Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 17, 2017

The servitude I saw

Filed under: Bangladesh,Culture,slavery — Razib Khan @ 10:43 pm

Many people are talking about the late Alex Tizon’s article in The Atlantic, My Family’s Slave. Much of the piece was as disturbing for me as it was for most Americans. But some of it was shockingly familiar. I’ll get to that.

First, Tizon died unexpectedly before the article was published. We won’t be able to ask him about how we can judge the veracity of his own role and culpability. Though the narrative is laced with guilt and admissions of fault on his part, ultimately he does come off as somewhat the soft-hearted hero in comparison to his parents.

Since he is the source of all of this it has hard to not assume that he cast himself in a more flattering light than reality might warrant. The obituary he helped inform in 2011 was entirely deceptive, and apparently the slavery did not feature in his memoir, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.

On the one hand writing such an article exposed himself to critique. On the other hand this piece would surely have been an incredible capstone to his career; his has wife admitted as much. Ultimately truth would really only have been served if “Lola,” the slave in question, had been allowed to speak for herself. I’m sure she would have had very different perceptions from Tizon.

But overall I suspect his guilt was genuine.

This is not how it always works out. About ten years ago there was an infamous Long Island case where a wealthy Indian American family had had two Indonesian slaves. There were incidents recounted in the media and testimony which made it clear that their American born children were entirely complicit and cooperative with their parents in the enslavement of these women.

As many of you know it is not uncommon in many societies across the world to have household help. It was even the case in the United States up until relatively recently for young women to go through a stint of menial labor in a more affluent family’s home. My own wife’s grandmother did this when she was a young woman in the 1920s.

I was born in Bangladesh. I moved to the United States right before my schooling began. So though my formative years are operationally all in the United States, I retain memories of Bangladesh. Additionally, I have visited twice since I left (due to the recent spate of killings of secularists I do not plan on visiting again until the nation joins the civilized world). When I was a young child I had a beloved nanny. Additionally, before we left for the United States there were two families who were resident with us in our large apartment. They helped my mother keep the house.

These were not simply capitalist transactions. My nanny was from the same village as my paternal grandfather. Many the people who served in my family’s household in Dhaka were from the same district we had come from, and had had prior associations with my family in the 19th century (for reasons I’m not aware of, they were all from my mother’s side of the family). Obviously my nanny couldn’t come to the United States. She was relatively elderly*, so she retired to my maternal grandfather’s home village, and the last time I saw her in 1989  she was living in one of the houses he owned, which had an indoor flush toilet (a luxury at the time).

The first time we visited Bangladesh my mother made sure to visit the families who had once lived with us and worked for us before we left for the United States. In some ways it was like reacquainting with distant relatives. But obviously there was the distance of class. These were people whose families had been subsistence peasants only a generation earlier. My own family on both sides were not subsistence peasants. They either collected rents from the peasants in question, or operated businesses which generated revenue (e.g., jute farms or milk production operations), or were professionals (e.g., my maternal grandfather was a doctor, my paternal grandfather was an ulem, though he supplemented his income with rents).

Some of the things that I heard my family say about the families who had once had a servile relationship with them were the very definition of patronizing. That being said, both sides of my family are relatively religious, and took some pride in the humane character of their relationship with the people who they employed. Additionally, these were not impersonal relationships. My mother never behaved as the “boss.” Rather, I recall she maintained at least the artifice of a genuine friendship with the women close to her age who worked in our household. The ties between our families went back generations. I would not be surprised if in some sense they were relatives of course in some fashion.

All this is to frame a searing incident (or series of incidents) that I recall from 1989. My uncle, my mother’s brother, had married into a family which hailed from the city of Chittagong. This brother was arguably my mother’s favorite, so we went to visit him in Chittogang. Most of the time though he was away on a merchant marine vessel on which he was an engineer, so we were left to spend time with my uncle’s in-laws. Overall they were lovely people.

