VILLAGE LIFE IN BANGLADESH
A Personal Recollection by Bhakti Vikasa Swami
Bhakti Vikasa Swami shares his memories of life in rural Bangladesh. He describes a way of life close to the original Vedic culture. This sublime culture, being inherently religious and in harmony with nature, helps the villagers live happily, despite their many hardships.
I first went to Bangladesh in 1979 as a member of the ISKCON worldwide preaching mission. I stayed there—at first continuously and then intermittently—for about seven years, and traveled extensively throughout the country. In the course of preaching, I endured physical hardships and repeated sickness. But even more difficult for me was to adjust to a culture quite different to the one I was brought up in.
My British forefathers had sailed forth to India to civilize the natives and bathe them in the blood of Jesus. The British conquered, ruled and ultimately retreated. And now I was coming, having been conquered by Indian culture; and specifically by Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the religion of the Bengalis.
Even though I had adopted the practices and philosophy of Krishna consciousness, my outlook on life was still very British. I thought that the culture I was brought up in was the best, without considering that other people have different values that may be also be valid. It took me some time to accept that my ethnocentricity was simply a form of false pride.
The process of adjustment was painful. I had to reevaluate my conceptions of right and wrong, of proper and improper behavior. Ultimately I came to accept that the way Bengali people act and think is not inferior or wrong just because it is different.
Srila Prabhupada, quoting the renowned Bengali poet Michael Madhusudana Datta, told Prabhavishnu Swami (under whom I worked in Bangladesh) that he should preach in Bangladesh with the courage of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother. I found the part about being like a Bengali mother difficult. With Anglo-Saxon brusqueness, I considered the Bengalis to be overly sentimental, inefficient and devious in their dealings.
A plethora of customs and rituals, and what I saw as superstitions and fetishes, seemed to govern every aspect of their lives. This apparent foolishness was repulsive to the mundane rationalist deep-seated in my psyche, whom I didn’t even know was there. Only gradually did I stop seeing the apparent faults and understand what a great culture I was living in. By closely associating with Bangladeshis for several years, I came to appreciate that their outward poverty and lack of sophistication belies an inner richness that cannot be had by any amount of modern conveniences or university degrees.
As I came to understand the meaning and utility of the Bengali ways, I accepted and embraced them wholeheartedly. Considering that the Krishna consciousness movement is endeavoring to spread Gaudiya Vaishnavism throughout the world, I realized how fortunate I was to be one of the few Western devotees to learn about this culture firsthand.
I have visited many holy places and met many cultured, learned and saintly individuals, but as a people, Bangladeshi Hindus are closest to the original Vaishnava culture. Nor do they observe the etiquette with ritualistic drudgery, but with joy and verve. Bengalis take pleasure in receiving guests, offering obeisances to superiors, and so on. This type of pleasing behavior, combined with genuine affection for others, is at the heart of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. When this synthesis of proper conduct and natural love is focused on Krishna, it is the perfection of life.
Bengal is especially significant because Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, appeared there five hundred years ago and (naturally) spoke Bengali. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Vaishnavism is an intrinsic part of Bengali culture, and much of the literature of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas is in Bengali. Most of the great Gaudiya Vaishnava acharyas appeared in Bengal. The most recent and prominent acharya, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and my own spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, also appeared in a Bengali family.
Of course, not all Bangladeshis are highly advanced Vaishnavas. In fact, most of them are Muslims. Yet even the culture of the Muslims is strongly influenced by Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Although Vaishnavism in Bengal is much influenced by sahajiya-ism and other misleading doctrines, the basic Vaishnava culture is still intact. Therefore, although I appreciated whatever culture remains in other parts of the subcontinent, I concluded that Bangladesh is the best place to get direct experience of traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava culture.
Nevertheless, life in Bengal is difficult, and I eventually got to the
point where I felt I needed to move on. But in hindsight, I realize
how much I learned about life, people and culture during my years in Bengal.
Living in Bangladesh changed my outlook on life almost as deeply as my
initial coming to Krishna consciousness. It took me to a new phase
of awareness, and enabled me to see Krishna consciousness as more than
a philosophy, belief or even religion, but as a whole way of life.
Foreigners in the Villages
Wherever our Western devotees went in Bangladesh, the Hindus gave us a tremendous welcome. Bengalis are naturally open-hearted, extroverted and excitable people. When we first went to Bangladesh, the Hindus were influenced by propaganda that Hinduism is a dying religion and that the world is converting to Islam. So when they saw foreigners who had adopted the practice of Vaishnavism, complete with kirtana and tilaka, their joy overflowed in an ecstatic welcome.
Often a whole village would turn out to greet us with a kirtana procession and a profusion of flowers. They would smear sandalwood paste on our foreheads (a sign of respect to honored persons), decorate us with flower garlands, and throw flowers at our feet or over our heads. The ladies would reverberate ulu-ulu by moving the tongue against the inner lips to make a loud, undulating sound considered auspicious.
People expected that they would have the facility to touch our feet, and take the dust from our soles to touch to their heads and tongues. We sometimes found ourselves in the middle of a frenzy of people eager to get at us. When every man, woman and child in the village had touched our feet, they would ceremoniously wash our feet.
It was embarrassing because we were fresh out of maya ourselves.
We felt unworthy of such worshipful treatment, but there was no way to
avoid it. The simple village people were anxious not just to see
us, but to venerate us as their honored guests. They considered that,
having given up the opulence of the West to come to remind them of their
own culture and religion, we must be highly advanced souls. They
would tell us that their homes, villages and very lives had been purified
by our presence.
We held festivals in the evenings: long functions of kirtanas and lectures with a movie show and sometimes dramas. The local people would eagerly help to erect a stage with bamboo and wooden planks. We would show the people the Bhagavad-gita in English, holding it up for them to see, then Bhagavad-gita in German, in French, then in Spanish. We would go on showing the Gita in more than 30 languages, and the people would become more and more amazed. When we came to Arabic, a murmur of astonishment went up, because Bangladesh is dominated by Muslims. Many people would come up after the program to see the Arabic Gita at close quarters, just to verify that it really existed.
Every night we would show the movie of ISKCON activities around the world. When the shot came of frying puris in a large pan of ghee, the crowd would inevitably gasp and murmur. Ghee was a luxury, and they could not imagine having gallons of it to use for deep frying.
The programs would almost invariably start late, and often went on throughout the night. In Bangladesh there is no real concept of starting anything on time. When we asked what time the program should begin, we would get replies like, “Towards evening,” or, “After everyone has come”—as if it were obvious. In Bengal, it is time to begin something when everybody is there and settled comfortably. However much we tried for a fixed time, the program would begin only when everyone was present and ready. But after everyone had come, no one was in a hurry to leave. They quite expected to stay up all night if there was something religious and entertaining going on.
The people came to know about the programs by word of mouth. The news traveled from village to village, and people would gradually come after finishing their day’s work in the field or whatever they were doing. Sizable crowds would come—at least a few hundred people every night. Bigger functions that were arranged in advance would draw thousands of people, who would walk up to twenty kilometers to attend. For special occasions like these the women would dress themselves in their best saris and ornaments, and maybe a little make-up. (“Best saris” does not mean like those of the rich city people. Being villagers, they had to dress according to their means.)
The village dignitaries would get up one by one to express their appreciation of the Krishna consciousness movement spreading all over the world. Overriding our protests, they would ridiculously overpraise us. There was a student of Dhaka University who was traveling with me for some time who, even though I urged him not to, would introduce me as a double Ph. D. from Oxford University, even though I never went to any university. The local speakers would refer to us as paramahamsas, maha-bhagavatas, and other exaggerated epithets. They often liked to speak a little philosophy also, which was sometimes good, because most Hindus in Bangladesh have at least rudimentary knowledge of Gaudiya Vaishnava teachings—for instance that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu came to save the fallen souls of Kali yuga by spreading the holy name. But they would also include their own speculative ideas, which was not so good.
For many of the Bangladeshi Hindus, the appearance of these Western sadhus in their tranquil pastoral homes was the most amazing and memorable thing that had ever happened in their lives. No Westerners had ever come to their villages before, and now Westerners had come—as devotees of Krishna! Here we were, foreigners, chanting Hare Krishna—their religion; wearing dhotis—their dress; eating rice and dahl—their food; eating with our hands, as they did, and sitting on the floor with them.
In the morning, many people would be waiting to talk to us individually.
They were fascinated to see how we applied tilaka, performed arati, chanted
our rounds, and held class quoting from Sanskrit and Bengali scriptures.
We spoke to them in Bengali, exhorting them not to give up their traditions,
and assuring them that the Vaishnava way of life was better than the affluent
decadence of the West. Our hosts were deeply pleased, and had no
reservations about expressing it to us.
People who ate simple food and could barely afford more would stretch themselves beyond their means to cook a wonderful prasada feast and serve it to us with affection. They would bring out a tiny bottle of homemade ghee (that was all they had—they could not afford more) to sprinkle on the rice and add to the already delicious flavors.
I began to understand what Srila Prabhupada meant by “Bengali mother”.
Often the elderly women would encourage us to eat more and more—well beyond
capacity. “Gala parjonto,” they would say: “Up to the neck!”
They would keeping on filling our plates just to make sure there were plenty
of remnants left to distribute to the eager villagers.
Sometimes the enthusiasm of our hosts could be overbearing. Everybody wanted to feed us and have us visit their homes to bless them, and they all expected us to engage in personal conversation with them. They were all quite insistent, which put a strain on our lives (and digestion). But that was more than compensated by the natural pleasure and beautiful kirtanas with which people received us, and the joyful mood that prevailed wherever we went. We were getting a glimpse of what it would be like if the whole world were Krishna conscious.
East and West Bengal
Bengal has traditionally been divided into East and West. This is partly because East Bengal has always been somewhat isolated and inaccessible—being a land of many rivers, and previously of many jungles. In the Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, East Bengal is referred to as Banga, and West Bengal as Gauda. East Bengal is presently Bangladesh, and the western part of Bengal is the state of West Bengal in India.
Although East and West Bengal share the same language and culture, there has always been a difference between the two. This has been accentuated by the division of Bengal into West Bengal and Bangladesh, on the plea that the Muslim populace of East Bengal was sufficient to demand a separate state (although the Muslim population of East Bengal at the time of the partition of India (1947) was only slightly more than that of the Hindus). Despite constant migration from East Bengal to India since 1947, Bangladesh still has a sizable Hindu population—the highest of any nation after India.
Traditionally, Hindus in West Bengal have been more inclined towards the shakta cult, but in Bangladesh almost all Hindus follow Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement, the Vaishnava religion of worshipping Gaura-Nitai and Radha-Krishna with mridangas and karatalas.
West Bengal has traditionally been known for fine culture, and East
Bengal for folk culture. Although the capital of East Bengal, Dhaka,
was previously known for high culture, most of East Bengal was considered
rustic. In Chaitanya Bhagavata it is recorded that in His youth,
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would joke with His friends about the accent of the
East Bengalis, and would imitate it. Even today, West Bengalis tend
to look down on East Bengalis as being somewhat homespun and artless.
Bangladeshis are generally more respectful and hospitable in their dealings than their brothers in West Bengal. Upon crossing the border from West Bengal to Bangladesh, one can see that the people are more relaxed and friendly.
The original, highly developed Bengali culture has been much eroded in West Bengal. Industrialization and urbanization, as well as communism, with its atheistic and rebellious overtones, have done much to change the attitude of West Bengalis. Yet in Bangladesh the traditional culture is still the way of life. It has not yet been engulfed by the worldwide cultural takeover initiated by the industries and mass media of the West.
Climate and Seasons
The unique and difficult climate is intrinsic to the ethos of life in Bengal. The year is divided into six seasons, each of which is supposed to begin on the first day of a two-month period. Amazingly, the weather is so regular that it corresponds almost exactly to the lunar months
Principally for this reason, the Bengali lunar calendar is still the most widely used. Its months begin and end in the middle of the Gregorian calendar months. The Gregorian and Muslim calendars are also followed, but the Bengali calendar is most suitable for farmers. The lunar month is divided into two phases, according to the waxing and waning of the moon. By necessity, villagers are aware of these phases.
With each night that the moon waxes, the fields and pathways gradually become more and more bathed in soft radiance. On nights around the full moon, the fields are clearly illuminated with gentle radiance, and a country boat can be plied in a narrow canal without using a lamp. But with the waning of the moon, the deepness of night gradually thickens, revealing the greatness of God in the fantastic cosmography of stars. On windy monsoon nights, the moon appears to dance in and out of the clouds. But on new moon nights when the clouds are thick, the blackness becomes so dense that it can be difficult to see even one’s own hand held before one’s face.
