Is this home? I laid my hand on the cold clay and traced the outlines of Gods and Goddesses carved onto the wall of a Hindu Temple that dated back to a time when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one big entity, yet to come across their individual identities. There, as I stood mesmerized by the intricate patterns etched into the weathered, 17th-century terracotta, I found myself caught in a conundrum. I felt like I belonged, but I also felt like a complete stranger.
I was born and raised in New Jersey, the Jersey Shore to be exact. And to me, that was the only place I ever considered home when I was growing up. But, my parents thought it was important for their kids to keep close ties with extended family members and our cultural heritage. So, while my classmates loaded their cars with bikes and boogie boards to head to beach houses in Cape Cod and Long Beach Island, we packed eight, 50-pound suitcases and headed out on 20-hour flights to the other side of the world, every…single…summer. I resented them in those years of my childhood when it felt like they were uprooting me from my home and, naively, I accused them of robbing me of the chance at being “normal”, making bold statements about how little I cared for their culture. But as the years went on and our trips to Bangladesh became less frequent, my nostalgia heightened and I found myself feeling more and more homesick for a place that wasn’t home.
So, why launch my solo traveling career in a place that I’ve already been to over a dozen times? I got sick of being homesick. As connected as I felt to my cultural heritage, the truth was that I wasn’t Bangladeshi, I was Bangladeshi-American, the daughter of immigrant parents, struggling through my hyphenated, first generation existence. This trip was my attempt at exploring the roots of my identity, without that tiny hyphen separating me from them.
Bangladesh: a small country bordering India that is about the same age as Snoop Dogg.
I could tell you all about its capital, its history and I can even go through all the cultural nuances and differences between each of its districts…but I couldn’t tell you that I’ve ever seen any of the places or peoples I’d be describing. Between the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Dhaka and difficulty in finding a domestic transportation option that is both safe and affordable, getting anywhere outside the city was nearly impossible. So, when I told my family (both nuclear and extended) about my travel plans of hitting three cities in four days… they laughed, hysterically. “The jetlag alone will get in your way!” “You’ll have to cancel at least half of your plans!” “Who made this itinerary? Is this a joke?”… are just a few of the comments I received. But, with my tickets booked, visa approved and suitcases packed, there was no stopping me. So, off I went.
I landed in Dhaka, on December 12th, just a few days before Bijoy Dibosh (December 16th), a national holiday celebrated to commemorate the final victory over the Pakistani Army, that ended the Bangladesh Liberation War & genocide. My itinerary started on the following morning when I woke up at 5 am to beat the tenacious Dhaka traffic and travel to Mymensingh, a city built on the mighty banks of Brahmaputra River and my father’s birthplace. Schools were let out early that day, the celebrations had already begun.
Families dotted the markets, street vendors aligned the park and the Brahmaputra teemed with boats carrying flowers and fish. I walked along the crowded banks of the river, pretending to retrace the steps my grandfather might have taken, on the dirt path that belonged to a different nation at the time when he was still strong enough to walk on it. As I stared across the water at the docked boats in shades of red and green, an ode to the holiday I assumed, I asked myself again: is this home? It was a short trip, a mere twelve hours total. After a quick visit to my grandparents’ graves, the orphanage next door, a failed attempt at making henna paste by hand and a few hellos and samosas shared with neighbors and distant relatives who were pleasantly shocked to see me, I left thinking: maybe.
DAY 2 & 3:
After Mymensingh, it was mom’s turn to receive a birthplace homage, so this time I set out to Dinajpur. Whenever my mom mentions her childhood, she fades into a blissful daze as she combs through her memories and carefully lays out the details of her fondest people, places, and things of her past. The dirt roads, the paddy fields, the small huts studded across the vast farms… when she mentions these, I feel all my senses tingling, aching to see, smell, hear, taste and touch them myself; and alas, after a 2-hour flight, 4-hour bus ride and 2-mile walk, I finally had my moment to.
