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.

No Entry

August 7, 2013

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

It was Sunday July 14th, Bastille Day in France and I was catching the 09:30pm Euroline coach from Paris Porte de Bagnolet to London Victoria.

It was a nine hour coach journey with two stops on the French side, followed by a ferry across the English Channel, followed by a non-stop run to London's Victoria coach station.

I was not too enamored by the prospect of a 'red-eye' overnight coach ride to London in cramped seats, to then get into London at 6am the next day. However, it was out of necessity rather than choice.

I arrived at Porte de Bagnolet an hour before the scheduled departure time, yet me and my fellow passengers had to wait until 10:30pm to leave. Most of us were hot and bothered wilting in the sweltering evening heat. When the coach eventually arrived, there was no orderly queue or anyone directing people on to the coach. It was a free-for-all. Everyone made a mad dash for the coach dumping their bags hurriedly in the belly of the metal people transporter and up the steps to get a prime seat. Passengers for the later 11pm coach surged en masse to get on board, only to be turned away by the gruff French driver. This caused an almost stampede like situation with the 9:30pm passengers shoving to get on and the later passengers trying to get off.

Eventually, the chaos died down and with all the passengers on board we departed. I sat in an aisle seat with a gentleman from the Far East in the window seat. The seats were extremely cramped with no toilet facilities. I shook my head in dismay as I heard babies crying and little kids being settled down by their parents. I thought how inconsiderate of Eurolines to have a vehicle with no toilets when the journey was so long.

The mixture of passengers was extremely diverse; on my left across the aisle sat two young female American backpackers, there were people of African origin, others from Eastern Europe, a couple of south Asian families and some natives from the UK shores.

The heat had exhausted me so much that the cool air-conditioned interior of the coach led me to fall fast asleep within seconds of sitting down.

The first time I awoke was somewhere between Paris and Lille where the driver called a ten minute comfort break. I could barely open my eyes and slept through. The second time was in Lille, again I was too tired to even open my eyes.

It was sometime at around 3am that we arrived into the port of Calais. Before we could board we had to go through French and UK immigration controls.

All the passengers alighted from the vehicle and queued up in a portacabin and one by one were called to the desk by a French immigration officer. All the people looked dead tired. No one was in conversation, it seemed that everyone wanted to get back on the coach and catch some sleep.

Then I caught a glimpse of a young lady being escorted away by one of the two French officers, leaving the sole desk to process the remaining passengers. I groaned silently.

Eventually I arrived at the desk, got the cursory glance as my details were checked and then ushered on. Outside I was directed to another makeshift cabin building where the UK immigration were based.

Here the scene was very different. In contrast to the French two desks, reduced to one, here there were six manned desks plus several officers just standing and watching the passengers with their keen eyes.

Here a lot of the passengers looked alert yet intimidated and frazzled. Initially it did not register with me what was going on, the fuzziness of sleep deprivation was not making me think clearly. However, I was seeing more people being pulled aside and then 'click', it dawned on me that these people had questionable papers and they were potentially trying to enter the UK illegally. I watched several people of various nationalities being pulled aside into rooms out of sight.

I gulped and thought, "Wow! this is the hard coal face of illegal migration".

The whole scene woke me up from my walking slumber as I approached the desk. Once cleared I went back to the coach and retook my seat. The coach slowly started to fill up except the two seats in front of me and my Oriental seat buddy. I thought he may have been stopped too, but he turned up running just seconds before the coach left.

As the driver fired up the engine I scanned the vehicle and saw approximately six seats empty which were occupied prior to the immigration checks. I came to the realization that those six were detained for potentially trying to get into the UK illegally. I thought about those people, I thought about the money they must have spent either through getting the paperwork on their own or paying middlemen who probably charged extortionate fees.

If these people were trying to illegally enter the UK it was wrong, yet I felt sorry that they probably spent their life savings trying to get here. The coach driver did not wait and he drove the coach onto the waiting ferry. I began to contemplate the lives these people were leaving and what drove them to go to such extreme measures to try and get into another country illegally. I could not judge their circumstances as I did not know what they were fleeing.

One thing I realized by what I witnessed was that I was extremely lucky, my father had arrived into the UK as a genuine immigrant. Even though I had heard of illegal immigrants around the world this is the first time I had witnessed the reality of it. Furthermore, I was humbled to the core. I was humbled by the fact that I can, I have and I am still able to travel as a global citizen without any obvious restrictions on entry to any country. I was humbled by the fact that I had a choice in determining my country of residence. I was humbled by the simple right of freedom that I had. A right that many human beings do not have in many guises and forms.