74. Nine Lives in Bangladesh during the Victorian Era
JUN. 15, 2023
In this death-defying trip to the Victorian era, Pete takes Ryan on a visit to South Asia to Bangladesh where they meet three remarkable people. Join them to hear the song of the singing mystic, learn about the early feminist author who wrote sci-fi, and tune in to listen to the scientist without whom radio may never have happened!
Officially the People's Republic of Bangladesh, this is a country in South Asia. It has a small border on the South East with Myanmar and a massive border with India, curving around the entire country and measuring 4,156 km (2,582 mi).
It’s a green, low lying country, when you look at pictures the overwhelming impression is flat and verdant. That’s not surprising when you learn it’s home to around 700 to 800 rivers. It is a country made, in large part, of the soil and silt carried down from the Himalayas by these rivers.
That means it’s very fertile, which is good news, but also very prone to flooding, which is not.
It has an area of 148,000 square kilometres, 57,000 square miles and so is small in size, but big in people - the population of Bangladesh is around 169 million people. In fact Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world.
The name derives from the word Desh comes from the sanksrit for country and Bangla comes from the historic name for the area in general, which you may be familiar with as Bengal.
98% of the population is ethnically Bengali, perhaps unsurprisingly, and the remaining 2% is very diverse - more than 54 indigenous groups and more than 35 indigenous languages.
The flag is a red circle on a field of dark green. The circle is slightly off set to the left from the centre, supposedly so it appears central when flying. It is said that the red is the sun and the green is the landscape, which is hardly groundbreaking for vexillology.
Apparently it was designed by a group of student activists in 1970 at Dhaka university, the capital of Bangladesh.
The national anthem is called Amar Sonar Bangla translates as 'My Golden Bengal'. This was coined in 1905, so in our time period and has lyrics by Nobel-prize winning Bangladeshi writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore, who is actually the first non European to ever win a Nobel prize.
Rickshaw art is an iconic aspect of the country. By rickshaw we mean the three wheeled bicycles, with a canopy. Drivers decorate the canopy and actually the whole rest of the bike with paintings.
Apparently this started in the 1950s with pictures of movie stars then people branched out, now you can see patterns, flowers, animals and more. Different styles can be seen from different regions.
Sadly, this seems to be a dying art on rickshaws.
One artist, Rafiqul Islam said, "Rickshaw art has fallen so far from grace that rickshaw owners nowadays just write down their names and mobile numbers on the back of the vehicle." He adds that only 15 rickshaw painters are actively working today.
But one artist, Biskut Abir, a Bangladeshi artist is doing his bit to keep it alive, taking the style of rickshaw art but then applying it to household objects and clothing including tea kettles and glasses.
His work can be found under the brand Biskut Factory, which you can find on Instagram.
Bangladesh is also home to the largest mangrove forest on earth. Known as the Sundarbans, these are formed in the soggy delta where the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna flow into the Bay of Bengal.
The Sundarbans are about 1400 square kilometres, 540 square miles and four sections of it have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
It is also one of the homes of the Bengal Tiger, 250kg, 550lbs of killing machine. That said, as ever, man is the real predator and the tiger is considered endangered, although in some unusually good news, a March 2022 report in the New Indian Express reported that the Wildlife Institute of India census found 96 tigers in the delta, up from 76 in 2014.
This is itself also bad news too, in some ways. It is more than the carrying capacity of the area, so now tiger watchers are afraid the animals will be forced to move out of the area into places where they are more likely to come across .
History of Bangladesh
A huge challenge in talking about the history of Bangladesh is that, whilst today it is a country separate from India, if you go back not too far, the main geographic entity in the area was Bengal, which today is the Bangledesh plus West Bengal in India.
So this is in large part a history of Bengal. ]
By about 300BCE it’s believe Bengal may have been part of the iron age Maurya empire, and then the Gupta empire, which was considered something of a golden age for the area, where culture thrived.
