This book appealed to me as I am interested in Bangladesh. Based on the author’s experiences during a three-month stay as part of a voluntary cultural exchange programme, A Blonde Bengali Wife was a fabulous way for me to learn more about the country from the point of view of someone who lived and worked there. Prior to reading the book, I had been ploughing through travel guides to Bangladesh and watching videos, and trying to fit what I learnt from these round my own experiences of teaching Bangladeshi students in East London. Anne’s vivid book was an excellent complement, and transported me to the country in a way that a dry travel guide was unable to do. It filled in a lot of gaps for me, and expanded on things which my students had told me about. Given most of my reading is fiction, or text books, this was an absolute delight of a book and a welcome change.
I first read A Blonde Bengali Wife in 2013 when I was researching Bangladesh for an MA project. I read the re-published version in November 2015. On both occasions, what struck me was how much the pages are imbued with affection for the country and the Bengali people. Anne’s gentle humour tickles the narrative, and I shared her perplexity and frustration at many of the things she encountered. Some of the scenes had me snorting with laughter, for example, the visit to Imran and Sajid’s mother, the indomitable Mrs Begum, the bartering scenes, the dreadful phone lines, and the numerous declarations of love which started at the airport as soon as Anne arrived.
The cultural exchange programme involves Anne learning about and helping the Bangladeshi people, and travelling and undertaking a range of activities and projects for and with them. On many occasions I felt as if I were on the exchange with her, on the rammed, air-conditioned buses and crazy rickshaws, smelling the dry river bed and flora, eating yet more rice, lentils and eggs, and hearing the birds and local fauna. Anne travels to the capital, Dhaka, and Sylhet, and their surrounding areas. Her weeks shift between tea gardens in Sylhet, health projects in remote villages, the beach and sprawling urban centres. One of the projects involves levelling a school playing field. Then Anne is helping out in eye clinics and those for babies, sleeping on a mattress in a tiny room with men and using washing facilities which would have made me resort to wet wipes. I loved the scenes when she was putting together a sparkly outfit for a formal Bangladeshi wedding. It was fascinating to learn about the multiple phases of these weddings. I have taught Bangladeshi students about relationships and marriage as part of A-level Psychology, and while we explored cultural differences in these, I knew that various ceremonies were involved, but not that they take place over many days. The wonderful, turmeric ceremony seems steeped in history and symbolism. I also really enjoyed the sections based in Old Dhaka. The extremely atmospheric descriptions had me googling images, so keen was I to see it represented graphically.
I really liked Anne’s Australian friend, Christine, who is down to earth and practical. She and Anne made a good partnership and their friendship provided a buffering for Anne while she found her feet, but I felt we learnt more about Anne after Christine left. This isn’t a criticism at all, as Anne is describing what happened. I always like those friendships that we all make when we are away from home and undergoing something challenging. I also really liked Anne’s local companions, ‘tour guides’ and protectors, Hasina and Munnu, whose loyalty and concern were very touching.
For me, the book is part memoir and part travelogue … and much more. While it is one which inspired her to set up the charity, Bhola’s Children, and is thought provoking, it isn’t a book which is trying to make you give to charity, or make you feel guilty about poverty, disease and inequality. One of the quotes about the book is that “A Blonde Bengali Wife shows the lives beyond the poverty, monsoons, and diarrhoea” and I think this is extremely accurate. Anne refers repeatedly to what stuck out for her: the people. The shared moments, the sad and funny occurrences, the small things Anne had in common with those she met, were all poignant. For me, they emphasised how cultures may vary but how so many aspects of human experience are universal. What’s clear is that life will never be the same for Anne after this exchange.
If you are looking for a read which is a bit different, which is vivid and transporting, I highly recommend A Blonde Bengali Wife. It made me want to go to the airport and get on the first plane to Bangladesh. Who’s coming?
Vicky Newham © 2015