In the fold, saris of gold

Songs at the River's Edge
May 30, 1997

Nearly ten years ago, Katy Gardner went to live in a village in Bangladesh for 15 months to carry out field work for her PhD in social anthropology. In spite of initial difficulties in understanding Bengali and of suspicions that she might be a spy for the British immigration authorities, she finally joined her chosen community and won their trust and affection. Songs at the River's Edge, first published in 1991, is the record of her visit to Talukpur, a real village with an imaginary name. It is a byproduct of ethnographic research.

Although the book is written with sincerity, Gardner's lack of conviction about its purpose is unsettling. Did she intend to write about an alien society, as suggested by the subtitle, "Stories from a Bangladeshi Village"? Or is the book intended as a semi-anthropological journal recording her days in a Muslim village?

Rural life in Bangladesh is in many ways unchanged since Rabindranath Tagore lived there nearly a century ago. Similar rituals of birth, marriage and death punctuate its simple flow of life, defined by Islamic codes of behaviour.

There has been some change, however. Nowadays a public address system is rigged up when a mullah needs to recite holy verses from the Koran to ward off evil spirits. The youth of today delude themselves with the hope of going to Saudi Arabia, the Mecca of money, only to be conned by tricksters in the capital, Dhaka.

Living in Talukpur, Gardner could observe the dress code and the social norms of the women in the village "from the inside", as some travel writers do. V. S. Pritchett has aptly described the process as an act of "putting myself in by leaving myself out".

Gardner really did immerse herself in the life of her adoptive village to get into the skin of its inhabitants. But she kept her English core intact by taking regular breaks in Dhaka, in the contrasting reality of the expatriate lifestyle. She needed to get away from the relentless existence of rural Bangladesh with its calamitous monsoon, mosquitos and all. Who would not, given the chance? She admits: "My transformation into a Bangladeshi woman had never been more than a surface veneer of habit and appearances." This honest confession lies at the heart of the book.

The fact is, anthropological research is a highly subjective business in which "knowledge" is formed and transformed through the anthropologist's personal encounter with human beings and the human condition. Gardner's awareness of this limitation has not always helped her to overcome it. Hence, although the book contains some tantalising glimpses into the lives of a community, these generally fail to become something more than brief vignettes of predictable tales. For example, in the chapter entitled "Roukea buys a new sari", when the impoverished girl stubbornly chooses to buy a sari much beyond the family's means, her helpless husband comes to plead for money with "rich" Katy. This simple but likely story would have become truly poignant if Gardner had given a hint that a Muslim husband must honour his marriage vow to clothe his wife. Instead he appears, in the narrative, to be a typical incompetent male: when he says earnestly, "If I could I'd buy her saris of gold", it does not sound genuine.

Without such insight into why people behave the way they do, the effort to understand "the other" will remain incomplete. This book makes an eager attempt, but does not quite get there. Still, it succeeds in evoking the natural beauty of Bangladesh and the simple spirit of Bangladeshis with much sensitivity.

Krishna Dutta is a translator and author, specialising in Bengali literature and culture.

Songs at the River's Edge: Stories from a Bangladeshi Village

Author - Katy Gardner
ISBN - 0 7453 1095 8 and 1094 X
Publisher - Pluto
Price - £30.00 and £9.99
Pages - 148

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