The Gupta empire was run by Hindu rulers.
By the 6th century CE the Gupta empire had broken up and the area became fragmented into kingdoms, including the Gauda kingdom.
This was followed by the rise of the Pala empire, who were Buddhists.
This was followed in the 10th Century by the Chandra Dynasty (Buddhist), The Sena Dynasty (back to Hindu) and the Deva kingdom (Hindu again).
Finally a new religion showed up to join the back and forth when Afghan invaders showed up and took over in the 13th century, although early traders had brought it in a small scale since the 7th century.
From there there was a selection of Islamic dynasties, Including a short while when Ibn Battuta dropped by from Morocco in the 1340s including a visit to the city of Chittagong which he described as "a hell crammed with good things.” Where food and drink were cheap.
In the late 1500s the area fell under the control of the Mughal empire.
In 1517, the Portuguese installed an outpost at Chittagong -– where they traded and preached, although they were briefly kicked out for piracy in 1632.
More problematic for them was the arrival to this fairly wealthy part of the world of the rest of Europe. The British, Dutch and French were all angling for a piece of the action.
More and more trading settlements were established, often not by nations but by companies established for this purpose, notably the British East India company.
Soon enough trouble started between the British and the locals, and an ambitious young man named Robert Clive took a bunch of troops to settle things.
In 1757 Clive was victorious in the Battle of Plassey, which is often considered the start of full British colonialism in India. That said, there is a school of thought that for Bangladesh, this wasn’t the beginning of colonialism so much as just a change of management from Mughals to The British.
Unsurprisingly, the period of company rule was not a good one for the area. Perhaps it is telling that one of the hindi words that entered the English lexicon is ‘Loot’.
The East India company representatives acted as tax collectors of the worst possible sort, with no sense of stewardship of the area, just a need to profit.
Thus they continued to demand taxes even in 1769 when a famine ravaged the land and estimates were that as many as 10million people died, whilst Clive became the richest self-made man in Europe.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising then that in 1857 there was an uprising, known as the Sepoy Mutiny, a sepoy being an Indian Soldier, or the Indian Rebellion. Rumours went round that the cartridges the soldiers were given for their guns were coated in cow or pig fat, which, given you had to bite the cartridge to release the gunpowder, meant consuming either pork or beef, which obviously was not ok for the religiously inclined, which was basically everyone.
Rebellious soldiers marched on and seized Delhi and dissent spread. The East India company reacted to brutally put down the uprising, but there were consequences.
After this, the running of India was taken away from the East India Company and this was the start of Direct rule by the British Government, known as the British Raj.
British control continued into the 20th Century. But in this period, across India independence movements grew, including the passive resistance of Mahatma Ghandi.
Eventually it was decided that the British Raj would give up control of India in 1947, which brings us back to Bangladesh.
Rather than create a whole, independent India, it was decided to divide Hindu and and Muslim areas.
The main body of the country was Hindu and became the India we know today. The Muslim areas became Pakistan. This meant what we know as Pakistan today AND the area of Bangladesh -together they were Pakistan.
This left Pakistan comprising East Pakistan where Pakistan is today, and then West Pakistan, today Bangladesh which was right over the other side of India, this one country separated well over a thousand miles.
To compound the problems East Pakistan (Bangladesh) was something of the poor cousin, with most administrative and military roles being held by West Pakistanis, and most development focussed there too.
This was particularly illustrated by the fact that the national language of Pakistan was Urdu, the language of Pakistan, and Bengali had no status at all.
This decision to exclude Bengali coalesced protests, which in turn led to suppression by West Pakistan and a movement for independence from Pakistan grew.
This culminated in 1971 in a non-cooperation movement, paralysing government in the region, which was followed by a crackdown by the West Pakistan military. Fighting continued for a while, Pakistan had the upper hand for a bit.
But then India got involved, possibly because they were not keen on the already 10million refugees arriving over the border. India invaded Pakistan and not long after Pakistan admitted defeat.
