Saturday, August 25, 2007

An Inspiring Force in Music

Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

Clad in a white kurta and pajama, Kalim Sharafi looks every bit the haloed artiste that he is against the bright sunlight splashing inside the drawing room at his Baily Road residence. For someone who has just turned 84 years old, Sharafi is still enthusiastic and intrigued by the litt

Kalim Sharafi as a young man in 1949 and 1964 respectively.

le discoveries that he makes on his own. “Which village are you from in Chittagong?” Kalim Sharafi asks me in perfect Chatgayya, upon discovering my origin. He then begins a tête-à-tête with me in the language and smiles fondly to himself. “He can speak fluent Sylheti and other dialects as well,” adds Sharafi's wife, Noushaba Khatun.

"When I see boys and girls working together for a cause, no matter how small the issue may be, my heart swells with pride and joy," smiles Sharafi. "For instance, several publications have been made in volumes regarding culture, politics, history, Tagore, where I have seen groups of young people working together as one. I have been honoured to offer my ideas, suggestions and be a part of such projects." To him, strength lies within oneself, to perform the most difficult task, sometimes even the impossible. In 'Kalim Sharafi's Album' written and compiled by M A Taher, Sharafi says that the course of nature requires human beings to spend a very short span of time on earth. It's up to each one of us as to how we make use of it, he says. "Life is much more than the yearning for money, properties and power," says Sharafi. "It cannot be defined as how much life has given us, but rather what we have given to the people."

Working on a composition.

Ironically, Sharafi was born into a family that was far from the world of music that he was destined to be in. Sharafi was born on May 8, 1924 in the village of Birbhum, West Bengal and his ancestors belonged to a family of pirs, based in Sonargaon. Consequently, Sharafi was forbidden to practice music. In spite of that, Sharafi's love for music led him to defy his family's wishes and secretly patronise it as he grew up. He would listen to famous artists and musicians of the then pre-independent India and learn from them as well. “I was always a quick learner,” says Sharafi. “As a child I used to find Rabindranath's compositions naturally melodic and heart touching and would grasp them easily.”

Sharafi is quite optimistic about the development that is taking place in the field of media and communications in the country today. The founder director of Bangladesh Television in 1964, Sharafi is one of the pioneers in introducing electronic media in the country. "I welcome changes and progressive ideas," he says. "The media has changed tremendously over the past few decades. We now have the resources to match our international counterparts. However, we seem to take these advantages for granted and misuse them to promote vulgarity and thoughts against culture. This unnecessary colouring should be stopped."

Speaking on the occasion of May Day with Mamunur Rashid and Khaled Khan of Oronnok Theatre Group.

Yet he is very positive about changes in the field of media such as the digitisation of music and also the advent of western influence on band music in the country. "We have to move along with time to survive," he says. "There is nothing wrong with the practice of band music in Bangladesh. In fact, the fresh sound is welcomed and appreciated. However, in the name of change, we should not lose our integrity and respect for the culture in any case."Sharafi mentions the distortion of Tagore songs, which have been taking place in the past few years. "One can always experiment,” he says. “All you have to keep in mind is to follow the swaralipi to sing Rabindra Sangeet," he says. According to many an expert, Rabindranath Tagore's compositions have several levels of meanings. The blend of words, rhythm and melody has certain implications, which need to be pronounced and stressed in particular ways to bring out the true connotation of the lyrics.

Sharafi is very positive about the changes taking place in the fields of media and communications, in the country today. Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

A diehard communist, he talks about how communalism and political favouritism have taken over culture. During the pre-liberation period, Rabindranath's songs were banned from being broadcasted on the radio. Even after liberation, Sharafi was banned from both Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television. “It saddens me when people start comparing Rabindranath and Nazrul and putting forward absurd questions like why Tagore is placed higher than Nazrul, like they are two leaders of two political parties,” says Sharadi. “Nazrul's poetry and music are incomparable to the creative works done by anyone else. How can two different works, belonging to two different worlds and eras be compared in this way? I bet even Nazrul would be embarrassed if he were alive today with the comparisons, considering the fact that he was a big Tagore admirer. It's a shame to see how some people simply don't understand the stupid comments that they make so bluntly in public. What's more disheartening is that these same clusters of so-called 'thinkers' end up influencing the people of our country.”

Rabindra Sangeet singer Wahidul Huq offering a token of appreciation to Kalim Sharafi.

He has seen much of what has happened in the pre-independent India, says Sharafi. A political activist from a very early age, Sharafi was a part of the Quit India Movement in 1942, for which many activists were locked up for years. “I was picked up from my village,” he says. “I was hardly 18 or 19 years old back then. The officials surrounded my home and took me to jail in their jeep.” While he was being taken away, it seemed as if the quiet village had suddenly come alive. “Groups of hundreds were cheering for me, encouraging me in the movement and telling me to go on with the fight to free our country from these foreign clutches.”

With Ustad Alauddin Khan and Artiste Zainul Abedin.

In his book, Smrity Amrito, Sharafi says that upon entering prison and staying there for more than a year, he had come face to face with class distinctions. “I was probably one of the very few Muslim activists that the other political figures had heard about,” says Sharafi. “To add to it all, because I was the only Muslim prisoner there, most of the political prisoners knew of me. The deputy inspector, who was also a Muslim, was a very nice man and would often offer me food from home and look out for me. However, he disliked the fact that I used to mix with the non-Muslims and would often ask me to stay away from the other activists.” He remembers that there were other non-political prisoners with him at the time as well. “They used to refer to me and other political prisoners as Swadeshi Babu,” says Sharafi. According to the book, the Swadeshi Babus had it easy as compared to the other prisoners. In fact, the other prisoners would do all the work for these Babus, for instance washing and cleaning. Other than that, everyone in prison had to go through absurd punishments and would spend their days thinking and planning about Swaraj.

At a protest, Kalim Sharafi with poet Shamsur Rahman, Professor Kabir Chowdhury, writer Syed Shamsul Haq and others.

His personal life seems to have a lot more tranquil. Sharafi and his wife Professor Noushaba Khatun have one son and four daughters. The coffee tables are crammed with photographs of their great-grandchildren. The closeness of the couple is all too clear. As we speak, Noushaba sometimes takes the floor and answers for her husband. “We have known each other ever since we were youngsters,” says Noushaba. “Even though we lived a little away from each other in Kolkata, we hail from the same village of Birbhum.”

Professor Noushaba Khatun helps her husband remember various instances from the past. Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

So did they fall in love and go through the whole secret courting before they got married? “No!” cries Noushaba. “I wish you youngsters would stop fussing about, making everything sound so romantic! Our families were very close and we are also related through a marriage, which had taken place earlier in our families. That's how everything happened.”

Performing at a gathering in Chittagong in 1952.

Noushaba describes her husband to be absolutely opposite of herself. “He does not act logically at all. For instance, he won't turn the fans on when he is sitting and reading. For some inane reason, he prefers to sit in the heat,” she complains. “Thankfully he remembered to turn them on today since we have visitors.” She relates a story to support her belief about her husband. “Sharafi used to work at the Bangladesh Textile Corporation (BTC) at that time,” she says. “As soon as the new government came into power, the chairman called him to his office, spoke casually for a while and had tea together. The very next minute, he was asked to leave office! For anyone else this would have been a devastating moment, considering the fact that he had a whole family to run and feed. He cleaned his office desk and came home. It seemed a little strange to me that he brought back home all the knick-knacks that he had on his office table. But like any other day, he had lunch and then went to take his nap. After a while, four of his colleagues came home to visit him and they seemed a little upset. The female colleague was surprised when I told her that he was taking a nap. He must be exhausted and enjoying some free time now that he has been let go from work, she said. I was horrified when I heard this! He had not told me anything at all. How could anybody take this so lightly? Thank goodness I was working and did not have to worry immediately about money.”

