Squeezed between India and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is a densely populated fertile delta that receives the waters of the Himalayas. In the ancient times, these lands were occupied by different kingdoms and empires that introduced and reintroduced Buddhism, Hinduism and finally the Muslim faith (that was to stay). Today Bangladesh is nearly 90% Muslim, 10% Hindu and other religions form a very small minority. The capital is Dhaka, the fourth most populous city in the world (2023).
There are three main areas for Bangladeshi restaurants in Sydney: Lakemba, Rockdale and Ingleburn. While we first look into restaurants in Rockdale, booking becomes too difficult and we turn our attention to Lakemba in Sydney’s outer west. There are several Bangladeshi restaurants on the same street and we opt for Dhanshiri that has the highest rating. And we are very glad we do. While the restaurant’s decor is quite basic, the food is outstanding, or ‘sensational’ as one of the members of the group says. It is indeed one of the best of the Virtual Nomad stops so far – very rich in flavour and taste. We have a party of 13 with some seasoned Virtual Nomads but also four newbies, which makes the experience even more enjoyable.
It is a very successful night. We choose some shared entrees and then individual plates but end up sharing all the food, which is a good idea as the food is wonderful and every plate is a delight. There were several flavours that were unknown, exotic and exciting. Some of the dishes are quite spicy but even if spicy, the rich flavour pulls through. This is majestic food and the whole party is gobsmacked by the quality.
Cricket and Bengali tigers
Bangladesh shares borders with India and Myanmar, and is one of the most populated countries in the world. To be exact, it has the eighth highest population, a whopping 167 million!) The official language is Bengali – an Indo-Aryan language – the seventh most spoken language in the world.
Bangladesh was part of India until 1947 and when India and Pakistan (1948) became independent from the United Kingdom. British rule had brought some benefits but in general did not do much good for the Bengali people. As a parting gift, Britain destroyed 60,000 fishing boats as a “precaution against Japanese invasion”.
Bangladesh was named East Pakistan and became part of the newly established country of Pakistan. The two parts of the country were vastly different, not least in terms of the language. While West Pakistan made Urdu the official language, most people in East Pakistan spoke Bengali. Pakistani rule was not any better than previous rulers and the growing tension between the two grew gradually stronger, culminating in the 1971 liberation war backed by India. Three million people died. This is also the first recorded conflict in which rape was used as a weapon of war in massive numbers.
Independence did not bring peace and political prosperity as several prime ministers and politicians were assassinated. There have been 29 military coups in Bangladesh between August 1975 and December 2011. The current government has been accused of human rights violations and disappearances, and the 2018 Digital Security Act has been used to limit freedom of expression and target Government critics. While Bangladesh is the second largest economy in South Asia and poverty rates have been steadily decreasing, corruption is rampant.
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban plastic bags. It also has the fourth highest number of child marriages in the world. While homosexuality is criminalised, third gender and certain transsexual rights are recognised. The Global Slavery Index 2021 shows a high number of victims of modern slavery in Bangladesh (estimated to be 1.2 million people).
Five books of clash and grief
I end up reading five Bangladeshi books (or five books from authors of Bangladeshi origin). I’m not sure how that happened, but it did. Maybe it is that I received recommendations and then could not decide which one to select, so I ended up reading them all. This is how I rate them:
Book 1 *** Book 2 ***** Book 3 ** Book 4 **** Book 5 *****
Upstaged by a Messiah (book one)
Tahmina Anam is an awarded (Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, O.Henry Award and shortlisted for several more) Harvard-educated author born in Bangladesh and residing in London. I decide to read her latest book, the Startup wife. It is a story of a trio of friends, a young married couple and their gay friend who start an app that offers rituals for non-religious people. In the trio the wife is of Bangladeshi origin and attends MIT. Then she and her white husband and friend move to New York. At the beginning of my read, I am a bit unsettled and annoyed by the book’s desperate attempt to be funnier and cleverer than it really is. It does not start well and the main character’s fascination with his messiah-like, slightly creepy husband is frustrating. The beginning of the story rushes through the love story that makes it feel shallow – and ends up not feeling like a love story. Fortunately, nearly half way through, the story kicks in much more effectively and becomes a slowly constructed story of whitewashing, misogyny, boardroom sexism, creative madness (sometimes more madness than creativity), ethics and the modern quest for cults and ‘answers’ that hits its target in an entertaining manner. I grow to enjoy the book a lot and towards the end I am nearly fully engaged.
The clash of two worlds, part 1 (book 2)
Fascinated by the unevenness but the gradual cleverness of The Startup Wife, I decide to read another of Tahmina’s books – her well-rated The Good Muslim, the second of her Bangladeshi trilogy. I should read the first book (A Golden Age) first but in the search for the book, this one is easier to access so I go there. I understand that the Good Muslim takes off where the first book ends. The first book focuses on the time during the Bangladesh War of Independence (1971) and the second book is about the rise of religious fundamentalism through the intimate lenses of two siblings – a brother and a sister – who are worlds apart. One is a religious leader scarred inside and the other a doctor trying to make wrongs right while not always succeeding. It is an astonishing, superb book, well-crafted and built in two different timelines. It is nearly poetic in its depiction of the aftermath of an armed conflict, even a victory and the moral implications of living with guilt. The book has an intense crescendo towards the devastating end. It is a study of faith, religion, moral, class and violence – and a world where the most vulnerable are always the most exploited and suffer the most.
The clash of two worlds, part 2 (book 3)
Brick Lane by Monica Ali is a story of a young Bangladeshi woman who is sent to London through an arranged marriage to an older man. Monica Ali herself comes from a Bangladeshi and English background. Brick Lane is her first novel and the name refers to a street in London considered the heart of the Bangladeshi community. The book was a huge success, highly praised and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction (2003). On the other hand, Monica received criticism when the book was published as she was Oxbridge-educated with limited time spent around Brick Lane.
The book follows the passive Nazneen’s story from Bangladesh to London and occasionally the story of her sister Hasina back in Bangladesh. Nazneen is young, naïve and inexperienced, and her world, at first, is narrow, suffocating and dominated by patriarchy and the weight of traditional roles. The story follows her awakening as a mother, a woman and a sexual being (the latest through her affair with Karim, a radicalised young Muslim who predictably ends up being a fundamentalist disappointment). It is a coming-of-age story with a substantial share of tragedy, loneliness and the sense of helplessness.
While I found the book moderately interesting, I was not thrilled with the style of writing that seems to drag unnecessarily for pages before getting to the point. The book was definitely interesting but there was also something artificial about it that bothered me. Therefore I was interested to know what people of Bangladeshi origin think about it. An interesting review (although giving away the whole plot) is by Sanchita Islam, a recently passed London-born artist of Bangladeshi origin. Another review (that also reveals the plot).
Senseless hate (book 4)
Lajja (Shame) by Taslima Nasrin was banned in Bangladesh but became an international bestseller. And it is easy to understand why. The author herself is a physician, human rights activist and feminist known for her criticism regarding women’s oppression. She lives in exile due to the numerous fatwas placed upon her. In the preface of Lajja she says: “Religion drives people to madness, at which point they do not hesitate to abandon even basic humanity… Lajja can be seen as a symbol of protest. It is a protest against the violence, hatred and killings that are going on all over the world in the name of religion” and “Lajja speaks not of hate but love. Lajja asks for equality, not discrimination. Lajja waits for a time of equality, empathy and freedom.”
In a nutshell, it is a simple book. It is a story of a Hindu minority in a Muslim majority country after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in India. A story of religious intolerance, hate and discrimination based on religious differences. It is not different from other religious conflicts or discrimination and it shows how fundamentally senseless it is. Little girls get abducted because they are Hindu, an aging doctor comes to the realisation that he will never get a promotion because he is Hindu, entire Hindu families are killed, women raped, Hindu young people are shut out from opportunities. Pages of atrocities and wrongdoings, injustice and unfathomable cruelty. It is easy to understand why the Bangladeshi authorities wanted the book banned. It contains a lot of accurate and recent history (the 90s) and probably half of the book documents attacks on Hindu minorities (and also a few incidents by Hindu), so at times it reads like non-fiction with a story of a family loosely woven around the sad history. The state terror is ever present in the book, with the police an accomplice to terrible violations as the violence escalates to unprecedented levels. And then there are girls who disappear and never come back.
