OPINION

Bangladesh Diary: Happy Families

November 27, 2006
Andrew Morris

It is one of those magical Dhaka scenes. We are trundling along in a rickshaw down small and crooked lanes. It is night, and light bulbs 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 back streets 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 homeopath's waiting room, where the brown jars glow dully under the bright strip lighting 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 towards 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 fact it surprises me how often I myself am introduced or addressed as learned consultant. To me this conjures up an image of a medieval 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 9pm, 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. We're not talking about crisis situations here - we're talking about saying: I know, I think I'll call in on Uncle Bob - for a month or so. 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.

This jewel has, in many other countries, 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.

Andrew is from Wales, UK, but currently living in Dhaka. He's been visiting Bangladesh for many years, and loves the place. Now he's working as a teacher trainer and writing a book, which he's sure will be a bestseller (in his own house). He can always be found at www.morristhepen.net
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Bangladesh Diary: Happy Families

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Author: Andrew Morris

 

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#1
Habib
November 27, 2006
07:52 AM

Hello, Just wanted to tell you I am regular reader of this blog of your. Nice view through the eyes of a foreigner on the country where we live. Keep it up.

#2
Andrew Morris
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November 27, 2006
08:09 AM

Thanks Habib! Feel free to visit www.morristhepen.net too. Lots more of the same there!

#3
Deepti Lamba
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November 27, 2006
08:38 AM

Andrew, of course there are cultural differences but I do know a whole bunch of rowdy American families that reminded me of Indian families. They were rowdy, interfering, warm, took care of their own, opened their homes and hearts to friends who were down on their luck especially during the Katrina disaster.

I can't comment about the family system in Britain since I have yet to visit the country but in America many of them have tempered individualism with open hearted warmth:)

BTW I couldn't take my eyes off that beautiful lady. She seems to represent the Bangladeshi spirit of dignity in simplicity.

#4
temporal
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November 27, 2006
08:58 AM

andrew:

there are so many things that you mention that ring a cord:)

the warmth and welcome is extended to strangers too...much more so in areas away from the main urban areas...

digression:

one of the things i always fall for is time...or its local observation;)

* we call ahead of visiting and are told there is no need to call

* when we have to meet for dinner or social gathering we are the only ones who are there at the given hour...not only does it inconvenience us waiting for others to arrive...but it embarrasses our hosts...which in turn...

ah well!

#5
DesiGirl
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November 27, 2006
09:14 AM

Andrew,

We have a saying in our country - a guest is like God. Though that doesn't hold true a 100% anymore, as my mum says, even if it is your arch enemy standing outside, she deserves to be welcomed in with due respect. This dropping in for a good while, expecting to be fed and watered extends to friends as well, not just family. Which is why, one of my friends, who I see for couple of hours , during my once-in-two-years trips home, can say with conviction that when she visits the UK next summer, she can save some money by staying at my place during her sojurn at London.

My English colleages were extremely surprised when I told them various members of my family - parents and brother - will be paying me a visit during the summer months and that they will be staying with me. 'Not in a hotel?' they shocked me by asking! Some almost fainted when I said my mum would stay on for a good 3 months. I still haven't stopped hearing about what will happen to them if their mums came to stay for more than 3 days! I find it amazing that a mate's daughter went to stay with her friend over a weekend, which was in the same county as their ailing grandfather and still did not make a detour and visit.

Know what they say about East and West, eh? :)

#6
Andrew Morris
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November 27, 2006
09:52 AM

Dee, Temporal, DesiGirl - thanks for these lovely thoughts. I like the idea of this hospitality extending way beyond family. Although in some ways of course it's easier with friends - you choose them after all.

Temp is also right to suggest that in some ways culture is a slippery thing. Difficult even after all these years here to claim I always know instinctively what to do. Piece on my blog called 'Secret Doors' about this very phenomenon. Can be found through the search facility,

However, Dee's right to point out that other countries can still offer up wonderful examples of hospitality, (I came across a few examples of my own in the USA. There's a piece on this on my blog which can be found by putting 'Mementoes' in the same search and then reading 'Mementoes 1' ). Meanwhile my own extended family back home is quite a strong one.

Having said that, DG is right to point out that anyone apart from immediate nuclear family would probably stay in a hotel if it was more than an overnight stay!

Part of this whole experience in BD has been, as the last para in my piece suggests, to remind me of what is lost back home, but can still be found. When it comes to my mother-in-law, I just need a little time... :-)

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