I would like to introduce you to the old lady at the end of our road.
Nani runs a little tin shack shop; she sells all sorts of stuff, from little cakes to shampoo, from cigarettes to biscuits. Not that I have ever seen anyone buy anything from her shop, but the quantity of stock is definitely increasing, which I hope means business is doing is well.
Nani is normally in her shop in the mornings and evenings as we walk to and from work. We seem to have the same conversation every time, normally about what we ate for breakfast and her insisting that we take a little cake. Nani looks after us, tugging at our scarves and tops to make sure that we are properly turned out; she is always delighted when we wear salwar kameez or sari, saying that we look like beautiful birds. She holds our hands, strokes our hair and kisses our faces – I’ve not seen this level of physical contact anywhere else during my time here but it’s nice to feel that affection.
Nani doesn’t know how old she is – a very common phenomenon in Bangladesh – but I guess she is in her eighties. She is tiny, the top of her head barely reaching my shoulder, with a beautiful smile that shows off her remaining, beetle-nut stained teeth.
Her husband died about two years ago, something that still clearly upsets her as she often, and suddenly, breaks down in tears as we are speaking with her. She has an incredibly large family of daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. It’s actually hard work keeping up with all her relatives but there is normally at least one at the shop when we stop by.
The shop used to be her husband’s. When he died, some of her family members told Nani she should keep running the shop so she had independent income, to prevent her daughters-in-law, some of whom she lives with, from starving her. Apparently, this is a common practice in rural Bangladesh. It’s traditional for parents to live with their sons’ families and when the patriarch dies, the old ladies are neglected. There is a noticeable absence of old men in the village; I have met a lot of Nanis and Dadis (maternal and paternal grandmothers) but only one grandfather. Life expectancy for women is normally higher than men, especially in a country where the men have a life of hard labour. But old women are generally not respected or considered useful so are frequently neglected, especially when they become too old to work.
It’s a sad reminder of how women are viewed by society here. But it’s also a reminder of the tenacity of a little old woman, who is running a little shop on her own, who smiles so you can see her soul and who always offers cakes to the three ‘bidishi’ (foreigner) girls walking past.