Having not had any food before I left home it seemed like a good idea to search out snacks for the journey to Kushtia, around a 6 hour bus journey from Dhaka. The “healthiest” thing I could find was dim paratha, a fried bread folded over and stuffed with egg. Fried food on the street is always a dangerous affair as the oil can have been sitting around and reused over a period of weeks. Even so it can sometimes prove irresistible. The people in the joint I bought it from were pretty irresistible too, pouring praise on my spoken Bangla, which, as always, gave me an immense amount of pleasure. One of my greatest pleasure during all my time in Bangladesh was the ecstatic reactions I got when I spoke Bangla. The reception (translated) usually went something like this:
Bangali: Madam where are you from?
B: How long have you been in Bangladesh?
I: About a year and a half.
B: Really? No! That’s not possible! Such good Bangla in a year and a half? Do you have Bangladeshi family?
I: No, no.
B: And how have you learned Bangla?
I: Just by speaking.
B: Did you study the language before you came here?
I: No. I was in Calcutta for a while where I started learning but…
B: Amazing. So you are very intelligent then.
I: Very intelligent.
B: Ha ha very funny as well. Thank you. Thank you for learning our language.
I: No, thank you! It’s a very beautiful language.
B: Ahhh yes. It’s a very beautiful language. You must come and visit me at my home. Come and visit me and my wife. Will you come?
I: Certainly! Thank you. One day. Insh’Allah. (God willing).
B: Ahhhh yes. Thank you. Thank you very much indeed. Two years. Only two years. Ha ha ha (mutter mutter mutter)
So off I go with my broad smile and my glowing middle and feel happy and blessed that I have been able to learn this beautiful language and that I am able to have so many joyous exchanges with so many warm and wonderful people.
We arrive in Kushtia quite late, in just enough time to find a hotel and go to sleep. We are going to get up very early in the morning so that Gilles, who I am travelling with, can start shooting as soon as it’s light. He works with Akram Khan and is here to shoot a short documentary/ art film about modern Bangladesh. He’s been staying with the wonderful Anusheh Anadil, the woman who has pretty much single-handedly brought baul music into the popular domain, and she entrusted me with him while she was away and asked me to show him some of the country.
He selected these few days to visit Kushtia, the home of Lalon while he was living, and still the home of many of the bauls. These men, for they are mostly men, are Bengali mystics who sing devotional songs which relay their philosophy of love, unity and secular faith. We came here to film and speak to them. I was supposed to be able to translate a fair amount for Gilles, but was in doubt as to how far my Bangla would serve us in this context. At the least I figured I could get us around, get us fed and tease out some smiles along the way.
First we took a rickshaw cart to the mazar, or shrine of Lalon Shah. The last time I had been was at the Lalon Mela, a huge festival marking the death anniversary of the great baul. At that time there were hundreds of people crowded around the shrine, singing, paying their respects and happily smoking chillums in circles made under trees with conspicuous signs marked “neshar mukto eleka” or “drug free zone”. This time there were markedly fewer people, just a few visitors to the shrine and devotees. We were informed that the shadhus would be gathering later in the day to sing, and this was the footage that Gilles wanted to capture so we decided to take a turn around the town.
We were expected at a little art camp run by Reza Bhai, one of the bauls notorious in Dhaka. Art students come and spend time here making sculptures, paintings and mobiles that still hang from the branches of the trees. Over a wide lake there is what looks like a levitating shadhu in white plaster. It is only after looking long and hard that one notices the poles and wires that are supporting him. Music ensues with a small crowd of men gathered on a bamboo dias dappled in early sunlight, and the camera starts to roll.
Soon we must make a move and we are asked to sign/ doodle in a big sketch pad before we leave. I can’t remember exactly what I drew but I do remember that it had a serpent in it somewhere, inspired by the sculpture of an immense shadhu head with a serpent rising from his long hair, and it made me painfully aware of the fact that I’m really not an artist.
