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Life in a metro

Dhaka's trendy 'mama' culture

M Aminul Islam | December 11, 2018 00:00:00

"Mama, when will you take me to a food court?" an impassioned plea a past-master nephew makes to his maternal uncle to go outdoors for yummy wafers. "Mama, where to go?" "Dhaka Housing-will you get there?" Such is the common dialogue between a commuter and a rickshaw-puller. A fish vender implores, "Mama, fresh hilsa from the Padma. How many do you need? The price is pitifully low." Or "Mama, farm fresh produce available: potato, aubergine, cucumber or carrot," as a peddler hawks to attract potential buyers.

'Mama, please pay the fare,' a conductor of the city's most popular No. 8 local bus service asks a passenger. "Mama, give me peanuts worth five taka," a young man sitting on a park bench asks a vendor. "Mama, my ma is blind. Give us some money," a teen girl seeks pecuniary help from busy passers-by by a roadside. Do you need a plumber or a mechanic? Call in someone and tell him, "Mama, please fix this or that problem".

See how frequent is the use of the word 'mama' in an individual's life. 'Mama' casts an overpowering impact on public life. The man himself is all-pervading, all-encapsulating everywhere-be it a kitchen market, footpath or anywhere else. I must say 'mama' is invasive. It'd be a strong personal bias if I don't mention many congenial colleagues calling each other as 'mama' as a friendly way of addressing them.

The term has been highly localised in Dhaka, a mega city of rich cultural fabric, cultural hybridisation and assimilation. In the stratified Dhaka, socialites use 'mama' as a euphemism for addressing the people who are usually on low incomes and/or poorly paid. But I don't find it derogatory. In any way, you can't skip using this term in the hold-all city. It's inextricably linked in every sphere and aspect of our lives here.

We see members of the nobility usually calling their mothers as mama, mummy or mum and their fathers as dad, papa or pop as a smart form of addressing them in an enlightened society. Interestingly, the word 'mama' has gone universal! It's equally popular both in Bangla and English languages. In English dictionary, mama is a child's word for mother. In the United States of America, a mature woman is also called mama.

'Ma-ma' equalises 'mama' and also is worthy of two ma's. Herein lies the mystery of the persuasive power of the term. The honeyed word can beseech a person to be submissive and make him willing to do anything for the supplicant. It's as if the speaker and the listener have kindred spirit or kinship with an umbilical cord. It's as if mama's influence on life is far more overriding than a mother's! It's as if 'mama' influence is everywhere. It begins at home and you find mamas outdoors until you return to your sweet home.

The household 'mama' is very endearing to us for antiquity. Look, how dearly we call an unknown man 'mama' in a proprietorial way with an avuncular right to make the most of him. But truth to tell, 'mama' gives us a sense of belonging and togetherness, some sort of cohesion and unity, no matter whether he's our real mom's brother or not. The virtues of real mama beggar description. He helps us fix familial problems. But in time of any crisis outside home, 'unreal' mama appears from nowhere to relieve us of trouble.

This parlance dates hundreds of years back in Bangladesh. 'Mama' is a predominantly familiar greeting among the hoi polloi in the north. But the word has wide currency among students pursuing tertiary education at universities. "Mama, what's the topic of the next tutorial?" a student asks his or her fellow. At dormitories, the hot spots of cultural assimilation, roommates, classmates or year-mates call each other 'mama' as a more intimate way of fostering closeness.

This trendy 'mama' culture is increasingly becoming a vehicle for branding Dhakaities. Mama is intrinsic to Dhaka's bhadralok circles as well. Let's pray: May this fictitious, make-believe and mythical 'mama' in the garb of a real mama live as long as this Mother Earth exists. Long live yours faithfully 'mama' among the Bangalees, especially Dhaka's residents!


The writer is a news consultant at the FE. maislam.rose@gmail.com

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