The Tea-and-Coconut Rule
Photo: Andrew Eagle
My friends in the village in the south were determined to get a fixed time, but that village is so far that they had no hope of achieving it. I knew the trouble it would cause, the multiple courses, the chickens to be slaughtered, the expense. They meant more to me than that, surely: better to arrive unexpectedly and limit the damage to three or four light items.
The avalanche of invitations came in later years, on the short visits from Australia to Hatiya. It was then I'd flick through the mental obligation list and after a few moments propose lunch after one week, the first free meal-slot. Selim caused the avalanche; he is responsible, for by attrition he conquered the long-established tea-and-coconut rule.
The villagers were shy at first, but shy is the wrong word. More precisely it was a blend of the shame-burden of poverty and a preconception about westerners. Situ had it too, originally, and the first time I went to Hatiya in 1998, he booked me into a guest house, and I'd thought it odd that he'd not taken me to his place; but I didn't question it. Whatever reasons there were he knew.
It'd taken him a couple of days to find courage, although none was required, and finally he said we should go to his home and meet the family. He was nervous. He thought that as a soon-to-be-graduate from Sydney I'd underestimate him based on his home. He was wrong.
The house has a mud floor and walls of tin. The frame is beams of misshapen wood, notched and inevitably curving slightly, those beams that speak at night with the scratching, drilling sound of beetles gnawing: they come alive. In it I found a family woven like a sitalpati or cane mat, not only to each other but to the neighbourhood and the land thereabouts, in a way Sydney families just aren't. I never imagined they'd just weave me in.
The simplicity of the structure is his father's greatness. There are not many Union Chairmen with houses like it and his father was in the post for many years. He'd done things: taken family land to make colonies for the poorest, founded a market by the sea to encourage the economies of fishermen, chased away thieves and solved other people's problems when they came as a broad ever-flowing stream to his door. He had a certain quality. He was honest.
Cautiously Situ had asked if I'd like to stay there one night, in his house, on that first Hatiyan trip.
Hatya where hospitality is a way of life. Photo: Andrew Eagle
The other villagers had been the same when I stayed in 1999, despite the curiosity and fondness for entertaining. I'd be uncomfortable and what could they give I would eat? Although food was being delivered from various houses, it took months for the first invitation. I believe it was Leku.
From my side I started early with the ban on lavishness, the one Selim would whittle away. 'Of course I'd love to come,' I'd respond, 'but only for tea and daab (green coconut) and if you serve anything else, one single item, I will leave!' Green coconuts are available at a tree-climb and everyone has tea. Strictness was required; telling twice was better.
So I'd arrive at the designated hour to be presented with tea, coconut, a packet of biscuits and perhaps some homemade cakes. Tea-and-coconut never meant exactly that; Hatiyans can't help it.
The number of invitations grew quite rapidly, not least because many of my friend's wives wanted to see what I looked like; much as they'd later want to meet Raja, my pet dog. Tea-and-coconut hospitality set in.
It was soon understood that to negotiate the thick muddy laneways of monsoon was okay, wading through water to reach front doors was fine, and if it was really, really hot I would, in general, manage. There were days I was so tired because sleeping through the hottest nights wasn't easy, worse if there were mosquitoes about; so it can be that sometimes the guest went to sleep after tea-and-coconut, on the bed in the front room of the hosting house. In Hatiya, when you're tired, you sleep.
Selim the fish-deliverer: it could be guessed in generosity he'd not at all be bound. Every year I'd visit Hatiya for a few weeks or months, and he'd issue invitations. He lived close enough do it daily, to persist. For a while I refused; but I wondered if I wasn't being unfair.
There are friends in many countries. I never told the Norwegians not to serve venison. I never insisted the Ukrainians to dispense with that beetroot soup they call borsch. I ate when the Thais had with abandon, cut and served fruit: watermelon, tamarind and chompoo. In Sydney there'd be no question of questioning hospitality. So why were Hatiyans different?
It cost the lives of chickens it did, many over the years. I opened the flood gates; the banquets began. Selim rode off to the main town once in search of chingri or prawns and tomatoes. Neither was in season; I hate to think what he paid for them. But manush is manush, human is human. It was his decision.
The upside was that households benefited too, and adjoining households for Hatiyans share. Mountains of food I would peck at, the leftovers distributed to all. The upside was they were excited. Family members would sometimes dress in their best clothes; invitation days had a localised festival feel. If it was Eid they'd say it was a double-Eid on account of my being there. The households were many; the constant that the most humbled person there was me.
The antidote was reciprocation, never enough, never enough. There were a few problems: reciprocating meant Situ's wife and the other ladies would end up cooking, Situ would arrange the supplies. I paid the bill, such a puny contribution, and when allowed I'd serve. Sometimes they wouldn't accept it and I'd have to sit and chat instead.
There were other little customs to hold onto, ways to give back. One is that when somebody's close relative dies the neighbours send a big pot of rice, and other food, such that the mourning relatives don't need to cook. I was able to do that at least once, when Selim's wife's grandmother passed away. It was rainy season and I remember Situ and his brother trudging off with several pots without proper lids, through the mud to deliver it. I'd wanted to go but with my lack of confidence slipping and sliding along the roads, especially at night, I'd thought if I took one of those pots it might end up being devoured by a pothole or a rice paddy instead.
Easter in 1999 was one of the first parties. It followed on from the just-shared and celebrated Eid-ul-Adha and one of the Hindu festivals. Many people had never heard of Christianity, others were sketchy on its details. I decorated the house with pictures of eggs, chickens, rabbits, and we shared a very Bengali lunch. Although I made a basic attempt to explain what 'my Eid' was about, the only important part, for them as for me, was that we enjoyed it together.
My friends in the village in the south were the last stand for the tea-and-coconut regime. Random visits there would elicit puffed rice or muri, shredded coconut, guavas or starfruit, tea and so much pressure for a fixed-date-visit. At last they got their appointment, their son played harmonium and even just with my pecking, I ate until it hurt.