During the Deluge

“Thousands of students at Dhaka University (DU) fought running battles with police last night demanding removal of an army camp from the campus and an apology from the army for beating up three students earlier in the afternoon. More than 150 students and four police were injured in the confrontations in which police fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters as well as using water cannons and repeated baton charges. Students pelted police with stones and bricks.”

The Daily Star, Dhaka, Tuesday 21 August 2007

“Much of Dhaka city turned into a battleground yesterday as students continued clashing with police for the second day in the fallout from the beating of three Dhaka University (DU) students by army personnel Monday evening.”

The Daily Star, Dhaka, Wednesday 22 August 2007

“Amid escalating violence, the caretaker government yesterday imposed indefinite curfew in six divisional cities from 8:00pm last night and shut down all universities in the country and colleges in the metropolitan cities…”

The Daily Star, Dhaka, Thursday 23 August 2007

It’s 4.20 on a sultry Dhaka afternoon. I’m standing in an empty bathtub, leaning against the wall to peer out my bathroom window. Between the bars of the window grating I can see a familiar view: the bright green krishnochura tree in the concrete yard of my neighbours, the rooftop of the next high-rise block, where men bathe in their lunghis (sarongs) in the morning and where women come to hang their washing in the afternoon. Shifting my gaze to the right I can make out disjointed stretches of the main road through the trees.

There is no movement in the street today. No traffic jams, no green autorickshaws grinding down the asphalt, no rickshaws with their piercing bells and insistent wallahs (drivers). There are no men on the streets going about their business, walking with briefcases and bags slung about themselves, buying cha (tea) from street stalls, chatting on corners, shading themselves with parasols. There are certainly no women.

The silence creates a warped kind of calm; the heat buffers the still zones of Dhaka from the turbulent ones. Gazing out on the city as I am, it’s difficult to think of any kind of tempest in this desert of quiet.

My mobile phone has been working intermittently since Wednesday. This is for one of two reasons: mobile phone networks have been switched off by the provisional government, or some hooligans in Chittagong have damaged the networks in the larger protest against Bangladesh’s caretaker government. At 8.22am, however, this text message appears from a deshi (local) advisor:

The curfew continues. There is no confirmation of withdrawal yet. People can travel with passports or special permission slips. Note that this is only for the divisional Headquarters i.e. Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Raj, Sylhet and Barisal. No curfew on other districts r exempted. My advice — just to be on the safe side — is to work from home. Note there is no media at the moment. Mobile may be disconnected again.

Inside there is plenty to do. I consider laundry, but we’ve run out of powder and the shops are shut. Clothes needing ironing are stacking up, but it’s far too humid to add extra steam to the air. There is cleaning. There is a stack of new films to vegetate in front of and a new column to write, but now that I can’t go outside it’s all I seem to want to do. My mind and legs ache for stimulation. I opt for more staring out the window. I light a cigarette for my own theatrical benefit but don’t smoke it; as the minutes stagger by it turns to ashes between my fingers.

“Wreck of Four Seasons” — photo by Kathryn Hummel

Defying curfew, a neighbour and I go for a walk eventually, armed with our foreignness and digital cameras. We see up close the extent of the damage to the local kebab shop that was set ablaze yesterday evening. We avoid patches of broken glass on the road because we are only shod in sandals. We walk up to Rifles Square, where the Bangladesh Rifles have their training complex, to see if the supermarket is open. Half-way there we are stopped by the military but can see from our vantage point that all the shops on the corner of our road and Satmasjid are quiet.

We turn down Road 5, passing the big white goat that is growing fat on public grass for Eid. On the next corner, two shops have opened their doors in anticipation of panicked buyers of soft drink, snack food, phone credit and tobacco. We visit friends for a glass of water and swap stories on how to combat riot ennui, then we walk home again. The door guard takes a while to let us in; he’d locked the iron gate behind us.

There was an allotment of time this afternoon in which I was able to get phone calls through to scattered friends. My mind has been preoccupied by one friend in particular, a resident of Dhaka University (DU). Our text dialogue, interrupted by failing networks, has run more or less like this since Tuesday:

What are all the protests about down your way?

It started as a trivial tiff between troops billeted in the university gym & students but escalated after massive police action into a movement against the emergency [government].

Are you stuck?

No, but situation between police and students still tense.

Keep well safe.

Thx. I will.

Are you okay?

Yes, touch wood. U ok?

Yes, no worries.

There doesn’t seem to be much more to say to each other. We are both well, both quite safe, both sharing the same asylum of quiet rooms amid an unquiet city. At least, I know that’s what I’ve been doing. Thinking of him in the centre of the uprising, I am not entirely convinced of his safety.

