Bangladesh The Village View
In high school I was given a detention for looking out a window. It happened in a maths lecture that oozed boredom; I was supposed to be concentrating on algorithms or logarithms or some such thing, but was driven to daydreaming. It mattered not that I didn't like maths; it mattered not that the scene out-window was spectacular, for I went to an exclusive private school that featured views across Sydney Harbour. In my imagination I was standing high upon the arch of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, admiring the Opera House, the yachts and ferries on the water below and the space beneath me, all the way down to the roadway. It was before they ran tours up there.
Views fascinate. Travel to just about any city in the world and one recommended activity is likely to be climbing the nearest hill or mountain to take in the scene. In many places, towers are built with the principle purpose of view-catching, like Sydney Tower which features a revolving restaurant: as you dine the view changes, the entire city surveyed. People risk their lives for views; scaling mountains, rising to heights where even oxygen doesn't easily go. People pay handsomely for the exhilaration of achievement that views endow, up to and including tourism in space. People simply wish to see.
In most of Bangladesh there aren't so many hills to climb, but for the tourist, especially the western one, Bangladeshi villages are brimming with views, not only literally, the landscapes of sublime rice fields, meandering rivers, rustic lanes and reposing villages; but views of culture, of how we live, what is important, what makes humankind. For the westerner, Bangladeshi villages let us view ourselves.
My first encounter with a Bangladeshi village was not far from Comilla town, on my first trip to Bangladesh in the winter of 1995-6, when I was travelling with my school friend Lachlan. We had only one contact in Bangladesh pre-arrival, a friend of Lachlan's friend, Sobhan (not his real name), who lived in Sydney. He was a Bangladeshi we'd never met but who Lachlan had spoken to over the phone, and he'd invited us to his village if our journey should take us to Comilla.
The journey there is often half the fun: and on the bus from Dhaka we'd found banter to raise spirits. With a good bit of mime, since there was no Bangla to draw upon, I'd been offering (threatening) the bus conductor to drive the bus! I remember showing him my Australian driver's licence, pointing to myself and the driver's seat. The conductor shook his head but we were insistent. We tried our best to explain I was a good driver, that in Australia we also drove on the left so that would be no problem, and that maybe the real driver wanted a rest; our enthusiasm or his curiosity led him to take the driver's licence to the bus driver, but when he returned his head was still shaking. For the benefit of the Bangladeshi public and our own safety, my driving skills would not be required.
On reaching the Comilla terminal, the conductor gestured for Lachlan and I to wait. He went outside to unload the baggage; all the other passengers left and yet we sat. I was out of ideas for what the delay could be about. After a few minutes he returned with compulsory Comilla-welcoming tea.
It wasn't hard to find Sobhan, who perchance was in Bangladesh at the time, and by evening we were meeting his family in their village home. Sobhan had returned to the village to find a wife.
After more than two months on the road (mostly in India) we were weary, travelling on a budget had been physically demanding, especially as we'd moved about at young-person's speed, rarely staying more than a day or two in one place, and the village was just the remedy.
The days began with a leisurely breakfast in the quiet of Sobhan's house: we discovered rice cakes and khejurer rosh, milk straight from the cow (and boiled), deshi eggs and pitha. We chatted with Sobhan's family about life in Australia and in Bangladesh, and when we showed pictures of our families we learnt a few words of Bangla, 'amma', 'abba', 'bhai', 'bon' etc. We followed the unfolding drama of the marriage too: the interviews with potential wives and mothers and fathers-in-law; the particulars of each meeting, what was asked, what was required; even we heard of the sending of family-spies to check Sobhan's credentials. The process was complicated and quite fascinating.
After breakfast, the day was for wandering, relaxing and learning. We visited several houses, played cards, tried out the foot-powered rice grinder and carrying water in buckets suspended from a pole slung across our backs. And while Sobhan, eager to impress prospective in-laws, got about in a suit and tie, Lachlan and I bought our first lungis. We wanted to fit in. The lungis were too short; I didn't know how to buy them then, and I used to tie them with a crude knot (I still can't do it properly).
|Lachlan - centre of attraction.
The village landscape was heavenly and promised tranquillity, although for us it was a deceptive promise: for whenever we walked around we attracted crowds, up to twenty people who suddenly wished to walk exactly the same route as we chose. Sometimes there were so many people they were falling off the sides of the village path and forced to walk through the fallow rice fields instead. Sometimes it was a little too much to ignore, but foreigners were not common in Sobhan's village.
