One thing I wanted to do during my trip to Bangladesh was to get some preliminary research done on the arsenic problem. It turned out that I was literally sitting on the problem. In my yard! I was above an arsenic-rich aquifer. There were two 'red' wells: one in the north and the other in the south in the same yard. 'Red' meant their arsenic levels were above the safe limit for drinking. Our neighbour to the north also had a 'red' well. For the picnic, water was fetched from a neighbourhood 'green' well, that was deeper and the cost of drilling which was beyond the affordability of many villagers. During my 2010 visit to ICDDR'B Matlab, I had seen what drinking arsenic-laden water could do to unsuspecting villagers' health: black lines on palms, lesions on skins, cancers, and deaths.
"There is water in our big pond, water in a canal that runs by, water in advancing Dhonagoda River," I said to myself, sitting on the chair in the yard. "There had to be an affordable, low-maintenance, and simple solution." The oven in the yard, the sun in the sky, the rain in the monsoon, my engineering background, a mosque where villagers congregate to say prayers --- all these unconnected snippets were exciting the creative neurons in my already crowded brain, waiting for a connection to be made and the fist-clenching 'Yes moment' to arrive.
My day in Bishnupur was drawing to an end. I signalled Boba and his two cousins to come to the north side of my former lot. I opened my constant companion, the orange carry-on, from which I distributed some chocolates, shirts and saris to them. I could see Boba's face glowing in gratitude. He wanted to say something. He tried, but could make only a high-pitched sound.
It was time to get back to Matlab. Leaving Bishnupur for Matlab was as tough at 65 as it was when I was 5 to 24. Brother Swapan and I used to plead with our parents just for one more day or a few more hours or a few more minutes, in that descending order of bargaining. We could not have enough of Bishnupur, boasting of a pond to swim in and catch fish from, trees to climb up to and eat fruits from, a huge yard to play on, and forests to walk through and listen to seasonal birds, while watching the fiddleheads play hide-and-seek --- all natural amenities we lacked in somewhat congested Matlab Ghoshpara.
I walked south to the field along the canal to walk on the narrow unpaved path I walked so many times as a kid. I looked to my right, where green jute leaves used to sway, maddened by the touch of the southerly wind, and where we used to play hide-and-seek. I tried to get the feel of the surrounding, turning 360 degree to look around, through the eyes of a young-at-heart --- one last time, in case.
'Uncle!' I could see the CNG standing on the west end of the concrete bridge, which five years ago was a wooden bridge, still retaining some semblance to what we had. The Dhonagoda River from the north was swallowing its way to the south, getting closer and closer to the house.
The sun was setting in the west. A flock of birds were flying away from north to south.
At 65, it was even tougher to leave Bishnupur than at 5 to 24, I realized. At 5 to 24, I thought I would return. At 65, I was not so sure.
"We know you!" one of the three ladies with heads covered in traditional Bengali veils declared, standing on the isle side of the cubicle I was in. "You are Tapan Bhai (salutation for an elder brother). You placed high in SSC and HSC; we talk about you all the time." They had overheard a discussion I was having with a young data management assistant in the computer room at ICDDR'B Matlab.
All three, looking much younger than me, were not supposed to know me or my results. Then it dawned on me that words about Matlab top-of-the-class students were passed onto younger students by their parents or relatives to motivate them. My results were more memorable because of my struggles and, more importantly, the actions of a board official, who nefariously placed his average-ability son above me, both in SSC and HSC.
"I am Nazma. I am Latif Sir's sister-in-law," the lady continued. The name Nazma alone did not ring a bell, but with Latif Sir, it did. I knew Latif Sir very well and also remembered his having a sister-in-law named Nazma. He was the best teacher in my life, anywhere. And that's a big compliment from a student, who had studied in some good schools and universities in Bangladesh and Canada. Latif Sir taught me math and physics at Matlab High. His enthusiasm in teaching was surpassed by his innate ability to explain a difficult concept in a way for all to comprehend. In his very first lecture, he eradicated the fear of math one teacher in sixth grade inflicted on me and others. He also played volleyball with us in the school yard, reinforcing the value of sports for doing better in studies.