Each of the seasons has its own mood. There is a sense of achievement in just having survived the summer and rains, whereas the pleasantness of winter tends to breed a feeling of contentment.
The seasons change quickly. One day it is spring, with hot days and pleasantly cool nights, and the next it is summer, with intensely hot days and uncomfortably hot nights. The rains start in the middle of June and go on for four months, so it is a relief when they stop. Then the heat returns, combined with enervating humidity, but the country looks extraordinarily beautiful and green.
The end of the rainy season and just after it is called Sharat (autumn), which goes on until about the middle of October. After that comes Hemanta (the dewy season), which extends from mid-October to mid-December. The climate is pleasant, with crisp and cool nights, and warm days (about 30 Celsius). Fruits and vegetables flourish. There is mist in the morning and occasional light rain. There can also be cyclones.
Then comes winter, which is pleasantly cool in the day and cold at night. It is not Siberian cold, but still, people go to sleep soon after dark in the winter, wrapped up against the chill.
By mid-February the days start to get hot again, and there is a sense of passively waiting for the real heat to come. By that time there hasn’t been much rain for several months, so the land becomes dry and dusty. As spring progresses it gets hotter and hotter, and when the summer comes in mid-April it is almost too hot to do anything.
At midday in the summer everything stops. In the towns, the shops
are closed and the streets empty. Everyone goes indoors, closes the
shutters to keep the hot air out, and sleeps until the worst of the heat
is over. Even the animals try to find a shady spot near some water
and just relax, waiting for the heat to recede. Bees come out of
their nests and sit for hours in the shade, fanning themselves with their
wings. Birds sit in trees—not singing, just surviving. Not
a sound is heard, for there is not even wind to rustle the leaves.
Only towards late afternoon does the temperature slightly reduce and things
come to life again.
Although the nights are cooler, it is still sometimes too hot to sleep. In the villages, if there is no all-night drama or kirtana function, people just lie around on mats outside, wafting themselves with hand fans, chatting and waiting until the late night, when it gets cool enough to snooze. Sometimes we would submerge ourselves in a river or pond to cool off at night. Taking bath in the day didn’t help much, because immediately after drying off, the body would again become wet with sweat.
Occasional slight relief from the heat comes in the form of Boishaki jhar, the storm after a long hot summer day. The unrelenting heat is suddenly broken by a furious wind, shortly followed by heavy rain. In ten minutes the storm is over, but it can be intense. Banana trees get blown down, and anything lying around outside gets blown away.
One afternoon in Boishak I was sitting in the shade in the courtyard of a family home. There was a slight, deep rumble of thunder in the distance. The eldest man of the house said, “Bolche ami aschi,” which means, “He says, ‘I am coming’.” Immediately all the members of the household scrambled to put everything away. There were bed sheets and quilts out in the sun for airing, and dahl boris that were being dried. Everything was completely still and the sky was brilliant, uninterrupted blue. But, “He says, ‘I am coming’,” and within 15 minutes the heavens were black, shaking with angry thunder and volleying rain and lightning.
But after Boishak comes one more month of summer with not even temporary relief from the heat. As soon as the sun rises, it is burning. When there is no rain and no scope for deep tube well irrigation, drinking water becomes scarce, leading to diseases of humans and animals. Worse is if the crops fail. If, as often happens, drought is followed by floods, the suffering is compounded.
Once I was invited to go on a harinama party around a village.
It had been a particularly long and hot summer, the rain was overdue, and
all living entities were suffering. We spent the whole morning chanting
from house to house, accompanied by a group of children. At each
home the residents would throw a precious bucket of water in the courtyard
and the youngsters would roll in the slippery mud thus created. I
thought this was rather strange (but after all there were so many strange
things going on). Years later I learned that this type of harinama
procession is a tradition to invoke rain.
As summer wears on, all creation awaits the thick, dark monsoon clouds that convert blinding midday into twilight. Then the storms come, interspersing semi-darkness with lightning that momentarily, surrealistically, illuminates everything. The clouds growl and roar, the first few drops of rain splatter down, and are quickly followed by forceful torrents. The monsoon always begins spectacularly—never merely drizzling—and the world rejoices.
At the onset of the rains, the dried out earth suddenly becomes green again. The cows are happy to enjoy the fresh new grass that springs up everywhere. Frogs also become inspired in the monsoon. At night seemingly thousands of them make a cacophony of croaking so loud that it is difficult to sleep.
But the rains are not welcome for long, for they get to be even more trying than the summer. Sometimes it pours almost constantly, with few intermissions, for days on end. Everything gets sticky and wet. Clothes cannot be dried properly and homes reek of rotting wet cloth. The earth, that was baked hard and cracked, becomes dangerously slippery in some places and turns into thick sloughs of clinging mud in others. Sometimes the mud is so thick that if you put your foot in, it is difficult to pull it out.
The monsoon is a period of ill health. The densely humid atmosphere,
regular exposure to rain, and frequent change of temperature and humidity
(occasioned by the stopping and starting of rain) cause digestive and
stomach disorders. Contaminated drinking water is often a problem,
as it is impossible to keep mud and sewage from mixing in the rivers and
ponds. The mosquito population vastly increases. They constantly
bite and harass, and sometimes form buzzing clouds. In some areas
malaria becomes prevalent. Skin rashes, widespread in the summer,
are universal in the monsoon. The combination of heat, humidity and
perspiration assure that everyone is itching. Young children are
especially prone to becoming covered with sores. All in all, it is
a greatly trying season. Still, the people tolerate it. What
else can they do?
And the monsoon does have its appeal. There is a charm in sitting indoors, looking out at a storm. There are even traditional musical ragas that specifically complement the atmosphere of the rains.
Many severe storms brew in the Bay of Bengal, and Bangladesh, West Bengal and Orissa get the worst of most of them. Bangladesh in particular has always been heavily hit. Cyclones can come at any time of the year, but they mostly occur in the rainy season. For tens of thousands of people to die is not unusual. During the past two hundred years there has been an average of more than one severe cyclone every year, several of which have killed hundreds of thousands of people and innumerable domestic animals, and devastated vast areas of crops, as well as countless houses and buildings.
Rivers and Floods
Most of Bangladesh lies in the delta of the Ganga (Ganges), where that mighty current splits into innumerable rivers and sub-streams. Here, the Ganga is known as Padma, and is joined by the Brahmaputra and several other zealous rivers that force their way through the flat terrain towards the Bay of Bengal. There are numerous ferries where the roads and rivers intersect, although gradually more bridges are being built. The rivers themselves serve as roads, as there are almost as many miles of navigable waterways as there are of motorable roads. People go on three, five, 12 or even 24-hour journeys by launches and steamers When they get to a main ferry ghat, they may get a smaller boat to their village, or walk.
Bangladesh is quite unlike dry parts of the subcontinent, such as Rajasthan. Although parts of Bengal become arid and dusty in the hot season, most of the country is lush and green. Almost all the land is barely above sea level and is exceedingly flat. In the rainy season, all the great rivers swell up and rush down from the Himalayas through north and northeast India and through Bangladesh on their way to the sea. This onslaught, as well as the profuse rainfall in Bangladesh itself, ensures that every year most of the country is seriously flooded, and almost all of it is at least partially flooded.
When flying over Bangladesh in the rainy season, the whole country appears like a huge lake, with clumps of trees and villages sticking out here and there. Villages are built on whatever high land is available. If there is no high ground in a given locality, the villagers come together to raise up some earth, and construct houses there. A less common alternative is to build houses of bamboo or wood on bamboo platforms. But such flimsy structures cannot long withstand strong currents. Mud embankments are also erected along the rivers to defend villages, towns, and fields. Although this affords some protection, no human effort can control the fury of nature. When rivers in spate break their banks, huge areas of crops and houses and sometimes even larger towns can be devastated.
Once in the monsoon I was traveling in the Sylhet district of northeast Bangladesh. Sylhet has the most extreme climate in Bangladesh: hottest in the summer, coldest in the winter, wettest in the rains. We were going by boat to a town called Sachna. Boat was the only way to go: the dirt track road was an impassable quagmire. The town stood like an island in the ocean, surrounded by inundated fields as far as the eye could see. Large waves washed into the streets at the edge of town, as if to devour it. Tremendous rain was still falling. That day we did kirtana, sitting in the temple before rustic-looking Deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra. We had brought a big trunk full of books, somehow or other keeping them dry in spite of the incessant downpour. One by one people came, braving the rain, to see the sadhus who had come in the deluge. By the end of the day we had sold all the books.
In the rainy season new rivulets spring up. Many temporary rivers and previously small rivers become big enough for regular boat services, while many roads turn into muddy bogs or become flooded over. Seasonal rivers can be traversed by rowboat if they are too small for motor boats. Or if the rivers are too narrow to even use oars, boats may be propelled by a bamboo stick. The boatman stands at the back, thrusts the bamboo in the shallow water and pushes on the ground at the bottom of the rivulet, and in this way the boat goes forward.
Once a journey on one of these tiny new monsoon rivers took myself and
my companions several kilometers through a jungle. We were sheltered
from the scorching sun by a dim tunnel of foliage, interspersed with brilliant
shafts of light. The boatman negotiated the twists and turns of the
brook as the rest of us pushed aside the leaves and branches of overhanging
Traveling by boat can be a pretty scene, especially just after the rains, when the green is intense, the sky is clear and the high rivers afford a good view of the rich green panorama. On wide rivers, many types of vessels can be seen: tiny country boats, larger boats with tattered but pretty sails, small motor launches and occasionally big steamers.
Small country boats often have an inverted U-shaped cane covering, open at both ends, to protect passengers from sun and rain. When the boatman’s work is finished, he can also take advantage of its shelter.
Less fortunate are those who have to pull sailboats upstream in the
absence of wind. Strong, sinewy men on the shore path grasp long
ropes attached to the boats. Bending forward under the cruel sun,
their bodies blackened and wet with perspiration, their eyes fixed on the
path ahead and their breathing hard and deep, they tortuously haul the
As Bengal is a land of many people and limited resources, overcrowding and overuse of facilities are normal. Like buses and trucks on the land, boats—both passenger and freight—are usually overloaded. Sometimes the load is bigger than the vessel itself, so that the boat, pressed deep into the water, can hardly be seen underneath it. This is especially so with cargoes of jute fibers, huge bundles of which are somehow or other fastened onto boats much smaller than them. Not surprisingly, overloading often leads to disasters. In the rainy season hardly a day goes by without loss of life on the waters. It is not uncommon for 100 or 200 people to die in such accidents.
Once I was on a river journey during the rainy season. When I boarded the launch, it had looked solid, but in the middle of a wide, choppy river, under fierce bombardment by rain, it seemed tiny and frail. As the storm intensified, the crew seemed to be losing control. The captain negotiated the boat to the edge of the river, where the current was less strong, and put down the anchor. I was sitting under the deck where it was a little drier (although in that kind of storm there is nowhere that the rain doesn’t get in.) One gentleman with a typical Muslim beard turned to his companion and with sparkling eyes said , “Just see Allah’s maya.” That was a revelation for me: how a person from another, apparently less developed religious tradition, had unquestioning, axiomatic belief in God, and how he saw His hand in everything.
On another occasion, when we were traveling in the rainy season in Sylhet district, we were taking a flimsy country boat upstream in a strong current. The current was getting stronger and the rain was coming down increasingly harder. Despite his struggle, the boatman eventually couldn’t go any further, and when we saw a dead body coming the other way we knew it was time to stop.
We pulled in at the nearest village. Luckily it was a Hindu village (although I am sure Muslims would also have been hospitable to us). It was just a patch of high ground with a few houses on it, and as the water level rose, the land was slowly diminishing. We went to sleep not knowing if we would be washed away during the night. Fortunately, the rain had stopped by morning. The water gradually receded and we continued on our journey.
Bangladesh means village life. Village life is suitable for cultivating the mode of goodness (sattva guna). It is preferable to life in the cities, which, for all their comforts, are dominated by lower modes. Bangladesh is by far the world’s most densely populated country —120 million people in an area little more than half the size of Britain—yet the great majority live in villages. That’s one reason why the original culture has not broken down, because in the villages people have little access to the modern way of life.
Village life in Bengal is still in many ways unchanged since time immemorial. Most of the roads are dirt tracks. Usually people live many miles from the nearest paved roads, and are used to walking or cycling long distances. The air is pure. There are not many factory-produced goods. The houses are mostly made of mud with grass thatch. Coconut, palm, banana and betel nut trees abound. The blue sky, broad rivers, and the water traffic lifestyle pervade the atmosphere. It’s easy to imagine that Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtana party might emerge from behind the trees.
