Golden Oldie – Seven Things the British Should Know About Bangladesh

My blog is now very nearly one year old! To celebrate, over the next two weeks I am re-publishing two of my very oldest posts from the site I used to use before it crashed and I moved over to wordpress. Adapted and edited, most readers won’t have read these before so I hope you enjoy them! I look forward to your comments…🙂

The world according to population size. Normally you would barely even find Bangladesh!

1)      Bangladesh is the 7th biggest country in the world but they hide it well! Statistically speaking, 1 in every 50 people you will ever meet around the world will be Bangladeshi. At just over 160 million people it is the seventh largest country in the world in terms of population (this does not take into account, however, that there are an estimated 80 million Bangladeshis on top of this number living throughout the world). China, India and the USA are bigger but then so are their land sizes. Bangladesh is tiny (144 sq km compared to the UK’s 245 sq km) so that is an awful lot of people to cram into a small area! Ignoring countries with less than 15 million people in it, Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated country with 1069 people per sq. km. The UK, by comparison, has just 255 people. I laughed when I read Bill Byson’s otherwise fantastic and well recommended book Notes from a Big Country as he said that Britain was very overpopulated. Oh no it’s not, Bill…

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2)      The Great British Takeaway – the Indian Curry – is probably from Bangladesh. That is, the ‘Indian’ restaurant down your street is probably run by Bangladeshis. 65% of all Curry houses in Britain are from Bangladesh, largely from the area in the Northeast of the country called Sylhet. This region is also well known for growing tea leaves – So have a cuppa with your curry next time, they should go together well!

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3)      The language is Bangla. Well, no surprises there then! Except that it is, in one sense, only a few years old. What used to be known as Bengali – which was the language of the whole area of Bengal from the days of the British Raj – is, of course, much, much older. When Britain left in 1947 the Bengal area was split into the Indian West Bengal and East Pakistan until East Pakistan gained its own independence from West Pakistan in 1971. It was then that it became Bangladesh and Bangla became internationally recognized. It came at a terrible price though with a war that cost (depending on whose sources you believe) up to 3 million lives at a time when the population was just 75 million. Just think about this for a moment. At the end of the second World War, Britain had lost less than 450,000 people out of a population of 48 million (I’ll let you do the maths) yet ‘every town and village lost a son to the war’. How more so was this amazing land ravaged by its own war? The issue that led to this was the suppression of Bangla in 1948 when Urdu was declared to be the only permissible ‘State’ language. In 1952 on the 21st February, several students were shot dead protesting this suppression of the language spoken by most of the country. The date is now the International Mother Language Day in memory of this event. Can you imagine having to fight just to be allowed to speak your own language?

4)      Bangladesh doesn’t exist. Well, you would think so from the way some people seem to think about it. I know some who still insist on calling the place India despite that not being the case for well over 60 years! But actually, in one sense, the land Bangladesh doesn’t exist because it is really one big delta. In fact, it is the biggest one in the world. This is because just above it runs the 3rd largest mountain range in the world – the Himalayas – and all the water from those mountains (including Everest) runs into Bangladesh. This means that most of the country is flat, flat as the proverbial pancake and is pretty much just mud (or silt if you prefer). Basically the people are living on a marsh. Problem is, if the sea level rises just half a meter, around 6 million people will lose their homes and if global warming causes more snow to melt off the mountains, unbelievably severe flooding will occur. This, in a country that already deals with dangerous floods every year…

5)      You are more likely to die in the UK than in Bangladesh…just. This might come as a shock to many especially those who know this country well but, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_death_rate), the crude death rate in theUK is 10 in every 1000 people, whereas in Bangladesh it is between 7.5 and 9.3. So, come over to Bangladesh and live more safely then, yes? Not quite. The percentages may be similar but the reasons for death are very different. The vast majority of deaths in theUK are caused by problems related to old age and most deaths are of the elderly. In Bangladesh, according to which statistics you use, one in ten children born will die before they are five. Others die through heart disease, diarrhea, road and other accidents or even suicide. Death prefers the old in the UK but here in Bangladesh he comes to all ages and especially loves the young.

