Bangladesh Now, Through the Lens of Mostofa Sarwar Farooki

Still from “Television”

Two films by Bangladeshi director, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki recently released on Netflix. I wrote a review essay on present-day Bangladesh as seen through the prism of these films.

Read the full story in The Wire.


Immigrant’s Postcard: White is White (even when it isn’t)

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

My husband has a visit scheduled for his vision test. The optometry is close to his workplace. A couple of days before his appointment, the doctor leaves him a voicemail to confirm the time, date and location. The message is an elaborate one; short of reciting the exact map, the doctor makes sure his patient has all the necessary information to show up for the test. At the appointed time, my husband finds the doctor to be an octogenarian, as he had imagined him to be by the tone of his voice and his laboured speech in the voicemail.

The oculist smiles widely on seeing my husband. “So you are a Sikh.” My husband acknowledges with a soft smile as the doctor goes on to tell him of his English lineage. On hearing B’s date of birth, he says, “Oh, so you were six months old when I moved to Canada.” “Have you been to Goa?” He asks my husband. “Yes.” The affirmative response encourages the elderly specialist to share the story of his friendship with a man from Goa. “He had a Portuguese heritage. For some reason, he was dark skinned even when everyone else in his immediate family had a light, Caucasian skin tone.” In between applying eye drops and asking my husband to stick his eyes into machines the ophthalmologist has to use but doesn’t seem to have much faith in, he regales him with how his Goan friend, a fellow ophthalmologist, travelled around the world in a ship. “I can’t tell you all his stories, but I can tell you one today.” This is the story goes on to narrate.


The Goan oculist once visited South Africa to attend a conference on ophthalmology. Those were the apartheid years. After the conference, the group of ophthalmologists he was travelling with went to dine at a restaurant. Everyone but the oculist from Goa was allowed inside the “Whites only” restaurant. The man accepted the decision and made as if to leave the spot. He had barely stepped out of the restaurant’s precincts when a woman, a member of the restaurant staff, came running to him. “Sir, please wait a minute,” she said. The man turned around, half surprised. “Sir, please come in,” the lady huffed. “We have been able to confirm that you are white.” The dark-skinned Goan man of Portuguese descent walked in to join his colleagues, as sanguine as he was moments ago when he was denied entry into the restaurant.

On Durga’s Migrant Trails

durga puja

Note: This personal essay appears in Cafe Dissensus

A group of children–between six to eight years in age–sat on a dusty rug on the ground with drawing sheets on boards before them. After drawing out scenes depicting one of the three theme choices provided to them, they furiously pushed crayons over the penciled sketches. My brother was one of the contestants of this on-the-spot- painting competition, interestingly called “boshey anko protijogita” in Bengali, literally meaning sit-and-draw contest. He drew a Christmas scene, having chosen the theme, “Your favourite festival.” A couple of hours later, when the results were out, he had real reason to celebrate– he had won the first prize.

There was nothing unusual about this except his choice of festival; the contest was part of a Durga puja celebration. Given that most of the festival entries depicted the ten-armed goddess and her rejoicing devotees and a few portrayed Diwali, which would approach in less than a month, the judges must have been either too brave or too liberal to adjudge a Christmas image as the best entry.

Was this because the venue of the puja and therefore the contest was outside mainland Bengal, in Delhi? I can’t really tell, for I was born and raised in what bonafide Bengalis call probaash–a sentiment-laced word for foreign land.

Photo source:

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Child is the Grandmother of the Woman

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada

It’s the first day of swimming lessons for my husband and me. After the class, the instructor suggests we practice in a different lane. Apart from the two of us, a young Canadian girl and a gentleman from Pakistan join the practice. I am still practicing floating when a girl, snow white in complexion and no more than five years old, walks across the deck to stand near me.

“Is the water warm or cold?” she asks me.

“It’s not too cold,” I say.

She jumps in and squeals in delight, “It’s warm!” then jumps right out.

