Every town or country has its drug of choice. In Canada, Colorado, and my small Australian hometown, it’s weed. In Greece, it’s tobacco. In Russia, it’s paint stripper. In the 1950s, it was valium. And in the UK you’re hard pressed to find a toilet seat that doesn’t bear traces of cocaine.
But in Bangladesh, where alcohol is illegal and cigarettes are so frowned upon that they are often smoked furtively on tiny balconies, behind dusty air conditioning units, it’s sugar.
Mishti conjures a sparkle in the eye, and the kind of passionate opinions that recall Melbourne hipsters talking about coffee. If you want to make friends, apologise in style or get ahead at work, buy a box of assorted, milky, syrupy balls, squares and swirls.
At work meetings and afternoon teas alike, every tiny cup of cha will come lovingly saturated in three heaped teaspoons of chini. If you need to hang out with friends, grab some ice cream – Movenpick, Gelato, Cream and Fudge, take your pick: I’ve seen more New Zealand Natural ice creameries in Dhaka than in Sydney.
This ability to live on sugar and disdain alcohol has made me look more closely at my own dependencies. A glass of riesling after a hard day at work, a pint at the pub with colleagues on a Friday, a round of tequila shots to kick a night up a notch or two: as a white westerner, booze is my chemical relaxant and my social crutch – the fermented foundation on which my leisure time and friendships are built.
Likewise, sugar, for Bengalis, seems to be much more than an addiction: it’s a foundation for social interaction. Where alcohol is the necessary social lubricant of the perpetually awkward West, sugar is Bangladesh’s social glue, drawing people together with its sticky allure.
Before I came to Bangladesh and lived without pubs and bars, I never really thought about the social value of booze being a function of the social spaces that we distribute it in – places where it is ok to just be, because drinking is considered some kind of magical activity that allows you to exist and interact, under the influence, without other reasons or excuses. Bangladeshis need no such excuses – dining rooms and bedrooms are social spaces and people are invited to just hang out, usually with the offer of food and mishti, but often just to spend time together. Have a conversation. Face to face. With no props. The British in me crawls with discomfort: how do you do it, fully conscious, and with nothing in your hand?
The alternative is, of course, public cafes and restaurants. Ice creameries are your best bet, and they’re often not relaxing spaces – brightly lit with neon strip lights, and full of uncomfortable metal chairs and plastic tables. It seems that a cultural enthusiasm for alcohol can make pleasant, dark, squashy, public social spaces economically viable in a way that food, including sugar, just doesn’t. So at home they proliferate – whereas here, those kinds of open, mingling spaces are much harder to come by. It was one of the hardest culture shocks when we moved: I wasn’t expecting to miss pubs almost more than I miss what they sell.
Seeing alcohol as a space, and not just something we consume, also starts to make more sense of Bangladesh’s other preferred addiction: Facebook. The national passion for Facebook has become far more apparent in the last week or so, since the Government blocked it on all local ISPs.
It’s a calamity – people honestly don’t know what to do with themselves. A friend of mine translated some talkback radio he’d been listening to. The distraught public called in, saying ‘It is not possible to do business without it’ and ‘The Government does not understand the people. This shows how disconnected they are from our needs’ – and even, ‘If the Government does not reconnect Facebook, I will kill myself.’
As hyperbolic as this sounds (and as many questions as it might raise about the mental health priorities of talkback radio), they reflect something honest about how Facebook functions in daily life here. Without it, people are disconnected: it really does form the backbone of everyone’s social life.
Including mine – since the ban, I’ve realised I don’t keep anyone’s phone number any more, just I just use Facebook messenger. When a friend decided to leave, she did the usual and advertised on Facebook to sell her furniture – when it was shut down, no one knew how to contact her to collect their purchases. I’ve never been somewhere where Facebook is so important to daily life. We are all dependent.
And I think this is, in some ways, connected to the lack of other spaces to congregate. Facebook, like a pub, gives people a place to sit and chat, a space to meet new people. That means much more here than it does in much of the world, where we are spoiled for alcohol-soaked options. It also gives people a chance to interact in a way that bypasses strict tradition around what’s ‘acceptable’: it’s a space for the genders to interact more freely. It’s OK to chat on Facebook with someone of the opposite sex, but it may be difficult to find time alone with them in person without raising eyebrows, suspicions, and even (for many girls), fists.
So, in the absence of bars, we download VPNs and desperately try to circumvent the block on our shared addiction. I’ve just got mine up and running again and I’ve spent a good hour desperately scrolling, stalking, and getting my hit. It’s been so successful that I might even give myself a break from this screen and go and find something else to do. Maybe I’ll go get an ice cream.