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The Ups And Downs Of Jeremy James

Dacca, Bangladesh (1975-1976)


We departed Whanganui in a 28 seat, Fokker F27 Friendship, turbo-prop aeroplane and headed for Wellington.  This was an NAC flight, as this was the name of the domestic airline company before it merged with Air New Zealand a few years later.  I had never been in one of these aircraft before, but I had seen them flying over our house.  It was great sitting in the seat and thinking of our journey ahead.

In Wellington we stayed the night in a hotel, and this was another new experience for me, having never stayed in a hotel previously.  From Wellington, we boarded a Douglas DC-8 and I think this was an Air New Zealand plane with 4 jet engines (2 on each wing).  I had never even seen one of these planes before, let alone been inside one.  This had something like 260 seats, so was much larger than the F27.  We flew to Sydney and stayed a night in another hotel and then the following day we set off to Bangkok on a Qantas Boeing 747.  Wow! This was incredible.  The aircraft took more than 400 passengers and it cruised along at about 560mph (900km/hr).  Looking down from way up in the sky was absolutely awesome.

From Bangkok we flew in a Thai International Boeing 707 to Dacca in Bangladesh and arrived around midday.  Up until then everything had been slick and organised.  In Dacca things were very different.  The airport building was not much more than a large shed and it was hot and muggy and very chaotic.  We were incredibly pleased to be met by Frank, who had a special airport pass.  After collecting our bags and completing all the immigration formalities, Frank drove us into Dacca, carefully dodging the countless rickshaws that were all over the road.  Progress was very slow and whenever we stopped at an intersection our car was besieged by beggars wanting money to feed their numerous children.  Everywhere you looked you saw people.  There were thousands of them, in every direction, and they all looked skinny and unwashed.  We eventually made it to the Intercontinental hotel, which was a cordoned off island of tranquillity.  Welcome to Bangladesh!


1975: Dacca, Bangladesh. The rickshaws rule the road. People everywhere.



1975: Dacca Bangladesh. Locals catching a ride on a truck.


In 1947 India had been partitioned into two new countries.  The larger country had retained the name India and this had a majority Hindu population.  The other was called Pakistan and it was predominantly a Muslim population.  But this is where it got a bit tricky.  They found it very difficult, deciding where the new borders should be drawn and so, as it turned out, Pakistan ended up having two separated areas, one called East Pakistan and one called West Pakistan, but both ruled by one parliament.

Trying to run a country which existed as two sperate areas of land, was never going to be easy, and in 1971, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, independence was declared.  A civil war ensued and about 3,000,000 people were killed until eventually, everybody decided to call it a day.  East Pakistan was renamed Bangladesh and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became the leader of a country with 75,000,000 people but no money and no bridges (all the bridges had been blown up in the war).

It was now 4 years later and independence had not brought much improvement.  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was still the Prime Minister, working exceedingly hard to do his best but the economy had remained shot to pieces and the country was politically unstable.  Worse was to come, as later that year Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a coup and a military government took over.


15 August 1975: Assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Bullet case picked up from the grounds of one of the neighbouring houses.


We lived in the hotel for the next 6 weeks while Mum and Frank made all the necessary arrangements to find a property and set up a new home for what was to end up being a two year stay.  There were four other New Zealand families also working on the flying school project, so we had a very select little social circle and over time Mum and Frank also met a few other people.  The Intercontinental Hotel was luxury and it also had a swimming pool with a diving board.  I swam every day and spent endless amounts of time diving off the diving board.  By the time we left my ability to swim had improved considerably.

Hilary and Joy lived in Bangladesh for a year and studied towards their Bursary exams, after which they both went to Massey University.  Michael and I spent the two years boarding at Whanganui Collegiate School, but we made four trips to Bangladesh in the holidays. 

For me, seeing Bangladesh was an incredible experience and opened my eyes to all sorts of things that I had not considered before.  Living in Dacca, gave me an idea of what Victorian England had probably been like.  There was an incredibly large number of uneducated people, with very little work and little opportunity to earn money and feed their families.  What was making it even worse for all of them, was that in amongst all the general chaos, they were having more and more children.  This was when I realised that over population was going to eventually become the number one problem in the world.


1975: Dacca Bangladesh. People everywhere.



1975: Dacca, Bangladesh: Squatters living in the grounds of the ‘Ahsan Manzil’ or the ‘Nawab’s Palace’.


