The village of Charenghi Pathar has nothing to appeal to the average tourist. So effective was this deterrent that I turned out to be the first one they had ever seen there. Although its lack of appeal was motivation enough for me to want to see it, the same could be said of many places, so it was no random event that brought me there. It was the birth place of my dear friend J who had his first opportunity to go back there for twenty years, having fled with his family due to one of the periodic bouts of anti Muslim violence that have plagued the region. I had assumed that after the film star like popularity myself and other visitors had experienced in his current home of Bangladesh, as this mere side kick to the return of a prodigal son I would be able to take a bit of a back seat in the proceedings and remain more of a humble observer. Not having reckoned on the total historical absence of foreigners my estimation could not have turned out to be more wrong.
With peace having returned to this corner of Assam Charenghi Pathar has remained a largely Bengali, Muslim community, whose lives revolve around agriculture and fish breeding: in a flat land of monsoon filled rice fields the switch to a fish based economy is facilitated by a little more than a bit of digging. After years of honing their skills, fish breeders churn out fish fry in their millions to supply farmers and despite the timeless look of the agricultural scenery the modern practice of hormone injections to facilitate predictable and regular spawning is well established. However, rice farming plods along, free from mechanisation as much as it has ever done. Never was there a sense of urgency in the short high street and any stroll was always punctuated with unhurried chats with friends and neighbours, often accompanied by yet another call for a glass of sweet, milky tea. This gentle pace is hardly a recipe for untold riches and many eke out a life of muddy simplicity in their shacks of timber and sun-baked earth.
One treasure can be occasionally found however, rooted in the local earth: Agar wood. Its tree produces the most expensive timber in the world due to a fungal infection which creates a fragrant, protective oil that can be processed in still like contraptions to produce a much in demand scent with medicinal properties. Such is the demand that a short drive away can be found the vast mansion of the Anfar Perfumes family, whose products keep Gulf Arabs smelling of heavenly perfumes, at a cost commensurate with ownership of huge quantities of a somewhat less divinely smelling oil. Such is the value of the dark, infected wood that at the Agar wood market you will see carvers painstakingly whittling off the valueless pale wood to leave, often complex sculptural forms of the fragrant portions. The dealers you see clutching kilo bags of what looks like dull grey bark chippings are holding $1000s of dollars worth of Agar wood so it is little surprise that the industry is tightly controlled.
Some progress has occurred since J’s departure: the dusty high street now boasts some portions of tarmac and his family’s former, simple dwelling has been replaced by a bank and the house of a wealthy business man. Even the internet has penetrated this quiet corner of rural India and some of the young share their lives on Facebook. In fact it was due to this that J was able to find a contact in the village, his last remaining relative, his grandmother having died over a year before. Despite having no other connection than this fb friend request, who was actually living in Mumbai, rather than the village itself, we were unreservedly welcomed to stay with his family, fed, watered and waited on hand a foot for the entire week there. Even the neighbours were competing to feed us by bringing round tasty treats, this is not a village for visitors on a diet!
For Bengali Muslims this is a simple expression of hospitality and to suggest anything else, such as offering to pay, would be met with utter confusion at such strange foreign ways. One elder son was entrusted with the role of guide for us for the whole week and even paying for a round of teas demanded a preemptive assault on the cash till with the pittance required for its payment, so all-encompassing were the strictures of hospitality. Happily, I was able to pay the family friend with a car who was found to drive us around the area to experience a bit of local life.
Although I have trouble remembering people I met last week, J soon found friends he remembered from school and so started an incessant round of house calls where our presence was an instant call for more tea and snacks. Soon the Facebook and texting networks were sizzling with the news that there was a stranger in town and requests for a visit came piling in. Schools were leading the charge for visiting requests and almost every day I crossed at least one off the seemingly ever-increasing list.
