No Country for Young Women: My Travels Through Rural Bangladesh
A Bangladeshi-American novelist's search for home in the hills and jungles of South Asia.
All photos by the author. Collage by Alex Cook
When it came time to finish my novel, I knew the last thing left to do was to see the hills I'd written about but had never seen. Research had given me a skeletal lay of the land, but I knew I needed to experience the places I charted, because those parts of the book felt flat even after several revisions. So last March, I went back to Bangladesh for the first time in seven years. It was the dry beginning of summer, a couple months shy of monsoon. My sister joined me on a last-minute whim. She was finishing up grad school and wasn't sure when she'd have another opportunity to visit. Better than sitting on family couches and eating, she told me. We'd be two women travelers on a cross-country bus ride, along with our uncle, our tour guide and male protector.
"Don't speak English. They'll know you aren't Bangali," warned my uncle, an activist turned UN bureaucrat with a graying handsomeness.
"People are religious here, best to keep your arms covered," he said as we settled into a bus headed to the restricted tribal lands of Rangamati. His tone was gruff, as usual, but I thought I heard the toll of playing tour guide getting to him.
"Where are women safe?" I asked.
"Nowhere," joked my sister. "Not even inside."
Her joke wasn't actually a joke. After all, inside was Rana Plaza, the deadliest garment-factory accident in human history. Inside was the home, the plight of every domestic worker or housewife we knew. Women's work, 24/7, for a pittance. "It's not safe here" was a constant reminder that there was no safe place for a woman to be alone. Inside, outside, in homes, offices, factories, farms, or buses, you could be destroyed.
"Just cover up, and you'll be fine, that's it," replied my uncle.
The bus driver honked loudly and continuously to barrel through the nighttime road.
"I hate the stupid buses in this stupid country," I muttered.
"Don't say that," said my uncle, not bothering to look up from his cell phone. "Don't call it a stupid country."
My sister and I grimaced at an unspoken thought of being on a nighttime bus full of men, and the fatal New Delhi rape that happened in December 2012. Years ago, I'd lived in that bountiful, harsh city. Years before that, I had been raped, on a winter afternoon in high school. It struck me how the date of the New Delhi rape, December 16, was the date of Bangladesh's victory in the Liberation War of 1971. Intimate violence is not rare, nor extinct, as likely to happen in New York as New Delhi. It happens everywhere, to everyone, between strangers, lovers, family. Dark thoughts seeped into my dreams that night. Bus as death trap, drivers honking wildly, swerving in and out of lanes, riders only half-asleep. Home as vessel, brimming with trauma.
I want to go home, I thought, realizing the sensation wasn't new. This always happened during one of these "homeland" trips. The isolation and claustrophobia would get under my skin. I said this often as a child. Alien melancholy laced with a wistful desire to belong. Growing up in Alabama, Texas, Missouri, and suburban New York, I felt like a perpetual outsider. Those places had nothing to do with family, friends, religion, or shelter. What I longed for was somewhere to call my own. As a kid in St. Louis, on the bus home, the principal's son taunted me with Gulf War–inspired Islamophobic epithets, and I remember sitting silently still, wishing I could transport myself home. But when I did get off the bus, it was to our roach-infested apartment, with no room of my own. I wanted desperately to escape, and sometimes I did, usually at the library, with the Childhood of Famous Americans series, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Stephen King, and V. C. Andrews in tow. I wrote peppy short stories, nothing as gloomy as the books I loved to read.
When I shed the armor of my childhood—the thick plastic glasses, multi-colored braces, hairy legs and upper lip—I discovered a new brand of adolescent alienation. I turned into a sexualized, vulnerable young adult. I wanted to experience everything, and my defiance shook my Muslim Bangladeshi foundations. I snuck out of the house, dabbled in miniskirts, pepperoni, booze, hookups—I found it all delicious. The more I was told I shouldn't, I did. I ignored the advice of my cautious, loving parents, that breaking rules had harsh consequences: You will not survive. No one will love you. You will end up alone. You will go to hell.
Once in a while I felt loved, but mostly alone for the decade after I graduated from college. And, for a long spell of hell, the scars of sexual assault lingered into my adulthood.
