I stepped into the room of the Guest house at LAMB and I could feel fear rising in my throat. There must have been twenty or so people there and most of them I knew well, yet I was extremely nervous. It was only a jonmodin onusthan – a birthday party – and yet I just wanted to scream and run out of the room.
As any Myers-Briggs specialist will tell you, when extrovert people, like me, get into situations of tension, stress or nervousness they can flip to an ‘immature opposite’. This means that we tend to hide into ourselves and keep out of the way and say nothing. You could not get further from my character if you tried when I am in my comfort zones – the classroom, the seminar, giving a talk or being with friends. Truly introverted people know how to cope with others around but this ‘immature’ version does not. I have, in the past, been quite rude, cut off contact with people for a period of time, and hidden completely away – not a sensible ‘mature’ way to behave. This was how I felt now.
After a certain amount of chit-chat (which I tried to avoid) it came to a time of beginning properly. We were celebrating the fortieth birthday of Heather, a short- term physiotherapist who works with my wife in the Rehab centre. All the Rehab staff – including the machinists who make the wheelchairs and other equipment needed for the department – and all their families were there.
Though some can speak a little English, most don’t – hence my nerves. When under show, my Bangla is dodgy and I make mistakes. Unlike my wife who is naturally able and uses Bangla every day at work anyway, I work in an English medium school so, outside conversations with my friends and ayahs, I don’t get that much practice at it. My written Bangla is much, much better. I had no choice but to use my spoken Bangla here.
I knew how the formal part would start and tried to signal to my wife across the room that, as boss, she should do it. But no, too late, Heather turned to me and said the words out loud I was dreading hearing.
“Ken could you open us in prayer?”
This is not a religious blog, nor is it ever likely to be. There are plenty of blogs out there that deal with that area if you want it. But there is a spiritual dimension to life in Bangladesh that cannot be missed out. Indeed, one can say it is vital to have some kind of a faith if you want to have meaningful dialogue with Bangladeshis on the whole.
Britain has changed considerably over the forty odd years of my life though, of course, I realise that change was going on long before. Even though, by the time I was a boy, many or even most people no longer went to Church, there was still something of a feeling that you ‘had to be a good Christian’ to have any morals. Everyone had to be married rather than ‘living in sin’ and those who claimed to be atheists were viewed with considerable suspicion if not actual hostility.
Forty years later and the reverse is now true. Few go to Church and even amongst the Muslim population in the UK, at least, there are a number in the younger generation who do not go to the mosque. Having a faith of some sort is considered ‘quaint’ at best, ‘that’s good for you but not for me’ as a neutral stance and downright considered to be intellectually reprehensible and virtually evil in the eyes of many. If you are a Christian you must be a fundamentalist freak who thinks everyone should burn in hell. If you are a Muslim you must be a terrorist. If you are a Hindu you are pretty harmless – seeing as from the West’s point of view Hindus have never done anyone any harm – but you are pretty weird and, let’s face it, no one could really believe that nonsense. Perhaps not many would state it quite as plainly as I have here, but when I speak to my Muslim, Christian and Hindu friends it is clear that this is the message they get from us White Westerners in particular.
In rural Bangladesh though, you are in considerable difficulty if you claim to have no belief in a supernatural power. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Muslim – it doesn’t matter, the faiths are respected, but there must be one. You cannot be a person of high morals if you don’t believe in something. It is clear and obvious to all that there must be some kind of deity and anyone who does not see that must be of highly dubious character.
Let me be clear, at this point, that these are not my views on faith itself nor do I pass judgement on any of these comments. Like I say, there are plenty of blogs that will appease your sense of morality and judgement out there. I state them merely to show another difference between Asia and the West as I see it. In a country with 90% Muslim and 9% Hindu population, there are no real statistics for Atheism because it is just taken for granted that it does not exist. Those that don’t believe in God just keep quiet about it.
It was in this way that LAMB was set up by some belonging to a faith and continues to have a spiritual dynamic to it. LAMB has gained a reputation as a “safe place to talk about faith” and one where one’s faith is taken seriously and abuse avoided. Indeed, core ideals from the faiths are used as rules to help everyone work with the aim of helping the poor – ultimately what LAMB is here to do.
Things like “Equal respect for all” is something in the UK that we would take for granted as a legal right with no need for a spiritual dimension. But in a country where such legislation – if it is there at all – cannot be enforced it is essential to take a statement from the scriptures followed by the staff here to remind everyone from the perspective of their own faith background about how we should act towards one another.
It’s not perfect, of course, but the Rehab centre does a damned good job of it. Despite my fear of the evening, I love to see the ladies who work there as they have such a good close relationship. They laugh and joke and play around as old friends should do; Muslim linking arms with Christian linking arms with Hindu. These men and women have known each other for years as friends and as professionals and their comfort in interaction with each other is a joy to watch.
I coughed, all eyes on me now, and started to pray aware that my prayer should be appropriate for everyone listening. Well I tried. I concentrated hard to remember all that dhormo bangla, religious terminology, that I had learned in the past and regretted that I had never bothered to learn a prayer in Bangla properly. It is bound to come up at some point. How could I have been so foolish? I worked hard to say thanks for Hannah’s birthday, how we were thankful for the food we were about to eat and how we thanked God for bringing Hannah to us.
Apart from the odd slip, turning ‘God’ into ‘Gods’ plural momentarily and, for a brief excruciating moment, where I just spoke utter nonsense that sounded Bangla but definitely wasn’t, I did ok I thought. Yeah, no Pulitzer prize but for what was really just a glorified Grace it got by without any monumental cock up. Why had I been so worried? I said ‘Amen’ and we all looked up.
“Daddy!” my daughter who had also been there said aloud and with obvious glee on her face.
“Her name’s Heather not Hannah, you fool! You said Hannah twice.”
Yep, I died of embarrassment.
But I was, at least, amongst friends and it set the atmosphere for an otherwise fun evening with good food and even better company. I’m glad I went, though next time, I might just leave my daughter at home.
Seriously, she could have whispered to me. I’m sure no one would have noticed…