Category Archives: Friends

Shibu Jose

When Shibu Jose (pronouced Joes) emailed me six months ago I had assumed he was from Latin America. It turns out that he’s from Kerala, India and is the other Fulbright scholar in the Environmental Science department at IUB this semester. Shibu is an Associate Professor of Forest Ecology with the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He attended Purdue University, the same school my father in law taught at.

We live in the same guest house here in Dhaka and have been sharing countless meals together since his arrival in January. It’s been great getting to know him.  Always nice to have someone to commiserate with during the frequent power outages. Shibu is the one who suggested that I read “The White Tiger”, an excellent novel about modern day India. So much of that book describes what I’ve been seeing in Bangladesh these past nine months.

The World’s Happiest People?

Street vendor, Old Dhaka

I will  leave you for a short break with a collaborate post. A local correspondent for the BBC radio here in Dhaka told me about a recent poll that claims Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world. How on earth could that be? We have all heard the numbers and become desensitized by now. Most people surviving on a dollar a day. A country plagued by environmental disasters, lack of infrastructure, health and education, the list goes on.

I decided to ask some friends and colleagues, all from Bangladesh, what they thought the reasons were for this self contentment.  As far as I know people here aren’t taking Prozac.  Interesting also that no one mentioned the influence  of religion.

Taking tea

“People here value strong family ties – kids live with their parents until they are married, and are expected to take care of their parents when they get old. You won’t see too many nursing homes here, although the trend is emerging.”

“With life being harder here, there are lower expectations. People ask for less because they know they can’t afford it. I think the relative hardships one faces here, in terms of poverty, natural calamities, etc, has led to a greater appreciation of the smaller joys in life. A while back, we had two flash floods occurring in the same year, one after the other. People living in the slums near Gulshan- an upper class neighborhood- were reduced to squatting in makeshift tarpaulin tents on the pavements near our home. You would expect these people, who had literally lost their homes and much of their belongings, to be miserable. Every evening, on my way back from work, though, I’d be the one grumbling about the rising floodwater’s lapping at the tires of our car, while the squatters took time to live, laugh and enjoy. As the sun went down, the oil lamps came on, and the rickshaw wallahs would line up their vehicles and join their families. Someone would play the flute, children would sing and dance; and everyone would celebrate just being alive. It looked like something out of a Dickens novel. They certainly taught me a thing or two about human resilience.”

– Sabrina Ahmed, Journalist, Writer and University Faculty Member

“I think people in Bangladesh are the happiest because of the family bonding that we share, we take care of one another, it doesn’t matter whether we are 13 or 30 we live together with our family. The girls only leave when they are married. Another thing is, it takes very little to make us happy and our food is the best in the whole world.”

– Limana Solaiman, Student

“I have grown up hearing that Bangladeshi people are very easy to satisfy and that is why many think that they are happy people. The poor are happy if they have a roof over their head and three meals a day. They don’t worry about equity or want to fight for their rights. As long their stomach is full they think that life is good.”

“Also due to strong family ties and bonding people find happiness in other people’s happiness and success. For example, even if a person is not very successful but has a cousin who is a prominent person he will be ecstatic about it tell everyone  that he knows that prominent figure. So as they find achievement in other people’s achievements that may also be a reason that Bangladeshi people are so happy. This is my personal view but I always hear people say that the reason we are happy people is because most of us don’t have unending wants and are easily satisfiable.”

– Tabassum Amina, University Faculty Member, Sociologist

“The main reason is poverty. Because of poverty most of the people’s expectations are low. In Bangladesh poverty is responsible for the lack of education. That is  ultimately why our expectation level is low. In Bangladesh, most of the people’s primary concern is only for food and shelter. When that is taken care they  feel happy. You  should also remember that urban and culture is not so strong in Bangladesh.  Rural life is a significant part of Bangladesh. That is why most of the people are free from alienation and fear of isolation. That is why most of the people can be optimistic and are happy with their life.”

– Shoma Afroja, Journalist and TV Anchor

“I can share one experience of mine. It was about a year ago. On the 19th November 2007…. just two days after the SIDR cyclone hit Bangladesh I went to Char Montaj which was devastated, and was shocked to see such a scare from  a natural disaster. I went there to assist with relief activities with the NGO Action Aid. At ten in the morning I found a girl who was barely 17, but already the mother of three kids. She was playing with her three month old child in an open place…no proper shelter… just under a tree…and her other two kids were playing beside her. When  I asked how she was all she said was that “a number of bad things had happened but we were alive….what else can we do?”

“Maybe it’s the climate in this tropical zone. People in the countryside do not have to struggle that much. They do not have big dreams either. Whatever they receive they take it as a bonus.”

-Sifat Azam, University Faculty Member, Development and Environmental Studies


Returned to Dhaka two days ago since classes resumed at IUB today. With only four million people  Chittagong wasn’t exactly relaxing but definitely easier to navigate compared to Dhaka. I met with Alam Khorshed, a former engineer who studied and worked in the USA and Canada for 17 years. In 2004 he changed careers and established a cultural center called Bishaudbangla for the purpose of exposing Bangladeshi  traditions- older and newer ones-  to the younger generation. The place is very inviting and has a cafe/book store, gallery, offers Bangla language classes and sells beautiful clothes- a great chance to get some shopping done. One evening Alam and I went to an art exhibit by a local painter at the Alliance Francaise which was a lot of fun.

One of the things that struck me were the amount of hospitals in this city. There seemed to be at least one on every street- modern but shabby looking building that resembled a Motel Six. Alam remarked how private industry has caused this situation to explode. In the past, the government played a larger role in providing health care.

Fringi Bazar

While photographing a marching band preparing for a gig in the old Portuguese district Shubasish Barua (his last name is very common among Buddhists in Bangladesh) appeared out of nowhere. He informed me that he was also a documentary photographer working for Drik Agency and in less then five minutes I was sitting in the living room of his families beautiful old home drinking coffee and eating chocolate cake. He excused himself as he was rushing off to a family function but I had a chance to have a good parent to parent talk with his 76 year old father that was very interesting! Never pass up an opportunity to talk with wise old men.

Ten minutes later my mobile phone rang and Shubasish arranged for a photographer friend of his to accompany me to Bandaban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.  I had already gone through the formalities of securing my travel permit from the district commissioner for the region since it is considered a sensitive area by the Bangladeshi Army. The next morning Tanvir and I were on our way.

Johnathan Munshi

On the bus back to Dhaka from the Lalon celebration in Kustia

Jonathan has become a good friend here in Dhaka. He was born in Bangladesh but moved to the States when he was 14 years old. He returned to Dhaka two years ago to look after his parents and keeps delaying his return back to the east coast where he is on sabbatical from General Electric.

I met Jonathan through a group of local photographers from the MAP agency. We immediately hit it off. He took up photography seriously last year and we often go out in the early morning hours to shoot in and around the city. Johanthan is a real friend, especially at a time like this. He is a serene person but also has a twinkle in his eye. I’m fortunate to know him.

Naomi Ahmad

Naomi assisting while I photograph at orphanage

One of the perks of teaching at the university is being inserted into the  community and having the chance to meet so many interesting people, both other colleagues at the Communications and Media  department  as well as some of the students. Naomi has been my TA at IUB but unfortunately for me has begun a new job at the World Bank in the Finance and Private Sector Development Unit. She is calm, collected, extremely well organized and very funny in a dry way. I hope she will find time in the future to work on some projects with me. Naomi was born and grew up in Japan when her father was posted to the Bangladeshi Ministry in Tokyo for five years. She is very fond of cats.