Returning to the Roots

BUET Part 2, Drifting Days Feb 24

The lunch spread at Neerob

The talk was in the later part of the afternoon. I met Ashiq for lunch at ‘Neerob’. Neerob was the go-to place for food during college. We told the waiter to bring all the ‘bhaji’s and ‘bhorta’s on the menu that day. The menu is not in print, its offered by the waiter super fast. You need to pay attention. He ain’t got time for your sluggishness. Bhajis are julienne cut vegetables sautéd with a little bit of turmeric and salt. They are sautéd well though in contrast to the US. We don’t like our veggies crunchy. Bhortas are veggies steamed and mashed with green chilies, mustard oil and salt. Mustard oil is our olive oil — it makes everything more yum. I sat there, put my feet up on the chair and ate with my hand. It was heaven.

The bill was hardly couple of dollars. The fancy bottled water that we both wanted cost the same. We can’t have tap water in Bangladesh, its contaminated. One, especially one not used to the water anymore like me, has to be careful about the bottled water, too. There are many counterfeits.

Ashiq is an UofI alum, too. He was brave enough to go back to Dhaka after finishing his PhD. He returned less than a year ago. I was happy to see that Ashiq could only have the fancy water, too. The poor guy was running a fever that day. But he still hung out with me. It seemed like we had so much to catch up on. But now I can’t remember what we spoke about all morning and afternoon. I also kept on drinking that heavenly milk tea. Tea is essential at any ‘adda’ in Bangladesh. Its our booze. After the talk, we hung out at Sarwar’s office. We got even more nostalgic. Three is a party, right? We all had other commitments in the evening, our phones were buzzing. Dr. Kaykobad was sending in other faculty in his office to meet me. But all we wanted was just to chat on.

The year Ashiq started, 7 students had started their PhD at UofI from BUET. There were may be 10 of us there before. We all went to meet them the night after they landed. After we buzzed in, we realized they were severely jet-lagged. One couldn’t be woken up. Ashiq seemed to be pretty aware. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. Yes, shook hands. Well, in Bangladesh a boy and a girl is not supposed to shake hands. Immediately our group exchanged glances. He was known as the ‘handshake dude’ from thereafter. Don’t judge us. There were so many of them, we needed code names to remember them!

Ashiq did not know this for a long time. I think, I told him this story the day I left Urbana. We were in the middle of my yet-to-be-packed apartment with graduation the morning after, the 100+ guests party in the afternoon and rubbles of stuff. I’ll tell the moving story another day. But thanks to the handshake dude and few others, I did clean the place out before my flight. I really missed seeing them being hooded last year. They grew into greatness right in front of me.

Ashiq turned into Ashiq to me after quite sometime. He was surprised to see Shahadujjaman’s book in my collection and I was surprised that he knew the author. As density of BUET alumni increased many just hung out within the clique. I have been guilty of that, too. Ashiq, came to graduate school with a faculty job waiting back home. It would have been pretty easy to slack off and not go out of the familiar cocoon. I, wrongfully, did not expect him to. He was the handshake dude. But slowly I found out about this charming guy with varying interests and close friends from different ethnic backgrounds.

Many of us live scared in this country. We are scared of losing that connection to our roots. But the fact is that even if we try we won’t be able to cut that tie. Being scared only means not enriching ourselves with the experience. Even hanging out only around CS majors I had friends from Ukraine to Eritrea. Yet, I met students from Chicago who barely stepped out of Illinois. Experiencing and knowing about other cultures directly has been very awe-inspiring. I realized there could be stereotypes but individuals are extremely powerful. Two of my closest friends in UofI were from Pakistan. I never imagined I would have friends from there or share similar liberal views as we do.

Ashiq is teaching at BUET and has about 20 advisees already. Recently bunch of BUET alumni have gone back and joined as faculty. The computer science department houses quite a few of them. I am very proud of Sarwar and Rifat doing so and Atif joining soon. I have high expectations from them. I am confident they will bring about positive changes to our department. I asked Ashiq, what was the challenge so far. He responded right away, “phone calls”. In Bangladesh, if one doesn’t pick up the phone, the caller takes it as an invitation to call repeatedly. My dad does that. Sometimes I’ll come out of a meeting and see 20 miss calls from him. Ashiq said he had to answer 70–100 phone calls a day. And I knew from before that he hated phone calls. Poor guy. I saw a little bit of his enriched soul while he spoke about his students. He will do great.

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