Saturday, January 21, 2012

Living between the two worlds - 1

Like many citizens of our world these days, I live between the two worlds. The last month I was away from my adopted country visiting my native home in Bangladesh in South Asia. I still have my parents and siblings living there, and many school-day friends. The journey from Philadelphia takes almost two days to go and another two days to return. I, therefore, found it more appropriate to take this trip, usually a month-long, around December. With the western holidays like the Christmas and New Year’s Eve falling in the last week of December, my vacation time actually becomes five weeks long. It is a dry season with no rainfalls there, and having lived in the West for more than three decades, the winter in Bangladesh is not supposed to be brutal for me. So, every year I visit my native country and last December was no different.

After arriving in the capital city of Dhaka, a megacity of some 16 million people, I decided to take a train ride to reach Chittagong, the second largest city of the country, an ancient port city situated on the Bay of Bengal, where some 8 to 10 million people live. My other options were to take either a plane ride or a bus ride. Everyone cautioned me against taking the bus ride, in spite of all the fancy air-conditioned European buses that provide better comfort than a plane ride. The road condition was horrible and unsafe for such a 6-hour long commute, which can actually take longer than 8 to 10 hours. After flying for almost two days from New York, I was tired of a plane ride, and instead chose a train ride which would give me a chance to see the country better. And I was not disappointed with my choice.

I have been a frequent flyer for many years. Some years ago in one of those rides, I came across an article in an airline magazine which said that if one were to know about a city and how well its municipality works one should look out for the manholes. Why manholes, when there are other more important indicators to understand the state of affairs of a city? Well, nowhere is this indicator more relevant and visible than my native country of Bangladesh where some criminals have found other usefulness with the cover of a manhole. Obviously, a rickshaw or taxi ride to the old part of a town could be hazardous if the rider and the driver are unmindful or unaware of the road hazard.

My habit is to arrive at a station quite early. I would rather wait for an hour than be late, missing my flight, train or bus. The train from Dhaka was to depart from the Kamalapur Station at around 8 a.m. Instead, it left some 30 minutes late, and eventually arriving in my destination almost two hours late. The way the train moved and halted frequently in non-scheduled places it seemed as if its conductor and driver had no rush to be on time. There also appeared to have more riders than the seats available. I was told that the conductors, driver and the rail police have been making illicit money by allowing such riders to ride the train without ticket. They are initially let in to seat in the dining car and an empty bogey that is reserved for offering prayer services and later moved into empty seats as these become available.

Train ride is probably the most sought after ride to reach major cities in south Asia. Not is it only affordable, it is also safer. The train and seats are also kept quite clean. It is not difficult to understand why it is almost impossible to get a ticket unless bought more than a week earlier than the scheduled day of ride. I was told that within minutes such advance tickets are sold, and that for a higher price they can be bought from some illegal vendors, courtesy of corrupt railway officers at the ticket counters.

As the train started pulling out of the capital city of Dhaka, I could see illegal slums built on the railway properties on either side of the rail track. The living conditions there looked so filthy and unhealthy that I doubt if there is any place worse than those slums. And yet, it seemed tens of thousands of migrant workers from remote rural places to the major metropolis had been living there and calling it their homes, almost a permanent home on illegal government properties.

Slums in many major metropolises in the developing world are not a new phenomenon and have been there for decades. The Academy Award winning movie – Slumdog Millionaires – has provided many moviegoers an inside look at life inside a slum in Bombay (Mumbai), probably typical of other slums in South Asia.

As the train whistled past the slum dwellers and like a snake basked into the rural parts of the country, it was too gratifying to see the beauty of the countryside. The success in the agricultural sector was all too visible. There was hardly any spot left uncultivated on either side of the rail track. I could see farmers working in their paddy fields. It was green, yellow and golden all over with sporadic punctuations of rivers, streams and ponds. It is because of the labor of those hardworking farmers that hardly anyone dies of starvation these days in my native country. An agricultural miracle, in deed!

As I recall, during my childhood days whenever I had taken a train ride, and I took many in those days seasonally commuting from my native town in Chittagong, located in the southeast corner of the country, to my school (Rajshahi Cadet College) in Rajshahi, located in the northwestern edge of the country, beggars were a frequent nuisance that the riders had to live with. Any time the train stopped, they would either jump into a bogey or stretch out their hands from the platform asking for money. These days, they are almost invisible. But I could see a new type of beggars. There were some who sought money for their blind or mute classmates.

These intercity trains have their own catering services that provide tea, coffee, snacks and drinks. If one is bored, one can also buy newspapers, magazines, and books. The price, however, was not cheap, at least from a third world economic perspective where the average income is only a fraction of those earned in the West. However, the train passengers seemed quite comfortable spending their money to buy whatever they needed at prices that were not much cheaper than in the West. This again showed that people now have more money to spend and buy things that they desired. So, some level of prosperity must have trickled down to the ordinary masses.

As the train was running late, I frequently asked the conductor to ascertain the time when it would arrive in my destination. Initially, he was not sure either, reflecting on the fact that the train had started late, and his best guess was that it would be late by that time or an hour, maximum. But as the train drifted farther and farther away from its original scheduled time, he had to change his time a few times. Finally, when the train came within about 50 km of my destination, he gave me a time that seemed to hold true. I called my brother-in-law to pick me up from the train station, and he did.

A journey which was to take six hours ended up taking eight hours. But I was glad that I made this train journey rather than taking a very short plane ride. This allowed me to get a better understanding of the country I was born into.

Within a week of my train journey, a new minister – Suranjit Sengupta - with sole responsibilities for the Railway Department was sworn in, who took a train ride and, as in my case, witnessed firsthand the late departure and arrival of the train. I am told since then the service has improved and trains run mostly on time. I hope it is not a temporary thing but continues to alleviate suffering of many passengers who like nothing better than a timely service.

To be continued>>>

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