Thursday, January 20, 2011

Having Servants

This is a Hindu Village apparently still there though the temple spire we could see is now gone, a casualty of political unrest. The village is isolated in the center of a golf course. The golf course is ringed by a race track for horse races. The separation is because Hindus and Muslims do not get along so well. The photo was captioned taken in 2008. The village looks very much as it did when I was there in 1969. By the way, the Hindus are really poor, while the golf course outside their village is for the rich. The golf course sports special hazards, sacred Hindu cows and the birds that attend them, also very large crows.

In 1967, my Dad got his second overseas American Society School posting, this time in Dacca, East Pakistan, now known as Dhaka, Bangladesh. In a long and complex story I wound up going with my Mom and Dad to this part of the world. Dhaka is centrally placed in Bangladesh and is far enough away from the main rivers and also high enough to miss most of the flooding that is seasonally associated with the local monsoon. In those days one of the most affluent areas in all Dhaka was the district called Dhanmondi. Many of the consular and embassy offices were located there and the biggest concentration of foreign nationals associated with diplomatic services also lived there. We settled temporarily in one house and then got another where we stayed for most of our two year tour. While there I actually held a job of sorts for a lot of the time in the Holy Family Hospital which still serves Dhaka today. There are major changes to Dhanmondi. I looked and could not recognize the area in the satellite photos. Most is newer than the end of the sixties.

Wiki says:
"Dhanmondi (Bengali: ধানমন্ডি) is one of the most crowded planned areas in Dhaka city. Its origins can be traced back to the late 1950s, beginning as an affluent residential area, and over the decades evolving into a miniature city, where one can find everything from hospitals to malls, schools, banks, offices and universities.

"Dhanmondi has been traditionally known as an upmarket, affluent residential area. After the liberation war, it primarily consisted of two storied houses and fostered a quiet neighborhood environment. More recently, migration issues, aggressive real estate business policies, and increasing numbers of schools and shopping malls have transformed its quiet residential status to that of a more congested, commercial area.

"It is in Dhanmondi where the founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, lived and was assassinated, along with his entire family, in 1975."

It was expected of us to have chowkidars (gate guards), cooks and utility servants, who cleaned and served the meals. It was difficult to do with less than three people to do these functions. The school was assigned a driver as well. I got a drivers license early on as a matter of course, and so did we all but none of us drove much. It was too dangerous for us to be driving in case of an accident. It was much better to have a native driver. I got around in bicycle rickshaws and a ubiquitous vehicle we knew as a baby taxi which had a rain cover and a seat over the back two wheels of a three wheel scooter. It was otherwise open.

The unrest that led to the creation of Bangladesh in a break away of East from West Pakistan had begun before we left. It was serious but not so serious as we were leaving that we had to leave. However, one reason I quit working at the Holy Family Hospital was the decision that we made to limit my exposure to the city outside the Dhanmondi district. One day as I tried to return to the hospital after lunch at home, there was shooting just up the street and I went back home that day. The unrest got severe enough that the longtime government of Ayub Khan located in Karachi in West Pakistan was deposed and General Yaya Khan replaced him. That happened before we left. When we returned home, all hell broke loose in the east and that took care of that.

Here is a map of Dhanmondi district.I lived on the small square that is called Nazeeb Park though not on this map and is located just above the named Dhaka City College that did not exist in 1969. I lived on what you could call the southeast corner across from the park. Down south of there you will see the designation New Market. In the back of the New Market was a government licensed ganja (marijuana) shop. I did a fair amount of legal business there. I had to buy hashish on the black market because importing it was illegal. Bangladeshis smoked both hash and ganja mixed with tobacco. They used coconut water pipes or the clay heads they placed on the pipestems called chellums. They held the chellums in their hands wrapped in wetted cloths because they used a moist mix rolled together and chopped fine with a red hot tinder on top to drive the heat through and burn the dope. One of our crowd, fresh in country, dropped as if poleaxed from a good hit of that stuff and then promptly shit his pants. We had to dunk him in the lake to clean him on the way back home. Good times, eh? especially as we sat crowded together in a bay taxi, three of us, a close fit.

One of our cooks was named Nazir but I forget which one. The one I write of in the poem was a handsome white haired fellow of late middle age and his hair had a beautiful wave to it. His face was very kind. He was slender, perfectly porportioned but quite small. He spoke in English moderately well. Our other servants did not speak English that well. The cook ran things. Our driver, Gulmir also spoke English fairly well. Our cook hailed from country far to the south of Dhaka, closer to Chittagong. He was an excellent cook, trained in the British Indian tradition and a shrewd shopper on the open market, a skill necessary in a good cook.

This poem is posted as part of Big Tent Poetry's Friday gathering:

Having Servants

You got sick on us,
something like a leprosy.
We had to let go,
Send you home, your wife
bewailing your family's
fate. Who will give you
a cooking job now?
As for us, we've given up
the best banana
fritters in the world,
in the whole of Bangladesh.
This is no damn fair.


  1. A fascinating post, insight into an unfamiliar world. And I found your excellent poem very sad.

  2. Nicely done.
    you poor, poor things. such a burden.

    skimmed a bit of the preface. never ran across hash like that, myself.

