In the middle of my recent travails in Sylhet, getting frustrated by the flooding and the sweating and generally not being too happy about it, I experienced something totally different. On a bus journey back up to Sylhet from Dhaka I had a phone call, and someone overheard me talking in English so decided to come up and have a chat. This happens quite often, and normally I try and bat the usual questions away as quickly as possible, but this guy not only spoke better English than most, but had lived in London for thirty years and used to go out and get drunk in Camden, my area. He now worked as a senior manager for a very large Asian corporation, but was just returning to his family’s place in Sylhet for a week. He invited me to his house for dinner, which actually does mean a genuine invitation, so I accepted given that I had nothing other to do than sweat.
This was before I’d found my house flooded, so the day itself was stressful and irritating as I rushing around trying to sort my house out after work, go to the market and do all the boring little things that I find a big hassle in Bangladesh. With no more rain it was incredibly hot again, and I was cutting it fine to transform myself in to the urbane English sophisticate that my new friend mistakenly took me for. By the time I managed to force my bike through the water I had five minutes for a shower and shave and to scrape some mould off my shirt before going back out again, and I was pretty shocked and bewildered in the midst of all my dashing about to find a live bloody chicken sitting up on my table. It was one of those moments where I had to stop, take a deep breath and wonder if everything was a horrendous dream. It definitely was a real chicken though, which I still have no idea how it came in – but I was able to grab one of the boys who live under my stairs and they got rid of it before I had a nervous breakdown.
And then I waded out again, tried to dry my feet and legs off, pulled on my shoes, hurried up the road, and was confronted by a sleek black glistening saloon waiting for me. The driver opened the door for me, closed it, and at once I was in a different world. It was quiet. It was cool. It was dry, and comfortable. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see directly out. It didn’t smell. I basically wasn’t in Bangladesh anymore, separated from the country by a cm of glass and steel and a lot of money.
The driver took me to this guy’s estate in the heart of town, and again I was confronted by a horse-shoe of three big mansions over-looking a yard with four other cars in it. My host showed me in to his house, showed me pictures of him posing with an assortment of British MPs, Bollywood stars, Ashley Cole, (no Cheryl, he lamented) and the absolute elite of Bangladesh’s political establishment. I hadn’t realised it, but this guy was seriously connected.
He was also very friendly, especially as I brought some of my emergency Scotch as a gift. His father had been in the government, he himself had been a freedom fighter, and then kept on getting in to ‘difficulties’ so the PM of Bangladesh advised him to leave for somewhere else. He chose London, and Britain is now his home, although his brothers live in America. We talked a bit about politics, and why he thought there wouldn’t be an election for at least five years (and he had it on the highest possible authority), and then I listened to him expound on why Britain is the best country in the world. Then we drove around the town for a while whilst my host introduced me to old friends of his from the seventies, who he said would help me out any time I liked. Finally we went off to a restaurant I didn’t know about and enjoyed some quite tasty fish and chips. And then he dropped me home again, or at least as close as he could go without getting his car wet. The whole evening was like a vision of a different world that I was temporarily welcomed in to because of my skin-colour and background – although I still had to fall back to earth with a squelch.
But it was great to witness. This guy was so connected – a marriage is between families here, rather than just two individuals – and I began to realise I was effectively hanging out with a senior member of Bangladesh’s aristocracy, if one existed, the equivalent of an evening at Blenheim maybe a hundred years ago. It was slightly surreal because he kept on showing me some really dirty text messages he was getting from his mistress in Dhaka, and then he had to take a call from some Labour councillors in east London, but it was still an insight in to a world you don’t even read about. After Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, a lot of its elite emigrated, mainly to Britain. They worked hard, got legitimate jobs, gained citizenship – but they still come back to Bangladesh to see their extended families, live like Kings, and meddle; the political networks still remain, they just got moved 5000 miles west. Many of them still run restaurants as a nice little cash cow, so next time you get a curry it’s worth thinking that the money doesn’t always just go to your average shit-in-a-tray merchants.
For whatever reason, it seems like Britain has always welcomed rich people other European countries won’t let in (you’re wanted for stealing billions? Hmmm, come in then, but don’t get up to mischief) and London hosts huge foreign networks of dissidents, oligarchs, former soldiers and politicians who are totally anonymous until they do something stupid like try and buy Manchester City. I quite like it in a way because I think it makes Britain a bit more exciting, but I do wonder if other countries are taking the piss. Or at least it should work both ways, so we get some shady criminals, but now Tony Blair’s got to live in Vladivostok.