As we float, holding on to the deck wall for our dear lives, she asks me,

“Are you and him, Mom and Dad?” She points with her eyes to the Pakistani gentleman, floating in a corner away from the three of us.

“Me and who?” I ask her.

She points again to the Pakistani swimmer, saying, “This one.”

“No,” I say and draw her attention to my husband, floating right next to me, “Me and him are together.”

“Ah, so you are parents,” she says knowingly.

“No,” I simply say.

“So you are grownups.”


“You are going to have a baby?”


“You have a baby,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“No, I don’t.”

“I know you do.”


“The baby got out. I know it did.”

With that, she walks away, casting one last all-knowing glance my way.

I beseech, “No!”

But to no avail. By now the little lady has already moved on.


Photo courtesy:

Immigrant’s Postcard: “Open to Close”

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

On my way back from a job interview, I wait for my bus to return home. Direction-challenged, I wonder if the stop is the right one for me. In a while, a short, curly-haired black lady arrives. She is wearing black goggles and greets me with a broad smile. I seize the opportunity and ask her if the bus I am waiting for will take me to the desired place. She confirms it will. A little later, she chirps,

“It’s going to rain!”

“It does look like that,” I say, coiling my hands inside the jacket’s pockets.

“But we can’t complain, can we,” she says with a thick accent, adding, “after all, God gave us a brilliant summer this year.”

I nod.

She points her fingers up and says, “That guy up there, he is very smart, you know. If he wanted, there would be blackout this very instant. So we got to respect his judgment.”

I continue nodding with a wan smile. Silence joins us soon.

Not for too long. The lady looks at me chirps again, “You going for work!”

It’s past lunch time. “No, I am going home!” I say with some emphasis.

She laughs and says, “You look so good, I thought you goin’ to work.” I feel a bit uncomfortable and notice, for the first time, her long, yellowed nails.

After learning that I am still looking for work, she has much to tell me.

“This is a bad time for new people to come in. There are no jobs,” she warns. I nod and try to maintain a neutral face.

“I’ll tell you what to do,” she reassures me and continues, “when you get on the bus, I will show you a new store they are constructing. You should apply there.”

This is followed by an insider’s lowdown. How they “don’t pay too well, only the minimum wages,” but how that is better than not having anything.

The bus comes, and my bus-stop friend takes the seat next to mine. True to her word, she points out to me the under-construction Wal-art.

“They have all kinds of shift–early morning, afternoon, all-night. So when you fill in your shift preferences, choose ‘open to close’. That way they will know you are really interested.”

People around us are looking at me; I am beginning to get annoyed, but keep up a smiling face. And the nods.

“And if at all they don’t take you for the counter, you can also opt for stocking. That means putting things on the shelves. Ya gotta take whatever comes your way,” my friend continues. I take in all the suggestions with total silence and utmost seriousness.

A few minutes later, we both get down at the same stop.

The chirping lady just says, “Well, good luck. Bye.”

I thank her quietly and say a little prayer for all of those like her–surviving on minimum wages, but not short of concern and hands-on tips for a new immigrant.

Occupy your city can wait. Occupy Wal-art first. Where it’s “Always Low Prices.” Of the employees even.


Ten-day Fast (Short Story)

By Harishankar Parsai

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

(Courtesy: )

January 10

Today I told Bannu, “Look Bannu, the times are such that Parliament, laws, the constitution, judiciary—all have become useless. Big demands are getting met by threats of fasting and self-immolation. The democracy of twenty years has become so sick that the fates of fifty crore people are decided by the threat of one man going hungry or dying. I say the time is ripe for you too to sit on a fast for that woman.”

Bannu became thoughtful. For years, he has been after Radhika babu’s wife, Savitri. He even received thrashing once for trying to persuade her to elope. He can’t get her to divorce her husband because Savitri hates Bannu.

After some pondering he said, “But can one go on a fast for this?”

