Tag Archives: book review

Strong Backs, Magic Fingers: The dying art of indigenous weaving

If you know how to weave the pinon and the hadi

Everyone will praise you, say the girl is good.

But if you do not know how to weave, daughter,

Your mother-in-law will never let you hear the end of it.

This is an excerpt of a poem called “Song of the loom” by Chiranjib Chakma, which is included in full at the beginning of a beautiful new book about the traditions of weaving in Bangladesh.  The poem’s inclusion in “Strong Backs, Magic Fingers” powerfully demonstrates how times have changed – whereas the practice of backstrap weaving used to be learnt in indigenous communities as a matter of course, nowadays such skills are becoming increasingly rare, due to social and economic changes.  “Strong Backs, Magic Fingers” aims to raise awareness of the perilous state of weaving by showcasing its beauty and skill, as well providing as an insight into the communities engaged in weaving. The book was launched at the Radius Centre in Gulshan last Saturday May 29.

The luminous hardback is co-authored by Manjulika Chakma and Niaz Zaman and it is published by Nymphea Publications and the Independent University, Bangladesh.  The book includes accounts of weaving by indigenous communities in Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban, as well as the Manipuri community, who live in northeast Bangladesh.  Readers can learn about the distinct styles of each indigenous group through detailed descriptions of methods and patterns, which are accompanied by striking photographs of contemporary and historic textiles.  

During the launch, Razia expressed regret on Manjulika’s behalf that she was unable to attend, before describing the book’s modest beginnings.  Funds had not been obtained prior to undertaking the field research, so arrangements were made on a shoestring budget.  She said, “It was difficult to travel – I took all sorts of public transport because I didn’t have money, and a friend arranged for me to stay in a house because I couldn’t pay for a hotel. My son lent me his digital camera.”  Razia told the audience that at one point she said to Manjulika, “We are two elderly ladies – what are we doing traveling around like this?” So they found a young male student who was willing to accompany them, and obtained a jeep and a driver.  Manjulika said, “With every bump I was nearly falling out of the jeep. I risked life and limb, as they say!”  When Manjulika returned to Dhaka she met with the vice-chancellor of IUB and he agreed to publish the book. 

Australian High Commissioner Justin Lee attended the launch as chief guest.  He said, “I congratulate the authors for producing an outstanding reference book that captures in great detail the beauty, diversity and practicality of indigenous handicrafts in Bangladesh.  The book is beautifully presented – it is a work of art in itself.”  He also said that the book was a pleasure to read and that it serves an important function as “a permanent record of one of Bangladesh’s finest indigenous traditions.”  Mr Lee added, “I think this is very important, given the threats to traditions as exemplified by modernity and change.” A spontaneous burst of applause rang out as Mr Lee pointed out that both he and his Timorese wife were wearing her clan’s weavings that evening.

During his address, Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, Department of English, Dhaka University, said that he grew up in a town in Sylhet where the Manipuri came to shelter after being driven out by the British in the 1880s.  He said, “When I was growing up I saw people weaving their handlooms. I could see the dedication they devoted to making the quilts.  Their very life depended on it.  I am saddened by the loss of this tradition, which still exists in remote areas but not in Sylhet town itself.”  Manzoorul also commented on how much the Chittagong Hill Tracts have changed, particularly since the “good old days” of the 1970s when communal tensions did not exist.  He said, “The indigenous peoples are very good, non-violent people and I will our political leaders and members of civil society to improve the situation.”

“Strong Backs” estimates that Bangladesh currently has around 888,115 weavers, around half of whom are female.  Numbers are dwindling though, due to a variety of reasons.  As the introduction of “Strong Backs” states, “The necessity of having to adjust to a dominant majority, differing in race, religion and social attitudes often causes [indigenous people] to adapt, and in the process modify – if not entirely lose – their traditional practices.”  Many indigenous women, once assimilated into mainstream Bengali society, have reported feeling obliged to cover themselves up in public and therefore abandon traditional dress.  Others have given up creating intricate designs because they are so labour intensive, and because weavers often lack access to the retail market.  Nowadays, many indigenous people find it more profitable to work for day wages than to weave.  Weaving used to be done in between household chores or during breaks from traditional slash and burn cultivation, but with less land to cultivate due to settlements being established by Bengalis, indigenous people now often work away from home and are deprived of the necessary time required.  The authors warn readers that unless weaving is given the recognition it deserves as an art form, younger generations will simply look elsewhere for a livelihood. 

“Strong Backs” also contains some fascinating nuggets of information about backstrap weaving.  For example, in Katachhori, Rangamati, the Chakmas moisten the strands of the yarn fringe using their saliva.  The strands of yarn are then twisted by rolling them down their shins.  The Chakmas create a dazzling array of woven pieces, including a bag to keep pan with separate compartments, with motifs that  include pineapples, flowers and starfruit.  They even produce stitched chessboards.

