or where survival and romantics go hand in hand…
When it comes to the rural part of Bangladesh, most people probably imagine a flat land with plenty of rivers, palms, and rice fields, all dotted here and there where cattle feed idyllically - a perfect pastoral picture. This notion is absolutely true. I would also add to the picture: the endless neighbourhoods of houses clustered around small lakes, streams and other bodies of water; children playing in the water; endless paths winding among bamboo trees and shrubs, women dressed in colourful saris washing clothing or dishes, and the welcoming sight of small shops each with a pan of hot water on the fire place ready to make tea.
This is very much the picture of the region around Barisal, an area considered to have the atmosphere of one of the most idyllic rural places anywhere in Bangladesh. Local people refer to this place as- "Dhan-Nodi-Kaal, Ei tine Barisal" – ‘The rice, the river and the channels make Barisal what it really is’.
The main crops cultivate in the region Barisal are: rice, guava, pepper, mustard, sesame, beans, betel and coconuts. Most farmers continue to till the land using the ancient practice of ploughs pulled by harnessed cattle.
Children and adults all enjoy fishing, from which they obtain most of the protein in their diet. A variety of ancient fishing methods, handed down for thousands of years, continue to be practiced in the area. I have put the subject of fishing and fish in a separate chapter, but nevertheless, I will quote the Bangladesh Fisheries Society, who say that 795 species of fish, shrimps, as well as 12 imported species can be found in the fresh and the marine waters of Bangladesh. It is therefore little wonder that fish plays such an important part in Bangladesh life.
People in rural Bangladeshi are hungry for entertainment. Foreign visitors are rarely seen, and access to television and computers is quite difficult. For that reason strangers and foreigners automatically attract a great deal of attention and are treated as celebrities. The moment you stop walking people gather around and stare. Some simply follow you wherever you move and step-by-step you find yourself surrounded by some kind of a fan club, which moves whenever you move. If you sit down to drink tea, people will just sit comfortably around, and if possible, in front of you. Here you are a star, a character in a Bollywood movie that has come out from the screen in order to provide joy and pleasure to everyone. It can at first be a little disconcerting, but I soon understood my role and I played along with it. I felt that it was the least I could do to repay these people for their kindness, their smiles and their continuous readiness to be photographed … what a pleasure for me! Absolutely no one could resist the temptation to come up close to look at me in detail, even venerable old men who looked like senior governmental officials. Perhaps, this constantly being under good-humoured scrutiny was one of the most difficult aspects of my visit to Bangladesh to get used to.
I found rural Bangladesh by far the best and most enjoyable place to observe and experience the old Bangladeshi traditions and ways of life.
Whilst were ambling along a winding rural path, I heard a song or rather a kind of repetitive chant coming from behind a small bamboo house, it reminded me strongly of American movies where I had seen U.S Marines singing, monotonous but rhythmic songs whilst running or marching. To my surprise, beyond a fence there was group of men chanting an old Bengali song which had a similar purpose of keeping people in time, but instead of soldiers, they were a team of villagers pulling strongly on rough ropes, tied in a complicatedly manner over a seven metre high wooden tower. I later learned that this was a pumping devise for drawing drinking water from deep underground, as the surface water was not potable. This method of drawing water had been practiced for hundreds of years, as indeed was the Bengali song itself.
I often came upon small wayside shops, each with a fireplace on which water boiled in readiness to make tea, a group of men would always be sitting close by, enjoying the social company and drinking tea or chewing Paan. The chewing of Paan is a popular activity; it involves chewing a stimulating and preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and/or cured tobacco, often combined with a white slaked lime paste. It stimulates the production of reddish brown saliva, which is then spit out or swallowed. The activity causes a strong discoloration of the mouth and fingers and also has a negative impact on people’s health. Despite this, it is a traditional activity in many parts of Asia and a very familiar sight in Bangladesh.
When night falls, small shops are transformed into social centres to gossip and often to watch the only television set in the area. People usually gather to catch up with the latest local mega movie from Dhallywood.
I hope that you have not gained the impression that rural life is idyllic; because that is not the case. The truth is that around 20% of the rural population live in absolute poverty, with insufficient food and an absence of education and health care.
Such people are without land, or any real means of support, their circumstances force them to work in the most abhorrent and lowest paid jobs in Bangladesh. To give one just one instance; the exhaustingly grubby work of unloading coal from riverboats, where they balance heavy loads of coal in wicker baskets on their heads cushioned by a small pad, a method that has been in use for generations, but still continues today. As I photographed these people, they happily paused their grueling work to smile whilst I took my pictures.