Diamonds Beneath His Feet

February 21, 2014

   Sagar (L) and I (R) at Rani Studios

   Sagar (L) and I (R) at Rani Studios

Narayan Das, was a young man with big dreams. Narayan arrived in Beani Bazar with his Olympus SLR camera to make his dream come true. He was single and he was hungry. He had heard that Sylhet was wealthy with foreigners and their money. He had heard that these foreigners were Bangladeshis who lived abroad in the Middle East, UK and USA and every few years they visited their towns and villages. He heard that many of these overseas Bangladeshis were single males and during their trips many would find a bride and get married.

So armed with this information, his camera and several thousand Takas he decided to seek his El Dorado in the northeast of Bangladesh. He arrived in the mid 1980’s and decided to set-up shop in Beani Bazar as a photographer.

Initially he rented a pokey little shop on a side street off the main road and he slept in his shop to save on rent for accommodation. Narayan laid out his services by taking passport photos, family portraits and hired his skills as a wedding photographer.

Even though he got his business going with relative ease he faced a challenge purely because of his religious belief. Narayan was a follower of Hinduism in a predominantly Muslim country. Even though there were Hindu families in Beani Bazar many of them had fled during the 1947 partition of India, Pakistan and East Pakistan (the latter was to become Bangladesh in 1971).

With the departure of British rule in India, borders were drawn based broadly on religious grounds. The two major groups of Muslims were geographically located in the West and in the East of the Indian sub-continent. These demarcations were arbitrarily drawn up by a lawyer – Sir Cyril Radcliffe from England within five weeks of arriving in India, and without a clue about the sensitivities of the people’s lives and lands he carved up. Even to this day those borderlines cause violence and death on an unprecedented scale; with border crossing deaths between Bangladesh and India. Sectarian violence in Kashmir, border disputes between India and China. Denial of the legitimacy of Rohingya’s as legal citizens of Myanmar (formerly Burma) by their own government, accusing them of being illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

Bangladesh in the mid-80’s was only fifteen years old as a fledgling nation. During the war of independence in 1971 more people who followed Hinduism fled to India voluntarily and forcibly as some Muslims took the opportunity to force Hindus off their lands either killing them or driving them out. As such Hindus were still seen as second-class citizens in a country for which they too fought for independence against the occupying Pakistani forces.

Even though Beani Bazar was a more tolerant part of Bangladesh there were occasions when some Muslims would treat Narayan derogatorily. This handicap for Narayan did not deter him and he persisted with his business. He found other Hindu families in the surrounding villages with whom he became friends. However he made closer links with Muslim businessmen and local bigwigs.

As his business flourished there were other competitors who set up shop in town, however Narayan’s business went from strength to strength. So much so he brought two of his younger brothers from Chittagong to help him grow the business. He moved into larger premises on the main trunk road running through the town and decided to rent a house in one of the surrounding villages.

He stumbled upon my dad’s place where there was a small empty house that he rented. My dad’s property was deep in the village of Shupatola, it was surrounded by a six feet wall and very peaceful. Narayan’s Rani Studios became our family photographer and also our family’s videographer. He named the business Rani in honour of his mother.

With success the call came for Narayan to get married which he did dutifully according to his parent’s wishes by finding a bride in Chittagong who moved to be with him. His children were born in the house he rented from my dad.

Over the years he opened two further photo and video studios in Beani Bazar town, he invested in his own photo processing machines as well as video editing facilities. He invested in agricultural land and was saving towards purchasing land in Shupatola to build his own house.

Eventually his immediate younger brother Ashok married and brought his wife over too. His third brother moved to Kolkata and his youngest brother and sister joined him in Beani Bazar. When Narayan's sister Mita got married she cried not only for leaving her family but for going away forever from my dad's place. For her our place had become her home and even to this day loves coming back to visit.

Initially Narayan’s view was to stay for a couple of years on property, however that stay was to become more than a quarter of a century. They became part of our family and the caretaker of my dad’s property. His youngest brother Sagar Das became my brother’s best friend in Bangladesh. Whenever my parents or I would return to Bangladesh Narayan would lay on a feast and invite us to his house to dinner. His shop became my hangout spot in town where copious amounts of tea was drunk (see picture below).

Sagar upon finishing high school joined his brother into the family business as did Narayan’s son Diph. In 2010 Narayan purchased a plot of land in Shupatola and by 2012 he had moved out of our property. He had further expanded his business in another town twenty five miles away, which was being run by his nephew.

The story of Narayan is my own experience of the book Acres of Diamonds, instead of seeking his fortune in faraway lands Narayan found his success and realised his dreams in the country of his birth.

Power of Two

September 28, 2013

Rocky and me at the finish line

Rocky and me at the finish line

Early 2013 and I decided to take on a challenge, to participate in a charity walk. This was no ordinary walk it was a non-stop 24 hour undertaking. The walk would start in Richmond deer park in London and finishing 62 miles (100 kilometers) later at Brighton race course on England’s south coast.

