A month ago I put up a long post about my experiences in Bangladesh from the Hong Kong airport. Since then I haven’t followed up much. Since Bangladesh is in the news now, I have decided to congeal some of my reflections into something that resembles post.
Some background facts to keep in mind. Bangladesh is home to 140 million individuals crammed into a geographical expanse about the size of New York state (or Wisconsin, or 1/3 the size of Imbler, you get the picture). This high level of crowding in well known, almost one of the stereotypical assumptions about Bangladesh, but it needs to be experienced to be truly understood.
One of the consequences of a high birthrate (at least in the past) is that many adults have somewhere on the order of 3-5 siblings. With the development of roads and the spread of automobile use among the “middle class” these extended family social networks have become extremely tight, tighter I suspect than in the past. Many families who migrated to Dhaka decades ago now keep in far closer touch with their rural roots than in the past because it is feasible to take day trips to one’s ancestral village. Recall that Bangladesh is a relativey compact nation, with the vast majority of the population living within 100 miles of Dhaka.
Family is everything in Bangaldesh, a nation that is the world’s most corrupt. The large families in the past, a traditional culture and the rise of modern transportation seems to have resulted in a hardening of “conservative” familial norms and a reversal of the process of cultural change and divergence between urban and rural. Bangladesh is a nation where a close relative (brother, first cousin, etc.) can arrive at your doorstep without warning and expect that you will put him up without any complaint.
On the other hand, relations with non-kin are different. There is a qualitative difference in tenor when socializating with those not of one’s blood. For example, the amount of sweets that one brings to a occasion after an invitation is inversely proportional to familial closeness, that is, with kin one does not need to bring as many sweet dishes because one can expect far more tangible things from kin (boarding and lodging primarily if need be). While conversation with kin tends to focus on familial topics and gossip, especially when women are in the room, interactions with non-kin seem more forced and without a mooring, because the common kin world-view and knowledge base can not be leveraged.
In fact, the one time that I felt I was in a social situation that resembled the United States was when we visited my father’s old colleagues from Dhaka University. There were individuals who were chemists and physicists, my father’s old colleagues. They asked my brother what his plans were and he mentioned that he was going to attend graduate school in the fall studying physics. My father’s closest non-kin best friend exclaimed, “Ah, such a beautiful topic of study.” To hear such an abstract and aesthetic judgement on the sciences being expressed brought me back to my world, unmoored and unshaped by familial considerations and gossip, dictated by ideas and methods, soaked in information. Such things can not compete with gossip about family and relations, but when speaking to non-kin they have a chance because familial information commonality is sharply attenuated.
In simultaenous conjunction with the overwhelming preoccupation with kin ties there exists a total lack of devotion to the public arena. As note above, there are collegial friendships that cross the boundaries of kin, but I doubt there is ever the possibility that one would put a close friend above kin in a pinch. Many “friends” (most) seem to be first and second cousins, or somehow related to one’s extended family network. Instead of atomic individuals forming social networks and exploring social space, one already has a preformed network that one is slotted into upon birth. Marriages and business relationships alter the shape of the social space that one is embedded within (that is, the extended family network), it seems difficult to truly affect unilateral change as an individual. Outside of this network exist the Others. If humans have a fixed basket of “altruism” to give (more likely, perceived altruism), and all of it is distributed amongst one’s kin, it seems that altruism toward non-kin and the general society is starved.
For me, the clearest indication of this is the attitude toward garbage. One of my relatives lives in a modern air-conditioned apartment complex. Adjacent to this relatively posh abode there exists a small collection of hovels. My cousin looks down upon these hovels from her 6th floor apartment. Below you could see the minutiae of every day life for the urban poor, rickshaw drivers and the like. Chickens dash to and fro and women wash their clothing in public.
