Hugh Reilly: Small comforts add up to a rich, full life

Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
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I’M BEGINNING to discover cultural differences. For example, time is an elastic concept in Kakina, hence my watch is now nothing more than a shiny trinket.

The college has the feel of an education drop-in centre where students decide which point of a lesson to deign me with their presence.

In Bangladesh, it’s natural for students ask one’s religion and marital status, but I have managed to bat away such nosey questions by stating that my spiritual beliefs (or lack of) and current domestic arrangements are a private affair. Sadly, my somewhat circumspect response fails to prevent some people asking me to pray for them, akin to a golfer asking a blind man to help him with his swing.

In this largely Muslim country, it’s literally a hand-to-mouth existence as food is eaten using one’s right hand. I’ve tried several times to toss British colonial cutlery aside and dine with my digits but, on each occasion, the front of my shirt has been the recipient of more rice than my stomach.

At the house of Nonarandi, head of English, I watched in awe as the much respected college principal, Monowarul Islam, expertly clawed together the gastronomic delights on his plate. However, given the limitations of finger manipulation, soup rarely features as a first course.

On Tuesday, I felt awful, my body suffering flu-like symptoms. After struggling to college and teaching for three hours, I retired to bed, having eaten nothing – most unlike me. Ever the drama queen, I imagined I’d exhale my last breath under a mosquito net in a place the wee man in the Google van is never likely to film. Fortunately, following a straight 17-hour shift on my lumpy mattress, to the astonishment of those around me, I arose full of life. Had a certain Nazarene been in the vicinity, my recovery would have been declared a miracle.

Earlier in the week, I was introduced to the local MP, Mr Rahman, who has held the constituency for the past 35 years. He proved to be a very intelligent, witty individual, who admitted to experiencing a little difficulty with my Scottish accent. At least, I think that’s what he said; my ears are still attuning to English spoken with a broad Bangla accent.

On Thursday, I accepted an invitation to visit the house of Subas, a teacher of English. Wishing to travel there in style, I hopped aboard an auto-rickshaw, the transport of choice for the upwardly mobile. It is a battery-powered Heath Robinson contraption with a top speed that, on a slight down slope, threatens the Kakina land speed record of 10mph.

Subas’s home certainly has the wow factor (other exclamations came to mind when I clapped eyes on it). Sheets of corrugated tin provide the walls and roof, the entire structure supported by bamboo poles and rafters. The accommodation consists of a single room about half the size of my lounge. In this compact space or, to use estate agent parlance, studio apartment, Subas lives with wife and two children.

After a lovely meal, I left with Subas and flagged down a pedal-powered rickshaw. Maybe I’m a tad oversensitive about my weight, but I swear the man puffed out his cheeks when I clambered into his vehicle. Minutes later, the decidedly lop-sided rickshaw deposited us at the rendezvous point for a motorcyclist to take me back to Kakina. A large crowd soon gathered. Subas said I was big news because I was perhaps the first Caucasian ever to set foot in the hamlet. Being, ahem, stout is an indication of wealth and considered an attractive quality by Muslim women; given my girth, the local female singletons most likely thought they were in the presence of Bill Gates.

Kakina is a feudal society where one’s footwear identifies one’s standing in the community. The poorest walk barefoot. Bourgeois Bangladeshi wear sandals – only the well-heeled, educated elite own leather shoes. My £40 Clarks shoes bought in the Debenhams sale are a source of much envy.

At times, one feels like Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King although, thankfully, there is no sign of an irritating Michael Caine. However, there are occasions when I feel more like Tony Last in A Handful of Dust – doomed to read Dickens aloud to natives.

Only time will tell how my story ends.

• 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