We checked into our home for the next month, a hotel on Green Road (left) in Dhaka’s older downtown area, strategized for the workshop, and decided to get settled in and then meet up for dinner after a bit.
"Settling in” meant, for starters, moving the furniture around to get access to the one plug in the room. Well, there are two plugs, in fairness – one on the lower wall, where it would be expected, that takes a flat, three-pronged plug, and one on the wall near the bathroom door, five feet from the floor, that takes a round two-pronged socket. (The Bangladeshis are very egalitarian about how they get their electricity – there are three different, incompatibly shaped, sockets, and most rooms will have at least two of them. Thankfully, I have adapters for both.) I hung up my dress shirts on the four hangers in the chifforobe (it’s a conservative country and as I’m here for work I packed accordingly), and threw my socks and underwear into a drawer. And I was moved in. My “hotel room” is not what you’re thinking, probably – it’s a smallish, single dorm room with plumbing that will occasionally tease me with hot water, a tile floor, a double bed, and one, well, two, plugs. The bed, when I went to sink into it, resisted. It’s firm, very firm, essentially a futon mattress on a wooden frame – but it’s got two pillows and a duvet. The room is immaculate and all I need. Well, a little insulation around the windows to keep out some of the daytime traffic or the early morning call to prayer from the Mosque would be nice.
I’ve not found the mosque from which these calls are coming, though every morning when I’m awakened I think it’s been set up in my room. It’s loud. I remember as a kid hearing the church bells of Sacred Heart ring the Angelus at six am, noon and six pm, but this is nothing like that – for one thing, we were about a mile from Sacred Heart and the mosque is about a foot, I think. For another, one mosque starts and then a neighboring mosque, perhaps having a different (more relaxed?) sense of time, will begin its call, and so on, for about seven to ten pre-dawn minutes. Perhaps in the countryside it’s a pleasant part of the cadence of life, like Sacred Heart’s bells were in Fowler, but here in Dhaka, well, I hear them. Every morning.
We met in the lobby and Jeff suggested a typical Bangladeshi place, the Aashiana, which he had found on a previous trip to Dhaka where the food was good and the owner was nice. After a ten minute walk, we found it (no small feat!) and walked in to what had the feel of a boisterous political or union rally going on in the main dining room – call and response, spontaneous “Yes!” and “No!” outbursts (in English) . There was an empty table, though, and after a brief look at the menu we let our colleague order family style for the three of us. (What do I know from Bengali food?) Soon the owner, Mohammed, came over, heartily welcomed my colleague back, and invited us all to move to a “special room” a little set apart from the noise.
Mohammed (or “Md.” as it is inevitably abbreviated in the Daily Star, the Bangladeshi paper) is probably 40, and the self-described owner, manager, waiter, and chef though he has a staff of at least ten. The Aashiana is a middle class Bangladeshi restaurant, and he told us he’s doing a good business, keeping busy, and thinking about opening a place in Rangoon, Burma. He is not the last Bangladeshi to talk about Burma and opportunities there, as that country is slowly opening to outsiders, and there will no doubt be “many westerners and foreigners coming there.” He ran back through our order and made a few emendations, including adding a special traditional fish dish “I make special for you,” which was stunning. We also had curry, another fish (the whole fish, head, tail and all) fried and served with eggplant, which was also amazing; a very spicy vegetable dish in sauce; and a chicken which most definitely had never been injected with growth hormones. There were mounds of white rice, of course, but this was served with coriander and fried garlic. It was all delicious.
For dessert, we got a small square ramekin with seeds, sugar crystals and toothpicks. I watched the others (like I had been doing all meal) and in my turn took a few nuggets between my fingers. A little worried about a troublesome tooth but never one to turn down dessert (and yes, I’m aware those might be related), I nibbled gingerly and marveled as the sweet and the spice and the texture mixed on my tongue. It was the perfect ending to my first real Bengali meal.
Throughout the evening Mohammed would step in to speak with us when he had a moment. We asked him about the meeting next door, finally winding up, and we learned it was a marketing seminar (I’m thinking Bangladesh’s answer to Amway); he doesn’t allow political meetings. I’ve only been here four days, but Bangladeshis over 30, unprompted, will heap scorn on their political system and its leaders as being venal, corrupt, and the single largest impediment to their nation’s progress. “How do they get so rich? They don’t do anything,” Mohammed asked. One of my companions suggested that it’s the same in our country, but it’s a matter of degree, of course. It might be true but it rang hollow, and we all felt it.
After we’d paid, he invited the three of us into his office. Mohammed sat behind his desk and talked about how he saw his business. It was clearly a vocation to him, and one he took very seriously. “I am a religious man,” he said, then clarifying, “to me, I am a religious man, but what is religion? I don’t need this (motioning to where a beard would be on his clean shaven face) or this (motioning to his uncovered head where a taqiyah would be) to be religious. I have to be right in the eyes of my god and I do that by doing right by the people I serve. If I cheat them or give them bad food, that is wrong, and they wouldn’t have the strength to do their work.” He was deadly earnest. Perhaps the three foreigners crowded close into his small, hot office was an easier audience to speak to about it than to his peers, but I’ll never know of course.
He solemnly presented us with business cards, and invited us back. I know I’ll take him up on it.