The streets of Dhaka can sometimes provide unexpected entertainment, not least when you encounter a local variant of the 'common garden South Asian Aunty' - a formidable creature that displays an enviable capacity for dominance when operating within its natural habitat. My friend Polly recently went into a general store to pick up some everyday items, and was more or less jostled aside by one such "lady" who was clearly in a hurry to make everyone aware of just how much disposable income she had. Polly figured that the shopkeeper would ignore her own relatively modest purchases in favour of meeting the obnoxious woman's demands. But things turned out a little differently than expected.
The lady kept asking for one thing after another, but couldn't seem to decide what she actually wanted to buy. Among other things, she asked the shopkeeper to advise her on what kind of make-up she should get for her youngest daughter, who was 10 years old! They both ignored Polly's mild suggestion that perhaps a 10-year-old didn't actually need make-up. The store-owner, predictably enough, advised the mother to start by purchasing one of those "whitening” beauty creams for her daughter -an item that she accepted willingly as the first must-buy item of her shopping pile.
In the midst of the ongoing discussion, the shopkeeper served Polly politely, even as the lady began asking to see the various things that my friend had been looking at. After one of the (non-whitening) creams that she liked turned out to be quite expensive, Polly told him she would take that another day and asked him to pack one of the (non-whitening) facewashes for her. This, of course, provided further inspiration for Aunty-ji!
As Polly left the store, she heard the woman immediately demand to have the full range of facewashes taken down for inspection, thereby making it quite clear that she was a VIP, not content with looking at just one facewash. "Bring them all down - show me everything: limmon, orenz, ishtroberry and all that", she barked at the hapless shopkeeper. She was clearly planning to be there for a while...
Of course, it must be recognised that these individuals also play a beneficial role within society. And they should be given credit for that stop whenever there's any danger of getting caught up in wider events - political challenges, traffic chaos, pollution hazards etc - it is always these yeomen citizens of Dhaka who selflessly remember to keep us focused on what is really important: keeping up with (or staying ahead of) everyone else!
This was illustrated for me in a recent conversation overheard between four ladies - one of whom (let me call her Bossyboots) was holding forth to the other three (all her 'chelas'/followers) about the importance of, well, being her, I suppose….
Chela 1 (in an ingratiating tone): Apa, your house is in such a prime location, so close to all those famous eateries, like Nirob Hotel. I suppose you don't ever have to worry about what to feed guests!
Bossyboots (indignantly): Well, of course I do! I wouldn't dream of feeding guests outside food like that!
Chela 2 (steps in quickly to avert disaster): No, of course not. There's nothing like being served home-cooked snacks when you visit someone. But it must be nice for your family to go out and eat at those places as often as you like.
Bossyboots: Well, my shaheb and I never eat in hotels like that, though the children sometimes like to visit such places. I mean (shuddering fastidiously), who knows what standards of hygiene they maintain?
Chela 3 (obviously clueless about the subtext being put forward here): But places like Nirob Hotel are so famous - I have never heard of anyone getting sick from eating out there!
Bossyboots (coldly): Well, some people will eat anything, you know! They have no sense of refinement. On the few occasions that I have been to those places - usually when out-of-town family members are visiting us, and insist on going - I refuse to eat anything but rice and lentils, because those have been boiled thoroughly. And I wouldn't touch the bhartas- I'm sure they mash them by hand. And who knows where their hands have been!
All three 'chela' ladies fall silent, looking rather depressed.
Bossy boots (relents slightly, noticing their utterly crestfallen expressions): Oh well, I suppose I might consider eating a piece of hilsa fish, since that doesn't require too much cleaning. And it's deep-fried anyway, so that probably kills any germs…
But the softening of her approach comes too late - the damage is done. Those who are inclined to eat at “common” food joints have been put in their place, and silence reigns. Until Bossyboots decides to hold forth on her next subject of expertise. She has, after all, so many. And this time it's about drug rehabilitation for other people's troubled teenagers. But that's a different story altogether!
Of course, the inhabitants of Dhaka do have other sources of entertainment to draw on when they are out and about, as I was reminded during a recent conversation with twenty-something Khaleda, who manages to make me laugh on a regular basis despite the fact that her job as a massage therapist requires her to hit the non-existent pavements of Dhaka on a regular basis (which is, as most will agree, far from being a laughing matter).
Khaleda said, "I'm sick and tired of these men who keep "accidentally" bumping into you just because you're a girl. Today I saw one of them coming - a skinny nerd intent on effecting some kind of collision. I pushed back with my elbow so hard, that he staggered away. And he knew he'd been up to no good, so he didn't even try to protest!”
I told her how sorry I was that she had to go through this on a regular basis just to get to work, and she responded, very practically, "What can you do, Apa, when you live in a "hybrid" city like this?”
I was puzzled by her use of the term "hybrid city", so I asked her what she meant by using that phrase. She said, "I'm not sure exactly what hybrid means. I'm just using it in the most basic sense of the term. There are too many people in the city, the result of "hybrid". We are breeding at too high a rate! You know, like the hybrid seeds that give you bumper crops. We have a bumper crop of creeps wandering around in the streets!”
After talking to Khaleda that day, I've come to the conclusion that sometimes you can hear an unexpected use for a familiar word, and realise that it actually makes perfect sense. But that still leaves us with one question: where are all the aunties when you really need them - to come and deal with the creeps? Perhaps it's time for a revised job description: less talk/gossip, more action!