I said, “Right now, one can fast for anything. Just recently Baba Sankidas got a law enacted by fasting that makes it mandatory for every man to keep his hair knotted without ever washing it. All heads are reeking of stench. Yours is a small demand—just a woman.”

Surendra was there as well. He said, “Yaar, what are you saying! Fasting to snatch someone else’s wife? We should have some shame. People will laugh.”

I said, “Arre yaar, big-time fasting saints didn’t feel any shame. We are, after all, ordinary folks. As far as laughing is concerned, people all over the world have laughed so hard over the cow-saving movement that their stomachs are hurting now. No one is in a position to laugh for another ten years. Anyone who does will die of stomach ache.”

Bannu said, “Shall I find success?”

I said, “That depends on how you make the issue. If it’s made well, you will get the woman. Come, let’s go to the ‘expert’ to seek guidance. Baba Sankidas is a specialist. His practice is running well. These days, four people are fasting under his guidance.”

We went to Baba Sankidas. After listening to us he said, “All right. I can take up this issue. You just have to follow what I say. Can you threaten to immolate yourself?”

Bannu trembled. Said, “I am scared.”

“You don’t have to burn, dear. Just threaten to.”

“Even the idea scares me.”

Baba said, “Okay, then you go on a fast. We will make the ‘issue’.”

Bannu shook again. “I won’t die, would I?”

Baba said, “Smart players don’t die. They keep one eye on the medical report and the other on the mediator. You don’t worry. We will save you and also get you that woman.”

January 11

Today Bannu sat on a fast unto death. Incense and lamps are burning inside the tent. One party is singing a bhajan—‘May the lord grant good sense to all.’ The atmosphere has turned pious from the very first day. Baba Sankidas is an expert in this art. The statement he has got published and distributed on Bannu’s behalf is rather strong. In it, Bannu says, “My soul has awakened and proclaimed that it is incomplete. My other half lies in Savitri. Either conjoin both the soul parts and make them one or give me freedom from this body. I am fasting unto death for conjoining the two soul parts. My demand is that Savitri be made mine. If I don’t get her, I will free this soul part from my mortal body by fasting. I am fearless because I am on the side of truth. Victory to truth!”

Savitri came, full of rage. She asked Baba Sankidas, “This scoundrel is fasting for me, isn’t he?”

Baba said, “Dear lady, don’t use abusive language. He is on a sacred fast. He might have been a scoundrel earlier. Not anymore. He is fasting.”

Savitri said, “But he should have at least asked me. I spit on him.”

Baba calmly said, “Lady, you are only the ‘issue’. How can one ask the ‘issue’? The people who took part in the Cow-saving movement never asked the cow whether to have a movement or not to save it. Lady, you may go now. My advice is for you or your husband not to come here. In a day or two, public opinion will be formed, and the public won’t tolerate any insults from you.”

She went away, mumbling.

Bannu became sad. Baba assured him, “Don’t worry. Victory will be yours. Truth always wins in the end.”

Jaunary 13

Bannu easily gives in to hunger. Today, on just the third day of the fast, he began groaning. Bannu asked, “Has Jayaprakash Narayan come yet?”

I said, “He usually comes on the fifth or sixth day. That’s his norm. He has been informed.”

He asks, “What did Vinoba say on this issue?”

“Baba said, “He has resolved the issue of means and ends, but his words can be twisted a bit to use them in our favour.”

Bannu closed his eyes. Said, “Bhaiya, please get Jayaprakash babu quickly.”

Journalists also came today. They were wracking their brains.

They began asking, “What is the purpose of the fast? Is it in the public’s favour?”

Baba said, “Purpose isn’t the matter now. Right now, it is critical to save his life. Sitting on a fast is such a huge self-sacrifice that the purpose automatically becomes sacred.”

I said, “This will only serve the public. So many people want to grab the wives of other people, but don’t know how to. If this fast is successful, it will guide the public.”

January 14 

Bannu has become weaker. He is threatening to break the his fast. This will publicly humiliate us. Baba Sankidas reasoned with him.

Today, Baba executed another miracle. He has managed to get the views of a certain Swami Rasanand published  in newspapers. Swamiji claimed that observing religious austerities has granted him the power to look into anyone’s past and future. He has come to know that in his past life, Bannu was a saint called Vanmanus, and Savitri was his wife. He has assumed a human form after three thousand years. His relation with Savitri goes back to many eons. The fact that an ordinary man such as Radhika Prasad is keeping a saint’s wife in his house, amounts to blasphemy. He appealed to all god-fearing people to oppose this profanity.

This opinion has had a good effect. Some people were seen chanting slogans of “Victory to truth!” One crowd was sloganeering in front of Radhika babu’s house…

“Radhika Prasad is a sinner! Woe to the sinner! Victory to truth.”

Swamiji has organized prayers for saving Bannu’s life across temples.

January 15 

At night stones were pelted at Radhika babu’s house.

Public opinion has been formed.

Our agents have heard men and women and saying this…

“Poor thing has been hungry for five days.”

“Hats off to such devotion.”

“But it didn’t melt the heart of that hard woman.”

“Her husband is so shameless too.”

“I believe he was a saint in his past life.”

“Didn’t you read Swami Rasanand’s opinion?”

“It’s a sin to keep a saint’s wife in one’s home.”

Today, eleven married women carried out Bannu’s aarti.

Bannu was delighted. His heart leaps at the sight of married women.

The newspapers are filled with the news of the fast.

Today a crowd went to the Prime Minister’s house to demand his intervention and save Bannu’s life. The prime minister refused to meet the people.

We will see how long he refuses to meet.

Jayaprakash Narayan came in the evening. He was unhappy. Said, “How many lives must I save? Is this my job? Every day someone or the other sits on a fast and screams for their life to be saved. If he wants to save his life, why doesn’t he eat? Why do we need a mediator to save lives? The sacred weapon of fasting is being used to snatch someone else’s wife.”

We reasoned with him, “This issue is of a different nature. It was his soul’s cry.”

He calmed down. Said, “If it is the soul’s cry, I will take it up.”

I said, “Moreover, the feelings of scores of truth-loving people are associated with this.”

Jayaprakash babu agreed to mediate. He will first meet Savitri and her husband, then the prime minister.

Bannu kept looking at Jayaprakash babu pathetically.

Later we told him, “You, idiot, don’t look so worn down. If they sense your weakness, any leader will pour sweet lime juice down your throat. Don’t you see how many politicians are moving about with sweet limes in their shoulder bags?”

January 16

Jayaprakash babu’s mission has failed. Nobody is willing to listen. Prime Minister said, “Our sympathies are with Bannu, but we can’t do anything. Let him break his fast, then we can find a solution by engaging in peaceful talks.”

We were frustrated. But Baba Sankidas wasn’t. He said, “At first, everyone rejects the demands. This is the norm. Let’s make the movement stronger. We have to convey through newspapers that a lot of “acetone” is showing up in Bannu’s urine. That his condition is serious. We must publish views that ask for saving his life at all costs. Is the government just going to sit and watch? It must urgently take steps to save Bannu’s precious life.

Baba is an amazing man. He has so many tricks up his sleeve. He says, “The time has come to include the issue of caste in this movement. Bannu is a brahmin and Radhika Prasad a kayasth. Provoke brahmins and kayasths alike. A Brahmin Association minister is going to contest the next elections.

“Tell him this is his opportunity to get the collective votes of brahmins.”

Today a proposal came from Radhika Babu for Bannu to have a rakhi tied by Savitri.

We turned it down.

January 17 

Today’s newspaper headlines–

“Save Bannu’s Life!”

“Bannu’s Condition Serious!”

“Life-saving Prayers in Temples!”

