Monday, March 06, 2006

Back To School

Upon closer inspection there are things to see in Bangladesh. Throughout the country there are some beautiful Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Raj-era remains, an indication of the various waves of conquest to have washed over Bengal. But no matter what their age, whether they were abandoned 80 or 800 years ago, all these remains are to be found in the middle of nowhere amongst paddy fields and banana plantations, giving the impression of being the remnants of some Atlantean cataclysm. Bangladeshis would probably argue that such a cataclysm took place during the period of Pakistani rule from 1947 until independence in 1971, but that's for another post.

It was at just such a site, at Paharpur, which used to be the largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas, that I met a group of students. Although met is probably not the right word as they followed me around as I was doing my sightseeing until I gave in and agreed to talk to them. This turned out to be quite fortuitous as they were on a day trip from Rajshahi (pronounced rushy) and I managed to insinuate myself onto their coach and in return I would answer any and all of their questions. It's a strange phenomenon, though not confined to Bangladesh it is particularly prominent here, that when you have a conversation, be it on the street, in a bus or in a restaurant, any information you divulge is spread through the crowd of onlookers (because you will have an audience), often with distortions, added commentary and footnotes. Anyway, I got a free lift out of a place I wasn't particularly keen on spending the night, and so I agreed to pay a visit to the university the next day.

Sometimes I felt like I was being shown off as an exhibit myself, but my guides were sweet enough and it was interesting to see campus life here. Somewhat surprising to me was the fact that all the students were smartly dressed in shirts and neatly pressed trousers, the complete opposite to what a student should look like back in Britain: in old jeans, scruffy T-shirt and decades-old trainers (or maybe I'm being a bit idealistic). I was especially heartened to see girls being fully integrated into university life and interacting with the boys quite freely, not something you will see in just any Muslim country, though perhaps it has something to do with Islam having been introduced by Sufis, Islam's answer to hippies. Unfortunately the female students aren't completely free, having a curfew of 7pm at their halls of residence. One of my guides, interestingly enough, agreed that he disliked the rule intensely, yet he was unwilling to aportion any of the blame on his religion. But I think the most important thing I learned was that one should never shake hands with a Bangladeshi. It's not that they haven't heard of the custom, but they haven't much experience with it. So when you proffer your hand they take it ... and then forget to give it back for the duration of the conversation (which is often prolonged due to the fact that you can't beat a hasty retreat once so immobilised), giving it a squeeze every now and then just to remind you that there's no getting away without his say so.

1 comment:

Yann said...

Hi Erik!

I have some bad news for you!
I think Nessie's legend is dead...
I hope Scotland will not lose all its tourists. Responsible is a scottish scientist who asserts that Nessie was just the trunk of an elephant, which escaped from a circus nearby...

Here can you read a comment in french:

C'est à barrir de rire. Le paléontologue écossais Neil Clark est arrivé à des conclusions qui ne trompent pas : le monstre du loch Ness, dont la légende trouble les eaux à whisky depuis le XVIIe siècle, était, mesdames messieurs, un éléphant. Si le bon sens vous amène à rétorquer qu'il n'existe pas de pachydermes outre-Manche, sauf pour qui a bu force scotches des Highlands (et dans ce cas ils sont roses), la réponse est enfantine : il s'agissait d'un éléphant échappé d'un cirque stationné au bord du lac, surpris en train de nager.

Article paru dans l'édition du 08.03.06 (Le Monde)