Food for Throught
Dhaka can be a complex city to navigate - and I don't mean just when you experience it as a hapless pedestrian, or a frustrated driver; or a suicidal passenger preparing to spend the rest of your natural life amidst the snarled-up traffic or its snarling victims. There are far more subtle and equally hazardous undercurrents shifting restlessly below the surface of the city's social interactions. I tried to explain this to a friend a few years ago.
My pal Mani is a really nice guy. Gregarious and helpful, he is from South India, but was at that time working in Bangladesh as a physiotherapist. One day, when we were having coffee, he said "You know, Farah, I'm so glad I met you and got to know you as a friend. If I had just seen you out and about somewhere, I don't think I would have ever tried to talk to you. You look very unfriendly when you are not smiling."
When I asked him to explain this outrageous statement, he mentioned that he had seen me walking along the pavement (yes, amazingly enough, there was at least one navigable footpath in Dhaka city at the time) outside his workplace one day. "You weren't smiling at all. It looked like you were really busy, and in a hurry to get somewhere," he said to me, very seriously.
"But I don't really know what you mean," I protested. "I mean, do you expect me to be grinning at random people on the street? Do you know what would happen if you went around the streets of the city constantly smiling at strangers? You would just end up with weird people wanting to talk to you, or more normal ones trying to sell you something, so I guess that's why I might not have been actively smiling." Upon questioning, Mani admitted that I hadn't actually been scowling at anyone - it was just that he felt I hadn’t been looking friendly enough.
As I was compelled to point out to him, it's a lot easier for a tall man in Bangladesh - with suitably long legs to get out of any awkward situations fast - to go around looking friendly for no good reason. But in the interests of empirical evidence, I decided to take a quick sampling of my female friends' experiences on the city streets, and their views on "friendliness".
Polly, who is a twenty-something working woman who uses public transport very frequently made it very clear that in her opinion smiling for no good reason was a hazardous activity. "What are you saying, Apu?! As it is, I try not to get into any conversations, and I still manage to get into trouble quite frequently. The other day, I was on one of the Winner buses, when one of the helpers decided to assist me to get down. I told him I didn't need assistance, but he insisted, taking hold of my arm when I was climbing down from the bus."
In fact, the helper was helping her so hard that he couldn't bear to let go of her arm even once she had started walking on the pavement! Instead, he ran his fingers along her arm, lingering in some strategic areas. Infuriated, she took a swing at him, but he was clearly alert and quite aware of what he was doing, so he dodged in time. Then, to add insult to injury, he warned her not to come on any of the Winner buses again. The feisty Polly retorted, "I will ride on Winner buses whenever I want to - and I will slap you every time I do!"
Another friend, Khaleda, is also a frequent traveller on the bus routes, but does occasionally get into conversations with other passengers, due to her incorrigibly helpful nature. She recently discovered that this too could have its disadvantages. A young man on one of the buses asked for directions to Notun Bazar, which she was happy enough to provide. This then led to a (somewhat tall) story about how he was in fact an Indian tourist, staying at the Westin Hotel - he offered some hotel brochures as presumably incontrovertible proof that he had indeed just come out of the hotel - who wanted someone to go around with him to explore Dhaka city and translate for him.
He wondered if she would care to take on this task, and invited her to get off the bus and help him find a taxi for that purpose. Quite apart from the inexplicable question of why a guest at the Westin needed to go to Notun Bazar by bus (indeed, why a person staying in a hotel that expensive would be using public transport at all), let alone why this guest would then feel inclined to approach a random young woman to be his city guide, the man made the decision to turn down his offer very easy indeed. Khaleda firmly said no, after the man had admiringly commented on her well-developed upper-arm muscles, asking if she went to the gym regularly! If he'd had the brains to admire them silently, he might have had more success with his subsequent query about whether he could have her mobile number. Then again, maybe not.
Sometimes, equally unwelcome encounters can take place with people whom you thought you ‘kind-of’ knew, as Khaleda, fresh from her encounter with the fictitious "Indian", recently discovered. In the colony where she lives, there is a man who comes to buy old newspapers for a few takas from the inhabitants of the apartments. Since she discovered that the man does this to earn some money and support himself while he is in the process of doing a degree from Mirpur Bangla College, Khaleda has been sympathetic, and has even allowed him to borrow the occasional novel from her large collection of Bangla literature.
Since no good deed goes unpunished, she was dismayed when he thanked her for loaning him a book and followed it up by saying that "if she didn't mind" he knew of a cream that would help her get rid of her spots! She extricated herself from the conversation by exclaiming,"Why just one cream?! I'm sure that there are dozens that can help me with my blemishes, but I'm not planning to use any of them!" – thereafter firmly shutting the door on him. She was outraged by the fact that he clearly felt that any Ram-Shyam-Jodu is qualified to advise women on their appearance, so the lending library is now closed. Possibly for good…
But I think the prize goes to my friend Nadiya, who was shopping for books and found to her dismay that she had insufficient money to pay for her selection of reading material. The shopkeeper kindly told her that since he had seen her before and knew that she lived in the area, she could bring the extra 10 takas back to him another time, and take the volumes with her anyway. He then asked Nadiya if she needed some help carrying the books to her car, and upon being told that she had no car, he actually gave her back 15 takas as a loan to cover her CNG fare!
Buoyed by his unexpected kindness, she left the bookshop smiling only to be stopped at the door by a female security guard who had the nerve to actually rearrange her dupatta for her, telling her that "Thikmoto orna na porley bhalo dekhai na”! Nadiya was so shocked by the woman's behaviour that it took her some time to respond - but the matabbar security guard remained unapologetic about her "intervention". This brings me back to my initial point about why smiling at strangers - whether male or female - can get you into strange situations in this megapolis of ours…
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