IN 1665, rats were framed for the Great Plague, taking the rap for disease-carrying fleas.
Although later exonerated for their role in the demise of 100,000 Londoners that, on a positive note, eased congestion in the capital, the rat has never fully recovered its reputation as being a fleet-of-foot, friendly creature – except in Bangladesh.
Last week, while dozing off, I heard a rat scratching and gnawing in my cloakroom. I lion-heartedly jumped out of bed and closed the door on my unwanted visitor, but feared he’d eat through the door like a rodent-faced Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Armed with four air-to-ground missiles in the shape of two pairs of leather shoes and, the nuclear option, a bunker-buster bestselling thick book, I waited for the banzai attack that never came.
Next day, after embellishing the size of the rat I hadn’t actually clapped eyes on, my colleagues were visibly shocked that I had even contemplated killing the furry quadruped. My Bangladeshi mates stated that the rat is perceived to be an affable animal that pops in and out of houses, harming no-one; yet another cultural difference for the notebook.
Student attendance continues to disappoint. Expecting a high turnout is on a par with expecting to win a game of hide ’n’ seek with a chameleon. There are several plausible theories for this truancy.
First, young people enrol in the college holding certificates that declare the bearer to be proficient in English. From experience, I’ve discovered that junk Greek bonds enjoy greater integrity than these bankrupt education credentials. I recently instigated a dialogue with three female students who have been studying English for ten years. The only one who spoke up said: “You, me, I help with grammar.”
A second reason for absence is the fact that many walk 45 minutes or more to the institution. In dewy, cold mornings, a long ambulation to sit in a distinctly cool, dank classroom is a tad unappealing. To be honest, teaching would be more difficult if attendance improved. Last Thursday, already affording my pearls of wisdom to around 65 students, another 60 strolled in due to teacher absence. The notion of supply teaching has still to catch on in the sub-continent. Luckily, the classroom had benches to accommodate 150 learners, thus there were still 20 or so spaces for any tardy undergraduates.
Friday saw an international badminton match, Bangladesh versus Scotland, on the grass court with yours truly representing Alba. Janghid, a College Board member, had challenged me to a contest. However, just minutes before the tie, I suffered a shoulder injury, but, not wishing to make a fuss, I said nothing. With the baying Bangladeshi mob – all 20 of them – cheering on their local hero, I felt like a wounded Russell Crowe in Gladiator, vainly trying to ward off a crowd-pleasing reverse in the Colosseum. To be fair, Crowe was being stabbed by a sword, whereas I was only being smacked on the torso and napper by a shuttlecock, thanks to Janghid’s “bodyline” strategy of aiming his smashes at my generously proportioned figure. Bruised but unbowed, I considered the 15-9 defeat to be something of a moral victory.
Earlier in the week, I accepted an invitation to meet the headmaster of a nearby high school and “some” students. When I arrived at the gig, I was aghast to see over a thousand youngsters sitting cross-legged under a colourful canopy. As guest of honour, I had to make an impromptu speech. Being introduced as a “jolly” man, I felt compelled to make a self-deprecating crack about my reddened head looking like a tomato. This nearly brought the canvas house down. However, joy turned to despair when a funny one-liner delivered in my mother tongue was met with stony silence. Rather limply, I handed the microphone over to someone else, my Bangladesh stand-up career killed at birth.
Not wishing to offend the religious sensibilities of my hosts, my girlfriend/aspiring partner, Liz, has been ascribed wife status. Unfortunately, while showing some photos of my children to teaching colleagues, questions arose on seeing the dark-haired mother who did not resemble my blonde-haired, erm, spouse. I blurted out that Liz was my second wife, but, thanks to Chinese whispers, folk here think I have two wives. What a love rat I am!
• Hugh Reilly is teaching English in Uttar Bangla College for four weeks as part of Charity Education International’s efforts to raise education standards in this remote region of Bangladesh.