To cope, I explored inanimate, Indian-ish, New Age forms of healing–crystals, hypnotherapy, cleanses—with the fervor of an acolyte. I channeled my anger and trauma into world travel. Living between worlds was a way for me to escape. By way of nonprofit salaries, study-abroad programs, a fellowship, and family trips to Bangladesh, I traveled and discovered points of departure for my fiction over the years. I went to places that mirrored my volatile state of being: Nairobi, New Delhi, and Dhaka. In my not-quite homeland, Bangladesh, 160 million people bound by land smaller than Wisconsin live in a chaotic, verdant, gorgeous, dirty, and stifling world. I love-hate it. The restrictions of not being able to speak, eat, dress, or move how I do in my day-to-day unsettles me and stretches my imagination.
My face is mirrored in millions of faces I see. Still, it is not, and will never be, home.
This cambering bus ride to Rangamati would take us to a restricted part of the southerly Chittagong Hill Tracts. Foreign nationals were required to get special permits to enter tribal lands, so our uncle would do all the talking. No one questioned a man who did all the talking. We were undercover, posing as authentic. Our gringo Bangla was a sad consequence of too many years studying abroad.
Kaptai Lake, a marvel in the middle of nowhere, was the town's main attraction. We chartered a boat at the foot of a suspension bridge that connected the town to the forest.
"You should see the hills after the rains," muttered my uncle. "It's all dry and dead shit now."
I memorized the details of this arid March version of a fantastic voyage: desiccated sal forests, a trickle of waterfall, invasive water hyacinth islands that mapped the lake's surface. I took note of all the trees I could name, the miens of travelers who came from all parts of Bangladesh.
"The lake is beautiful, though," I said.
"They call it the Pahari people's tears," replied my uncle. "The lake is beautiful, but its history is very dark. When the government built Kaptai Dam, it formed this lake, displacing the Chakma." The Chakma were the majority Tibeto-Burman community in Rangamati, who traced their lineage to 15th-century Arakan, a part of present-day Burma. The word pahari is Bangla for "hills."
Bright textiles swayed like flags on a gazebo atop a hill, and I asked our boatman to dock. We walked up stairs carved into the hillside, entering a village, walking until we heard a woman call to us.
"Come in, brother and sisters," said a Chakma woman. The woman was wizened and bamboo skinny, a cigarette dangling out of her mouth. She stood in the doorway of a blue hut made of latticed palm leaves. Freshly dyed shawls hung from a clothesline. We followed her in. More shawls wrapped in bundles. Spare, colorful details composed her home—a Buddhist altar of candles and flowers, a tiny TV, a world map.
"Have some tea," she offered, along with a tray of cookies and cigarettes. Her stilted Bangla, not her mother tongue, matched the staccato in mine. She told me her name was Puspumaya.
"Have you lived here your whole life?" I asked.
"No, we lived where the lake is, until I was five," said Puspumaya, exhaling a smoke ring to the ceiling, a shade of green that muted the cheer of the blue walls. "There used to be tigers, lots of animals. She shook her head wistfully. "Nowadays, there are only humans."
Puspumaya lived in the country of her birth as a minority, as did I. We belonged to the Bangali Muslim majority, who visited her land as a tourist attraction. We belonged to the people who'd oppressed hers for generations. Yet her warmth indicated no resentment. I wondered if she read us as being somehow different from the Bangalis she had known throughout her life. Secretly I wanted her to see us as different.
Here, in her little blue home, hazy with incense and cigarette smoke, Puspumaya sold the shawls she made with her sister to another pair of sisters—my sister and I, who'd also grown up as outsiders their entire lives.
I looked over my notes that evening, knowing I wanted to write about the sinister undercurrent of ethnic racism and displacement that tempered Rangamati's idyllic peace. I realized that the only Chakma people besides Puspumaya we'd seen were the weathered old ladies weaving intricate lanyard bags along the lake. Or the waiters at the hostel we were staying in. That was it. While we spoke to them in Bangla, it was evident that it wasn't their first language. They were forced to speak it by the dominant majority, who had never bothered to learn their language.
The tension was as beautiful as it was terrifying.
The next day, we took another day trip to a Chakma Buddhist temple, where colorful prayer Buddhist flags adorned the grounds. Gaudy plastic flowers were woven into garlands and Hindu swastikas to decorate the walls. Again, just as there had been Bangladeshi tourists at the lake, hordes of Muslim Bangalis gawked at the saffron-robed monks and Buddhist worshippers.