Thus in 1971 the country of Bangladesh was born.
It wasn’t an easy start, 1974 saw substantial flooding and a widespread famine, considered one of the worst of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, this was followed by a selection of military coups and counter coups and caretaker governments which carried on pretty much up to today.
The current government is dominated by the Awami league and has been in place since 2009, most recently winning a vote in 2018, although it was an election mired in violence and accusations of corruption, with the opposition leader rejecting the results and calling them "farcical".
But, let’s look on the bright side, they’ve got fertile soil, they’ve got increasing numbers of tigers and they’ve got loads and loads of people, so here’s hoping for good things for the future of Bangladesh.
The topic for this episode is Nine lives, which refers to the old wives tale that a cat has nine lives which seems to have come from a proverb
'A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.’
By Shakespeare’s time a cat having nine lives was definitely established. In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt asks, “What wouldst thou have with me?” and Mercutio replies, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”
So I’ve decided to take the three stages of the cat’s nine lives and tell you three stories of interesting and significant people
o One who plays
o One who strays
o And one who stays
One who plays
A Baul is like a wandering minstrel/philosopher. These are people in Bangladesh wander from place to place singing songs, and to that extent they are musicians.
But they also represent a religious tradition. Some are sort of muslim, some are sort of Hindu, but mostly they’re their own versions of these things mixed together in a syncretic tradition – syncretic being a mix of different religious traditions.
You can recognise a Baul by the long white tunics they wear and their whitelungis, which is like a men’s skirt tied around the waist, or women would wear a white sari.
They also carry Jholas, or shoulder bags in which they collect the alms they rely on for their survival.
It probably says something about them that the origin of the word is believed by some to come from the Sanskrit vatul or possibly vyaku, meaning mad, and wild or bewildered respectively
So essentially Baul are wandering religious musical lunatics. They wander around playing their songs on an Ektara which is a musical instrument with a gourd body a bamboo neck and a single string.
Probably the most famous Baul of Bangladesh was born in 1772 and lived apparently until he was around 117 in 1890. His name was Lalon, also known as Lalon Shah.
Now we don’t know too much about Lalon’s origins, and part of that is deliberate – the Baul are sort of outcasts and Lalon in particular had no truck with religious or caste separations.
However, it is believed Lalon was born to a Hindu family and it is said that whilst on a journey he fell victim to smallpox.
When this happened he was abandoned by his companions and looked like he was going to die. Then he was discovered by a muslim fakir (fu-kiah), who took him up and nursed him to health.
After he recovered, he returned home where he was promptly denounced by his own family for consorting with Muslims.
So Lalon, disgusted with this treatment and attitude, goes off and he decides to become a Baul, finding and studying under a guru until he is ready to head off and sing his songs and preach his philosophy through the thousands of songs he is said to have written.
A word of caution here is that the Baul tradition did not include writing songs down and what we have captured as Lalon’s work are part of an oral tradition that was only put to paper long after his death.
That said, in his body of work we can gather a few themes, and one of the main ones is his complete rejection of the artificial distinctions of religion and caste
One song goes:
Everyone asks: "Lalan, what's your religion in this world?"
Lalan answers: "How does religion look?
I've never laid eyes on it.
Some wear malas [Hindu rosaries] around their necks,
some tasbis [Muslim rosaries], and so people say
they've got different religions.
But do you bear the sign of your religion when you come or when you go?"
So rules and ritual is pretty much out.
Instead, a Baul might focus on "Deha tatta", truth in the body - a spirituality related to your physical being rather than the mind.
Bauls hold the view that the body is the microcosm of the universe, and since everything is contained within it all worships should be centered round the body.
This doesn’t mean just doing what you want, but allows contemplation by focus on and control of the body, possibly illustrated by one line of Lalon’s “After how many days will I be united with the person inside my own heart”
Over his life Lalon is said to have composed nearly two thousand five hundred devotional songs, although that number does vary wildly. Lalon developed a community of disciples enabling the tradition of to spread as more Bauls picked up instruments.
