"Mother River"

By Jheri St. James

“Hello Roberta. It was nice meeting you on Tuesday. I have spoken to my wife Salma about the soil collection and she told me that her older sister’s daughter Farhana Ruzi is going to send soil fro the art collection. Thanks, Dabir.”

“Dear Mr. Gary Simpson. My uncle Dabir Chowdhury met Ms. Roberta Carasso in his office in Orange County, California. We came to know that you are collecting soil from many countries. I have visited your website and it is very interesting project indeed. I would like to volunteer for your soil collection in Bangladesh. Please forward necessary info to collect soil from Bangladesh and send the soil to you. Please note my address below. Farhana Ruzi.”

”Hello Farhana. I am pleased that you are able to participate in the project by collecting soil from Bangladesh. This is very important to me and I greatly appreciate your help. Please let me know that the information below is correct and I will forward to you the collection package. It includes the collection jar and pre-addressed and pre-paid return box. I look forward to working with you and thanks again. Gary”

“Hello Gary. Farhana has spoken to me last night and informed me that she took the soil package to local DHL office in the city of Sylhet Bangladesh. DHL told her they need $71.00 to ship this package and also they told her even if she give them $71.00 they will not ship this package due to the contents inside the package. They opened the package and refused to ship it. Please communicate with DHL and inform them to pick up the package from Farhana without any condition. … I normally ship one package every month to the above address and it goes in three days. I do not know why DHL has made everything so difficult. Thanks. Dabir”

“Good morning Gary. I did receive a response from Bangladesh, however, it was a message letting me know that my email has been forwarded to another party. Now I’m waiting to hear back from this new contact. I did send another email to this new person to let them know that we are waiting on them at this point and a speedy reply would be greatly appreciated. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear something back. I hope you had a great weekend! Anita J. Holquin Telesales Representative, DHL Express”

“Hello to both Farhana and Dabir-- As you can see by the attached note, my local representative at DHL is trying to smooth the way for when you drop off the soil in Bangladesh. Interesting how difficult it can be to move something as simple as soil. Restrictions become just another aspect for the art project. I will let you know as I hear from DHL.”

“DHL called Farhana today and told her to bring the package to their office. I will let you know. Thanks. Dabir”

“I would like to send you a check for the amount. Small but important to me. Thanks for all your help, address please. Gary”

“Please wait until she send the package. Farhana has college exam for couple of days and I have advised to send the package in couple of days. Once you receive the package then you can send me the check. You really don’t have to send. Thanks. Dabir”

“Just thought you both might like to see that DHL is still trying to “connect the world.” Dirty work, but someone has to do it. Thanks for your support. Gary.”

Satellite picture of Bangladesh showing the mouth of the Ganges

And so goes another of the 191 (now 192) soil collection stories in the Common Ground 191 project, and like the satellite map of Bangladesh above, there are many serpentine tributaries in the river of communications and shipments needed to proceed with a conceptual art endeavor like this.

A river is: 1. Abbr. R. A large natural stream of water emptying into an ocean, lake, or other body of water and usually fed along its course by converging tributaries. 2. A stream or abundant flow: a river of tears. Idiom: up the river Slang: In or into prison.

Bangladesh is a land of rain and rivers. One is never too far from a river, and rain falls throughout the year in varying degrees of frequency and volume. The twofold influence of rain and rivers makes the land green and its climate pleasantly temperate. Rivers, and also rain, periodically bring calamities to the people. Instead of being crushed by them, they have learned over the years to cope with them with equanimity and courage.

My East Bengal is like the sound of rain
Against the leaves of trees at dead of night.
Sometimes Mridanga, sometimes all of a sudden the violin.
Some other time the music of the flute.
When lying alone in my bed I wake up from my sleep.
I hear the sound on the leaves, as if in dream,
Softly murmuring without intermission.

                                                         -Syed Ali Ahsan

Winding 1,560 miles across northern India, from the Himalaya Mountains to the Indian Ocean, the Ganges River is not a sacred place: it is a sacred entity. Known as Ganga Ma—Mother Ganges—the river is revered as a goddess whose purity cleanses the sins of the faithful and aids the dead on their path toward heaven.

In a country where practically everything in nature is venerated, the Ganges is most holy. Considering the magnitude of her life-sustaining force, it’s no wonder: her mighty course from the mountains to the sea creates a river basin 200 to 400 miles wide that supports nearly half a billion people. According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges was once a river of heaven that flowed across the sky. Long ago, she agreed to fall to earth to aid a king named Bhagiratha, whose ancestors had been burned to ash by the angry gaze of an ascetic they had disturbed during meditation. Only the purifying waters of Ganges, flowing over their ashes, could free them from the earth and raise them up to live in peace in heaven. So that the earth would not be shattered by the impact of her descent, Lord Shiva caught Ganges in his hair as she cascaded down from heaven to the Himalayas. Ganges then followed Bhagiratha out of the mountains, across the plains to sea, where she restored his dead ancestor and lifted them to paradise.