In one of the newspapers we paid advertisement rates to publish this–

“Prayer of crores of truth-loving people—Save Bannu’s Life! Bannu’s death will have dire consequences!”

The view of the minister from Brahmin Association was also published. He has made this a matter of brahmin pride and has threatened direct action.

We have hired four goons for throwing stones at kayasth houses.

After dealing with that, the same people will throw stones at brahmin houses.

Bannu has paid them the advance.

Baba feels that by tomorrow or day after curfew should be imposed. At least imposing Article 144 is definitely in order. This will strengthen our “case.”

January 18 

Last night, stones were thrown at brahmin and kayasth residences.

This morning, a serious clash ensued between two separate brahmin and kayasth groups.

Article 144 has been clamped in the city.

The air is tense.

Our representative group met the prime minister. He said, “This will have legal hurdles. We would need to modify the marriage act.”

We said, “So please modify it.  Issue an ordinance. If Bannu dies, fire will erupt in the whole country.”

He said, “First you make him break the fast.”

We said, “The government must agree with his demand in principle and set up a committee that will show Bannu the way to acquire that woman.”

The government is monitoring the situation. Bannu must endure more pain.

The situation hasn’t changed. There’s a “deadlock” in the talks.

Minor conflicts are erupting.

Last night we got stones pelted at the local police station. This had a good impact.

Today, the “Save life” demand became more vociferous.

January 19 

Bannu has become very weak. He is scared he may not make it.

He has been muttering that we trapped him into this. If perchance he publicly airs his opinion, we will be “exposed.”

Something must urgently be done.  We have told him that if he now gives up his fast, the public will kill him.

The representative group will go for another meeting.

January 20 


Only one bus could be burnt.

Bannu is still being difficult.

We are continuing to say on his behalf, “He will die, but not bend!”

The government looks worried.

The Ascetics Association has given its support to the demand today.

The Brahmin Society has given an ultimatum: Ten Brahmins will immolate themselves.

Savitri tried to commit suicide, but was saved.

There are long queues for Bannu’s darshan.

A senior UN official has been notified via telegram today.

Prayer meetings took place in different locations.

Dr. Lohia has said that as long as this government is in power, lawful demands will not be fulfilled. Bannu should abduct this government instead of Savitri.

January 21 

The government has accepted Bannu’s demand in principle.

A committee has been formed to resolve practical problems.

Amid bhajan and prayers, Baba Sankidas fed fruit juice to Bannu. The leaders’ sweet limes dried up in their shoulder bags. Baba said public sentiment must be respected in a democracy. The emotions of scores of people were linked to this issue. It is a good thing that the issue was peacefully resolved. Otherwise, a violent revolution would have flared up.

The brahmin legislative candidate has struck a deal to have Bannu participate in his campaign. He has paid a fat amount. Bannu’s price has gone up.

To the men and women touching his feet Bannu said, “All happened by God’s grace. I am only His medium.”

Slogans rent the air—Victory to Truth!

Immigrant’s Postcard: Manto and a Car

A series on my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada.

B, my husband, and I go to buy our first car since landing in Canada. The finance guy is a young man with Javaid as his second name. His first name sounds like an Americanized version of his original name.

J: So sir, where are you from?

B: We’re from India.

J: Oh great, where in India?

B: She is from Delhi, I am from Chandigarh, Punjab.

J: Oh that’s wonderful. Actually I’m also from Punjab. I was born in Lahore…our family came to Pakistan from the Indian side of Punjab.

“I see,” I say with a slight smile.

J: Yes, they moved to Toba, you know Toba Tek Singh?

Manto’s invisible presence is suddenly felt in the cramped cubicle.

“B’s father is also from Lahore,” I say.

“He was born there, too,” B adds.

J: Oh, good, good. See sir, it’s always good to come here and find Pakistanis, Indians…your own community.

Yes, in the land of immigrants, it helps to be one community if you are from India or Pakistan.

