Friday, December 16, 2005

Marriage by Arrangement

Only her tiny face is visible, her kohl-ringed eyes looking up at us, wondering. Little fingers burrow out of the fabric to wrap around each other, revealing henna-drawn patterns traced by the women of her family.

My mind superimposes another picture over the bride’s face, and I see a small, delicate nose, inquisitive eyes, and pricked ears framed by the twisting, furrowed roots of an aging poplar … a photo of a fox peering out from its den under a tree. She looks so similar, this woman swaddled in miles of star-studded silk, all golds and white, great swatches of it draped high over her head and increasing her bulk by several feet.

“The internet matched us,” she had said two days earlier. “First, our parents met and agreed that we would make a good marriage. Then, we met.”

I had been watching Namrata in action, had seen this slight woman elbow her way through crowds of pushy men, demanding and getting service for her clients, taking care of the requirements of a large international conference. At home, she said, she commuted an hour to work in her own car, had an active social life with a large group of friends, and lived her much the same way as most Americans.

Now, at 32 years of age she is entering a traditional marriage to the man who sits resplendent beside her in a tall turbaned crown, who came to the wedding with a ceremonial white horse.

“Most of my friends married for love,” she said as we flew between Dhaka and her home town of Kolkata (Calcutta). “It’s ironic that both my sister and I will have arranged marriages.”

“And I will move into my new husband’s room in his parents’ house.”

Both the bride and groom are Bengalis of the Brahmin caste, both professionals, both in their early thirties. He is handsome. She is lovely. Her father was an Army officer and the children were educated. The groom’s father is retired, his mother’s a dentist. He is in food management.

Finally, my plane from Calcutta was ready to board. “I’ll see you at my wedding. Saturday,” she said, her face wondering if she really wanted to get married at all. Saturday was only two days away.

It is Saturday now, and I sit on the edge of the cushioned dais in a curtained-off section of the wedding garden, a photographer’s lights turning night to day, a tented canopy dripping with flowers. The Brahmin, comfortable in slacks, shirt and vest, sits cross-legged in front of the bridal couple and their parents, talking them through sections of Hindu ritual that can go on for as much as five hours.

Everyone else gossips, laughs, comments on the decorations and arrangements, discusses the next wedding or funeral. People come and go. Gallons of drink (including whiskey) and trays of food circulate in the big garden beyond. A band of drummers and pipers plays sporadically, the sound nearly lost in the night.

The future of a people, cultural pundits say, is in its traditions. Here, peeking out from the endless folds of a wedding veil, looking like a startled small animal, is India’s future.

The bride gets to her feet and is unswaddled, helped by her new husband and her mother-in-law to whom she now belongs. Her new husband loses his crown. Then, together, under a rain of flowers thrown by their guests, they walk to thrones set in the garden.

Post Ceremony

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Once upon a time, the great Sultan Alauddin decreed a reservoir be dug for his subjects. Centuries later it has dwindled into a shallow lake surrounded by ruins of forts and palaces, of mosques and domed tombs. Paths and parkland wander through these remnants of another time, serving now as a magnet for tourists and as outdoor living and study space for students from nearby schools.

At least one young woman uses it for laundry and bathing. I found her lathering her hair under a fold of a black sari, her modesty preserved by six yards of cloth and by the junction of two massive, if only waist high walls and the rim of a well so ancient that Timur the Lame, known to us as Tamarlane, might have drunk there when he camped on this site in 1398.

An hour later, when I returned from exploring the crumbling rock porticos of Hauz Khas, she was finishing, her hair dripping in long tangles over her soaked sari, her laundry wrung into cords and stacked in her basin. Then, basin on head, she became a pillar of black wet cloth gliding soundlessly and timelessly away, an apparition from a history book, a bridge between the Hauz Khas of Alauddin and the city of Delhi beyond the trees.

Hauz Khas

Recycling, Dhaka Style

Trash sifters work on their haunches, knees in the air, arms reaching between thighs, hands digging through paper, broken glass, egg shells, bones, coffee grounds … all the leavings of an urban society. They work quickly, discards scooped sideways through tented legs to be loaded back on garbage trucks, the occasional find grabbed by boys who run recovered objects to a sale table.

It’s nothing, just a plank precariously balanced on bits of a wall. But it has the advantage of sprawling around a sidewalk corner, a place where the street turns in on itself to avoid the grounds of a Dhaka museum, one known as the Pink Palace. Here you can buy a cracked pitcher, a cordless toaster, a spoon, a stained shirt with no buttons, almost anything for one or two takas or two to three cents American. By contrast, in the nearby commerce of a bazaar's warren-like passageways, the same item cleaned up would cost … maybe … twenty takas.

