Reading has always helped me get back into writing. I often leave pages bookmarked for months, meaning to get back to commenting on them, to write a post or even just copy a couple of notable quotes down. It rarely happens. Yet some of my most popular posts on here are book reviews, for example Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse or Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Now I’d like to discuss a lesser-known book.
This book will always have special significance for me as it was brought as a present by a Bangladeshi colleague as I was leaving Bangladesh. This colleague is an avid reader herself, and so I knew that I could trust her judgement on this being a really engaging read. I really enjoy reading books about some of the places that I’ve lived in abroad, and this was no exception.
At the moment I’m reading Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom, A Secret History of China, which is fascinating so far, but hasn’t yet reconnected me to my memories of studying in China, in the same way that this book did with Bangladesh. Perhaps it’s because Bangladesh was a more recent experience, but I actually think that the distinctly personal and at some points idiosyncratic narration style of Bangladesh, flooded by change has something to do with it.
It’s a book which makes no attempt at pure professionalism, or polished narration, but the bitter irony in some of the statements, and the startling juxtapositions that are brought to realisation within the text are pulled off with profound effect. Even as a bidēśhī/ foreigner (বিদেশী) it’s clear that the author, as my colleague reassured me, has successfully penetrated some of the most complicated nuances at the heart of Bangladeshi culture.
Where this book really triumphs is as a moving polemic against modern capitalism and globalisation. The effects of mass consumerism and embedded corruption are explored first as a microcosm (in a village, affecting a particular farmer’s family) and are only afterwards exposed as part of a societal evil, much like a landscape painting with an accompanying miniature.
There’s cynicism in every comment, and each comment is literally presented as such; a small commentary on a universal theme. The common thread here is simply Bangladesh, from a lament about the loss of fireflies “due to modern chemical agriculture” (pg. 55) to an impassioned account of a group of rural villagers who are outraged to discover that Sweden throws away almost 1/3rd of all food purchased (pg. 94)
Excerpts from the dialogue about food wastage read “It can’t be true! […] but weren’t people in your country supposed to be well-educated?”, “They do not understand” concludes the sarcastic narration for this segment, “and cannot accept, such behavior. But then they [the villagers] are not very well educated”.
There are many more passages like this; a rickshaw driver in Dhaka who jokes about how Bangladesh and Bill Gates are similar because “both earned the same amount of money last year” (pg. 116).
Then there’s the extract named “Knowing for a Better Life” concerning “an advert in a daily newspaper” which advises manual workers on how to avoid muscle strain. The joke here? The vast majority of this 40 million strong group of people are illiterate. Moreover, there is no way that they can even hope to follow the advice given in this advert, and avoid strenuous exercise (pg. 97). The absurdity is as obvious as the author’s sharp eye for the extraordinary details which ordain everyday life.
The smallest of comments in this book unlocked a world, a way of living in a developing country which is being literally and metaphorically “flooded by change”. The retreat of the fireflies, for example, brings to mind one particular Bangla lesson with our tutor in the apartment. She mentioned that she hadn’t seen fireflies since she was a child, and that the word for firefly, Jōnāki (জোনাকি) was once a popular name for village girls. Now the name has vanished with those small orbs of light. I remember noting down the name, and the idea, in my specially designated red Bangla notebook.
Our Bangla tutor is moving to Canada next month, and though I left Bangladesh some weeks ago now, I’m sure that my memories of the country (which harbours few remaining jōnāki) will not be as quick to fade.