"Kiron Apa (a salutation for an elder sister or a person of her age) will be coming soon to meet you," Nazma declared. "Who is she?" I asked. "She knows you more than we do. She always talks about you," she replied. "She used to work here; before that she was the Head Mistress of Matlab Girls?" The last part of what she said did it. I taught SSC candidates at both Matlab High School and Matlab Girls High School, during my study breaks in HSC and at BUET. Kiron Apa came and we talked about old days. She talked about Mukul and Aroza, two female students, who were in my class before transferring to the Girls High. It was then tea time. They treated me with tea and biscuits in the ICDDR'B canteen. Tea time rolled into prayer time for all four. I returned to my room, amazed by the respect Matlab people still held for good students.
"Who could that be at this time?" It was twilight at Matlab. But the knocks were confident and persistent. I was surprised to see the apologetic, but smiling faces of the same four I had tea with earlier.
"Did I leave something?" I asked. "No, Kiron Apa wants to hear you sing," said Nazma, who by then had earned the spoke person role of the team, by virtue of being my most favourite teacher's sister-in-law. I played the YouTube file of the seven-continents marathons that had four Tagore songs, all sung by me. I offered them some fruits and chocolates. "After all, a Bengali!" Nazma complimented on the hospitality of a Bengali, who had spent almost twice as much of his life abroad as in his motherland.
"Who are you?" asked a young motor biker pulling ahead of me and screeching to a stop on the road. I was walking from Matlab to Boalia School, with nobody around at that time. I was concerned. "ICDDR'B!" said I without losing a second. And that did the trick. He motored away, saying: "Talk to you later." I kept moving forward, lifting the orange carry-on over a brick-bump. It occurred to me then that the carry-on did look like one that could be belonging to an ICDDR'B staff, taking medicine to villagers. ICDDR'B and its staff had that much respect in Matlab and around.
Uttering 'ICDDR'B' in that situation had the same effect of my uttering 'Joy Bangla' in 1971 in Calcutta's politically charged killing-field neighbourhoods in Netaji Nagar and Bansdroni, when I was in India as a refugee for nine months during the 1971 Liberation War. Many, especially youths of my age then, lost their lives to locally-made pipe-gun shooting between two rival political factions, over control of neighbourhoods. Those two words in 'Joy Bangla' then had a calming-down effect. I used those to get out of threatening situations. People of all political persuasions in India --- be it Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist), or Communist Party of India (Maoist or Naxal) --- had a genuine sympathy for their displaced neighbours from the east. The 'Bengali Cause' of 1971 was so compelling that it transcended Indian politics. It climbed up the ladder of issues to be the top issue --- the humanitarian issue. The same way hurling fire bombs and hurting the innocents has or should become a humanitarian issue in Bangladesh in 2015.
"I need to talk to you," said a man in his late twenties, getting down from a motor-bike, driven by his companion, on a t-section north of the Matlab ICDDR'B guesthouse. My immediate civil reaction was to stop and listen to what he had to say. Then my defense system kicked in, sensed the danger, and gave the clear command of 'Run fast'. In making that call, it took into account the recent law passed in Bangladesh, banning two-adult passengers riding one motor bike. There had been several incidents of petrol bomb attacks from those.
Dum! Dum! Dum! Heavy knocks on my cabin door made me freeze in fear. They sounded too aggressive to be from a staff from the motor launch I was on to return to Dhaka. The next round of knocks got even louder. "Could they be river robbers?" Earlier I had seen how easy it was for other motor-operated boats to speed up and line up with the open gate at the lower deck of the moving launch, and allow hawkers and milk men, to transfer large containers from the boats to the launch. After some self-deliberations, I stayed put. The knocks went away. After half an hour or so, they returned with the same loudness, but with 'Uncle' thrown in the mix. I opened the door. It was a young man from the store on the lower deck. "Tea, uncle?" "No," I said politely, relieved that it was him not the robbers. Later my 'launch-nephew' asked to help him pay for a sick child's treatment, which I obliged by paying a small amount.r (The next instalment of this article will appear in the next week)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada