A look at how love survived the hypocrisy of Bangladeshi society
Spring and Valentine’s Day have come together and there’s euphoria all around. Flowers are being sold, women are wearing floral wreaths and coming to the Dhaka University campus. There’s something about the campus that triggers romance, vigour, and excitement.
With so much love and bhalobasha all around, I often think how this term has evolved to find an almost acceptable place in our society. To be honest, while love had always been a mainstay in our entertainment arena, be it films or books, in real life, parents and relatives frowned upon any notion of romance.
In this age, love takes many forms, from online connections to romance at the workplace, even though, once upon a time, romance usually blossomed from roof top trysts or at private tuitions.
‘Prem’ is OK in the movies
The most used term for love in Bangladesh was the word prem, which has now been replaced by “relationship.”
At one point, it took some audacity to use the word prem, and so, if someone got married after romance, the civilized way to put it was: Iye kore biye. The word iye indicates the uneasiness most felt using the term prem.
While love was always the main theme in the celluloid world, romance in real life was never approved by parents lest relatives and others thought their son or daughter had gone against the tradition of arranged marriage and committed a major social faux pas.
In movies, love was alright -- in life, it was not. The reason was simple: Any romantic liaison between young people was deemed an act which flouted social norms.
So, on one hand, there were film plots which showed the landlord’s son falling in love with a maid servant, but in real life, if something similar happened, it would start World War III.
But love between people from opposite spectrums also happened. In cinema, it was quite regular. In fact, I recall a famous film scene: A driver, played by the late film star Razzak, brings the car to a secluded place and when the rather amused and certainly not irate actress asks why he has come to an isolated spot, the hero replies with panache: I did not come here, the wheels decided!
While most guardians loved the scene, firm orders were given to ensure that drivers were accompanied by other domestic help when they were performing school or college duties for the girls.
Elopement has fallen in number nowadays because parents usually do not object to the romantic preferences of their sons or daughters.
However, paliye biye was common once, and I can still recall the predicament I found myself in, having to act as a witness to such secret marriages.
Dost, you have to be the witness
One fine morning in 1991, I got a telephone call from a friend: “You have to be my witness; we have decided to get married.” I never said no to a challenge and so, despite feeling jittery, I answered: “Don’t worry about it, I am your man.”
Both my friends were in the first year of university and we found out that that girl’s family had received a proposal from an expat Bangladeshi. In the 90s, proposals from the US-residing Bangladeshis were manna from heaven. The "America jamu" obsession was at its peak.
But the girl was deeply in love with my pal. Naturally, to prove himself, he had to devise an ingenious plan to get married and show that love was mightier than the lure of a green card.
The girl came out of her house in ordinary clothes under the pretext of attending a class and was given the changing room of the local Trust Iron laundromat to wear a saree which we had bought the day earlier.
There were few parlours in the early 90s, so she put on her own make-up while we arranged our chariot -- a spanking new baby taxi with Toofan (Tempest) written all over it. The baby taxi driver sensed what was going on and stepped on the gas.
We chose the Lalbagh Kazi office, which is still there. After marriage, there had to be a feast and with the tight budget, we headed for a Chinese restaurant called Young King on Mirpur Road.
I still remember my friend nudging me with his feet under the table to ensure that we did not order above the budget, which was Tk. 275 if I recall.
Next, the love birds took refuge at the house of a relative who persuaded them to go back home. My friend’s father was a university teacher and rather liberal, so they were welcomed; the girl’s parents refused to accept the marriage for a long period. The guy in the States was gutted! The audacity to snub a US citizen!
As for myself, in no time there was another incident -- this time, a frantic knock on my door: “Dost, quickly open the door, we need a place to hide!”
This was another episode which landed the couple in court, where the girl had to admit on video that she had willingly eloped to marry the guy she loved.
That story will come some other time, I promise. For now, enjoy the beginning of spring with gusto but keep Shakespeare in mind: “Love is blind, and lovers cannot see; the pretty follies that themselves commit; for if they could Cupid himself would blush.”
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.