Y’know, something…in all my 23-years of experience visiting Bangladesh, ‘Thank you’ is a response that does not seem to easily roll-off Bangladeshi tongues.
They say it with their head (by giving a little silent nod), with their eyes, perhaps even their heart, but rarely with their tongue.
During those 23-years, I’ve visited many schools and villages, handed out countless freebies to children and adults (tee-shirts, pens, key-rings etc.) and presented prizes of different values and descriptions on sports days and so on.
On most occasions the recipients joyfully shook my hand, blessed me with a warm smile, but the actual word ‘thanks’ was missing. In the beginning I assumed they felt a ‘dhonnobad(thank you) would be wasted – I wouldn’t understand the Bengali language, but after the first 500 or so similar responses I began to questioned this.
Sure, ‘thank you’ or dhonnobad was expressed by some, but this was rare… so rare in fact, it was like someone sneaking up from behind and surprising me by bursting a paper bag near my ears!
Most would approach somewhat coy, their eyes transfixed on the item as if it were a homing beam, somewhat excited no doubt, and as soon as it was handed to them, they would turn on the balls of their feet and depart… without uttering a word.I not only found that rather strange and in the bad manners category, and not good to enhance their character building.
Ali Akbar’s Fun’n’Games
In those days, I sponsored fun’n’games for children 10-15, both boys and girls in different villages. The games were very popular and much fun was had by all, Kids from surrounding villages rolled up on their bicycles (with additional passengers, or simply walked. It was the place to be on a Friday afternoon after Mosque prayers. It attracted hundreds weekly; producing a sea of happy smiling faces, you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The cricket tournament was particularly popular. The Grand Final drew crowds of around 5,000 people of all age groups.
Time goes by quickly, especially between loan repayments. Many of the young players now are married (some with children) and holding down good jobs with Special Branch, banking institutions, and so on. It’s always pleasant to be attacked in the street with an ear-to-ear smile and a friendly ‘hello’ from the players who remember you from the Ali Akbar Fun’n’Ganes with great fondness.
Forgive me, I digress we were talking about the scarcity of ‘thank you’s in Bangladesh society.
So, during a meeting, my charity co-ordinator, Ali Akbar, discussed it thoroughly and we decided we do them and extra favour and endeavour to break their unacceptable habit. We make a rule proclaiming that if the person did not say ‘thanks’ or ‘dhonnobad’, we would take back the item from them to teach him or her a lesson they would remember for life!
I know… I know that sounds cruel, nasty and mean (especially from a foreigner), but the lesson itself would be a lesson for life, not just a single occasion, and exceedingly far more valuable than the actual item they would have received.
As they lined-up to receive their prize/present, they were told loud and clear in Bengali of this rule. Fortunately, only on a few occasions was this rule exercised and on subsequent prize-giving occasions, these same people expressed thanks without prompting! One thing that can be said favorably about Bangladeshis is that they are quick learners! Ali and I now have the satisfaction of knowing there are now several thousands Bangladeshi children who do say ‘thanks’ and, hopefully, from them others will learn.
Oddly enough, the beggar children I encounter in Gulshan always express their thanks. Maybe they are graduates from a beggars’ finishing school or suchlike!
In Gulshan when I first arrived, fully paid-up members of the Beggars Actors Equity greeted me. Many of the beggars would approach me rubbing their stomachs as if they had not eaten in days and others would put on fake tear-filled voices and contort their faces as if they were on the brink of death, but I refused to applaud or encourage their Academy award performances.
Having very little Bengali in my armory, I’d simply say ‘jup!’ (Stop!), in a stern voice, and then add ‘hashi...hashi’ (smile) repeatedly. Telling them to stop the theatrics, but if they ask politely and gave me a smile I would be delighted to give.
Those who smiled back would be awarded with taka and chocolates and those who didn’t I would give nothing and continue walking. Soon the word spread among the begging community, Gulshan 1 and beyond about the white man who demanded and was given a smile in return for his taka. They bestowed on to me the title of Bondhu Hash (friend with the smiling face), as if I were being inducted into their tribe! They still know me by that name today although many of the children are now grown up.