On Tuesday afternoon I was idle in my office, hadn’t slept well the night before, and decided to go home half an hour early. I’d received messages of riots at Dhaka University — something about a guard assaulting a student on DU grounds, and that being against some cardinal rule of the student body — but all the fury was around the campus, a good few kilometres away from my house. My rickshawallah and I settle on a price back to Road 2, and we made our way home, he cycling and I meditating under the heat. We were almost up to the corner when my wallah stopped; he told me something in rapid Bangla and indicated ahead, where there were a lot of men (not unusual) running around with big sticks (unusual).

Then a friend found me; she’d actually reeled round on her own rickshaw to chase me down and tell me not to go home. We ended up sitting and chatting by Dhanmondi Lake, among other young people who moved through the afternoon as if through an idyll. About an hour passed until we got the all clear and I returned home.

Later that evening, when I went out to dinner, the pattern repeated; the rickshaw my friend and I had hopped on to get back home refused to take us further. It was disorienting in the dark and the quiet; ahead of us was a road I didn’t recognise, although we were told it was Satmasjid Road by a helpful boy with a guitar case. We crept up to have a look at what was going on. A group of young men stood calmly in the middle of the road, amongst piles of burning wood and broken glass. Few glanced our way but nevertheless we retreated and made it home through the back streets. On the way, we stopped off for dessert.

The next morning I had a little trouble getting around to my meetings. From Dhanmondi to Banani, the streets were clogged with traffic; on the way back, I had trouble finding an autorickshaw to take me for a decent price. After my next meeting I tried to leave the UN complex, but a security manager calmly advised me against this, saying it was dangerous and that I had better stay indoors. It took me about 15 minutes to convince the guard of my street smarts, while a fleet of fancy white chauffeured cars slunk past us with disgruntled passengers in the back seat — cars that had attempted to get to the airport but were turned back by the riots.

I eventually got past the guard and onto a rickshaw. My brave soul of a wallah took me through a maze of backstreets but still had to take alternative routes, either getting turned back by glimmers of rioting or dead ends. During our short time together I learned to trust him with my life, as the rickshaw hood was possibly the lowest one I had ever sat beneath and I was bent double; not the best position for a wide field or vision or a clear field of fire. I asked him stop a few streets back from my road as I didn’t want him to become a target on unquiet Road 2. After I paid him, he blessed me like a comrade at war, and cycled hastily away.

I walked to my house without incident and went up to the roof, where there was nothing but heat and quiet for the whole long afternoon. Later that evening, however, a crowd of residents stood on the same roof and watched Star Kebab burn, and the riot squad shamble in, and the sky fill with black-blue smoke.

Afterwards I went down and started to makes notes for this piece. I wrote how the riots meant we are living in exciting times, yet we’re apart from them, and how this is just a compact translation of the larger expatriate existence. Now the biggest barrier against us is a curfew; usually it’s general life, language, culture and religion in Bangladesh. Later on I made copious notes on what everyone thought the riots were about. I lauded the students for their passion, any passion, since working in and around the apathetic quagmire of student politics for many years has made me despair of contemporary student activism in Australia. This point of view incited a neighbour, who deemed the riots meaningless destructive violence and the Wrong Way to Go. More friends offered softer opinions about the protests being dysfunctional, and a result of poor leadership skills in childhood, which were in turn the result of no space to play.

Everyone, including myself, was speculating on the riots as they would a specimen under glass. The riots, so fervent and full of fury (misguided or not), put up to me and my kind an extra barrier we weren’t doing much to tear down. We weren’t so much frightened as dispassionate. No blood beat in our veins to any kind of tabla rhythm; we kept to our houses and chattered about motivation and government and corruption, referred to texts read long ago and events totally distinct to what we were seeing around us. And afterwards we wandered around the streets inspecting smashed glass and charred buildings with the cool gaze of an outsider.

I was miserable and diseased by indifference; I wanted to embrace the battle but was incapable of it. All I could do was bleat and admire ideologically the riots happening down on street level as I stood above with my bideshi (foreign) kin.

It’s now 12.07 on Friday morning. No updates about what to expect tomorrow have reached me. I should go to bed to await them; I can tidy up my writing and tweak some of the more awkward expressions that are the products of a day spent indoors, being over-fed and under-stimulated. Before I turn in, though, I think of another question for my friend at DU.

I am wondering how exactly he is and where, since students today have been evacuated from their halls of residence and turned into hostile streets with their suitcases. I wonder if this is all a bit passé for him, since he has seen the Liberation War and probably countless years of hartals (strikes) in this city. Still, perhaps he can offer me a sop from his position as a writer and a deshi and a former student of the revolution. The text message I am about to send is my one last feeble and desperate attempt to peek through the barrier, if not blunder into it and rent it.

I ask him, “Is there any poetry in rioting?”

When I hit the ‘send’ button, I immediately get bumped back a screen and a message appears stating that the ‘send’ has failed. I have tried about three times now, and I suppose that’s my answer.

“Charred chairs” — photo by Kathryn Hummel