<%-- Page Title--%> Musings <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 114 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 18, 2003

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On Being A Noakhalia
Joe D'Silva

With a name like mine, I should be the least qualified to write on the subject. I also don't know if a piece on being a Noakhalia has ever been written before. But my home is in Noakhali. In fact, I was born there. And, I was brought up there until I came to Dhaka in 1954. I am proud to be a Noakhalia.

When people meet me for the first time, Bangladeshis or non-Bangladeshis, they ask me if I am from Sri Lanka. I say, “Hell, no! The D'Silvas in Sri Lanka are from Bangaldesh.” The way I have this figured out is, if the Pali language could reach Sri Lanka from Bengal, so could the D'Silvas. After all, my forefathers could have been seafaring merchants, pirates and what not! But thanks to Aravinda D'Silva my surname is now acceptably recognisable in Bangaldesh.

My first memory of references to Noakhalias after I came to Dhaka was that they were maulanas in the daytime and cattle rustlers in the night. Because of this aspersion -- sad to say -- we people from Noakhali never admitted openly that we were from there. We were ashamed to be Noakhalias. I remember that around the age of 10 my classmate Rasul confided in me (in a whisper) he was from Noakhali after I let out I was from there. There was another time (in Class 7) when I was going home. In those days there used to be a Chittagong Mail train which would run from Dhaka to Chittagong and we would catch it at 10 pm. It would drop us off at Laksam Junction station when it was still dark and we would then take the branch line to Noakhali. When I came to the Dhaka Railway station I saw Bobby Chowdhury with his family. I asked him where he was going and he said, “Chittagong”. He asked me where I was going and I said, “Home”, not wanting to mention Noakhali after hearing such a prestigious name like Chittagong. Bobby and I were in different compartments. But imagine the surprise on my face when around 7 in the morning, I saw Bobby and his family alighting at Chaumuhani station which is nine miles away from Noakhali where I would be getting down. Bobby didn't see me and from that day I knew I had a secret to keep.

The butt of many jokes, as you dear readers might know, Noakhalias have to suffer much indignity. The ribbing reminds me of Newfies and Kerrymen. (My friend Aziz makes out I am New Kali). We are told that when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon, he was greeted by a Noakhalia. Then there was the fellow in London who was curious to know what was a bowler hat was doing sitting on the street and the owner standing by bare headed. When told there was a bird underneath which he had trapped and was guarding it, the fellow seemed pleased. But when left to guard it himself ( the owner having left the scene) curiosity got the better of him. He cautiously lifted the brim of the hat and put his hand into something soft and…. you know the rest of it. So…we are not only migrants to Dhaka city and the moon but the world over.

We Noakhalias are derided because of our pronunciation. The Bengali alphabet “paw” somehow becomes “haw” so that “pani” (water) is pronounced as “hani” and “pan” as “han”. Also, “faw” becomes “paw” and vice versa. Which reminds me of a time in the UK when I was sitting inside a pitch dark ophthalmologist's room, my mind programmed, to hear a Caucasian doctor. The doctor didn't put the light on as he came. However, the moment he said something to me in that inky blackness, I knew he was from Noakhali! Just by the way he pronounced his “paw” as “faw”.

But jokes aside, Noakhalias are the most industrious people in the land. And some say some of the most educated too. This is the enigma. You will find them in factories, on shop floors, in bazaars, in industry, in business, in education and government offices. In pre- and post-partition days many young Noakhalias worked as servants in people's homes. It is said that a large section of the educated people in pre-partition days were from Noakhali. That is why they could establish a Noakhali Muslim Association when no district association existed in Bengal. Although when said by a non-Noakhalia it sounds like a slur, it is a fact that once a Noakhalia reaches Dhaka for the first time, finds a job and settles down, he pulls another one from his village to come along. Which is why there were many Noakhalias in government jobs, clerical and non-clerical, at one time. If memory serves me right, Noakhalias (and people from Comilla) were discouraged from applying for new vacancies years ago! (Wish I had saved that paper clipping.)

Till this day Noakhalias make their mark in Dhaka city. Go to the kitchen market in Karwan Bazar or New Market or Kafrul and you will be told Noakhalias own most of the shops there. They have this funny way of speaking and that's how you will know. Even in good old Dhaka University, somebody remarked that if you throw a stone it will land on a faculty member's head from Noakhali. And during the races, there's the “Noakhali factor” to contend with. How true or valid these are is open to question.

What makes a Noakhalia so special? Well, there is this something that makes him endear himself to his “countryman” (deshi). This is sort of a unique thing you can't pin down precisely. But his language has a lot to do with it. I have heard it said time and again by non-Noakhalias that when Noakhalias unknown to one another meet for the first time everybody else is left out of the conversation. There is a special bond, irrespective of his/her social background or religion. Years ago when my wife and 2-year-old son were living in Ireland, we came across a Noakhalia staying with other Bangladeshi merchant seamen studying for their officers' pips. He left their company to come and live with us! He called me “Miah Bhai”.

A young person of very strict habits, he would eat only halal meat (not available in Ireland), live on veggies and tag our son along to pray whenever the little fellow was awake. I felt badly for Mannan because he could not eat meat. One day I had a bright idea. I reasoned to myself that since Ireland was exporting slaughtered sheep to the Middle East, surely there must be a place where I could buy halal meat. I found a company about 100 miles away and the owner was very obliging. “Sure you can have halal meat,” he said, "How many carcasses do you want?” This is the length I'd go to for a Noakhalia. They are a clan-like sort and often times than not will assist you against “odds” if they know your “nationality”.

The Noakhali district I was familiar with and consisting of Noakhali, Feni and Lakhipur is no more. It is now divided into three districts and individually people will give their identity as belonging to one of them. But at heart many people of the three districts think of them as Greater Noakhali.


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