[Reader-list] Other, Another!

zainab at xtdnet.nl zainab at xtdnet.nl
Sat Jun 18 11:05:57 IST 2005


Fleeting conversations in Bangladesh 

We are in Dhaka. And we are meeting with my friend’s university professor
Mr. Alam. Mr. Alam is a well-traveled person. He enjoys indulging in
conversations and discussions. This afternoon, Mr. Alam has invited us to
We are enjoying a sumptuous Bengali lunch. Mr. Alam starts talking with us
about the Middle East where he has traveled a bit. “Saudi, Dubai, Riyadh
and Abu Dhabi, I have been to these places. Dubai is cosmopolitan. Saudi
is conservative and rigid,” he said. “How is it in India? I have heard a
lot about North India. How is the food there? What kind of people are
Punjabis?” My friend and I start to wonder how to describe North India.
Within the region itself there are considerable differences. My friend
says, “Punjabis are different people. They are enterprising, gregarious
but they can also be aggressive.” I say, “Punjabis are different in
different places in India. There are Punjabis in Pakistan as well. If you
ask my father, he has a list of biases against Muslims. His top- most
dislike and prejudice is against Punjabi Muslims, those in Pakistan.” Mr.
Alam sprang up from his seat and said, “That is it! That is it! Punjabis!
Even our independence struggle against West Pakistan was really against
the dominance of the Punjabis. You know why we won independence from
Pakistan? Because we told the Pakistani army that we are mainly against
the Punjabis. And they surrendered. Yes, Punjabis it is!”

I have often perceived the hatred that Bangladeshis have against
Pakistanis. My friend tells me, “In an India-Pakistan match, Bangladeshis
will support India because they hate Pakistan. That’s the only reason they
will support India.”

I think about history, memories, ‘The Other’ and borders 

We are in Khulna. My friend’s classmate, Shona, and I are talking with
each other in her house. We have been invited to a davat, a dinner party.
Shona talks to me about Bangladeshis love going to Kolkatta because
‘shopping is very good there.’ Bombay is too distant for Shona. She can
imagine it. “There must be many Hindus there, isn’t it?” She has a look of
suspicion on her face. I am trying to read beyond the look. What is the
suspicion about? “Yes, there are Hindus. Most of my colleagues and friends
are Hindus. My cousins and siblings are wedded to Hindus. My origins are
from the Hindu lineage,” I tell her. But that does not change her look. I
am a Muslim to her. I don’t know what more to tell Shona.
Back in India, when people ask me about Bangladesh, I perceive a similar
look of suspicion on their faces about Muslims in Bangladesh. “Aren’t
Hindus being targeted and killed in Bangladesh?” What do I tell them that
the culture in Bangladesh is far from being Islamic? If anything at all,
it is truly Bengali culture!
Diya, a friend from Dhaka, had narrated this incident to me during my
first visit to Bangladesh. “We are a research institute. We had visitors
from Delhi. Among them was a Hindu lady Neeta. She had her own perceptions
about Bangladesh. She thought that all the women here wore veils. She
thought that we are strict about prayers and religious customs and
behaviour. When she came here, she was too surprised to see us wearing
sarees. She had asked, ‘Sarees? Is it okay to wear sarees?’ I had told her
how we Bangladeshi women look for occasions to wear sarees. She was even
more surprised to see us wearing bindis (a Hindu symbol on women’s
foreheads). And then I informed her that each one of us, men and women,
have a Bengali name in addition to an Islamic name. And we are referred to
more frequently by our Bengali names. She was too surprised and it was
very hard for her to believe what she saw.”

I am in Chittagong now. We are sitting in the now famous Foy’s Lake. It’s
evening time. Mithu, Shumon and me are chatting and passing our time,
watching the crowds and frequently indulging in ice-creams! Something
happens and MIthu talks about Mujeeb-ur-Rehmaan. “Yeah, he was your
independence struggle leader,” I remark. Mithu is surprised. “How do you
know?” “Come on,” I tell him as a matter-of-fact, “We study the Bangladesh
liberation war as part of our history syllabus in school and college.” “Is
it?” he remarks sarcastically, adding, “Tell me more about what you have
studied?” I tell him about the election results where East Pakistan had
acquired a majority and General Zia tried to suppress these results and
impose the West Pakistani government. And then Mujeeb and others rose in
revolt. “And India supported the rebellion and sent its army to help,” I
end. “Yeah, India sends its army huh?” Mithu says. For a moment, I am a
bit taken aback. But I realize that my tone is one of patronizing and
Mithu is not impressed with this. I begin to perceive the big-brotherly
aka Uncle Sam attitude which India has on South Asia overall. Mithu reads
the same attitude in my narration of history. And he does not like this.
On occasions, I have seen a few borders which India has with Bangladesh.
We are too close to each other. A few kilometers away from Chittagong, our
host takes us to a place where there are hills and waters. There is a golf
course there. And it is an army patrolled area. It is now a picnicking
spot along with boating and fishing activities. From atop the hill, our
host points out to us: “Look, look beyond that boat. That is Bay of
Bengal. That is India.” I realize how ‘in the face’ India is to
Bangladesh. “We are totally surrounded by India, on all sides,” one of my
Bangladeshi friends had said to me during my first visit to Bangladesh. It
is the perception of fear, of territory terrorizing and of potential
conquest. Wow!

Memories, borders, history, identity, territory 
 Other – Other – Other/s
– Another – An – Other – Another/s – An – Other/s 

Zainab Bawa

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