights in three separate segments, we talked about our BUET days. He and I had at least one thing in common: none of us wanted to study engineering, but both ended up doing well, graduating at the top of our ChE classes.
When two or more Bengali friends go to a dinner, a fight ensues over paying the bill, unless the bill payer has been identified before. At the table, everyone wants to be the paying host. The driver behind the urge to pay is the Bengali Hospitality Gene (BHG). After the dinner, KR insisted to pay, but I was able to persuade him, invoking an age-old Bengali custom of being a host in one's house. He was my guest in my hotel, my temporary abode. I also invoked a western custom of not letting a retired senior person pay. He gave in, perhaps planning a reciprocating lunch or dinner later.
It was as though the host and the hostess, and the restaurant staff knew that I, a Bishnupur Bengali, who had travelled in seven continents of the world, still favoured well-prepared Bengali dishes over French cuisine and preferred Tagore to Beethoven or the Beatles. I was in Kausturi Garden on Gulshan Road #24, one of the finest Bengali restaurants in the city. Dr Zaman and Salma Bhabi, who had lived in peaceful and cold and clean Calgary before retiring in chaotic and warm and dusty Dhaka --- for their love of motherland and his desire to be close to his many charitable and non-charitable works --- were hosting another welcome dinner for me. There, the foods on the table were authentic Bengali dishes prepared by Bengalis, the small talks were in Bengali, the waiters were Bengalis, and the instrumental songs played on the sound system were familiar Bengali Tagore tunes by Tabun, a Bengali. A Tagore tune, 'Boro asha kore echechigo kachey dekay lao, firaio na janani. (With a great hope, I have come up to you mother; oh mother, please do not send me back.)', as we were studying the mouth-watering menu, deciding which two fish dishes to order.
It might have looked like I was studying. But I was not. I was just staring. My mind was elsewhere, busy processing and appreciating what the ears were feeding to it. 'The melody!' I murmured. And the words, although not in the tune, but I knew by heart, were so simple individually, but so emotive collectively! The creation was akin to a masterpiece on canvass that attracts generations of art connoisseurs to appreciate it in a museum.
Versatile Tagore, the Nobel Laureate and the only poet to have written two national anthems for two countries: India and Bangladesh, had written a song almost for any situation. The one playing in the restaurant was for a 'son of the land', returning to his motherland with a hope of celebrating marathon accomplishments; becoming a prisoner in a hotel room in the midst of a mayhem in the country; and contemplating crossing the border to the 'safety net' in India --- the way he did once in 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
The chitol kofta, chitol patti and mustard hilsha could not be done better for a discerning Bengali cuisine taster since childhood. That was the best restaurant food I had anywhere in the world --- serving French, Italian, American, British, Thai, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Chinese cuisines, to name many --- over the last five years.
The fight for paying the bill at Kaustari was a loss for me. It could have been won, had it been in my hotel restaurant or between two males. Salma Bhabi took over the captaincy for her side. A female opposition in a neutral arena is hard to beat in Bangladesh, a country ruled by two strong-willed female personalities: the current prime minister and the opposition leader, a former prime minister. Bhabi, normally a mild-mannered person, gave the waiter the signature stern look of a female customer. He dared not ignore it. In her look, he might have seen the fiery looks of the other two. She played the 'gender card' --- like Obama's playing the 'race card' once in a while, according to his foes, the Republicans --- to her advantage, earning silent admiration from her husband, seated in his chair with a spouse-proud glowing face.
Successes from a series of face-to-face meetings at BUET exposed the inadequacy of modern-day emails in revealing the personalities of individuals, building professional relationships, or solving even simple problems. The meetings were to discuss the Subodh Barua-Tapan Chakrabarty Diversity (SBTC) Endowment Fund, established to award scholarships to needy BUET ChE students. The endowment and scholarship are jointly managed by ChE Head and ChEAA President, with advice from its past President, Dr Jasimuz Zaman, who also played a major role in its establishment. There, I met, for the first time, the current and former ChE dept. heads, the ChEAA President, the BUET Debating Club Advisor, and the BUET Director of Students Welfare. Seeing them in person, evaporated, instantly, the tough personas we had imagined of one another from reading emails. We talked openly and freely. And we laughed loudly. We decided on how best to invest the fund and how to link it with the debating club to implement the diversity component of the SBTC Scholarship.
Seeing a ChE student, the first SBTC scholarship recipient, the son of a widow from a small town, made my heart glow as one of the founding donors. Looking relaxed, he spoke with humility, mixed with a touch of measured humour. All present burst into laughter, hearing him say that his class position had moved up two places, from fifth to third, not because he did better, but because his competitors did not do as well.
The joy of giving was the theme of a small speech I gave to the councillors of BUET ChEAA. I described how the idea of giving back to BUET was conceived of over a small phone talk with my co-donor. I also mentioned how it grew to be SBTC --- like a circle growing from a small impact point of a rock, hitting the still surface of a pond. I also highlighted the goodness of heart of my co-donors, in particular, that of Dr Subodh and spouse Mrs. Leena Barua (Fredericton, NB, Canada) for thinking of giving back to BUET and helping others when the unfortunate family situation called for consolidation of available funds and helping themselves. The original endowment was contributed 50:50 by the two families and enriched with a handsome donation by Dr Mushfiq Rahman, a BUET alumnus, now retired in Melbourne, Australia.
The meeting ended with awarding of two crests (plaques) by the management committee to the two founding donor families. I handed two bank drafts, one from each founding donor family, over to the ChEAA President, increasing the original endowment, with the intent of making the SBTC perpetual.
The success of the SBTC Diversity Scholarship thus far, especially in selecting two recipients by a diverse committee, following a rigorous process rooted in thoroughness, transparency, and fairness, is a testament to what can be accomplished when there is a will and a well thought-out process.
A walk up the six flights of stairs took me to a two-story-high studio, welcomed, rather rudely, by loud barking and up and down jumping of a diminutive dog. Fortunately, it was on a leash. Three life-size canvases, each depicting full-bodied male figures running with muscular legs --- more like sprinters than marathon runners --- grabbed my eyes. In one compelling canvas, the males were holding a flying green flag with a red circle at the centre. The figures, enlivened through the master painter's skillful strokes, appeared to be sprinting out of the canvas, as if to run to Dhaka streets to seek out the villains --- the bomb throwers --- vanquishing them, returning freedom of movement to the city dwellers, and then sprinting back to the canvas, like their creator, the freedom-fighter artist, did in 1971, killing the Bengali-massacring Pakistani soldiers with a rifle, returning to a training camp in India, and ultimately gaining freedom of the country. I was at internationally-acclaimed, recently French Government-knighted, Paris-based artist Shahabuddin's Dhaka house, where he was painting for his upcoming exhibitions in Dhaka and Kolkata.r (This is the second instalment of this article. The third instalment will appear next week.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada