True Stories…

From ‘South Asian Adventures with the Active Poor’: an excerpt from a true story in which a Bangladeshi village campaigned to have our six-year-old son, Alastair, betrothed to a two-year-old sweetie:

Alastair, the Heartbreak Kid

For all his woes, the typical Bangladeshi can have a merry manner, and is freely given to laughter and song, just as he is to prolonged lament, heated debate and verbose denunciation; there is little of constraint in the national character. An exception to this is presented by our cook in the village in which we opened our first school: her name is Hasi, which means ‘laughing’ and in her case suggests a parental optimism unfulfilled. Her demeanour is unusually self-contained and solemn, and very quiet. The most effusive response we can normally draw from her is a slight tilting of her head, a gesture that imparts respectful acknowledgement or gratitude. She is very poor, very thin and very pretty, and has four skinny, good-looking young sons, all of whom were enrolled in our school, and the eldest of whom is by reputation a mute, although I’m not completely convinced he isn’t merely slavishly following the maternal model.

One evening, as Hasi was bringing in our dinner from her cooking hut, she carried with it an air of mysterious observation even more unsettling than usual. And when, during the course of the meal, she silently, even stealthily, placed a lit lantern just inside our dining room door, my alarm bells pealed.

I went to the back door, and saw assembled there in the dimming light of the yard a group of a dozen women staring intently back at me.

“Something’s afoot,” I said to Tanyss. I drew her attention to the solemn congregation, Hasi’s curious placement of the lantern and rare benign restraint in her use of chilli and curry that evening.

When Hasi decided we should be finished with our meal, she re-entered the room and motioned cryptically to the women in the yard. Through the door came Ritka, a lovely teenaged girl who resides near us, who’d apparently been recruited by the older women for her very limited knowledge of English.

“You pleashe come walk Alashtore,” she said to Tanyss and me. One of the women stepped forward and took the lantern.

“Where to?” I asked.

“Walk Alashtore,” she said, taking Alastair by the hand and pulling him from his seat. She whisked him out the door in an instant.

Tanyss and I sprang after them. Outside, in the gathering dark, the woman with the lantern smiled warmly and motioned for us to follow Ritka and Alastair, who were disappearing around the corner of the house. We quickly caught up with them, and Ritka’s pace eased down; the women collected around us, the woman with the lantern in the lead; she set a sedate, even ceremonious pace. In time, we crossed the concrete bridge over the canal, and Ritka guided Alastair along to the path we’d begun to explore that noon.

“Oh, no!” said Tanyss. “I know where we’re being taken!”

“Oh, no,” I said.

Our exclamations seemed to spur Ritka afresh, and, laughing back at us, she raced Alastair ahead, into the pitch black. How she could see her way, I’ve no idea. As we went, there came to us a multitude of voices.

“We’d better get a move on,” I said, “or they’ll have Alastair married before we get there.”

Eventually, we came to the entrance of a lantern-lit courtyard surrounded by a woven rush fence and three bamboo-frame, corrugated tin houses, a sort of compound, which was filled with a large crowd of people, the originators of the multitude of voices, all of whom were turned in to observe Alastair standing at the centre, standing, I must say, with remarkable aplomb given his situation.

Alastair with some village pals. Ritka is on the right.

We went in and threaded our way through to our little boy’s rescue. Ritka beamed at us with what I took for mischievous delight, and then there stepped forward a man of about thirty-five years. He was good-looking, upright and dignified, and he shook my hand with sincerity, introduced himself as Abul, and motioned for us to enter the central house.

Across the width of a narrow front room was a bed, and the man indicated that Tanyss and I were to sit on the bed. Alastair was sat down on an old wooden chair off to the side, where he could remain the centre of attention. As many people as could crowded into the little room after us, and we could hear the remainder of the people talking excitedly, collected around the house, their voices travelling freely through the many open spaces in its simple construction. Abul placed a wooden bench before us, and there were passed in from outside three unmatched glass tumblers, which he then placed on the bench.

It soon evolved that our host knew about as much English as we three, together, knew Bangla, so we were able to manage a rudimentary communication.

“My mother mother,” he said, proudly motioning to a woman sitting on an overturned bucket beside Alastair. She grinned at us toothlessly, her brown face crinkling inward. Given the life-expectancy in rural locales, she was indeed an ancient, and Abul had reason to be proud.

Everyone present settled into a silent atmosphere of expectancy, with frequent smiles and nods. In time, a grey-haired woman, unusually stout in a village of perpetual under-eating, moved with stateliness through the parting press of people, and came to stand at the forefront.

“My mother,” Abul said with obvious respect.

It seemed it was she for whom we’d been waiting. We smiled at her, but her appraisal of us was frank and serious. Alastair stood to give his seat to this august personage; she protested, but his inculcated courtesy would allow nothing else. She settled into it solemnly, and I lifted Alastair over the bench to sit between us on the bed.
Then the other shoe dropped. The woman of my day’s visit came forward, carrying the same little girl. She positioned herself directly before us. The little girl, coached to perfection, salaamed me properly.

Gem's sketch of Alastair and his intended "intended".

The woman, as severe as ever, directed the little girl to look at Alastair.

Then Abul went to the door and brought forth a bottle of pop labelled ‘TenUp’. He poured us each a drink of it, and then a girl brought in three bananas and placed them on a small table to my left. Then the pieces de resistance were brought in: three small bowls of whitish goop and three small spoons were placed on the bench. Abul was all proud smiles as he anticipated the impression this offering was sure to create, and his happiness was reflected in all those gathered around us. Even his mother softened somewhat in the shared warmth rising as wisps of steam from those bowls, those little demonstrations of the generosity, prestige and sophistication of the host family. Tanyss and I exchanged secret looks of direst dismay.

No greater proof could be produced of the long-term damage of colonial rule than the fact that rice pudding, probably the worst blight of British culinary shame, is still put forward as a high-class, edible concoction in Bangladesh sixty years after the end of the Raj era. To me, it’s always been the dessert of old, old frail people who are convinced life holds no joy, and use rice pudding to confirm their pessimism. As my children will attest, I have referred to it as ‘larva pudding’, ‘pudding your maggot where your mouth is’, and ‘bleached rat droppings in goo’, and have often verified the benevolence of my paternal career against their contrary accusations by citing the fact that I’ve never once required my children to taste it.

Now, nearly two decades of kind, fatherly protection were about to go for naught: I leaned down to Alastair’s ear and whispered, “This is very important to these people. No matter how disgusting you find the pudding, you must eat it.” I believe my voice broke a bit as I put my little son’s training as a gentleman to such a stringent test. I squeezed his shoulders in impotent reassurance; tears welled in his big blue eyes, but manfully he dipped his spoon into his hideous bowl. “Wait,” I said, my heart heavy, “let me do it first.” Mother and son turned to watch in fearful enquiry as I raised the despicable stuff to my lips. And, Allah be praised, it wasn’t rice pudding at all! It was some coconut mixture that was really pretty good. I sang out the good news, but poor little Alastair was too traumatized by the mere anticipation to immediately recover: he keened softly for a world where rice pudding is even a possibility, realized or not.

Had he known how much more than pudding, what desperate plans and hopes they were investing in him….

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