English language is taught at all the schools in the district and the chance of interacting with a native speaker was one that was unlikely to be repeated for a long time. I had a long chat with every head master and all the teachers introduced themselves, such that schooling often ground to a halt during my visits; dutifully I made the rounds of every single class room, sometimes for a brief exchange and a chance for the kids to practice their “good morning, how are you”? With older pupils I often had to improvise a talk and give them a question and answer session but invariably the visit would end with a photo session, usually with the entire school pouring out of the classes to take part, with much excited cheering and enthusiasm. At two schools I was even made an honorary director and presented with a ceremonial traditional scarf!
Despite this abundant enthusiasm my interaction with the kids soon revealed an almost painful shyness in speaking, even with tried and tested greetings they had learnt in English classes, all but a few older boys instantly shrunk into a timid shell when faced with a one to one exchange. I always crouched down to their own level to avoid being even more of a big scary stranger and thankfully only a couple of very young ones responded with a flood of tears, which is the kind of reaction I am used to when dealing with small children.
It was the girls who truly struggled with unbelievable levels of shyness and always required much prompting to get words from them. Of course Islamic notions of propriety play a role in interactions with male strangers, which can demand shyness as an appropriate response to maintain modesty (see here for a detailed discussion if you are interested) but given that with younger women, even a glance in their direction elicited much giggling with a hand over the mouth, indicating that more than religion governed reactions. Given the conservative demands on behaviour, Facebook was regarded as inappropriate for girls but generally accepted for boys but how long this can be resisted is a good question. (Even in Afghanistan fb is being used by young women for dating amongst other things we regard as normal in the West) While many girls in the village may be destined for early marriages and a home life that is by no means to say that people do not appreciate the value of education for them. If you doubt it, consider the old man I met who was selling the family home and moving into a modest, shared property in order to fund his three daughters through university education to become doctors and engineers. These young women had obviously overcome the shyness of their class mates to embark on their careers.
The schools also revealed a troubling aspect to life in the region: the institutional racism against Muslims by the Hindu establishment. In education this can manifest itself in dubious preferential treatment for Hindus, such as being given exam answers in advance, while Muslim students are marked down. Given the value that was clearly placed on education by local parents they were happy to pay for their children to be taught in local schools run by Muslims where the bias could at least be resisted until they moved on to higher education. At the poorest school the headmaster struggled with financing, as up to a third of the pupils often failed to come up with the paltry couple of dollars a month in fees but there was little question of expelling them, such was everyone’s commitment to education.
The key issue is attempts to remove Bengali Muslims who are often falsely accused of being Bangladeshi immigrants. Denial of citizenship occurs through demands of proof for the family residing in Assam pre 1971, the time of the separation of East Pakistan to become Bangladesh. However, the authorities neglect to apply this rule to the many Hindus who moved here at the time or Nepalis, one of whom is even a member of Parliament. Consequently, the authorities create systematic and deliberate errors in voter registration and utilities bills which are all vital to prove your claim for citizenship. The father’s name is the main part of any ID requirement in India and one of my hosts went five times to have the details corrected on his electricity bill but without paying a bribe there was no chance of the issue being resolved. Another old man I spoke to had his daughter’s name put as his mother’s name on his registration documents. Consequently many live in an ID limbo with the threat of illegal deportation hanging over them, even though their family may have lived in Assam for centuries. Without proper state ID it becomes impossible to get a government job or visas to study abroad.
The majority of police in the area are Hindu so people don’t always feel that their interests will be protected by them. In spite of all this, relationships with local Hindus remains fairly positive and the area has not suffered the violence that has occurred in other areas of Assam, such as the attacks on Muslims and others in Bodoland in 2014.
Alas the time to say goodbye was eventually forced upon us and was inevitably met with pleas to stay longer and to come back again. Nothing could have put doubt on their sincerity. We live in times where if you play word association games with “Islam”, there is little doubt that “terrorism” would come out on top, but for me, as has been proved time and time again from visiting dozens of Muslim countries and regions, the word is without doubt, “hospitality”.