Foreword — Today marks 50 years since Bangladesh’s independence so I thought I’d share a story I wrote in 2018 for a university BAME society event. As we were exploring identity, my original idea was to address one of the primary assessments made consciously or unconsciously upon seeing me, namely my colour. After a Dulux colour chart labelled me as ‘leather handbag’ I didn’t have much to go on. Floodplain is the ground my family grew on, the life-giving sediment from which lives and livelihoods across Bangladesh are born. Seasonal flooding is an essential part of Bangladeshi life, thus the title ‘floodplain’.
One of my only real memories of Bangladesh is my Grandma. We had to travel south, down the country from Dhaka, the capital, to see her. My parents, brother and I travelled at dusk aboard a rickety bus crammed with a culture that fails to appreciate personal space. The lack of suspension and the warmth in the ancient diesel juggernaut lulled me to unconsciousness as the density of yellow streetlights dimmed, countryside sliding by. Occasionally, as the night went on, the bus would pause and passengers would get on and off. Faces under a pocket of shop light would glance our way, considering the ride. The colours of the station side shops displaying green and red packages fluttered in and out of view through my window as I fell asleep.
The driver would vary the route depending on where people wanted to go on the night, the final destination for us was a launch on the banks of the Ganges — the river responsible for all the flooding people may have heard of. We boarded a ferry, sleeping in a cabin as the crossing went underway. Growing up enjoying documentaries and with access to the internet and the news many grizzly sights have passed through my field of vision. I can, however, safely say that the communal toilet on the starboard side of that ship has scarred me in a way only a portaloo on the fifth day of a festival could rival. Around midnight, a slippery squat toilet met my unseasoned gaze, framed by an almost entirely wet brown room lit by a single flickering light. That faint, talented bulb had convinced legions of insects to accompany me through my ordeal. If you used it; you brought your own toilet paper and, had you fallen, the steadily rocking boat would have marinated your body in a rich glaze of passenger’s filth. With careful steps I held myself aloft the glistening floor, but on looking down I sighed as I realised I’d missed the toilet and had instead dirtied my own trousers.
We crossed the Ganges. The next day, after another drive we came to a town, then travelled to a smaller one and then smaller still. My Grandma lived on land our family has owned for generations, not barons but land-lords. It was here that my mother and her siblings had been raised and taught and had grown. It was also here where a generation of my mother’s uncles were lined up against a wall and shot by Pakistani militants.
Monsoon season was well underway when we arrived, so it was cooler than most of the year. The south of the country, especially that near the rivers flood annually, with the rising water comes silt from as far back as the Himalayas. Rice grows so well in these conditions that a country half the size of the UK with three times its population doesn’t struggle for food. The rains had flooded the low-lying flat rice paddies. Where anything could grow, it was green. The land is irrigated by series of canals and rivers traversed by a punted boat. Ponds and lakes are common. Water hyacinth, a luxury addition to any western pond is a nuisance in the water, spreading as a weed across the surface, slowing boats.
We crossed over the paddies from our village along narrow bamboo bridges barely the width of a hand. These stood above crystal clear waters in which needle fish could be spied. An occasional coconut would drift lazily along currents swept up by the wind. Houses there are built on raised mud platforms, their own private islands amongst the paddies. I appreciated the artistry involved in binding each piece of bamboo together with once supple green leaves and ran my hands along the now dried binding feeling the grain of the leaf run along the tips of my fingers.
My grandmother — Didi Ma (roughly translating as older mother) didn’t know when her daughter, son in law and their toddler children would be arriving; she only knew that when they did it would be cause for much celebration. She was at the farm when we arrived, and greeted us with joyous enthusiasm, taking time to carefully touch and inspect our faces. As a child, it was as if she could sense all that we’d experienced with one wise caress. We dropped off our things at the building site of a house and my brother and I left our parents catching up with friends and family they hadn’t seen for years.
Exploring the farm, we met the cows, chickens, a goat, a few marching lines of giant ants, some fish more interested in their own day than ours, a toad the size of a dinner plate and some boys from around us who later became our cricket partners. More vividly than all that; I remember chasing down a chicken. It had been singled out by Didi Ma, and I, dutifully chased it, giggling all the while round the farm to behind an outbuilding. With one movement, she stepped out from her concealment in the shadows, floored the chicken and an axe did the rest.
That woman, despite the distance, the language barriers and the unfamiliarity didn’t struggle to value us as her own. Even after her dementia set in, and she had retreated so far into herself she could only croak broken sentences I could still see that passionate love; where she wouldn’t hesitate to give what she had to see us smile.