ON THE MORNING we were returning from Dhaka, the airport’s VVIP terminal was, alas, closed to lesser dignitaries because someone of much greater consequence was travelling. Consequently, we were dropped off at a corner gate of the main Terminal 1. It was no great inconvenience because the protocol officer and the police ensured that the five Indians travelling to Delhi jumped all the queues and were whisked into a lovely lounge— quaintly named Dolanchampa, after the flower—to await departure.
However, I am glad that in ensuring that the VVIP got a clear run, it was possible to see, if not experience, the life of an ordinary air passenger. In many ways, the non-VVIP part of Dhaka airport is strangely reminiscent of what Delhi airport (then called Palam airport) used to be like in the old days. Yes, there was some method in the bustle, but it was tinged with chaos. You could negotiate your way into the place if you knew how to. If you didn’t, you risked being completely overwhelmed, if not intimidated.
For some of us who have forgotten what life was like in the days before infrastructural upgrade, a trip to Dhaka is instructive. The traffic chaos in the Bangladesh capital is legendary. I confronted it when I was last in the city, some six years ago, and I confronted it again last week.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. My journey to the now-refurbished Hotel Intercontinental in the heart of the city from the airport took around 90 minutes—and that, too, around midnight. The return journey four days later, however, took around 40 minutes. This is because the interregnum had seen the inauguration of a new elevated expressway that more than halved the time of the journey to and from the airport. At the airport, I could also see the construction of a third terminal which, no doubt, will make a visit to Bangladesh even more pleasurable.
The seminar for which I had made the short visit to Dhaka was organised by a quasi-official body. The organisers had also organised a visit to Tungipara in Gopalganj district which is the ancestral village of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation. It also happens to be the place where he was hastily buried after he and his entire family (apart from the two daughters) were gunned down during a military coup. Sheikh Mujib’s grave is inside an imposing white marble mausoleum in Tungipara while the rest of the family are buried in an outskirt of Dhaka.
Tungipara was once a sleepy village. Today, it has become a pilgrimage centre for the millions of Bangladeshis who worship the father of the nation. The village also hosts a museum celebrating the life of Mujib and a well-designed park. The museum is a less imaginative version of the Liberation Museum in Dhaka and is mainly devoted to photographs of Mujib with dignitaries. Since I lived through the heady excitement of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 and experienced the shock waves of Mujib’s assassination on August 15, 1975, most of the photographs made sense to me. However, anyone untutored in the byways of East Pakistan and Bangladesh politics would have been left confused. Creating museums require certain specialist skills often lacking in the subcontinent.
Of course, it was nice to get out of Dhaka and travel into the districts. The experience was made doubly pleasurable by the memorable journey by the bridge over the mighty River Padma. For those with roots in eastern Bengal, there is a deep sense of romance associated with the great river. Bengalis were identified by the fact of belonging to this side of the Padma or the other side. Now, the iconic 6.15-kilometre-long bridge will reduce the road distance between Kolkata and Dhaka by half. Additionally, the multiplier effects of the Padma bridge are likely to boost Bangladesh’s GDP by an estimated 1.2 per cent. For Bangladeshis, the Padma bridge is more than a stupendous engineering feat: it is a nationalist symbol. That is because midway through the project, the World Bank had walked out of participating in the project and left Bangladesh to its own devices. Credit to Sheikh Hasina’s government that it accepted the challenge and completed the project. Today, the Padma bridge has become a symbol of a country that is likely to partner India in the exciting journey to a prosperous and developed South Asia.
Of course, for that to happen, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League need to be re-elected in the elections of January 2024. But that is another story.