I sat by my grandmother’s grave. She laid in a small plot, surrounded by a green grass field, banana trees and mango groves, as far as the eye can see. Technically, this was a cemetery exclusively for the men of the family. Next to her laid a line of zamindar heirs that once had ownership over all the land in this small village I was in. But she always defied the gravity of societal norms and pressures, the ones that pulled women down and into a voiceless existence back in her time. She went to college abroad to study English, leaving her home, her family and the many prospective marriage proposals that were supposed to determine her future. And there she was, defying more norms but this time, for eternity. “Rebelliousness must run in your family” the grave-sight attendant joked. “So does bravery and intellect” I retorted. I left and walked through the garden to look at the jasmines and lilies that she planted back in her youth. After passing the quiet lake, the paddy fields, and the kind smiles of the farmers and cattle herders, I came back to the house my mom spent her summers in as a child. As her cousins joked about village life and told me stories of our royal past, mentioning every now and then how remarkably I resembled my mother and how surprised they were at my accent-less fluent Bengali, I felt like I belonged. These people, places and things that surrounded me were mine and I theirs. This time, my great aunt asked me before I could as myself: do you feel at home here? I didn’t have an answer this time, because I didn’t know. I smiled back and shrugged, turning my gaze towards the window to watch the sunset behind the paddy field.
Just to put the usual Dhaka traffic into perspective: on my way to Mymensingh, it took about two hours by road. The drive back to Dhaka, through rush hour traffic, took us seven. So, as you can imagine, I was not looking forward to driving through Dhaka to get through the last day of my agenda. But it was Bijoy Diobosh so I stuck to my plans and hit the road. What I did know about this holiday: it ended a war and genocide in which over 300,000 women were raped, and over 3 million Bangladeshis were killed. What I didn’t know: how it was commemorated in the modern day.
I hopped into a rickshaw and glided through the foggy streets towards Dhaka University — often regarded as the birthplace of the liberation movement. The usually busy streets, that constantly roared with the din of sirens, horns and rickshaw bells, were surprisingly quiet.
Growing up, we learned about the Civil Rights Movement and leaders like Gandhi and Lincoln, but as I walked next to the parades, listened to the speeches and watched the university students cheer and march in masses, I wondered why we never learned about this freedom, too.
My father never shared much about his college days. From the fragments of memories he let out now and then I gathered that while he was a student at Dhaka University, he too participated in the liberation movement, living through the war and seeing it from start to finish, right within those university walls. I entered the building where my father chose his line of study and walked into one of the classrooms he once sat in that led him to earn the degree that changed his life. Who was he? Why hadn’t he brought me here? Were the memories he had of his time here too painful or too private?
The rest of the day went by in the same blur of questions about the difficult decisions my parents made, to give me the life of privilege I have now. I touched the walls of Lalbagh Kella, the infamous Mughal fort built in the 1600’s; tasted the famous biriyani of Puran Dhaka, the historic old “city of magnificent ruins”; made my way through the crowds at the Shahid Minar…and lived a day in the life a Bangladeshi, seeing and experiencing so many of the things they do every Bijoy Dibosh. As I continued to explore the streets and sites of Puran Dhaka, eating, listening and observing as the locals did, I felt my foreignness slowly slip away as the hyphen that separated me from this identity seemed to disappear. I asked myself for the last time: is this home? The answer i received this time was both surprising and relieving: Yes. This is home. This is home away from home. And I am a Bangladeshi and an American — no hyphen in sight.
Yes, I’ve been to Bangladesh over a dozen times, but it took this visit for me to actually see it. Growing up as a hyphenated American, I’ve always known my roots were there, I cherished them and tended to them well, but it took this trip for me to feel them. On those many summers, marked by long journeys and hot, humid days, I realized that I wasn’t being uprooted from my home by my parents. Rather, they were showing the roots I didn’t even know were there. With each trip, I learned of their origins, seeds of an ancient past; where they can take me once they grow; and what it will take to keep them strong enough to yield a thriving, fruitful life. It took this solo trip to realize that through all those trips, I was being rooted up.