The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 22, 2002

Meet the author
“A book begins as an excitement in the mind”

 RAANA HAIDER RAANA HAIDER is the wife of the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India. She is a diplomat spouse who has a distinct identity of her own – that of a sociologist who conducts research on issues pertaining to population, development, environment and gender. She is also a travel writer and focuses on cultural heritage. She wrote A Perspective in Development: Gender Focus while in Cairo. Her book Parisian Portraits was written as homage to Paris after her husband’s posting took the couple to the city. She is currently completing a book which she began in Tehran on her extensive travels over four decades in West Asia. In Not an Armchair Traveller in the Middle East, Raana Haider writes of her wanderings in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Humra Quraishi met Raana Haider for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

You have worked as an editor of Environment and Development in Bangladesh and you have also worked for the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (a research centre for environmental studies). In that context, it is rather surprising that none of your books concentrate on the environmental issues facing your home country.

On the contrary, A Perspective in Development: Gender Focus deals with the gender imbalances in the Third World countries of Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent (including Bangladesh), Africa and Latin America. One of the chapters is titled ‘Women and the Environment: Undermined Resource Managers’. Environment and Development in Bangladesh is a two-volume book. As the title implies, the book deals exclusively with Bangladesh. In addition to being its editor, I am a contributing author on Women, Poverty and the Environment.


Your husband Tufail K. Haider has now been posted in India for several months. Has some aspect of this country fascinated you enough to write a book?

As a sociologist, my eye is always alert to social and structural features. Should I decide to undertake sociological research in India — though it is a little too early to say so after just seven months on the post — I may take up a study independently or with one of the United Nations agencies. In Iran, our last posting, I consulted for UNDP/Iran on ‘Job-creation Prospects for the Women of Iran’. Or, I may continue my writings on cultural heritage. I am writing Agra: Glimpses of Persia. I just completed an article, Living Moguls, based on a new documentary film on the recently discovered descendants of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Am I fascinated enough to write a book? Maybe, you shall just have to wait and see. The vital ingredient for any writer is the ‘buzz’. A book begins as an excitement in the mind.

Spouses of diplomats are active on the social circuit. When or how do you take time out for your writings?

By being selective in my activities. It is not easy, though. Socialising is an important aspect of a diplomat’s spouse’s life. Diplomatic life is also not only a constant cocktail circuit. The flip side of this profession can be separation from children, loneliness, constant movement and dislocation and lack of roots. Women, in particular, encounter the above problems. Few professions are as demanding as that of the diplomat’s wife. In addition to the constant process of adaptation and adjustment, it can be a whirlwind existence. Yet scores of spouses of diplomats have both organised dinners and written books.

Sitting here, we perceive Bangladesh as an extremely poor country. How would you describe your country?

Bangladesh does not have a monopoly on poverty. Sadly, poverty is widely prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. South Asia is home to the largest concentration of deprived people in the world. The SAARC countries have the dubious distinction of forming the single largest bloc of disadvantaged humanity. I am speaking about the lack of shelter, education and sanitary facilities, particularly for women, sewage system, public transport and electricity. Contrary to popular perception, poverty is not restricted to rural areas. One has only to see the bastees, slums, tenements and makeshift tarpaulin and plastic tents that tens of thousands poor urban-dwellers call ‘home’ to see the extent of poverty in the cities.

The characteristic feature of Bangladesh is its small land base and its large population. Density makes the deprivation more visible. In my experience, prejudice and ignorance account for many negative attitudes. Tehran is a Third World city that is unique for its degree of cleanliness. The abject level of visible poverty that one is struck by in all countries of the Indian subcontinent simply does not exist. Sitting in Iran, the countries that lie further East to it appear poor.

Do you, as wife of the High Commissioner of Bangladesh, interact with the thousands of refugees from your country who live here?

You are talking of refugees from Bangladesh in the thousands. I, for one, have not met or known anyone in Delhi or elsewhere in India who could fall into that category. As such the question of interacting with them does not arise.

Which Indian writers do you read?

I thoroughly enjoyed A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh. I read both of them while living in Cairo. It was particularly interesting to read Ghosh’s book ‘on site’.

Bengalis are said to have a distinct culture of their own. Do you feel you have a lot in common with writers in Kolkata and vice versa?

One of the attractions of our posting in Delhi is the opportunity to attend Bengali cultural programmes that are presented in the city. My husband and I are regulars at these evenings. Bengalis are known for their rich cultural heritage; be it in dance, drama, literature or music and I wish to point out – their intellect. Obviously, writers in Bangladesh and Kolkata have considerable common interests as writers in a common language.

New Delhi is often described as a fake city, where just the who’s who flourish and the rest get trampled upon. What has been your experience in the few months that you have lived here?

For a realist and a sociologist, the glass is both half empty and half full. Every capital city has its who’s who, of whom many rank as the best and the brightest of the country. It is amusing to perceive the ambivalent attitudes of Delhiites to the page 3 people. People love to hate the content and coverage of the glitterati and chatterati of the capital city. Yet, these events flourish here and are regarded as ‘fake’ in the city and national contexts. Imperial New Delhi and its Lutyens Bungalow Zone, which forms the residential and official power bloc, is far removed from the other New Delhi of today. Both flourish and neither is fake.

I witnessed a disturbing scene the other day that is deeply etched in my memory. At the Aurobindo and Outer Ring Road crossing, my car swerved to avoid an emaciated elderly woman and a small child who were squatting in a shallow pool of stagnant water on the road. In the fleeting second that we swept by, I saw her rinse her mouth using the putrid water, quite oblivious to her surroundings. This cruel paradox is reflective of the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It is a sad comment on our times.