Anywyay, after a scrumptious meal I wondered where the leavings from the food were going to be tossed. I watched as my cousin took the bucket and simply emptied into the “courtyard” of the hovels below. When I looked closer it was clear that everyone in the apartment complex was using the the courtyard as their dumping pit. To me seemed a particularly repulsive behavior, individuals who were rather affluent simply tossing their trash in the laps of those who were living in the grossest poverty. I talked to someone else who had visited Bangladesh when I came back to the United States, and they too noted that the attitude toward garbage was shocking. We both realized we had independently developed the habit of stuffing trash in our pants, so difficult was it for us to leave crap in the corner so that the servants could toss it outside somwhere “convenient.”
It is peculiar that Bangladeshis will complain at the same time about the problem of the lack of public spiritedness in the company of their extended family, as the answer is sitting right before them! One of my uncles is notorious for helping out members of his family and settling his neices and nephews into good jobs and good marriages and good apartments. People talk about how the man is run ragged and has no time. But talking to my uncle I suspect that if he wasn’t doing all this for his relatives, he might be doing something else for the public good, perhaps being an anti-corruption activist or getting invovled in a civic forum. As it is, he has no time for that. So focused are many Bangladeshis on the inner world of their family, their “clan,” that they simply have no time for the outside world. And because the outside world is so bereft of succor, sympathy and justice, because they have left it to the basest of human wolves, they focus only on the inner circle of their family.
At least this is the general pattern. There are exceptions. One of which I will illustrate with a story.
One of my uncles is a geology professor who takes constant leave to aid in the activities of his Muslim religious order. He has a beard, his wife and daughter are in purdah, while his sons study the Koran and Hadiths. He is a true-blue fundamentalist. On the other hand, he is apolitical and generally against violence, coercion and non-consensual “persuasion.” His goal is to convince Muslims to be good Muslims, and he travels Bangladesh and the world on educational excursions.
On this particular day he was on a bus. Five times a day he has to perform salat prayer, and so he would get up and do his duty to his god. Initially, he asked the bus driver to stop so he could pray without motion and be assured that he faced Mecca, but the driver refused. Soon, he realized that the driver was becoming erratic and turning the bus here and there whenever he got up to pray. My uncle complained but the driver just gave him a disgusted look. Dressed in
white, in his cap and beard, my uncle stands out as one of the pious, so he often is the target of praise, respect and revulsion. This was one of the last cases.
At some point they stopped in a medium-sized town. My uncle was at a fruit stall when he saw another man dressed as he was. He made eye contact and exclaimed, “Brother!” The other man smiled and greeted him. They had never met each other, but exchanged information about their experiences in their religious order and my uncle noted the difficulties of the trip. The other man was outraged. He excused himself and came back with a dozen “brothers” of his religious order. Soon some of these left and came back with another two dozen. Somewhere south of fifty men marched to the bus, and they dressed down the bus driver for his “impious” activity. After that point the bus driver was more careful about his driving when my uncle prayed.
The point I wanted to illustrate with the story is that a non-kin network does exist in Bangladesh, a network that can mobilize and execute within 30 minutes in a totally alien part of the nation (from my uncle’s vantage point). It is of course a form of Islam, and its emphasize on universal brotherhood helps to reorient from kin and kith to the world outside. The organization channels some of the altruism of humans and mobilizes them in unison in a way that is akin to an army. If my uncle was not a religious man it would seem ludicrous for him to seek out the aid of non-kin, but as it was, he had a quasi-family that extended throughout the nation that he could call upon. This serves as a potent practical incentive for some people to display piety, though the costs involved in becoming part of the Tableegh (his order) is not trivial in terms of scholarship, rituals, rules and time one needs to invest.
In a previous entry, Up to Medievalism, I argued that Bangladesh must tolerate the crass and common corruption of NGOs because they serve as the main counterweights to religious orders as far as civic institutions go. A theocratic society is unworkable if Iran is any judge, so the hard path to modernity is through development of non-familial ties via work and government. A central model where there is the national government on top is just not appropriate for Bangladesh, rather, one must create a dense local non-kin network, and that is where NGOs come in. There are no easy answers, what I depicted above is probably the result of a few stable social equilibria, so some destablizing input needs to be inserted to jar them over the hill toward modernity.
Posted by razib at 12:03 PM