Born in Nakhalpara area of Dhaka, Mohammad Shariful Islam’s formal education has never been a linear journey. With a number of study breaks, he finished his high school and never pursued tertiary level education. Currently he is working in the Centre for Advanced Theory at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He not only cycled through all 64 districts of Bangladesh, different parts of India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka but also has taken long journeys on foot across the country.
Islam was born in an economically marginalised household, but turned the situation to his privilege. During his adolescent days, he would often embark on the roof-top of a Narsingdi bound train in the morning from the Tejgaon station, adjacent to his home and return by the evening. This created zeal in him to see the world. During a conversation with Nahid Riyasad, he shares his life and journey.
DESPITE my irregular schooling, I developed a habit of reading. I was member of different libraries in our locality thus gained an overview of the world and history. I shifted to Elephant Road and joined Centre for Asian Arts and Cultures as a cleaner in 2005. I completed my secondary school certificate then. There I met AKM Atiquzzaman Russel who taught me basic computing. Russel bhai is also editor of all the books by professor Salimullah Khan; his companionship has helped me to learn a lot in the last 14-15 years. For the last decade or so, I have composed every piece of writing by professor Khan.
During my early days, I even had to sell bananas on rail-lines and had complexes for that reason. However, I no longer have those complexes as I become more mature. This is the story of my graduating through ‘classes’.
During my employment in CAAC in 2007, I had another additional responsibility — delivering press releases in media houses. A year passed by and I realised that I could save my daily travel allowance If I had a cycle. I bought my first cycle with Tk 1200, to save money.
I was a frequent in Aziz market’s Nitya Upahar, a t-shirt store and one day I came across a t-shirt that caught my eyes. It had written on it — দেখা হয় নাই চক্ষু মেলিয়া । টেকনাফ হইতে তেঁতুলিয়া. That was a design by Dhruba Esh and an eye-opener for me. I realised that I have seen nothing of my country.
I decided to cycle through Teknaf to Tetulia and started researching. During an art exhibition in Gulshan I met Rabiul Hasan Khan Mona. I found out that in 1998, he had already made the journey that I was planning. Few months later, I went on to arrange my journey and managed a number of people who agreed to join me. However, when the time started closing on us, one by one left and I was the only one willing to go. I decided to make it alone but surprisingly met Mona bhai a few days prior to my journey and he agreed to join me.
We decided to upside down our route and made it from Tetulia to Teknaf — so that we could enjoy few day offs by the sea after finishing the long journey. After we finished the nine-day tour, which started from Banglabandha zero point and through Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, Bogura, Tangail, Dhaka and then on the Dhaka- Chattogram highway, I realised that I could not see or experience anything. So I decided to at least see every district of Bangladesh.
I searched for a companion for the upcoming big tour for over two years but could not found anyone; so I decided to go alone. In the march of 2010, I started my journey. The 3984 kilometres long journey lasted for 55 days — from March 1 to April 26 — and the cost me Tk 8570. The immediate preparation period took three-four months but the entire planning and execution took nearly two years.
I had help from few friends though. I was making a catalogue of over 2500 books at Russel bhai’s home during that time. After learning my plan, he gave me his old cycle as a payment for the catalogue, which was an obvious upgrade from my current cycle. So I sold my cycle and serviced the one he gave me. I asked for money to at least 70 people I knew and over 50 of them helped me to finance my journey.
I sourced the funding from a few friends and well-wishers. I used another trick, from couple of months prior to my trip, I started asking people about their hometown so that I could visit them during my trip to minimise the cost. It had another implication; I travel not for natural beauty but for the people and their culture. I spent most of the night with families and got to interact with a lot of local people, shared meals with families and learn their way of lives. I had to do different jobs to sustain myself; I was tailor, electrician, garment worker and what not and had different stories and experiences. I want to learn the same stories of other people and that was the theme of my journey.
The dynamics of cycling have somewhat evolved in the context of Bangladesh. When I started cycling, it was quite a phenomenon among people on the streets. With the emergence of BDCyclists, that scenario is changed, people are more familiar with cycling, at least youth. I found in different districts of north-western part of Bangladesh, huge number of female students are using cycle for their daily commute. However, cycling, at least in Dhaka, is attractive to two very specific classes of people — economically marginalised people who cycle out of necessity and middle-income people who use it out of choice.
The tour made me realise that those who are brought up in Dhaka or urban spaces, are way too complicated and self-centric.
Considering the Dhaka context, I would say, cycle is the perfect transport. It gives one the freedom to commute and make it to an appointment on time. However, I would argue that to cycle in Dhaka city, one need to possess a certain set of skills. Drawing from my experiences of cycling in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, I found out that other commuters are respectful about cyclists in these countries. I often fill intimidated in Dhaka traffic right after my tours because in Dhaka, commuters only compete and have no respect for others on the roads. As a result, a cyclist has to be extra cautious.
My Sri Lanka cycling tour was mention worthy. We were a five-member group and circled the entire marine drive — a 1200 kilometres journey from Colombo to Colombo. For the 16-day trip, I did not have to spend anything but promised to write a book on the journey — that is on editor’s table at this moment. My last India tour could be termed as West-Bengal cross country, from Cooch Behar to Bokkhali. It was a 12-13 day tour as we cycled from Dhaka.
Talking of books, I used to take notes and voice recording during my 64-district tour. Once I started writing those down, I compiled a rough manuscript by 2011. However, the process of writing the actual book took at least five years. After rigorous editing and revision, my book was published in 2019.
I have also undertaken long walking-tours. I walked through the entire length of Cox’s Bazar marine drive at least three times. It is a three-day long journey and I found it exhilarating to camps beside the raging sea and long-walks besides the sea shore.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.