Because they were all short of money (and hence food) they would take any opportunity that came their way.  Most of them were completely dishonest and would steal anything that they could get their hands on.  To start with I found this very off putting but after a while I could see that this was not a case of a lack of high principles, it was a basic necessity.  They all desperately needed food.

We also noticed that men treated their wives as second-class citizens.  When you saw them walking along the street, the wife would most of the time be walking behind the husband.  This is how it was. 

By the time of my second trip, Mum and Frank were living in a lovely little bungalow in the Dacca suburb of Dhanmondi.  There were three servants.  Khan the cook was a very honest man who did an excellent job looking after us.  He had two daughters that he was paying to put through school, as he realised the importance of a good education.  Around the house was a garden of probably a bit less than a quarter acre and this was kept in pristine condition by Malee the gardener whose other responsibility was to be day guard.  The night guard, or chowkidar, was Nurull and his responsibility was to stay up all night and make sure that we were kept safe.  Early morning, just before finishing his shift, he would give the car a good wash, before Sahib (Frank) would be driving off to work.


1975: Our Bungalow in Dhanmondi, Dacca, Bangladesh.



1975: Family group in front of the bungalow: Joy, Hilary, Dora, JJ, Michael.


In those days most of the Bangladeshis addressed white foreign men as Sahib and ladies as Memsahib.  It was an old custom, still hanging on from the days of the British Raj.

We met a very interesting old man called Colonel Parni near a place called Tangail which was approx 60km north west from Dacca.  He had been in the Army of the British Raj before partition in 1947 (28 years earlier) and he was now in retirement, living out in the country, in an incredibly old house, overlooking a big square lake with a small mosque at the opposite end.  His house, and everything around it, was in a rather sad dilapidated state but you could imagine how magnificent it had once been.  He told us stories of his experiences in the the old days, when the British ran the empire.  He said that with all the chaos now in the country, many of the people harked back to the good times that they heard about from their grandparents.  If it had been possible to use their democratic vote to bring back the British, then he was certain that they would have voted for it.  However, he went on to point out that they would have been wrong to do so.  Although he experienced some great times, he told us that things were just as disorganised back in the days of the British and, in his opinion, that was the very reason why they had left.


1974: Col Parni at Tangail, Bangladesh



1974: Col Parni’s old family home with a large square pond, Tangail.



1974: Col Parni’s family Mosque at the other end of his pond, Tangail.


One little memento that I still have, from my time in Bangladesh, is some old coins.  There were lots of these for sale in the market and they fascinated me.  Each has the head of King William IV or the young Queen Victoria and on the other side is written ‘East India Company’.  I could not help but wonder, why did it say East India Company?  With the monarch’s head on the coin, it was obvious that it was from the time of the British, but why did it not just say India?  What was the East India Company? 


Old Coins from the East India Company, King William IV and Queen Victoria.


Over time I heard about Robert Clive of India and many of the other men who had gone out to India in the very early days and made their fortune.  Eventually I found out that it was not the British Government that took over India.  Instead, from small beginnings, English adventures and traders, working for the East India Company, slowly gained political control of the whole subcontinent.  In fact, a lot of them were Scottish but they have always been referred to as “the English”.  There was never any master plan.  It was just the collective result of all these individuals wanting to make money.  Lots of them died very young but I get the impression that they found the beautiful Indian ladies to be incredibly alluring and the experience for most of them was sheer paradise.  They must have thought they were in heaven, even if they had not yet got there.

By 1784 the East India Company got into serious financial difficulties, as the owners and many of the top employees, had been paying themselves far too much money.  However, the company was too big to fail (just like 2008 when the banks lost everyone’s money) so the British government had to take the company over.  They continued to run it as a company, until the Indian rebellion of 1857 (The Mutiny) after which they needed a new brand name, so they changed it to just India or the Indian Empire.  Charles Canning, who was the Governor-General at the time, got a pay rise and was promoted to a new job called ‘Viceroy of India’ (same role but different job title).  Queen Victoria was made ‘Empress of India’ but she did not need a pay rise because she already had tons of money.  As I touched on earlier, this was the state of affairs up until 1947 when Louis Mountbatten was sent to India to sort things out, once and for all.  He got his map out, drew a few lines and partitioned the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.  Independence was declared and after a final cup of tea at the Viceroy’s residence, Louis and his wife Edwina, packed their bags and went back to England.