Remembering Shawkat Osman on his death anniversary at the Shahid Minar.

Sharafi says that amongst his many favourites, Ami Choncholo Hein, a Tagore composition is closest to his heart. When asked which of Sharafi's songs Noushaba liked the best, she said, “Frankly speaking, Kalim Sharafi is not my favourite singer, though I really love the Puja and devotional songs that he does of Rabindranath's. The passion, the need to give to people and devotion to the Creator are apparent in his voice.”

With wife Professor Noushaba Khatun at Maryland, USA in 1981.

Both Sharafi and Noushaba have a very active social life. “When we have nothing to do, we just like to go and walk around at the different malls in Dhaka city,” smiles Noushaba. “Most of the times we are by ourselves, window shopping or hanging out with friends at their homes. One of my favourite places is Agora, where I go and check out everything, including people.”

Sharafi says that he loves to chat with friends at various places. “Most of my friends are all younger than I am,” he laughs. “But I don't mind hanging out with them. Our addas take place everywhere, even at sweetmeat shops on Baily Road.”

The many awards and recognitions received by Sharafi over the last few decades.

Something that has bound Noushaba and Sharafi together is their strong hold on values and culture. “It scares me to think that this country might slowly come into the clutches of the fundamentalists,” says Noushaba. Having gone through the plight of partition in 1947 as a youngster, Noushaba is not new to the political nonsense adapted by so-called leaders for the betterment of the country and its people. “I have seen the country tear up into pieces,” says Nawshaba. “Just imagine your home, where you have lived your whole life, is not your home anymore because of your faith.” She thinks about the bloody massacres that took place during the partition of India. “We had witnessed similar incidents at the end of last year during the political riots in Bangladesh,” she adds. A lot has to be traded for peace in this part of the world, she says.

“I have received so much love from people all over,” says Sharafi in his book. “It is this love that has kept me breathing till now.” Both Sharafi and Noushaba are full of stories from the past, wonder about the future and in awe of their present. In spite of all the grievances that they had to go through, the love for life and living still shine in their eyes.

Photos: 'Kalim Sharafi's Album'

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 28| July 20 , 2007 |

A Status Symbol Goes Public

Nader Rahman and Elita Karim

In a developing country such as Bangladesh one of the foundations of development is communication, whether that be by road, air or post. And like any other emerging nation Bangladesh lacks the infrastructure to facilitate proper and meaningful communication between the massive rural and densely populated urban areas. The telephone is therefore considered the easiest means of communication, yet in Bangladesh it suffers from severe problems. The number of fixed land lines is paltry compared with the population, the network they cover is minute and leaves out large portions of rural areas and lastly one must tackle institutional corruption at every level to buy a phone line legitimately (ironic isn't it). Only recently has there been a way out of the mess and that has been with the help of mobile phones.

Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus once said that the quickest way to get out of poverty was to have a mobile phone and in many ways he was not far off the truth. While a mobile phone is not the golden ticket out of poverty, it is a positive step in the right direction as it helps to bridge the digital divide and in the process empowers the rural owners. There is much anecdotal and statistical evidence to prove the fact that mobile phones act as an accessible tool to improve the livelihoods of individuals and groups in developing countries and none more than Bangladesh. With mobile phone prices (both sim cards and the cell phones themselves) decreasing almost everyday it has become far easier to own one in Bangladesh these days. The effect they have had on the nation has been immense and cannot be accurately measured. The villages are now connected with the cities if not always by road but with the help of cell phones and in the process rural Bangladesh has been brought closer to the economic hubs of the urban areas. The lives of individuals and groups have been changed forever as our almost prehistoric communication routes were given a 21st century make over. The days of waiting for letters from the village for news and information are over, now a simple inexpensive phone call can be made to keep in touch. What took hours by road is now just a second and a phone call away, aside from connecting families it has had a profound effect on business and entrepreneurs around the country.

Very few lives have been left untouched by the cellular phone.

For 39-year-old Mohammad Alamgir, a fishmonger at the Karwan Bazaar Wholesale Market, mobile phones have changed his business practises so much so that now he cannot afford to be without one. “Before we had to wait (in the market) till early morning till the fish came and then based on the number caught, their size and weight we fixed an informal price at which we would sell," he says. "That was hard work, but that was the way it had always been. The problems with that way was first the unreliability-- sometimes the fishermen would not come and we would be waiting for them, they were lured to other markets where they thought they could get a higher price. That was very bad for us.”

Ever since mobile phones became cost affective to the average man Alamgir changed his business practices, as he continues, “A few years ago I heard about a trader that purchased a mobile phone for himself and his chief supplier and how it did wonders for his business. I took a risk and decided to do the same, I purchased a mobile phone and persuaded the main supplier to buy one as well and since then my business has turned around. While no one can guarantee sure-fire profits my business has been far more stable since then. I can now call and ask how many fish have been caught and discuss the prices with the other traders. Aside from that I can call other markets and check the prices there, so that I can compete with them. The benefits have been many but the only downside was the fact that it was not very cheap. Seven taka for one minute was a lot for me, but since then prices have come down. Now it is more affordable.”

With all call rates plummeting, the cell phone is the most efficient form of communication.

His story is not an isolated one as many hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have benefited from widespread dispersion of mobile phones. But while the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased dramatically (roughly 25 million) since its inception in Bangladesh in 1993, most of it has only occurred in the last few years as the major mobile phone companies went on a price war against each other. The early years of the mobile phone industry in Bangladesh were just as shady as the BTTB is now as for four years one company ran an absolute monopoly in the cellular phone sector. As is common in a monopoly the prices were exorbitant and the mobile phone became a sort of status symbol for the rich and famous rather than a tool for the ordinary people as it is now. The prices of those early phones ran into the lakhs as government nepotism let one company rape the market for all that it was worth.

The mobile phone has had a profound effect on business around the country.

Those were truly dark times but then with the second democratically elected government after Ershad, a few more companies threw their hat in with the competition and as a result the prices plummeted dramatically. Dramatic as the fall may have been the prices were still out of the reach of the common man, it was still essentially a rich man's toy. With four companies competing there was only one way the prices could have gone and that was down and slowly as the prices plummeted, the networks began to widen; slowly but surely all of Bangladesh was being brought under the network of cell phone operators. There were two major challenges for the cell phone operators, if they really were to persuade the majority of the population to buy a phone they had to first lower their prices. Not just the price of the sim card but also the call rates which were still very high.

Along with that they had to offer coverage around the country. They got there soon enough and along the way a market leader was established. It has only been in the last few years that the prices of mobile phones have really come down and in those few years the number of cell phone subscribers has gone through the roof. As a result a wider cross-section of people have been able to purchase a phone and along with just being connected there are now added benefits they give to small businesses around the country.

Cell phones are an essential accessory for the urban youth.

42-year-old Mohammad Noman has been running a small shop in the village of Madarsha, Hathazari, Chittagong for the last year and a half. Like every other young man in the locality, he had his heart set on moving to the Middle East and working there to build a life for himself and his family. He lived and worked in Kuwait for a few years before returning to his village and opening up a small store.

Noman has been using the mobile phone for the last 7-8 years. "There was a time when there were only a handful of mobile phones in the village," he says. "The rates were higher than they are now. But I had to use it to be in touch with people I was doing business with in Chittagong, Dhaka and other places of the country."

For him, the mobile phone has actually been a boon. "Now I even place calls abroad and keep myself informed which in turn helps me run my business." "I also appreciate the low rates and the other services that have made my life easier."

Noman says that life would not have been the same if he did not have his mobile phone. "Taking away my phone would probably have me lose all my money," he exclaims. "I would probably incur the same amount of losses if I closed down my store for two months or so."