6)      Bangladeshis are amazingly friendly. Sometimes a little overly so, it can feel, if you are British and not used to the Asian manner. It can be disconcerting to stand waiting for a train with your family and have a crowd of around 40 men, women and children just standing and staring at you. The idea of personal space is very different too and claustrophobia soon kicks in. Likewise, you can feel a little cheated by the Rickshaw driver who smiles so nicely, works so hard and asks for such a small amount which you gladly pay when you find out later that he fleeced you for 4 times the actual rate that should be paid. This is so bad, I’ve known some new foreigners be conned into paying 50 times the going rate. But then, Rickshaw Wallahs are amongst some of the poorest people in Bangladesh and much of me thinks they would be fools if they didn’t try it on.

This raises one of the dichotomies of being here. Do you let the driver and the shopkeeper cheat you and demand much more money despite it being wrong and encouraging corruption (something this country suffers from in all the wrong places) or do you refuse and give only the correct amount knowing that these people earn less than a dollar a day and often are starving or close to it? And are they wrong to try? “We would be crazy not to” was the reply of one Rickshaw driver to a friend of ours. When you are the poorest of the poor and you know the white guy you are ferrying earns more in a week than you do in a year, is it wrong to expect him to pay more?

But I digress. Once you have settled in and know just what you should be paying for things, then you get to see the truly friendly side of Bangladesh. The people here are so warm and welcoming and make every effort to meet whatever needs you have when you are a guest in their home. From the poorest to the richest, according to their means, you will be offered the best and will be served the most delicious food heaped on your plate again and again until you cannot eat another mouthful and they will be delighted (though there are some quite complex rules about how much you should say yes to and so on). This is no sycophantic attempt to get on your right side. This is a genuine desire to treat a guest (whatever their nationality including Bangladesh itself) with the greatest honour and deepest respect. How we have lost this aspect of our British culture. We became so obsessed with the task of weeding out corruption, injustice and inequality that we threw out honour and respect at the same time. Ironically, we still suffer from corruption, injustice and inequality in the UK, only it is better hidden and wrapped up in clever legislation.

7)      The British and other Westerners are still colonial in thinking about Bangladesh, only the poles have reversed. Ok, soapbox time. If there is one thing the Brits are good at, it is self-loathing. We’ve spent decades pulling our own society apart and denouncing old ways. And often, it must be said, this is entirely justified. But such is our horror of our colonial past that now we seem to think it necessary to ‘save’ places like Bangladesh by giving as much as possible of our own, advanced culture to bring them up to our level. Actually, isn’t this just colonialism all over again? Only this time, instead of stealing all this land’s riches for ourselves, we want to make them into mirror images of our own culture under the mistaken idea that somehow it is better than theirs.

Well, you know, its not. They don’t need our greedy business structures, our nanny state, our alcoholism, our broken relationships, our cynicism, our materialism or a host of other things I could mention. Bangladesh could, in many ways, do well without us – especially if this is all we offer. Don’t get me wrong. This is an impoverished country working hard to recover from centuries of abuse and war and doing a pretty damned good job of it. They need the good stuff as much as we – medicines, education, Energy supply and so on – but what they don’t need is the attitude that somehow they are inferior and can’t manage without us. The history of Bangladesh shows they most certainly can. I cringe when I see Western fashion increasingly paraded down the streets of Dhaka. I struggle with Bangladeshi youth desiring to learn Western Rock music instead of appreciating the depth of their own. I worry at the increasing number of homes with a television here, able to watch 24/7 American movies, soaps and chat shows.

The West’s problems are increasingly become Bangladesh’s.

About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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24 Responses to Golden Oldie – Seven Things the British Should Know About Bangladesh

  1. Pingback: The Top and bottom of it – in case you missed these… | kenthinksaloud

  2. Pingback: A Night Out with The Solway Deltas | kenthinksaloud

  3. Good read! I learned some things. You made me think about some of the things, especially as the world gets smaller, we could all stand to learn from each other, as long as we get rid of some static notions about what civilization really is.

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    • Absolutely. For me, learning from others – from wherever they are – is the most important rule. When we stop learning we stop listening – and that’s dangerous for everyone.🙂

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  4. Becky J. says:

    Hey, Ken, thanks for following! I love new readers! And thanks bringing more awareness to your side of the world.
    PS Forewarning…I have a strange sense of humor😀
    beckyjj.wordpress.com

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  5. Interesting writing.

