It never fails to amaze me how different cultures deal with maths. There are various different techniques across the world for mathematical calculation but none that I know more about, or find more interesting, than Bangladeshi maths.
Firstly, a Bangladeshi can count up to 20 on one hand -really, I jest not. This is actually a really useful tool as well as being a mild amusement to show us bideshis at dinner parties.
Then there is the interesting number system that has a couple of numbers that look like ours – 1 and 2 are similar – but two numbers which look exactly the same, aren’t. The Bangla 8 is actually our 4 and the Bangla 9 is actually our 7. This leads to countless misunderstandings, of course, though the Bangladeshis never seem confused. It doesn’t help us bideshis that both the Bangla and the English number system are used in Bangladesh. You can tell the difference if you look carefully, but at a glance be careful if your train journey depends on getting it right!
Then there is the ‘Inflationary Economics’ that plagues us all here. This is where you hire a rickshaw wallah to take you to the market, a 15 minute cycle ride and costing about 20 – 25 taka, but when you ask the price he want 100 taka. Even when they know you and know you know the correct price you are lucky if you can beat the price down to 30.
This isn’t helped by the city dwelling bideshis who haven’t a clue about Bangla culture nor, half the time, have any language. There, the incompetence of the foreigner coupled with the need of the Rickshaw wallah to make every taka he can results in unbelievable events. I know one guy who used to pay 500 taka for a short journey that should cost just 20 taka because, coming from a western city he could not conceive of a ‘taxi’ journey costing less than a fiver (which is about 500 taka). He made some wallahs very happy for a while until someone pointed out his error.
But beating them all, it would seem, is the government who, whilst wanting to encourage its people to visit museums and ancient sites for as cheap a price as possible, consider the bideshi worth fleecing for 900% more. Wherever you go it is written in bold writing on the boards, from the National museum in Dhaka to Masthanghar in Bogra, bideshis pay x10 the price. Actually, this kind of maths I can cope with. Like the wallah who told us once that they would charge us more because we had come out of an exclusive club in Dhaka and could clearly afford it (it was just our humble British club and hardly the Ritz), there is an honesty there that appeals to me. I know I can pay the taka and, really, I want to pay the taka. But it is the dishonesty and cheating I dislike which is prevalent throughout Bangladesh and the people themselves hate it and want it gone just as much as those of us who are guests in the country. A noticeboard telling me to pay more or not come in at all is at least honest about its intentions as is the rickshaw wallah who is poor and needs to get as much as he can and will tell you that upfront.
But the most irritating form of maths in Bangladesh is spatial.
In other words, the number of people you can comfortably fit into a space is very, very different to what I am used to in the UK. As I write, my family and I (4 of us) are in a cabin built for 6. We have just been joined by another family of 4 who assure us they are just ‘due jon’, just 2 people. So here we are, 8 squashed into a cabin for 6 on a hot summer day with the father looking over my shoulder at what I am writing. I hope he is enjoying it. In a way I am making him a little bit famous.
Still, I am on holiday and I am not going to get stressed out about it. Except the train was nearly 3 hours late, is notoriously slow and when we get off at Dhaka we could have to face getting our entire luggage into a taxi.
The maths of the taxi drivers, however, would take an entire degree to understand. I’m not even going to try that one.