There are these photographs somewhere in an album in Sydney, of us at the barber's shop, having a shave, with an enormous crowd of onlookers completely filling the window space to the point where the inside of the shop was starved of air. It wasn't entirely surprising we were of interest to the villagers, but what I was impressed by was their stamina: they stayed at that barber shop window for most of half an hour until our shaves were complete. Were we that fascinating?
Lachlan and I were conscious of the generosity of Sobhan's family, and didn't want to overstay our welcome, but each day we planned to leave, the village milieu would capture us, the beauty of its setting charm us into postponing departure: it repeatedly became 'tomorrow's work', and Sobhan's family didn't seem to mind. A week passed this way, and our plans to continue to South India after Bangladesh got lost somewhere in that village.
There were so many questions: how could there be such density of experience in the simplicity of the village? How could we miss nothing of the mod-cons from home? How was it that the villagers seemed so happy living lives that most often, when compared with Australia, involved so few material possessions? How was it we could feel entirely safe in such exotic surroundings, so entirely welcome?
And it was the first time in my life I had reason to question the general concept of privacy, so integral to Australian culture that we think it a product of nature. Being surrounded by people from dawn to dusk, the Bangladeshi village said, 'No': privacy is not natural but cultural; it means different things to different people at different times. Why, as westerners, do we often wish to be alone and undisturbed?
It reminded me of Norway, where I'd lived for a year in 1993. One feature of that country I like is its lack of fences: I was told it was law that when in the countryside, private property or not, you can walk at will, even camp on somebody's land as long as you don't leave a mess. Bangladeshi villages were like that too, especially in winter when the fields are suitable for cricket, football and short-cuts to the market. Open land must work in favour of community. Australia, by contrast, has countryside with fences: the longest fence in the world, the dingo fence, is there. It's supposed to stop dingoes (wild dogs) from entering important farming areas, and measures over 5,000 kilometres in length.
There was the question of language too, that even thoughts are culture-shaped. We were constantly asked about our families, since our arrival in India, and the answers often caused confusion. As you know, in English we say 'how many brothers and sisters do you have?' while in Bangla (and Hindi) it is 'how many brothers and sisters are there?' The difference in words gives a different answer of course, but it's more than that: in the English version the centre is 'you' and we use the possessive 'have', while in Bangla the unity is the family itself, with the focus on the connections between people rather than the individual. If such striking conceptual difference could be found in such simple sentences, then what of complex things?
Perhaps these are simple questions, but it was the privilege of knowing just a little of the Bangladeshi village that opened me up to asking them; and simple though they may be, such questions are integral for they go to the core of self-identity, of what is culture, what is humanity and what is simply 'me'. And perhaps there are no definitive answers; perhaps the value is in the questioning.
When our departure date could finally, ultimately, no more be put off until 'tomorrow', Sobhan arranged for us to be accompanied to the highway to flag down the next bus. Ahead was Chittagong, waiting with its own offer of hospitality and life experience.
These days I know I am not alone in appreciating the village: the way Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities empty themselves of large sections of their populations at Eid times, such that they feel like altogether different places for the duration, is testament to the villager still happily resident in many Bangladeshis.
Whether it's Everest or Keokaradong, people go out of their way to experience views. When they reach the summit, invariably they gaze from this direction and that, surveying the land below and the sky above. And yet, when it comes to culture, many people seem satisfied with the view of only one. In the privilege of the Bangladeshi village, and with the privilege of being able to travel, the limitations of such a strategy were more than clear. Perhaps it's that the view of other cultures, unlike the panorama from a mountain, is challenging; for with cultures, to look outward is to look inward and that, I suppose, is the view of greatest exposure and trepidation there can be: oneself. But give me the revolving restaurant of travel anyway, for I wish to see.
About two years later I stood at Sydney Airport with Sobhan, waiting for the arrival of his wife, whose visa had finally been approved. I had a bunch of flowers to welcome her and a car to make for easy transport to their Sydney home. It was exciting when she walked out of the gate: first time outside Bangladesh, first time on a plane. And there, I do suppose, her own inward / outward journey had commenced, her introduction to the exotic and the exciting: with those uniquely Australian views to influence and challenge.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009