Saturday, March 11, 2006

Raindrops Keep Falling On Their Heads

People often criticise Scottish (and/or British) weather as being constantly rainy and dull. Obviously they have never been to Cherrapunjee in India's northeast state of Meghalaya, which, incidentally, means "The Abode of Clouds". This happens to be a very apt name as Cherrapunjee holds both the record for rainfall in a single year, at a staggering 23m! and in a single month (9.3m), and the neighbouring town of Mawsynram has the highest average rainfall a year of almost 12m (for comparison London only has 65cm a year). Meghalaya is indeed a strange corner of India as it doesn't feel at all like India. The majority of the population is Khasi, a hill tribe related to the Burmese, and Christian. There are genuine smiles at every corner, people are polite and the women have equal status as men (actually their status is slightly higher) and so you can have a proper conversation (on the whole subcontinent up until now I had only had one proper conversation with a woman). It was here, in a little village close to Cherrapunjee (I just love that name) that I saw one of the natural wonders of my trip: living bridges. The tribespeople of the Jaintia hills coax the roots of rubber trees growing by the banks of streams across to the other side using bamboo "trellises", and after 15-20 years the roots reach the other side and allow people to cross. One of these bridges even has two levels and is known as the Double Decker. An amazing example of harmony between man and nature.

I'd like to take this opportunity, by the by, to have a little rant about that most British of conversation topics: the weather. As I mentioned before, the weather of our Sceptered Isle is often given short shrift and much maligned. I actually really like our British weather. There are no extremes: it is never so hot that you can do nothing but pant under the AC unit, or so cold that spit freezes before it touches the ground; we have no cyclones or tornadoes, no droughts and our floods would be laughed at by the people of Bangladesh. It's a climate you can live in. People say they would like to live in the tropics when what they mean is that they would like to go there on holiday, and preferably not during the monsoons. And anyway, I can afford a coat. And I like hot chocolate on a cold Winter night. But I ought to stop there before I get maudlin.

The more perceptive of you will have perhaps realised by now that I am no longer in Bangladesh. My stay there was perhaps short, but it was certainly sweet. Despite the lack of major attractions; the constant power outages that always seemed to occur whilst I was online (though that might perhaps have something to do with the fact that I spend far too much time surfing the internet, but I do it for selfless reasons: so that you, my readers at home, can share in my travel adventure); the rather unimpressive food which, quite frankly, has made mealtimes a bit of a chore (I sometimes think of Bangladesh as the Scotland of Asia due to their love of deepfrying everything); and the often oppressive curiosity of the locals, I have enjoyed myself very much. Perhaps because of the lack of foreign tourists it was in Bangladesh that I was finally accorded the celebrity status I know I deserve; or perhaps it was the slightly naive charm of the people. It's a shame that because of its poverty and lack of big-draw attractions this oft gem of a country is often overlooked. It has been hard done by in the past and has crippling amounts of corruption and deserves better. Which brings me nicely on to today's history lesson: the Liberation War of Bangladesh.

The partition of India in 1947 carved up the land into two countries: India and Pakistan. The latter, however, was comprised of two parts, an east and west one, separated by 1500km of India. All the power in the newly formed Pakistan was centred in the less populous west, and was jealously guarded by the, mainly Punjabi, ruling elite. The Bengali east was persecuted from the start: in 1948 Urdu, and only Urdu, was imposed as the national language, despite being hardly spoken by anybody in the Bengali east; most of the east's income was siphoned off to the west so living standards steadily declined whilst those in the west rose. All these disparities caused simmering resentment in the east which boiled forth in 1971. The then dictatorship of Pakistan vowed to hold free elections which were resoundingly won by the east Pakistani Awami League, securing 269 out of seats in parliament. The western controlled military and political parties refused to accept the result and refused to start the new parliament as scheduled on the 1st of March. Instead they played for time and on the night of the 24th of March they started a genocide of the Bengali east, targetting intellectuals, teachers, Hindus, students and journalists. The Bengalis declared their independence and started a guerrilla campaign against the Pakistanis.

After 9 months of bitter fighting the Indians found a pretext for joining the war and quickly routed the Pakistani army, but not before a large number of Bengalis has died. The Bangladeshis claim that 3 million died, but even if it was a more conservative total of 1 million, the death rate was similar to that of the Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. But the shocking thing, is that so little is heard about this in the West. I was barely aware of the conflict before coming here and I considered myself a rather well-read individual. How is this possible? It might have something to do with the complete lack of action from the West. One of the critics of the situation was the Soviet Union, which decried the disregard for democratic process, whereas America tacitly supported the Pakistanis!

Now my regard for America and its foreign policies was not particularly high when I started this trip, but as it has progressed I find almost every dark chapter in post-war history has been compounded or instigated by our friends across the pond, either overtly, or through political intrigue, or by secret funding of paramilitaries, or by economic muscle. How is it that we aren't made fully aware of this? how is it that we seem to let all these transgressions slip by? It makes me feel as if we might indeed be living in some Orwellian world where, despite appearances to the contrary, we are just fed any old crap and we seem to lap it up unquestioningly. I'm unable to express my thoughts very well at the moment (and the internet pay meter is continually ticking) but it seems very wrong to me, especially our apathy and unwillingness to rock the boat unless our own interests are at stake. Hmmm, I seem to have gotten all gloomy, hopefully my next post will be lighter and more cheerful.

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