While I watch, an escaped sheet of newsprint spreads its wings and floats up to lodge in a tree's branches. Bits of greasy trash bags and pieces of wrapping paper (no plastic bags in Bangladesh) are lodged in gutters and against scaffolding, wedged into tree roots, and becoming mush under the wheels of tuk tuks and busses. Refuse filters away from this center, announcing its presence for blocks around.

Here is the sub-basement of private enterprise, existing below sweat shops and poverty-level commerce. This is recycling, Dhaka style.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Baby Space

Dhaka, No Space Left Unfilled

The baby sits patiently in his triangular alcove above a Dhaka alley. A drop of three feet to stone slabs covering a gutter is only inches from his toes. But he doesn’t try to crawl about, shows no signs that he ever does or would. Where is his mother? Two men fill an adjacent doorway. Stacks of wares divide them from the child. Nothing separates the baby or the men from rickshaw wheels, the extruding side mirrors of cars, or people’s elbows as the crowds and traffic struggle in jammed-up fits and starts past the shop.

What does he think about, this little mote of a person?

Certainly, not that he is one of 140 million people, that he will grow up to be either unemployed (40% of the population) or underemployed (over 50% live below the poverty level). But, like the other 140 million people, he knows he is crammed into a very small space. Bangladesh, my Lonely Planet guidebook says, is the 8th most populated country in the world, and one of the smallest. The baby’s share of the country is two square feet.

A boy of about ten films us with a tiny Japanese video camera, intently watching the viewing screen to keep us in focus. He is particular interested in my new Swiss friend, Manuela, with her long blonde hair and milk white complexion. We walk about an old mosque in our bare feet, and he and his friends follow, the camera carefully balanced to keep us in the frame. Beyond a grilled fence, idlers gather to create a larger audience. When we leave, so do they.

For a time, we are a parade. Then, the press of people in the crowded streets and the weaving, spinning tires of the cycle rickshaws break up the fun and, for another time, we are unaccompanied, but not alone. No one is ever alone in Bangladesh. Not even close.

Even on the airy heights of new skyscrapers, the observable population density is frightening. I look up to see a row of men making a frieze against the sky, planting rebar stakes on what might someday be a new twelfth floor. The rebar appears to be part of the process of constructing new poured concrete pillars that will hold up … inshallah … a thirteenth floor.

We pass a wall plastered with pages from one of today’s newspapers. It’s barely visible. Men stand shoulder to shoulder, crouch in front, and peer between other heads to read. Staying abreast of politics is serious business. It’s the best game in town, a deadly one, with bombs and hartals being the current weapons of choice. Bomb blasts happen with some regularity, the target this week being allegedly corrupt lawyers. Hartals, or general strikes, as a rule are less violent and let everyone join the fun.

“You just missed one last week,” our guide says, his tone sad for my loss of a local experience.

“Ah, shucks,” I answer.

He missed the sarcasm … which is just as well.

Just down the narrow street from the news wall is a newspaper kiosk, a metal box on legs tucked into a niche. It’s about 18 inches wide and, possibly, as much as three feet long. The proprietor is folded inside, his papers crammed into slots all around him. The open front of his box can be closed with a lid, too. It is propped up by a bamboo pole just now. At night, I guess, he removes the prop and the lid drops into place. Does he sleep inside? It’s possible, probable even.

Passages are sized down in the old parts of Dacca. We go along to watch how mother-of-pearl is extracted from shells, having to edge our big European and American bodies down a hallway by both crouching and turning sideways. For us, it’s claustrophobic. But the owner of the factory trots ahead. The space (or lack thereof) fits him perfectly.

The dream of open spaces is reserved for a few and for monuments to past glories. The Moghuls built big and built here, stamping their distinctive architecture onto the country. Broad boulevards that the French might envy elbow through the city, forcing the mass of the population back into ever reduced space. Military and government reservations fill huge tracks and include great parks protected by spiked fences. People can, theoretically, look in at the widely planted palms, the expanses of grass, the lakes, and the impressive buildings.

But they don’t seem to do that. The wide sidewalks in these districts are empty. The broad boulevards carry little traffic … some don’t really go anywhere.

Far from being resented, though, these open spaces are a source of pride to the Dhakans. “What did you think? Did you see the Parliament Building? The tomb of Zia? The Moghul Fort?” a man asks, his face telling me what answer he expects.

“Incredibly interesting,” I say. I am thinking of the baby crammed into his niche, the newsman in his box, the mother-of-pearl extractor and his grim hallway, the 50-plus million of unemployed. I add, “Perfectly amazing.”

The man beams, his national pride vindicated.

People, On the Ground and in the Sky

Old Dhaka