Noman is a good example of just how much the widespread proliferation of mobile phones has benefited ordinary people. The phone has helped him with his small scale business as well as his personal life. The cellular phone is no longer a device used only by the rich city slickers, Noman, for instance is from the heart of rural Chittagong. It is in fact a tool which has found its way deep into every nook and cranny of Bangladesh and in the process multitudes of people are now connected to each other at the touch of a finger. For an emerging nation such as Bangladesh it has been said that the spread of mobile phones may add 0.6% to the GDP every year. Aside from that it has greatly affected the social structure of the nation as many women often neglected in villages are now empowered with simply one mobile phone.

Staying connected with loved ones could not get any easier.

The Village or Polli Phone programme is a programme set up by Grameen Telecom where a phone is provided for a village without access to a fixed telephone line and a woman is given responsibility of it and charges for the use of the phone and pays a proportion back to Grameen Phone. Women are typically awarded ownership of the phone instead of men, as they have turned out to be more reliable as creditors and as a result the social structure is changing ever so slightly in the rural areas, which is a lot for just one small phone to do. Aside from the Polli Phone scheme there are also huge numbers of women who have borrowed money from Grameen Bank and have used the micro credit scheme to purchase mobile phones and then rent them out on a call-by-call basis.

The benefit to the disadvantaged areas of Bangladesh mobile phones have had is immense. Many of the stories that come out of those areas are like that of Farida Begum and her children. Fifty-five-year-old Farida Begum, a housewife, with three married daughters and two sons, one of them in Saudi Arabia, says that the mobile phone is probably one of the greatest human inventions ever. "My daughters are married now and live in places away from here," she explains. "It's not possible for them to come and visit me now and then, and neither is it possible for me to leave my home and move around from one place to another. I speak to my daughters at least every other day now and am always updated with their lives."

Farida's son in Saudi Arabia is in constant touch with his family, especially his mother. "I realise that the rates might be a little high," she says. "But I can always call my son whenever there is a need to and he calls me every other day as well."

Cell phones are part and parcel of corporate life.

Farida's youngest son, Mohammad Ershad who owns a small printing press near Hathazari says that everyone owns a mobile phone these days. "Even people living in the remotest parts of the villages own mobile phones", he says, "I use mine to stay in touch with my family when I am away at work. Mostly, I used it to stay in touch with my clients and also to keep myself updated with information regarding paper quality, rates and so on."

Mobile phones are thankfully, no longer the status bearers they were before. In 14 years they have transformed the nation in a way one can only imagine. Even the remotest villages are now merely a phone call away. In the process they have altered the social fabric in a small but noticeable way. Women are no longer the blind followers in the pack, they have emerged as leaders. The effect they have had on the country cannot be measured fully but by potentially adding 0.6% to the GDP every year it cannot be discounted either. From the north of the country right down to the south the industry has touched almost everyone in sight and brought a country together in an unimaginable way. Bangladesh is known for its climatic uncertainty, the roads and rivers seemingly work at will and the citizens are held hostage by the weather. In the past news of floods, drought, death and birth were all slow in coming and when passed down through word of mouth, often quite unreliable. With the widespread usage of mobile phones all the information from the village to the city, from the moffasil to the metropolis is only seconds away. From calling a friend over for lunch to calling a farmer for fresh fruit the mobile phone has brought people together and in the words of professor Yunus may just lift us out from poverty.

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 27 | July 13, 2007 |

Enhancing the Dark

Being of a race where people tend to judge a book merely by its cover, I must admit that the first impression that I had upon casting a glance at the black and red cover-sleeves of Adhar thrust into my hands by a patron of music, was not a very agreeable one. I thought to myself, another group of youngsters drenched in bloody tears, dressed in black rags, visiting grave yards on a weekly basis to define the so-called 'heavy metal' culture in Bangladesh? “I don't think I can deal with another one,” I smiled politely at the patron, hoping that he would not take it too hard since he seemed to like it very much. “You shall listen to it, right now, in my office,” he exclaimed to which I could do nothing but smile sheepishly, while looking for excuses to leave his office located on Elephant Road.

The very next second I realised I was wrong. Not only was I too soon in judging Adhar as one of those bands which tend to pop up every other day in the locality, but I was also wrong in assuming that the music would never appeal to me. In fact, Adhar's debut album Adhare Apshori, a G-series production, seemed to introduce me to several elements that I find absent in many of the younger, struggling bands today.

For one thing, I was struck by the band's innovativeness while listening to each track. Each number in the album defines a particular thought, emotion and even a particular genre. Each composition is marked as belonging to the types of rock fusion, east -- west R&B fusion, alternative, mellow, rock mellow, alter fusion and so on.

The band's experimentation in terms of fusing and mixing the different musical ingredients that many of us experience around us is apparent in the album. There is the aggression along with the smooth vocalising and harmonising in many of the numbers, not to mention the use of universal sounds like the flute, for instance, creating a pacifying bridge with the rock fusions or alternative numbers. I thought I also heard a little bit of sarcasm and wittiness gelled in compositions like Kaare Naeyna, where the pathos of a lover in pain would have a listener nod in agreement and at the same time laugh out loud at the use of colloquial jargon.

After listening to the album (recorded at NMN Adhar station) and understanding what Nopel (Vocals and Guitars), Nomon (Bass and Keys), Sohel (Drums and Percussions), Tomal (Supporting Vocals) tried to express through their music, the black and red cover-sleeves did make some sense to someone as vaguely connected to the world of the graphic designs as I am. The simple yet eye-cacthing shapes and motifs created by Nopel along with the photography done by Raju and Hira (Banglalok) identifies clearly with the compositions in the album, i.e., coming in terms with imperfections, which makes life absolutely perfect.

With Adhare, I could not help but envision a bunch of talented young people who have probably seen a lot on the streets of Dhaka, blending their shocking ideas to come out with something like Adhare Apshori.

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 15 | April 20, 2007 |

Remembering the Dream Maker

I had met Imran Ahmed Chowdhury, popularly known to all musicians as Mobin, during the Ampfest concerts that had taken place in Bangladesh in 2005. The alternative rock band Black was playing an unplugged at the Hotel Sonargaon along with the Pakistani band, Strings. Incidentally, Mobin was the Sound Engineer that night, supervising sound requirements for Black. I was mostly silent around him, keeping a respectful distance from a senior, established sound engineer and musician, looked up to by many in the music fraternity both in Bangladesh and Kolkata. I had heard and seen so much of his skills and all-worldly knowledge of music and sound equipment, that I figured it would be better to silently watch him at work rather than get involved in some kind of a conversation.

That's when he comes up to me and asks if I am old enough for his non-vegetarian jokes, which he would gladly share with me via SMS. "Don't look so stunned," he exclaims at my open-mouthed expression. "Everyone else is enjoying them. I wondered if you were interested." Truly enough, at the Green Room, the men as usual were laughing their guts out at something they were reading out on their cell phones, shared by their Mobin bhai. Mobin bhai's quip worked as an icebreaker for me and very soon I became a part of the gang guffawing over his silly jokes. That was the first and the very last day that I ever spoke to him. On April 20, 2005, a microbus, with Black, fellow musician Tanim and 36-year-old Mobin, headed home from a Djuice concert in Chittagong met with a fatal accident at 4:30 AM, where members of the band were critically injured and Mobin lost his life.

Mobin's musical and engineering talents became known to all in the late 80s. He worked with musicians from all the different streams, namely Miles, Feedback, Aurthothin, Cryptic Fate, LRB, James and many more. Mobin joined Sound Garden, a recoding studio in 1994 and eventually created a new dimension in the area of understanding sound and engineering in the country. He mixed albums like Charpotro, an album that introduced rock music and the existing rock bands as such in Bangladesh, namely Artcell and Black. He has been described by his fellow colleagues as extremely fun-loving, a dedicated sound engineer and an addabaj with a quirky sense of humour.

