When I started this month, I knew a bit about Bangladesh – the bare details of Partition and Independence, that it’s a Muslim nation with a Mughal past, that Bengali is the easternmost Indo-European language, plus a vague idea about the cuisine (turns out, it is very spicy), but not much on culture, politics, or media. I was also going on a lot of assumptions. Some were right – the overcrowding and traffic is extremely bad, and the problems poor workers face, especially in the shipbreaking industry, are still very real.
However, Bangladesh is also such a dynamic country – there’s been serious economic growth in the last decade, a tech sector brimming with innovation, and political stability under powerful female leaders (who do, admittedly, throw each other in jail with a lot of regularity).
But what runs through so much of what I learned about this month is Bangladesh’s birth in 1971. While Bengali culture has a long, rich history, Bangladesh itself is a very young country. Partition created a split Bengal, with Bengali Muslims ending up tied much more closely to Muslims in Karachi rather than Hindus in Calcutta, their former neighbours. The dysfunction of two Pakistans collapsed in the face Bengali nationalism, and the bloody 1971 Independence War has left a long legacy. The war still shapes Bangladesh’s politics and culture, in films like The Clay Bird and Bapjaner Bioscope, in cricket, and in navigating its fluctuating relationships with Pakistan and India.
But there’s also a lot of really good media overall – DJ sets, upbeat music jams, Dhallywood songs, innovative fiction like Djinn City, cheesy fun natoks, beautiful architecture and landscapes, and deep love of Tintin, of all things. I regret not getting deeper into more classical Bengali art and culture this month, including indigenous Bangladeshi culture, and I totally missed touching on a lot of pre-Partition history and culture, especially Tagore’s works. I also still have no idea about the rules of cricket.
What blew me away this month was the food – it’s so good. In Canada, the dominant South Asian food is Punjabi, and it’s great, but we’ve been sleeping on Bengali cuisine. I had great meals from Bangladeshi restaurants in both Montreal and Toronto, and got to try everything from proper chai, shemai, all kinds of snacks (1,2), stuffed parathas and puri, fluffy desserts, savoury spiced drinks with green mango or yoghurt, Bengali biryani, wood apples, bhortas, how mustard oil fires up chicken, and the hottest damn peppers on the market. There’s such variety, and such wonderful use of complex spice mixtures – and when they say spicy, they mean spicy. I’d argue this may have been one of the best months for food so far, up there with Thailand and Trinidad and Tobago.