During our school holidays in Bangladesh we did a few trips around the country and we also did a trip to Calcutta (Kolkata) and a trip to Delhi and Agra.  I found the history of the place to be quite incredible and I have enjoyed reading history books on the subject ever since.

Another big thing happening at this time was the programme for the eradication of Smallpox (variola virus).  Smallpox had been wide spread in Bangladesh and on the street we regularly saw people whose faces were completely covered with spots as a result.  Although badly scarred for life, these were the lucky ones, as I understand the disease had generally killed 3 out of every 10 people infected.  An English doctor, Dr Edward Jenner, was the first person to identify a vaccine and he published his work in 1801.  By the early 1950s, due to widespread vaccination, the disease had been eradicated from Europe and North America and in 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) started a plan to clear the disease from the rest of the world.  By 1971 it had been eradicated from South America and this just left Bangladesh and Africa.

There had been an active programme of vaccination in Bangladesh for quite some time but it had not been possible to vaccinate everyone, as there were quite a few local people who were worried and hence did everything they could to avoid being vaccinated.  In the final few years, it had been found that using teams of expatriates seemed to get more cooperation from the local people.  Again, this may have been a hangover from the days of the British Raj and many people still had a lot of respect for the English (or anyone who looked like they were English).  My mother and my sisters did a lot of voluntary work in this campaign.  If anyone was found to be suffering from Smallpox, the team of expatriate vaccinators swooped on the area and went house to house vaccinating everyone that they came in contact with.  They also had police backup, in case there was any trouble, but this was rarely needed.  On one of our holidays my brother Michael and I also joined one of these vaccination teams.

The last Smallpox case in Bangladesh occurred in late 1975 and in Africa in 1977.  Since then, the world has been free of Smallpox.  I do look back and feel a sense of pride that I was one of the people who took part in the programme, even if it was only on one occasion.  Special recognition should go to my mother Dora, sisters Hilary and Joy, and all the other people around the world who did their bit to eradicate this terrible disease.


1974: New Zealand made plane ‘Air Tourer’ at Dacca Airport. People everywhere.


Another memory of my trips to Bangladesh, is of the tourist shops that sold a wide variety of interesting souvenirs for visitors.  Many of these items were made from parts of dead animals and in many cases endangered species.  There were all sorts of things made of ivory.  Delicately carved elephants were popular and in some cases you would get a complete tusk that had been carved with a continuous line of small elephants arranged in a curve.  You could also get fantastic chess sets with the white pieces made of ivory and the black pieces made of ebony.  In every case, the quality of the carving was exceptionally good.  There were also stuffed snakes, lizards, mongooses and various other animals.  Lots of leather goods, wallets, handbags, belts, etc, all made out of lizard skin or snakeskin.  Of course, everyone eventually realised that killing all these animals was not a very good idea.


An ivory elephant. Items made of ivory were a common sight in shops in 1974.


A natural occurring item that was more sustainable was pink pearls.  These came from freshwater mussels that were grown in the bottom of some of the numerous ponds that exist in the country.  It takes about 3 years for a mussel to grow and pearls are only found in a small number of these.  The mussels were collected mainly for the shell and the flesh.  Finding a pearl was a bonus.  The flesh was of course eaten as shell food.  The shells were crushed down and converted into lime.  This was then used by the locals as an ingredient when chewing betel nuts.  I never tasted betel nut but I understand that it contains an addictive substance which is in some ways similar to caffeine or nicotine.  I remember seeing lots of local people who had very bad looking teeth, caked in an orange-brown substance.  Apparently chewing betel nut is not very good for your health and huge numbers of the people who consumed it ended up dying of cancer. 


Pink pearl necklace made from pearls found naturally in Bangladesh freshwater mussels.


I have not been back to Bangladesh but I did make a trip to Kolkata as part of a Rotary Club event in 2012.  It was incredible to see how much things had changed.  There were no shops selling ivory or stuffed animals.  Traffic was still chaotic but there were very few rickshaws and when you watched people walking along the street, it was quite noticeable that wives no longer walked behind their husbands.  There was a real buzz about the place, and everybody looked busy and there were very few beggars.  It was brilliant to see how much progress had been made in the intervening period (36 years).