We walked away up the road, half looking out for a ride but enjoying the walk in the meantime, past a large sign, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, calling out “Dhonnobad!” or thank you. We asked ourselves what we had done to deserve such thanks and carried on our ways, entertained as ever by the massively overloaded trucks and carts that passed us on the road.
We had been bidden to the home of Bojlu Shah, one of the shadhus who had sung in Baul and Beyond, the concert I had taken part in nearly a year before. The last time I came to Kushtia for the Lalon Mela I had also visited his home and had the most amazing reception with long chats in their old farmhouse and amazing fresh food cooked for us, inevitably, by his wonderful wife and daughter-in-law. I was looking forward hugely to seeing them again.
We walked there from the mazar, a lovely warm meandering walk through the village on the edge of the town, with fields and paddies to the left and houses to the right of the path. The houses are mostly either tin or mud and are sometimes partitioned from each other and the path with bamboo screens. The path was lined with kids who came out to wave at us, and followed us along the way, holding our hands, chatting to me excitedly and prodding at Gilles and his big camera. We passed some women weaving gamchas on the side of the path and Gilles stopped to take close up shots of the bright thread whirring around the rickety wooden wheel.
Gamchas are an integral and entirely unique part of Bengali culture. Brightly coloured pieces of tartan cloth, they are used as everything from a towel (the primary function) to a head wrap, cloth, belt, bag or scarf. In a way they are particularly associated with the shadhus who often wear long white robes with a gamcha tied as a turban or draped over the shoulder. There is something very striking about the bright red, yellow, green or blue cloth emblazoned against plain crisp white.
We soon arrived at Bojlu Bhai’s house, which, being bigger and markedly grander than those in the village around it, is walled off with a high concrete wall and iron gate. The homestead inside is a haven, brick and wood buildings covered with lau, the long curling vines which carry large green marrow-like fruits. We sit for a while in a lean-to type building, with walls only on three sides, the front open to the courtyard around which stand the other buildings. They are all single story with mud floors running right out onto the courtyard. At the open kitchen shed on the far side we could already see the women gathered around the fire cooking something. They came and went bringing ingredients, chasing away hens and stirring whatever was in the pot on the fire.
Gilles began to interview Bojlu Bhai who beckoned his wife to come and stand beside him during his interview. It was a nice gesture but she didn’t say a word the whole time. Points-of-view are mens’ business, clearly. On arrival we were given tea, biscuits and fruit, and after the interview was finished we were offered lunch. It didn’t seem to be long since we’d eaten a hearty breakfast of eggs, vegetable curry and breads, but when you are offered food around here it’s not actually an offer, it’s more of a contract. You come into my home, you eat. It’s that simple. We were also aware that we were supposed to be eating lunch at the home of Rob Fakir, another of the bauls I knew from Dhaka, but they were not to be persuaded. We asked for just a little, only a taste, but our plates were heaped with rice and we were helped to generous servings of vegetables, dal, fish and egg. Part of the trouble was the food itself. It was simply delicious. Fresh and beautifully spiced, it was hard to say no even though we knew we would have to eat again soon.
After more talk we went on our way. It was hard to leave even though we knew we’d see Bojlu Bhai again in the evening when the music began over at the mazar. The women were sad when we left. We weren’t sure if or when we’d see them again.
We took a tempo over to Rob Bhai’s place, a smaller property over on the other side of the town, nearer the river and surrounded by wide open fields. As we arrived we were ushered into a small bedroom with a television, and Rob Bhai’s son who had come out to meet us showed us the dotara he had carved and made from wood. The dotara is a small guitar-like instrument, plucked with a wooden pick which is usually attached by a string from the base of the instrument, while the fret end is carved in dark wood, often (or perhaps always, I haven’t seen enough of them to know) in the shape of a bird’s head.
Shortly we went out to sit in the courtyard where Rob Bhai’s son was scaling a tree to cut down a large grapefruit-like fruit. The little pods within each segment are thicker than in a grapefruit so they are able to separate them all into gorgeous pink flakes. Seasoned with chili and salt it was sour and sharp, a tangy refreshing taste. Perfect and perfectly enough, but followed surely by large plates of rice, more fish, dal and vegetables, and the same strong insistencies to eat. We did so, slowly but surely, and managed to get through enough so as not to cause offence. As we finished and I began to worry that I would not be able to stay awake in the heat of the day, but Rob Bhai’s daughter-in-law invited me to go out with her and we headed out to walk in the fields.
