Saturday, May 12, 2007

Such a Small Country

Yeterday at a function I met a well-educated gentleman. Turned out that he worked close to a cousin (someone whose intellect I respect immensely.) I asked my new acquaintance if he knew my cousin. Of course, he said, he has been there for many years. Suddenly he asked, "So are you from Sylhet too?" When I nodded, his eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second- I could almost see some thoughts go across his mind - and the conversation somehow ended quickly.

Now, perhaps he had other people to talk to, and my Sylhetiness had nothing to do with it, but I find that for a country so small, Bangladeshis are ridiculously provincial. "Desh", the Bangla word for country, also means "village home." Often people will ask me "Where is your Desh?" when they mean "Which region of Bangladesh are you from?" "Oh yeah, my Desh is Sylhet, only 35 miles from your Desh of Brahman Baria!" Right.

Then there are the inevitable stereotypes. Tangail, Barisal, Chittagong, Noakhali, Sylhet - we all love to wrap them in unsavory flavors. One day I was going somewhere with a friend who did not know my driver was from Mymensingh. He went on for a few minutes about how stupid, idiotic, moronic Mymensinghis are (I think he was trying to contrast them to the people of the district we were visiting, who he thought were very smart.) To his credit my driver kept quiet. About ten minutes later, when I asked my driver a question, he answered with an ultra-thick Mymesinghi accent - so thick that my friend understood and went red.

All this geographical stereotyping reminds me of my good friend Sanjiv who years ago worked at Siemens. After a reorganization, Sanjiv inherited a new boss. The first question the boss asked Sanjiv was "Are you from India?" Sanjiv's "Yes" caused a flicker of unhappiness to pass through the boss's face. Thus began a very difficult relationship, with boss making Sanjiv's life hell. Eventually Sanjiv moved to another group.

Some time later, Sanjiv found the real story. Years ago, the boss's wife had run off with an Indian man!

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