I have a rare relationship with beggars in Gulshan and Banani while my heart wants me to give to all. I refuse to give taka to beggar women holding babies in their arms on hot sunny days. No baby should be out all day unprotected in the hot scorching sun, inviting fever, dehydration, and other discomforts and illnesses. Beggars’ women with babies don’t come to me anymore! I guess they concluded they would be wasting their time
‘Sorry’, ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you,’ although tiny, have incredible power to change a person’s entire attitude, behaviour, and generate happiness, but they are dismally underused, almost gathering dust on the shelf.
One of the saddest regrets anybody can have is not expressing their feelings to those they love, admire and appreciate, while they had the opportunity. Only God knows when the person will die and not telling the people whom you love and admire that you love them could rob you of the opportunity forever.
Say nice things
Saying nice things about people after they are dead is not of much value and certainly of no benefit to them. Whereas, a kind word, an expression of admiration or one of encouragement can be priceless to the living.
Irish author Oscar Wilde once said: “you do not regret the things you do in life, it’s only the things you don’t do”.
It’s taken 40-years for the Government of Bangladesh to thank ‘foreign friends’ who gave invaluable life-saving assistance during the 1971 War of Independence (some of my friends are still waiting for their ‘thank you’).
Sadly deserving benefactors never received as much as a ‘thank you’ for their hard compassionate work. During the long period, many became old, weak and infirm while others simply died. To the great credit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the present government, a wrong has been righted, but taking so many decades to express thanks is not an example we should follow in our private lives.
There are things in life far greater in value than money. I’m of the belief if you can put a monetary value on anything; it’s of no ‘real’ value. Only what you can take with you when you die or what you leave in the hearts of people is, but not all would agree in a dog-eat-dog, take-what-you-can-get world like this.
The greatest craving of humankind is to be appreciated and the ability is within all of us to show our appreciation generously without it costing us a single taka. Parents are notoriously short-changed by their children in the ‘I Love you’ department.
Despite the fact for years they have shown their children unconditional love, attended to all their welfare needs, school-runs, doctors-runs and made all kinds of personal sacrifices; uttering the simple expression of ‘I love you’ in part acknowledgment is beyond most children. They will usually retort: “they know I love them”. Where is the justice?
And they’re right, of course, but there is no amount of money or gifts at Eid that can match the value of ‘I love you’ to the ears of loving parents and grandparents. There is no logical reason why this gift shouldn’t be given frequently, without it having to be a special occasion like Eid, Christmas, birthday or whatever. It costs nothing… a smile is the only gift-wrapping required and the pleasure it gives is immeasurable to the soul – yours and theirs.
There is a family in Dhaka I know that has the right recipe for happy living. Tanveer Hossain (father), Farzana (mother), and sons Aaquib (20) and Hafiz Aadib (17) in Farmgate is the only family I know in Bangladesh to be totally honest, decent and flawless in every respect, and impeccable ambassadors for the Islamic faith… for Bangladesh… and how business should be performed with the highest integrity.
Tanveer is the owner of Mac Solutions, an AppleMac computer sales and repairs concern in Farmgate. Some time back he regularly demonstrated his appreciation to his employees by taking them (and their entire families), on all-expenses paid vacation to Nepal, India, or somewhere exotic.
He’s now operating a Hajj Agency, performing Allah’s work, and escorting people to the Holy sites in an impeccably honest way, as Allah would wish.
What I’ve written above will embarrass them and their modesty and hearts of great compassion would definitely not approve. But they’re also full of the virtue of forgiveness and I’m counting on that!
Telling someone you love, admire, or appreciate him or her needs no special occasion. If you feel it does, you have been brainwashed and lead by commercial marketing forces and not by your heart. Do yourself a favour, break the spell, assert your individuality, and just do it… today (why wait until tomorrow?). Remember: today is never too soon… tomorrow may be too late (and then you’ll have a lifetime of regret to ponder the lost opportunity).
(Sir Frank Peters is a former newspaper and magazine publisher and editor, an award-winning writer, a humanitarian, and a special foreign friend of Bangladesh.)