Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Feeling of Beginning

The road to Balujhuri.

There are things to say and not to say. There are times to let the whole world in; bursting to share what’s interesting. But with precious things there’s also that little niggling wish to keep it close to chest. Everybody should share in it; nobody should know of it. Balujhuri of Bakshiganj in Jamalpur: it’s just a village. It’s best to get that sorted from the start.

There was the moon and me and the unnamed dog. The yard was shining white in the moonlight. The cottage flowerbeds were silvery; the pile of charcoal outside the cow shed door was the only patch falling short of immaculate.

Fate Moni Sangma surveys her yard.

It’s a luxurious kind of cow shed I suppose, like the main house with a tin roof and traditional mud brick walls. I’d watched the few cows being returned there from grazing that evening. Once inside a fire was lit on the steps to send smoke through in order to drive away mosquitoes. The cows were used to a few smoky minutes when the doors got closed – before clarity.

There was no hope of sleep. There was heat. There was the regional correspondent snoring. Sometimes in the silence of nights like that ideas find their freedom.

From the afternoon of our arrival I’d noticed how pretty Balujhuri is. The houses are well-spaced along either side of a small valley, where runs the stream. The bazaar over the small concrete bridge is intimate, and there are a couple of tea shops beside the schoolhouse with impressive large sitting areas that could feature in a tea shop design magazine. Beyond are roads over hills through woodland. It’s an enviable location.

Closer to the house the rows of shupari palms guide the village pathway as it runs further in, through the lush oddly-shaped paddy fields sculpted by the rise of the hills. Green is really green in Balujhuri. A small valley at the start of the Meghalayan hills by the Indian border – surely that’s as good a place as any to encounter new ideas.

The village track, Balujhuri.

Of course there was foreknowledge. I’d seen a documentary piece on the BBC about the Mandi – actually the Garos of India they called them, how it was one of the world’s rare matrilineal societies. Mandi property traditionally passes to the youngest daughter. Husbands move into the wife’s house upon marriage. But on the BBC they’d made it look as though the wives rule over powerless husbands. Maybe that is Meghalaya or maybe it was an “enhanced” TV version. But it’s not what I saw.

Admittedly I’ve been in Bangladesh long enough for it to have been a shock, when I first met Fate Moni Sangma and her husband Bishwanath Marak – when he went off to arrange the tea and biscuits while she sat and chatted. Men give their whole salaries to their wives, she explained, but wives keep theirs. If there’s an argument, it’s the husband who risks being thrown out of the house.

“Women buy whatever they want!” said the husband. “Women are free,” said the wife.

Paddy fields of Balujhuri.

The paddy fields are shaped by the hills.

That night I’d brought a plastic chair from the guest room while the others slept. I moved it periodically about the yard trying to find a breeze – at what seemed to be the northern side where the hill scuttled off upwards; or yard centre; or near the top of the path that ran from the house down beside the pond to the village track. The exercise was mostly psychological.

Shupari palms add geometry to the landscape.

Equality: under the moon I wondered. Norwegian career women: I’d seen them keeping the home maintained after work – they even baked bread but drew the line at ironing. At least one did. In Viking society, contrary to common perception, women were relatively empowered. They had a head start.

Australian middle class women did an even larger housework share I would estimate, though home baked bread is less common. They had often seemed unsure of themselves somehow, inside, beneath that capable exterior. There was still this antagonistic masculine world to struggle against and fit into. History and culture have never been on their side.

I thought about Bengali village women – in those premium full-of-love households, not just any sort of household. Their roles were set and accepted and at its best, it would appear to bring about a degree of contentment in stable self-identity. Where there was cooperation, they were never trying to be. They just were.

The nakshi kantha entrepreneurs I’d just met in Jamalpur had blended their hard won confidence with a certain shy etiquette, you know, for dignity. And then there was this Mandi couple inside the main house. Somehow they managed to sleep without a fan.

Equality: there were so many variables, so many versions.

Bringing home wood.

Wherever I moved the chair the unnamed dog followed, curling up beside my feet. On night duty more than resting, he seemed to like having company. I guess he’s done a good number of shifts on his own. That afternoon he’d chased a troop of brazen roaming pigs from the garden and now there were shadows and unheard sounds to be barked away. Only morning would bring the relative surety of light.

It was first impressions, but the teamwork, the hard work – it seemed so balanced. I’m not sure. He’d gone off to harvest rice in the middle of the day and she’d threshed it – roles familiar to Bengali households. She cooked the evening meal on that day but he helped arrange everything in a way, it must be said, most Bengali village men would not do.

Getting to the core: it’s not possible in a few days. In Balujhuri was rather a sense of a beginning – an alien country, a new culture – the learning from scratch. It’s fascinating. It’s been a long time since I felt that in Bangladesh.

Under the moon I wondered. In that rights-based way in which the westerners think, were Mandi women actually more empowered than their western counterparts? Could the global centre of their feminist achievement actually be Balujhuri?

Bishwanath makes tea.

As the night wore on towards dawn I largely gave up chair moving. There really was no breeze. I tried to sleep once or twice but ended up back in the yard. I realised that intellectually I was like the cows when they’d just entered the barn. It was a smoky vision of Mandi culture I had and only one example.

But I could imagine how popular an experience in Balujhuri would be for tourists, especially western tourists: how appealing a home stay would be. It hardly seemed the Mandi would ever be overwhelmed, either, as ethnic minorities can be when too many strangers arrive. Mandis are flexible, adaptable and in their identities, strong. So it seemed. Westerners would want to know more like I wanted to know more.

I’m not sure who was more pleased with the first morning light when it came, me or the unnamed dog. But as I marvelled – with a sneaky Bengali smile inside – at watching Biswanath sweep every inch of that yard, brush away the charcoal and clean out the cow shed, there was something else I knew. We still have a lot to learn from each other. Yes, we do.

Bishwanath Marak and Fate Moni Sangma: their lives just seemed so balanced.

We still have a lot to learn from each other. Yes, we do.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: The Feeling of Beginning

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