To date, many still remember Mobin, not only as an asset to the music industry in Bangladesh, but also a great friend. "Mobin brings back a flood of memories not all of it encouraging," says Maqsoodul Huq, whose albums Nishiddho, Ogo Bhalobasha (dHAKA), Bauliana, Deho Ghori of the then Feedback and the song Khuji Tomakey Khuji were mixed by Mobin. "I thought of writing something this year, but (I) think it would be a betrayal of the great faith he had on me first as a musician and secondly as an elder brother, who reasoned with him at all times. Some things I now reckon with, ought not to be spoken or written. Suffice to say he died an embittered man, thanks to all the band music politics. I may say only this -- you really can't keep a good man down -- but it is sad that he had to go back to the Maker this soon!"

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 16 | April 27, 2007 |

Rising from the East

Bally Sagoo

"I so hope to God you are not more than 15-years-old!”-- He is heard saying to a fan who claims to have been listening to Bally Sagoo's music since she was 10. “I have been getting that a lot and it makes me feel so old!” he jokes. Bally Sagoo, a DJ who introduced the melodies of the yester years to the youngsters back in the nineties, recently performed at the Regency Hotel, organised by JPR Events, in collaboration with Radio Foorti, HPC and GMG. Over the last couple of years, JPR Events has flown in international stars namely Udit Narayan, JAL, Yanna Gupta, KK, Bombay Rockers amongst many.

Popular for his hit mixes of classics like “Chura liya”, “Aapki nazron ne samjha” and “Noorie”, Sagoo shocked the Indian entertainment industry with albums like 'Bollywood Flashback' (1994) and 'Rising from the East' (1996).

Born in Delhi, Baljit Singh Sagoo grew up in a ghetto neighbourhood in Birmingham, England. He was influenced by reggae, disco and rap and disliked the traditional desi music that always seemed to hover around him when he was a child. Back then, his father played with Musafir, a South Asian band. “He used to play the accordion and would manage the band as well,” says Sagoo. “In fact he retired from the band recently but is going on with his music.” With a father, an ardent fan of the music from the black and white era and a mother who has been singing kirtans and religious songs at gatherings and prayer meetings, Bally Sagoo had quite a time developing his musical talents as a youngster. A typical Punjabi family, Sagoo's family immigrated to England like any other Indian family back then looking for more fulfilment in life. “We don't speak English at home,” says Sagoo. He grew up speaking Punjabi at home and English outside.

The Sagoos owned a music store for the last 35 years, which was very popular amongst the South Asians living in the neighbourhood. As a youngster, he would steal records from the store and stay up all night listening and working on the music and then replacing them in the morning. “Since my father has always been an oldies fan, one would always find a lot of classic collections at his store,” he explains. “I used to listen to these tracks and would experiment with the rhythm, the basic melody and then eventually would add new parts to them as well.”

Sagoo's famous numbers like “Chura liya”, “Chandni raatein”, “Dil cheez”, “Noorie", "Aapki nazron ne samjha”, “O sathi re” and many more numbers from the golden eras of Indian cinema, appealed to the young folk as well as the older generation. Sagoo would pick the original numbers and would create rhythms on his turntable. He would also add new segments to the song, using acoustic guitars, flutes, violins, sometimes a whole orchestra. In spite of re-making and remixing these old numbers, surprisingly enough, Sagoo's versions have in no way corrupted the essence of the songs. Rather, his music has introduced newer dimensions and layers to these compositions. “It basically depends on the musician,” says Sagoo. “I emphasise on the overall sound of a composition, at the same time keeping the basic elements of the composition the way they are.”

Starting from his home studio in his bedroom called the Currywood Studios, Sagoo has come a long way in the last 15 years. “My first album came out in 1989,” he says. “My actual mixes started to come out in the early 90s, though most of them were done when I was younger.” Much to his parents' dismay, Sagoo was never interested in school and bunked his classes at a regular interval, making special mixes for his friends. “I had lists of requests from my friends in school and would make around 30 pounds every day selling my mixes. That was a lot for a young chap back then!” Sagoo relates a story of his college (university) days when he was caught bunking by his parents. “I started college in 1980 and one day in 1983, I was sleeping when my parents barged into my room and woke me up,” he says. “My mother asked me in Punjabi if I did my classes the day before. I replied saying that it was a holiday of some sort the day before so I had not gone. Then she asked if I went to college the month before. I was silent, which led her to ask me if I actually attended a single class the whole of last year! That is one confrontation with my parents that I will remember for the rest of my life.” Sagoo adds that the traditional upbringing and the discipline that his parents have drilled into him have helped him develop as a human being as well as a musician. “Now of course my parents claim that it was their idea and intention for me to be a world famous musician!” he quips.

Sagoo has also starred in his first movie, “Sajna Ve Sajna”, based on an Indian immigrant belonging to a typical Indian family, in love with a “gora,” as Sagoo puts it, referring to a white woman. “I am the guy!” he says laughing. “I have also produced the soundtracks and am working with big Bollywood star-musicians like Alka Yagnik, Sonu Nigam, Sunidhi Chauhan amongst many more.”

Bally Sagoo is looking for new artists and musicians from all around the world. His record label, Ishq Recods, has signed up with many such musicians who are now working with Sagoo on a regular basis. “Currently I am working on Arabic and South Indian music,” he says. “I don't understand the languages. That's why I will be flying down to these places later on this year and will sit with the locals to work on the songs.” Experimenting with music of all languages, Sagoo is also looking forward to working with Bangali artistes. “All you have to do is log on to and send in your demos,” he says.

Bally Sagoo will soon be producing western artists in the near future. “My music is for the mainstream audience,” he says. “Not everyone might understand the words and lyrics, since I work with compositions belonging to many different languages. That is why I am always emphasising on the instruments and the melody.”

He is proud to be an Indian, “loud and proud,” as he puts it on his website. “But I'm also British. I hope to have captured all these influences in my music for people all around the world to relate to. For me, my music represents bringing different worlds together and uniting them as one,” he says.

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 26 | July 6, 2007 |

Migratory Workers: Will Their Lives Get Any Better?

It is an all too familiar scene-- the long queue of tired-looking men waiting for hours on end outside some shabby-looking office that seems to hold all their hopes and dreams. Outside Mideast Staffing in Banani, is such a line. One group of men seems all set to fly off to Dubai, dressed in yellow matching Mideast Staffing t-shirts and are just finishing up with the last minute formalities. One of them is Nazrul Islam, a thirty-something man who had to sell three bighas of his family land to pay Tk 2,00,000 to the recruitment office. Asked why he thought it was necessary to sell off his family property when he could have easily set up a small business of his own in Bangladesh instead, he says, "I will come back and buy back the three bighas of land along with ten more bighas of land with the money that I earn from Dubai."

The big smile on his face reflects the anticipation of a better future that every migrant worker carries when starting this long and uncertain journey.

While many dreams do come true for them it is also true that migrant workers are one of the most susceptible sections of the labour force in Bangladesh. At least five million Bangladeshis live abroad sending around USD 6 billion remittances every year -- a major source of the government's foreign exchange. They are forever facing hardships both at home and in the host countries. Most of the migrant workers come from rural villages in Bangladesh and are often taken advantage of by various agents and middlemen. They are made to pay large sums of money to migrate to another country, just to go through yet another series of harassment by their foreign employers.

These days different organisations such as BOMSA give migrant workers basic skills training that proves to be invaluable for migrant workers

Naz Groups of Associates, another recruitment office in Banani, has been working in the country sending migrant workers all over the world for over 25 years. Over the years, the company has been reviewing its policies of sending workers abroad and has introduced many strategies to overcome the obstacles that the workers seem to face.

