Prothom Alo Article: My Bangladesh

English translation below.

English Translation:

My Bangladesh

I’ve been given the world’s most difficult task: to write just one thousand words about our Bangladesh, or my Bangladesh, the one that has been in my life for the past sixteen years.  How to choose which morsels of information to include?  I would not attempt such a task except that the request comes from a newspaper of renown, Prothom Alo, to contribute to their anniversary edition no less, so I have no choice but to try.

‘Why do you live in Bangladesh?’  It’s hardly an uncommon question.  CNG drivers laugh.  ‘Bangladeshis go to Australia,’ they say, ‘and you are coming the other way?’  Hospital staff once admonished my friend, saying, ‘Tell him not to waste his life here!’  If I say that I like living in Bangladesh, local reaction ranges from puzzled bemusement to perplexed wonder.  And that in itself is reason to admire Bangladesh.

I’d like to say it’s different in Australia, but it’s only different in the sense that while Bangladeshi thought stems in general from humility and lack of international experience, Australian reaction stems from prejudice and lack of international experience.  My sister said once, disparagingly, ‘But it’s a developing country.’  Apart from a few hours in Mexico I don’t believe she’s been to a developing country so she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  My oldest brother meanwhile commented that Bangladesh was Hindu: to his mind some version or other of India.  Bangladesh remains a country that is less well-known.

To the CNG drivers I say, ‘Okay, but in Bangladesh the hardest part is work.  If you have a reasonable income then it’s a fantastic place to live.’ 

To my sister there’s nothing to say.  Her views are immutably negative.  It was with bewilderment in her voice that she told me over the phone how much Mum and Dad enjoyed their visit last year, to Dhaka and the village in Hatiya.  Bangladeshis meanwhile were delighted to see the village photos on Facebook, of Mum in a sari and Dad in lungee.  Those clothing items were gifts from my Bengali family, the one who by neither blood nor marriage became my Bengali family over the course of sixteen years, for more or less no reason than because it happened.  There’s a particularly nice photo of all the parents together: Mum, Dad and Amma.  My Abba passed away before I met him.

Bangladesh: how to explain?  I could do worse than start with this afternoon, when I was on the phone to Dinajpur to my Bua’s mother.  After a belated Eid greeting it came: the dawat.  I know it’s a cliché, the tremendous hospitality of Bengalis, but I am forced to mention it because it’s true.  ‘If a Bengali has five taka in their pocket,’ a Dhakaite friend said, ‘they’ll spend ten buying tea for their friends.’  Although I never seem to have the opportunity to take up most of these dawats they arrive almost daily; and while some of it has to do with being a foreigner, I’ve seen how liberal and hospitable Bengalis are to my friends also, fellow Bengalis.  So it isn’t only because I am a westerner, at least not all the time, and in Hatiya it never is, not anymore.

Of course hospitality and thoughtfulness are culturally specific.  I saw that on the day Mum and Dad travelled on Hatiya’s rough dirt roads by motorised tom tom to Rahmat Bazaar on the coast, near the beach where I once played kabbadi with Nashir and his cousins.  It was a slightly brave journey because those roads aren’t in good condition and the tom tom nearly fell through a hole in one of the small concrete bridges. 

Mum and Dad are in their seventies and at Rahmat Bazaar they were tired, although my mother was actually tempted to take up Pankaj’s offer of a haircut in his tin shed saloon.  Instead he cut mine.  But we couldn’t leave because Arif the tom tom driver had to take his children home from their school examination and we had to wait for him.  We took rest at a nearby house on hastily arranged chairs in the shady yard. 

Well, there was a bit of a fuss: the householder tried very hard to make us stay for lunch, although I don’t know him as such, and even though we declined he secretly sent for supplies from the bazaar in order to start cooking.  To him it was unthinkable people could walk into his yard and not be fed more than tea and biscuits.   

Well, there was a bit of a fuss: my mother was greatly concerned because, in her Australian thinking, we’d intruded.  ‘Are you sure they don’t mind us sitting in their yard?’ she kept asking.  It reminded me of how I was when I first came to Bangladesh.  In Australia thoughtfulness sometimes centres on privacy.  When the tom tom returned my mother, in English, warmly thanked our host for letting us sit there, which he had no hope of comprehending, not meaning the language but because thanking a Hatiyala for sitting in their yard is a bit like thanking the air for letting us breathe it.  In any case the householder was still frantically negotiating: if he couldn’t feed all of us then maybe just my friend’s children who were with us?  He should be feeding someone!

‘Do you know him?’ my mother quizzed me later.

‘Anybody would do that.’

Cultures grant us new ways to think.  Just as my mother’s thoughts were totally logical and obvious, so were the Bangladeshi thoughts of hospitality.  It is just one tiny example of how things differ.  Why Bangladesh? It’s because there’s so much to learn here, so many qualities to admire and welcome experiences to have.  It’s because Bengali ways have become as natural and obvious as the Australian ways I was born into. 

And it’s odd that feeling that used to be, when I would visit Bangladesh annually: on leaving Sydney by plane with the predictable ‘going away’ thoughts going on, only for the plane to descend twelve hours later into Dhaka, with an undeniable but technically incorrect ‘coming home’ happiness welling up inside.  Australians would over analyse that last sentence, seeking to rationalise and capture it.  And in this instance the Australians would be wrong: it’s the more poetic and spiritual, easy acceptance of things that Bangladeshis demonstrate which gives the answer here.  Sometimes things just are.

Andrew Eagle is an Australian citizen who has been a regular visitor to Hatiya, Noakhali, for the past sixteen years and considers Hatiya, where his friend Reja Ali Mobarak (Situ) is from, also to be his gramer bari.  For the past four years he has lived continuously in Dhaka and he contributes regular articles to Star Magazine of the Daily Star, Prothom Alo’s English language sister concern.

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