Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine, May 2010
In January this year, a young Romanian woman called Ruxandra boarded a flight bound for Dhaka, Bangladesh. The temperature in Bucharest that day was minus 22 degrees and the flight had been delayed due to heavy snowfall. Ruxandra had travelled to Dhaka many times over the last 10 years, either as a development activist or as a tourist.
This time, however, was different: she would not be returning to Bucharest. Ruxandra was about to marry a Bangladeshi citizen and start a new life in Dhaka. Three months into her marriage, Ruxandra talks to The Independent about the change in culture and lifestyle.
Ruxandra first met her husband Arif in Dhaka 10 years ago when they participated in several international seminars. The two struck up a friendship and met up in Dhaka whenever Ruxandra returned on subsequent visits. Despite the fact that five years had passed between visits, Ruxandra and Arif realised that the friendship had evolved into something more and they decided to get married.
For most foreigners in Bangladesh, the language barrier can be overwhelming. This was not the case for Ruxandra though – she began learning Bangla when she was 20 and continued to study the language when she returned toRomania. By chance, in Bucharest, she became close friends with a Bangladeshi who was a pensioner. They talked about Bangladeshi culture and he helped her to continue learning Bangla.
Within three months, Ruxandra had mastered conversational Bangla, and she can now also read and write. Ruxandra also speaks French, Italian, English, Latin – and obviously Romanian. I asked her how learning Bangla compared with learning these other languages. She said, “The Bangla alphabet is very complicated, but logical. It has 52 characters, so there
is much more flexibility to express sounds. But when the characters are combined as conjuncts it becomes difficult.”
Ruxandra said that her childhood in a small town in Romania, an ex-communist society, was “idyllic.”
As a teenager, Ruxandra loved reading and she discovered the talents of Tagore, along with a Romanian writer and philosopher called Mircea Eliade, who spent extended periods of time in West Bengal during the 1930s. He wrote about falling in love with a Bengali woman called Maitreyi Devi, who was to become the most influential female writer in South Asia.
Ruxandra said, “When I was reading those books, I never dreamed that I would live here one day.” Nevertheless, it seems that a long familiarity with the culture and traditions of Bangladesh has made adjusting to life in Dhaka much easier. When I asked Ruxandra whether the Bangladesh she imagined after reading books was different from the reality, she said, “I would say that the reality is even better. Bangladeshi people are very friendly and serious, and you can really rely on them. As a foreigner—a stranger in this country – I didn’t expect that.” However, Ruxandra has noticed changes in Dhaka over the years, both positive and negative. She said, “The city is becoming more crowded and society is becoming more demanding in terms of its consumption. When I first came to Dhaka there were some luxury products, but not many. There has been a lot of improvement commercially – it seems as though there is a boom in the economy while the rest of the world is in crisis.”
Ruxandra and Arif were married at home in Mirpur and held a post-wedding reception for close friends and family afterwards. Ruxandra said the marriage was “made in a rush” because of her pending application for residency and her sister was only able to stay in Dhaka for two weeks.
Ruxandra said, “In Bangladesh, it’s quite a funny thing to say that it was my sister who was present for my marriage, when it would usually be your parents. However, I have just one sibling and my parents were unable to travel.”
Ruxandra chose to wear a green sari rather than the traditional red, and she did not wear heavy make-up because she would not have felt comfortable doing so. Before coming to Dhaka, Ruxandra met with a Christian priest to ask whether she could marry a Muslim. He said yes.
Ruxandra said, “Now that I live in a Muslim community, I follow the rules of conduct and I have read the Koran and know some prayers.” Ruxandra said that there are many similarities between the Koran and the Bible. She also said that there are more cultural similarities between Romania and Bangladesh than many people would assume. She said, “People tend to think of Europe as an individualistic society with a loose family structure. However, this is not yet true of Romania, or Eastern Europe as a whole.”
Ruxandra is enjoying living with her husband’s extended family, which includes two sisters’-in-laws and their husbands, her mother-in-law, and a niece and nephew who are both under five years of age. She said that her life is now “more sober and restrained” but that she has adjusted to it comfortably and finds that family life suits her well. She is not missing her own family too much because she speaks regularly with them using video voice chat. And although Ruxandra mostly watches rather than participates in food preparations, she said she is confident that she could cook several Bangladeshi dishes. It was surprising to discover that Bangladeshi markets contain the ingredients of Romanian cuisine – at least during winter, and Ruxandra sometimes makes Romanian soup and other dishes using aubergine, which is one of Romania’s most popular vegetables.
Ruxandra said, “Romanian and Bangladeshi foods are similar—if you take out some of the flavours and spices from Bengali food you would have the Romanian style. But you would miss a lot if you did that.” Ruxandra said that Bangladeshi cuisine is more meat-based and that Romanian cuisine uses less frying, but both rely heavily on animal fats. She said, “Sometimes I wonder why each meal must include meat, when the vegetables and dhal are filling and tasty on their own.”
Ruxandra has waist-length dark hair that she frequently wears in a plait. She dresses in the shalwar kameez, which she described as “very comfortable and suitable to the weather.” She also owns some saris. Ruxandra said, “Saris are very beautiful and elegant. It would be a loss for a woman not to wear one.” Ruxandra said that strangers sometimes assume she is Pakistani, and she has even been greeted in Urdu.
Ruxandra is settling into her new life with impressive ease, and she said that she looks forward to her sharing her future with her husband. But would she go as far as to say that Bangladesh feels like home? Her response to the question was immediate and certain: “Of course it feels like home, why shouldn’t it?”
(Jessica Mudditt is an Australian journalist currently working as a Features Writer for The Independent)