Bangabandhu Memorial Museum where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinatedBangladesh has outperformed many countries in South Asia and Africa and has witnessed some remarkable developments on both the economic and social fronts, says Indrani Ganguly, who visited the nation recently in search of her past family connections

Bangladesh is rarely considered a tourist destination in Australia. What people know of it generally comes from negative news reports: floods, cyclones, political strife, and tragedies in garment factories.Yet it was not always so. In pre-British times, Bangladesh was part of the greater province of Bengal which was considered by many as one of the richest places on earth in which to trade. The region was famous worldwide for its fine muslin which was exported to countries as far as Greece and Rome

Bengal’s partition post India’s Independence

Bengal also had a rich cultural heritage developed by diverse Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim rulers, including literature, music, dance, and painting. British rule led to widespread economic disruption with the muslin trade disappearing almost completely. This was accompanied by a series of truncations of the province. In 1905, Bengal was divided on religious lines into East Bengal whose population was predominantly Muslim, with its capital in Dacca (now Dhaka) and West Bengal whose population was largely Hindu with its capital in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In 1947, following India’s independence and the partition of India, East Bengal became East Pakistan.

Bangladesh’s birth following 1971 Indo-Pak war

Modern Bangladesh emerged in 1971 after a bloody war of independence. It remained an economic basket case—wrecked by poverty and famine—for many years after independence. By 2006, conditions seemed so hopeless that when Bangladesh registered faster growth than Pakistan, it was dismissed as a fluke. Since then, there has been some remarkable developments on both the economic and social fronts, where Bangladesh has outperformed many similar countries in South Asia and Africa. The home of the fabled Royal Bengal tiger is now emerging as an economic tiger.

My personal interest in Bangladesh stems from my family connections. Though we are Hindus originating in West Bengal, we have always cherished the common linguistic and cultural heritage with the Bangladeshis which have overridden religious and political differences in the past and the present. In addition, my paternal grandfather taught at Dacca University and my father did his postgraduate studies at the same. My father often spoke of the beauty of the countryside and the enormously wide rivers along with little anecdotes about life as a student.

Grabbing the opportunity

My first visit to Bangladesh was as part of an official delegation to visit some of Bangladesh’s non-government organisations which have done universally acclaimed work in providing economic, health and social benefits to vulnerable groups. Sadly, there was no time to visit any other places.

The opportunity to see more of the country came when my son-in-law whose family comes from Bangladesh invited us to visit his country of origin, his family and some tourist spots as well. What better way to visit a country!

Our first stop was Dhaka, a bustling, built up city. It was easy to see why it’s now one of the fastest growing megacities in the world. The highlights of our visit were a walk around the University where we were able to track the Physics Faculty where my father had studied and the home of Bangladesh’s national leader and first Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman where he was assassinated in 1975. The house showed how the family lived and the spots where they were killed, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains. Behind the house was a museum explaining the life of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the struggle for independence.

The pleasure of revisiting places linked to my father’s history was tempered with the sadness of seeing the reminders of the brutal birth of Bangladesh and the equally brutal demise of the Father of the Nation.

Delectable cuisine on offer

While in Dhaka we had our first taste of the delectable Bangladeshi cuisine, all very fresh and beautifully prepared. It was fun comparing the similarities of the food with that of West Bengal, particularly the fish and sweet yoghurt which are hallmarks of Bengali cuisine in both countries. The biggest difference was the lack of fresh milk with tea and coffee. None of us cared for drinking them black or with powdered or condensed milk. Bangladeshis claimed they drank black tea and coffee for health reasons. We found this very odd since there was an abundance of the delicious milk-based sweets and the sweet yoghurt which are not so healthy for those who overindulge.

We also visited the markets selling the famous Bangladeshi cotton and silk saris and bought several for family, friends and ourselves. It was good to know these skills have survived repressive regimes and the rise of the modern garment and textile industries which are Bangladesh’s most important contributors to its Gross Domestic Product and exports.

From Dhaka we went on to Jessore, another old city, passing through some beautiful lush green countryside. The accommodation arranged for us at a place just outside the city was a delightful surprise. Our hotel was in the middle of a theme park so there was no shortage of rides to amuse our grandson Shahan and his many cousins who visited us. It was great to be able to wake up and look at the artificial lake with paddle boats and couples out for a walk and listen to the many birds chattering in the trees and hopping around looking for food.

Visiting Tagore’s home

Our next stop was Kushtia, home to two great literary figures: the poet Rabindranath Tagore who is the author of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh and the mystic saint philosopher and songwriter Lalon Fakir. The two men came from very different backgrounds. Tagore was from a wealthy landed and educated family who became and remains India’s only poet to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Lalon was an illiterate man from a poor family, not well-known outside the Bangladesh/Bengali communities. Yet both promoted the oneness of people and their compositions remain as soul stirring as ever. Very fittingly, there were musicians performing at both sites.

From Jessore we went on to Rangpur where we stayed in a beautiful guest house run by a non-government organisation. The green and spacious grounds were a contrast to the busy streets just outside. The rooms were very comfortable and the meals delicious, though the serves were usually too big for us. The dining room provided fare for the mind as well. We met several visitors from India, Britain and Europe who had come to work with RDRS and had some interesting conversations with them. The Brits said they were very happy to be away from the madness of Brexit.

It was our good fortune that we could also venture outside the cities to the village homes of our son-in-law’s relatives to savour the beauty of the countryside and lots more delicious food. There were many other places we visited, interspersed with meeting family and friends, too numerous to recount here. An abiding memory of Bangladesh was the courtesy and hospitality of its people, family, friends and strangers alike.

At the end of it, we can truthfully say we will go back, hopefully in the very near future! We sincerely hope the Phoenix nation will never be burnt again.