The Slow Shifting of the Self
A photo arrives in my inbox, sent out of the blue by a member of my family. It shows a young man, an Oxford undergraduate, posing self-consciously for the camera, in a magnificent college quadrangle. He balances like a circus clown on one leg, his arms outspread, taking in the imposing classical buildings all around, as if to convince himself: “This is all mine. I deserve to be here.” Carefree, delighted, slightly incredulous, his face is aglow with possibility.
A dynamic young chap, you might think, fizzing with energy. But probably, between you and me, a bit of a pain too, best suffered in small doses. Being with him initially gives you a feeling of exhilaration, although after a while you may want to turn down the volume just a little, and when he has left your company you suddenly remember just how wonderfully welcome a bit of peace and quiet can be.
The reason I can speak with such authority on this character is because it happens to be me. Or rather, because it was once me,. Because try as I might, I can't really connect to him now. What is the real link between us? In what sense are he and I actually the same person? We share a name, sure, and through mental effort I can conjure up a narrative, a series of events and experiences which unite us, but it's all in the mind.
It may be true that I am still a bit of a handful, but on the other hand, since those heady days, almost everything in me has changed. Every cell in my body has died and been replaced, my face is, let's say, more “lived in”, my accent has shifted, my opinions have moved on, love, friendships, homes have come and gone, my hobbies are all different and that sense of fashion and style were wisely discarded years ago. If I met that 18-year-old today, passing him on the street, would I recognise him? Would he recognise me?
More to the point, would I get on with him? I suspect that a certain chemistry would work between us, but that after a while I'd want to put him in a bottle and screw the top firmly on. But perhaps before that I'd spare him some time, take him for a walk and counsel him quietly on what lies ahead, the sunlit heights, the valleys across which silent shadows steal, and the smashed dreams.
I've metamorphosed, become someone, you might say, entirely different. We all have; we are constantly in flux. We're not in fact nouns, but verbs, forever being transfigured by our own experience, by the people we encounter and the situations we find ourselves in.
But when I think about the most recent developments in my outlook and my experience of the world, I realise another element has crept into the mix. Having been involved with Bangladesh now for 10 years, the slow shifting of the self has moved on to a new stage, and I find I am beginning to experience things, ever so slightly, through Bangladeshi eyes.
Years ago I remember being astonished when I asked a friend here, on a Saturday morning, whether she was free that evening. She looked at me with faint surprise and said “I don't know yet”. When I first came, I was an inveterate plan-maker and could quite comfortably have mapped out my movements for the coming month at any given time, extending to six months in the case of travel plans. But now I've learned to roll with the contingency, the sheer unpredictability of life in Dhaka, it's irrepressible here-and-now-ness. I no longer even register surprise when someone invites me to a party and adds, almost as an afterthought, “It's tonight... in fact it's starting in an hour”. I never bother asking friends out more than two days ahead, and find it easier these days to change my plans at the last minute, dropping things to be with a friend, or to take advantage of a sudden opportunity. Now, when my mother writes in April to know what day in August I am planning to fly home I stare at the screen, mildly paralysed. August? August seems like a different planet, and somewhere along the way I've mislaid the space capsule to get me there. Ask me again in mid-July, Mum.
There's more. I recently ran a workshop, in which one of the participants was the Headmaster of a very well-known school here, an elderly, impressive and imposing man. In the introduction stage, he simply said “Call me Ben”, dispensing with the titles, the whole cumbersome nomenclature so beloved of most of his peers. But I'd got so used to calling people “Professor”, “Doctor” and “Sir” that, even though I followed his instructions, I found it almost uncomfortable. As a westerner, there'd once have been no problem. I've had dozens of participants in courses down the years old enough to be my dad, and been on easy first-name terms will all of them. But for some reason I'm unable to experience things purely as a westerner any more. My centre of gravity has relocated, pitching up somewhere undefined between Britain and Bangladesh. It didn't tell me, and I still don't know how it managed the visa.
This shift also affects the way I understand what used to be unremarkable in my own culture. I pop round one evening to a British family's house to deliver some papers. Already outside the front door I've unconsciously begun to remove my shoes, but when I knock, the host opens the door just a little, (not quite enough to let me in), and we stand there talking in the doorway for a few awkward minutes. In the end, I take my cue and leave, my laces still trailing. This would appear strange to some back home too, but there again could be taken as normal in certain contexts. For my part, there was a time when I'd hardly have noticed. Now however, after a decade of witnessing boundless hospitality, I see this as anything but normal; and find it hard to avoid -- to use a much-loved local phrase -- “taking it otherwise”.
The subliminal change of perspective exists in small ways too. A few days later I enter a Bangladeshi family home for a dinner invitation. On the wall is a picture of the eldest daughter who lives in Canada. The first thing that strikes me is that she has short hair. Why do I even notice this? I have after all seen women with short hair all my life. It's not as if she had lime green hair. Perhaps someone has deftly inserted local contact lenses in my eyes one day when I was distracted.
Then, over dinner, the little son reaches for the ice-cream and I hear a voice jokingly telling him to eat his vegetables first. Good grief, it's my own voice. I'd never take this liberty back home, for fear of offending the parents (one of whom I don't actually know that well), but now it seems the most natural thing in the world, here around the dinner table, to play my small part in the great tradition of applying gentle social pressure.
Shaking hands with the family grandfather on the way out, I find my hand almost automatically returning to my heart, as you do here. I'm going to have to watch that when one day I leave, so as not to appear completely barmy to people back home.
When you spend a long time in another culture, your mental settings subtly change. It's not an obvious transformation: more of a deep-seated, almost invisible movement in perceptions. Boundaries are erased in tiny ways. In one Woody Allen film, a character complains of feeling “blurry” and sure enough, appears slightly out of focus onscreen. That's how I've begun to feel -- some of the sharp western edges with which I arrived are becoming less defined.
But what will happen when I come eventually to leave this place? I'll then have to unlearn my handshaking technique, keep my vegetable-eating comments to a minimum, and remind myself not to be by surprised women with short hair, so that when I'm far away from here I don't end up getting stared at, scolded or slapped.
Nevertheless, the flexibility and ability to duck and weave with the flow of events, the respect for age and the lessons of hospitality, amongst others, are certainly things I hope to retain for years to come. They're the best lessons I've learned from a country which increasingly feels like home.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008