    I’ve never heard anyone apart from myself say that the British are good at self-loathing. What makes you think they are?

    For myself, I hear it in the clever but destructive remark, in the jaundiced cool that stops what should have been a simple smile. is it the class system that does it to people? I don’t know what causes it, but I see it.

    I would like to hear what conclusions you have reached.
    🙂

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    • Yes I agree with you completely, David. The British have, to a certain extent, destroyed themselves as we turned our sense of ‘moral superiority’ on ourselves after WWII. I think, although it is rarely admitted in the UK, that we saw in Hitler a pale reflection of ourselves. It is no surprise the British Empire collapsed soon afterwards and ever since then we have bred a sense of us being rubbish at things – everything really.

      What used to be a dry sense of humour and now turned into destructive criticism and the thing that worries me most is seeing it in the teenagers. As a teacher for 20 years, I see the worst kind of self-loathing in the young adults being turned out of our schools. The sense of “can do” has turned into “better not, probably only screw it up”. It’s a disaster really.

      Thank you for commenting – really like your photography on your blog. My laptop is refusing to let me follow it because my internet is pretty rubbish today – but I shall follow as soon as I can🙂

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  6. wanderfool says:

    Excellent article and very informative.

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  7. Nakib says:

    “At just over 160 million people it is the seventh largest country in the world in terms of population”…lol…the overall Bangladeshi population is much larger. The population census & the statistics board is one of the laziest departments in the country. Many in the rural areas do not get counted. In addition, Bangladesh has a huge population living abroad. A minimum of 8 million expatriates work in the Middle-east. You will find Bangladeshis, Indians, Chinese & Pakistanis almost on all corners of the globe in significant numbers. Such a huge population….

    But then again the over-population factor has turned into a blessing in disguise. While the politicians and top-class businessmen are busy mulling over corruption in infrastructure projects, labor-intensive industries are thriving in the country (since you have been in Bangladesh for some time I am sure you are well-aware that this small impoverished region has become the world’s leading clothes, jute, leather & predicted pharmaceuticals supplier). Foreign income has kept the economy alive & robust even in periods of world recession due to labor-intensive export industries & remittance. But it is important to realize at the expense of what this has all been achieved. Dhaka, a completely industrialized city, has become unlivable except in the areas of the burgeoning upper & middle class with many poor residents denied the basic humanitarian rights every day. The natural beauty of hilly regions like Chittagong & Sylhet are on the decline. Cox’s Bazar, a beautiful, endangered tourist city is trying to form an EPZ to cope up with the increased foreign investments….& the effects of global warming like you mentioned are staring at us..
    Anyways, great post!!🙂

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    • A great comment Bhai! thank you for your contribution🙂

      Actually, I completely forgot to mention the huge numbers of Bangladeshis throughout the world, so your comment was very useful. I’ve edited the post to include it now (and made one or two corrections to other errors) – you’ll have to read it again to find it!!

      Your points are well made. Like any country, mistakes are being made and it is often the country itself that suffers as well as the very poorest people in it. Recently, we’ve seen people living in shantytown huts on the edge of the river in Dhaka moved out and their ‘homes’ bulldozed. What inhumanity!

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  8. Thanks for this post, Ken. You’ve taught me, a British Bangladeshi, about “my” country.

    I just wanted to ask you about your finding Bangladeshis very friendly. I’ve never thought of Bengalis as friendly – possibly because my view has been distorted by my position as a second generation Bangladeshi who is somewhat lost between the injustices of Western imperialism (with its atomised society) and Bangla religious tribalism.

    My biggest problem is how women are treated, especially, how it is acceptable for a wife to be, in effect, a slave and to beat her. It is also socially acceptable to beat your children. This aggressive, patriarchal hierarchy creates a very unhealthy family environment. Many immigrant Bangla children I have witnessed are hyper-selfish and judgmental.

    Thus, the social benefits of a family community seems to be poisoned, somewhat, by injustice and hierarchy. I am particularly referring to Muslim – I have no experience of non-Muslim Bangladeshis.

    Is this your experience, at all?