A man was climbing up a date tree just as we stepped out of the house and I was foolish enough to express an interest in what was going on. He had a terracotta jar strung around the trunk of the tree and was hacking a piece out of one side of the trunk. Slowly juice began to drip into the jar and he moved up to remove one that had clearly been there for some time. The girl called to him to give me some juice. I had never tasted kejur rosh, the juice produced, and had heard it is amazing when fresh. But I was seriously so full that the idea of slurping down syrupy juice was almost enough to make me turn and run. But again, when faced with such smiling generosity and a crowd of curious faces it was impossible to refuse. Drinking it was a feat but it was worth it. This stuff tastes like nectar.
We walked (I waddled) off into the fields and I was shown all the crops. There are fields of sugarcane, recently harvested, rice and vegetables. We chatted about the usual things – marriage, mostly.
Girl: Are you married?
I: No. No I’m not. Happily unmarried.
G: (look of concern) How old are you?
I: Very old. 34.
G: Very old!
I: Are you married?
G: Yes! Of course! (laughs) I have three children.
I: How old are you?
I: Bloody hell.
Soon enough I realised that Gilles has been calling us for some time, trying to get our attention, and we headed back to the homestead, collected Rob Bhai and headed back into town for the evening of music at the mazar. I’m still not sure if the music was put on for Gilles to film or if they regularly have such long and intense gatherings, but I’m absolutely certain the kind of concert we had that evening is not something that you are likely to experience many times in a lifetime.
We were taken to a room behind the mazar where one of the bauls sits. I was informed that through industry he has made a vast amount of money. This must be why the room was relatively grand, with big heavy furniture and glossy tiled walls. It seemed to contradict what the bauls are all about as they supposedly denounce material wealth. But I’ve heard plenty of stories about bauls with garments factories. It seemed kind of incongruous but there is nothing to say one cannot be devoted while running a successful business. There are various levels of devotion I suppose, and my knowledge about requirements of the faith is pitiful so I cannot begin to make assumptions.
Soon the music began. The room was misted with smoke from the chillums and there was an air of secrecy to their smoking this time. Though they normally do so openly they don’t like to be filmed smoking – because of the conclusions they fear people may jump to, I suppose – and expressly asked Gilles not to film them while they smoked. It was tricky for him not to though, as there was constantly a chillum being passed around.
It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in the room that night. It’s the same whenever I hear baul music. I get lifted. I feel exhilarated and simply cannot stop grinning. At times when there is a particularly moving song I am close to tears, but then can be laughing again at the joy with which the men sing. At times I became aware that I was the only woman in the place and desiring to be inconspicuous I covered my head but people were not really interested. They too were wrapped in the power of the songs.
There was one man who I had seen before and who simply exudes power and a bearlike charm. Hugely tall and well built he has totally white hair. It flows long and ragged and with his arms outstretched he looks like a kind of aboriginal messiah, his slightly crossed eyes always glinting with a smile. He clearly takes immense pleasure in bellowing out his songs. Apparently he was a muktojuddha, a freedom fighter in the ’71 Liberation War. One of his fingers has a chunk taken out of it and I wonder if that happened during the war. Here is a man who has lived and who loves to live.
The songs went on for three, four hours. My behind was aching and my knees seized up. My shoulders began to feel hunched and my neck was begging me to lie down. But the music flowed on and on, the rhythm kept me awake and over and over again I was lifted by the emotion of the singing. Gilles was consumed by his filming and I sometimes wondered if they minded him ramming his lens up their noses, but they didn’t even seem to notice and I felt sure he was getting some amazing shots.
Over six months later I am still impatient to see the footage he has shot. Apparently there is a hold-up with funding. Selfishly I will the donors to sort themselves out. I want to relive those days.