Lalon died on October 17, 1890, but he was by no means forgotten. As well as his disciples, , the beat poet Alan Ginsberg was also influenced by him, writing a poem in 1992 titled "After Lalon"
In 2005, the Baul tradition of Bangladesh as a whole was included in the list of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
One who strays
The next person we’re going to talk about is a remarkable woman named Begum Rokeya.
She was born Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain on 9 December 1880, to a Muslim family in Rangpur, Bengal Presidency, (now Northern Bangladesh).
On one hand, Rokeya was lucky, she was born into a relatively prestigious family. Her ancestors served in the military and judiciary during the Mughal regime and her father was a zamindar, sort of a provincial noble, a man with an estate.
On the other hand Rokeya was unlucky, in that she was born a woman at a time and in a place where that came with significant limitations.
She was eager to study, but she was only allowed to learn Arabic, so that she could read the Koran, whilst her brothers sent to college, to study, among other things, Bangla aka Bengali and English.
She thought this was pretty unfair, and luckily for her, so did her older brother Ibrahim, who sneakily taught her and her sister English and Bangla at nights.
At the age of either sixteen or eighteen Rokeya was married to a 38 year old magistrate, which is quite an age difference. But her new husband was also a liberal and he encouraged his wife to continue studying, and to write.
And write she did, choosing to write in the Bengali language and on the topic of female rights and empowerment, eventually becoming a leading feminist and activist of her day.
This process started in 1902, mostly writing stories and poems with her work appearing in Ladies magazines.
In 1905 if you’d have purchased your usual copy of The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, which I know you’re a passionate subscriber to, you could have read Rokeya’s first major work – and it was sci fi.
It was called Sultana’s Dream and in it, an unnamed narrator wakes up to discover that she has awoken in a strange new world. She meets a woman who explains
“This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.'”
It’s a role-reversal world run by women. As she walks, the narrator notices people staring at her and she asks her companion why
“'The women say that you look very mannish.'
'Mannish?' said I, 'What do they mean by that?'
'They mean that you are shy and timid like men.'”
These “shy and timid men” are required to stay behind closed doors in a male purdah, a seclusion of the sexes which can involve covering up with veils or keeping women restricted to certain no-access areas of the house called a zenana.
In Sultana’s dream it is the men who are hidden away like this, and they discuss why:
'Where are the men?' I asked her.
'In their proper places, where they ought to be.'
'Pray let me know what you mean by "their proper places".'
'O, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.'
'Just as we are kept in the zenana?'
'How funny,' I burst into a laugh. Sister Sara laughed too.
'But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.'
'Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.'
'Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.'
'Of course not.'
'Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?'
'They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum.'
'Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?'
'Of course not!' said I laughing lightly.
'As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?' 'Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?'
'Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.'
'A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.'
Even better in this utopia the working day is only two hours long, as the companion explains:
o I finish my work in two hours.'
o 'In two hours! How do you manage? In our land the officers, – magistrates, for instance – work seven hours daily.'
o 'I have seen some of them doing their work. Do you think they work all the seven hours?'
o 'Certainly they do!'
o ' No, dear Sultana, they do not. They dawdle away their time in smoking. Some smoke two or three choroots during the office time. They talk much about their work, but do little.”
Which all sounds about right.
Sultana then discovers how this society is greatly scientifically advanced, run by solar power and with sprinkler systems to keep everyone cool in summer, they even have a heat ray that they can deploy in battle, in case the neighbouring kingdoms run by men get the wrong idea.
Towards the end of the tale, the narrator and her friend jump into a flying car, oh yes, they have flying cars too.
And then, she wakes up, and it was all a dream. A beautiful dream.
It’s a great little story, and bear in mind at this time, Rokeya was only 25, and she had a lot more writing ahead of her.