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    • These are excellent questions – thank you for raising them. There is so much here I’m tempted to make it a blog post itself! There are a number of things I will attempt to say quickly here:

      Firstly, I think there is a difference between ‘guest’ and ‘family’. We are often more abusive to our own kind than to our guests. Here I am talking of hospitality to others.

      Secondly, you are completely correct that there is a lot of abuse of women. LAMB, where I work particularly works with and for the development and rights of women and children. This is a vital work and no doubt. That said, we should not pretend that abuse of women and children does not take place in the UK. It most certainly DOES. I would even venture that on a ration basis there is almost as much. The UK has NO excuse. It is not tolerated in society (there are arguments that it is in Bangladeshi society) and everyone has a basic education (which is not the case for as much as 70% in Bangladesh). Britain ought to be much better. But it isn’t.

      Thirdly, I am not sure the issue is completely one about Muslim society. I have read many, many books by Muslims about Islam and, whilst I am not a Muslim myself, I have been impressed by the honesty of many authors. Asma Gull Hasan is one Muslim woman who I particularly liked. She did not deny the abuse of women and admitted the shame and horror of knowing this takes place sometimes “in the name of Allah”. But she also points out that for most Muslims, this is considered to be the very opposite of teaching in the Qur’an. I can appreciate this as Christianity is often attacked for it’s record of abuses in a similar way. These things have no place in that religion either. The fact is, wherever you have men, you have evil men and women and children will always suffer for as long as we all allow them to.

      I’ve met some pretty awful Bangladeshis in my time, like you, but my overwhelming impression living here is that as a nation, you’re all pretty lovely🙂 THAT was the focus of this particular post but your points are excellent ones to add. Thanks for commenting!

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      • Hi Ken,

        Thanks for your reply. I do think that my own experiences have been clouded by my specific circumstances. I do think poverty and hardship often brings out the worst in people and this is what I have witnessed (most of the people I know are immigrants from villages in Sylhet, like my family).

        You are absolutely right to point out inequality in Britain. In fact, I think the cruel institution of arranged marriages persists in Britain, amongst immigrants, precisely because the standard of “relations of love” between Western men and women is deemed not particularly impressive.

        Ultimately, I think it is inequality that corrupts most people and their personal relations. Britain’s inequality is growing dangerously and, Bangladesh’s is, I think, very much worse due to its poverty and history of being exploited by imperialists.

        That said, the fact that kindness still exists amongst the desperate poor is a testament to human nature and hope that society can one day be truly fair.

        PS. Despite being Bangla, I have never read any Bangladeshi authors. Aside from Asma Gull Hasan, who I will look up, are there any more that you would recommend. (Unfortunately, I cannot read Bengali, so it’ll have to be English language writers). Oh, wait, I have read Brick Lane by Monica Ali who is half-Bengali!

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        • Again, some great points here – especially the criticism of ‘love’ marriages and the abuse of colonial imperialism. Thank you for your contribution – I’m not sure there is anything more I can add!

          Actually Asma Gull Hasan is an American Pakistani (I think) but she writes of the same issues you mentioned that happen in more than just Bangladesh. I am not too sure of Bangladeshi writers myself! I have read several books but the one that stands out is Shazia Omar’s “Like a Diamond in the Sky”. It makes for depressing reading but does give an honest and difficult account of life for youths in Dhaka. Not an easy book to stomach because it offers little in the way of hope. Painfully real and therefore an important read, I think.

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        • Nakib says:

          Hello Shahjahan,
          I am a Bangladeshi in Dhaka. I will answer your question about Bangladeshi authors.
          Actually, there are not much English authors from Bangladesh. The English works are mostly translated. You will not find much rooted English writers like Monica Ali (I have
          read Brick Lane recently) from this country unlike the neighboring Pakistan & India. The better works like the ones from prominent classical writers like Tagore, Kazi Nazrul or the contemporaries from Humayun Ahmed obviously get translated into many different languages. But I do not think there are many English works about social issues in Bangladesh. If you could read Bengali you could have found many different books.
          If you are interested in the liberation war of Bangladesh, there is an English writer called Tahmima Anam, whom you might like to check out. She has written two books. The first,The Golden Age, is set against the backdrop of the liberation war and is simply one great book.Believe me.
          Anyways, enjoy your life. You are not really the only one suffocated by the Bangladeshi family love & patriarchal society. But this issue is ingrained in all Asian countries, not just Bangladesh. & it is obviously not because of the religiousness. It does not matter whether you are Hindu/Muslim, inequality & exploitation of women is everywhere. It will be hypocritical of me to say this issue is present only in Asia actually. USA, the champion of freedom/democracy/ethics & everything, has the highest rates of rapes of women in the world. So saying this patriarchal thing exists in this small country only is not really true…

