There are many and various reasons why Bangladesh seems so comfortable, so ‘normal’ to me. The one that looms largest in my mind at the moment, having returned to the UK and getting used to English life again, is that of the use of names.
It is a terrible thing for a teacher to admit, but I am totally useless at remembering names. I’m not good at remembering most things (which is why mnemonics is one of my pet interests and the single most useful tool I have) but names are the worst. A teacher is supposed to be able to recall all their student’s names and, 20 years later when meeting them by chance in the street, still recall it and everything that student used to do. I can’t. I really can’t.
I remember a lot but I have often found that even with current students, if I meet them outside of the classroom I can’t remember their names. Inside the classroom I’ll recall them perfectly, but outside – haven’t a clue.
To be fair, caught unawares, or under pressure, I do go to pieces easily. For an extrovert who is happy doing stuff in front of others, I am actually very shy in many respects. I still get nervous at every concert, at every talk I give and even every first lesson with a new class.
Under such pressure I have even been known to forget my own name. I do not lie.
Someone was introducing themselves to me then awaited my reciprocal response and, instead, they were bombarded with “ums” and “ahs” until eventually my panicking brain caught up with itself and I blurted out “KEN…Yes. That’s what it is..um…Ken”.
So I am grateful for Bangladeshi culture where, generally speaking, names just are not used. Nicknames are common. It feels like every other child is called “Babu” and many deshis give themselves English names if they work with westerners a lot. But otherwise the name your parents gave you just isn’t used – not even in families.
Instead, your relationship is given as the title of address. “Dada”, “Didi”, “Apa”, “Bhai”, “Mashi”, “Dhula bhai”, “Bon”, “Meye” and so on are the names you will hear for most of the time. Indeed, they are used so often that one short-term worker at LAMB thought the name of a friend of hers really was Didi (which means older sister) and had no idea that it was an honorific title used with many!
So, in some ways, life is easier in Bangladesh. If you have forgotten the name of your acquaintance, boss or even best friend – no need for embarrassment. Just call them “bhai” (brother) or “Apa” (sister) or one or two other options depending on their age and your relationship.
However, there is a flip side (you knew there would be, didn’t you?) and that is that for Asians, relationships matter. This means it is not enough to know that the man is your uncle. You have to know whether he is you uncle from your mother’s side or your father’s and possibly even if he is your older uncle on that side or younger one. What’s more, the Muslims (the majority inBangladesh) have one set of terms for relatives whilst the Hindus (who are prominent in the area which LAMB covers) use a different set. Some words are used in both cultures but with different meanings. So “Dada” can mean either your grandfather or older brother depending on whether you are talking to a Hindu or Muslim. Get it the wrong way round at your peril.
What’s more, many of my friends are Shantals (one of the larger groups of tribal or adibashi peoples in Bangladesh) and they have their own terms again. Although not needed as all speak Bangla, I am trying to learn their words for relatives too, but I have to admit that my grasp on the Bangla ones is still rather shaky. When a friend called me his “dhula bhai” recently, I knew I should know what it meant but really had forgotten that, as he works with my wife I am, therefore, in a sense his sister’s husband.
So why do I like the Bangladeshi way when it is all rather complex?
Well, difficult though these names are, they all, at least, mean something. We have long since lost the sense of relationship with our titles. We don’t even call our bosses “Mr” or “Mrs” any longer. Some friends of mine don’t call their parents “mum and dad” but use their first names. I’m not criticising anyone’s personal life choices but I am bemoaning the loss of a sense of belonging to one another in the West. What does it matter that you are John and he is Fred? It means nothing. In Bangladesh, you matter because you are tied into a relationship with the other person. Even the stranger in the street, if he is your bhai, your brother, matters at least to some small degree.
I don’t think it any coincidence that it was an English man – Douglas Adams – who came up with the SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem) used in his Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It is how we think. The person on the street, in the rail carriage, in the car in front, they don’t exist, they are invisible. They are an SEP. What a shame that we think in this isolated way so often instead of taking the opportunity to build a connection, albeit in some small, fleeting way. I think it rather a shame especially as it was something the British did very well 40 years ago or more. How did we lose it?
So, if I meet you in the street, in the pub, in the church or the shop and I don’t use your name, please forgive me. I’m out of practice and it isn’t really my cultural instinct any more. Instead, be assured by the smile, the welcoming handshake or the eye contact that you mean something to me and I remember who you are. You would find it odd if I called you “brother” or “sister” or even “grandfather”. You would think me quite potty if I said “Ah ha! Hello Son of the Husband of my Sister!” So I won’t. I just won’t use titles of any sort at all.
But please, whatever else, don’t think that it is because I have forgotten your name. I haven’t. Honest. Um…