I’ve had the privilege of working with Bangladeshis for many years but one thing I never did, until very recently, was actually live with any. This was a special wish I’d harboured for a long time but really didn’t think the opportunity would arise. When it did, I took it with both hands though now, I must confess, I wish I hadn’t.
I should explain that I didn’t live the sprawling cities like Dhaka, Chittagong or Rajshahi. Had I done so it is very likely I would have lived with Bangladeshi people much sooner. But, apart from my six months of language training in Dhaka and a couple of months in Chittagong (recuperating from a bad case of typhoid I was unfortunate enough to pick up just as my training was coming to an end), I lived in a village up in the Dinajpur district, away from everything where even Bangla, the national language, was a second language to most of the inhabitants.
Bangladesh is home to over 160 million people, 40 different tribes and tongues and several religions. Even regional variations in how Bangla is spoken means I have witnessed Bangladeshis from different parts of the country speaking English together because neither can understand the other’s Bangla. Yet this people are remarkably the same when you go into the villages. In fact this similarity extends beyond the borders. I have travelled the length and breadth of India’s West Bengal (once the other half of British Raj Bengal with Bangladesh) and all the way over to close to Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar on the other side, speaking Bangla with all and seeing identical village life throughout. The same dokans, tiny shops often constructed from nothing more than bamboo and corrugated iron sheets, proliferate through the whole region as do the hotels (which are not hotels as we westerners understand them but café-cum-restaurants where the men stand gossiping for hours on end while drinking tea.
70% of Bangladesh is rural and so it is fair to say that village life is Bangladesh life but even so, much of this life can remain hidden from foreign sight and after many years working there I came to realise this and longed to know more about what it really meant to be a villager.
I was a teacher for a small village school, paid for by a foreign organisation, which meant I was rich enough to live in one of the few paka baris – houses built from concrete and brick rather than mud and straw as most villagers lived in. I had electricity, ceiling fans to cool the horrific Bangla heat which bastes us for ten months of the year and even an AC unit in my bedroom so I could sleep comfortably at night. A chowkidar, guard, was always on duty at the gate of the wall which surrounded the small block of baris. I was able to keep very much to myself with just one ayah, a middle-aged woman called Preeti, who cleaned and cooked my meals. Inside my home it was a bastion of English life, outside was Bangladesh, and this arrangement suited me very nicely. Had it not been this way I’m certain I would have gone mad. No matter how much one loves an adopted culture you suffer if you neglect your own.
So here I was in this confused mix of cultures both wanting to know more of the secret life of the people I loved while needing my own space and trying to keep a part of my Englishness alive. For many years I lived this way but I was getting on and it was time to start thinking of returning to England to enjoy my retirement. With this in mind I summoned up the courage to ask Preeti if I might stay a few nights in her village so I could experience life as she and her family did.
I had, of course, visited her village many times – as I had all the villages in the area – and knew her family and surrounding families well. I had supported financially most of her children through school and not a few other children too. I had attended every wedding in the area (as the only white man for miles around it was a given that I would attend even if I had never met the bride and groom in my life!) and a fair number of funerals too. Oddly, to western minds at least, I didn’t know many names. Village people rarely use their birth names and instead refer to each other by their relationship – through blood or through respect – and so if I learned the names of new people I rarely used them. Everyone was always Didi (Older sister) or Dada (Older brother or uncle) or some such similar title. There are people there I consider among my closest confidantes who I simply cannot recall their personal names.
Both marriages and deaths come in abundance in this locale though the latter outweigh the former. The typhoid, which laid me low for many weeks in my first year, kills many Bangladeshis every year and was just one of hundreds of diseases which strike the country on a daily basis. Then there were accidents; lorry drivers travelling far too fast and far too overloaded along with bus drivers, untrained and out of control; all made for fatal accidents every single day of the week somewhere in the country. Finally there was the country itself; drought and famine one month, floods strong enough to wipe out whole villages the next. Starvation and drowning were common forms of death. No wonder such a diverse people were also so united: you have to stick together to survive such an unforgiving habitat. Oddly, for all the deaths which happened in the village, the universe – perversely perhaps – spared Preeti’s uncle; a frail old man who spoke to almost no one, seemingly happy in his own company and who moved slowly through the village with the aid of a large walking stick.
I had never asked Preeti before because I knew that my visits to the village were always heralded with great pomp and expense I knew they could ill afford. I tried never to stay too long and played well the game of eating not too little to cause offence but not too much either knowing what I didn’t eat would be what they had left to eat after I had gone. Bangladeshis don’t eat with their guests. They serve food and watch them eat, eating their own meals after the guests have left. This time I insisted that if I stay I would pay for all the food and drink as well as give Preeti a bonus for the inconvenience. She was delighted at my proposition though tried to insist she needed no money – to have me as a guest in her house overnight was a great honour to her; but I insisted and said I would not come if she didn’t allow me to pay for my stay. Finally it was agreed and a date set. I came to the village for a few days in early April.
As I expected (and somewhat had to endure), I was treated like royalty with people coming from miles around to meet me or even just to come and stare from afar at the white man living like a Bangladeshi. During the day I would either take a long walk in the hot sun, as I had enjoyed doing for a long time both as a form of exercise and a way of meeting new people, or I would teach if it was a school day. At nights though, instead of turning to the north to my home a mile or so away, I would turn to the east and walk to the village.
Meals were taken quite late in the evening and though I was being treated as a special guest – and so served meat every time (something I knew they couldn’t afford for themselves for every meal) – the meals were always rice-based something akin to all Bangladeshi families. No Bangladeshi feels they’ve eaten unless they’ve had rice. Many a time I’ve entertained friends and served them a deliberately ‘foreign’ meal but I’ve heard afterwards that, after filling their bellies and clearing their plates at my house, they have gone home to have a plate of rice anyway because they didn’t feel they’d eaten anything at all until that point.
