It is one of those magical Dhaka scenes. We are trundling along in a rickshaw down small and crooked lanes. It is night, and hurricane lamps glow under each rickshaw – miniature moons suspended in the darkness. A warm breeze blows in our faces. All around the sights of night-time Dhaka backstreets crowd in on us. The orange sparks from a welder’s torch flare up in a mechanic’s shop to our left as the workers crouch round a battered piece of old metal. On our right a group of old bearded men sit discussing life in a homeopathist’s waiting room, where the brown jars glow dully under the bright striplighing and the pale yellow walls draw the visitors in, suggesting homeliness and calm. There is the music of rickshaw bells – the traffic for once a long way away, hidden in the folds of darkness. We pass fabric shops where there are more assistants than customers and CD shops blaring out the latest techno Bhangra music. Women and men emerge from the shadows and slip by almost unnoticed. Occasionally one of them catches sight of this foreigner and a look of momentary surprise travels briefly across their face, before they too are lost to the past.
My friend N and I are talking – one of those long conversations in which we try to discover each other’s culture. We have talked before about our different perspectives on arranged marriages, the rituals of death, the joys and perils of childhood. Tonight though we touch on two more of these topics which delight and which contain, for me, the whole point of all this travel and exploration, this journey into experience.
He tells me how he goes home to visit his family in Rajshahi once a month. He is a college lecturer – a man of knowledge, as we like to say here, a man who commands respect, in a place where learning is prized in itself. In fact it surprises me how often I myself am introduced or addressed as learned consultant. To me this conjures up an image of a mediaeval scholar, candle in hand, poring over a manuscript which threatens to turn to dust in my fingers.
But despite this great erudition, when N visits his mother at home everything changes. There he is no longer a 40-year old pillar of the educational community – he is merely a son. And that brings with it a whole new set of norms and rules. He tells me that if his mother instructs him to come home at 9 p.m., then he does so. And if he arrives home late he is, quite naturally, reprimanded. I am surprised by this – surely at his stage in life he no longer expects to be rebuked? Why doesn’t he tell his mother not to interfere? Why not have a frank exchange of views, clear the air?
Oh no – the answer is simple. So simple it almost pains N to have to spell it out for me. This is impossible, because his mother has spoken. And she deserves better than this, she has earned this infallibility through the years of motherhood. As a consequence, it is surely obvious that she cannot be contradicted.
My mind floods with guilty memories of times when I, like everyone else I know, responded with irritation to my own parents’ guidance, back in the days when I thought the world was mine to rule. We prize our freedom back home in the old country. No-one can tell us what to do – that’s a lesson we learn in adolescence – and we repeat it so often… And how difficult it would be to return to the submission that is expected here: the automatic deference. We have come too far.
After a while the conversation moves on to another intriguing aspect of family life. It never ceases to amaze me here that ‘family members’ can travel across the country, turn up unannounced at a relative’s home, and expect to be accommodated, fed and watered for up to a month. The thought of turning up for three weeks, suitcase in hand, at an aunt’s or cousin’s house back home simply doesn’t compute. I can picture all too easily the surprised expression, the awkward moment in the doorway, the pained politeness and the resigned, “Well I suppose you’ll be wanting a cup of tea?”
None of that here – no in Bangladesh as a host you put aside all your plans, welcome this visitor from afar and then happily put them up/put up with them for as long as it takes. When I tell my colleagues here of how, back home, we need to arrange these things, we need to call ahead, they are astonished. Even for your family? Yes, I’m afraid so. In fact sometimes especially for your family… Visits for tea are one thing, and it goes without saying that longer visits from parents or siblings would be a matter of course, but that’s as far as it goes.
I, in turn, am astonished at the generosity of heart shown here. No doubt people feel inconvenienced from time to time, on the arrival of Great Uncle Faisal, but that does not alter the situation. Family is family, and it’s your duty to do the right thing by your guest. There is nothing more to say.
This may change over time of course, friends and colleagues tell me of their fear, in the age of the mobile phone and surround-sound home entertainment, that the social fabric is being threatened as people carve out their own sense of space and individual life. But in the meantime, people count here, and it shows itself in so many ways.
At home I always prided myself on an ability to remember people’s faces – even long after a chance meeting. I remember the waiter who served me in a restaurant once, or the taxi driver who picked me up at a crowded station years ago. Sadly however, this is a talent which goes completely unacknowledged here: because in this place everyone remembers you. People have a gift for noticing other people, and they store your face, seemingly forever, in their remarkable memories.
It is a true indicator of how important people are here to each other – and who knows, perhaps this talent for humanity, the respect for family and openness to receiving relatives are all different facets of the same diamond.
It’s a jewel which in many other countries, has already become a museum piece. In a darkened room, crowds of open-mouthed onlookers surround the glass case, gazing in silence at the spot-lit gem, trying in vain to remember what it once represented…