Published: January 31st 2011January 31st 2011
It was not random. It came about from the first visit to Bangladesh in 1996, three weeks, as a backpacker. Bangladesh was my fifteenth country. I still can’t explain why it was so, but on leaving at the end of the three weeks, my heart was so heavy with regret and my mind so weighted in the certainty Bangladesh would be of importance in my life, that it remained unfinished, that it’s surprising the tyres of the bus didn’t burst as it rumbled towards the Benapole border.
I can say this: it shouldn’t have been so. Of the other fourteen, of course Australia was home and Norway, where I’d spent a year, I called my second home. There was a day far from me now when I’d wandered across the tarmac in a small Norwegian regional airport, braving the icy chill of winter, to take my place on the flight to Oslo for connecting to Sydney some days after that. That was a farewell, certainly. I’d felt dead and there were small private tears of both happiness and sadness for the home I was going to and the home I had left.
It was most natural in those days to speak in Norwegian. I thought in Norwegian, to reach Norwegian conclusions and make Norwegian decisions. I even dreamt in Norwegian, which was most amusing when the dream featured Sydney family and friends who could suddenly speak Norwegian too.
And it was funny, you know, on the plane to Sydney, the first leg to Copenhagen. I sat next to a local on his way to Lebanon to serve in a U.N. Mission, and we’d chatted for about twenty minutes about what he was doing when eventually he’d asked, ‘and where are you going?’
‘Australia,’ I said.
‘Are you going on a holiday?’ he asked. For perhaps just that one moment the language was mine. I was chuffed.
In comparison to Norway, Bangladesh was entirely another kettle of fish. It’d been just three weeks, twenty-one days or so. The time was nothing, the duration insignificant. There is no simple explanation why leaving Bangladesh also brought tears, this time big, subtropical, public ones.
Having thought about it, it could be as simple as personality. Nations have personalities as much as people do, and just as when we meet other people, so there are nations and cultures we have more commonality with, in thinking, ideas and values, than others. Nations are like clothes, the one that’s the right size, style and design is really going to suit you best. The being born somewhere has nothing to do with it, I can say that now: birthplace is just about there needing to be a place to start. It has no more relevance than that.
So what was it about Bangladesh that so connected? Of course the people, the sincerity, openness, honesty: things I value. Of course, include the hospitality. But it was greater than these things. It was Bangladesh the teacher: all countries have their wisdom no doubt, but for a westerner the Bengali culture and mindset is so challenging that even fifteen years later I am learning. I am still a student; Bangladesh the great teacher. And from my experience not all places can do quite that.
It was the creativity, undoubtedly, though on that first trip I don’t think I knew it, but it is there in everything from the humour to the thought patterns. There was adventure: every day different and exciting with little to predict what would transpire, and living here now, Bangladesh remains a country of constant surprises. Yesterday there were suddenly camels in the middle of Dhaka.
There was of course the natural beauty, the warmth of the earth and awe of that endless entanglement of rivers. Bangladesh made me understand how mountain scenery, while nice, is something for others to adore. I am not a person of the hills; I belong to rivers and plains.
The poverty was not on the ‘good’ list of course, though it did challenge the substantial materialism and selfishness that many Australians will agree characterise that society, qualities growing, ever growing. The poverty was shocking, but from it, perhaps to over-simplify matters, arose three outstanding qualities: humility, endless optimism and hope. Bangladesh is quite probably the world’s largest deposit of hope; in these qualities, culturally, it must be one of the world’s richest countries.
Should not analyse such things, should not. Best for things to just be as they are, or were; and in trying to explain I have only diminished the experience because the emotions on leaving Bangladesh that first time was like having all of the world’s food in my stomach at once. You could describe every part but it would barely touch upon the whole.
Yet if there was to be a little moment that summed up that first departure it would’ve been on the bus from Mongla to Jessore, a day before the border but the time when there was no more distraction, for the first time, from the inevitability that we would go. We’d just said goodbye to Situ, turned down his invitation to go and meet his family, then in Dhaka, instead. The bus had started and as I mentioned, there were the jungle tears, teeming with life and richness. But that’s not the thing, it is this: there was a man across the aisle, an ordinary Bangladeshi, nothing to do with us. As much as I’d tried to conceal the water coming out of my eyes, the sadness and joy and everything between, he’d noticed.
He beckoned Lachlan, my Australian school friend who I’d been travelling with. ‘Your friend is crying,’ he’d told him, with specific words or gestures I don’t recall. Lachlan said, ‘it’s okay, don’t worry,’ or some such thing.
And that was that, an exact template of the two: in Bangladesh there is no ‘private’, and community is stronger than anywhere else I’ve seen: concern for others whether you know them or not. In Australia people do not necessarily, sometimes out of a respect for personal space wish to interfere, though I would not say that has particularly been my experience in the years since. But culturally it is true, to be a purest, which is probably why when they do interfere they do it so oppressively.
Neither approach is better than the other I would suppose: the individual, the community. Both have pros and cons about them. In the end all I am trying to say is that Bangladesh is different to Australia, and that Bangladesh, with me, struck an unbreakable chord. I belong to the rivers and the plains.
