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    Volume 9 Issue 32| August 6, 2010|

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Sugar-coated Cyanide

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Bangladeshis are said to be characterised by their equal proclivity for hyperbole and virulent denigration. A person is said to have a 'heart of gold' just on the basis of a few pleasant encounters at social events where people are forced to behave even if they don't want to. Or another individual will be slashed down as being arrogant just because she refuses to answer personal questions (from a total stranger) like why she has come to the gynaecologist. But an inherent part of being Bengali (Bangladeshi or not) is greeting someone with an insult in honeyed tones, a bit like forcing someone to swallow sugar-coated cyanide pills.

Many garrulous conversationalists for instance, think that the best way to break the ice is to say something like 'Bhaloi to mutiechhen' (You've fattened up well) or 'Ekhane ki dhandabaaji korte eshechhen?' (What kind of scam have you cooked up here?). It is expected that people from other cultures will be startled by such jarring remarks but sometimes they are too much even for the fellow Bengali who may have something called 'feelings'.

Say you've arrived at a party anticipating a fun evening with interesting company. You have spent a considerable amount of time looking for the right attire and scrounging around on your hands and knees searching for the accessories to go with it. You have taken unbelievable pains to conceal the flaws on your face with the magic called makeup. You have been telling yourself repeatedly that it is worth giving up an evening of curling up in bed to watch your favourite show on the telly while eating horrendous unhealthy munchies. You have been fighting with your significant other the whole week advocating the merits of going to this event (remember the art for hyperbole we have). You have gone out on a limb for this.

Yet the first thing that punches you right in the face is some vague acquaintance in lace and diamonds wailing-- “Oh my goodness what happened? You look so tired darling. And have you put on a little?” Like a fast deflating balloon, your spirits dissipate, self-confidence shrinks to the size of a pea and anticipation of an enjoyable, relaxing evening evaporates into nothingness. Running back into the lift and crawling back into your cocoon will seem like an incredibly attractive prospect. But of course it is too late. The hosts have spotted you and after saying how delighted they are that you are here they will hurl you to the crocs so they can tear you apart. Okay that's a bit of an exaggeration but you know how we Bengalis are.

At times the creativity involved in the method of insulting becomes an art form. Not everyone can do this with such finesse and sharpness and usually the victim will not even know he/she is being insulted until much later when there is no chance of a staggering retort. An example will elucidate. A middle-aged colleague walks in wearing a somewhat colourful shirt, a digression from his usual mousy browns and greys. A co-worker comments in saccharin tones: “Ajke to Shafiq Shahebke akebare hero hero lagchhe, akhonto bhabike mone hobe onar khalamma” (Today Mr Shafiq is looking like a hero. Mrs Shafiq will now look like his aunty)! It will take a few minutes, if not hours before poor Mr Shafiq will realise he is being made fun of.

Sometimes the rude comments are made just out of habit-of being nasty. A doctor will say to a bed-ridden patient, a victim of a car accident, that it was 'partially her own fault that this happened' -- some solace to her agony! A discussion on past loves may turn awkward when a colleague is told: “Oh you can talk about any one of them”, and one may find it hard to tell whether to feel flattered or injured when a younger acquaintance effusively says: “My you have really maintained yourself well.” In other words you have preserved well like those hundred year-old eggs that are considered delicacies.

Thus being Bengali also means developing a skin as thick as an elephant's and learning how to throw back with equal force. If someone says you didn't turn out as fair or pretty as your mother was, ask back sweetly: That's true, but what happened to you, you had such lustrous hair, where did it all go? Ahare, you poor thing.

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