Sometimes, it also helps seal car deals.

PS: Listen to a superb telling/reading of Toba Tek Singh by Zia Muhiuddin.



Peep Peep Don’t Sleep: Book Review

Peep Peep Don’t Sleep
By: Ajay Jain
Non-fic (Travel)
Price: INR 350, US $19.95, UK £11.95

Available at: Ajay Jain’s Blog

We thought travel was about visiting places, soaking in new territories, and relishing the journey. Who could have known Road Signs could be part of the travel entertainment package as well? Yes, Road Signs, those inevitable pointers that we take no more seriously than empty coke cans strewn across the terrains we travel through.

Welcome then, to the world of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Indian agency responsible for construction and maintenance of all roads in areas along India’s borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. For, BRO, with its BROtherly (even fatherly at times) attitude, can turn the toughest of driving trips along India’s edges into the funniest. Many a traveler journeying through these often rugged stretches must have enjoyed a smirk or four reading BRO’s imaginative Road Signs. Author-journalist Ajay Jain has, however, done a favour to those of us who are yet to grab the fun for ourselves. With his book, Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep.

Jain drove more than 10,000 kilometers, all by himself, through Indian highways for more than a year to photograph some of the most hilarious, and at times, indecipherable Road Signs and advertisements. He didn’t stop there, though, but went on to add witty captions to these images, along with some chuckle-provoking commentary.

Ready for some sampling?

“I am curvaceous, be slow.” Relax, this is no porn movie dialogue; it’s just a hilly road in Ladakh, nudging you, the driver, to go easy with the wheels. And if you still don’t get the message, you are again poked to just “Feel the curves (do) not test them.”

The extent to which BRO can go to encourage drivers to play it safe is amazing. On a road from Dehradun to Mussoorie, a sign speaks thus for a distressed husband:

But BRO can’t place such a sign in just one place. And so they warn female partners again at another spot to not gossip as their male companions control the steering.

Jain’s caption to that image can’t stop wondering though, “…Do only ladies gossip?” My question too.

Then there are the cryptic signs. Ones that instead of making you more cautious with your feet on the accelerator will likely leave you scratching your head. Like the following sign. If you can decipher it, kindly do the author and me a favour by letting us know what it means.

And while you are at it, please crack this one too:

By now, you can make out how earnest BRO is in its aim to keep a check on travelers, especially drivers. If one still fails to heed its message, though, one must be prepared to face embarrassment at some point. With a message that says, “Cution. Short cuts may cut shorts.” With such a warning, one can never take any chances, can one? And if the driver still doesn’t listen to the BRO, well, he or she might have to contend with the deadliest of outcomes:

Ajay Jain didn’t just compile funny, inane, and quirky Road Signs in these 200-odd pages. He also went on to put together some of the most bizarre advertisements found across India. A lot of these he found in Dharamsala, the sanctuary of the Dalai Lama and a large number of his followers. His commentary on this section of the book says it all, “Welcome to the Dharamsala School of Quick Learning… You can find enlightenment and knowledge being sold—fast food style—all over Dharamsala…”

Did you know shopping discounts led to tension? So if you are in Dharamsala, spare yourself needless anxiety by shopping at:

In case you thought all shops selling similar stuff are the same, think again. Or rather, know for yourself by visiting this store in Ladakh:

In the short space of a review, it’s hardly possible to capture the amount of fun “Peep Peep Don’t Sleep” (one of the Road Signs in the book, by the way) packs. As I laughed, smirked and found myself bewildered through Peep Peep’s pages, I also realized this excellently produced book is a keeper. Not only is it a testament to what can happen when the English language is twisted albeit inadvertently, it’s also a manifesto of the BRO’s sincere, if a bit over-the-top aim of cautioning the (sometimes) sleepy, reckless, or drunken driver.

All photos © Ajay Jain

Cross posted at: A Reader’s Words