(Written sometime in early 2005)
My time spent in Dhaka in 2004 was revealing for what I learned about Britain. Dhaka is a different and distance place from the experience of Britain’s Bangladeshis in London. This is not just because they mostly come from Sylhet, a region with a distinct identity of its own. Neither is it explained by the fact that they come from rural parts and find Dhaka to be the big metropolis. British Bangladeshis aren’t afraid of big cities, if you can survive and cope in London, one of the few global premier cities in the world, well, you can safely say, that the country bumpkin rule doesn’t apply. Or does it? My parents generations did survive the vagaries of London in the late 60s, early 70s and Enoch, too, with barely a penny to rub between your hands, sleeping in bunk beds with single men, without the company of wives and security of family – and English language. Yet somewhere along the way these men, their wives, daughters and sons, became frightened of Dhaka, the capital city of their ancestral homelands. Sylhet, on the other hand, is a different story. Sylhet these days is testimony to the strength of the remittance taka – it is a million taka baby. The confidence this has given to British Bangladeshis is phenomenal. It’s like the Brits in Spain. There’s plenty of new money, flash cars, and new build monster new houses. The rest of the country is miffed at the newfound wealth because it’s unsettled age-old traditions that cut along class/caste lines. But Dhaka remains the big smoke in the minds of British Bangladeshis who are also too old now to go beyond their comfort zones. In 2002 I travelled to Bangladesh with my whole family – this includes the extended family, how we could afford to go to Bangladesh in one go, is a minor miracle, but go we did. It turned out to be a difficult and challenging trip. I thought I hated Bangladesh. But it turns out travelling abroad with any large group might be unpleasant. I wasn’t open minded enough to see that perhaps my feelings about the country were really bound up with my feelings about seeing Bangladesh in a different way to my parents. I desperately needed to get to terms with Bangladesh and not through the eyes of my parents.
The Dhaka I arrived at in the end of 2004 was different. I had no family with me and barely knew anyone in the city or the country. I had no inclination to meet up with anyone I knew and came in September with feelings of nervousness. It’s not like I hadn’t travelled before or lived away from home. But there was something special about going back to Bangladesh. I was born in Bangladesh, in the villages but through a dint of colonial accident, disaster or genius (long history lesson) grew up in East London in the UK.
The aid world in Dhaka is another kettle of fish all together, though. It’s like the Islington equivalent of NGO headquarters where engagement with poverty is, like the people in Islington, intellectual. The contact with poverty and understanding of poverty has come through work. When I visited my village home again, I was struck by rural poverty, but through work I also saw the urban slums. Through my interactions with middle class Bangladeshis who had migrated to Dhaka I learned about the sacrifices their parents had made to educate them. I came to know the usefulness of English and technology in finding a job – far more meaningful than simply having a degree, and worse, yet, the value of a degree from Bangladesh being less than one from the elusive ‘west’. In the end, though, there wasn’t a huge amount different in the struggles in Dhaka to the struggles I see in London. The scale of poverty is vastly different, for sure, and the kind of transparency we take for granted in the UK, is nowhere to be found in the corridors of power in Bangladesh. However, the desires and the motivation of ordinary people remain the same. I am always struck when foreigners come to developing countries and watch the country through a prism that is always foreign, so whenever they try and understand something, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s just the culture.’ While some things might be explained by culture (itself a foreign word to me, and according to the literary theorist, Eagleton, one of the most complicated words in the English dictionary to define, despite the best efforts of anthropologists), most things are explained by paying attention to detail.
I only made few Bengali friends but not enough as I had hoped which didn’t leave me feeling proud. But connecting with local friends is tricky, it’s like when you travel, never really connecting but spending vast amounts of time, watching the world go by and connecting pieces of knowledge you pick up from the street conversation and the back-packers eager to show off what they know about a new city. In my case I’ve substituted back packers with aid workers, though they don’t show off as much as they try and extrapolate ‘culture.’ I don’t drink myself but spent 80% of my social time visiting bars with friends. This was in a dry country. It’s the age-old colonial ritual: foreigners drinking away to forget the hardships of colonial lands. I read Burmese Days and couldn’t really get over the accuracy of the man so many years ago or is it more impressive that things rarely change? Bangladesh has the reputation of being a hard country to work in. But neither would these aid folks be happy to settle in their small houses in Europe. So…. Nuff said.
This isn’t an article that’s ignorant of the poverty and inequality in Bangladesh. It’s supposed to show a different way of looking at Bangladesh. When I say I spent time in Dhaka it was mostly in Gulshan area, which is where the posh people live, a tiny privileged section of the country, it must be said, it was nice to see that Bangladesh wasn’t the basket case that we all expect it to be – but the rich sit firm and tact wherever you go in the world. If we didn’t have these elites we can kiss goodbye any hopes to see economic development in Bangladesh.
But the time I spent in Dhaka made me reflect more on my life in inner London. I positively loved being a Londoner, and exuded London from my lungs, but never completely belonged in Britain, or anywhere else. I was happy with this uncertainty. I didn’t want to fit in to the professionally networked world of work in London anymore than fit into the Dhaka development happy d-mob. I was content at not passing any cricket tests – I would’ve failed instantly having not the faintest idea about cricket rules or the rules of the game that govern Britain or Bangladesh. It was fun to bat for whichever side your principles fell on, I hated boundaries, hated being boxed. So I guess I turned up in Dhaka, starry and wonder eyed with expectations – for exactly what I wasn’t sure. Perhaps I needed longer to understand a new city and get to now it’s pulse – and carve out a bit of the city for myself. My expectations might’ve been high of coarse, and my constant flight through life without fitting in anywhere might go a long way in explaining things. But mostly, my time away re-affirmed what I knew: that people mix and mingle and work with similar people like themselves the same everywhere else in the globe – and rarely go outside their social networks. Human beings are driven by a desire to belong, fit in, and try and mould themselves into images they already know. There’s an occasional flirtation with difference when we’re young, and those that don’t conform have a hard time and get heart attacks early – but the old ties stay the same. In the end – 19th century conservatives like Edmund Burke had it right perhaps – better the devil you know…