But there was an exception to their behavior They had a household domestic. She must have been about fifteen or so. She was very quiet, and I was never formally introduced to her, though a few times I tried to talk to her, to the irritation of others. Like an automaton she operated silently in the background, cleaning and cooking. One day I was in the kitchen talking about something with my cousin-in-law, and my uncle’s mother-in-law began yelling at the young woman. My cousin-in-law broke off our conversation, turned to the domestic, and began yelling at her too. Next thing I knew all the women in the house had come into the kitchen and were screaming at the domestic.

I was very disturbed and left the scene of the incident. Something similar happened at least two other times the week we were there. When I asked one of my cousin-in-law’s about this young woman and why they yelled at her she shrugged, rolled her eyes, and said she was stupid, useless, and didn’t know her place. I asked my mother about this treatment, and she didn’t seem to want to speak of it, though she did say something to the effect that not all families treat their domestics the way she was raised to treat them. My mother did not approve, but her disapproval did not rise to the level of causing her to begin a controversy with her brother’s in-laws.

This behavior seems very similar to what Tizon recounts about his parents using their slave as a emotional and verbal punching bag. And it was not a total aberration, the second time I went to Bangladesh we stayed with one of my mother’s brothers who had become rather wealthy. He married a woman who was 20 years younger than him. She was in fact one year younger than me (this is my mother’s youngest brother). This woman was nice enough, but she seemed a bit dull and I was to understand she wasn’t particularly educated (i.e., she hadn’t gone to university of any sort).

My uncle’s household had a domestic. She was a young woman, probably in her early teens. One day I saw my aunt-in-law scream at her in exactly the same way that I had seen years earlier with my other uncle’s in-laws. When my aunt was irritable about something, she would invariably begin to verbally abuse the domestic, who was probably about 13.

Many things have changed in Bangladesh in the period my parents have lived in the United States. This includes the language; both of my parents speech exhibits archaisms which contemporary Bangladeshis find amusing. But something substantive has been economic development. My parents in the 1970s were at best upper middle class. But they had numerous servants. My uncle in contrast was, and is, genuinely wealthy, even by American standards. He is literally part of the capitalist class.

Yet it was difficult for him to find a competent domestic. He had to drive 50 miles into the country into obscure villages to find a family who had a young woman who was willing to work in his household. The families who had traditionally worked for my own family were now in a different economic situation. Some number had lived long enough in the city that their children had gained enough education that there were now opportunities besides menial labor or domestic work for them. Others were now sending their young daughters to textile factories, and not the homes of the middle or upper classes.

Why? I can’t speak from inside knowledge, above I made it clear that in our own telling my family is that they are benevolent patrons. But even if we are benevolent patrons, I assume that the families which customarily had to treat us with deference would have preferred to live in a world where our legal equality in the modern world matched social equality.

Going to work in a dark and hot factory for low ages is horrible I assume (I wouldn’t know except for a short stint at a Christmas break job when I was 20). But it may be better than the alternative of being subjected to abuse by one’s “betters” for a pittance.

To end on a positive note, sometimes my parents sometimes complain about how much Bangladesh has changed. Much of the rural area has been swallowed by the conurbation that is Dhaka. But many things have gotten better. Both my parents come from large families. But though my maternal grandmother was married to a doctor of some means, several of her children died as infants. This was not a tragedy, but just a part of life. The mortality of children under five has decreased 7-fold in what is now Bangladesh since my parents were young!

* People who live a difficult life tend to age quickly. I want to say that my nanny was in her late 50s when I last saw her, but I would not be surprised if she was younger. She was illiterate, and when I was a child in elementary school I recall my parents discussing the best way to send her some money when they found out that she was subsisting on plain rice and salt.

May 13, 2015

Moderate Muslims are moderate in some things

Filed under: Bangladesh,Religion — David Hume @ 6:13 am

Bangladesh bloggers: Clear pattern to killings:

Since then, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears to have reached an accommodation with Hefajat. The Islamist group has confined itself to the madrassa premises and the government has put five bloggers in jail for allegedly hurting the religious feelings of Muslims.