When I was there, most villages did not have electricity. Even in those with electric lines, the power would hardly come for an hour or two a day, and then at low voltage. So although the Bangladeshis cannot avail of most of the conveniences offered by modern technology, they are protected from much of its degrading influence.
The claws of the mass media have yet to penetrate the Bangladeshi villages. Most people are not close enough to a cinema to go to one, and the films shown in Bangladesh are probably not as degraded as the gross, sex-and-violence ridden movies which have polluted the minds of people in India. This is because of the influence of Islam, which, for all the denigration against it, exerts beneficial restraints.
Many of the villages are so remote that people don’t know much of what is happening beyond them. Local goings-on and gossip are the all-important news. Listening to relatively innocuous Bengali programs on battery-run transistor radios is common, and people get to hear of the affairs of mighty nations. But a dispute over a goat straying into a neighbor’s field would be more important to the villagers.
One writer describes that during the celebrations following India’s
independence, an elderly villager was accosted for working in his fields
instead of observing the day of independence.
“Why aren’t you celebrating?” he was asked.
“Celebrating what?” came the reply.
“Today the British are being driven out!”
“The who?” the old man asked. He had never heard of the British.
I would catch up on world news after returning to Dhaka from the villages. Summit meetings, a dollar crisis, missile test protests, German election, soccer violence—it seemed unreal, like fragments of a dream once vivid but now almost forgotten, voices from a world so far away it didn’t matter.
Being so isolated from modern technological society, Bangladeshi village life is in almost total contrast to that of the industrialized West. The villagers don’t know what it means to have attached bathrooms, motorcars and other innumerable “necessities” of modern civilization. It seems that as long as no one tells them they need all these things, they are quite happy to live without them. They have never heard of washing machines, toilet paper, sponges for washing plates, air fresheners, canned or frozen food, or knives and forks.
Once some young village boys, being attracted by our kirtana, came back with us to the rented house which we had made into an ashram in Dhaka. The house had all modern amenities (as much as can be expected in Bangladesh) such as doors with handles, municipal water from taps, electric lights, and so on. The boys opened and closed the doors again and again, fascinated to see the latch system, and repeatedly turned the lights on and off. They would also turn on the tap and then walk away leaving running. They must have thought it was like a river that flows automatically.
Another time I sent a young new bhakta to make a photocopy. He hadn’t the slightest idea what a photocopy was. When I tried to explain it to him, he couldn’t even begin to comprehend it. City slickers may consider that backward, but townsfolk are backward in terms of village culture. They don’t have the slightest idea of how to plow a field or husk rice, how to recognize different crops, or what are the names of the different trees, insects and birds. People in Bangladesh would talk to us about different rice crops as if we knew all about them. But we had no idea about the different kinds and qualities of rice or when they should be planted, or about the health and hygiene of cattle. The village people might not be able to jive their way through the rat race in the concrete jungle. But then our street wise city slickers also have no idea of how to behave in the subtle relationships of village life.
An Australian devotee who was traveling with me for a short time in Bangladesh marveled at how I, a Westerner, was living such an austere life—staying in the villages where there are no proper roads or electric supply, taking bath at the tube well, and so on. But I didn’t find it particularly austere. It’s no big thing to walk over to a tube well, pump the water into a bucket and throw it over yourself in the morning. And what’s the difference between sleeping in a palatial building in a big city or in a mud hut in a village? There are millions of people living like this, thinking nothing of it, so why can’t we also? Even if there is austerity, it’s fun. It’s a great adventure for a young man to leave the stereotyped West to wander and preach in distant lands.
The so-called austerity of life in the villages is much a matter of perception. The lack of modern conveniences is more than made up by the absence of the miseries that go with them. At least the air is safe to breathe. Pollution is minimal and life is eco-friendly—although few villagers are aware of such a concept.
Many people eat from leaf plates and clay cups, which are used once then thrown away, and naturally become re-absorbed into the ecosystem. Cooking pots and reusable plates are washed with earth and grass or coconut husk. Using earth or sand is a simple, natural, effective and costless way to remove grease and stains, and to shine metal utensils. There is no need of a massive industry to make washing liquids and pollute the environment. Water comes from rivers, lakes, ponds or wells. Eating by hand obviates the need for knives and forks.
The terrible culture of waste—yet another aberration of modern society—simply does not exist in the Bengali villages. Everything is used. For instance, old clothes are not thrown away, but ripped and used as rags or tampons, or to make the patchwork quilts found in every poor man’s home.
The village people use hardly any factory-produced items. They know how to utilize nature’s resources to produce all requirements for simple living. For instance, they use every part of the coconut tree. Brushes are made from the stiff stems of coconut leaves. Coconut husks, as well as jute, are made into string. Half coconut shells with a wooden handle attached to them can be used as ladles. The flesh of the coconut is a most nutritious food that adds unique flavor and nourishment to innumerable sweet and salty preparations. Oil extracted from the pulp is rubbed on the hair to add sheen and to cool the scalp.
Several dozen varieties of banana are cultivated in Bangladesh. Some grow no more than three centimeters long. Some are short, fat, and full of seeds. Others are best cut before they ripen, to be cooked as a vegetable that is excellent for the stomach and the liver. Apart from the fruit, the banana tree also supplies other useful products. Banana leaves are considered the most high class type of plate. Hot food put on a banana leaf causes a substance to emerge that is helpful for digestion. (Let the atheist explain that!) Banana trees can be made into paper. The inside of the tree stem makes a tasty and nutritious vegetable preparation, and the flowers of certain varieties of banana tree make an incomparably delicious curry.
Bamboo is also part of life in Bengal. Multifarious varieties grow everywhere, especially in the southern coastal areas. Young bamboo is bent and made into simple furniture, baskets (such as the type carried one on each side of the shoulder), and for making big farmers’ hats to shelter from sun and rain. Older bamboo, rigid and strong, is used to make fences and temporary structures, as scaffolding, and for making bridges over the many rivulets of Bangladesh. Hand fans, used to dispel the summer heat, are also made from bamboo.
Nowadays few people in Bangladesh make clothes at home. But commercial production of cloth by handloom is still a major home industry in West Bengal. Most villages still have a metalsmith who makes things like buckets and cooking pots, although mass-produced items from factories are gradually taking over.
Another appealing aspect of simple village life is that they do many things out of doors, rather than being cramped up inside all day. Bathing, washing clothes, answering the call of nature, sitting and talking to people or quietly reading—all functions executed indoors in most places—are often done outdoors in the Bengali villages. Even eating often takes place on the verandah or courtyard of a house. Those accustomed to this sweet simplicity can appreciate why the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in His ultimate feature, prefers village life to royal opulence.
Life starts early in the village. Most people are up by sunset or before. In the pre-dawn we would hear the lilting, formal call from a local mosque, recited in Arabic, to call the faithful to prayer. Sometimes this would be followed by a less formal exhortation in Bengali: “Come on, get up! Praying is more important than sleep!” For someone to sleep up to 10 a.m. would certainly be considered strange (although in the cities, TV is changing the way people live).
Upon rising, the first duty for the villagers is to tend the call of nature. They are regulated to evacuate just after rising. In towns, latrines (mostly “squat” type) are common. In the villages, people either go out into a field or to a village latrine. The latter are often simply holes in the ground without drainage. The stench of heat-fermented stool and urine attracts millions of maggots and flies.
After evacuating, taking bath is compulsory. The villagers either go to a tube well or an open well, draw a bucket of water and throw it over themselves with a lota, or take bath in a river or pond. By Krishna’s arrangement, early in the morning in winter, well water (either from a tube well or an open well) is warm, as if heated. However, on a torrid summer day, water from the same well is cool. This effect is more pronounced with deeper wells. When we would arrive at a village in the midday heat after an arduous journey, someone would vigorously pump the tube well with bucket after bucket of cool water, which we would throw over our heads. There is nothing as invigorating and refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
Man-made ponds (called pukurs) are an important part of life in Bengal. Almost all villages have at least one pukur, and some have several. Many well-off families have their own. Pukurs are mostly square. They are used for taking bath and washing clothes and cooking utensils, and some are reserved exclusively for drinking water. At the edge of the pukurs are bathing ghats with steps of mud, or, preferably, stone or brick. The best pukurs are large and deep and therefore do not dry up in the summer. They also remain relatively clean even if many people bathe in them. Our devotees would often enjoy swimming and cavorting with the village boys in the water of a deep, cool pukur.
Men and women bathe at separate pukurs, or at least at different times or at different ghats at the same pukur. While bathing the men wear lungis or long gamshas. The women bathe wearing saris.
By mid-morning women cluster at the ghat at the edge of the pukur or river. Thwack, thwack, reverberates as they wash clothes by hitting them against large stones at the water’s edge. The women often wash their pots in the pukur and collect water for cooking at the same time.
Down at the pukur just after sunrise men cheerfully chat with each other, chewing on neem twigs and rubbing mustard oil on their bodies before their daily bath. They also slip it up their noses to help clear out mucus. Mustard oil has heating potency that helps keep the body warm in the winter. It also has vitamins and minerals that enter the body through the skin and help prevent it from drying up in the winter.
Sunset in Hindu homes is heralded by a sudden banging of gongs, blowing of conches, and ulu-ulu sounds by the ladies. These auspicious vibrations counteract the ominous effects of the hours of darkness, when ghosts and malevolent spirits become active. The malignant influence of the hour is further offset by offering of arati (ceremonial worship) to family deities, thus making everything propitious.
Sundown is also time to light dhuna, a frankincense mixture burned with coconut husks in a clay or brass chalice. It produces a smoke that is purifying and wards off subtle bad influences. The fragrant smoke also keeps at bay the teems of mosquitoes who become active at that hour.
Another duty at twilight is lighting lamps. These are either crude contraptions made from used tin cans, or the slightly sophisticated “hurricane” lamps. Even in homes where there is electricity, lamps are usually lit and kept burning on low wick, because the current often cuts out. After everyone goes to sleep for the night, one or two lamps are kept burning on low wick, so as to be easily found when rising early before dawn.
Social Structure and Dealings
Typical Bengal scenery is flat fields interspersed with clumps of trees on higher land, especially coconut, betel and palm. Yet there are people everywhere. Under every clump of trees are several huts, each giving shelter to a household of many members. Sometimes we would stop our van in what appeared to be a remote spot in the middle of empty fields, only to find ourselves surrounded within a few minutes by crowds of villagers, curious to see the “sahib” who had suddenly appeared in their midst.
There is little privacy in Bangladesh. Everybody’s business is everybody else’s business. The simple village folk have no qualms in standing together in a group and just staring and staring, on and on, being totally fascinated by everything a foreign visitor does. Many of the foreign devotees, including myself, would get quite unnerved by this. Sometimes I felt like an animal in a zoo. Eventually I got used to it.
Even after bathing we would have to change in crowded rooms, with women also present. For most families there is no question of having private rooms. There is simply not enough space. So people learn how to dress and change in the presence of the opposite sex, while keeping their bodies always covered with cloth in the process.
Loneliness is unheard of in Bengal—not because people get lost in the crowd, but because they know how to live as people. Bengalis like nothing better than to get together in a group and go on talking and talking, (although their discussions are often of little practical value). Boredom is also unknown. Bengalis like to be together and to do things together. Everyone gets involved and everyone has their part to play. It is a different kind of pleasure to that derived from an endless variety of external stimuli, as offered by modern society.
Development-minded Westerners often become frustrated at the apparent foolishness of the Bangladeshi, who appears to lack the common sense to do what is best for his own progress. Bangladeshi culture does not promote individual dynamism, competitiveness or the type of efficiency required for technological advancement. But the Bangladeshi, although not uninterested in economic development, is more concerned to preserve the indigenous group culture that fosters sharing and cooperativeness and is suited to the situation.
I was once in a village that had been recently been devastated by a cyclone. All the people cheerfully helped each other rebuild houses out of mud. That’s how village life works. The people are obliged to cooperate throughout the year, and happily help each other with harvesting, irrigating the fields, organizing festivals, or building a wall against the river when the water level is rising.
Necessity also dictates maintaining good relationships with neighbors. Most people are not economically well off, so those who have more are expected to help those who have less. It is a culture of sharing and responsibility to others. Despite the ill-feeling sown by politicians, even today in many villages Hindus and Muslims live together cordially as brothers (though it is a cordiality mixed with wariness).
