Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home   | Volume 7, Issue 05, Tuesday, January 31, 2012





By Neeman Sobhan

Starting a new column is like moving into a new home, a fresh and empty space waiting to be filled with your old belongings, your old sense of self; only this time, the familiar furniture can be in a different arrangement, the pre-conceived perceptions in a new equation.

Perhaps, this time around, the tapestry can be hung over the sofa and not the dining room sideboard; perhaps, this time around, I can talk more about life in Dhaka rather than Rome.

However, I am the kind of person who is always rearranging the furniture, so there may be surprises ahead. After all, I live between both cities. Rome has been my home for the last three decades; but I grew up in Dhaka, where I regularly spend a month or two every year. So both cities have an equal claim to my column, as to my life.

This brings me to the title I have chosen for my column, which translates from the Italian into: Life. That is, life in general, and not just my life in particular. Of course, every individual life is a microcosm and contains within it reflections of the collective act of existence. So there may be some unavoidable 'I-me-mine', but only as a means to demonstrate the vital signs of our common condition.

And below the glittering surface of geographic, cultural, historic, gastronomic, and many other differences, all people and all cities have similarities. Human beings are essentially the same. However, what makes life interesting is the many ways in which we are different; superficial though these differences might be.

Hopefully, in my column we will explore and encounter that diversity, stopping for a coffee at Bittersweet behind Weavers near Gulshan 2 in Dhaka, or a caffe corretto on Piazza di San Eustacchio in Roma, but essentially, for an adda or a chiacchierata session, chatting and watching the world go by.

La vita e bella! Life is indeed beautiful, but only when we share it. Welcome to my column. Here, we might visit together anonymous Umbrian and Tuscan towns and try to recreate Italian food with ingredients found in Dhaka; we might consider ways to keep sane and healthy during the party season in Dhaka; discuss books and restaurants and people and wedding follies and films and manias and creative writing workshops and musical soirees.

I am bubbling over like a pot of rice to tell you about the most disgustingly expensive wedding 'card' I saw in Dhaka. I must speak to someone about the sad little book shop at the Muktijoddha Jadughor (Liberation War Museum) and how I almost started to dust and rearrange the neglected books there. I absolutely must vent about the proliferation of Botox and Laser treatment at every street corner. I have to describe the superb broccoli soup and sandwich lunch at the Red Shift Cafe's terrace up on Radius Centre; the succulent smoked Hilsa on toast at the Palm View restaurant within Golf Garden; and the delightful fresco of a Roman street cafe topped by real awnings on the walls of the charming, newly located Spaghetti Jazz at Gulshan 2.

We could compare the quality of the kachhi biryani at Fakhruddin in Dhanmondi (thumbs up) and Gulshan (thumbs down), and maybe I could convince you that what they say about these two parts of the cityGulshane boro lokera thake ar Dhanmondi te Bhodro lokera thakey (Gulshan is where the rich live; Dhanmondi is where the genteel live) might be true of food too, because some things like quality, money just can't buy, and biryani seems to be one of them. Or you could suffer me to complain about the transformation in Dhaka of taste in female fashion from the understated elegance of Bengali saris to the bling and glitz of Bollywood and Pakistan inspired couture. Or we could just talk about the perfect winter morning, whether in Bangladesh, Italy or some other place like Samarqand, which I will be visiting soon.

But if all these topics come wrapped in layers and layers of words, please indulge this writer for whom a story is more than the plot. The tale is in the telling. If the reader is willing to listen between and beyond mere words, life will reveal its little stories. Sometimes the narrative unravels to nothing. In which case, the pleasure was in the journey.

So, as we too, prepare for our voyage into Vita, let me welcome my readers aboard.......er ....not the leaky Costa Concordia, but into our fortnightly lifeboat, sailing us towards the shores of shared stories.

So, till we meet again: Arrivederci!

Neeman Sobhan is a writer and journalist, living in Italy and teaching at the University of Rome. She also writes the fortnightly 'A Roman Column' that appears in the Star Weekend Magazine on Fridays.


With just a little, give a lot

Most of us have seen the new Coca Cola advertisement, where the spotlight is on small gifts given away and good memories shared for very small steps taken. It shows that for every adult who cannot write their own names, fifteen children are learning to read and write. I am sure it made many of us think, 'Why is it that we do not have such initiatives here in Dhaka?'

All of us want to contribute to such initiatives in some way or the other. All the present organisations here that have similar ideas are relying on voluntary help or donations. Truly speaking, most of us don't know which organisations to trust and even if we do donate, how to begin the process. It fact, it can simply be that some of us don't have the capability of spending on donations, although we are in full support of the proposal.

Last year on Universal Children's Day alone, Jaago Foundation was able to bring together 2000 volunteers from major cities like Dhaka, Chittagong, Shylet and Barisal. Yet there were still many people amongst the youth disheartened by not being able to register for the event in time.

The volunteers replaced the children on the street who sell flowers, raising over 23 lakh taka in one day. This just shows that the youth in Bangladesh are active. We want to contribute, given more opportunities as such.

This rings a bell. In the United States during the holiday season, many shopping malls carry out charitable work with the purchase every customer makes. To make it more simple, $1 from the purchase of a certain item may be used to ship school books to a classroom in Africa.

In Dhaka too, we can take such initiatives. Fund raising events are a common example, like the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) Fair organised in International School Dhaka (ISD) every year. But rather than having a large amount donated by one institution alone, every individual can contribute through the purchases that they make.

There can be campaigns showing how a certain item's purchase can bring about a positive impact in the lives of the less-privileged. Even Tk. 1 can be kept aside from every purchase of our favorite Tk. 10 chewing gum, which will accumulate to a certain amount. This money can be either donated or used to bring about small changes, like digging a well in a rural village where the people do not have access to clean water and hence suffer from many diseases.

Such small initiatives make a difference. If we want to bring about a change, it is up to us to start that change.

By Nikita Sarker


Peanuts and fog

By Iffat Nawaz

When the balloon, brown from dirty hand prints, floats up and then right down for me to touch and bounce back to the street children, and I tap lightly at it, adding my fingerprints next to theirs, and the first genuine smile of the day forms around my face.

And the smell of street side kebab grills mix into the air, the lights dim but don't die, and stairs are climbed to find familiar faces. Not so cosy chairs rest my back, I lift my legs up and feel the stiffness of my cotton sari, and listen to people talk, broken monologues of their honest hearts...

When tears pour out unexpectedly, tugging on subconscious and leaving me half embraced and half glad, and no one notices to comment, yet everyone in the room feels the moisture and figures it's the mist from the cold night...

And then crossing the bridge, a layer of fog balancing over the everyday lake surrounds bodies, giving them chills, and creating an illusion of purity over the pollution, and the night sky sings the call of the adhan...

When buses stop and passengers line in a surprising neat queue tallying up to the door carrying in the tiredness of dusk. The "badamwala" sells his peanuts, not announcing his products loudly, but almost like a silent distributor of the necessary snack to the hungry mouths, just enough food to tie them over till dinner...

And the traffic stops and then lets out loud roars, releasing cars, buses and motorcycles, the beggars lose a little interest in begging and gather to share a cigarette at the hidden alley, “dark freezing nights are over” they say, but they still keep shivering...

When strangers pass each other and exchange nothing but the scent from each other's bodies, and the lonely people look lonelier and the not so lonely people also look a bit lonely. When people talk on their mobile phones making plans for today, tomorrow and the week after, when everything around is so impersonal yet so personal...

And you think to yourself what's next and how will you get there, and the spit and the sweat of all the people who have walked the road before you stick to the bottom of your shoes, and become a part of you, and you don't notice because that's how we have learnt to live and die, together, mixed in, as one united particle...

That's when, during all these, I feel most alive and most dead, around it all, the feeling of uniqueness and being so minuscule all at the same time, that's when I want to step out of myself and look in, that's when the world caves in and expands, every night.


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