The government now appears to be walking a tightrope.

There is little doubt the prime minister wants to pursue a secular future for Bangladesh. But she appears to have little time for atheists who are on a collision course with Islamists.

The bloggers don’t just want protection from killers and justice for those murdered – they also want to enjoy the freedom of speech that is enshrined in the constitution. The government does not seem to think that freedom should stretch to the criticism of religion.

And Islamist extremists want to strike terror into the hearts of such writers and bloggers through targeted killings.

Why is the government walking a tightrope? Because, as Omar Ali observes the majority of Bangladeshis are Muslims, and many of these individuals are wary of standing up for the rights of those who verbally attack their religion. Many “moderate Muslims” may enjoin peace, but won’t fight for it on behalf of others.

Overall, compared to a sectarian hell like Pakistan Bangladesh is doing well. But if it wants to continue to be an exemplar of liberal economic practices grinding away poverty one percentage point at a time it needs to also stand by principles of liberal social tolerance. It is difficult to have one without the other in the long term.

February 24, 2012

The data sets in the dark

Filed under: Bangladesh,Genetics,Genomics,Human Genetics,Human Genomics — Razib Khan @ 12:09 pm

Recently I was tipped off to the appearance of a new paper, Genome-Wide Association Study Identifies Chromosome 10q24.32 Variants Associated with Arsenic Metabolism and Toxicity Phenotypes in Bangladesh. This is the section which caught my eye: “Using data on urinary arsenic metabolite concentrations and approximately 300,000 genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) for 1,313 arsenic-exposed Bangladeshi individuals.” 300 K SNPs with 1,313 Bangladeshi individuals is a lot! I’m interested in this data set because of the 200+ participants in the Harappa Ancestry Project my parents remain the “unadmixed” South Asians with the highest fraction of East Asian ancestry (10-15 percent). Within South Asia aside from those groups with clear East Asian affinities only peoples of Munda background have the same levels. This data set could answer a lot of questions as to the typicality of my parents (literally within a few hours in terms of data exploration). But this is all you get in the supplements:


Zack Ajmal has already sent off an email asking about this data set, so hopefully the results will be positive.

This is a medical genetics study, so all they wanted to confirm is that there wasn’t population stratification due to inbreeding. They confirmed that. It is fine if they don’t want to explore further questions in relation to ancestry, but it would be really depressing if the data set can never see the light of day for those who are interested in asking other questions.

September 23, 2011

Expectations of Bangladesh

Filed under: Bangladesh — Razib Khan @ 7:09 pm

The New York Times has a puff piece on Sheikh Hasina up. In general I favor the Awami League despite its socialist origins because the party is less bigoted against religious minorities and would likely wink less at de facto ethnic cleansing (though of course the typical Awami League Muslim is still rather prejudiced against non-Muslims, just not nearly as so as BNP supporters I’d bet). But I worry that Bangladesh’s economic growth is a short term feature of its demographic dividend, as the nation still is near the bottom on most metrics of human capital.

June 20, 2011

“Fortress India,” things that make you go “hhhmmm”

Filed under: Bangladesh,India,Politics,Wall — Razib Khan @ 9:29 pm

I always consider Foreign Policy to be a shallower version of Foreign Affairs, but there are so many weird issues with this piece, Fortress India – Why is Delhi building a new Berlin Wall to keep out its Bangladeshi neighbors?

First, the subhead. The uniqueness of the Berlin Wall is that it wasn’t meant to keep out outsiders, it was meant to keep in citizens of the Communist East German regime. Whatever the merits of demerits of the India wall, the analogy is just stupid because of this basic inversion of the structure.


Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old’s father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani’s wedding, arranged for a week later in her family’s ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.