But it wasn’t just writing she used to make a difference either. She also set up her own school for Muslim girls, putting her money where her mouth is.
She was an activist too, co-founding the Bengali Muslim Women's Association. And she continued to work towards women’s education, empowerment and economic independence right up until her death on the 10th December 1932 at the age of fifty two.
Begum Rokeya was a pioneer feminist, who would not stay in the role she was assigned, she strayed from her given path and in doing so became an inspiration to people to this day
In fact every in year in Bangladesh the 9th December is celebrated as Rokeya Day. And on 9 December 2017, Google celebrated her 137th birthday with a Google Doodle.
One who Stays
Our next Bangladeshi is a scientist whose work has stayed relevant to this day. He is Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose.
He was born 30 November 1858 in Munshigunj, just outside the capital Dhaka.
Athough from a well to do family, Bose was not sent a fancy school to learn in English he was sent to a Bengali speaking school where he learned alongside people from all walks of life
This set him in good stead for being a decent human being, he said:
o It was because of my childhood friendship with them that I could never feel that there were 'creatures' who might be labeled 'low-caste’
Bose was a bright child, at the age of eighteen he passed the exam for the University of Calcutta. He planned to join the civil service, like his dad, but his father was dead against it, saying his son should “rule nobody but himself”.
So he went to England to study medicine at the University of London, but had to quit due to ill health, possibly to do with all the chemicals in the lab.
Instead, his brother in law, got Bose a place in Christ's College, Cambridge to study natural sciences.
Bose earned his degree and went back to India where he was appointed professor of physics at Presidency College.
Now at that time an Indian professor was paid two thirds the salary of a European. And to make it worse, as it was a temporary appointment it was halved again – so he stood to make one-third what he would have made as a European.
Unsurprisingly, he did not think that was ok. But instead of quitting or not taking up the post, he decided to protest by… working for free. Take that!
He refused his salary for his first three years at the College.
In that time he became a popular fixture in the College and eventually the institution relented and paid him not just his full salary, but also backdated it so he got all the money he deserved. Hurrah.
But he wasn’t all that interested in money, he was interested in research. So he used his money to build his own lab where he studied, among other things, radio waves.
And so it was that in November 1895, Bose presented a public demonstration at Town Hall in Calcutta, where he sent an electromagnetic wave, or as he called it in one paper, invisible light, through a wall to a location 75 feet away to ring a bell and to explode some gunpowder.
This was an important step to the invention of radio and this was two years before Marconi gave his famous demonstrations in England.
Despite this breakthrough Bose was so non-material, he refused to patent any of his inventions.
This was A scruple that Marconi did not hold, and when he patented his wireless, it included an essential component called a coherer which, by an astonishing coincidence was identical to the one invented and built by Chandra Bose, although the Indian inventor received no credit or acknowledgement in Marconi’s patent application.
Not that that particularly bothered Bose, he had plenty more to discover, including working with microwaves, investigating metal fatigue and using the tools of physics to look at plants and reveal that plants responded to electrical stimuli, using another of his inventions, the crescograph, which could measure the tiniest of movements, down to 1/1,000,000th of an inch.
And to top it off, he is considered the father of Bengali science fiction. He wrote a short story Niruddesher Kahini in 1896 in a competition run by a hair oil company.
In 1917 Bose established the Bose Institute in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. He was the Director of the institute for twenty years until his death in 1937 and today it remains a public research institute.
When he dedicated the laboratory, at the institute, he said:
• “It is not for man to complain of circumstances, but bravely to accept, to confront and to dominate them; and we belong to that race which has accomplished great things with simple means.”
Sir Nevill Mott, Nobel Laureate said of him, "J.C. Bose was at least 60 years ahead of his time.”
And he also made it to the moon – a crater on the Southern side of the far side of the moon is named the Bose crater after him.
And he too was also a recipient of a Google doodle, being featured on 30th November 2016.