The Ganga has an exalted position in the Hindu ethos. It is repeatedly invoked in the Vedas, the Puranas, and the two Indian Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These myths are variously dated between 2000 to 400 BC. Lord Vishnu himself bathed in its waters at Haridwar, which is so holy that sins as great as the murder of Brahmins may be washed away by bathing here. Hindus to this day use the water of the Ganga to cleanse any place or object for ritual purposes. Bathing in the Ganga is still the lifelong ambition of many of India’s believing masses, and they will congregate on its banks for many of the yearly festivals.

Water from the Ganga has the recursive property that any water mixed with even the minutest quantity of Ganga water becomes Ganga water, and inherits its healing and other holy properties.

* * *

Indus/ Ganges River Dolphin


Mother Nature

Off all the animals in the marine world, ocean dolphins (Delphinidae) are renowned for being the most intelligent, with an amazingly developed system of echolocation for finding food and avoiding obstacles. Some people have never heard of the second family of dolphins (Platanistidae), which lives in fresh water and includes the Chinese lake dolphin and the blind susu, or Ganges dolphin. This species has only a small triangular lump in the place of a dorsal fin. They feed on shrimp and small fish that prefer the waters close to the river bed. Relatively high population densities have been observed near the Sangu River in southern Bangladesh.

Bangladesh teems with icons and symbols, not the least of which is the ubiquitous Royal Bengal Tiger. This majestic beast finds its home in Bangladesh, in the still pristine mangrove forests of the Sundarban, a vast ragged swamp forest, and one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, home to diverse flora and fauna. These fierce animals kill about 30 villagers each year.

The Doel or the magpie robin is the national bird of Bangladesh.


The Jackfruit [Kathal] is our national fruit. The fruit has a pungent yet distinctive flavor not unlike the Durian of South East Asia. The fruit can grow to huge sizes hundreds of pounds in weight.

The Water Lily (shapla) is the national flower of Bangladesh.



* * *



The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is a country in South Asia, surrounded by India on all sides except for a small border with Myanmar to the far southeast and the Bay of Bengal to the south. These borders were set by the Partition of India in 1947, when it became the eastern wing of Pakistan, separated from the western sing by 1,000 miles. Despite their common religion of Islam, the ethnic and linguistic gulf between the two wings, compounded by an apathetic government based in West Pakistan, resulted in the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 after a bloody war in which it was supported by India. The years following independence have been marked by political turmoil, with 13 different heads of government, and at least four military coups.

The population of Bangladesh ranks eighth in the world, but its area of approximately 144,000 km is ranked 94th, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It is the third largest Muslim-majority nation.

Despite sustained domestic and international efforts to improve economic and demographic prospects, Bangladesh remains an underdeveloped and overpopulated nation. Yet, the World Bank notes in its July 2005 Country Brief that the country has made impressive progress in human development by focusing on increasing literacy, achieving gender parity in schooling, and reducing population growth. Bangladesh remains one of the poorest nations in the world. Geographically dominated by the fertile Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, the country has annual monsoon floods, and cyclones are frequent.



Bangladesh is one of the founding members of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), BIMSTEC, and a member of the OIC and the D-8.

Most parts of Bangladesh are within 10 meters above sea level, and it is believed that about 10% of the land would be flooded if the sea level were to rise by 1 meter.

* * *



Mother Tongue

Bangladesh has a culture that encompasses elements both old and new. The Bangla language boasts a rich literary heritage, which Bangladesh shares with the Indian state of West Bengal. The earliest literary text in Bangla is the eighth century Charyapada. Bangla literature in the medieval age was often religions or adapted from other languages, but it matured in the 19th century. Its greatest are the poets Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was a Bengali poet, philosopher, visual artist, playwright, composer and novelist, whose avant-garde works reshaped Bangali literature and music in the late 19th and early 10th centuries. A celebrated cultural icon of Bengal, he became Asia’s first Nobel laureate when he won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. Two songs from his rabindrasangit canon are now the national anthems of Bangladesh and India: the Amar Shonar Bangla and the Jana Gana Mana.

Tagore (left) with
Mahatma Gandhi 1940.

‘The Crescent Moon' by Tagore
I want to give you something, my child,
for we are drifting in the stream of the world.
Our lives will be carried apart,
and our love forgotten.
But I am not so foolish as to hope that
I could buy your heart with my gifts.
Young is your life, your path long, and
you drink the love we bring you at one draught
and turn and run away from us.
You have your play and your playmates.
What harm is there if you have no time
or thought for us.
We, indeed, have leisure enough in old age
to count the days that are past,
to cherish in our hearts what our
hands have lost for ever.
The river runs swift with a song,
breaking through all barriers.
But the mountain stays and remembers,
and follows her with his love.

The musical tradition of Bangladesh is often accompanied by the strings, other instruments including the dotara, dhol, flute and tabla. Bangladeshi dance forms draw from folk traditions and the country produces about 80 films a year. Around 100 dailies are published in Bangladesh, along with more than 1800 periodicals.