It is a tough, sad book to read. A review of the book said it is a “documentation of collective defeat and portrays the incomprehensiveness of religious extremism, mob mentality and heinous crimes men are capable of inflicting on each other.”
Loss, longing and war (book 5)
My final book of Bangladesh is I Remember Abbu, by Humayun Azad. The author was a professor of Dhaka University, author, novelist and many other things. A self-proclaimed feminist, he wrote what is considered the first feminist book of Bangladesh, Naree (1992). He was also a vivid supporter of freedom of speech. Critical of religious extremists in Bangladesh, he suffered an assassination attempt in February 2004 (that an Islamic fundamentalist organisation took responsibility for). In August 2004, he was found dead in Munich, Germany. The attackers of the February 04 attempt were later sentenced to death.
The book is listed as one of Humayun’s novels for teenagers but it feels like a beautiful storybook for children about parents and children, and war. The foreword, written in 2018, is by Humayun’s son, written in exile from Bangladesh, who longs for his father. It is a beautiful and haunting foreword to a beautiful and haunting book. ‘Abbu’ in Bengali means ‘father’. The book is a story about longing and absence, but above all it is a story about the senselessness of war and conflict, and the profound sentiment that despite everything, most people are good. A beautiful, warm book that with very few pages manages to say more than many other far longer books.
Then to movies….
Fundamentalisms and tragic loves
Matir Moina (2002) with an English title The Clay Bird is one of the most acclaimed and highly rated movies from Bangladesh, and when released was first banned in the country and later showed in limited screenings. It is directed by Tareque Masud and influenced by his childhood experiences in the turbulent times of the 1960s. Anu, the main character, is sent to a Muslim boarding school, which like many boarding schools is not a warm and welcoming place. Anu’s father is deeply immersed in ultra conservative Muslim faith and rejects all Western influence. This includes rejecting western medicine for his sick daughter, choosing instead to blindly trust religion and homeopathy as solutions for political unrest and the family’s health crisis. The background is the political changes preceding the 1969 Bangladesh Liberation War.
It is a remarkable, subtle and effective movie crafted with skill and symbolism. It is not without its flaws (editing, uneven script at times) but its core message pushes through regarding how damaging fundamentalist ideologies can be, whatever they are. The silence and longing in the eyes of Anu’s mother, married through an arranged marriage at the age of 14, is telling and haunting at the same time.
Our second Bangladeshi film is Monpura (2009, directed by Giasuddin Selim) that was a critical and commercial success and the 7th highest grossing Bangladeshi movie of all time. A tragic love story of injustice and betrayal, a contemporary Bengali Romeo and Juliet of a young man framed for murder and his beloved, promised as a bride to the real murderer. It’s slightly melodramatic and predictable, but still very sweet. The island scenery (of the island Monpura) is beautiful.
The third Bangladeshi film that I watch is a 2019 movie about the underpaid female garment workers in the sweatshops of Bangladesh serving the global fashion industry, Made in Bangladesh. It’s a poignant, feminist take on unionisation with an uplifting ending. The movie was made in the aftermath of several tragedies in the sweatshop industry, most notably the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse that killed over one thousand people. The movie has a very different feeling to it than the reality which makes it, of course, land in the ‘feel-good’ category.
The stop in Bangladesh finishes in the form of a personal acquaintance, and an inspiring human Shahidul Alam. He is a photojournalist, public speaker, teacher, social activist and an incredibly warm and welcoming person. He has been critical of the Bangladeshi Government and in August 2018, Shahidul was arrested and taken into custody. International campaigns followed to call for his release and he was finally granted bail in November 2018.
Next stop: Barbados
Edited by JK