Bangladesh doesn’t normally get noticed by the world.
The tiny size of the country, dwarfed by China above it and almost cuddled protectively on all sides by its mother India, means most people miss it on a map. (In fact, the map I have in front of me doesn’t even have room for the name of the country.) Yet some 160 million inhabitants make Bangladesh roughly the seventh-most populous country in the world. Add to this the fact that Bangladesh ranks as one of the fastest developing countries in Asia, and you’d think people would take notice. They don’t.
A few months ago, a nine-story garment factory in Savar, on the outskirts of the capital city, Dhaka, collapsed with thousands of garment workers inside. Most were young girls, many of these newly married or betrothed or already mothers. Almost all took home to their villages a pittance of a wage to feed their families. More than 1,100 of them died.
I happened to be just a few miles away when the tragedy occurred. I watched live broadcasts on the TV with horror, cameras poking into holes where the dead and dying lay. Thousands of rescuers clawed their way into the rubble. Much more brutally honest than Western reporting, Bangladeshi cameras left nothing to the imagination. Horror on an unprecedented scale unfolded before our eyes.
I wept. This is not the Bangladesh I am used to. I’ve lived here for five years. I know this as a beautiful country with wonderful, friendly, welcoming people. A “paradise” if you like, earning a perfect title in Bangladeshi author Rizia Rahman’s collection of short stories, Caged in Paradise. This book powerfully describes life for more than 100 million poor, rurally based Bangladeshis. The author genuinely seems to understand this country is a heavenly place to live, but it can also turn hard and hellish.
One of Bangladesh’s top writers and novelists, Rahman has published stories here and abroad for more than 30 years. She won the country’s top literary award, the Bangla Academy Award, in 1978, then other prestigious awards for the next 20 years. The stories of Caged in Paradise appeared originally in Bangla—the state language—but the collection’s editors, Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam, compiled an excellent team of translators for a wider, English-speaking, audience. These stories present voices that deserve hearing…else, like the girls at Savar, no one will ever hear them.
Bangladesh is a country born in turmoil, a land full of contradictions. For the whole of this year the opposition political party has been trying to oust the ruling party by inflicting hartals, nationwide strikes, on the country. These bring work to a halt day after day, crippling some businesses. Elections await, and the Bangladesh National Party wants a “caretaker government” installed to ensure safe and democratic elections. The ruling Awami League will have none of it.
Hartals inevitably end in bloodshed. Although well used to them, I found that Rahman’s “A Hartal Story” sheds new light on the real reasons for these strikes (“if people like us don’t die in the Hartals, they can’t win the game”) and their effect on the poor—supposedly the very ones these strikes support and defend.
The story focuses on beggars living in Dhaka who can’t earn any money—not even selling matchboxes to passing motorists—because everyone has deserted the streets. (You do not drive on a hartal day if you want to keep your car in one piece.) The poor suffer most from the reality of these strikes. “Hartals never harm them,” says Jamila, a street prostitute in the story, in reference to the rich. “It is street people like us who starve or get hit by bullets or killed by bombs.”
Most living in Bangladesh have known poverty and this leads to strange ambitions by those who begin to claw their way out of it. In the opening story “The Lure of the Sea,” Rahman tells us of an elderly couple, Benu and Altaf. Benu dreams simply to visit the seaside at Cox’s Bazar—famed for having the world’s longest continuous beach but rarely visited by non-Bangladeshis. Her obsession begins when her husband brings her a gift—a calendar.
Calendars carry tremendous importance in Bangladesh—anyone who has lived here will know that. For whatever reason, Bangladeshis love them. One picture of the blue sea (something Benu did not even know existed—Altaf must explain it to her) captivates this poor wife of a lowly clerk. She begins a quest to save enough money for a “trip to the seaside.” That quest, unfortunately for Benu, proves lifelong.
Religion also plays an important—and provocative—part in Bangladesh’s life. The country’s birth after a bloody civil war in 1971 created an identity crisis. Are Bangladeshis Muslim first (the country is 90 percent Muslim) or Bengali? This question emerged explosively in recent months as rajakars—men who during the war abused, raped, and murdered millions of Bangladeshis—finally began to face trial in a country where the death penalty remains in use.
Life sentences arouse great suspicion. Most accept that when the opposition party becomes the government any rajakars in jail will, inevitably, be released. (They are chief political leaders for the party or its allies, after all.) History will merely repeat itself—only the players have swapped roles.
Many despair of finding any true justice. But when intelligent, Internet-savvy youth formed the so-called Shahbhag movement demanding the death penalty for these rajakars, militant Islamists immediately took to the streets in violent protest. They accuse Shahbhag of being atheists, and this caused split loyalties throughout the country. Everyone wants traitors brought to justice, but no one wants to support perceived anti-Islamists. The nation must take sides, Islam or Bangladesh. Most people would quite happily be both.
Rahman’s “Mother Fatema Weeps” gives heartrending background to this national split-personality and the damage often inflicted by some using the tenets of Islam for personal gain. Here, a cruel village Islamic leader called Taleb Munshi secretly lusts after Hajera but also feels repulsed by her “Western” attitude and her immodesty. He wants her…but he also wants to destroy her.
Rahman focuses often on the plight of women in Bangladesh. Readers find poverty, cruel treatment at the hands of husbands, and an often excessively patriarchal society at the core of her work, and she represents Bengali women skilfully and empathically.
Not all her stories succeed. I found the final piece, “A Poet, a Crow, and the War-Horse of Chengiz Khan,” strange and ineffectual. Would it be better in the original Bangla? More understandable to a native here? I don’t know, but it left me with a sense of disappointment. It also led me to read the title piece “Caged in Paradise” a second time so I could finish the book in a positive mood.
“Caged in Paradise” tells the story of 19-year-old Rahela, a wife of a cruel man who literally keeps her chained up during the day. He blatantly sleeps with the maid, Moyna’s Ma, now pregnant with his child. Rahela relates her life to that of her caged birds. This story, like all the others, does not end well—in fact, I have rarely ever read a Bengali story with a happy ending. This can seem, to Western minds, rather excessive, overly melodramatic.
But then I read of one of the last women found alive in the Savar tragedy. She survived four days buried in the rubble only then to die in an accidental fire as the rescue team prepared to pull her out. Happy endings in Bangladesh (and East Pakistan before it and Bengal before that) rarely happen.
Rahman’s short stories—her very best chosen here for Caged in Paradise and Other Stories—make grim reading at times, though not without flashes of light and humor. Nevertheless, they stand as required—albeit not perfect—reading for anyone who wants to better understand the psyche of Bangladeshi and the issues facing it in modern times.
I highly recommend the collection, and not just as an interesting and digestible series of short stories. It’s a treatise on modern Asian thought and condition.
Ken Ford-Powell is a British writer living in Bangladesh. When not occupied with writing, teaching, or finishing a Masters degree in Asian Studies, he drinks far too much tea and writes a blog you can follow at http://kenthinksaloud.wordpress.com.