I knew with undeniable certainty Bangladesh held life importance; but not how. I knew I wasn’t finished there and I missed it every day, from that first departure onwards.
To treat my Bangladesh de-tox., back in Sydney, there was not a lot I could do; but I wrote letters to Situ and the others, and I wrote a research paper on Bangladeshi Labour Migration to Saudi Arabia as part of my B.A., which included written interviews with Bangladeshis, the questions sent to friends from the trip, to Hatiya, Comilla, Chittagong, and answered by labour migrant returnees they knew, and posted back to Sydney. Situ was lazy on that score: he organised but one.
Iran, U.A.E., Oman, Philippines, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, New Zealand; Iran again, U.A.E. again, Lebanon, Syria, Eritrea, India again… that’s the list that comes between the first and second trips to Bangladesh: two years. Dinesh, Kasra the Content, Cyrus from the fixing shop, Hamid, Farid the Fighter, Ebdasam, Malek, Monica, Osama the Swimmer, Marivic the nearly Nun, the Igors, Nini the Geography Champion, Dzintra and the Singing Car, Tony by the Cave-Church, Omar, Tewelde and the Shrugging, Hissing and Feeling Groovy, Ghidey and the Date with Malaria, Daniel, Emanuel, Sammy and Astor of the Coffee Ceremony… those are some of the new names that come between the first and second Bangladesh-es; some of the names that predate all the Hatiyans except Situ.
It might be odd to imagine that despite having such a yearning to know Bangladesh better so many other places and people happened first. It’s the result of curiosity to see the world, more of it; a self-doubt, wrong, wrong and wrong, that perhaps Bangladesh was not my favourite country and if I saw others I would know it.
And I have no regrets of course, for each of those other places, each of those other people: my life would be less without them. But through those two years it is equally true that the pull of Bangladesh did not weaken. It was there on the journeys through Asia, Europe and Africa and through university terms in Australia. It was there in letters, written and received.
Bangladesh was important. I would go. I waited. Bangladesh was waiting.
Skip ahead to the end of university, second trip, two weeks, and third, four weeks, completed. It was becoming clearer that with study done I would go to Bangladesh again: the plan was for a year. Maybe after that I would be satisfied I knew the place. That idea struggled about inside somewhere, finding room, slowly growing; and I’d started saving the salary from the full-time job I’d taken while studying as an external student for the last six months of my law degree.
It was one morning that I woke knowing it was time; I felt it as sure as the sunshine coming through the window. I didn’t say anything. I just went to work as normal and upon arriving at the office, resigned, giving the required two weeks’ notice.
It was my second job and I’d only been there a month, not the best experience. Within the day I’d booked a flight and gathered the papers to organise a visa. There was shopping to be done: a few gifts to take.
There was only one little thing I couldn’t do: tell Situ I was coming to stay at his house for a year. There was no international phone line to Hatiya then so I could only wait for him to ring me when he was somewhere on the mainland; and I’d hoped he’d ring in that two weeks so I could tell him; but he didn’t. To send a letter was a waste of time, as from experience I knew it often took a month to reach Hatiya.
So I just went. It’s not that I had the slightest niggling of doubt that he would say no, to the staying a year. There was absolutely no chance of that.
I arrived in Dhaka, struggled out of the airport with my luggage, took a taxi to the bus station, found the Noakhali service; four or more hours later I got down, somehow ended up on a local bus that took what seemed forever to reach the Number Four Ghat, and I’d had to travel the last part by rickshaw. That had never happened before and has not recurred since. Luckily I was in time for the sea truck to cross the river, and after three hours I reached Hatiya, organising a baby taxi to take me southwards down the island, the last hour.
I pulled up on the main road some hundred metres or so from Situ’s house, which fronts a smaller road. It was evening; it was dark.
As it happened Situ’s house was difficult to recognise. I’d been there but six months before, and it wasn’t the house that had changed, but the landscape. The green of monsoon had been replaced by the yellow and brown of winter’s palette, and in front of Situ’s house were two large bails of rice-hay that hid it from view.
There was a local: I didn’t know him then, Iman Ali. He was witness to it, my arrival, and he was surprised to see a foreigner there. Of course not everyone knew me then; and he didn’t. I think he’d been working in Chittagong during my last two visits, but even if he wasn’t it was only a few people I’d become acquainted with, mainly Situ’s family.
So I asked him if it really was Situ’s house there, down the side road, and though he could have just pointed he led the way. He was excited. Outside the house, in the dark, I called Situ’s name a few times. In later years I was more inclined to call out ‘musafir’ or traveller, the way wanderers used to do in Hatiya in the old days when they sought alms or were begging; but I didn’t know that yet.
After some moments Situ came out of the house already on his way into a state complete shock. He’d recognised my voice, and stood staring in utter disbelief, for several minutes. ‘Is it really you?’
I’m afraid it was.
Minutes later, inside, settled, starting to believe that these were in actuality waking moments that he was living, I mentioned to Situ the small fact that I’d decided to stay for a year, if that was alright.
He used to say later that he’d felt he should honour my decision; but it wasn’t like that. All he did was agree, without reservation, just as I knew he would. And with that agreement my new life he inaugurated.