"One of the biggest problems that the workers face when they go to their destination countries is their lack of the appropriate skill," says Hafizur Rahman, the General Manager of the company. Naz Groups has opened up a vocational training section, where the workers are made to go through various kinds of skills training before flying off to their destination countries. "They are trained to fix pipes, work with wood, plaster even sewing and repairing electronic goods," he adds.

Twenty-two-year-old Murshed Islam is bunking out at the mess with a few other people at the accommodations provided by Naz Groups, and comes from all the way from Gazipur. Very soon he will be leaving for Dubai and has registered with the vocational training school to train himself as a carpenter. While working on a staircase, a part of his practical classes, Murshed says that he had to pay at least Tk 2,50,000 for all the paperwork and formalities to the recruitment office. "My father has a small business," says Murshed. "He is sponsoring me along with my elder brother who is also paying a part of the money." Murshed believes that once he comes back home, he will be able to pay back the full amount to his father and brother and eventually offer a better life to his family.

The Daily Star - RMMRU roundtable discusses ways to lessen the burden of the migrant worker

It is not only the families of the migrant workers that benefit from the hard-earned savings that they send home. The remittance that these migrant workers send back to the country contributes immensely in terms of structural and financial developments. According to Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui, the Chairperson of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), about 46 per cent of the total remittances are channelled through official sources, 40 percent through hundi, a quick, relatively cheap and easy method of transferring money from one country to another, 8 per cent hand-carried by the migrant, and 6 per cent through friends and relatives. "Most migrant workers are from the rural areas of the country and they go to other countries leaving their families behind in the hopes of developing one's own family," she says. "They bring back remittances in cash and also in kind, for instance in the form of gold, electronics, television sets and other valuables." Previously, migration has always been seen to make developmental and positive impacts in the host or the receiving countries. However, successive governments in Bangladesh have begun to realise the importance of remittance to the economy since the 1990s.

Sumaiya Islam, the Project Director of BOMSA, believes that the right to information is the solution to the migrant workers' problems.

Remittance is currently, the second highest foreign exchange earning sector after garments manufacturing. According to the research done by RMMRU, for the last two decades, remittances have been around 35 per cent of export earnings, making it the single largest source of foreign currency. If the cost of import of raw materials is adjusted, then the earnings from remittances are higher. Remittances also constitute an important source of the country's budget. They can always play a major role in reducing Bangladesh's dependence on foreign aid. The steady flow of remittances has resolved foreign exchange constraints, improved the balance of payments and helped to increase the supply of national savings.

A recent roundtable session organised jointly by The Daily Star and RMMRU discussed the many obstacles faced by Bangladeshi workers abroad. Siddiqui, mentions in her paper on Safe Migration and Remittance that on an average at least 300,000 people have migrated from Bangladesh annually over the last five years, as short-term contract workers. It is common knowledge that Bangladesh has always been participating in the supply side of the global labour market, being a massive labour surplus country. "This has actually increased the global demand in the market," says Siddiqui.

There are two types of voluntary international migration that take place in Bangladesh -- long-term migration and the short-term migration. Long-term migration is usually made to the west and generally includes those with permanent residency, work permit holders and professionals. Short-term migration is usually made to the Middle Eastern countries and South East Asian countries, where a majority of the workers from Bangladesh migrate. It involves contractual work. These short-term migrants are classified under professional, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

The long wait - outside a recruiting agency.

According to Bangladesh Bank, migrant remittances increased from USD 3.06 billion (2002-2003) to USD 3.85 billion (2004-2005). Currently, most of the country's remittances come from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, amounting to a total of USD 1462.41 million, where the maximum number of the labour force from Bangladesh migrate to. The Bangladesh Bank reserves hold an amount of almost USD 5 billion as foreign exchanges from remittances and hopes to reach the USD 6 billion mark by the end of this year.

Dr. Siddiqui says that she appreciates Bangladesh Bank's initiative at undertaking various reforms such as allowing floating exchange rate in current account, fixing time limits for remittance transfer, encouraging banks to switch over to electronic fund transfer system, reducing the lead time, allowing expansion of exchange houses and corresponding banks and establishing a system of lodging complaints by the remitters.

In spite of all this, banks in Bangladesh still handle remittances using the old system and most of the bank branches in the rural areas do not have e-mail or other modern facilities. This is one of the biggest reasons behind the delays the delivery of remittances to families of the migrant workers. "Sometimes it takes up to 12-15 days to deliver the money to a family," said Nazrul Islam of Agrani Bank. "The banks are very old and complicated." Even though a series of private banks have opened up in the country with modern technology and the latest business concepts, the rural villages do not have access to them. These private banks have branched out only to the main sections of the big cities unlike the local banks that have a branch or two in at least every thana.

Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui says that upon return the migrants' plight continues in the absence of institutional opportunities for economic reintegration.

ATM Nasir Uddin, the Executive Director of Bangladesh Bank says that the bank has undertaken a project called the Automated Payment System, which deals with many of the internal glitches that the banks in the country go through. "Once this project becomes a success, the communication and the netting between the many banks within and outside the country will improve and thereby erase the primitive obstacles that the local banks face every other day," he says.

Dr. Siddiqui's paper on 'Safe Migration and Remittance' points out the unscrupulous recruitment practices that have led to high costs, fraud and pauperisation of a section of migrant workers. Because the laws, ways of society, the environment and even the nature of the employers are so unpredictable to the migrant worker on his or her way to work far away from home, many workers are exploited and taken advantage of. For instance, they are given irregular wages, they are made to work in terrible working conditions and, sometimes, even their movements come under heavy restrictions. Upon return, says Siddiqui, the migrants' plight continues in the absence of institutional opportunities for economic reintegration.

Even though most of the workers still go to the Middle East, many young men have drifted towards Malaysia in recent years, despite the horrifying stories of harassed Bangladeshis still living in The Southeast Asian country. Hafizur Rahman, the General Manager of Naz Groups believes that the problems actually lie between the pre-immigration period till the worker gets the job. "The immigration procedure in the Malaysian airport has changed a great deal," he says. "They now check fingerprints of the workers, along with their photographs and other details while verifying the visas." After that the workers are put up together, sometimes 30-40 in one room by the agent, till all the paper work is completed in Malaysia for the worker to begin with the job. "Sometimes it takes even as long as 15 days," says Rahman.

Shiekh Rumana, a migrant worker who worked in Malaysia for six years(left), Parul Akhtar, preparing herself at BOMSA for Dubai.

However, Sumaiya Islam, the Project Director Bangladesh Ovibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) says that these workers are not properly informed by the recruitment agencies nor is any initiative taken by the government to ensure this right to information. "Two major issues that the government should look into are right to information and national focus regarding migration to other countries," she says, "When a major chunk of the contribution to the country's economy depends on the remittance that the migrant workers send to Bangladesh, there should be proper policies implemented by the government, so that the migrant workers are not taken advantage of in their home countries and also their host countries."

BOMSA has been working with female migrants for years now and sending female workers in countries like the UAE, Mauritius, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait. "Most of these women go as homeworkers," says Lily Jahan, the Project Coordinator. "These women come from rural areas and have never even seen a proper refrigerator. They go through three stages of training: orientation, pre-departure and skills training. They are taught to use sandwich makers, rice cookers, washing machines, cookers and stoves."

An agent at Naz Groups, looking for a hundred migrant workers for a private company in the Middle East.

Parul Akhtar is getting ready to go to Dubai. A mother of two children, she has come all the way from Noakhali, to get her training at BOMSA. She will be a homeworker in Dubai and had to pay around Tk 35,000 to the recruiting agency. "My family cannot cope with my husband's earnings," she says, "That's why I decided to work abroad. I will get to come back home after every three years for a month or two for a vacation."

