Postcards from Bangladesh by Sudip Sen, Tanvir and Kelly Lynch; The University Press, Dhaka, 2002; pages 304, price not stated.
THIS is an unusual coffee-table book, resembling others of its kind only in its size and format. Unlike most coffee-table books whose purpose is to glamorise an all-too-unglamorous reality, this book remains close to the earth, for the most part (except for the preface) free from meretriciousness, the bane of most coffee-table books. The elemental approach is evident in its very title, reminding one of a physical and moral landscape which has more or less ceased to exist in the feverish me-too and in-your-face world of instant communication and instant gratification. Whoever uses postcards in this era of e-mails?
And yet, the metaphor is appropriate to the narrative. The core of the book comprises 10 'postcards' bearing simple, even artless, poems, short enough to be written on a postcard - as apparently they were, addressed to a recipient in Britain.
The success of an endeavour like this depends on how well the pictures and words sustain and enhance each other. Given that the book is the product of a collaborative effort by three persons, one of whom took the pictures, another did the writing, while a third designed the book, the book succeeds, barring a few exceptions, in this regard. The most striking example of this mutually enhancing interface is the last section, 'Bricks & Mortar', where the dozen or so photographs, of impressive piles in steel and concrete or of little more than mud hovels in rural Bangladesh, are amplified by a happily unobtrusive text. (Some images of rural Bangladesh, like that of Kashia village near Kalaura in Sylhet, jogged the reviewer's memory of other wanderings, at other times.)
On the whole, the photographs of rural Bangladesh speak more vibrantly than those of Dhaka and other urban areas. This should not have been the case given the frenetic pace of the teeming millions of Dhaka. Surprisingly, that quintessential feature of Dhaka, the Sadarghat on the Buriganga, which to a first-time visitor will appear to be the point of arrivals and departures for the whole of Bangladesh, is rather poorly served by the pictures, with far too much space given to highlighting the garish artwork of rickshaw painters, now admired only by collectors of kitsch. The text recognises the exuberantly kaleidoscopic life on the riverfront. However, barring one picture (page 302) where too the orderly rows of properly parked autorickshaws hardly reflect the ever chaotic reality of Sadarghat, or even of the very approach to Sadarghat, experienced by every traveller, and also noted in the text itself ("Wading through the sea of rickshaws and people already hanging around the road in front of the port"), the pictures hardly do justice to the variety and vibrancy and chaos of Dhaka's waterfront.
A KEY element of any human culture and civilisation is food, the transformation of raw agricultural and animal product to processed food, ranging from the barely edible to the irresistibly delicious. In this respect, the words and pictures do not do justice to the appetising culinary and gastronomic tradition of Bangladesh. True, there is a whole section on 'Rice and Fish' (pages 126-49), but the very choice limits the terrain of the theme. The variety of meats, and the even more scrumptious variety of sweets for which Bengal is so famous, do not merit a picture, or even find a mention, in the narrative. Absent, too, are the public eating places of Dhaka and other cities, serving their huge floating populations with affordable and fairly wholesome fare. Sadarghat itself is an excellent example of a venue providing delicious fare to suit even a pocket full of holes. One is indeed struck by the absence of this aspect of life even in the section presenting the religious experience - a central part of which is the fasting and the breaking of the fast, an occasion for the most sophisticated expression of culinary sensibilities.
Another aspect of life shunned (or ignored) in the narrative is the extraordinary tension that animates every living moment in Bangladesh. There is no attempt to underplay the poverty, for even the most wretched of the poor in such narratives, by the very way they are presented, tend to become picturesque, another prop to nostalgia and romanticism. However, the fact is that the majority of the people do not see the horrible deprivation they suffer from in such terms. Nowhere in the narrative, neither in the pictures nor the words, is there the slightest indication of the extraordinary violence that preceded the birth of the nation, and the persistence of this violence which has been employed on more than one occasion to overthrow governments. The mansions of Sonargaon, impressive even in their dilapidated state, with which the narrative opens, are a treat for the eyes. However, the all-too-evident truth is that these piles symbolise the wealth and power secured by the most rapacious exploitation of the peasantry. But in the pictures and the narrative, it is nostalgia, airs and graces of an elegant past, all the way.
But then, it is perhaps unfair to criticise a work for what it does not do, for it did not even set out to do, though the claim is made that the book seeks to portray the reality of Bangladesh from an alternative focal point. While the photographs, of the variety of the people even more than of the landscape, are excellent and the narrative concise and unobtrusive, one is never clear what this alternative focal point is.
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