Old age and new identities

Age, Narrative and Migration

May 9, 2003

In the global age, travel is a central practice and airports more significant sites of study than villages. The way such "homes away from home" are constructed is more important than the crossing of cultural and national borders. The ability to live transnationally is a creative response to controlling forms of global capitalism and racial order.

Katy Gardner's narration of the life histories of Bengali households in London from the perspective of the elders reminds us of the complex meaning of home ( desh ) and abroad ( bidesh ) for this migrant group.

Their response to transnationalism is ambivalent: few elders are clear about where they wanted to be, or whether their move to the UK was a good or a bad thing.

Bangladesh is the spiritual homeland of pirs and mosques, and a country of material deprivation whereas the UK is perceived as a place with a functioning healthcare system but where the climate causes deterioration to health.

Transnationalism has different symbolism for men and women as they grow older, and their bodily, social and spiritual needs change. For the men who came alone to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, the host country was a place of hardship and work. But their identities were rooted in Bangladesh, which was also the place where close relatives lived and met their emotional needs. In the 1980s, families were reunited, partly as a result of changes in immigration laws but more importantly because men were growing old. They needed their wives to come to care for them in a British space that they now perceived to be sufficiently Islamicised and Bengalified.

The prime reason cited by elders for staying in Britain was that their emotional needs were met by the family that was here. There was also the fact that their children had grown up and had been educated in the UK and were reluctant to move. Furthermore, as they grew older their health needs were best met by a health service not available in Bangladesh. Not only that, their health status also meant that they would return home not as triumphant sons and daughters but as dependent elders.

Bengali women tend to describe their migrant experience in terms of suffering, their role as carers and their ailing body, while men tend to focus on productive work and physical mobility. Nevertheless, men also tell how they missed their families and describe their emotional distress over transnational separations. Women, too, describe them-selves in active and autonomous terms.

The author's gender analysis shows how people constantly negotiate different forms of selfhood, shifting between dependency and assertiveness.

The interplay of gender, life courses and migration, which is the central theme of this well-written book, will appeal to a wide readership, from those interested in migration and transnationalism, gender dynamics and ageing to those interested in South Asia, and ethnic relations in Britain.

Giorgia Doná is senior lecturer in refugee studies, University of East London.

Age, Narrative and Migration: The Life Course and Life Histories of Bengali Elders in London

Author - Katy Gardner
ISBN - 1 85973 313 1
Publisher - Berg
Price - £45.00
Pages - 254

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