Sheikh Rumana, the General Secretary of BOMSA, worked in Malaysia in the Garments Factory for six years. She had to pay Tk 45,000 to Happy International in Malibagh to complete her paperwork and go to Malaysia to work. "I was one of the lucky ones since my accommodation arrangement was not as bad as the others," she says, "However, I was not given the facilities that I was promised before leaving Dhaka. For the first three years, I could not send anything back home. For the first week, we were given meals as was promised. Afterwards, we were charge for our food. Eventually, we were also being charged for the electricity, which was supposed to be paid for as well."

According to Sumaiya, female migrant workers are supposed to migrate for free, since the visas and the travel costs come from private employers looking for homeworkers. "In fact, they are also provided with USD 200 along with the visa," she says, "Where does the money go? It's obvious that the recruitment office keeps it."

In fact, in Saudi Arabia, visa processing costs exactly SR 2000. However, the migrant workers here pay close to at least SR 10,000 only for the visa to the recruitment offices. "This happens because the migrant workers are not informed about anything, as they should be," asserts Sumaiya.

Many migrant workers believe that if not VIP treatment, there should be some added benefits, too for them when they enter the country. They should be given a tax holiday, check-in and clearing facilities at the airport have to be improved. The authorities should put more emphasis on this neglected sector by giving the migrant workers more incentives, and it can also come up with investment packages that will help build a prosperous Bangladesh. There must be recognition for those who toil in extreme circumstances in an alien land. A proper effective migration policy is integral to the economic development of our country. It could make a world of difference to the lives of hundreds and thousands of migrant workers of this country.

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 2cover, 2007 |

What's in a Brand?

Juliet has intellectuals and lovers swooning in agreement when she exclaims at roses smelling just as sweet with any given name whatsoever. “What's in a name,” as she voices out William Shakespeare in the famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet. However, there is definitely something in showing off those Nikes while walking back home with friends. Diamond carvings of all kinds seem like glass when compared to Nakshatra. Choosing between Gucci and Swatch sometimes becomes a mind-boggling task, while witnessing the 'cold-war' between Pepsi and Coca-Cola for decades.

In today's world where competition has seized yet another precious part of life, branding seems to be a concept that plays a very significant role in the choices that we make in our daily lives. For instance food that we eat, the newspapers we read, the clothes we wear, the accessories and electronic appliances that we use and even the car that we drive lead us to become players unknowingly in both the local and international markets.

In Bangladesh, the conventional trade mindset regarding running businesses has mostly been based on importing goods and selling them without actually creating any kind of value addition in the market. Therefore, consumers would naturally prioritise and focus on price of a product rather than need, quality and service. All one has to do is wait till the next player enters the scenario with products claiming to be of better quality and cheaper price and the market has a new ruler. Thus the beginning of cut-throat competition where there is always the risk of being driven out of the market.

However, the local market in Bangladesh has been conquered by the global market. For instance, through understanding the needs of the consumers, the Indian brand of Parachute took over the hair oil market in Bangladesh, where Aromatic ruled the industry for a long time. “However, if one looks in to the Aromatic or the entire soap market,” says Shariful Islam, the CEO of Brandzeal, a brand consultancy firm, “very few local soaps or similar products follow a proper brand management process and drive themselves into building a brand that would enter and thrive in the market for a brief period of time and then falter.” Even then, Bangladesh happens to be a haven for the international markets in terms of cheap labour and raw materials.

“Understanding of branding is essential as it is the starting point of building a sustainable business model,” says Islam. “Today we see only a handful of local brands which have been sustaining and growing in the last 20-25 years in Bangladesh.”

Brandzeal has organised the first Bangladeshi Brand Forum comprising of leading national and international brand experts, in partnership with the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) and Global Brand Forum from Singapore and Grameen Phone as the platinum sponsor. The forum will hold a two-day long seminar on April 28 and 29 at Hotel Sonargaon where local and international experts will be brought together to share their insights and knowledge regarding the subject.

The speakers who will be attending the seminars are S Karthik, the Chairperson of Global Brand Forum from Singapore, Tofael Rashid, New platform Director, PepsiCo International, Steven Van Der Kruit, Creative Director of Firmenich, Argha Sen, Head of Marketing and CRM of Toys LiFung, the Asia franchise of Toys R Us, Sudas Roy, Professor of Marketing from, Rubaba Dowla Matin, Head of Brands and Customer Management, Grameen Phone, Ata Safdar, Managing Director of Reckitt Benckiser, Muneer Ahmed Khan, Chairperson and Creative Head of Unitrend Ltd., Mushtaq Ahmed, Managing Director of Marks and Allys and Professor Ferhat Anwar from IBA.

Aside from the seminars, a brand concept fair will take place at IBA on the same days where key marketing and branding techniques will be emphasised through concept booths, instead of company booths. “Each booth will represent an idea, its concept theory and a real life example,” says Islam. For instance the concepts of Segmentation, Planning and many other elements will be explained very graphically where students will enact parts for live examples.

It's time for Bangladesh to be heard in the global market. As a school of advertising says, "If the consumer has heard of us, we've done our job.”

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 14 | April 13, 2007 |

Bangla's Voice against Poverty

Over the years, Bangla, the rock group, has come to be an icon of culture in Bangladesh. Not only do they showcase the ancient folk traditions of the land, they have also successfully brought the ancient form of music, to the delight of the young music lovers, redefining folk-fusion music in the country.

Bangla represented Bangladesh at the anti poverty concert titled Your Voice against Poverty, where some of the biggest icons of music in the world such as Bono, the lead singer of U2 and Bob Geldolf performed, held earlier this month in Rostock, Germany. Simultaneously, the G8 summit was taking place at nearby Heiligendamm. Mocked as the P8 summit, Bangla did feel a little strange representing Bangladesh as one of the eight poorest nations of the world. The others were Bolivien, Kambodscha, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba from Mali, Mo' Some Big Noise from Mozambique, Perrozompopo from Nicaragua, Leo Muntu and Menshan from Sambia and Peter Miles and Menshan from Uganda.

Anusheh, from the band Bangla, explains this as one of the show of their lifetime and feels extremely lucky to have been given a chance to voice out along with the thousands of supporters who were expressing their sentiments along with the musicians.

The band's first performance was at Halle, near Leipzig on June 1. “As soon as we landed at the airport, we were greeted by our manager Carmen,” says Anusheh. “She immediately handed each of us an orange sheet filled with our scheduled programmes and was with us throughout the trip.” Other than Anusheh, Buno and Onob, guitarist Kartik joined them, along with Nazrul the dhol player and Ishmail, a British Trinidadian percussionist who played the drums with Bangla. Ishmail is now working regularly with Bangla as well and had even played in their last album.

Bangla performing at one of the concerts.

On June 4, they performed for the Bangladeshi community in Berlin. “I am sorry to say but this show was probably one of the worst experiences ever,” she says. The show was organised for the seven hundred Bangladeshis who live in Berlin under the same banner of Your Voice against Poverty. “They were sending little slips of notes to us on stage, requesting us to do fast dance tracks and Hindi numbers,” she adds. “There were instances during the performance when I would speak about the purpose of our being there and how they could fight poverty staying there in Berlin. However, I was flabbergasted when I realised how these people actually brought the political dirt to Berlin all the way from Bangladesh, grouping themselves as supporters of BNP and Awami League, and that too clearly stated on their visiting/business cards!” However, the audience was very much indifferent to Bangla's pleas about world harmony and alleviating poverty or just could not under-stand what the 'band party' who had come from Dhaka were actually talking about. “They were busy dancing hip-hop to our music,” she says. “During break, little girls were dancing to popular Hindi music. That was basically the last straw. It's disheartening to see how these people are wasting away their talents, skills and culture away, living in Berlin but mixing up the Bollywood customs along with theirs.”