Bengalis feel close to each other, especially to the members of their own group. They are quick to make new acquaintances and ask each other questions. At first I found their habit of asking questions all the time to be quite annoying. “How many brothers and sisters do you have? Where do you get your money from?” In the West that would be considered an invasion of privacy. But in Indian culture, asking such questions shows respect. The interest they take in you shows that they consider you important.
Western culture romanticizes the rugged individual, who struggles alone in a harsh world. Bangladeshis emphasize dependence on others and a sense of group identity . They usually say “our house” or “our country” rather than “my house” or “my country.” Bangladeshis do not like to be judged as individuals, but as members of the group they are part of.
The first and most important group a Bangladeshi identifies with is his family. Then there are other groups, such as caste and village. To do something against an individual Bengali is to arouse the ire of the group, because the individual stands for the group and must be upheld by the group. Group solidarity assures protection of a member if he is attacked in any way. A whole group (e.g. a whole village) may seek revenge for the sake of an individual.
The group gives support to its members when they are in difficulty, whether moral, social, or economic. In return, members have obligations to the group. Individuals maintain their role in a group by conformity. The pressure to stay in fellowship with the group is extremely strong. In this way, the group regulates the behavior of its members, and keeps them within the bounds of acceptable behavior.
What one person does reflects on the group. A wrong action brings shame on the group; success brings honor to the group. If someone is behaving improperly, the elders of the family or the village will tell them, “You will give your family (or village) a bad name.” That is considered a compelling reason for a person to rectify his behavior.
Bengalis are anxious to maintain their honor and respectability. They uphold their status in society by maintaining relationships with other people, especially superiors. They also try to look as neat as possible and keep their clothes clean, even if they don’t have many clothes, or very nice clothes.
Bengalis, especially in East Bengal, place a lot of importance on etiquette. If a Bengali says that a person’s behavior is good, it is an expression of high appreciation. On the other hand, to say that a person doesn’t know how to behave shows strong disapproval. For example, a person becomes much scorned (behind his back) if he has money or position and uses that advantage to behave neglectfully or disdainfully towards others.
In every culture, some activities are considered repugnant and reprehensible. It can be difficult when a person goes to a foreign land that has different standards to those of his native culture. For instance, in Bengal, men sometimes walk together holding hands as an expression of friendship. In the West this would be considered to indicate a homosexual relationship, which was at least previously widely thought of as disgusting. But no such connotation is there in Bengal.
Similarly, if a Bengali feels shocked or shamed, for instance upon being rebuked by a senior, he may stick his tongue out and hold it tightly between his teeth as an expression of remorse. But in British culture, sticking the tongue out is considered rude. I got in trouble a few times for making the “thumbs up” sign. In the West this is considered a friendly, positive affirmation, but in Indian culture, it is a vulgar gesture.
Coming from the land of mlecchas, I did not easily adjust to the standard of behavior in Bangladesh. Many times people (usually older than me) would tell me if I was doing something wrong, which (being unfamiliar with the culture) I would often do. Because of egotism, it was not easy for me to learn the finer points of the culture. It was hard to take instruction from people who probably weren’t following some of the more important regulations of spiritual life.
Once when selling Srila Prabhupada’s books I gave a man change with the left hand. In front of a crowd of people, he took it out of my hand, put the money in my right hand, and then made me give the money to him with my right hand. It was embarrassing, but instructive.
A newcomer to Bengali culture has to learn many fine points and taboos. For instance, it is considered rude to sit with one’s foot pointing at someone else. When sitting on a chair, the feet should be tucked underneath in so that the toes do not point out. It is considered rude to point at someone with the index finger. The Western practice of signaling someone to come by waggling the finger up and down is also looked upon as rude. The Bengali system is to hold the hand out with the palm down, making a gentle indicatory movement. Also, in Indian culture, shaking the head from side to side is a sign of affirmation equivalent to saying “Yes”. But in Britain or America, it indicates, “No”.
Even drinking from a glass held in the left hand is incorrect, because the left hand is used only for inauspicious and unclean activities such as washing the backside, whereas the right hand should be used for everything clean and auspicious. It is an insult to give or receive anything with the left hand.
Personal dealings among Bengalis tend to be subtle. Although Bengalis are known as emotional, they don’t always “wear their hearts on their sleeves,” and a Western newcomer has to learn the subtle nuances implied in gestures, glances, tone of voice and indirect use of language. Straightforwardness and frankness, considered axiomatically desirable by the Anglo-Saxon, are seen as brashness and ill breeding by the Bengali.
Bengali culture is especially delicate in the matter of misunderstandings and chastisement. Bengalis may be forthright with their family and close friends, but are roundabout in their dealings with others, except when angry or quarreling. Potentially schismatic issues are handled indirectly, with every effort to avoid causing shame, anger, discord, or an unnecessary rift in the relationship. This makes sense in a village culture where people have to continue living and cooperating together.
If one Bangladeshi must correct another, he does so in private in a euphemistic and reassuring manner. It is important to keep others satisfied, even if there is cause for disagreement. Rebukes are cushioned with tact, showing great concern over the rebuked party’s family welfare. “Please don’t mind” (kichhu mane korben na) is an important phrase to precede a topic that will not be palatable to the hearer.
The person who is correcting will ask the other person questions about personal matters to ease over the harshness of the rebuff, in order to let him know he is still accepted and treated on the same basis as before. He will speak in a sweet tone of voice, with words designed to make the other person feel good, even though what he has to say is not what the other person wants to hear.
Bengalis are typically Oriental in that they sit and chat about other
subjects before they begin to talk about the matter on their minds.
Even then they may talk around the point instead of addressing it openly.
If there is some feeling of dissatisfaction between one man in the group
and another person, they may express it by subtle hints. If the errant
person doesn’t respond, then rather than speaking to him directly, the
dissatisfied one may speak to a senior person who is respected by them
both, and ask him to speak to the other person. When a senior chastises
a junior he may tell him, “What you are doing is not proper,” in a sweet
voice that indicates that he is not rejected, but is being warned to improve
If someone comes to apologize for something he has said or done improperly, the correct etiquette for the person to whom he apologizes is to say, “No, no. You didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t think anything bad of you,” even though they both know that he was indeed wrong.
Although the Bengali culture is based on respect for others and behaving in such a way that others do not get offended, not everybody is perfect, and even within the culture they can find out ways to inflict their bad feelings on others. Indeed, social boundaries are all too often transgressed, leading to the loud arguments that are common in Bengal. Arguments between individuals inevitably attract a crowd and become group affairs.
“Senior” means the father, mother, grandfather, father and mother’s relatives, or other people of that age group. The older brother is respected almost on the level of the father. Teachers are also much respected. Juniors are not allowed to argue with seniors. Even if a junior has a point of contention, generally he will not submit it. If a person is at all to submit a complaint to a senior, he must do so most respectfully, and if the senior is adamant, the junior simply has to accept. If an elder calls a junior, the junior will reply “Ajne,” meaning “I am at your order.”
Whenever I would enter a room where juniors, such as disciples of godbrothers, were sitting or lying down, they would immediately stand up as a sign of respect. They would not remain sitting when a senior was standing. When I visited the residence of the head of the Sanskrit department of Dhaka University, I would see his students touch his feet on entering, upon which he would touch their head in return.
Affectionate feelings are as much part of Bengali life as respect. Men have no qualms about saying that they love another man or that another man loves them: “amake bhalo bashe”. When friends and relatives meet, they feelingly embrace each other three times. Each person’s head goes first over the other’s left shoulder, then again they embrace with their heads over the right shoulder, and then again back to the left shoulder. This is, of course, between two men or between two women—men and women never embrace each other in public, even if they are husband and wife or mother and son (unless the son is very young, in which case he will be held in his mother’s arms much of the time).
The typical Bengali family is a joint family. Perhaps five brothers will live together with their wives and children. They treat the children of their brothers practically the same as their own, with all affection. The elders have many children to be affectionate to, and children grow up receiving love and care from many.
In Bengal a male is not considered a man until he is at least 30 years old. Until then, he is referred to and treated as a boy. Even if he is married with children, he still has little independence.
Men and women have distinctly dissimilar roles in Bangladeshi society. Their dress, disposition, social position, and duties are clearly delineated and clearly different. Women are socially subordinate to men, yet are honored and cared for.
The role of women in Bengal (or in any traditional culture) is as wives and mothers—not sex symbols trying to attract every male who comes within their vision. Women throughout the subcontinent have not inherited the madness of trying to be man-like. The women of Bangladesh, despite working hard and having little financial resources, still maintain their natural feminine traits of dressing themselves attractively as women. Colorful saris, bangles, jewelry, sindhura (a natural red pigment applied to the hair parting of married woman), bindi (the same tincture applied as a dot in the center of the forehead) and alta (a red dye applied to the soles of the feet) are universally adopted as auspicious decorations for respectable Hindu women.
The women’s pleasure is in serving their family members and guests.
They are especially enthusiastic for social and religious occasions.
They delight in making preparations for festivals, and dressing themselves
up and meeting their village friends.
First thing in the morning, the women will be up and sweeping the whole house and courtyard. Next, they wash the floor with a mixture of cow dung and water. Then they have many other chores—milking the cows, cooking, feeding the family, threshing grains, washing pots and so on. Along with these different duties, they still have to take care of the children 24 hours a day. Yet they do not feel overly strained. The work load is shared among the many women, so it doesn’t seem much of a burden at all.
And Bengali women could anyway never consider children a burden. Rather, it is their happiness to care for and bring up children. Bengali women are profusely affectionate towards children, especially their sons. Most Bengali mothers have several sons, but if they have only one, then all their attachment focuses on him and he becomes completely bound by it. Among several sons, the youngest is usually the object of special motherly tenderness. Even after growing up, people feel deeply for their mothers. Every village man working in the city has a photo of his mother in his wallet.
In the villages women would come in groups to see me (a woman would not come by herself). Invariably they would ask about my family and home, for these are the most important concerns for Bengalis, especially the women. When they heard that I was an only son, they could not understand how I had left my mother and had not even seen her for many years. They grieved for the separation they were sure my mother must be feeling.
They did not realize that in modern Western society feelings of affection are so reduced that mothers often throw their sons out of their homes: “You have been here long enough. Get out.” So I would truthfully tell the ladies that although I had left one mother behind, I had found so many more in Bangladesh. Their hearts would melt on hearing that, and they would affectionately accept me as a son.
In Dhaka I once saw a family group waiting on the side of the road. They were mostly women, with several children and one or two men. They had obviously just come from the village, as they appeared to be confused and frightened by the traffic and bustle of the city. The children were milling around, and one of them strayed into the road. Seeing this, one of the older women ran out, grabbed the small child and brought him back to the group, clutching him to tightly her breast. Then she feelingly chastised a younger woman who had been closest to the child but hadn’t seen him drift off: “How could you let him wander out into the street like that?”
These motherly and domestic instincts are developed almost from the cradle. From the age of four or five girls start to help with bringing water, cooking, serving meals and looking after the younger children. Unlike their counterparts in the West who play with dolls, girls in Bangladeshi villages carry around and care for real babies—their own younger siblings or the children of an aunt or neighbor. A five year old girl may hold in her arms a baby almost as big as her. Thus from the beginning of life children grow up having many mothers, not just one. Even after an older sister is married and her younger relations grown up, she still retains maternal feelings towards them. No wonder Bengalis revere their older sisters.
Children are corrected by verbal chastisement and social pressure.
I have never seen or even heard of Bengali children being slapped or beaten.
Nor do they cry very much. Bengalis grow up rather undisciplined,
but self-confident and unabashed.
Children are taught what is unacceptable behavior by the expression chi-chi (“for shame!”). Training in the many rules of Bengali culture starts from an early age. A tiny child is warned: “Don’t put your feet on anyone or on a holy object”; “Don’t give things to people with the left hand”; “Don’t call an older person by his given name or use the familiar form of speech with him”; “Don’t step over the rope that tethers a cow”. As a child grows older he learns that there are severe sanctions against taboos like answering back to an elder and staring at a person while talking to him.
I remember seeing women bringing tiny babies to our ashram. The mothers would bow the babies’ heads down to the floor in front of the Deity and put charanamrita in their mouths. Even though the children could not know what was happening to them, their mothers were anxious that they get the benefit of performing pious activities. They would also bow down their babies’ heads at our feet, and tell their younger children, “Pranama koro,” upon which the children would immediately prostrate before us. The older children were already trained, and automatically offered obeisances without having to be told.
