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Food for Thought

Friends Fiends and Foul Play

Farah Ghuznavi

In addition to the flurry of festivities and good resolutions inevitably generated by each set of New Year celebrations, for many of us this period also brings an opportunity to reflect on the events and lessons of the previous year. And when we are ushering in a new decade as well as the new year, that tendency is heightened further. This year, among other things, I found myself pondering some of the philosophical underpinnings of Bangla grammar lessons. In case you are now getting worried that this will be some kind of esoteric, hard-to-understand “tattik” column, let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Just read on, if you don't believe me!

As a product of the Bangla-medium schooling system, my friends and I had to struggle through any number of apparently pointless grammar lessons for what really must be one of the world's most complex, if beautiful, languages. All else aside, we couldn't see any reason why we should need to learn why we said what we said -- essentially the purpose of grammar lessons! when we were already speaking our mother tongue quite correctly without being aware of the grammatical logic (or lack thereof) that lay behind it.

One of the few grammar lessons that was actually quite fun was the “ak kothay prokash”, which involved summing up a descriptive phrase in a single word. So we learned that “kritoggo” (grateful) was a word that described a person who acknowledged a favour or kindness that someone had done him/her, and that “okritoggo” was the person who did not show gratitude to a benefactor. But the one that had us really puzzled was “kritoghno” (ingrate), the person who tried to actually harm someone that had helped him/her. Why on earth would anyone do that, we wondered? We were so young! We would find out soon enough...

There is a wonderful, possibly apocryphal story about a well-known Bangali philanthropist, who took pains to help almost everyone who came to him seeking some kind of assistance. One day, a man came to ask him for some money to help for a family member's education that he himself was unable to provide. This gentleman generously gave him 500 takas (the story takes place in a setting over half a century ago), which was more than enough to cover the expenses under discussion.

As the petitioner was leaving, delighted at his good fortune, the wealthy gentleman called him back and gave him an additional 10 takas. When the puzzled man asked him what the extra money was for, the gentleman said, “I have done you a favour, haven't I?” “You have indeed,” the man replied. “So this money is to buy the bamboo you will need, when you come to pay me back for my good deed” the gentleman said (referring to the Bangla phrase “baash deya”, which translates rather awkwardly into “beating with a bamboo” i.e. giving someone a hard time). “Since I gave you the money that you need now, I might as well give you the money that you will need later” he said laughingly, making a wry reference to the fact that in this life, no good deed goes unpunished!

You may feel I'm being cynical,but unfortunately, all joking aside, there are times when kindnesses are indeed subsequently paid back in the coin of an inexplicable ingratitude; that too, when the giver may not have expected or wanted anything in return -- let alone the poisonous payback inflicted on him or her. At a superficial level, this is hard to understand, unless of course the person you are dealing with is recognised as being at least eccentric, and very possibly psychotic. But human beings are complicated creatures. And they can do the strangest things for their own reasons; reasons, of course, that they believe to be fully justified, due to some twisted logic of their own.

A few years ago I was having a conversation with an old school friend, Naureen, about the imminent trip home of a friend of hers, Shyama, who had settled in Australia. Shyama was visiting Bangladesh after nearly 5 years. During that time, she had been through a difficult divorce from her Australian husband, and had more recently remarried a Bangladeshi expatriate living in Australia. “I don't think I'll be seeing her though,” Naureen said sadly.

I was surprised to hear it, since I knew that the two of them had always been close friends. When I pressed her as to why she was unlikely to be spending much time with Shyama, Naureen explained that at the time of the other woman's divorce, she had been on a work trip to Melbourne and stayed an extra week to spend some time with Shyama. Since Shyama's first marriage had taken place against her parents' wishes, she found herself isolated from her family afterwards, and had to handle the divorce proceedings alone. Under the circumstances, Naureen had felt it even more important to be supportive of her friend.

At the time, Shyama had been deeply appreciative of Naureen's efforts, but things changed after the latter's gradual rehabilitation within her family, when she became increasingly distant from Naureen. Now, after her remarriage, Shyama had begun actively avoiding her old friend. As Naureen was finding out, some people who experience bad times may avoid the very friends who supported them during those times, once things have improved, because they do not want to be reminded of those painful earlier events. Be that as it may, it seems a poor way to repay the friends who have stood by you in tough times.

In a way, Naureen got off relatively lightly; all she experienced was the pain of losing a friend. Bad enough, you might think! But there are instances where people will actively seek to hurt someone who has helped them, whether they do it through financial double-dealing, professional discredit or personal attacks. And of course, when all else fails in terms of hurting those who help you, there is always the option of character assassination - a very effective one in Bangladesh, where people are often willing to spread rumours, even when they know quite well that there is no truth to the slander. In one case I know, where two friends made great efforts to support a third, by helping her to cover up the truth when she had badly messed up her academic career by failing two sets of exams, they were shocked by the outcome. Not only did the girl break off the friendship once the crisis was past and her rehabilitation complete thanks to the explanations they had jointly concocted, she then added insult to injury by proceeding to viciously badmouth her ex-friends in conversations with other people. Perhaps she was worried that they would expose her fictitious achievements; something that they'd never had any intention of doing.

We are often told that we should behave with others in the way that we would like them to behave with us; conventional wisdom says that it's the right thing to do. Which brings up an interesting point. One of the reasons that we behave decently with others is because it's the right thing to do, and another reason is that we fear a backlash in the form of bad karma. For those who remain unconvinced by those two reasons, perhaps there's a third very good reason that it's worth thinking carefully before repaying kindness with ingratitude. If all else fails as an incentive to behave well, consider this: those who you have treated badly for no good reason may just decide to return the favour one of these days!



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