City Food


Who's the goat now then, eh?

The unworldly villager, the ‘Mofiz’, easily taken advantage of and not altogether at ease with modernity: a ubiquitous someone to be blamed for a haphazardly driven rickshaw, a lack of knowledge of Dhaka’s geography or that ultimately unavoidable wrong step taken on the city’s overcrowded streets.  In the village of course there never was a bigger ‘Mofiz’ than me.

Watch my attempts at the washing-mud-off-your-feet-without-using-hands manoeuvre, at a tube well, in that way villagers do with ease, without even grabbing onto someone standing nearby for balance, with algae underfoot making the concrete slab slippery.  It must be amusing to the villagers, my uncoordinated efforts, but they’re very polite about it.  Come to think of it, like most westerners I can’t even properly squat. Watch my attempts to cast a fishing-net in that slightly circular slinging fashion, across a Hatiyan pond, and anyone would recognise that if I had to rely on that for food I’d surely starve. 

Leku mends net
In fact, in fifteen years there was only one occasion I returned to the village house with freshly caught fish.  They were tied with line to a stick, whatever fish they were; of reasonable size.  I was shirtless and had tucked up my lungee like shorts, just as the villagers do when they go fishing the ponds.  I’d wandered into the yard as casually as possible, as though it was routine, and announced to my Bengali brothers we’d be eating fish that day.  They roared with laughter, appreciating that I looked pretty much the part, the average pond-fishing villager but for one critical detail.

‘You’re not even wet!’ one of them said.  Okay, so some of the neighbours had been fishing their pond and Hatiya being as it is I hadn’t been allowed to not take a couple home.

So I write about the city in that light: that it’s normal when in unfamiliar surroundings there are things to negotiate we’ve not seen before or, in the case of my fishing, have no skill to achieve.  I think of a Hatiyan neighbour, when he came to visit my Dhaka apartment, taking off his shoes before stepping into the lift on the ground floor.  It was basic Hatiyan courtesy at work and his first ever encounter with a lift.  It made me smile though.

It’s probably fair to say that amongst Bangladeshis, Hatiyans are more attached to their district than average; perhaps because it’s an island-culture.  While you’ll find Hatiyan communities in Chittagong riding rickshaws or doing construction work, while in Dhaka there are well-educated Hatiyans in business or service, what’s common regardless of individual circumstances is that for most Hatiyans on the mainland there’ll be a look of slight disappointment in their faces.  Their eyes will light up if there’s a trip home planned and you’ll hear wistfulness in their voices if they’ve just come back.  Even the lucrative promise of labour migration to the Middle East came late to Hatiya.  Hardly anybody really wants to leave.

Joshim and friends
Case in point: recently I was able to offer a position as a ‘darwan’ or doorman to a Hatiyan friend of mine; hardly an executive position but it does have a regular monthly salary, the duty is easy and there’s always possibility for a bit of Eid baksheesh from the building residents.  As he was working hard to support his family from the odd rickshaw trip or whatever labouring came his way, I really thought he’d jump at the income stability.

‘I’ll only do it,’ he told me, ‘if I can work on your building so I get to see you everyday.  Otherwise, who do I know in Dhaka?’  Point taken, my friend… it’s islander logic and it’s irrefutable.

So it’d taken some coaxing to convince Alamgir, back in 1999, to come to Dhaka, even for a few days.  I’d had some errands to do, so together with Situ and Alauddin we’d decided to go, the four of us; like a road trip. 

Rofiq's goes solar
The first problem was that Alamgir owned no trousers; trousers were not common in the village then, though the tradition was it was respectable to wear them if going to the main town of Ochkhali.  My Bengali mother used to find herself somewhere between laughter and a frown when I used to flout tradition and wear lungee to the town as well.

The first solution: to borrow a spare pair of trousers from Situ.  Easy.  The second problem was he had no belt and without one the pants were loose enough to fall down.  There was no spare belt either; so unfortunate Alamgir had no option but to tie them with a piece of rope.  It worked okay for the few days, with the shirt hanging over the top; nobody knew but us.

When we got to the city, Alamgir was a bit overwhelmed with the crowds and the buildings and the traffic.  I believe he too discovered his first lift then, at our hotel.  And well, I’d taken the trouble to explain to him how the shower worked; a bit like the villagers had once done for me with the tube well.  After his bath when I’d asked what he’d thought of showers, he’d sheepishly said it was good, which meant he’d opted for the more familiar bucket instead.

And about the food: shouldn’t take solace from another person’s vomiting but it made me feel better about my own struggling with some of the village food.  We’d ventured to a Chinese restaurant, and we enjoyed it, Situ, Alauddin and I; but it made Alamgir throw up.  The medicine was obvious: find the first local restaurant serving rice, preferably red, with some kind of Bengali-style fish dish.  He was happy.

Adapting to new surroundings takes time.  There’s Babul the crab-seller, who these days can swing by from Jatrabari to Uttara with the best of them.  It wasn’t always so.  On one of his first trips to Dhaka I’d taken him to a café in Dhanmondi and for fun mentioned on the way we were going to try something called ‘gorom kukur’ or hot dog.  He’d laughed at me, certain I was joking.  Nobody in Bangladesh eats dog.

Rahmat, Closed for Siesta
When the waiter came to our table I ordered in Bangla, ‘gorom kukur, two please,’ and the waiter to his credit smirked as he jotted down the order.  Babul was suddenly mortified.  I’d ordered dog and the waiter had agreed!  After that it’d taken quite some convincing to explain the name of the dish wasn’t literal.

It’s nice to have a joke between friends; friendship is often about making up for each other’s inadequacies and sometimes taking humour from them.  But you know, when I hear the city-folk complaining about the ‘Mofiz’, when it’s not a joke, I wonder how they’d go out in a rice field planting seeds all day; how they’d do pedalling a rickshaw for a living. 

When people complain about the ‘religiosity’ of the poor or the villagers, I think of the humility or the honesty their faith can motivate: attributes that are frankly impressive from an Australian perspective.  When it’s ‘illiteracy’ I think of the richness of the oral traditions in communicating, the similarities to story-telling in rural Australia; and when it’s ‘Bangladesh is not suited to democracy because the level of education is so low that people don’t know who to vote for’ I think, Australians make almost the same comment about an allegedly uninformed, public mass.  I imagine there’s not a democracy the world over where you cannot hear that said. 

I miss Hatiya.  I should try to learn to cast that net properly.

The locals at Lenga





After a bit of a bite, free the mountain imagination, hunt wild beasts, or sing across a city.  The world is at our feet!


This article also published in Star Magazine, here: City Food



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