Published in The Independent in April 2010 (online archive source is unavailable)
“I’d die of loneliness,” sighed my Bangla teacher as she surveyed my one bedroom rooftop flat in Mohammadpur – an area located far south of Dhaka’s expat hotpot of Gulshan. There followed an awkward silence: I was overjoyed by the very surroundings that so repelled her, but feared she’d write me off as an eccentric if I listed the benefits – chiefly, solitude. Amina and I continued the lesson without any further mention of my solo residential status, but I mulled over her remark for a long time after my class ended.
My new friends and colleagues often ask about my living arrangements in Bangladesh – when I say that I live alone, this response has raised a multitudes of eyebrows.
“Aren’t you lonely?”
“Do you get bored?”
“Are you afraid?
No, no and sometimes, I answer – respectively.
However an increasing number of young Bangladeshis, both male and female, regard my independence with varying degrees of envy – and at least a dozen of them have asked me to help them find a place of their own – but it’s a tough task for a foreigner who needs a million more Bangla lessons. For reasons either unknown or unpalatable to me, at present, it appears that the majority of Bangladeshi landlords are incapable of trusting Bangladesh’s young unmarried adults.
I’ve heard some particularly sad tales about the way landlords tend to treat Dhaka’s bachelors, regardless of whether the bachelor in question is financially independent and responsible (for example, a friend of mine who is responsible enough to write for the nation’s leading English language newspaper and is definitely cashed up enough to pay a deposit). Some of my male friends believe that as a bachelor, their chances of securing a rental property are about as high as a convicted petty criminal!!
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed living alone in Dhaka for the past six months. It was a conscious decision and I’ve never regretted it for a moment. It’s not that I don’t want to fill a house with a family one day, but for now I am completely and utterly content.
The American writer Pearl S. Buck said, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”
I prefer my mother’s advice: she believes that people who don’t enjoy their own company (and thus can’t stand being alone or off the phone) tend to be a little dull.
Yet I’m sure that Amina’s family home, just like many others in Bangladesh, is filled with laughter, tears and activity. There would be busy meal times, television programmes enjoyed together and a pleasant sense of unity. It’s true I lack all of this. But I do have solitude, a state of being that Pearl S Buck clearly didn’t rate highly. As a writer, solitude is non-negotiable to me, though I also believe that I’ve been culturally conditioned to desire it, just as my Bangla teacher craves the companionship her family provides. Whether living in Melbourne or London, being able to afford your very own apartment, whether rented or owned, is considered a sign of having “made it.”
For the last eight years, I’ve neither lived with my family or “made it.” I moved out when I was 20 and have shared rental properties ever since. Share-housing can be a wonderful experience or a complete nightmare – most often it’s somewhere in between.
In London’s eastern borough of Hackney, I lived in a creaking Victorian terrace house with five others – a female Greek PhD student, a Turkish girl, an English girl, a Slovakian girl and a Canadian male called Geoff Johnston. I met them only briefly before moving in – I simply responded to an advertisement on the internet. Somehow though, it worked. The house benefited from a medley of accents and the smells of competing cuisines. But it never had the same cosiness as a house inhabited by a family – it didn’t even come close.
In fact, Geoff brutally tossed out the belongings I’d left in the basement when I went to Bangladesh without bothering to email me beforehand or reply to my emails when a flatmate told me what he’d done (he didn’t tell them either until it was too late). My whole body shook after learning I’d lost 24 years’ worth of personal diaries, artefacts collected during my travels and other items of incalculable personal significance. Before I left, Geoff “allocated” an alcove for me – though I can only presume that when I didn’t come back after the stipulated six-month period, he decided that the basement’s remaining 1,000 square feet was insufficient for storing his graffiti apparatus and a stuffed cat … NB: Geoff Johnston is not, as he claims on his Linkedin profile, the director of the Barbican Centre, and he is incapable of sharing half a fridge. I adapted by buying a lot of frozen food…
Anyway, I’ve nearly finished crying over the spilt milk and I admit there are moments in Dhaka when I long for company in my home – if there’s a full moon or a blood red sunset, or to taste something I’ve cooked that isn’t horrible – or to simply have a chat. I usually overcome these feelings by picking up the phone or logging onto Facebook. I email my parents almost every second day and they make no delay in replying. Sometimes though, nothing but another human face will suffice. And that is precisely why I set up a weekly “Tuesday Club” night at my place with my Daily Star pals. Right now I am counting down the minutes until they arrive…