Manjulika has been involved in indigeneous weaving for several decades.  She is the owner of Bain Textiles, which markets both handloom and backstrap textiles.  In 2009 she received the UNDP seal of excellence for her weaving.  Co-author Niaz is supernumerary professor, department of English at the University of Dhaka and advisor, department of English, IUB.  She has been writing about women’s art forms for several years.  Both women are passionate about promoting weaving, and make some convincing arguments in the book’s conclusion about how best to do so.  Amongst other proposals, the authors advocate making weaving an option in the school curriculum, the creation of apprenticeships under master weavers, and holding regular competitions so as to bestow prestige on the most skilled craftspeople.  They urge readers to consider that unless such steps are taken, backstrap weaving may one day become extinct.

A review of Adib Khan’s “Seasonal Adjustments”

Published in The Daily Star on 10 April 2010

Seasonal Adjustments traces a man’s return to his village in Bangladesh after an 18-year absence. Adib Khan’s novel, however, is not in the tradition of expats who return with a willingness to embrace their native land after years of romanticising it. The central character, 43-year-old Iqbal Ahmed Chaudhary from Shopnoganj, simply isn’t in the mood. He has recently endured the pain of matrimonial breakdown, so he arrives in Bangladesh with his young daughter and a shattered ego. However, Iqbal is not too preoccupied to discover that spending nearly two decades in Australia has profoundly altered him, and he is shocked to realise that fitting in might not work out. Seasonal Adjustments is a poignant, sometimes painful account of a middle-aged man coping with loss and struggling to identify with a nation, culture and family he is no longer familiar with.

It’s also a very funny and humane book. Iqbal’s caustic wit is brilliantly executed, whether it be directed towards his mother, his hypocritical brother or strangers on the street. One of the most amusing scenes takes place in the post office, when Iqbal almost throws a tantrum over tampered mail. “I wasn’t cerebrally retarded,” Iqbal tells a fellow customer when his annoyance falls on deaf ears. The novel’s charm lies in its simplicity — it is not packed with dramatic events, but rather a slow and steady stream of everyday experiences and frustrations, mixed with memories spanning four decades and two nations. Iqbal is interesting enough in himself for this to work.

Iqbal’s fraught relationship with Islam comes under the spotlight on many occasions during his visit. His lack of enthusiasm is distressing to his parents, who are strongly devout. His mother is aghast when Iqbal confesses that he has forgotten how to pray. Iqbal’s ambivalence stems from his childhood, as Khan writes, “Each day, after returning from school, we found a dreaded, malodorous mullah awaiting us with the Koran and a waxed cane.” When Iqbal performed badly on his school exams, his mother dragged him off to visit the terrifying Maulana Azad, who instructed Iqbal to wear a tabeez. He recalls, “The string held the terror of a noose as it was slipped over my head. It became a penitential millstone for several years and a constant reminder that failure of any kind was not permissible in our family.”

Another formative religious experience involved taking the advice of a fanatical Muslim a little too far. Khan writes, “Spurred on by Khuda Buksh’s religious zeal and keen to do our bit in the holy struggle, one afternoon Hashim and I dressed ourselves as cowboys and went out on a jihad to tilt the balance in favour of Islam. It did not strike us at the time that cowboys belonged to another religion…” In blind innocence the brothers poured kerosene over an anthill and watched triumphantly as the ants died in the flames. Afterwards the boys were so consumed with guilt that they couldn’t look at one another for days. And so Iqbal adopts pacifism, and possibly cynicism, from an early age, “Never again did the prospect of a holy war enthuse me into any form of violent action.”

Iqbal isn’t the type to mould his behaviour according to the sensibilities of his company. Integrity is perhaps his greatest strength; tact is his weakness. During Eid he steadfastly refuses to let his daughter Nadine witness the slaughter of cows, as he remembers the trauma it caused him as a boy. During the feast he is sullen and barely conceals his antipathy for a tradition he describes as an “unpardonable exhibition of selfish greed.” He leaves the celebrations abruptly. Yet Iqbal’s inability to accept some of the most basic aspects of life in Bangladesh, poverty being one, causes him a great deal of distress. “What upsets me most,” he concedes, “is my inability to slip back into a tradition I assumed was an integral part of me.”

Like the author himself, Iqbal went to Australia in 1973 as a “confused young man.” Iqbal doesn’t spell out precisely why he left newly independent Bangladesh, but he is unequivocal about why he adopted Australia as his new home. It was, he writes, “an opportunity to be different”, because no Chaudary before him had been to the continent. It was also a rejection of Britain, which was “an obsessive ideal with the older Chaudaries.” On the contrary, at the time Iqbal felt wholly negative towards the coloniser, as he explains, “I despised the British for humbling us, using us and creating the political mess before they left.” However, Iqbal did not find paradise in Australia — it too has its own shortcomings, albeit of a different variety. His identity as a person of Indian descent, a former Pakistani and a present day Bangladeshi, is beyond the grasp of most he meets at backyard barbeques. The happy-go-lucky but narrow-minded mentality and the racism that has barely improved over the years have worn him thin. He frequently locks horns with his Catholic wife’s friends and her father in particular. Yet Iqbal doesn’t regret his decision to live there, nor does he contemplate leaving for good. Towards the end of the novel, one gets the feeling that Iqbal is developing a newfound tolerance, whilst at the same time becoming more confident in his beliefs. It’s a good result; but more importantly, a good read.