I got to see much of the village life I had hoped to see but I found the first night very difficult. The village had very little electricity and what they had was regularly turned off by Government order. Bangladesh doesn’t have enough power for its people and so regulates times of cutting off supply as a way of rationing out what little they do have. On top of that, the local power station regularly failed and power cuts lasting days at a time were not uncommon especially during monsoon season. I had no fan in my room let alone an AC unit and the mosquito net erected for my benefit to keep the infernal buzzing disease-ridden and invisible monsters out of my bed also kept the humidity and heat in. In my own home I would read a book for an hour or so and then immediately go to sleep once I turned the light out. Here I had no book because there was no light other than a single candle on the edge of a battered old bamboo table next to my bed and I tossed and turned for hours before drifting off. Still, it was worth it. I was finally living like a villager.
In retrospect there had been some discomfit expressed about where I was staying but I had paid it no attention at the time. Preeti and her husband had been arguing about something to do with where I would sleep. I paid no attention out of politeness, assuming the tiff was over where things normally stored in that room would be put. I hadn’t really noticed until the third day that the village dog didn’t go anywhere near that particular building. Bangladeshi villages are made up of little groups of four or five mud homes grouped around a shared courtyard area. Some will share one single building as the kitchen for all the families. Twenty or so of these courtyard groups would make up a single village. I was staying in the courtyard area made up of homes for Preeti’s family, her brother-in-law’s family and one two-roomed hut belonging to her parents in law. At the far end was a small one-roomed bari where Preeti’s uncle, the old man mentioned before, slept, ate and watched the world go by. There was a kitchen building separate to this and a storehouse where the harvest grains were stored. It was this building that had been partially emptied to accommodate me. I think it must have been another family home though, long ago. It was this building the dog avoided fastidiously.
I say I hadn’t noticed the dog’s behaviour until the third day. This was because it was the second night when things turned odd. I was tired from not sleeping well the first night and had just dropped off into a light slumber after an hour or so of trying when I suddenly became aware that someone was in the room. I shot bolt upright as I saw the shadow of something move across the room.
“Who’s there?!” I cried out in alarm. I was met with silence and so I spoke again.
“Show yourself. What do you want?”
There was no sound and so I hurriedly reached under my mosquito net to the table beside me and scrabbled for the matches. As fast as I could I lit the candle by my bed and looked into the dimness of the room. As the candle flame settled and the light grew stronger I could see reasonably all around. There was no one present and my door was still latched shut. I was surprised that anyone could have opened the door without my waking up but it was impossible to my mind that they could have left and shut the door after them when I had woken up. The latch was a clunky beast and simply could not be shut quietly.
Confused, I concluded I must have dreamt the whole thing and put it down to my imagination playing tricks with being in a strange environment and unused to the heat at night. That didn’t stop me from having another good look around my room though before blowing out the flame and going back to sleep. I won’t say I slept well. I didn’t. My sleep was erratic and I had strange dreams which seemed to confuse the weddings and funerals I had attended together. I was quite out of sorts the next day and stayed in the village rather than take a walk. It is perhaps then that I noticed the dog’s odd behaviour. I asked Preeti about it but she said she hadn’t noticed. I had been this woman’s employer for more than ten years and could tell when she wasn’t telling the whole truth. She was shifty now but I couldn’t figure why. It was just a dog, after all. Nevertheless, I thought nothing more of the matter.
The third night was similar to the second in that once I spent a good amount of time tossing and turning, I eventually fell asleep only to be awoken sometime after by the most uncanny feeling that I was not alone.
“Hello? Who’s there?” I again cried out and again received no answer. “Won’t you just show yourself?”
I sat motionless listening this time rather than scrabbling for a light. It was so very dark without electricity anywhere near the vicinity and only a bright moon and starlight provided any illumination at all. All I could tell of my room was dark and darker shadows with the faintest hint of outline for the objects I knew were scattered around. So I listened instead.
For several seconds there was nothing and then…there it was…the faintest hint of breath. It was an eerie sound – intensified, no doubt, by the fear I felt in confirming that there was, indeed, an intruder in my room. I wondered if I was to be murdered; if some thief had found a way in. It wouldn’t have been difficult. The small window cut into the clay wall opposite me may have had metal bars blocking the way but dirt is dirt and not brick or concrete; it is easily cut away. With a drape covering the one solitary window it was impossible to tell if someone had done just this and removed the bars leaving a hole large enough for a grown Bangladeshi man to slip through even though it would not have accommodated my bulkier frame. This would explain how it was that the door had remained closed the night before and I berated myself for not thinking of it before.
“Show yourself!” I commanded in good Bangla to sound authoritative. “The game is up. Do what you intend to or die trying you son of a pig.”
I hoped I sounded courageous and bold but feared the thief might take me at my word and rush an attack at me. I sat rigid expecting the worst. But nothing happened except I continue to hear occasional faint sounds of breathing. It took some time but eventually I realised that this peculiar sound was not that of a man but female. This shocked me and for a moment I was unable to speak but as I collected myself together and was deciding what to say next there was a sudden rush of wind and I felt a chill across my front which should have, in that horrible heat, felt refreshing. Instead I felt like someone had sat on my chest and I fell back, alarmed and short of breath. I couldn’t even cry out (as I wished) but lay there, winded and afraid.
To continue reading this story please buy the book ‘The Old Man on the Beach and other stories’ available January 2015.
Copyright © 2014 D K Powell