Of all the places in all the world, I never expected to meet Rabbie Burns in Bangladesh.
It was January 2002, and I was a volunteer for an international charity, allegedly helping establish vital health and social care programmes in the poorest, most rural villages. Actually, I found myself (allegedly) helping level the school playing field, which involved a lot of muddy earth and some Flintstone-esque tools*
The whole village had turned out that day, and the school teacher seemed unusually excited. Every time we passed each other carrying raffia baskets of soil he did a little dance and shouted, ‘A robber burns this night, a robber burns.’ With limited Bengali, I decided he must be planning a bonfire to celebrate the conclusion of the work; the local volunteers (mostly teenage boys) were keen on bonfires.
Then, at rest time, the sisters who had befriended me – Nancy, Fancy and Dancy were their names – giggled their way over with a length of folded material. They were going to make me a sari, they mimed, for the evening’s social programme. This was normal enough, except that the material was a reddish, yellowish, glaring hairy tartan; my mum and dad had had a travelling rug just like it circa 1973. And whilst they swathed me in it, they were humming a tune and encouraging me to join in. Again, nothing new in that, except it was unmistakably the music to Auld Lang Syne. Then they, too, went off chattering about ‘a robber burns’.
With much sign language and even more misunderstanding, I finally pieced together the story. Several years ago, a Scottish volunteer’s party piece (note: we all had to do a ‘turn’ – don’t ask!) had been to dress in his kilt and tam o shanter and recite Robert Burns’ A Red, Red Rose. The village school teacher, thrilled to recognise the work of the poet, had taken this to heart, and formed it into an annual tradition.
This year, the foreigner (aka me) was from Ireland which was practically Scotland, so the honour of dressing up and reciting was all mine. It was taken as read I knew the words to the poem and the song, but they produced a dog-eared college text book with an extraordinarily loose translation of both, just in case.
There was no haggis, they said, sadly – they didn’t think there was a single haggis in the whole of Bangladesh – and I had to admit I couldn’t conjure one up from a goat, a cow or the little fishes we ate for dinner. There was no whiskey, of course, unless I’d smuggled any in my suitcase (I hadn’t). And they had no bagpipes; they were still fairly hazy on exactly what a bagpipe was.
But other than that we were all set for our Bangladeshi Burns Supper.
The mutton curry, lentil dhal and potatoes were ‘piped’ in by the harmonium, a rousing chorus of Walzing Matilda. The grace and toasts were replaced with my dodgy recitation of Burns’ best known poems (whilst my tartan sari slowly, unbecomingly unravelled). It was all finished off with hot, sweet tea from the local shop and Auld Lang Syne roared out, tunelessly, but with enthusiasm. Instead of a ceilidh, they lit the bonfire and the boys did a lot of energetic leapfrogging over it.
That was my first Burns Night. When I moved to Scotland, in January 2003, I was invited to another one, in a church hall in Midlothian. It was a little bit different… but the good company, the good food, and the sentiment were all exactly the same.
Happy Burns Night – wherever you are!
*It’s all a very long story. I wrote about it in a travel memoir called A Blonde Bengali Wife www.amazon.co.uk/Blonde-Bengali-Wife-Anne-Hamilton-ebook/dp/B016UDI86I
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