“Bangladesh has shown me what living peacefully really looks like”– Zaifa Ahmed
A long, long time ago – just about 50 years ago – a very tiny country, buried at the bottom of South-Asia, gained its independence on March 26th, 1971. This land housed and freed Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religions; a land that is now known as Bangladesh.
As a child, I was not as immersed in my countries history nor the motherland despite being surrounded by Bengali speakers since birth. My English became more dominant, and my Bengali thinned out. Yes, I wore traditional clothes. Yes, I ate our spices and food with a vigour that can only be attributed to our Desi dishes. Despite Bengali customs being so ingrained in my daily life (as I recently found out), I am out of touch with Bangladesh.
This piece of writing is my way of manoeuvring around my culture and stripping away the enduring effects of British colonial reign. I want to exhibit Bangladesh at its finest to all who are willing to listen… or read.
“People sacrificed their life for our language but it’s being diluted and forgotten”– Juned Choudhury
Our flag is a vibrant green template with a bright red circle smack dab in the middle. I am a terrible artist, so thank God it was such a simple flag. Yet this simplicity spoke volumes about Bangladesh and its people. The green represents fertile land: we are surrounded by water that keeps our land moist, allowing for the freshest vegetation known to man to sprout. The symbolism of the red varies depending on which Bengali you talk to. For some, it represents the blood of our ancestors that fought with their all to gain our independence. But my favourite interpretation is the red that represents the hope of Bangladesh – hope for a better future and a more fulfilled life. Bangladesh’s flag is the willpower of Bangladesh’s land and its people.
Now onto the significant bit: “Food!” exclaims Muhammad Yahya. Just imagine the food. It is a Bengali trait to have to have baat (rice) at least once a day. Each meal must have at least three dishes accompanying it. It does not matter how small the dish is, it must be there. If there is anything less, it is almost blasphemous. I remember my Nanu (maternal grandmother) telling off my mum for having prepared only two curries, even though us tiny children would only ever touch one. There are usually two fish dishes, a salad dish, some vegetable bazzi (vegetable saute), shutki (dried fish), chicken and meat whenever guests are around. We are overfed not because of our parents’ lack of control, but because our host’s favourite pastime is shoving as many dishes down our throats as possible. “Handesh [date cakes] and soi fita [rice dumplings] are distributed, and everyone is welcomed to every house for a snack and a round of banter”, says Lubna Ansari. See how food is distributed like mad? See how it brings people together (even though this probably prevails in every culture)?
“The curries and the street food… the smells and aromas are so enticing!”– Muhammad Yahya
Sa (tea). I cannot make it taste delightful at all, but it is the basis of being a Bengali, along with that white plate decorated with blue flowers – a little inside-joke between us Bengali lot. Sa was a bizarrely common topic popping up in the interviews I conducted for this article. Even though sa can be a simple mix of boiled kettle water, milk and a tea bag, it is really more of a complicated fusion of rich flavours. I’ll give you a quick written crash course on how to make sa:
- Boil milk in a pan on the stove.
- Turn on the kettle (after filling water into it).
- Add into the pan a black tea bag with some aniseed, bay leaf and sugar (extra work, but all for tastes).
- Pour boiling water into the pan and let it simmer.
- Regularly squeeze the tea bag (without busting it).
- When sizzling hot (and to your taste) pour it into mugs using a mini (and I mean mini) sieve so you can get the junks of excess spices and tea bags out of the tea mix.
It’s like looking at a furniture manual; you know how to do it, you just… can’t – that is me making sa.
Our clothes derive from both Indian and Pakistani culture – a plethora of ideas and colours. Bengali clothes are anything but boring; even our neutral colours or cotton clothes are banging.
“Both the land and clothes are vibrant”– Shahnaz Choudhury
There are so many things to choose from: styles, patterns, and materials. Remember where the tag says your clothes are made from? Yep, Bangladesh! We often have our clothes tailored by family or friends. Our clothes represent not only the people, but the very ground we walk on. It is so astounding how we utilise our clothes. The same salwar kameez (dress) can be “worn inside the home and outside the home. Even at fancy gatherings”, says Lubna Ansari.
Natural beauty is what our country embodies. Yes, there are some cities and skyscrapers spread far and wide across the country. But there is “always lush greenery and tropical coloured food” according to Shahnaz Choudhury. An endless assortment of options where you will always find another new dish or a variation of a Desi dish. Did you know about Bangladesh’s fresh produce? Every house has plants or access to some sort of vegetation. My favourite part was, in fact, the locally sourced fruits that never seemed to run out. It is a paradise. Palm trees that touch the skies. I saw more fruit varieties during my short stays in Bangladesh than in other countries my entire life. We are a land of Fish. I won’t deny this stereotype. The number of dishes produced with Fish alone is monstrous. Fish satni, Fish pokura, Fish curries, Fish everything! And yet, Bangladesh is so careful. There are laws in place to prevent the country from fishing to the extent that fishes go extinct. Bangladesh learns from its mistakes and the mistakes of others, being the first country to ban plastic bags after it realised the damaging effect polythene had on the fishes, the seas and the environment. We are moving forward in ways first-world countries are not.
“Growing up in a Bengali community, it felt as if we were one big family”– Zaifa Ahmed
Now, this is everything! Our entire wedding bash with all the ceremonies has a go-hard-or-go-home element. You’ve got to start saving from the day you’re born. To be honest, even though I adore our wedding ceremonies, the amount of money spent has me questioning our sanity. I am saying it here and now people, the reason Bangladesh is in poverty is because of our extravagant wedding ceremonies!
Bengali wedding ceremonies make us all feel like one grand family. They naturally range from religion to religion, which Bangladesh is fully adapted to and prepared for. We have a Cinifan (engagement), a Mehndi (a PG hen party with family and friends), the wedding itself, and then the Walima (the Bride’s welcoming). Our weddings involve everyone, even people you met briefly. Poor or rich; old or young; far or near; male or female. Our culture ignores grudges during this beautiful time and invites people from heaven to hell.
“When there is a fire, people don’t stare, they jump in and help”– Juned Choudhury
In my opinion, this is my favourite part of the article. Nearly everyone interviewed mentioned that Bangladesh’s most precious gem is the people themselves. People. That is what stands out most in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis are so concerned about their neighbour, their cousin’s neighbour, and their neighbouring village. It is a community where people are closer to each other than any strand of hair on our heads.
“No matter how big or small the village when push comes to shove all unite”– Shahnaz Choudhury
I admit that at times this can be overwhelming, but it is so beautiful in the long run. Even for a hermit like me. There will always be help available.
“We got strangers who help each other out without thinking twice”– Samuel Hoque
We are not a perfect country as we are always thrown in political messes, floods or a poverty-stricken mess. But we are ever-changing and evolving as a nation. We have a unification of religions already and we care for our environment. I have no doubt that Bangladesh will be ticking more boxes in the future in their strive for national improvement.
*Bengali language used in this article contains a mix of Dhaka and Sylheti dialects.
Special thanks to my interviewees who contributed to the making of this article:
- Juned Choudhury
- Lubna Ansari
- Muhammad Yahya
- Samuel Hoque
- Shahnaz Choudhury
- Zaifa Sharmin Ahmed
Some Bengali celebrities of interest: