Even as an adult, my knowledge of Bangladesh remained shamefully little, considering the number of take-away curries I ate. All I knew was that the polite gentleman in the suit and tie who ran my local "Indian" came from there. Wasn't Bangladesh the sad counterpart to Indian Bengal? The failed cousin of Pakistan? The hideously over-crowded flood-plain beyond Calcutta where 150 million trembled in fear of the next cyclone?
I hoped there was more to Bangladesh than that. But what? I flew into the capital, Dhaka, last week to find myself in a steaming, muddy city full of rickshaws and honking tuk-tuks. It was the height of the monsoon, and incessant rains were falling. Mouldering, half-built office space cluttered the skyline; traces of British India, in the form of orientalist fantasy buildings like Curzon Hall, lurked discreetly behind dripping rain trees.
The first thing to find out was that, yes, the population of Bangladesh was overwhelmingly Muslim. That bald demographic fact was, after all, what had set the British on to their ludicrous - some would say pernicious - project of launching a Muslim Pakistan cut into two by a thousand miles of India. No surprise then that Bangladesh was forced into a separatist war to escape from the shackles of (West) Pakistan in 1971. "We are Bengalis first and Muslims second," Bangladeshis kept telling me, before explaining to me that it was a Britisher, one Cyril Radcliffe, who had cut Bengal in half, and drawn the crazy winding borders of their country: if only he had had the sense to create a single Bengal for all Bengalis, rather than a divided Pakistan for all Muslims.
The cultural differences between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis seem so blatant that it is hard not to feel anger at the people who forced them into the same bed after 1947. As one friend put it to me: "The rain makes us Bengalis so poetic and romantic. Pakistan by comparison is almost a desert." With the monsoon literally in my ears and eyes I knew exactly what he meant. Deserts - stark and predictable - are ideal breeding grounds for purists. Untameable environments like that of Bangladesh, where grass grows a foot in a week and enormous rivers break banks and mingle their waters at a whim, require another spirituality.
The brown floodwaters of Bangladesh are, indeed, a fabulous thing. From the air, the country resembles an ocean dotted with islands. On ground level, warm rain caresses the pedestrians, roads run along raised embankments through fields that are flooded as far as the eye can see. Houses perch on rickety stilts; jack-fruit trees stand marooned in the centre of lakes; fishermen perch on half-submerged bamboo frames raising and lowering their nets.
No wonder, in an environment like this, that Islam has developed different traditions. In Bangladesh it was not been a simple matter of organising social behaviour. Here it has also been about individuals communing with God in their own way - most often through music and poetry. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist elements have not been repressed but absorbed. Few Muslim women in Bangladesh wear chuddar; plenty wear saris and paint red bindhis on their foreheads. The local mystics, known as bauls, have been singing their way across this green country for centuries, performing in villages right across Bengal. Some of these men and women have enormous popular followings: it is a tradition as far removed from Islamic orthodoxy as you could possibly imagine.
What astonished me just as much was the veneration in which Bangladeshis hold their poets. Hardly a minute goes past in Dhaka conversation without the two great poets of this century - the late Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Nasrul Islam - being invoked. Even contemporary poets are household names. I was lucky enough to meet some of them, including Shamsur Rahman, officially the national poet. A few months earlier this unassuming little man was the target of an assassination attempt at the hands of a youth with a fluffy beard and an axe. The motive behind the attack? "I am supposed to stand for secularism," he told me, with a sad, gentle smile. "Now I have an armed guard
from the government. But don't worry. I am not afraid for myself. Nobody is going to make me change my ways."
Alas, that the worldwide war between fundamentalist Islam and the West should be spilling over into the gentle, rain-drenched world of song and poetry that is Bangladesh. You can see why it happens: fundamentalism, after all, triggers instant international recognition - as certain Arabs, Iranians, Afghans and Pakistanis have learnt over the last 20 years. But is there a nobler ideal at the end of the 20th century than secularism? Tareque Masud, a young film-maker I met one evening, thinks not. "We in Bangladesh face a choice between an intolerant, imported orthodoxy," he told me, "and the syncretic, artistic, creative world of our own villages. As artists we feel a huge responsibility to help keep alive the memory of what the 1971 war was all about. The fact that I was too young to take part in the struggle then gives me the feeling that now I need to do my bit."
The spirit of '71. People kept talking about it, even in a tiny wooden boat on the Buriganga River. "I took a one-week crash course in soldiering," ex-freedom-fighter Akku Chowdhury told me, as naked children hurled themselves from Sadar Ghat into the filthy waters around us. "That was all. I had never touched a gun before in my life." A delicate, aesthetic figure with a pony-tail, it was hard to imagine anyone less like a freedom- fighter. We passed small canoes, covered barges, rusty ferries and small container ships. On the ghats, pineapples, mangoes and durians by the ton were being unloaded. On top of 20m piles of firewood tiny stick figures stood profiled against the sky like pharaonic slaves; down below fully dressed women immersed themselves beneath the churning waters.
This was life on the waterways of Dhaka; the war for the freedom of Bangladesh had been no less individual. Unlike other Asian wars of the same era, the struggle was not driven by an inhuman ideology. It had been a war against oppressive ideology: in this case, Islam and Pakistani nationalism. "We, the Muslims, were numerically the dominant group," said Akku. "But we were fighting to save our Hindu communities from a holocaust. The war was a victory for secularism."
So determined has Akku Chowdhury been to preserve the memory of the war that he has established a museum in an old colonial mansion in the middle of Dhaka: the Liberation War Museum, dedicated, as he puts it, to victims of " ... destruction in the name of religion or sovereignty". Later that day I walked round it in a dazed silence, following the conflict from its early stages of linguistic and religious oppression, right through to a nine-month all-out war in which up to 3 million may have died. It was a searing experience.
Returning to London from Bangladesh last Sunday I felt that my eyes had been opened. I popped in for a take-away curry and told the gentleman in the suit and tie that I had met some of his poets. "Not Shamsur Rahman?" he burst out. "My favourite?" Another humbling moment, but in the context of Bangladesh - a land where even the emigre shop-keepers know their poets - it now made far better sense.
Bangladesh : GETTING THERE
Jeremy Atiyah flew as a guest of Bangladesh Biman Airways (tel: 0171- 629 0252) which flies between London and Dhaka most days of the week, though rarely non-stop. The current economy fare, valid to October, is pounds 483 including taxes. If you prefer to fly on a better known airline, you can pay pounds 479 return (fare valid to 15 July) with Emirates via Dubai. This fare is available through Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939).
Visas can be obtained at the airport on arrival, but if you wish to apply in advance contact the Bangladesh High Commission at 28 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5JA (tel: 0171-584 0081). The visa section is open between 10am and 1.30pm Monday to Thursday, 10am and 1pm Friday.
WHERE TO STAY
For details of the multifarious accommodation possibilities in the country, consult Bangladesh, A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 9.99). Rooms in good guest houses with air conditioning and all comforts cost pounds 30 or less.
WHAT TO DO
The Liberation Museum (tel: 00 8802 9559091) is at 5 Segun Bagicha, Dhaka- 1000, Bangladesh.
The Arts Worldwide Bangladesh Festival 1999, featuring theatre, poetry, music, cuisine and film of Bangladesh will be taking place at various venues in London between 7 and 25 July. Many of the country's leading artists are travelling to London specially for the occasion. The big opening day, featuring many of the artists, will take place on 11 July in Bangla Town, centred on Brick Lane in east London, between 11am and 6pm. Entry will be free to all. Call for information and a free brochure (tel: 0171- 354 4141). Otherwise write to Freepost, LOND, 6656 London N5 2BR.