A review of Shazia Omar’s “Like a Diamond in the Sky”

Published in The Daily Star on 6 March 2010

The debut novel by social psychologist Shazia Omar is a brave depiction of drug addiction in Bangladesh. She approaches the taboo subject with all the rigour you would expect of someone who has spent a month in a rehab centre studying dependence. Omar seemingly omits nothing from this gritty work of fiction.

As well as being well-researched, Omar’s book succeeds because her characters are multi-dimensional and as such they provoke an emotional response. Take the central character, Deen. He is intelligent, handsome and, until relatively recently, he cared deeply about the future of Bangladesh. Before getting hooked on heroin, Deen organised fundraisers and delivered supplies to flood devastated families in villages. He even won an award for a poem he wrote about peace. But as Omar writes, “He carried the weight of the world on his shoulders… until he finally decided it was too much for him.” Whilst Deen certainly has his faults, he defies the stereotype of the drug addict as the ‘hopeless loser’ and thus Omar invites the reader to empathise rather than judge. This is a refreshing approach.

As a 21-year-old addict, Deen’s life revolves around partying, stealing money and chasing drugs with his misfit friends in Tongi. Finding the funds for regular hits pushes Deen into the deepest recesses of Dhaka’s criminal underbelly. He has virtually given up on his education, having concluded that university itself is a malevolent force, “an instrument in a conspiracy to turn [students] into robots for powerful multinationals to exploit.” Deen is trapped in negativity and sees no beauty whatsoever in the world around him. He detests his home city, “Deen was disgusted with Dhaka’s state of disgrace. He longed to feel patriotic but instead he felt betrayed.” And he believes that corruption within Bangladesh and a string of misfortunes have broken his nation beyond repair. Yet somehow Deen manages to save the bulk of his loathing for himself. He scornfully dubs his social circle “Club Khor,” and he is acutely conscious of his failings, “Disappointments churned in his stomach like rotten eggs and bad music.” But however much Deen wants to rid himself of his habit, he succumbs to cravings time and time again. Omar skilfully describes the grasping tentacles of addiction: the sweats, the itching skin, and the crushing inability to concentrate on anything other than finding a hit. He struggles to decide whether to give up on giving up.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Deen’s addiction is the lost friendship with his mother. Before Deen became an addict, he spent many evenings playing guitar for her, combing her hair, and discussing films and philosophy. Nowadays their relationship is punctuated by silence, long absences and “face-offs”. As Omar writes, “Now only sad emptiness existed between them.” Whenever his mother begs him to stop taking drugs, he responds by distancing himself from her both physically and emotionally. Deen must live with the fact that he is ruining his own life as well as hers: “She hardly went out anymore; afraid of what she might hear, unable to defend her son from gossip, weighed down by the stigma of being a junkie’s mother.”

Another major source of regret for Deen is the demise of his father, for which he feels partly responsible. His father had been an honest and successful businessman — until it all came crashing down with a change of government. The family were forced to move into a small apartment and they are pushed out of every circle of friendship and influence. Deen’s father sends his troubled son to rehab in Kolkata, but the Christian monks are unaware that their charges are simply shooting up without a needle. Deen returns home a bigger addict than he was before he left. On the night his father dies after a short battle with cancer, Deen is high at a party. By the time he sobers up and reaches the hospital, his father’s last breaths have been exhaled. Though these events took place five years ago, Deen is haunted by recurring flashbacks and the knowledge that his mother blames him for his father’s broken heart.

Life takes a turn for the better when Deen starts a relationship with fellow student Maria. He is infatuated as soon as he sets eyes on her: “Maria was a crazy diamond. He could tell from the confidence in her swagger and her defiant eyes. She wasn’t weak like the other girls.” Maria shares Deen’s wild streak, and she is also witty and thoughtful. After the break-up of her parents’ marriage, she lives independently and Deen quickly becomes a fixture in her life. But despite pretences, Deen realises that Maria is deeply vulnerable. Because she is the only thing that can equal the high Deen gets from drugs, he goes to great lengths to protect her from gnawing insecurities. However he is terrified that he will lose Maria if she discovers he has a drug problem. As the pair become closer and closer, Deen is forced to re-evaluate whether keeping the truth from his street-wise girlfriend is a wise decision.

All this sounds rather depressing; indeed, it is. But the novel’s fast pace and snappy dialogue saves it from becoming too heavy for most readers to endure. But if it were, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves how tough the reality must be.

 (Like a Diamond in the Sky is available at Omni, Words n’ Pages, Jatra, Bittersweet Cafe and Red Shift Café).