Shakedown in a graveyard

Dhaka, August 19, 2003

Today is a statutary holiday, Lord Krishna's birthday, which is odd considering that less than 10% of the population of Bangladesh is Hindu. I rode my bike to the office at about 10 am to respond to email and revise the lease agreement for the apartment I'm taking possession of tomorrow. By noon I had done all I could do. For some time now I've meant to check out a cemetary at the end of Banani Lake, near the airport road, so I set off in that direction.

I find graveyards interesting for several reasons so I'm drawn to them when the opportunity arises, for contemplation of mortality, matching the birth and death dates with events in my life and in history, catching hints of lives in epitaphs, seeing the ostentation and modesty of crypts and graves. In really old graveyards, for example the Montmartre Cemetary in Paris, names graven in granite for all time have eroded to illegibility in a couple of hundred years.

Banani is a new suburb of Dhaka on what was farm land and wetlands fifteen years ago, but the climate is hot and damp so buildings more than a couple of years old are mouldy with verdigris, giving them an ancient decaying look. I pedaled through unpleasant smells suggesting unfortunate excavations. On the street the cemetary walls, once white, were grey and slimy and the rusted wrought-iron gates hung open on worn hinges. Beggars displaying a variety of afflictions languished on the beaten earth, coming to life with outstretched palms and piteous cries as I rode up. Children crowded around me cheerfully demanding bakshish (alms) while I chained my bike to a tree. I nodded to a woman sitting on a balustrade nearby when she said that she would keep an eye on it.

Several men lounged in a prayer room just inside the gates. Not far in among the plots I encountered three bearded men in orthodox dress: white punjabi (a knee-length shirt), trousers and tope (the white pill-box hat). I tried to catch an eye so that I could politely greet them as we squeezed by one another but they grimly ignored me. Passing between the blocks of graves and mausoleums on narrow walks I saw many names, titles, dates and epitaphs in English. Most were terse, some pretentious and one had an mysterious verse that suggested wrongful death.

The mausoleums were bulky and armoured with tiles, like squat Taj Mahals. A mob of small children found me, curious and pestering for bakshish. A crew of labourers called out to me "bondhu! bondhu!" (friend), a preface to "bakshish! bakshish!". I thought I was getting used to being objectified as a wallet full of money that should be given to anyone who asks for it, but this place was the worst I've encountered for constant reminders that they're miserable and I'm rich.

To escape this I strode on, deeper into an expanse of monuments and plots that was much bigger than I anticipated. I supposed that with such a huge population they have to have large burial places, since cremation is not an option for Muslims. A couple of men in a large formally dressed group gathered by a grave caught sight of me and called out loudly "bondhu!" in insincere tones, so I pressed on uneasily, following a high wall apparently studded on its top with scalpel blades. I could see that I was approaching a corner of the graveyard that probably bordered Banani Lake. Several men in shirts and lungis were lacadaisically tending a grave and looked up with interest as I passed by. I said "asalam alecum" but they didn't make the polite "hualecum salam" response. When I arrived at the cul de sac corner, I could indeed see the lake at the foot of the wall but it was a swamp choked with water hyacinth. Turning back, I saw with alarm that the four men were approaching me, two of them with the long curved knives they were using to cut the grass. I turned away again so they couldn't see me take a switchblade out of my pack, put the safety catch off and slide it into my right-side pants pocket. To get out of the corner I walked toward them, the knife in my hand in my pocket. They looked wary and dangerous and one of them said agressively "bakshish!". As I crabbed by them I said "bakshish na" which means forget it, you're not getting a single taka from me, fuckers. I thought about yelling for help as loud as I could because I could just make out the other crowd about 80 meters distant, but then I was by them and away. Either they feared that I had a pistol in my pocket, or hoped just to intimidate me for money but were not prepared to mug me.

In no mood now to linger, I returned to the cemetary entrance and waded through the pleading beggars to my bike. Giving the bike-watcher woman some bills, I flung a leg over the bike and pedalled off like the pied piper with twenty urchins running along behind. People watched with no empathy, not even responding to my comical eye-ball rolling meant to indicate helpless non-responsibility for the spectacle. One kid stuck with me all the way to Kemal Ataturk hanging on to the carrier-rack, "bakshish, puff, puff, bakshsish", and waited ouside of a shop that I'd entered to get out of a sudden downpour, until a security guard shooed him away.

I've taken the trouble to write this because the episode disturbs me. Of course feeling threatened is upsetting, but the antipathy I sensed from everyone I encountered was discouraging and bothers me more. I wish I understood it. If only I could speak Bangla I could get past the objectification and reveal my humanity.


I described this incident to a Bangladeshi friend who tried to make sense of it for me. He said that non-Muslims are unwelcome in mosques and cemetaries. I had been foolish to go there alone. My foolishness was even more apparent when I attempted to interact with the grave tenders, because I should have projected haughty arrogance befitting my station in life. They took me for an idiot and anticipated that I'd be easy to shake down for money. I could easily have been in as much danger as I felt myself to be.