As my time in Bangladesh is fast approaching the three-quarter way point, I have been thinking about all the things that I now take for granted, which at first were ‘different’ and ‘interesting’.
The non-verbal form of communication, a subtle head dip and tilt, is one example. While I was familiar with the ubiquitous head waggle in India, it took me a while to recognise the Bangladeshi head wobble, a subtle dip and tilt, which is (usually) a sign of assent or agreement.
To show you how it works, here is an example of a typical conversation I have on my way to work every morning with CNG drivers. (CNGs are the automated three-wheeled ‘taxis’, resembling cages on wheels, that run on combustible natural gas.) From a position at the side of the busy main road (Mirpur Road), where I have been dropped by a rickshaw, I begin waving in an effort to flag down an empty CNG. After waiting, and waiting, eventually one pulls over.
ME: Ey, jaben? (‘Hey, will you go?’) [The way of asking, ‘are you in service?’]
CNG DRIVER: Ji, jabo. Kothay jaben? (Yes, I will go. Where are you going?)
ME: Agargaon. NILG. [My place of work – the NILG in Agargaon]
CNG DRIVER: [confused] LGD? [None of them know where the NILG is and always assume it’s the more well-known LGD – Local Government Division]
ME: Na, NILG. LGD samne – ami jani…. (No, NILG. In front of LGD – I know [the way]…)
CNG DRIVER: Jabo. (I’ll go.)
ME: Koto? (How much?)
CNG DRIVER: [firmly] Duy So taka deben. (You’ll give me 200 taka.)
ME: [aghast] Naaaaa, ami bharo jani … protekdien ami jai … asi taka. (Noooooo, I know the fare …. I travel every day …. 80 taka.)
CNG DRIVER: [angrily] Na, na, Agargaon … jam….. duy so taka … (No, no, Agargaon … traffic jams …. 200 taka)
ME: Naaa …. [smiling pleadingly] …asi taka bharo bhalo …. Meter pontash taka! Ami ekjon volunteer o ami beton pay na! (Nooo, 80 taka is a good fare! On the meter it would be 50 taka! I’m a volunteer and I don’t get paid!) [CNG drivers in Dhaka refuse to use their meters.]
CNG DRIVER: Either drives away angrily and leaves me stranded to start all over again……. or
CNG DRIVER: [smiling at my efforts] Ekso pontash taka. (150 taka.)
ME: [even more pleadingly, exhausted, but still smiling!] Naa …. ekso taka. (Ah no, 100 taka.)
CNG DRIVER: [revs engine, getting ready to drive away…]
ME: [very quickly, pleadingly] Accha, ekso bis taka. (Ok, 120 taka.)
CNG DRIVER: [silent] Slight dip of the head and tilt to one side – hardly noticeable.
ME: [In early days in Dhaka, wondering why he’s not answering me] Ekso bis taka – ji? (120 taka – yes?)
CNG DRIVER: [still silent] Again, the slight head dip and tilt.
ME: [in beginning, still wondering why he’s not answering me!] Ekso bis taka? Jaben?! (120 taka? Will you go?!)
CNG DRIVER: [muttering impatiently] Accha, accha, #*! (OK, OK and probably….. ‘Will you get in for f#!k sake!’)
To put this in context, 120 taka=c. €1.14. VSO are of the opinion that I should pay no more than 80 taka i.e. €0.76, the ‘correct’ fare (on meter) being 50 taka! They are probably right. (They reimburse volunteers for travel costs to and from work.) However, there have been many mornings and evenings, when, at the mere mention of a figure of 80 taka, a CNG driver would simply drive away and leave me stranded. And, after waiting for an eternity in the heat and the smog, I am loathe to let a vacant CNG escape, when one eventually comes along. If the roads weren’t so chaotic I’d get a little scooter. Ah, imagine the freedom!