I was looking for something that would test my mettle, not against fierce creatures of the wild or insurmountable mountain peaks (well some parts of London’s urban areas can be considered wild) but my ability to push on for 24 hours or more with no sleep and only taking short rest breaks. I considered myself to be relatively fit, having run two marathons, hiked up mountains and visiting my gym at least three times a week, plus all the walking I did would put me in good stead.

However, this did not mean I could get away without training for the event. I did train, pounding the treadmills at the gym and increasingly walking a lot along the streets of my neighborhood. A good section of the early part of the walk would be along concrete pavements within the boroughs of South London, so road walking was an important part of my training.

I chose to walk and raise money for The Hospices, mainly because St. Joseph’s Hospice in London gave me the opportunity to run the London Marathon in 2004. I asked a couple of friends if they would like to join me in the endeavor but I got no takers, so without looking for others I ploughed on ahead getting ready for the big day.

The big day was on Saturday 25th May with the start time at 08:30 am. I awoke early and got ready putting on my waterproof walking pants, my quick drying base layer, and a fleece completed with a waterproof jacket. On my feet I wore thick walking socks and my ankle high hiking boots. In my rucksack I had water, energy gels, protein and energy bars, some bananas and a couple of packs of blister kits.

I took the district line train to Richmond underground station, where I saw other walkers with their badges and identity tags on them. A ten minute walk brought me to Richmond’s Old Deer Park, where effervescent helpers were directing people to the registration tent. I had arrived a good hour early as suggested, got myself booked in and was raring to go.

At 8 am my group of walkers were called up to the warm-up area. Mr. Motivator of TV-AM fame was on call to raise the energy levels and get people excited and warmed up. He went through his routine that hadn’t changed in the last two decades, but I love his zest and enthusiasm. Just before 08:30 am I managed to get a picture with him as we were herded through a turnstile where our ID tags were scanned to confirm start time. At the start line there was nobody to cheer me on or say any encouraging words. I just did what I had to do and when the whistle blew I began my walk.

The route crossed Richmond Park and then south along the River Thames, the weather was beautiful with clear skies, the sun out with no hint of rain. I made good progress reaching the first rest stop just before 9:30 am. I took a comfort break, grabbed some snacks, a hot drink and carried on.

The route continued on in urban areas, my ankles and feet were not taking kindly to the hiking boots I had on. My rationale for wearing them was that I would be walking at night and probably through woodland, therefore I did not want to risk twisting my ankle or getting wet feet. However, I saw many people with trainers, which would have been kinder on my feet.

Regardless I carried on and reached the second rest stop at 11:54 am. This time I had to take a longer break and take the boots off for some comfort. I looked at my feet and I saw signs of blisters developing. Taking precautionary action I stuck blister packs and wrapped the toes, heels and other pinch points with tape, in the hope of providing a cushion between the abrasive boot and skin.

Prior to getting to the third rest stop I was hurting, my feet were in pain and my right toenail felt as if it had been dislodged. All of the pinch points were stinging badly and I cursed myself for not wearing my Asics trainers. I did not grumble but carried on at my own slower pace. Several people joined and went on as their feet seemed okay enough to walk at a decent speed. Going into the third rest area I was joined by a man and his girlfriend, she was handling it well but his feet were hurting too. I took my boots off again and let my feet breath, what a joyful feeling, but I could not rest too long. So after some isotonic drinks and replenishing my supplies I bid farewell to my brief companions and marched on.

Again I was joined by other walkers, most left me behind, which did not bother me as this walk was my walk and I had to complete it at my own pace. I had to overcome my own fatigue and my own mental battles to carry on and finish. I was walking with a limp but I grit my teeth, put my head down and plodded on like a work horse.

I arrived at the halfway point of 33 miles at 7:22 pm, however being British Summertime the sun was still up. I was the lone walker at that time approaching the midway point. There was an MC who greeted me calling out my name and asking me how I felt. Total strangers patted me on my back and cheered me on as I entered the tent to rest. Hot food was laid on, water bottles and lots of fruit and energy bars. I wolfed down some pasta, grabbed some fruit and water and after a brief chat with an elderly lady I had met throughout the day I carried on. I knew the tough part lay ahead, night was falling and the route was now entering the countryside between East Grinstead and Haywards Heath.

At 9 pm the sun had set, the terrain got muddy and rough. It took the walkers through open fields, bridle paths, over stiles, through ploughed fields and woodlands. I got my head torch on as well as my handheld torch to light the way ahead. I was minding my own thoughts and trying to put one step in front of another through a wooded part of the route, when several walkers overtook me. However, I could feel someone behind me who wasn’t walking past.

“Hello, Mr. Alam how are you?” said a voice.

I turned around, “I am well and you?” realising my tag on the back of my rucksack had given my name away.

“Good, may I join you?” asked a Sikh fellow.

“Sure, I am Shah, by the way,” I offered my hands.

“I am Rocky, nice to meet you,” Rocky offered his hand.

Rocky walked beside me and we got acquainted. He told me that he was walking with some good friends of his, who had left him as they were seasoned long distance walkers. This was Rocky’s first time on such a trek. He was slightly taller than me, with a fair complexion and the obligatory beard of Sikh men. He did not have his turban on and his hair was under a baseball cap. He wore jogging pants, a hoodie and trainers. He also sported two walking sticks to aid his stride, which I noticed was as bad as mine. Rocky confessed to his feet killing him.

“Shah I like your pace, can we walk together?” asked Rocky.

“Of course, we will egg each other on,” I replied.

I found out Rocky was married with two children and he ran a mortgage business as well as a couple of restaurants near Southall. As we chatted and kept each other going we became saviors for one another. We bonded like brothers in arms and we vowed that we would not let each other down. So we marched on into the night, we got stuck in mud, hung onto branches to haul ourselves out of ditches. We waited for each other along the route as one caught his breath.

At rest stop five Rocky went to see his friends who had powered on ahead. I left Rocky at the rest stop with his friends as they were taking a longer break.  From rest stop six we stayed together as his friends decided to sleep for a few hours. Rocky and I said no to sleep and carried on. We would walk in silence, deep in our thoughts but knew each one was there for the other. The biggest obstacles were the damn stiles. Lifting our legs over these gates between fields was a killer. Sometimes I would hold Rocky’s walking sticks so he could get over them. Other times I would shine a torch so that he could see his path ahead.

Somewhere between stops six and seven we were walking up a slightly sloping hill. It was pitch black bar the low light offered by the near full moon. We walked past a huge oak tree and entered another field. Ahead we could see a couple of men and ahead of them a group of young women. As we approached the edge of this field which we skirted along the hedgerow on our left, we could see a couple of horses at the gate in the corner of the field. Before the horses one of the women was frozen to the spot looking at the animals. In between her and us were the two men. As we approached everyone stopped and watched fearful of the horses. The two horses turned around looked at us and started to trot in our direction. Like sheep and I guess being city dwellers we all panicked. The woman ran towards to the gate somehow avoiding the horses and carried on. The two men ahead of us jumped into the hedgerow, Rocky and I decided to do the same and got into the prickly hedge. I pulled some branches in front of me to prevent the horses getting near.

Here we were four grown men scared of a couple of horses, it was amazing what fatigue, lack of sleep and pain had made us fearful of. As the two horses nudged nearer to the four of us, one of the men escaped and ran towards the gate. Rocky and I called out to each other to ensure we were okay; the other fellow was fine by what I could make out with my torch light. By now I was getting angry. So I yelled out,”Yeehaah,” just like the cowboys in the High Chaparral and Rawhide. I didn’t feel brave, but annoyed. Upon my first yell the horses pricked up their ears, and I continued yelling causing them to bolt into the field and disappearing into the darkness.

The man ahead of us scarpered towards the gate joined by Rocky and me, adrenaline eliminating any sensations of pain. Rocky and the man bumped into each other in the slim gap between the gate and the stump. I decided to slide underneath the gate and in the process grazed my right cheek and glasses. Rocky and I checked we were both okay, before laughing at ourselves, shaking our heads and carrying on.

We arrived into rest area seven as the first glimmer of sunrise was coming over to our left. The time was approximately 4am and we decided to take an extended break. There was massage being offered which both Rocky and I took advantage of. Even though at the previous rest stops there were casualties with missing toenails, cramps, bleeding blisters and vomiting, this stop was inundated. People were queuing to see the St. John’s Ambulance paramedics. Some were being taken away friends and family and others by ambulance. I dared not take my boots off in case the situation was worse than I imagined.

As we left the rest stop we could see daylight slowly lighting our path allowing us to switch our torches off. We now had one more stop before the finishing line. The going was easier with paved walkways and flat ground. However this did not diminish the pain, the tiredness, the sleep deprivation and yet we carried on. Pushing each other and ensuring neither of us faltered.

We got to the penultimate stop at around 6am where we rested by which time Rocky’s friends had caught up with us having slept for an hour. We heard horror stories of people losing five, six and more toenails. Others were backing out and leaving the walk altogether, we did not let this deter us. Rocky briefly chatted with his friends before we got back on with the last leg of our journey. The route from here took us across a busy main road and up a steep escarpment. Walking up the rise was tough and Rocky took many a stop to get up it. I waited and encouraged him all the way.

Once atop the rise we walked along the edge of fields and country lanes, even though the scenery was amazing and quintessentially English, we had no urge or desire to stand and admire the view. The last two hours of the walk I struggled immensely as Rocky found a new level of energy. He would walk ahead and wait and I just plodded on and on.

