Thursday, November 23, 2006

In the Land of Cup and Lip: Becoming a Bangladeshi Again

[A slightly different version of this essay appears in The Daily Star Weekend Magazine today. Notes for non-Bengali readers follow the essay.]

After living 30 years abroad, I have returned to Bangladesh. I am re-learning how to live in my native land. While rediscovering many sights, sounds and tastes from my childhood, I am also evolving a new way of living that echoes the rhythm of life here.

Take the seasons for example. Sure, I knew Bangladesh has six, but over the years I had grown clueless about their bounties. Not any more. As Grishho (summer) approaches, all my thoughts turn to Rajshahi mangoes. Water covering miles of fields in Borsha (rainy season) does not unsettle me because in Hemonto (late autumn) I will see the same fields glowing golden with paddyfields. Shorot (early autumn) brings Shaplas of more colors than I had imagined. In Sheet (winter), during an orange-green sunset, I watch the fog roll into the tea garden hills. As Boshonto (spring) emerges from winter, bright orange Krishnochuras set the sky aflame.

I fathom nature's mysteries with patience, but man-made ones stump me. Why do rickshaws have two brake-handles but only one works? What are those towels on the back of officers' chairs for? Why is a job titled "Senior Assistant" when those words mean "Senior Junior?" Why is personal integrity so rare that we point out so-and-so is an "honest" officer as if they were a rare Doodhraj bird (paradise flycatcher)? When I need directions, why does one who does not know insist on being helpful and point me the wrong way? Why do cars blink hazard lights when they are crossing an intersection? And what is a "Gatelock" bus?

Of life's uncertainties, Shakespeare said, "Many a slip 'twixt cup and lip." Living in Bangladesh, the land of cup and lip, I must accord uncertainty its due stature. Making a weekend plan for a short trip out of town? A hartal strikes. Going to an important business meeting? Sorry, my counterpart's aunt died and he is absent from office. Flying overseas tomorrow? At 8pm the night before my travel agent carrying my ticket is stuck in traffic.

With growing uncertainty comes less privacy. At a government office a visitor inadvertently entertains us by discussing private business with the officer in front of five other visitors like me. Back in my own office, a one-on-one discussion regarding an employee's performance issues is interrupted several times as people walk in for various reasons.

I quickly learn to be mistrustful of unexpected privacy. Choosing to walk on the right side of a bridge because everyone else is on the left, I soon discover the reason for my privacy: this side harbors a hidden garbage dump emitting noxious stench.

Following other pedestrians’ footsteps, I compulsively avoid climbing pedestrian overpasses when crossing the road. If I need to cross the road, I will brave oncoming traffic, jump over traffic islands, and risk getting my jeans ripped by barbed wires placed precisely to discourage jaywalkers like me. That overpass is for sissies, not Real Bangladeshis.

Unexpected new words or phrases tell me that even the language has changed. Some, like Bhasha Shoinik referring to those who fought in the Language Movement of the 1950s and 60s, are powerful additions. Shopkeepers seeking class insist their goods, once shosta (cheap), are now shasroyee (inexpensive). But who let irritations like aalga pechail and kora mishTi into this sweet language of mine? Best of all, I hear villagers say Bangla to mean Bangladeshi (“He is a Bangla”), silencing the tedious "Bangladeshi" vs "Bengali" arguments.

Fears that dogged me during the early days of my return slowly recede. The risk of dengue from a mosquito bite sustained during the day no longer keeps me awake at night. Nor do I hunt down the blood-engorged mosquito to check for white stripes as I once did, because this knowledge is utterly useless a posteriori. Food adulteration, traffic accidents, pollution and noise - these are all reduced from unacceptable to mere nuisance.

While fears reduce, death becomes a bigger part of life. I find that we Bangladeshis have trouble letting go of our dead, starting with our two long gone political leaders who, after so many years, still tower over national politics. The newspapers are full of notices of not just some prominent person who recently passed away, but also of 10th, 15th or even the 20th anniversary of important peoples' death! Many of these influential people achieved much because of their focus on the present. Yet, here we are, harping on the past, invoking their memory for sentimental - or worse, manipulative - reasons.

In a bid to shake off morbid thoughts, I explore the parks and gardens. I observe the elegance of the Bulbuli as it weaves in and out of the flowers, and marvel at the resourceful Shalik consistently managing to find food on the roadside. I watch with suspense as a Cheel dives into the water to grab lunch, and my heart jumps with the Fingey as it flicks its long V-shaped tail swinging on electric wires and then swoosh! zips away. I feel – however fleetingly - the profundity of Jibananda Das's words:
"You all can go wherever you want
I will stay right here in Bangla".

The sweetest rewards come unexpectedly. Biting into a LoTkon fruit after thirty years, my mind is flooded with childhood memories, like Proust's character Swann experienced when he tasted a madeleine cookie in "Remembrance of Things Past."

I gauge my progress towards my goal during chance encounters with the locals. Like the time when I am bicycling through a village in Rupganj area. A boy, barely ten, stops me, points to a tall Kamranga tree full of ripe juicy fruit, and offers to climb it and pick some, free of charge. "Want to try it, sir, it is very sweet", he asks me. I had forgotten how unbelievably hospitable, friendly and generous Bangladeshi villagers are. I realize that attaining this level of being Bangladeshi will be tough.

[Notes for non-Bangladeshi readers:
1. Bangladesh has 6 seasons: Summer, Rainy Season, Early Fall, Late Fall, Winter and Spring. In Bengali these are Grishho, Borsha, Shorot, Hemonto, Sheet, Boshonto. The language is Bengali (aka Bangla.)
2. Rajshahi in northern Bangladesh is famous for its sweet mangoes.
3. Shapla, a water-lily, is the national flower of Bangladesh.
4. Bangladeshi rickshaws have two brake handles but only one is attached to a (front) brake. There is no brake at the rear.
5. A hartal is political protest that shuts down shops and most traffic for the day. Offices usually remain open.
6. The Language Movement, from the 1950s, was a people’s movement in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) to promote Bengali and resist the adoption of Urdu (spoken only in West Pakistan) as the national language.
7. Aalga Pechail means “unnecessary complicated talk” and Kora Misti means “very sweet” (used by fruitsellers.)
8. Shalik, bulbul, fingey and cheel are birds of sturnidae, nightingale, drongo and kite families.
9. Jibananda Das, a Bengali poet, is best-known for his celebration of natural beauty of the region.
10. You can reach Rupganj in an hour of bicycling from Dhaka’s diplomatic zone.
11. Kamranga is starfruit. LoTkon is a local fruit, intensely tangy with a nice flavor.

2 comments:

morristhepen said...

Great piece - and interesting to see you notice these things through new eyes!

Anonymous said...

i enjoyed it very much !! great piece of writing ! keep up the good work