  3. Christopher, I enjoyed your poem however I could not stop reading the story leading up to it. What a great beginning for a novel. I lived in southeast Asia during my military service and almost stayed. Few Americans appreciated the cultures or ever experience them except through the Discovery Channel. You have a unique journey in your life that would seem to be worth telling. Don't deprive us of it.

  4. Christopher, an interesting story of a culture I know little about. It must of been amazing living there.
    I love the sadness to the poem.

  5. Wonderful post - for sure, it wasn't fair.

  6. The irony is sharp and inescapable. The intro prose fascinating and well written. The distance between two cultures immeasurable.


  7. the intro was fascinating! make no apologies for it. and the poem -- i echo what elizabeth says. and also, the poem is extremely honest, which i love.

  8. Viv, The poem is not only honest but it is true in every point but I don't really remember what that disease was like except that it had a permanent quality and was also infectious.

    Tilly and LKH, thank you.

    barb, :D The banana fritters were just straight from heaven and Bangladesh bananas were wonderful too. We had to have fruit that you could peel because the diseases on the skin of fruit were very dangerous for westerners. I wound up at one point with amoeba in my liver, particularly nasty parasites. Anyone who stays two years will get something nasty at some point. I came home with bladder infections and a planters wart on the bottom of my foot too.

    Don, I am not depriving you. It's all here in all different ways in this blog, just not always in straight up bio. I am not interested in the stuff I have to do to get a book out. I am getting close to one hundred hits a day here. I don't need to make money and doubt my stuff is commercially viable in any case.

    Flaubert, It is definitely a different place. What becomes amazing is how insular Americans are and don't know it. Elsewhere on the planet it seems most people know better than that and marvel at American myopia.

    Tumble, I have never had banana fritters again. But that poor fellow I still carry with me. One day all is well, the next it is all taken away.

    Elizabeth, forty percent of Bangladesh is under water seasonally and it is the most crowded place on earth. You can have certain cities be more crowded locally but in Bangladesh going to the country is no relief. If you need to have spaces with no people nearby, then this is not the country for you. This means any heavy weather really affects alot of people, any weather at all. Large numbers live on the street. What is remarkable is how they have hammered out peace between them so that there is relatively little conflict.

    Carolee, thank you. I know it is really too long. That means for the venue, not in some absolute sense.

  9. Christopher, The thing that draws me to your writing is you don't deny yours or others reality. In a full heart there is room for everything.

  10. Thank you for sharing all of this. Your story/explanation made this powerful poem that much more poignant.

  11. I am not sure the poem makes much sense without the back story. Thanks for reading.

  12. What an interesting time and place you profiled here.. and the poem sums it all up.
    - Sy

  13. It's a compelling poem, even without the back story. But once read, it lends a dark air not scented in the poem.

  14. Sy, thank you for your comment. Living through those two years had me working out personal issues and getting set for the rest of my life. There is much more to the story and some of it has appeared here in other posts.

    Deb, yes, the poem was generic without the back story and kind of weird because most people don't have personal cooks. The divide between people who would have cooks and who would be cooks would not appear clear either. I really don't think the poem stands alone.

    I did not share an earlier event either. Our cook had already had a disaster in his family when the family house blew down in a hurricane sized storm. The house was made of wicker, though placed on a cement slab and it had corrugated iron roofing. It was larger than some due to his better than average job but still vulnerable to the storms. When the corrugated iron begins to fly it is like having horizontal guillotines in the air. This is no doubt ordinary circumstance still in this most crowded of all countries.

  15. Enjoyed reading your blog. Sorry that your stay in Dhaka wasn't that enjoyable ,it is over fifty years now. Things are little better for expats, as Dhanmondi is no longer area for them, Banani,Gulshan and Baridhara are more secured area for foreign nationals. In what position did you work in Holly Family Hospital. I couldn't locate Nazeeb Park that you mentioned. You are very right it is the worlds most crowded city. I assume from your description you left in 1970 prior to army crackdown in '71. The date you mention of the photo is before 1971 as Pakistan army demolished the Hindu temple on the night of March 25, 1971. I would love to know more about your days in Dhaka.

    1. Surprise!! To have a comment this late on this post... I have tried to relate the map to my memory and there is a small square on it below the water but very close. I distinctly remember that rectangular "park" as what I lived on, in the lower right corner for over a year. Earlier I lived near that same rectangle but on another street. New Market was to the right with the water behind (facing East?) Holy Family Hospital was to the East, a taxi ride away. I take it the map is oriented traditionally with North up. I actually cherish my memories of Dacca, as we spelled it then. I was there when Ayub Khan was finally deposed and Yaya Khan was the next leader. The country was still East Pakistan. During that change in government there were some days when we were advised to stay home. I remember going out after lunch to go back to work at the hospital when shots rang out just around the corner. So I went back home. I worked as the Financial Secretary for the hospital, taking that part of Sr. Yolande Landry's duties so she could do other things. I held the position for eleven months but really wasn't qualified. The primary duty was to be trusted with the hospital's cash. I did the banking and theoretically oversaw the accounting department. I was responsible to sign off on the charity cases. I worked six days a week, seven hours a day, making a salary that was at the high end in the hospital's range but was really the equivalent of about $45 American at the time per month. This was in 1968. I was in Dhaka from Aug. 1967 - Jun 1969.


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