At around 11 am we had Brighton Race course in our view as the two of us continued step-by-step to the finish line. About one hundred meters from the finish line we could see Rocky’s friends waiting. As we crossed the line the MC called out Rocky’s as his friends asked him to and a young lady handed each of us a medal for completing the arduous trek.

Rocky and I briefly spoke and exchanged details to stay in touch. I said farewell as he walked off with his friends. I headed towards the St. John’s Ambulance tent to get my feet looked at and bandaged. They were an absolute mess with multiple blisters, a missing toenail and chaffing around my ankle.

Even though it was one of the hardest physical endeavors I have undertaken and accomplished, it was made more worthwhile and enjoyable by Rocky. I know I would have finished either way but the camaraderie, the companionship, the desire to finish as a team and never to leave each other behind was uplifting and adrenaline pumping. My journey with Rocky highlighted and reinforced to me the power of partnership.

Finish time

Finish time

My Kung Fu Panda Moment

August 28, 2013

My Black Belt 1

My Black Belt 1

You are eleven years old and one Saturday instead of going to Kung Fu classes you decide to skip it and go play football with your friends. As you kick the ball around, run from one end of the concrete pitch to the other working up a sweat, you are carefree having the time of your life. Life could not get any better.

Then from the corner of your eye you spy a familiar figure, someone you recognize, someone with the power of authority. That someone you realize upon second glance is your father.

My heart skipped a beat when I saw my dad looking down at me from the street into the sunken car park where I was playing football. That was me being caught red-handed on a cold Saturday afternoon in London, missing my classes to play football with my best friends and other guys from the neighborhood.

My dad had signed me up for Saturday classes about six weeks ago.

"Son, you need to be able to take care of yourself, this is the rough East End and one must learn how to fight," he rationalized.

I was actually quite keen to join and went along happily attending classes every weekend. I would forego playing tag, football and other games with my best friends for a couple of hours every Saturday to learn the art of self defense and fighting. This weekend however my friends cajoled, goaded, teased and urged me to not go to classes. In the end I succumbed to peer pressure and using my kit bag as a goal post proceeded to play football.

So seeing my dad made me gulp and I thought, "I've had it, I'm done for," as he beckoned me over to him without saying a word or raising a hand in gesture.

"Why are you not at Kung Fu classes?" he asked. I could feel my ears burning and my friends watching me made me want to sink into the ground and disappear.

"Err! I just wanted to play football and didn't want to go to class today," I mumbled as I looked at my feet.

"I never, ever want to see you miss Kung Fu again, I will let you off today, but from next week you will go to every class without fail," he stated, and with that he carried on walking to wherever he was going. I went back to my football game and having explained to my friends what had happened carried on playing.

However, I decided there and then that I would never miss another class. Of course there were the odd classes that I did miss due to illness or a reasonable excuse, but I never missed a class of my own volition. I persevered with my training  and my Sifu a fellow Bengali called Maruf, took a liking to me and taught me well. In return I became a dedicated and loyal student.

So through all the fights, the twisted fingers, busted toes, torn ligaments, bloody noses and bruises I kept at it from 1981 to 1989. Each year I would partake in one exam and each year I would pass to go through nine sashes in that period. I fought fights and got beaten and others I won unanimously. I taught junior students and I trained with Black belts.

I was my Sifu's star pupil, becoming his first student to achieve Black belt in 1989, which made him an extremely proud teacher. The exam to attain my Black belt required the demonstration of a set of movements, followed by set sparring where no blows are struck. This was followed by breaking bricks and slates with bare hands then kicking wooden planks in half.

Then came the fights. There were three 3-minute fights. One-on-one, one-on-two and the finale was me against a senior Black belt. All of these fights were performed with only gloves, foot-guards, gum-shields and groin guards.

At the end of it, my lips were busted and bleeding I was bruised all over and I was exhausted to the core. Yet when the results were announced and I had got my Black belt every pain, every drop of blood and every tear was of happiness and exhilaration. At the exam my dad was not there, nor were any of my friends just my Sifu Maruf and my fellow classmates. Maruf came and gave me a huge hug and lifted me straight off the ground.

When I got home my parents were very proud of my achievement. I have to thank my dad for making me stick to my classes.

If there is anything I learned from my years of Kung Fu was if you start something worthwhile stick to it and finish it, be committed. Secondly, never give up, no matter how hard, tough or unexciting the work may be keep at it. Thirdly I learned self-control and discipline in all areas of life, especially how to use peaceful methods to resolve conflict. Last but not least the rewards for achieving a worthwhile goal are priceless.

This story is dedicated to my dear Sifu Maruf who died a few years back, killed in a car crash in Bangladesh. May you rest in peace, you were my first role model.