All of us were snapping pictures to show everyone back home where we'd been and the people we'd seen. After the temple trip, we cut tickets to leave for the tea-laden, wealthy, and pious northern city of Sylhet, where the wartime events of my novel took place at the India-Bangladesh border.
Although I couldn't see them, I knew Indian BSF officers, armed with assault rifles, would demand visas, which we didn't have.
We arrived in Sylhet just an hour shy of dawn. Our digs were a hot new tourist trap, an eco-lodge in the woods, a stone's throw from a tea estate and rubber-tree forest. Within a day, our plans changed: Unexpectedly, our uncle had to return to Dhaka, something vague about business matters. But my sister and I knew the real reason: We'd worked his last nerve with our diatribes.
My sister and I had both taught high-school after-school programs for New York City nonprofits, and were raring for a chance to meet fellow activists. So I got in touch with the director of a local NGO that worked with ethnic communities in Bangladesh to set up a meeting.
"All of our tribes are like khals feeding a river," said the director, who hailed from the Manipuri community. From a certain angle, he resembled actor Lou Diamond Phillips. "Without us," he continued, "there would be no river." Each tribe was an intrinsic thread in Bangladesh's social fabric. Unravel one, you unravel them all. Displacing indigenous people with ill-conceived development projects worsened environmental problems like soil erosion and flooding. His words were a reminder of how we violated each other in infinite ways. Born into places we'd never belong, fighting to carve out places where we could live. The heart of everything I wanted to write in my novel was where our discordant tributaries met, disappeared, reemerged.
On our last day in Sylhet, we hired a driver for a day trip to Jaflong, a border town, where my novel's Bangladesh Liberation War flashbacks take place. I wanted to stand at a border where Bangladeshis crossed over, like a cast of revolving characters: refugees, husbands, smugglers. From the lowlands, the Indian foothills loomed majestic, ringed by giant clouds.
"Guess the Indians won the best-land prize, huh?" we laughed, another joke that wasn't really a joke. I yearned to cross over, through the jungle and into the Indian state of Meghalaya, but we were divided by nature and national patrols. Although I couldn't see them, I knew Indian BSF officers, armed with assault rifles, would demand visas, which we didn't have.
Our driver, a baby-faced newlywed with loads of road rage, parked his jeep along the Piyain River's banks. He led us past hundreds of rock collectors pulled boulders from the river that crisscrossed the Bangladesh-India border. Their labor would be churned into cement, sealing the foundation for buildings throughout the subcontinent.
We crossed the river into a lush stretch of betel, areca, and Burma teak. We rode past homes made of stone and wood, colorful blips between the trees. This land belonged to the indigenous people in these parts, the Khasi. Theirs was a matrilineal society, and our rickshaw driver told us that some Bangali men had married women in this particular village. For love, or to claim their wives' property, he couldn't be sure. We snuck a peek into one of the homes. Two Khasi women giggled with an infant on a small wooden bed. As if they could feel our watchful eyes, they stopped laughing.
"I wish we could talk to them," my sister said to me. "I wish we could do this alone."
Our drivers—by car, boat, and rickshaw—were men. Where could we, or any of the women we met, find a sunset, a late-night bus ride, a morning stroll, a smoke break—completely alone? There was so much outside, but there wasn't anyplace where could we roam freely.
After our journey, I returned to a still-cold New York to finish my novel. There are so many details—the flora, the rivers, the people—newly catalogued in my imagination, allowing me to finish my novel. My relief was manifold, being spared the swelter of April in Dhaka. I wear what I want, walk where I want, when I want. And now, a year after my trip, I've been horrified by the murders of freethinking writers—men who dared to question faith, religion, government. The violence against people who try to break free from home, its boundaries and restrictions, crushes all of us.
As a feminist writer, my search for a home in a place that will never be home is akin to Bangladeshi atheist bloggers calling for the freedom to think and speak as they please in their country. The recent violence reiterates the alienation we, as feminists or atheists, feel. But we keep on. We write what we need to write, telling our stories so that we can make homes we belong to. What I have left are photographs of solitary women, capturing each of them in their own world. In one of these photographs, a rock collector squats by the riverbank, washing clothes on a flat rock. Her toes in water, heels on the ground. She belongs to the river and the earth. She is focused on her task, luminous in the amber dusk. She pays us no mind.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is the author of Bright Lines (Penguin, 2015). A multimedia artist, she is also the founder of Hi Wildflower Botanica, a handcrafted natural perfume and skincare line. Follow her on Twitter.