The mothers’ love for their children is paralleled by that for their husbands. Young girls imbibe the qualities considered most important for women: chastity, submission, and faithfulness to the husband.
I was once in a Bengali home when an elderly woman started talking about her sick and aged husband, who was sitting a little elevated from us. “Of course we all love Krishna”, she said, “but for me my husband is my god. He has protected and cared for me throughout my life. He is a great devotee of Krishna, and I am eternally grateful to him.” Her voice cracked as she continued, “Now he will be going to Krishna. I also want to go to Krishna, but only with him.”
Obviously, the Bengalis’ idea of marriage is far removed from the Western concept. We knew one modernized young man who dressed in fashionable Western clothes and spoke good English. Yet the Vaishnava spirit he had been brought up with was still strong. He was an expert mridanga player, and regularly came to the evening kirtanas at our Dhaka ashram. Eventually he got the opportunity to go to America to study. He was excited before he left, but when he returned a year later he expressed dismay with the American way of life.
“They make a big show of love,” he said disgustedly. “When a man drops his wife off to work, they do this big kiss.” (Public kissing, even as an affectionate gesture between husband and wife, is unthinkable in Bangladesh.) “But then they fight and divorce as easily as they kiss. In our country we never even talk about love, and we certainly don’t make a big show of it. There’s no need. It’s automatically there. There’s no question of a wife not loving her husband. Naturally she loves her husband, because he’s her husband. Many Americans asked me about arranged marriages. ‘How can you marry someone you never met? How can you love them?’ I tell them, ‘Your system is to fall in love before marriage. We fall in love after marriage. The difference is that afterwards you fall out of love as easily as you fell into it. And you think nothing of falling out of marriage also. That we don’t do.’ ”
Forms of Address
In the village, two people of the same age are called brothers. In the beginning I was confused at how someone would introduce every male of the same age in the village as his brother, until I learned that that is what a brother in Bengal is. “Brother” can mean someone from the same district, a friend, an old school colleague, and so on. Boys and girls from the same village cannot marry, having grown up as brothers and sisters.
Seniors are never called directly by their names. They may be called dada (older brother), or didi (older sister). Mejo bhai means a middle brother, who is older, but not the eldest. Any person who is a little older will be called with the appellation da, meaning elder brother. For instance, a boy called Nripendranath becomes Nripen da, Kamal Bhushan becomes Kamal da, and so on.
The proper etiquette is for men to refer to women (other than their wives) as ma (mother). However, this practice has been compromised, and men often refer to women as “sister”. Women call each other didi (sister).
Women are addressed as the mother of their eldest son. For instance,
if a woman’s eldest son’s name is Gokula Chandra, she will be called Gokuler
Ma. The given name of a woman, such as Bhavana or Priti or Radhika,
is hardly used, except in religious functions or official matters.
People living in the same village may not even know a woman’s actual name.
Bengalis use different names to define their connection with people outside their family. They establish friendly relationships with elderly people by designating them as mama (maternal uncle), mami (maternal aunt), kaka (father’s younger brother), kaki (paternal aunt), and so on. Senior Muslims will be referred to as chacha (paternal uncle) and chachi (paternal aunt). Little boys are called khoka and little girls khuki.
Language and culture are inextricably linked. Without speaking the local language, a foreigner remains like an extraterrestrial, neither able to communicate with people directly nor enter into an understanding of their way of life. Therefore most of our Western devotees who spend some time in Bangladesh learn Bengali, to better relate with the people and live among them.
Learning Bengali also gives access to the treasure house of Gaudiya Vaishnava literature. Nowadays, only a few Bengalis are familiar with this tremendous cultural asset. But Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura predicted that a time would come when the people of the world would learn Bengali just to read Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita. Now Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita and many Gaudiya Vaishnava songs and poems have been translated into English. Still, even beginning to understand Bengali reveals many of the subtle nuances in the literature, and gives much added sweetness. Much of the Gaudiya Vaishnava literature was deliberately written in simple language so as to be understandable by the common people. However, the language of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura is so difficult that even most educated Bengalis can hardly comprehend it.
Most Indian languages are based on Sanskrit, and Bengali is especially so. Like Sanskrit, therefore, Bengali is quite appropriate for expressing the subtle philosophy of the Vedas. Bengali is particularly suitable for rasa vicara (consideration of personal exchanges with God on the liberated platform). The topmost relationships in spiritual existence are between Krishna and the residents of Vrindavana, and between Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His intimate associates. At that level of devotional service, philosophy is superseded by overwhelming affection. Bengali is most suitable for expressing such loving exchanges. It can precisely convey the mood of selfless, spotless love in a way that is not possible in English or other Western languages, which cannot be separated from the culture of lust.
Bengali kirtana style has evolved to be inextricably linked with the language. The words used and the way they are sung combine with the music to perfectly awaken, express and enhance spiritual emotions. There are literally thousands of padavali kirtanas composed in Bengali by great Vaishnava acharyas which describe the form, pastimes, qualities, feelings, etc., of Krishna, Lord Chaitanya, and Their associates. Even though some of these songs are now translated into English and other languages, the same rasa (spiritual sentiment) cannot be conveyed in other languages (except Oriya and Maithili, which are close to Bengali). Even other Indian languages, such as Hindi, lack the charm of Bengali.
Bengali is known in India as a sweet language. The Bengali spoken in Bangladesh is particularly pure, as it has not been much influenced by outside languages. Even those who do not understand it can appreciate its beautiful, almost musical cadence, especially when spoken by cultured people. The sound of the words, the intonation of the voice conveying respect and affection, and the very structure of the language combine so that even ordinary day to day talk is pleasing to the heart and mind. It is reminiscent of the spiritual world, where talking is singing.
Of course, when rough people squabble (which rough people do a lot), they sound coarse and nasty. Low-class women are expert in quarrel, being well-practiced in launching barrages of expletives back and forth, trying to outdo their opponents in audacity, vitriolics, volume and misplaced wit. I couldn’t stop laughing when I heard a woman cackle about another, “She thinks the sun is shining through her backside.” Even the vulgarity is unique.
The Bengali script is also very attractive. Many Bengalis take care to write so that the dots and curves of the letters combine—as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said about Rupa Goswami’s handwriting—to look like a row of pearls.
With about 100 million Muslims, Bangladesh has the third largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia and Pakistan), and also the second largest Hindu population (around 20 million ). There are also a few Christians and Buddhists. To the Bangladeshi, religion is more than a formality. It is a fundamental force in everyone’s life, in the social structure and the national psyche. Almost everyone practices their religion in some form or other. An atheist can hardly be found throughout the whole country. Even if there were one, he couldn’t profess it openly, due to strong social censure. Especially in the villages, everyone has a strong faith in God that is as natural for them as breathing.
On launch journeys I would see Muslims silently chanting the names of Allah on beads. At prayer times, such as at midday or in the evening, many of them would go to the back of the boat, spread mats out, and pump up water from the river. They would wash their hands and legs and then do their namaz right on the boat. Unlike most Westerners, they have no compunction about showing their faith in God. One evening we were driving in a rural area when we saw a young boy alone in a field dramatically falling down on the ground to offer his prayers.
In a village I used to visit there was an elderly Bengali gentleman who reminded me of the description Srila Prabhupada gave of his own father. The man worshipped his tiny Radha-Krishna Deities for several hours a day. He was old and bent over, with thick white hair. He couldn’t walk without the help of a stick, yet he was very strict. No one in the house was allowed to eat anything until it had been offered to the Deities. He had a brass shop in the village where he would go for a few hours every day, but mostly he seemed to be happy just doing his puja.
One evening it happened that everyone in the house had gone out except him and me. He handed me a copy of Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, and had me read it by the light of a kerosene lamp. The book was worn out from a lifetime of constant use, but my host could no longer read it. His eyes were also worn out, and the white hairy brows and lids drooped over them. I asked where I should read, and he said, “Anywhere”. As I recited aloud, he chanted the verses along with me. It appeared that he knew it all by heart.
In another household where I was staying the youngest son’s name was Vishnu. All day his mother would call out, “Vishnu, Vishnu, Vishnu.” It seemed that she couldn’t be happy unless he was at her side. I was reminded of the story of Ajamila in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Even though the woman was not thinking of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, she, her son and everybody else in the neighborhood were benefited by always hearing the name of Vishnu.
Many towns and villages in Bengal are named after Krishna, usually after the local presiding Deity. Examples in Bangladesh are Gopalganj, Gopaldi, Narasimhdi and Madhavdi. In West Bengal there is Krishnanagar, which is named after a king whose name was Krishna.
The religious element in Bengali society is not restricted to the simple and uneducated. I discovered this the first time I met the head of the Sanskrit department at Dhaka University, Paresh Chandra Mandal at his residence. When I arrived he was sitting with several students. After sitting me down, he started to advance different atheistic arguments, asking why we should believe in God and why we should accept Krishna as God. After politely answering his questions for ten or fifteen minutes, I became a little frustrated. I told him, “I am surprised. Although you are a learned person and well-respected in Hindu society, you are not accepting the statements of shastra and instead are advocating these strange theories.” Professor Mandal and his students burst into laughter, and I realized that they had been testing my knowledge, conviction and patience. But the testing was done in a light, humorous way. Judging from the laughter, I think I passed the test.
Every sizable Hindu village has a Hari-sabha. Hari is a name for Krishna and sabha means meeting. At least once a week the villagers come together and chant the holy names and perhaps read from the Srimad-Bhagavatam or Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita among themselves. Srila Prabhupada explains that “In Bengal there are still many places called Hari-sabha, which indicates a place where local people gather to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and discuss the pastimes of Lord Krishna.”
Dharma-sabhas are popular throughout the eight month dry season. Especially in the summer, people are prepared to sit listening to various speakers discoursing on religious topics for hours throughout the night. Still today, religion is more a topic of interest and more a crowd puller than politics, current affairs, sports, or any other such ephemeral topic.
Any formal Vaishnava function must begin with offering of sandalwood
paste. This is extracted from dried sandalwood by putting water on
a coarse stone and vigorously rubbing the sandalwood stick against it.
This gradually produces a pale pink, fragrant pulp that is highly cooling.
This is transferred to a small copper dish. Then a devotee will apply
this paste with a flower, first to pictures of worshipable Deities, then
to sacred books, then to the mridangas and karatalas used for making spiritual
music, then to the most senior Vaishnavas present, and then gradually to
all the other male members of the assembly.
At a larger function, a senior and prominent member of the community will take up the service of applying sandalwood pulp. Often, those he applies it to will embrace him, take the dish from him, and apply it to his body also. Sandalwood pulp is applied on the forehead, and sometimes to the arms and chest also, especially of more prominent devotees. After the men have received the sandalwood prasada, it is passed to the women, who do the same among themselves.
Despite their inherent belief in God, few Bangladeshis are actually
serious about self-realization. One reason is that the culture makes
people feel peaceful and secure. They feel that life is progressing
nicely as it is, and that there is no harm in continuing it indefinitely.
Without preachers stressing that life is meant for seriously trying to
understand God, even such an advanced cultural background will not help
people to come to the actual point of religion, as described in Srimad-Bhagavatam
“Life’s desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one’s works.”
The Muslims of East Bengal also follow Vedic culture in many ways—even more than most Hindus in India. For example, once in our neighborhood in Dhaka we saw a Muslim family going out in the street to receive and touch the feet of elderly members of their clan arriving from the village.
Many Bangladeshi Muslims are so cultured that they respect sadhus also, even though they don’t know what to make of the “Western Hindus.” Sometimes when I was walking on village paths in Bangladesh, Muslims who were cycling the other way would get down from their bikes as a mark of respect. At that time I was in my early twenties, and some of them were old enough to be my grandfather. But their culture was so deeply ingrained that they got down and offered the one-handed Muslim salute of respect.
During the 1971 war of liberation, genocidal Punjabi Muslim soldiers from West Pakistan especially targeted Hindus, but killed hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims also. Their “justification” was that, “These people are not Muslims at all. Their language is written with a Hindu script and is predominantly derived from Sanskrit. Their customs and culture are Hindu.” Many Muslims in Bangladesh hardly use their own names, which would be something like Manzurul Khan, but are better known by their nickname—a Hindu name like Kamal or Dilip.
Many Muslims, especially the more well-to-do ones, also approach astrologers, even though astrology is a Vedic science. Almost all the politicians and businessmen consult astrologers, just as any Hindu would. For wedding matters also they consult astrologers.
However, there are Bangladeshi Muslims who want to move closer to Arabian culture, and do not like that Bangladeshi Muslims have retained so much of the Hindu culture of their forefathers (after all, the Muslims in Bengal were all originally converted from Hinduism).
