Bangladesh Day 7: In small-town Bangladesh, India is a superpower

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Sunday was our second day spent with PRAN in Noakhali, Bangladesh, learning about local climate justice issues and concepts. Masud-bhai from PRAN took us to visit a community of Hurricane Alia survivors, where landless farmers are building new lives for themselves in incredibly low-lying land. If climate change plays out as predicted, residents may be impacted by rising seas, destruction of soil fertility via increased salinity, and increased chance of devastating cyclones. We walked knee-deep through mud and water to reach newly upraised land these men and women call home, and came home to fill our evening with song and strategy.

We tell most strangers that we're from Kolkata. It is techically true, as that's where we entered Bangladesh from, but we enjoy the fact that it makes for a simpler story and a lower profile than the truth. (Who wants to explain three sets of immigration histories? Or that B and I are Americans, giving vendors the go-ahead to try to fleece us?)

In Dhaka, folks are generally pretty happy to hear that's we're from Kolkata. Some ask us how we like their city or country. Others share stores of trips to Kolkata or elsewhere in India, or of Indians they've met in the course of work. But in Noakhali, a relatively small town, telling folks that we're from Kolkata, India got us a lot of attention.

We think of India and Bangladesh as being like the US and Canada -- two neighboring countries that aren't fundamentally all that different. Even if one hadn't been to the other country, it my mind, we were alike enough. But at our guesthouse, at the nearby tea shop, and particularly at local restaurants, some folks we talked to were wide-eyed. As Indians, we were treated the way "real" foreigners would have been. But those real foreigners--the white and East Asian businesspeople, NGO workers, and tourists we saw in Dhaka--don't make it out to places like Noakhali in large numbers. In Noakhali, India's foreign enough. The crowd of restaurant service workers huddled around us during lunch and dinner asked questions, were thrilled to hear us tell them what we thought about their city and their country. We gave a particularly curious nineteen year old, a restaurant employee midway through his daily 12-hour shift, a souvenir from our country: an Indian ten rupee note. He broke out in a massive grin, thrilled, and finally unable to speak in his sheer excitement. B and I kept talking about the wonder and pathos of his grin.

We felt like rock stars, or space aliens. We felt white. We sometimes had to remind folks that India was also a developing country, like Bangladesh, and that they had major cities like Dhaka at home.

So why was India such a big deal here? It seemed to center around money. We tried to figure out all the ways locals might get their information. Even in Bangladesh's largely self-sufficient media market, India was still a major exporter of mass culture, including Bollywood movies and Bengali TV shows, many of which show well-fed upper-middle to upper-class people. Offline, the only Indians some locals saw in person were international travelers, often middle-class or above. Finally, some residents may have had first-hand experience, a few as travelers, and perhaps others as undocumented workers, coming from a city known for sending many young to work abroad.

For some local residents, what we had parsed as a Canada-US relationship may have been more like a Mexico-US relationship, with India not just a powerful neighbor, but a superpower, a source of culture, wealth, and employment--with all that implies. Indians don't know what kind of soft power they have--if only they were to stop focusing on governments and think about people-to-people relationships.

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