Yes, the story is about the India-Bangladesh border, but it starts out with a story about a 15-year old child bride who was the subject of an arranged marriage! Cultures differ, and economic realities are what they are. But the very fact that the girl was having to cross a border at this age to get married to someone she had probably never met is problematic in and of itself.

Then, stuff about natural disasters and climate:

. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh’s rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country’s fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy.

Saline desert? Perhaps. But from what I gather, and what past history tells us, is that a hotter heart of Asia should increase the power of the monsoonal “pump.” There might be less snow which melts in the Himalayas, but there might be more water overall. This argues for better cooperation in hydraulic electric power across the trans-Himalayan region.


And it’s no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

The reason that Bangladeshis choose India is because there are already many Bengalis across the border, many Bengali Muslims, and even Bangaldeshi Muslims. In Burma Bangladeshis would stand out, and look like Rohingya. Democracy or dictatorship is less important than the cultural affinities, which the article already references.

The New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses estimates that there are already 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. (By comparison, there are an estimated 11.2 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.)

Yes, but there are three times as many Indians as Americans! Additionally, the cultural difference between Bangladeshis and Indians, Islam aside, is probably far less than between Mexicans and Americans. The income gap between Bangaldesh and neighboring regions of India is also not nearly as great. There are so may differences between the two cases that the analogy isn’t telling us much useful.


But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable

“Cattle trader.” To an American this might sound innocuous, but the cultural context here is important. What was this cattle trader up to? It is an open secret that Bangladeshis engage in a brisk trade of Indian cows which they capture and transport across the border to kill and consume. I don’t personally have a problem with this on a deep moral level. I’ve seen cows being slaughtered as a very small child in the streets of Dhaka itself, but obviously a lot of Indian Hindus find this a very objectionable practice. Bangladeshi Muslims view the wandering cows of India as a literal “movable feast,” and they help themselves to free protein whenever possible. This is just how the market equilibrium works, but it doesn’t mean that Indian Hindus don’t get very made about this.

Overall I think the reality is that Bangladesh’s fertility is dropping, and it’s economy isn’t such a basket-case anymore. In 10-15 years this might not be a big issue, insofar as the poor rural migrants who are moving to India might find better and easier opportunities in Dhaka and Chittagong. But unless Indin develops a biometric system so it can track who is, and isn’t, an Indian citizen I can see clearly why they want to control their border. If the Bangladeshis want to work in India they should lead a movement for reunification with India. As it is, they don’t want that. What they want is their independence as a distinctive nation with its own folkways. But such independence comes with a cost. It really sucks for Bangladesh that India is such a bully quite often. But it could be worse. Bangladesh could make a show of fighting back, and then be knee deep in the geopolitical mass which is Pakistan’s self-imposed lot.

January 29, 2011

The archaeogenetics of Bengal

Filed under: Bangladesh,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 3:22 pm

Over at Gene Expression I have a very long piece, “Asian” in all the right places, which interprets my most recent batch of 23andMe results. Additionally, I use these results to generate some inferences about the population history of eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh).

“Asian” in all the right places

mtDNA haplogroup G1a2

The pith: In this post I examine the most recent results from 23andMe for my family in the context of familial and regional (Bengal) history. I also use these results to offer up a framework for the ethnognesis of the eastern Bengali people within the last 1,000 years, and their relationship to other South Asian and Southeast Asian populations.

Since I received my 23andMe results last May I’ve been blogging about it a fair amount. In a recent post I inferred that perhaps I had a recent ancestor who was an ethnic Burman or some related group. My reasoning was that this explained a pattern of elevated matches on chromosomal segments with populations from southwest China in the HGDP data set. But now we have more than my genome to go on. This week I got the first V3 chip results from a sibling. And finally, yesterday the results from my parents came in. One thing that I immediately found interesting was my father’s mtDNA haplogroup assignment, G1a2. This came from his maternal grandmother, and as you can see it has a distribution which ...

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