In particular, fundamentalist Muslims deplore the prevalence of gurus among Bangladeshi Muslims. Prominent Muslim religious leaders, known as pirs, are treated and act much like Hindu gurus. Muslims approach them in the mood of disciples, receiving blessings and advice just as Hindus do from their gurus.
I also heard Muslims doing kirtana in praise of Allah, although singing and music, even in praise of God, are supposed to be forbidden in Islam. But they are so integral to Bengali life that the ban on music in Islam is somehow not implemented in Bangladesh. Drama is similarly proscribed in Islam, but is central to Bengali life, even for Muslims.
But there are also significant differences in the habits of the Muslims. They kill cows, which is a great sacrilege in Hindu eyes. And other things they do back to front. For instance, Hindus eat from banana leaves keeping the part with the hard rim away from them. Muslims eat with the leaf plate the other way around and the other way up. When taking bath with a bucket and jug, Hindus start from the head, while Muslims start from the feet.
Once we met a highly placed government official, mistakenly thinking that he might be pleased by our activities. When we told him that our movement is spreading Bengali culture all over the world, he replied, “Yes, but not Bangladeshi culture.” He was trying to make a distinction, although at that time the country known as Bangladesh, and the very concept of such a country, had existed for less than ten years.
Music and Kirtana
The whole of Bengal loves music and kirtana. For Bengalis, especially the simple folk without pretensions to maintain, any time or place is good for singing. Boatmen especially are known for singing loudly as they ply their craft. Once while riding on a rickshaw in Dhaka I started to softly sing a bhajana to myself, and the rickshaw driver turned around and looked at me with a big smile, happy that I was singing.
Bangladeshis have both strong religious belief and ingrained love for
music, so it is natural for them to communicate with God through song and
music. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement is meant for everyone
in the universe, yet seems especially appropriate for Bengalis, who are
full of verve and spirit, and both laugh and cry with spontaneity and vigor.
Indeed, the Chaitanya Bhagavata states that, because of the good fortune of Lord Chaitanya having visited East Bengal and having been well received there, the inhabitants still perform Sri Krishna sankirtana. That benediction is visibly present even today (at least among the Hindus). Although a plethora of imaginary mantras have been introduced by unscrupulous cheating “gurus”, still by far the most popular kirtana in Bengal is that of the maha-mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
There is a whole kirtana culture that is difficult to express in words. For instance, in the middle of one song, another may be sung as an explanation of a line in the original composition. After finishing that whole song the singers go back to the first song, and in this way weave together several lyrics in an elaborate, mind-enchanting mixture of rasa, tattva, bhava, sura and tala (i.e. spiritual emotions, philosophical truths, expression of feelings, melody and rhythm.)
There is an elaborate science of musical expression whose highly technical vocabulary is based on Sanskrit. When accomplished musicians in Bengal come together they can discuss for hours, but laymen cannot understand what they are talking about.
Sometimes we would arrive in villages in the evening and find the residents doing kirtana, even when they were not expecting us. I was once staying for some days in Sylhet town during the month of Kartika, during which Vaishnavas follow special observances and there are many kirtana functions. I used to visit people’s homes in the evenings and then walk or take a cycle rickshaw back to the ashram where I was staying. While returning, I would hear the sounds of kirtana coming from one side, either from one of the many Vaishnava temples in the town, or from someone’s house where devotees had gathered to sing the names of the Lord. As I went on, that kirtana would fade away and another kirtana would be heard on the other side. This would continue until I reached the ashram at about 11 p.m.
Unfortunately, many of the traditional musical styles have been lost
due to lack of disciplined study. But whatever is left in Bengali
kirtana is still wonderful and mind-attracting. Srila Prabhupada
liked the Mayapura gurukula boys singing the Hare Krishna mantra in typical
Bengali fashion. However, he didn’t like another common Bengali style—the
artificial drawn-out manner of singing, in which the Hare Krishna maha-mantra
is almost lost in long notes. Prabhupada called it “howling.”
In practically every village there are experts in the Bengali manner of singing in a high-pitched voice. In the morning it is common to hear from inside houses the sound of singing and harmonium practice. Flute playing is also popular. Cheap bamboo flutes are hawked on the streets of towns or sold at country fairs. Even in a big city it is not unusual to see a person walking on the road playing a flute. Other instruments used in Bengali music are the violin and ekata, a simple indigenous stringed instrument.
Many Hindu villages have at least two or three superb mridanga players. A real master can produce more than a hundred varieties of sound from the two heads of the drum. One drummer we knew could make his mridanga “talk” and say “Hare Krishna”. Even many five or six-year-old children are quite deft on mridanga, although they can hardly stretch their hands to reach the heads. Once when I was new in Bangladesh I was attending a kirtana in a temple and was surprised to see a small boy nonchalantly playing karatalas in a brilliant manner that I had never heard or imagined before.
Our ashram in Dhaka became a place of kirtana. Some of the devotees we had recruited were expert musicians. They could sit down with the harmonium, mridanga and karatalas and sing and play wonderfully. Evening was the main time for kirtana, when people from outside would come and our tiny temple room would be packed. The tempo would start softly and slowly, then gradually build up. Or sometimes it would suddenly go fast and the rhythm would change.
Oh, the dancing, and the jumping! It was tremendous. We could sing for hours together. Our whole bodies and even our clothes would become drenched in sweat, yet we would hardly notice. I sometimes had to wring out my dhoti after kirtana. Afterwards we would go up on the flat roof of the building to catch the night breezes. Finally we would take rest late at night, with the intricate mridanga rhythms and beautiful melodies still echoing in our minds.
Western Christian missionaries are sometimes alarmed at their Bengali brethren exuberantly singing and banging drums, and fear they are going back to “their old heathen ways”. The standard Christian approach to God is with solemnity, but for the Bengali, worship of God is something to get excited about. Bengali Christians cannot give up the worship of God with mridangas and karatalas.
In Sylhet district there is a community of Manipuri Vaishnavas who migrated there a few hundred years ago. Their culture is Gaudiya Vaishnava, practiced in their own regional manner. During the appropriate times of the year the they have performances, in which children dress up as Krishna and Radharani and different gopis and dance pleasingly to the accompaniment of devotional songs.
Manipuri kirtana tends to be more subtle and less intense than Bengali style. It is soft and charming, yet the rhythm is highly intricate, with elaborate long beats. Bengali kirtanas usually use simple two-beat and three-beat patterns, but with Manipuri kirtana it is sometimes difficult to trace what the beat is at all. Sometimes the emphasis comes only on the 14th beat. They use a drum that looks like the Bengali mridanga, but is made of wood instead of clay and gives a less resonant sound. Manipuri kirtana is sung in their own language, which is quite different to Bengali. Manipuris have somewhat Chinese-looking features, and their Gaura-Nitai Deities also have slanty eyes, and a mind-captivating beauty.
One important aspect of the Bangladeshi Vaishnava culture is the nama-yajna (sacrifice of chanting the holy names). Every Bengali Hindu knows Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s teaching that in Kali-yuga the only authorized yajna (sacrifice) is the chanting of the holy names. Festivals of nonstop chanting last at least a full day, or three days, or even seven days. Unfortunately, the yajnas have become commercialized. Groups of businessmen in the towns vie with each other to see who can make the most ostentatious show, attract the biggest crowds and feed the most people. Professional groups make an entertainment business out of the sacred holy names.
However, previously nama-yajnas were organized on a small scale with purely religious motives. The singers would be local people who liked to chant and hear the holy names. The organizers would feed everyone without making a big spectacle of it. Such nama-yajnas are still held in villages where they don’t have the money to invite professional groups. They just put on a festival among the local villagers and chant the holy names themselves.
Bengalis are also intensely fond of drama. In the villages, especially in the summer, performances go on all night. The dialogue is delivered in a highly expressive fashion, with much gesturing, and the tone tends to be heavy on pathos. The actors wear incredibly gaudy outfits and make-up. The whole theatrical style seemed comically overblown to me, but Bengalis take it most seriously. Props, if any, are simple, and the stage is often just an open space. A few musicians in the back give the accompaniment, sometimes with a little singing.
The annual floods in Bengal wash down alluvial deposits that make the earth black with vitality. The rich soil combines with the plentiful rainfall and tropical climate to make the whole country like a lush garden. This verdant land produces an apparently inexhaustible variety of leaves, shoots, roots, stems, creepers, and flowers, some cultivated and some wild. For instance, sak (green leafy vegetables akin to spinach), is a nutritious Bengali favorite of which there are at least 30 varieties. Some of these are cultivated and others grow wild, to be collected from river banks and jungles.
Even after traveling in Bangladesh for several years, I would come across some kind of vegetable I had never seen or heard of, or a familiar vegetable prepared in a way that I was unaware of. This is because Bengalis, especially East Bengalis, are expert in combining the diverse types of vegetables in apparently limitless varieties in their cooking. And even though their cooking techniques are simple, the food is naturally tasty because it comes from excellent soil and, at least at the time I was there, fertilizers and insecticides were not widely used.
Despite their limited financial resources, Bengalis love many kinds of food. For special occasions, the women take great pleasure in preparing many items. Previously the regular daily meal was rice, dahl, and three vegetable preparations. One vegetable preparation would be dry, i.e. without any juice. Another was wet, with a lot of juice. The other one was semi-wet. They would also sometimes serve some chutney or pickle, and some papar. Then about fifteen minutes after the meal they would serve some fruit and milk or some kheer. This was the standard even for a poor family.
There used to be a saying, “Eating only rice and dahl”, meaning so destitute as unable to afford anything else. But nowadays dahl has become so expensive that the poorest people take their rice only with salt and chili. Although most people are not so impoverished and (at least in recent years) nobody starves, malnutrition is widespread. Children with bloated bellies and matchstick limbs suffer from Celiac disease, a chronic nutritional imbalance.
In a land where few can afford to eat luxuriously, being fat is considered prestigious and healthy. In Bangladesh, to say that someone looks healthy means he would be considered overweight by Western standards.
Rice is the staple food and an indispensable part of Bengali life. Bengalis eat rice morning, noon, and evening. Nowadays many people eat chapatis at night instead of rice, but the standard Bengali meal is a lot of rice with a little something else on the side. The spicing of the vegetables and dahl is usually quite hot, so a little vegetable is usually taken with a lot of rice. Usually cooked rice is served at midday and evening. While chewing one mouthful, Bengalis like to prepare the next by rolling the rice and mixing it with dahl and vegetables with the fingers. They say it makes the food more tasty.
In the morning villagers often eat pantabhat, which is rice left over from the previous night that is kept in a pot with plenty of water. By morning it becomes slightly sour. Pantabhat is taken with salt and chilies, and maybe a little sabji or something else to go with it. It is a cooling food, so it is not eaten during the winter or monsoon.
Diet also depends upon occupation. Office staff may not eat much in the morning, but field workers can eat piles of rice up to four times a day. Despite being usually quite short and of slight build, the villagers work hard in the fields and carry heavy loads. Their appetite is commiserate with their labor.
There are many dry rice preparations, such as puffed rice (muri), flat rice (chira) and fused rice (khoi), which are stored in airtight tins and are convenient to take at any time. Puffed rice is made by boiling rice in the husk and drying it again in the sun, then heating it in a korai (shallow metal cooking pot) with some sand. The sand becomes completely black, and as the rice gets hot, it goes pop, pop. After the rice is puffed, the sand is taken out with a sieve, and the muri is kept in airtight containers to be used later. It is like the “Rice Crispies” in the West, except it is naturally white. Only certain types of rice can be made into puffed rice. If eaten just after being made, its delicious flavor rivals that of many complex and costly dishes. Khoi is made by a similar process, but is soft, not crispy like muri.
Chira is another permutation of rice, which is first boiled and husked
and then flattened with a wooden mortar—thump, thump, thump. Chira
is dried and stored, and can be eaten without cooking if soaked in water
for a few minutes.
Muri, khoi and chira may be eaten with gura, to which grated coconut pulp may also be added. If hot milk or sweet yogurt, and maybe a few slivers of ginger root, are added to this, it becomes a royal breakfast, although made from simple ingredients.
Another preparation is dahl boris, which are made by grinding soaked dahl with some spices and then rolling it into balls that are dried in the sun. Fried boris are put into vegetable and liquid dahl preparations.
