Review:The month that bridges minds 23/03/16

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune book review 23 April 2016

“April is the cruelest month”

So begins The Waste Land, TS Eliot’s famous early 20th century poem, as it draws the reader into a long philosophical meditation on spring and renewal, before it ends with the sublime Sanskrit proclamation “Shantih, shantih, shantih.”

I was reminded of Eliot’s famed lines while reading April, a new non-fiction book written by Tulip Chowdhury and Andrew Eagle, and published by Bengal Lights Books. Their writing takes as its form a shared diary chronicling their lives at different ends of the earth during the month of April in 2015.

While Eliot’s work took years to complete and appears heavily influenced by his experience of depression, Chowdhury and Eagle’s book was born out of a fortuitous Facebook connection, and a shared desire to reach out to others and live life to the fullest.

Like all the best ideas, the beauty of their collaboration lies in its simplicity. Andrew is an Australian-born writer based in Dhaka who has been “adopted” as family by the people of Hatiya island in Noakhali.  Tulip is a Bangladeshi writer, whom circumstance and children have taken to live a new life in Massachusetts, US.

It seemed natural then for the pair to pool their thoughts online over their chosen month.

The way chapters and entries are organised chooses itself. Each writer pens one entry every other day and the pair then share thoughts via Facebook catch-ups, extracts from which intersperse the book’s daily entries.

What emerges out of this swiftly formed online partnership is a work that transcends the time and place in which they write. April has a timeless quality that appeals far beyond its locus and contains more universal truths than its simple format might at first glance suggest.

Hence on April 14, it falls on Tulip residing in Amhurst to reminisce about Pohela Boishakh celebrations. At one point, she wonders how Andrew is enjoying the celebrations in Dhaka. What thus started as a “write it and see” experiment pays enjoyable dividends as the writers comment on each other’s previous entries and take care to answer the mutual questions that arise as the month progresses.

Like ripples combining from two stones thrown in a pond, the sum ends up pleasingly being greater than its parts. It will not be an exaggeration to say, however, the book’s best feature lies less in the undoubted quality and flow of their writing and more in the considerable life experience and insight the authors bring to their diary entries.

Both authors, while very different in background, are well-traveled and share common experience of living and teaching in Bangladesh. Tulip’s childhood with vivid memories of life in Yugoslavia and of being a schoolgirl in the erstwhile West Pakistan secretly fleeing to newly liberated Bangladesh, adds depth to her recollections of Bangladeshi culture and life as she adjusts to the cold winters of New England.

As an Australian who has chosen Bangladesh as his home, Andrew naturally feels the need to explain how and why he shares Tulip’s deep longing for Bangladesh. “If I wanted to meet Australians I would have stayed in Sydney,” he says succinctly. His is the more unusual migration and he doesn’t shy away from talking about it.

Long before he remarks on “fresh off the plane” conversations overheard in Gulshan and reflects on his sojourns in Ukraine and Nicaragua, the reader knows he has immersed himself in the life of ordinary people in Bangladesh far more fully than most people who read his newspaper columns.

His Bangladesh is a land of encounters on long countryside bus journeys and at mosquito ridden hostels, as well as tales of apartment gatekeepers and grocery shopping in Dhaka.

With his connections to Hatiya bringing regular gossip and visitors, his diary entries are replete with descriptions of local dialects and accents.

It makes for a valuable addition to the canon of non-fiction English language writings by Westerners about Bangladesh. Take away those largely about 1971, short travel stays or NGOs, and it is a tiny selection overly dominated by politics and the lives of elites.

Like the English journalist Jeremy Seabrook in Freedom Unfinished (2001) and Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce’s seminal descriptions of village poverty in A Quiet violence (1983), he writes with genuine appreciation of life as it is lived by ordinary Bangladeshis.  His deeper roots in the society make his descriptions more compelling, not least because they are so contemporary.

For her part, though hers is a more common migration, Tulip complements Andrews thoughts well. She clearly shares Andrew’s enthusiasm for the ‘’small things’’ in life, as we learn of her investigations into New England dance classes and how she helped out people in Mexican restaurants.

April is a rewarding read. It is short enough to inspire readers to stay up late and start their own diaries, profound enough for writers to linger over their thoughts on everyday life and reverberate them in the mind.

In an age of globalisation, there must be a lot more opportunities for books like April, which publishers would do well to seek out. April is certainly an idea whose time has come.

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