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          • Hi Nakib,

            Thanks for the recommendations. I will definitely look up Tahmima Anam’s books (as well as Ken’s recommendation). I do not know very much about Bangladeshi history at all. I also will try to find translations of the ‘classics’ that you mention.

            I do agree with you that inequality is everywhere. Without knowing the statistics it is risky to compare countries or societies, I know. However, I would say something about rape. If a woman has been ushered into an arranged marriage, doesn’t the absence of choice or consent render her relations with her husband rape….?

            I would agree that even the rich countries are failing on inequality and, in some ways, bear responsibility for inequality in poorer countries having imposed unfair trading regimes on them for centuries.

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          • I think we have to be careful to differentiate between arranged marriage and forced marriage. Every Bangladeshi woman I know is happy with her marriage, is treated well, has at least some equality with her husband – if not even has a better standing than him! – and loves their children. They were involved in the choosing of their husbands and had opportunity to say no. Some, in fact, did to other prospective grooms. The older ones I know often have very strong marriages and respectful ones with their husbands.
            That said, the women I know tend to come from certain kinds of groups where such things are encouraged and you only have to read a Bangla newspaper to see instances of terrible abuse and forced marriages on a daily basis. This does not make marriages that are arranged – with loving, caring parents using wisdom to choose someone who the the daughter must also accept or be free to reject – completely wrong or tantamount to rape. You could argue that love marriages in the West – which as often as not now breakdown and can lead to terrible violence and abuse towards the wife and children – are wrong and should be considered a kind of ‘longterm rape’.

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          • Thank you for that Nakib. I had forgotten about Tahmima Anam – well worth reading. Tagore and Nazrul are, of course, wonderful classical writers though I think they are better to read in Bangla. The feel and mood of the Bengal spirit is never really captured when translated into English.🙂

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          • Ultimately, I personally think that the institution of marriage as it exists is flawed – but I’m not sure what can replace it.

            I’m really fascinated that you know so many happy Bangladeshi marriages. My knowledge is far narrower than yours but, amongst immigrants, the contrary seems to be truly – though, I reiterate, from the narrow sample of family and relations that I know.

            It’s so hard to know the best way for human relations to exist. I guess, ultimately, if economic and social equality is achieved, humans will find the best way intuitively. It’s inequality that’s the ultimate barrier to a healthy society.

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          • I suspect that many immigrant marriages suffer from the pressure of being in an alien culture which (if it is the West we’re talking about) belittles, ridicules and criticizes the idea of permanent relationships that last through the hard times as well as the good. When things are difficult for people you see them at their worst. That makes any marriage a hard thing to keep going. Even after nearly 16 years of marriage, I’m very aware of how fragile and precious that thing is. Anything could break it if I don’t do my part in maintaining it – and that means treasuring and respecting my wife.

            I’m afraid I don’t share your optimism that “humans will find the best way intuitively” nor that inequality is the ultimate barrier to healthy society. I think that is actually symptom of the bigger problem – greed. Humans are naturally greedy – greedy for money, for power, for sex, for stimulation. The West does not have a monopoly on this – Bangladeshis are just as greedy as us Brits, for instance – but that self-centred greed, the “what’s in it for me?” attitude has such a firm grip now that it is almost foundational.

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  9. kidswhogig says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this Ken – you MUST repost some of your oldies once more. A day in the life of a rockshaw driver would be an interesting topic – very cool about the customs with food – asking for more etc. Please tell us more about that too! Thanks for bringing this one outta the vault. I am gonna send a link to this one for you!

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    • Thank you😀 If you click on the word ‘rickshaw’ in the text it will take you to a post I wrote about a friend of mine who is a wallah in Dhaka. He is a good man and it is awful how these hard-working men are being treated…

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