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     Volume 7 Issue 39 | September 26, 2008 |

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Boys Don't Cook and Girls Don't Do Masters in Complicated Subjects

Hana Shams Ahmed

Cartoon By Shahriar Sharif

My earliest memories of man-woman relationships are limited to my parents and their Bangladeshi friends in Libya. Weekends were always spent at one of the houses of these 'aunty-uncle' duos with their children, who were luckily very close to my brother's and my age. We never socialised with the local Libyan families. Different culture, different language -- and not much enthusiasm on either side for crossing the divide.

At the deshi get-togethers I always found it fascinating to eavesdrop on the adults' conversations. Especially the way men and women addressed each other's partners. The men always referred to their wives as “amar ginni…” and the women always referred to their husbands as “amar shaheb…”. In fact now that I think about it I remember Musharraf Uncle, Saifuddin Uncle and Uncle X, but I only knew their 'ginnis' as Musharraf Aunty, Saifuddin Aunty and Aunty X. To this day I don't know the actual names of these aunties.

My family came to live in Bangladesh when I was nine years old. I was exposed to different kinds of people who did not necessarily resemble the adultspeak of my parents. But the nomenclature of the aunties and uncles remained similar. There were the Sohail Bhai and Sohail Bhabis, the Shamim Bhai and Shamim bhabis and so on. How strongly people felt about this was further exemplified when I came to work at The Daily Star and from time to time we received mail from various organisations meant for the magazine editor that was labelled, 'To Jonab Aasha…'. Whoever has ever heard of a male Aasha in this country? But of course if the magazine editor had a name, it must be a man!

Back at the dinner table, men and women continue to play comfortable roles that are like a TV drama with slight variations.

Bhabi 1: Bhabi, what's on the menu for dinner today?
Bhabi 2: I wanted to make polao, chicken rezala and beef bhuna but your bhai says he's tired of the same menu every weekend. So I have learned some new recipes from Siddika Kabir's book. Eelish polao, chingri bhorta, shutki bhorta, tomato chutni, shatkorar torkari, Kakroler dolma, Rui dopiaji, mutton rezala, kheer and lassi.

Bhabi 1: That sounds like a lot of hard work.
Bhabi 2: Yes it is. I have been up since 5 in the morning with the preparations. But you've heard the TV ad of Pran mustard oil (starts singing at this point) Je bhalo chul baadhe, shay bhalo raadhe, shashurike shamlai pran shorishar tel. (She who can tie her hair nicely/ is also a good cook/ the mother-in-law is handled/all with Pran mustard oil)

At dinner time, the self-satisfied men sit around the perfectly laid out dining table with napkins and brimming glasses of lassi while the women take their food to the adjoining drawing room. Bhabi 2 is not eating though. Someone has to serve the men at the table, right? Bhai 2 is the smuggest of them all, having served his friends with quality food without lifting a finger.

I once witnessed a 'viewing ceremony'. Only once, just out of curiosity. It was one slightly more regressive than most. It left me feeling ashamed for taking part in such a charade, especially because I was on the groom's side and could have objected. It took place at a restaurant in Sheraton, where I later found out the food bill came to more than 20,000 taka (but that's food for another article). The fair and lovely girl walks in with her immediate family members with a not so happy look on her face. The men talk politics and the women ask a barrage of questions to bride-to-be and she answers them without looking up. Back at home there's a roundtable. There is nervous tension around. Is there going to be a wedding? Or not?

Groom's bhabi: Naakta tow ektu bocha mone holo (her nose seemed rather flat)
Groom's sister (who had arranged the session): Yes but did you notice how fair she was, she was not wearing any make-up and still has milk white skin.
Groom's cousin: She's not very friendly, I don't think she'll be able to mingle with us. She also looks older than Panna (groom).

Duh, I think to myself, you were staring at her like she was a laboratory mouse.

Groom's brother: I think we should ask Panna what he thinks.

Groom (finally speaks up): She's too educated. I don't think it's a good idea to go on with this.

Bang! Exploitation 101 will be the order of the day after this guy gets married, I think to myself, but say nothing. Too bad the bride-to-be didn't know her 'marketability' would go down by doing a Masters in Chemistry.

After a tense nine months of not knowing the gender of my child, my son was born. Various mama and khalas and side dish relatives throng the bedside of the small body wrapped carefully in a beautiful green blanket. After several minutes of careful appraisal the dadi breaks the ice.

Dadi: He has very big eyes, but why is he so kalo (black)?
Side dish Relative: Arre bhabi, chele manush to (he's a boy), you don't have to worry about marrying him off at least.

Another side dish relative (to me): Don't get upset about his skin colour ma. Just keep him away from too much sun and bathe him with milk the first few weeks you will see how he metamorphosises. (…To everyone else loudly she says) And there is always 'Fair & Handsome' these days.

The room breaks into a conspiratorial laughter. I roll my eyes heavenward.

On Eid day last year I went to visit the obligatory myriad of relatives. At one of the houses 8-year-old Isha came upstairs to meet me after a rough session of football with the neighbourhood boys. There was mud all over her face and new Eid dress. Everyone looks at her disapprovingly.

Grandmother: Why do you run around like the boys all the time? (Now that I recall, there is also an Indian hair oil TV ad that goes like this.) Why can't you play with the dolls like other girls do?
Isha: Dolls are dull. They just sit there and do nothing.
Grandmother: You have to learn to play with girl's things from now on, you're growing up now.

Isha completely ignores the old woman's comments and gets into the washroom.
Okay so maybe not everyone thinks in the same way as the bhabis and bhais I just mentioned above. If you belong to the cool (!) crowd of a well known restaurant's and are friends or boyfriends of members of the group that go by the name 'Los Bimbos' then you're definitely part of the upper class progressive posse.

La Bimbo: Are we dinnering tonight babe?
Bimbo's boyfriend: Sure babe, anything you want. This Mad magazine is so funny. There's a funny one on you feminists.

La Bimbo: Ewwuu, I'm so not a feminist. But what's the joke?
Boyfriend: These feminists with their short hair and flabby bodies are going on their march thing and their shadows are all staring longingly at the shop displaying wedding clothes.

La Bimbo: Oh. So you just think I have a flabby body, right?
Boyfriend: When did I say that?
La Bimbo: I saw you playing Zwinky online.
Boyfriend: What are you trying to insinuate?

La Bimbo: I don't have a body like Zwinky (whine! whine!). When we started going out I was as skinny as a leaf. Now I've gained so much weight, you don't love me anymore…
Boyfriend: Oh sugar, you know you're the hottest girl around. That's why I chose to go out with you.

La Bimbo: (Whine! Whine!)
Beep! Beep!
The line is lost.


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