Representatives of the eight poor nations along with Bono and Bob Geldolf at a press conference. Anusheh from Bangla and Dr. Muhammad Yunus represent Bangladesh at the anti poverty concert.

On June 6, Bangla witnessed real-life action when they performed at yet another concert organised by Rostock Attac, an anti G8 and anti capitalist organisation. “It was by the Baltic sea, where protestors were listening to the music,” says Anusheh. “They were protesting against the summit and would not let the world leaders enter Germany. That's when the government launched 16,000 police officers in the city.” The protestors were ready and all equipped with ammunition though. “They had shopping carts filled with stones to throw at the officers and special eye drops to use in case the police would begin to bombard them with tear gas!”

When Bangla stepped inside the park in Rostock where the concert was to be held, a day before the grand finale for sound check, “we couldn't stop giggling and smiling like young school kids!” says Anushesh. “It was huge! The stage was massive, probably as big as my apartment. The back stage was as big as the Abahani field in Dhanmondi.”

The day of the concert, Bangla, as per the routine that is followed in concerts in Dhaka, were going up to tune and check their instruments. “A group of people came and stopped us,” she says. A technician for each instrument took over to check the instruments for Bangla. “We were asked to just go up on stage waving at the audience like stars and voice out against all the evils in the world!” Bangla performed their very popular Namaaz amar hoilo na aday and their version of SD Burman's Bangladesher dhol in front of 85,000 people.

The tour for Bangla was jointly sponsored by Netz Bangladesh, a German NGO in Dhaka who has been working for 25 years in Dhaka and Herbert Gronemeyer, a German rock star. The last two songs at the concert were performed by Gronemeyer and Bono, when the thousands of people sang along. "It was a very emotional moment," says Anusheh. "Gronemeyer is truly a very humble person, checking on us every few minutes to see if we were doing ok. I am still fascinated by his passion for music which he used to voice out for the cause that he believes in."

Nobel Laureate Dr. Mohammad Yunus got up on stage as soon as Bangla got off and literally got the audience to stand up against poverty when they gave him a standing ovation. “His speech was very encouraging and it clearly enthralled the audience,” she says.

The highlight of the concert must have been when Bono performed the Redemption Song with Youssou N'Dour and Bob Geldof, You Never Give Me Your Money / Carry That Weight with Youssou N'Dour, Bob Geldof, and the Toten Hosen's Campino, and Get Up Stand Up with Youssou N'Dour and Bob Geldof.

At one of the concerts, Anusheh spoke against giving aid to poor countries, described it as “AIDS” and emphasised on how “it cripples a country”. “Rather than that, there should be more investments in the country so that our people can earn instead of wait for the cash to flow from unknown sources,” she explains. “I got a call later on, where the authorities asked me not to speak against aid giving, since that was the whole purpose of the P8 concert.”

Did the P8 summit and the Your Voice against Poverty fulfil its purpose and create the impact on the right people? “I have to admit that the whole idea did seem a little utopian,” says Anusheh. “Not everything seemed very realistic to me. But then again we need idealists as well to make the world go round.”

Amid Protests and Music

People all over the world watched earlier this month, as the proceedings of the 33rd G8 summit took place in Germany. The Group of Eight, which includes the governments of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, the G8 is an international forum representing at least 65% of the world's economy.

This year, the world leaders focused on investment, innovation and sustainability and good governance, sustainable investment, peace and security in Africa, where the summit's motto was “Growth and Responsibility”. As every year, discussions were held regarding transparency of financial markets, intellectual property and energy efficiency.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor had mentioned at the end of the 32nd G8 summit held in Russia that the summit in 2007 would focus more on the struggle against poverty across the globe. Criticised vehemently by several movement-groups all over the world, the G8 summits taking place every year have been lambasted for indirectly or directly that promote policies that result in weakening the economies of developing nations thereby exacerbating rather than reducing poverty.

This year, however, a proposal to halve global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 was announced at the summit. According to a Greenpeace report, it seems there was a clear split between among the G8 member countries regarding this issue. This issue was welcomed by all the members of the summit, except for the US President W. Bush who blocked it until the other major greenhouse gas emitting countries, like India and China make similar commitments.

The report further said that the governments fought publicly over this issue for days. The discussions and the arguments finally ended with the world leaders agreeing to seriously consider the issue. The G8 nations are said to be responsible for over 80 percent of the climate change and still emit over 40 percent of all global emissions.

Protests and criticisms of the G8 summit were as vehement as they had been in the past years. However, this year the protests took a different turn, coming up with an anti-poverty concert staged to send the world leaders of the G8, a musical message. At least 85,000 music lovers got together in a park in the city of Rostock. They listened to the bands from some of the developing nations of the world and made their political demands addressed to the leaders of the world's richest nations meeting in nearby Heiligendam.

Some of the well-known criticisms about the G8 summit are that the member countries are responsible for several global issues such as poverty in Africa and other developing countries because of debt crisis and unfair trade policy, global warming because of carbon dioxide emissions, AIDS problem due to strict medicine patent policy and other problems that are related to globalisation.

Copyright (R) 2007

Volume 6 Issue 24 | June 22, 2007 |

Friday, June 15, 2007

Seven Days on the Other Side

Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

On May 22, 2007, a seven-member team of journalists from Bangladesh was invited to a week long tour of Pakistan; a country not on the top of anybody's list for a visit with all the violence and unrest. The delegation comprised of Doulot Akter of The Financial Express, Alpha Arzu of The New Age, Golam Mustofa Sarwar of Ittefaq, Ataul Gani Osmani of The Independent, Salim Zahid of Jugantor, Shariq Rahman of The Probe and myself.

The scorching heat hit us as soon as we stepped out of Karachi International Airport. Trying with all my might to keep my eyes open and smile at Mr. Salman, the protocol officer who would be accompanying us everywhere in Karachi, I came face to face with McDonalds! It's been more than five years since I had been inside McDonalds, I thought to myself. All around me, burly men dressed in shalwar kurtas were walking by, while burkha-clad women were entering McDonalds keeping a strong hold on toddlers and shopping bags with both hands.

Main Street, at the Taxila City Ruins.

We drove over one fly-over after another, while on our way to the guesthouse, for which Warid Telecom in Pakistan sponsored the accommodations. Karachi seemed to be an extension of the Middle East, as one elderly journalist had put at the Karachi Press Club that we visited later on. Standing on the borders of desert areas like Baluchistan, a normal summer day in Karachi would be around 37-40 degrees Celsius with hardly any rain in the city. “Karachi would get clogged with water if it ever did rain!” exclaimed Rizwan, one of the Warid officials from Lahore who we met at the guesthouse.

Something that fascinated me on the streets was the local bus in Karachi. Other than the series of buses that carried company logos, advertisements of soft drinks, telecom companies and detergent powders, the local buses of Karachi were a sight to cherish for any foreign visitor. Decorated with colourful paper-cut outs, glittery cloth pieces and flashing aluminium lights, these traditional red buses were as glittery as Christmas decorations. Further down the streets, we even found toy replicas of these traditional buses for foreign visitors to buy as souvenirs.

We visited the Karachi Press Club the next day. Located at the centre of the city, the ancient architecture of the structure took our breath away. This 117-year-old structure had big windows, broad staircases and high ceilings amongst many other homely features. Beside the club, visitors could loiter around in the lawn and enjoy cups of coffee. The 'homeliness' that I felt within the club did not stop there. The members of the club took us under their wings and gave us a warm welcome. In between all the discussions regarding politics, trade and social issues in both the countries, these elderly journalists reminisced about the years before 1971, when journalists from both the countries worked together. How do they view the war between the two lands in 1971, we ask them. For a moment, there was meaningful silence in the room. Many of these older journalists had been there and probably even saw many of their fellow Bangladeshi colleagues suffer and even sacrifice their lives during the Liberation War. Many of the journalists wanted to say so many things, but all they ended up with was, “What happened back then was very tragic.” Moving on to the present political conditions of the two countries, the same journalist commented on the recent events that had taken place in Karachi. “The people of South Asia end up showing the streak of cannibalism that they possess within. During riots here in Karachi, we saw people lynching young people as old as fourteen and dancing on dead bodies.” Despite the numerous differences that I can count on my fingers between Pakistan and Bangladesh, some things stay the same.

