Book Review: Songs At the River’s Edge: Stories From a Bangladeshi Village by Katy Gardner

Songs At the River's Edge: Stories From a Bangladeshi VillageSongs At the River’s Edge: Stories From a Bangladeshi Village by Katy Gardner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book, I really did. A book about my beloved Bangladesh where I spent nearly six blissfully happy years written by a British woman who was a social anthropologist and should therefore have written with wonderful insight – how could I not like it? Unfortunately I was to be disappointed.

To be fair to the author, there may be many mitigating reasons for this. She visited Bangladesh in 1987, only 16 years after the terrible birth of the country, ravaged by a war the scars of which are still felt today. By contrast, the Bangladesh I knew was from 2005-2013 and much has changed. Likewise she lived for 16 months in a village in Sylhet – the region where most Bangladeshis living in the UK hail from, but one often seen as very different to the rest of Bangladesh. Moreover, Katy Gardner is a woman and I am a man. In Muslim-dominated and heavily patriarchal Bangladesh this inevitably means we both had very different experiences. I had the freedom to do almost anything I wished, talk to who I wished, wear what I wished. The woman who wishes to do the same invites hassle; if not, trouble.

Nevertheless, I’ve read many books on Bangladesh by foreigners and many articles, novels and stories by female Bangladeshis such as Niaz Zaman, Rizia Rahman, Tahmima Anam and Monica Ali and all of these writers tell stories I know and understand as true to my experience of this beautiful, terrible, contradiction of a nation. So there is only so much leeway I can give to Gardner.

Pinning down exactly why I didn’t enjoy the book is harder. Her words were right; the stories she told, the events which happened; the people she met – they all resonated with me. Though I was critical of how she portrayed Bangladeshi society I couldn’t disagree with the problems she highlighted. No one can come to Bangladesh and ignore the injustices, the poverty, the troubles and the corruption which pervade throughout. But there was something…missing.

I did struggle with her attempts at Bangla: ‘Dunndo bad’ instead of ‘dhonnobad’ for ‘thank you’; ‘Sassa’ and ‘sassi’ instead of ‘chacha’ and ‘chachi’ for father’s younger brother and his wife; and so on. But these were probably more to do with the extreme regional dialect of Sylhet than the author’s errors of understanding. I did find it irksome however and, again, never experienced such issues with other authors no matter which part of Bangladesh they were discussing. Perhaps most annoying was her insistence of using ‘elder sister’ in English to describe how the women referred to her. Why not use the Bangla term especially as she includes a glossary in the back and uses so many other terms frequently?

I think the biggest problem for me which bugged me from the start (and I’d hoped would change as the book progressed and the author learned of the culture) was that Gardner simply didn’t get it. She saw herself as the outsider, longed for western life, fled to Dhaka for a taste of ‘civilisation’ every month and generally seems to look down on the country even when she’s doing her best to tell the tales lovingly and with affection.

In short, it wasn’t that I didn’t recognise her Bangladesh: I didn’t recognise the author herself.

I’ve met too many ‘bideshis’ (foreigners) in Bangladesh who have similar attitudes to her, desperate to hold the people at bay, irritated by their closeness yet feeling isolated away from their western lifestyles. I never ‘went native’ in Bangladesh and, if anything, was made more aware of my own ‘Britishness’ by being there, yet this country is my heartland even if it isn’t the land of my birth. I may not be able to say “ami Bangali” (I am Bangladeshi) so truthfully as those born there but when I returned to the UK I certainly couldn’t say “I am British”. Gardner, I feel, never took off that mantle and couldn’t wait to throw off her Bangla trappings once she returned. You can almost hear her breathe with relief as she left despite trying to portray a very different attitude.

This would all be okay except that the author went to Bangladesh to live like a Bangladeshi woman for research into her Ph.D in Social Anthropology. Worryingly, there must be a thesis out there based on her findings and, if it is anything like this book, it won’t really truly reflect the deeper reality of what Bangladesh is. The author at least admits that her understanding can only be superficial. She was there just 15 months and was 23 when she went – barely old enough to understand her own self and culture let alone anyone else’s – so her reflections could only be limited.

This is not a book I would recommend to anyone coming to visit or live in the country. It will only reinforce stereotypes of the people which are so easy to form when arriving as it is. Read instead the works of Bangladeshi authors or those of foreigners who have lived for many years in the country; not a handful of months. Yes, there are immense issues in Bangladesh which haven’t changed in the slightest since Gardner’s time there. But there is a beauty, a majesty, a peace and an honour there which is much greater. It is not all about ‘sharom’ (shame). Far from it.

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