Being a land of rivers and ponds, Bengal is full of fish, which Bengalis are well-known for being fond of. When our devotees first went to Bangladesh, fish eating was considered normal and acceptable even for Vaishnavas and gurus. Now that has changed. Many Bangladeshi Hindus have reformed their lifelong habits, and people have come to know that true Vaishnavas cannot eat flesh. Although poverty forces much of the population to follow a predominantly vegetarian diet, most of those who can afford it eat meat or fish along with their rice, dahl and vegetables.
If a guest unexpectedly arrives and the host wants to give him a special food, they ask him to wait and quickly prepare lucis (fried flatbreads made from white flour). Fried potatoes or eggplant go with lucis, as they are also tasty and opulent and can be made quickly. Frying is done with a minimum of oil, which is good for health and also economical. Traditionally mustard oil was used for frying, but nowadays many people can’t afford it. Imported soy bean oil or palm oil are now widely used. They are cheaper, but less flavorsome.
For festivals or special guests Bengalis may prepare a feast, but generally they are content to eat the same thing every day. If they do make an elaborate meal (which we were often given wherever we went), the Bengali style is to have a lot of rice with many small preparations around it. A typical feast might consist of two or three fried preparations, a bitter vegetable, perhaps two or three types of sak (spinach), and two or three other vegetables. Or there may be many vegetable preparations given in tiny portions.
Bengali sweets are renowned throughout India. Mostly made from milk products, they come in many varieties, with names like rasagulla, rasa malai, chamcham, rabri, sharbhaji, and unlimited variations of sandesh.
Some sweet shops are called Jala Khabar, which means “to take water”. Bengal is a hot country, so it is common for visitors to come by and ask for water. The tradition was not to give water alone, but to give a sweet along with it. Even today, in many well-to-do homes, if a guest is given water, he is also given a sweet. Those who can’t afford to give a sweet often give at least some grains of sugar, just to uphold the tradition.
A favorite sweet is mishti doi (sweet yogurt), which is made by boiling down milk and then sweetening it and adding yogurt culture. A winter favorite is milk boiled down slowly until there are thick pieces of cream floating in it, served hot with sugar or date gura.
However, milk is not as plentiful as it once was. One elderly gentleman told me that when he was a child there was no question of selling milk in the village. Everyone had sufficient supply,, and if anybody needed more they would just ask someone else to give it to them.
Coconut and date trees grow profusely in the south of Bengal, especially the coastal areas. In the winter, the sweet sap of the date tree is extracted by making a hole in the tree trunk and inserting a hollow peg that serves as a pipe. This juice can be drunk as a beverage, but must be taken shortly after extraction as it soon starts fermenting and turns sour. Most of the sap is boiled down to make gura, a thick liquid or solid confection ranging from light to dark brown in color. The most common source of gura is the juice of sugar cane, which is widely cultivated, and the sweetest gura comes from palm sap (the date tree is also a type of palm). But date gura has the best flavor of all. An incredibly tasty sweet is made simply by combining date gura with grated and fried coconut—two profusely available ingredients.
Tender green coconuts (dabs) are the best thirst quenchers on a hot day. A dab is a fully grown coconut that has not started to ripen, or is only slightly ripened. A kachi dab is fully unripened, and has no pulp, but only slightly salty water inside. The salty taste takes getting used to, but kachi dabs are the most cooling, and contain valuable electrolytes that get lost in perspiration. Slightly more ripe dabs have a creamy white pulp formed around the inside shell, and the water is sweeter. A few dexterous swathes of a machete makes a hole at the top of a dab from which the water is drunk. After drinking, the dab is then chopped in half, and a piece of the shell is sliced off to use as a spoon to eat the pulp.
I remember coming into a village once after a long, hot journey.
Upon entering the courtyard of the house where I was to stay, my host sat
me on a wooden chair in the shade. His son, about eight years old,
came and offered obeisances to me immediately without being told.
The father told him to bring a dab, so he went over to the nearest coconut
tree and climbed up about 50 feet. He knew the art of climbing up
the tree to cut the dabs. He took a knife and cut down two or three
from a clump. Three or four rapid hacking sounds would be followed
by a brief interlude as we watched the green missiles proceed vertically
down, thud to earth, roll around a little and come to a halt. Two
were enough to relieve the ardors of travel.
Another popular drink is lemonade (called sharbat). Many people have lemon trees in their courtyard, and make a refreshing sherbet with lemon and sugar, and sometimes a little salt.
Cooking is generally done over a wood fire, or by burning dried cow dung patties. This gives a special flavor, that cannot be had from coal, gas or electric stoves. Cow dung fire gives the best flavor of all.
Inside the little cooking room there is a simple stove, which is just a hole in the ground with the earth raised up around it. Cooking is usually done with aluminum pots, although brass used to be the norm. Before cooking, a mixture of earth and water is rubbed on the outside of the pot. Then after cooking, the soot from the wood fire is easily removed just by washing off the mud, whereas to scrub it off the brass pot would be difficult.
Everything in the kitchen is done on the floor. There are no sinks or sophisticated machines. Vegetables are cut with a foot knife, which is put under one foot and remains stationary while the vegetables are pushed on to it. The cooks use just a few simple tools, pots and utensils, most of which would not be familiar in Western kitchens. There are different shaped pots suitable for cooking different preparations, and a korai (wok) for frying things and cooking vegetables. With these simple arrangements, practically unlimited varieties of preparations can be turned out of Bengali kitchens. One woman told me she knew 32 ways to cook the vegetable known as kochu, using the leaves, stem and root.
The women of the house generally prepare meals together, then serve it to the members of the joint family. Because they cook in large quantities, it can always be stretched among extra people, so they are always happy to receive even unexpected guests. They always cook a little extra anyway. If there is any shortage, the women (who take last) will take a little less and make up for it at the next meal. Or they may cook some extra rice and put a little water in the dahl to spread it out, or cook a quickly prepared item such as fried eggplant or potatoes.
Bengali villagers take great pleasure in receiving guests. They don’t have many diversions like modern so-called civilized people, so they take pleasure simply in being with other people. When our party was traveling, people went to much trouble to accommodate, look after, serve and feed us. “Athiti Narayana”—“The guest is as good as God”—is an important Bengali Hindu saying. Sometimes we would tell them, “Oh, you are taking so much trouble to look after us,” and they would happily reply, “Not at all; it is our pleasure to have you. Please excuse us for not looking after you better. Our guest is just like God. It is as if God had personally come to visit us.” Hosts go out of their way to treat guests in the best possible manner. When it is time for guests to leave, the host will ask them to stay longer, or at least to come back again.
Bengalis are prepared to sacrifice to whatever extent necessary to serve guests properly. It is a prestige issue. Someone who cannot receive others well cannot be a very important person. The extent to which a person or family receives others is a vital factor in determining social status. It is common for people to host others well beyond their means, and think nothing of the debt incurred.
Automatically people would come and fan us with hand fans. They wanted to do service to the Vaishnavas. On one occasion I arrived in a village on a hot day. After being served a midday meal I lay down to rest. A boy was appointed to fan me with a hand fan, because it was so hot that without fanning, going to sleep would not have been possible. I told him to just fan for a little while, and then go away after I fell asleep. But when I woke up over an hour later, the boy was still there, patiently fanning away.
Bengalis love to feed their guests. The host wants to see that the guests are fully satisfied. The idea is that if the guest eats a lot, he must be enjoying the food. They are expert in inducing guests to eat more and more, serving different preparations little by little, saying, “This is very tasty. You will really like this, and it is excellent for health.” If you say you are full, they may playfully retort, “Now this is something to help digest your food.”
And when you say “no”, they understand your voice. If there is any indication that maybe you could take a little more, they will understand and give you more anyway. So when you really don’t want anymore, you fold up your leaf plate and get up. When we visited homes in Bangladesh, they liked to give us extra, because they rarely got the chance to receive sadhus. They would give us more and more, to make sure that there were enough remnants to share with others—at least in the family, if not the whole village. People would even come and ask for remnants before we had finished eating, although that is not really proper. It was an overbubbling of enthusiasm.
Health Care and Occult Miscellany
People who live the average village lifestyle—fresh air, fresh food and hard work—are usually strong and healthy. Even though Bengalis are not very stout, they can work hard all day in the hot sun. Even old men still milk the cows or go to the fields to work. They don’t have to, but they still feel lively enough to want to do so.
Once an elderly man with a black, ferocious countenance was trying to touch my feet. In order to avoid getting what looked to be a pretty heavy lifetime of karma dumped on me, I ran away. But he followed determinedly. I thought that, being so old, he would quickly give up, but he didn’t. Apart from leaving the village, I had no choice but to submit to him. He caught my ankles in a painfully strong grip. His body was bent and wrinkled, but was still full of strength and stamina.
Although larger villages and towns have qualified doctors, there are few hospitals or accredited doctors in the villages. Health care in rural areas is largely based on knowing how to live according to nature’s laws so as not to get sick. How to eat to keep healthy is common knowledge—which foods heat or cool the body, what is good and what is not good to take in the morning, at midday and evening, what foods bind the stomach and what loosens it.
It is common for people in Bangladesh to discuss the condition of their stomach and intestines—what kind of stool they were passing, whether it was liquid or solid, what color it was, how quickly it came out, and so on.
Basic medical needs are met at home, for every grandmother knows how to treat minor ailments and wounds, and even more serious conditions such as rheumatism and fever. Everybody knows that if you get a stomach upset, you can extract the juice of such and such a plant and drink it. Once in a village one of the members of our party had severe diarrhea. An elderly lady living went out in the field and soon came back with different kinds of grasses and leaves. She extracted the juice on the flat stone mortar found in every Bengali kitchen, and gave it to him to drink. Within 10 minutes he was perfectly all right.
Another kind of cure used in villages is foo, which means “blowing”. This treatment is used for all kinds of ailments. I have personally been treated with this, and found it effective. I had stiff and painful joints from the cold weather. A woman devotee visiting our temple treated me with mustard oil. She said some mantras over the oil, had me rub it on the affected part, and then she blew on the joints. Foo! Foo! Foo! All the pain and stiffness went away.
Equally fantastic, but also well-accepted, are tantric methods for discovering a thief. Once in our Dhaka ashram some money went missing. We deduced that the culprit must have been one of two of the residents of the ashram. There was no way to ascertain who, so some of the local devotees called in a tantric. He gave the suspects and several others a little dry uncooked rice over which some mantras had been said. They were told to chew it for two or three minutes, then spit it out on some newspaper. Naturally, after they chewed it and spat it out, it was broken up and mixed with saliva. But the rice that came from the prime suspect was hardly broken and completely dry. It could have been that his mouth was dried out of fear, but everybody accepted that he was the culprit and he was expelled from the temple community, after efforts had been made to get the money back.
Muslim fakirs know how to cure snake bites by mantra. There are many snakes in Bengal, and death from snake bite is common. People working or walking in the fields may accidentally tread on a snake and get bitten. During the rainy season, when their holes in the fields get flooded, snakes move into granaries and houses.
Bengali village children know how to catch snakes by the tails and swing them around. I don’t know how they do it. They are quite fearless. They also know how to slowly, repeatedly hit a snake on the head with a stick to kill it. Then the dead snake has to be chopped into pieces and burned. Otherwise, it is said, it may come back to life. Or its mate may come, see the reflection of the killer in the dead snake’s eyes, and take revenge.
A devotee told me a story, which he personally witnessed, of a snake who was killed but for some reason not burned. The next day at noon, at the same residence, there was a knock at the front door. Everyone thought it odd that in the middle of the day, when the heat kept everyone indoors, someone should be calling on them. The man of the house looked outside an adjoining window to see who it was. No one was there. But when he looked down at the base of the door he saw that a cobra (presumably the dead snake’s mate) was hitting it with its head.
Animals and Insects
Up to the early part of the 20th century, much of Bengal was covered by dense jungle, in which tigers, wild boars, elephants, and other dangerous animals roamed. Now most of the forests have been cleared, and 80% of the land is under cultivation. In the far south, where the Ganga finally splits into multiple substreams before reaching the sea, there are dense mangrove forests on the innumerable uninhabited islands therein. There are also thick woods in the hilly narrow panhandle bordering Burma. Except in these forests, dangerous wild animals (except snakes) are nowadays rare.
Domesticated village creatures are goats, cats, chickens and geese. There are also scrawny cows, often no bigger than large dogs in the West.
The dogs of Bangladesh are of the undefined mongrel genus common to the subcontinent. (However, the huge population of miserable street dogs in the towns of India is much less in Bangladesh, probably because dogs are officially abhorred in Islam) .They are neither truly domesticated, nor exactly wild. They live close to humans in villages and towns. In villages, they are thrown some scraps to eat, are allowed to sleep on verandahs and in outhouses, and are generally tolerated, although they are not petted and made a big fuss of like “man’s best friend” in the West.
