Saturday, March 30, 2013

Memories of a Cyclone


It was November, 2007 and we were at the Benapole side of the India-Bangladesh border. After being harassed over my (lack of) Indian residence papers and our possession of rupees, we had finally managed to exit India and walk into no-man's land.

Upon entering the crowded, ramshackle immigration office, I experienced a great deal of relief when I was able to have my passport stamped quickly and watched as the others struggled to explain why exactly they were coming to Bangladesh - by bus - at this time of the year.

I lent against the peeling wall and observed the duty guard casually flicking through a newspaper and chewing paan. He soon noticed the members of our multi-national party and then looked me over quizzically. 

What followed was the usual interrogation: 

"Are these your friends?" 

"Yes." 

"Where are you going?" 

"Dhaka" 

"How long will you be there for?" 

"A couple of days." 

"Where will you be staying?" 

"With my parents."

Silence. 

He furrowed his eyebrows and urgently rummaged through his newspaper. Pointing a figure at a small map, he said:

"Have you seen this?"

It was, what looked like the contours of Bangladesh, shrouded, almost entirely, by a dense, grayish-white spiral. The heading merely stated what was obvious, "Bangladesh to be hit by a cyclone". The guard looked at me and remarked: "Bad time for your friends to visit. They say that this cyclone is larger than Bangladesh itself!"

We boarded the bus to Dhaka (via Jessore), more than a little bit perturbed by the knowledge that we would be crossing a couple of rivers on our journey and may, in all likelihood, be on a ferry when the cyclone hit the shore. 

Inevitably, the rapidly worsening weather led to the extended delay of one of our ferries and we rolled into a somnolent Dhaka, with the rain lashing heavily on our windows, more than 4 hours behind schedule. 

As luck would have it, our transport had long ended his vigil at the bus station and the station itself was deserted. While our fellow passengers melted into the darkness, we realized that we had no phone and no way of accessing one either. We contemplated spending the night on the pavement, taking turns sleeping, as we had done in many a train station in India, but right at that moment a doddery blue taxi appeared a few meters away from us. I was gripped with paranoia and all the cautionary tales my mother and grandmother had ever told me, about getting into a car with strange men, flooded my mind. We quickly weighed the pros and cons of getting into such a taxi with sleeping on the pavement in a distant part of town. Without further adieu piled into the cab. 

A jittery, 150 taka ride later, we were under the "Sakalpa Dental Clinic" sign, at the gates of Gausnagar. My parents, who had stayed up the entire night worrying about our arrival, greeted us warmly, ensured we were dry and speedily dispatched us to our respective sleeping quarters.

Dawn was about to break and the windows rattled ominously, as record winds swept through Dhaka. It was not long before power cables began to snap. 

We awoke a few hours later to find that the power had long since gone and the wind whistling through the gaps where there were once windowpanes. It was not long before we became aware of the extent of the devastation that the cyclone wrought in the south of the country: entire villages disappeared or were lifted whole inland, coastal topography had changed and it was uncertain how many died, despite the early warning. 

Of course, this national crisis left us in a bit of a dilemma viz. my friends' two day visit to Bangladesh. Would it still be appropriate to go sightseeing in Dhaka - and if so, how? This was the equation:

No electricity = no water from the pump = no/spoiled food + no CNG gas = no car . 

On one evening, the air hanging heavy and humid, we found ourselves sitting in my grandmother's veranda  and swatting mosquitoes. My mother suggested that, as we were out of water and there wasn't much food in the house, we should try and find a place which had active back-up generators and running water. 

Unsurprisingly, the establishment closest to my house, the Sheraton, was fully operational and was incandescent in the evening gloom. After marveling at the working taps and commode in the restroom, we loafed about for a while in the lobby of the hotel, discussing places to get food in another, less expensive part of town. 

As we departed, we observed the arrival of Elvis. Yes, Presley. Given the paunch, it was more late 70s Elvis than 60s Elvis. He was quickly followed by a gangling Austin Powers. And then another Austin Powers and a pink sausage. They were accompanied by Cleopatra and Beyonce. One of the Powers passed an ice-box through the security scanner before grinning to his companions and heading towards the Bar. A few of them had already left the lobby before we were even able to fully register what was going on: A Fancy Dress Party hosted by the a foreign Embassy.

Forget the coastal areas, live electric cables were still electrocuting pedestrians in Dhaka and yet, here were a group of expats, seemingly oblivious and/or indifferent to it all. The disconnect was both stark and startling. We soon left the Sheraton and searched for food, but the impression that incident left on me, has remained till this day.

Today, 5 and a half years later, I was flipping through the autobiography of the celebrated British-Goanese poet/journalist, Dom Moraes when this memory resurfaced. My eyes latched onto the word "Patuakhali", somewhere to the middle of the book. I went to the beginning of that particular chapter and discovered that Moraes had been commissioned to write about the notorious 1970 cyclone in the former East Pakistan. 

Among the paragraphs that he devoted to this topic, one, in particular stood out for me. It captured a snippet of a conversation overheard in the Bar of the very hotel that my friends and I were to briefly visit several years later. It is worth quoting here:

"The bar was packed with correspondents and very young people...The young people seemed to be the children of resident diplomats and UN officials. A party of them occupied the table next to mine. A pretty American nymphet said to the boy next to her, 'Jesus, I'm bored, All this rain...and nothing to do.' The boy squeezed her thigh and said, 'Maybe we could get rid of the gang and go for a picnic tomorrow?' She brightened up, allowed his hand free play, then wilted once more, and pushed it away. 'No', she said. 'All the nice places are way out of town, and Daddy says way out of town is all full of corpses and stuff.' (Dom Moraes, "Never at Home", Viking: India, 1992, pp.177-178)

Some things never change. 

31.03.2013
Dhaka

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