Cricket is one of the most popular sports in Bangladesh. In 2000, the Bangladesh cricket team was granted test cricket status and joined the elite league of national teams permitted by the International Cricket Council to play test matches. Other popular sports include football (soccer), field hockey, tennis, badminton, handball, volleyball, chess, carom and kabadi, a 7-a-side team sport played without a ball or any other equipment, which is the national sport of Bangladesh.

The red sun of the flag of Bangladesh represents the blood shed to achieve independence; the green field symbolizes the lush countryside, and secondarily, the traditional color of Islam.

The National Monument reminds us of those who gave their lives. Here in this somber memorial we remember the first sacrifices made to preserve our freedom and independence.

The National Emblem of the People's Republic of Bangladesh. The national flower Shapla (water Lily) is surrounded by two sheaves of rice.

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“Here is the description of the city that the soil was collected. Farhana and my family are from the city of Sylhet in Bangladesh. It has 110 tea gardens and is very well known for its natural beauty and gas field. Unicol, an American petroleum company in charge of exploring gas in Bangladesh and so far all gas fields has been discovered in Sylhet. Bangladesh have 50 years Gas reserved. The tea gardens have unique natural beauty and most of the tourists visit the city to enjoy natural beauty.

“Situated in the northeastern region of Bangladesh, Sylhet is a prime attraction for all tourists. Laying between the Khasia and the Jaintia hills on the north, and the Tripura hills on the south, Sylhet breaks the monotony of the flatness of this land by a multitude of terraced tea gardens, rolling countryside and the exotic flora and fauna. The Sylhet valley is formed by a beautiful winding pair of rivers named the Surma and the Kushiara both of which are fed by innumerable hill streams from the north and south. The valley has a good number of haors which are big natural depressions. During winter these haors are vast stretches of green land, but in the rainy season they turn into turbulent seas. These haors provide a sanctuary to the millions of migratory birds who fly from Siberia across the Himalayas to avoid the severe cold there.

“Sylhet has also a very interesting and rich history. Before the conquest by the Muslims, it was ruled by local chieftains. In 1303, the great Saint Hazrat Shah Jalal came to Sylhet from Delhi with a band of 260 disciples to preach Islam and defeated the then Raja Gour Gobinda. Sylhet thus became a district of saints, shrines. Sylhet, the tea granary of Bangladesh, also proudly possesses three of the largest tea gardens in the world in respect of dimension and production.

“The Shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal is visited by innumerable devotees of every caste and creed, who make the journey from far away places, more than 600 years after his death. Legend says the great saint who came from Delhi to preach Islam defeated the then Hindu Raja (king) Gour Gobinda, transforming the witchcraft followers of the Raja into catfishes which are still alive in the tank adjacent to the shrine of swords. The holy Quran and the Robes of the holy saint are still preserved in the shrine.

“ . . . for miles and miles and miles around, the visitor to Srimangal, 80 km. from Sylhet, the visitor can see the tea gardens spread like a green carpet over the flat land or the sloping hills. Srimangal is the tea capital of Bangladesh.” Dabir Chowdhery, uncle of soil collector Farhana Ruzi.

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Mother Earth
Beautiful Bangladesh, where rivers run through every person’s life, is an unique country of past and present and future, the river of time affecting each. Will the preservationists save the Ganges River from destruction by pollution? Will population control prevent the ongoing river of humanity from drowning itself? Will the rising waters of the world flood this low-lying land? These are all issues of our great Mother Earth, the producer of the crux of this story, soil. Soil bearing all the waters, and all the gases, the platform upon which humanity stands like the cow above.

The Golden Boat

Clouds rumbling in the sky; teeming rain.
I sit on the river bank, sad and alone.
The sheaves lie gathered, harvest has ended,
The river is swollen and fierce in its flow.
As we cut the paddy it started to rain.

One small paddy-field, no one but me -
Flood-waters twisting and swirling everywhere.
Trees on the far bank; smear shadows like ink
On a village painted on deep morning grey.
On this side a paddy-field, no one but me.

Who is this, steering close to the shore
Singing? I feel that she is someone I know.
The sails are filled wide, she gazes ahead,
Waves break helplessly against the boat each side.
I watch and feel I have seen her face before.

Oh to what foreign land do you sail?
Come to the bank and moor your boat for a while.
Go where you want to, give where you care to,
But come to the bank a moment, show your smile -
Take away my golden paddy when you sail.

Take it, take as much as you can load.
Is there more? No, none, I have put it aboard.
My intense labor here by the river -
I have parted with it all, layer upon layer;
Now take me as well, be kind, take me aboard.

No room, no room, the boat is too small.
Loaded with my gold paddy, the boat is full.
Across the rain-sky clouds heave to and fro,
On the bare river-bank, I remain alone -
What had has gone: the golden boat took all.

                                         -Rabindranath Tagore


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