Published: Friday, May 10, 2013

Reflections

The Modern Jajabor

Learning about his thoughts is a way to understand our own.

Learning about his thoughts is a way to understand our own.

A meeting of jajabors while on the road is a surprisingly uncommon event. Many days may pass without hint of another, and in settled periods the absence of even evidence leads one to wonder if others at all exist. Yet there are the travel websites, with postings like ‘I left home three years ago on a three-month trip. I’m never going back.’ The jajabor’s footprints may be light but they step, nonetheless.

When one jajabor does meet another, in my experience it’s a happy event, a meeting without formality and no more constraint to it than the hopping about of a sparrow on a windowsill. There’s calmness in not needing to explain or greatly elaborate; to without effort pursue simple talk of adventure, with travel tales consumed as readily as rice. Jajabors don’t ask the questions settled people do. They don’t need to.

Of course it’s jajabors of the modern variety of which I write, the ones who use passports and planes; but I should explain first about using the Bangla word, jajabor, which is something similar to the English word, nomad. It came about by accident.

In Dhaka people speak of the Bedey. I’m not sure if it’s the Bedey who visit Hatiya Island, but in the winter months the nomads come, setting up their n-shaped tents in thatch and plastic sheeting on any patch of empty land.

The jajabor consumes travel stories like rice.

The jajabor consumes travel stories like rice.

I’ve heard the Hatiyalas say the ones who live on boats can drink brackish, delta water; that they barely set foot on land. I’m not sure how much is true. Like nomads or semi-nomads in many countries they have a reputation for trickery and fortune telling. It may well be undeserved. Still, as in other parts of the country, when the nomads visit Hatiya they camp wherever they find ground and are for the most part left undisturbed.

Yet it wasn’t the presence of the traditional nomads in Hatiya that led me to learn the word surprisingly early. I don’t suppose ‘jajabor‘ is usually considered basic Bangla. It was because of the Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika, who sings that famous Bangla tune Ami Ek Jajabor, I am a nomad. Unlike in the lyrics I didn’t reach the Mississippi, but I did like the idea of the song.

Modern jajabors face shared problems and chief among them is explaining to non-travellers about travel. People ask, why travel or why travel there? The reasons are many and to account for them properly would require a conversation of some length. It’s not always called for, especially as the result is likely to be disappointing. Non-travellers usually have other priorities and a differing world view. They don’t understand.

For example, one jajabor I know, an Italian Mexican-born one currently ‘pausing’ in Bulgaria, said that when asked why he lives in Bulgaria he just says the girls are pretty. The Bulgarians are content with that and it circumvents the need to elaborate. A more sophisticated reason might be that since he was young he was fascinated with Eastern Europe and one thing led to another.

It’s funny: I taught him the word ‘jajabor‘ and he discovered its opposite, the term for people who prefer a life in one place. He called them: ‘sedentarians.’

When it comes to explanations, I have similar troubles. When Australians asked why I was moving to Ukraine some years ago, I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to live in a country that begins with a ‘U’.’ It started people listing: Uruguay, Uganda, Uzbekistan… it was so much easier, it didn’t take hours.

In Hatiya, when I used to visit almost annually from Sydney, the circumstances were even more difficult when a Hatiyala would ask, very occasionally, why. My Bangla was still very basic and more than that, I simply did not know how to speak of the inspiration of travel. I could not explain how much there is to learn from other cultures or properly clarify how much enjoyment I took from their company, that in even the basic elements of their daily lives, which they take for granted, I found new wisdom and, often, hope. How could I say that I wanted to understand their life experiences and way of thinking in order to better comprehend mine? What is universally human, what is cultural and what is the individual? I would’ve liked to have explained such ponderings, but I had no ability.

Life priorities, weighing the options.

Life priorities, weighing the options.

So instead I simply pointed to the tents by the road and said, ‘Ami ek jajabor‘. The answer made Hatiyalas laugh. It was a simple statement, but it made me start to wonder…

The last modern jajabor I met was probably that British-born one in Kolkata a few years ago. His name was something plain like Ken or Mike and we met in the queue at the Bangladeshi Consulate while organising visas. He also didn’t have a pen. Besides that there was little about him to suggest he was a jajabor. It was when we started talking that I could imagine it.

The first sign was that his travel plans sounded complicated and evolving. He was down from Korea, had been to Bangladesh, was in India on a detour due to a wedding invitation that had surfaced and wished to return to Bangladesh en route back to Korea. He taught English, he said, which is not atypical for a jajabor. I started to consider… maybe, yes maybe…

And the sedentarians wonder what the jajabor is searching for; and it makes the jajabor laugh.

Perhaps because I know Kolkata I did something unusual for a jajabor, I asked Ken or Mike if he wanted to go for a meal when our visa work was done. I write unusual because jajabors rarely team up. They follow their own journeys and despite having much in common, say goodbye as easily as hello.

So we chatted more, somewhere up on Park Street. I heard about his circles in the sand, his plan to see South America for at least a year before teaching again and then setting out for African wanderings. He never wanted to return to the U.K. Naturally I spoke of Bangladesh and the pull of the Meghna River; and he said he had liked Bangladesh.

But what I remember most fondly about Ken, or Mike, is when I asked what he would do when all the travelling was done. I wanted to see if his answer was the same as mine.

‘I guess I’ll decide which country I like the best,’ he said, ‘and I’ll stay there.’

‘You’re lucky,’ he continued, ‘You’ve found yours.’

More recently I sat in a party in Dhaka, with shondesh and delicious home cooked savoury items on a plate and I confessed to a Bangladeshi who lives in Sydney that I’m actually a bit of a jajabor. His eyes lit up at the idea and he said eagerly, ‘Well, I moved to Sydney so perhaps I’m a jajabor too?’ And maybe it’s true. It can be that the scope of jajabor-minded public is far broader than I was used to thinking. When I consider it, in many Bangladeshis there are certain signs: curiosity, adaptability, a sense of humour and love for going places, even if that means not further than visiting relatives in another district, as far as opportunity allows.

Yet this jajabor may have progressed to being an ex-jajabor. His jajabor life may be done. Or could it simply be that from around-the-world-and-back-again he found himself perfectly content within the most jajabor-minded majority culture of all?