A scene from Food Street in Lahore.

The highlight of the Karachi visit was the visit to Clifton beach. Sitting amongst families, school children, camels and horses alike, we came across a young photographer who was walking about from one place to another, asking visitors if anyone would like to take a picture besides the splashing waves or the decorated camels. I kept looking at these camels and horses and wondered at the visitors who were paying Rs 40 to Rs 200 just for a ride. Though I have never been a big animal-person, I have always imagined myself riding a white stallion on the beach, with my hair flying against the wind and music playing in the background. Here was my chance to live my dream. Unfortunately, the horses were too dirty, wobbly and expensive. I had to settle for a camel ride. Alpha Arzu from the New Age and I bargained with a camel keeper, as was the custom, agreed on an amount and finally got ready to ride our camel across the desert (rather the seashore). A word of advice to all those who are always looking for adventure out there, go for a horse ride rather than a camel ride, and even if you do go for a camel, never choose the back seat. While on the camel, my screams of fear and pain were mistaken for screams of joy and excitement. The camel keeper got encouraged and had the camel run faster. That night, I had to walk off the muscle strains before I could sit properly again.

Islamabad seemed to be a different country all together, as compared to Karachi. Comparatively a new city, Islamabad was still under construction as we saw when the delegation landed at around 10:30 pm that night. Divided into sectors categorised under alphabets and numerals, the best thing about the city was its cool weather. Roads and buildings were covered with trees and flowers such as the different hues of bougainvillea.

Islamabad seemed to encompass both modernisation in terms of infrastructural development as well as tradition still holding the remains of ancient civilisations. We were taken to the Taxila museum, situated a little away from the city, and one of the old city ruins as well. History had never seemed so exciting ever before. We gaped in wonder at the statue of the Fasting Buddha from the Gandhara Civilisations, the little glass ornaments, cooking utensils, water purifiers, the architecture.. At an actual Taxila site where the city ruins were kept intact, we saw that this ancient city was planned according to sectors, with residential areas behind the commercial buildings. “The city plans of Islamabad are based on the ancient designs of Taxila,” explained one of the guides at the site.

Visits to Faisal Mosque and Damn-e-Koh confirmed my theory that Islamabad was probably one of the most peaceful cities in the country. The mosque, attached to one of the biggest universities, the Islamic University, was literally covered with marbles and gold. The insides of the mosque had bookshelves lined up where people after prayers could refer to Islamic texts and translations of the Holy Quran. Moreover, the area practically reflected an aura of inner peace and beauty.

Wagha Border in Lahore.

Damn-e-Koh is located high up in the mountains, developed further to make it into a colourful spot for tourists. Starting from roadside musicians to monkeys dancing on the footpaths, this place attract a number of visitors and tourists especially during the spring season.

At the FPCCI and at a meeting with the State Minister for Information, we were told constantly about how Pakistan wanted to have stronger trade relations with Bangladesh. The vice president of FPCCI, Mohammad Farooq Dadabhoy, asserted on the fact that, like all the other countries, Bangladesh should organise single country trade fairs in Pakistan. “We are always interested in exporting goods from Bangladesh,” he says. “Somehow, Bangladeshi traders simply emphasise on import of raw materials from Pakistan, for instance cotton.”

We went to Lahore by road, our very last stop. As our coaster drove on the famous motorway, built on the mountains connecting Islamabad and Lahore, the members of the delegation got to know each other better. By then, we had all become used to the Pakistani food, the ways of the society and also the language. In fact, our fantastic grasp on Urdu led us to many victorious, though minor, conquests in Pakistan. For instance, Shagor Sarwar from Ittefaq was looking for paan after a hearty dinner at the famous Food Street in Lahore. After hours of searching for this deshi delicacy, he finally found a roadside stall selling a variety of paan. Smiling like a happy child with all the ice cream in the world to eat, he was seen explaining to the paanwallah, the paan eating habits in Bangladesh. The shopkeeper's look of confusion increased when Shagor said in the strange mix of Bangla and Urdu that he was using to communicate with the natives, “Hum bhi majhe majhe paan khata.” (I tend to eat paan sometimes as well).

The State Guesthouse where we were put up in Lahore was more than 250 years old. It was right out of a horror movie, complete with hundreds of rooms with gloomy pictures, king-sized closets and fireplaces. I was certain that dead people often visited the large halls, the breathtaking lawns and the beautifully furnished bedrooms while we slept or were out for the day.

The historic tombs, palaces created by the Mughal emperors, the legendary Shish Mahal, music blaring out from a nearby tea stall, the chaos and commotion created by traffic jams and large numbers of people walking from one place to another in the city took us all back home to 'good old' Dhaka City.

Food Street, a famous street in Lahore where families dine out, became immensely popular with the delegation. Not only did we get to eat cheap, we also got to witness the real Lahorites, as they call themselves, in action. Food Street, a long stretch of street filled with shops and stores on both sides of the streets, catered to people from all walks of society. The street would open up at around 5 pm and go on till well after midnight to the wee hours of morning. Though most of the food on Food Street is traditional Pakistani, two of the most famous eateries were the only ones selling fish, something that Lahorites tend to eat mostly during the winter season.

The trip to Pakistan would have been incomplete, if we had not visited the Wagha Border. Thousands of Indians and Pakistanis had thronged each side of the border, singing patriotic numbers, entertaining the audiences with dances and instruments. Soldiers from both the countries showcased their strength, banging their feet on the ground, screaming out incomprehensible words and carrying out identical feats of strength and power amidst the cheering crowds. In the end, soldier representatives from both the countries hoisted their national flags, shook hands on no-man's-land and stepped back into their own territories. To my knowledge, this is probably the only form of bondage that I have ever seen in public between the two nations.

Something that I could not help noting was the contradictions in the way women were seen. There were many women reigning over various professions, for instance journalism, both electronic and print. In fact there were quite a few female camerapersons taking our footage during the meeting with the Governor. However, on the other hand, women were hardly seen on the streets of Pakistan. We were even told that women did not go to cyber cafes in Pakistan as it was not acceptable behaviour on the part of a woman. Thus many of us were stranded in the country with no connection with Bangladesh for a whole week, if one does not count the virus-infected computer at the guesthouse that is.

There were times when I thought that I saw a little bit of guilt in the eyes of the common people who we met and spoke to randomly on the streets, or even the journalists, once we would tell them that we had come from Bangladesh. The shadow of guilt would flicker in their eyes for a moment and then disappear as quickly as it would appear. “What the authority back then in Pakistan did was not right,” remarked one senior journalist from PTV mentioned to me in Islamabad. “But that authority does not exist anymore and the bond between the people of the two countries should be built once again.” It was obvious that he like many of his compatriots did not see the need for official apologies. I wondered at the hospitality that we received from the people of Pakistan, the love and the care that they gave us in the seven days that we were there and the friendships that we made with many in those few days. “The past still exists in Bangladesh, even though the authority does not, as you say, in Pakistan,” I said respectfully to the elderly journalist, also one of the pioneers of electronic media in Pakistan. “We still have survivors, innocent sufferers and rape victims from the war, living the horror that they did in 1971, even now. I don't know if merely creating a bond of friendship would have anyone forget the atrocities committed 36 years ago.”

Volume 6 Issue 22 | June 8, 2007 |

Copyright (R) 2007