Legions of fat, grisly looking cockroaches come out at night and swarm through kitchens and latrines. Similarly hideous are the little green lizards who run around the walls and ceilings of houses, chasing after each other for sex, and after insects to eat. Sometimes they fall—plop!—on the floor. They are called tik-tikki, from the loud ticking sound they make from time to time. If a tik-tikki ticks just after a person has said something, that is supposed to confirm that it is true. One of the less memorable sights of Bangladesh is to see a tik-tikki stalking a cockroach, each one running a few paces and then stopping. If the lizard manages to catch the roach from behind, it will swallow the struggling vermin bit by bit, dilating its jaws to fit the little monster inside. After ingesting it whole, the outline of the roach dilates the lucky (?) lizard’s bloated belly.
Rainy season is also ant season. The cities of the ants are early victims of flooding, and their inhabitants seek shelter within human homes. Their constant marching to and fro is a constant source of annoyance, as they get in sheets, beds, food, and clothing, and do not distinguish that human bodies should not be part of their highways.
Just after the rainy season comes bug season. For a few days, apparently millions of bugs only seen at this time of year swarm into existence. They come out at night and swarm in clouds around lamps. Their bodies being bigger than their wings, and not very aerodynamic, they often fall down and gyrate around on the floor, trying to get back into flight again. But they don’t, and every morning, small heaps of dead bugs have to be swept away.
Scorpions are rare. I only came across two during my years in Bengal. On both occasions I instantly killed them with my shoe.
The vast majority of the arable land in Bangladesh is divided into innumerable little family farms. Ownership keeps people on the land and out of the cities. Even if a family plot is small, it provides a home to live in, a measure of respectability, a sense of identity and hope of sustenance.
Rice, of which two or three crops can be grown each year, is the leading food crop in all areas and accounts for at least five-sixths of the cultivated area. Pulses, the main source of vegetable protein, are the next most important food crop. Bright yellow mustard flowers are a common and pretty sight. Mustard is cultivated for the seed, which is used as a spice and for production of mustard oil, the favorite cooking medium of Bengalis. Jute is a major cash crop. More than 50% of the world’s jute is produced in Bangladesh.
Well-to-do families in the village have a group of houses facing each other. There will be different houses for different married brothers, maybe a little house for cooking and one for a small family temple. The typical Bengali village home is a mud hut with a thatched roof. It is actually more pleasing to live in than a luxury apartment. The thick walls help keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The courtyard between the houses is a place to relax in the evenings and for children to play. It is also used for drying dahl and rice in the sun, as well as clothes. It is standard to have a small plinth in the courtyard in which a sacred tulasi plant is kept.
Women clean their houses with a mixture of cow dung and water kept in a bucket. Every morning they smear this mixture with a rag over the house, the verandah and the walls. I remember hearing a Bengali Christian criticizing this as dirty, ignorant and primitive, but actually it is not dirty at all. Cow dung has antiseptic, cleansing and purifying properties, as verified by modern science. If cow dung is smeared in the house, no flies will come. Its smell is pleasing rather than offensive. Cow dung is also an excellent fertilizer and cooking fuel. Throughout India, village women collect cow dung and shape it by hand into patties that they slap onto tree trunks and walls to dry in the sun.
People mostly sit on the floor in their homes, either directly or on sitting mats woven from grass or made from cotton. There is little furniture save a few shoddy benches and chairs. Sleeping outside is the norm, except during the cold and rainy seasons. Either indoors or outdoors, people sleep on the floor, on grass mats, or on simple wooden beds. Sleeping on beds gives some protection from snakes, especially during the monsoon, when snakes come into houses more. Beds are also useful for storing things underneath.
Apart from their hereditary fields, most families have a little garden next to the houses, every inch of which is utilized to produce vegetables, flowers for offering in worship, and spices and herbs like chili and coriander. Village groves have varieties of fruit trees, the most common of which are mango, jackfruit, banana, coconut, lemon and papaya. Creepers grow up the side of the houses, yielding pumpkins, squashes and many other varieties of vegetables. It is remarkable how much the villagers can produce from a limited patch of earth.
Except for the most destitute, all families have some valuables, which are usually kept in locked steel trunks, or in a locked cupboard. For security against financial difficulties, families keep jewelry and ornaments that they never bring out or tell others about. It is common to bury such treasure under the earthen floor of homes, without even all the family members knowing about it. Precious metals and jewels are preferred to money as investments. Paper money and bank balances have never been considered very reliable investments by village people, although attitudes are now changing.
Jewelry and ornaments are passed down generation to generation, and are kept by the women—although in previous times, men used to wear ornaments also. Women must wear jewelry—at least some silver anklets, gold earrings, and maybe a nose ring— but they only wear more elaborate adornments on special occasions, such as marriages.
Although most of the population struggle to make ends meet, not everyone in Bangladesh is poor. There are village landholders with extensive properties, and well-to-do merchants in the towns. They are usually somewhat portly and dress in fine cotton dhotis (compared with the rough cloth of the less well-to-do). Many of them incessantly chew pan. They are addressed as babu (a term of respect), have many servants, and are respected and influential.
Handicrafts are made throughout Bangladesh. Each locality has regional specialties. Tangail is renowned for saris, Nator for certain milk sweets, and so on. Cane furniture mostly comes from Sylhet district. There is also a certain type of grass that grows primarily in Sylhet that is made into thin mats that are cooling to sit or lie on—a relief in the long hot season. Dhaka used to be famous for extraordinarily fine cloth, until the British cut the weavers thumbs off to eliminate competition to the English mills.
Village shops are usually ramshackle little structures, dispensing all kinds of items, mostly at prices less than one US dollar. There are no fast foods, but rural shops sell biscuits and other prepared edibles, such as channa chur (crispy noodles made from chickpea flour and ground spices).
The once a week market brings chaos to the already disordered country towns. Traveling peddlers sit before mats or cloths spread higgledy-piggledy on the floor, displaying their wares—medicines and herbs from other regions, expensive spices (such as cinnamon and cloves), forest honey, trinkets, curios and crude homemade toys. The vendors raucously hawk their goods, yelling in croaky voices long since worn out from overuse. A seller of amazing cure-all medicine—promising miracles and attracting a gullible crowd—is a must. Villagers jostle and push through the throng, everyone eager to get as much as they can by spending as little as possible, and prepared to bargain down to the last paisa.
Shopping in Bengal means bargaining. This is difficult for a Westerner to get used to. He takes it that the trader is trying to cheat him by quoting an excessive price. But that is the system. The seller will quote a figure too high for the goods he is selling—apples, vegetables, a cooking pot, a bag, or whatever. Then the prospective buyer suggests a lower price. The seller comes down a little bit, and the buyer refuses to accept unless he comes down more. When they agree on a rate, the deal is clinched. If the buyer is not satisfied with the merchant’s last price, he may go to try his luck elsewhere. It is a contest to see how much the purchaser can get the price down. It all adds fun to life—although in a poor country where every paisa counts, it is not exactly a game.
Approach to Life
Life in Bengal is difficult, but the climate (at least in winter), culture and land give it the potential to be like paradise. Lord Chaitanya most mercifully appeared in Bengal, but unfortunately the people do not take His benediction seriously enough. Instead they eat flesh and worship bogus incarnations. Thus they have to suffer severe karmic reactions in the form of poverty, floods, droughts, cyclones, tidal waves, epidemics, and so on.
Most Bangladeshis spend their whole lives scraping together the bare necessities of existence, and are constantly on the edge of ruin. Climatic vicissitudes, political instability and a “might makes right” rule of law add to the uncertainty. Protracted hardships and the insecurity of below-subsistence-living have led to cheating, lying and exploitation. These have all become part of life in modern Bengal, despite her great culture. Land disputes and forcible occupation are common. No one can tell what will happen tomorrow, but if anything does happen, it is more likely to be bad than good. The Hindu community suffers more, being treated as second-class citizens and an easily exploited minority.
During the terrible era of the Bangladesh Liberation War, no one was safe. An estimated one million (mostly defenseless) people were slaughtered between March and December 1971. At any time the Pakistani Army could come and completely wreak devastation. They especially targeted Hindu villages, dragging people out of their homes, slitting their throats, raping and strangling women, and so many loathsome things.
A standard question to ask a Bangladeshi is what his father’s occupation is. But the reply is not uncommonly, “He died during the gandagol shomoy (disturbed period)”. Occasionally people told me some of the horrific stories, but mostly they didn’t want to talk about it.
Early death is nothing remarkable in Bangladesh. When asking a Bangladeshi how many brothers and sisters he has, it is not unusual to get a reply like, “We are three brothers, but my eldest brother died of diarrhea when he was two years old.” If a person dies untimely his relatives will grieve piteously for some time, but then just adjust and go on. But a woman who loses a child or her husband will remain sorrowful for the rest of her life. The men are not heartless, but they tend to accept their difficulties more stoically. Even if a woman loses her husband, she still has the rest of the family to look after, and she will go on with her duties. Many single women strive against great adversities to put their children through school and get them established in life.
Yet people in Bangladesh have a composed acceptance of hardship that helps them adjust to all kinds of trials. They have come to accept that there will be difficulties. The sense of resignation towards unavoidable calamities is combined with a feeling of satisfaction and appreciation for the gifts of God. Bangladeshis are not full of anxieties like people in the West, despite living in circumstances that few Westerners could tolerate. The hard and bitter struggle for sustenance does not make them hard and bitter. They persevere and remain confident that whatever happens, somehow or other they will go on. Even in the greatest adversity, they have an inner resilience to pick up their lives and continue without become overwhelmed. Thus the Bangladeshi villagers are almost always happier and better psychologically adjusted than their affluent brothers of technologically developed nations. Even the crazy people in Bangladesh are mostly happily crazy, not dangerous, and are rarely locked away.
Life is slow in the villages. People have time for each other, for they have only a relative idea of time. Time is approximately ascertained by the position of the sun. Exact, to-the-minute time is not needed. If a person is asked, “When will you come?” he will not give an exact time, but is likely to reply, “In the afternoon”. The day is divided into early morning, mid-morning, late morning and so on, and few Bangladeshis feel any need to be more specific than that. In the towns, schools, factories and offices, schedules demand more consciousness of punctuality. A town dweller, if asked, “When will you come?” may reply, “Around four o’clock.” Even if he says, “At four o’clock,” he is unlikely to come exactly at four, for timeliness is not an intrinsic part of Bengali life. It is not unusual for people to come one or two hours later than they say. In the West this would be considered irresponsible and insulting, but in Bangladesh it is quite normal. Indeed, an important person often deliberately arrives late for an event just to show his importance—that other people have to wait for him, not that he has to wait for them.
This languid approach to life is often frustrating to Westerners, who see it as mere laziness. However, the Westerner’s urgent, busy lifestyle strikes the Oriental as frenzied. The Western conception of being constantly active is difficult for Bangladeshis to understand. A visitor to a person’s house is expected to stay for some time, to sit down and chat, and to have something to eat and drink—not just to rush off. That would seem rude to the Bangladeshi, as if the visitor had no regard for them or didn’t want to be sociable.
Westerners like to lead a life of variety and excitement, whereas Bangladeshis prefer to live by tradition, doing things in more or less the same way as everybody else does, and indeed as their forefathers have done since time immemorial. Often when missionaries or so-called social workers try to teach Bangladeshis something (such as a new farming technique), someone may say, “Why do you want to do this? Do you think you are some great person to do things differently than our ancestors have for thousands of years?” And that will be the end of the matter.
Bangladeshis, especially villagers, don’t appreciate it if their own people take up a different or modern way of life. Nowadays in the towns many men wear Western-style shirts and pants, and they consider it prestigious to speak English, but they don’t want to go all the way. It is considered improper for women to dress in a modern, overly attractive style. However, contemporary life is having its effect, and Western fashions for women are gradually becoming accepted in the cities.
Individual performance, accomplishment, hard work and efficiency are
very much part of the Western success-oriented psyche, and now the more
modernized people in Bangladesh are adopting this concept of “achievement”
and “getting ahead”. But even today, most Bangladeshis have few ambitions.
They are not anxious to prove or improve themselves. They may aspire
for higher education or a government job, but that is about the limit.
They are concerned with maintaining their status in society, getting enough
food for their family, and maybe a few luxury items like a tape recorder
or a television. Most people do not expect much materially, and are
content to get by with what they have.