Archive for June, 2009

Delta Difference

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Jun 27, 2009

If it’s tricks they have up their sleeves, it’s the Bangladeshi diaspora

In courage and in enterprise, they have today begun to resemble Sikhs

One evening at the New Orleans harbour some years ago, I was astonished to see four men playing cricket with a tennis ball. Cricket on the bank of the Mississippi! I went up to them. They were Bangladeshis, cooks on a superluxury cruise liner. They had been travelling the world on the liner for five years.

They are everywhere, Bangladeshis, and in the most unlikely places. In Tokyo, I met a young man from Dhaka who had won a slogan-writing contest run by a Japanese consumer electronics company. The prize was a week-long trip to Japan. He quietly stayed on, learnt Japanese, worked as a waiter and when I met him, he had his own company which employed over a dozen Japanese. What did his company do, I asked him. Ummmm, export and import, he replied vaguely.

In courage and enterprise, Bangladeshis have today begun resembling Sikhs, ready to take a chance, somehow manage to reach somewhere across the world and, quite simply, rewrite their life stories. They work hard, are willing to do the most menial of jobs, and have a single-minded vision: I will be rich one day. And many of them do get rich. On the chars (silt islands) of the Barak river in Assam, Bangladeshi migrants are farming quite successfully. Not a blade of grass was known to have grown there since the beginning of time. In the Delhi suburbs of Gurgaon and Noida, almost all the domestic help and rickshaw wallas are Bangladeshi. Most have been given voter cards by political parties in West Bengal. The deal: during elections, they have to go down and vote; otherwise the voter card is cancelled.

They come from a country beset with every problem on earth: corrupt politicians, civil unrest, extreme income inequity, disease. Even the weather gods seem to hate Bangladesh. The sea is rising, and much of the country could simply disappear by the end of this century. If even that was not enough, nearly every year, it is hit by devastating cyclones or floods that slaughter thousands of people. But all these also build enormous resilience—and the knowledge that they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

In Rome, it’s nearly impossible to take a walk or have a meal at an outdoor restaurant without being overrun by Bangladeshis selling anything under the sun: caps, purses, bouquets, souvenirs. The only hamburger joint at St Peter’s Square is run Bangladeshis. On the streets of Rome, I meet Abul Kalam Azad, who sells baubles for a living. Since he is an illegal immigrant, he has no right to do business in Italy. So he carries all his wares in his pockets (he wears a jacket with many). As soon as I tell him that my family is originally from what was called East Bengal, his face lights up. He claims he is a former journalist. Twelve years ago, he managed to sneak into Moscow. But business wasn’t good there, so a year later, he came to Rome by road. How the hell did he cross so many borders illegally? He smiles mysteriously at that. He is a poet and insists he will sing me one of his songs. He sings. To be fair, the lyrics and tune are passable, though not of any high order.

He claims he is the leader of all the illegal immigrants in Rome. He has addressed meetings attended by more than a lakh people. Whenever the police try a crackdown, he comes to the fore. I have no idea how much of this is true, but he says he has saved more than Rs 2 crore, and will now buy a house and get his family over. After which I have to come to Italy once more and stay with him: his wife is an excellent cook. He gives me his phone number and tells me: “If you have any problem anywhere in Italy, just call me. My network is everywhere. My men will reach you in minutes.” Suitably impressed, I leave.

Some years ago, a friend’s wife was showing me around Manhattan. I wanted to buy some stuff to take back to India as gifts. We were choosing some T-shirts, when the shop assistant came up and asked: “Are you Bengali?” I confirmed this. He lowered his voice and said in Bangla: “Don’t buy from that batch of T-shirts. They won’t last. Take from this side of the pack.” Jai Bangladeshi!

Striking Early Boundaries

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Jun 20, 2009

Cricket, growing up, was cricket alright—plain and simple. Am not so sure now

Any right-handed player 12 years of age and above had to bat left-handed and vice versa

o India is out of the T20 World Cup. Well, what to do? But what can’t be denied me is that every time I watch a T20 match, I remember my childhood gully cricket days in Kolkata and Mumbai. What fun it was! Every day, sharp at four in the afternoon, from September to March, we boys would assemble in the concrete compound of our colony in Kolkata with bat and ball. The wicket would be drawn out in chalk on the wall of one of the buildings. The bowler’s-end wicket would be a brick. Teams would be chosen. This was a process of inevitable humiliation, since the two captains would alternate in calling out a name each, and we would all know how our recent performances had been evaluated. What a shame it was to be the last boy standing and being placed in a team because the team had no other choice.

More than the conventional form of the game, we preferred the ‘last man batting’ one, when a lone batsman, after he had run out of partners, would continue to bat till his bitter end. Most games were fractious; dismissals—especially LBWs—were debated heatedly. When push came to shove, if the batsman declared out was the one who owned the bat, he would just desert the game and go home with his bat, leaving everyone stranded. If the fielding team was firmly convinced that the batsman was out, and the batting team wouldn’t agree, the captain of the fielding side would shout “Fielding declared!”, and his team would go off to pursue other activities, leaving the batting team to sulk. But the next day, at four, we would be back out there again.

The balls used were made of rubber, because tennis balls were a luxury. They were used only when our colony’s team played the team from a neighbouring colony. These were often a series of matches—three or five, and our honour, and our colony’s honour, rode on them. Our elders—boys who were 16 or more—would form the selection committee. They would huddle together and discuss the merits and current form of each one of us, and then hand us a piece of paper on which the names of the lucky 11 were written neatly. The rest of us would have to be content with cheering our team at the matches.

The big menace was irate adults whose windows would be broken by lofted sixers. Periodically, our residents’ association would circulate notices banning cricket in the colony. We would then relocate to a nearby street, which was not as much fun because there was no off-side or leg-side; you could score only by hitting straight. But there was an old gentleman there who would sit on his verandah and watch our matches with avid interest. If someone hit a four or a six, he would clap his hands and shout, “Daphne! Daphne!” Thirty-five years later, I am still trying to figure that one out.

Finally, we found a safe haven on a small patch of grass at the back of our colony. The only hitch was that there was a high wall which blocked off the leg side. So the fielders at square leg, mid-wicket and mid-on would stand on the other side of the wall with no view of the proceedings.

eriodically, a ball would appear above the wall, with no prior warning, and they would have to run after it, or even make a catch out of it. It was a tough life, our childhood cricket, but I don’t remember ever thinking that it was tough, then.

We moved to Mumbai, where, at the first colony we stayed in, I encountered some strange rules. Any right-handed player 12 years of age and above had to bat left-handed and vice versa! I was 12, and this was no fun. Of course, the matches were shorter, and we could play several matches per day. But though I could see the logic of this, I never managed to see the point of it. Why play your favourite game with one arm tied behind your back?

Thankfully, we moved within a year, and in our new apartment building, the rules were conventional. We played and we were happy. Windows continued to be broken, and though there was much gnashing of teeth among the adults, no action was taken. This was, after all, Mumbai of the 70s, the Mecca of Indian cricket. Glorious days, those were. And so what if India’s out of the T20 World Cup?