The Henna Tree and its Paste
YOU can get away from Bangladesh, but Bangladesh can never get away from you. That is, if you are a part of the first generation Bangladeshi diaspora, in whatever part of the world you are in, whether as a temporary sojourner or as a permanent resident. The ties that bind you to Bangladesh is simply too strong for you to turn a blind eye to them. This is a peculiar phenomenon, possibly matched by a few other nationalities, but hardly surpassed, and generations of Bangladeshis have proven this point. The Internet has made it infinitely easier than previously to keep in touch with the homeland on a regular and frequent basis across time and space, but the same predilection and the powerful urge to stay in touch had always been there. Bangalis are highly emotive in general, and their feelings for their homeland and its culture and traditions, not to say relatives and friends, are a pleasant outcome of that character trait. The reader will find plenty of that in Shadow over the Henna Tree, Rummana Chowdhury's first novel published from the United States.
Chowdhury has been a prolific writer, a former national badminton champion of Bangladesh, was an accomplished debater and radio and television talk show host, and has won numerous awards in her adopted country of Canada and India. Although she lives in Canada, she makes time to visit her birthplace, and, in her novel, the love she obviously feels for these two places comes through strongly. In fact, she says as much in her dedication: "…to my beloved birthplace, Bangladesh, for timeless love through its priceless literature, culture, heritage, and history." "…to my adopted country, Canada, for blessing me with a chance to explore the boundless sky." Shadow over the Henna Tree is chockfull of these two sentiments as expressed through its principal protagonists.
The novel centers on Moyna, a beautiful and sensitive woman of twenty five, who was born and brought up in Toronto, Canada, of Bangladeshi parentage. Her odyssey from Toronto to Bangladesh and back on numerous occasions since her childhood allows the reader a peek into the dilemma of a Canadian (hyphenated, in the manner of the Americans, as Bangladeshi-Canadian; interesting, though, one does not hear of English-Americans, or Scottish-, or Welsh-, or German-, or Dutch-Americans, but their ancestors were among the early European colonizers of the US; maybe the answer lies there). The story opens on a delightful day embodying "the summer madness of Toronto". Such expressive imagery pops up on several occasions throughout the novel, although, on the very odd occasion, the richness is stretched a bit beyond credulity. Her recollection of walking down University Avenue in downtown Toronto includes this philosophical observation: "Some things in this life and in this world have no apparent explanation. Anything away from the norm need not necessarily be so extraordinarily unique if the people's understanding and perception were not always so stereotyped and compartmentalized." Similar other reflections crop up intermittently in the book.
The author, then, through Moyna, juxtaposes life in urban advanced Canada and the one in rural developing country Bangladesh. She recalls a trip to Mirsarai ("a very wise decision" that she had taken), and to her father's village of Shaherkhali. It is interesting to note that the author must surely have knowingly or unwittingly relied on her own experiences as she is originally from Mirsarai and has made her diasporic home in Toronto. She, through Moyna, waxes eloquent on the charms of the Bangladeshi setting, and presents a rich imagery and minute attention to details: "The almost-forgotten fragrance of the mango blossoms thickened her blood like honey…. The city of Chittagong, with its enchantment of the Bay of Bengal, and the sea along with the lush green mountains always made her feel an irresistible bondage to her roots. She picked up a handful of dust. It shone like gold in her brown palm."
This particular trip allowed Moyna to reflect on the differences between Bangladeshi and Canadian societies, and, indeed, between urban and rural life in Bangladesh. So her Aunt Meena comments on the difficulty of Moyna wearing a saree in the village (although, these days, it is not at all uncommon to see rural women preferring the shalwar-kameez to the saree) after wearing shalwar-kameez in Dhaka, and pants and shirts in Toronto. She is enchanted at the love and affection shown her by her relatives, and ruminates: "What a difference of lifestyle and bondage here in this little Bangladeshi village compared to the crisp, modern, impersonal relationships in Canada." The presence of overt or implied racism in the country of her birth does not escape this perceptive and sensitive soul. Reminiscing about their neighbours of eleven years in Toronto, she thought that they were neither friendly nor unfriendly to her family: "Was it because they were white and Moyna and Aresha (her younger sister) were brown? Or was it simply the norm of neighbourly behaviour in a modernized Western country like Canada." She contrasts such behaviour with that of the Bangladeshi village folks who "were so friendly and endearing. People meeting Moyna for the very first time would shower her with love and hospitality." Moyna explains this phenomenon to herself, in the process drawing the attention of the reader to her various character traits: "The East and the West had its distinctive social and cultural norms and often clashed. Living in Canada but with roots in Bangladesh made her a person with two different personalities."
During that trip, the cosmopolitan Bangladeshi-Canadian Moyna with her fulltime computer programming job and part-time studies felt a strong attraction for Mizan, a young rural Bangladeshi farmer and folksinger, and "the shining symbol of manhood in…Bangladesh." His attraction towards her was equally deep, though neither verbally expressed their feelings for each other and, eventually, the matter fizzled out at the attraction stage, as Moyna left for Canada. Chowdhury is reticent about the failure of the mutual attraction to go beyond the silent gaze phase as she concentrates on painting a pen picture of the proverbial six seasons of Bangladesh (are they really recognizable in these times of climate change having an effect on seasons?), the works of Bengali poets like Jasimuddin, Tagore, and others who wrote odes to the timelessness of rural Bengal, and being awed by the majesty of the great rivers and the "infinite natural beauty" of the country. Chowdhury also takes note of the changing face of Dhaka city: "The old aristocracy of Dhanmandi residential area had given in to the new streamline in Gulshan and Banani…. Food habits of people had changed so much along with their lifestyles."
The novel is more about social observations, diasporic connections between the old country and the new, and portraying the rich culture of Bangladesh than any solidly built storyline around built-up characters. And several piercing observations. For example, "…a time and moment comes in everyone's life when the bonding of maternal and paternal ties has to be cut though these ties are permanent and intricately woven into the fabric of eternal life." Here is another: "…what is right and what is wrong has no fixed standards or evaluations, except for the rules laid down by society…. The tide of everyday matters drowned a lot of people with its force and direction…. There was a physical side, and there was a spiritual side to this matter."
Meanwhile, on another of her numerous visits to Bangladesh, she had fallen for an urban sophisticated young man, Bishal, whose "charm, self-confidence, and unknown depths of mystery did bring her to a point of no return", and who returned her feelings. This, too, ultimately came to nothing, and, again, that story is kept sketchy and left to the reader's imagination to give it body. Chowdhury does provide a pointer: "Illusions often clouded his vision, but clarity won over in the end." Eventually, she developed a deep relationship with an adopted war baby, Shafiq, whose Bengali mother was raped by a West Pakistani soldier during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, and who was adopted by a Canadian couple. Their relationship took some interesting twists and turns that the reader should find out for him/herself.
Chowdhury spends a fair amount of writing on the spiritual poets like Lalon Shah and Hason Raja, and uses the symbolism of henna paste to depict Moyna's life. In her portrayal of Moyna, she establishes a positive for the diasporic world: "Bangladesh and Canada --- both countries had moulded their best into her. She had taken the optimum from both worlds. She was a better person for that." Yet, somehow one feels that such an outcome lies outside many in the Bangladeshi diaspora. Two minor mistakes. Zia International Airport has for some time been renamed as Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, and Madonna is an American by birth, not English. Shadow over the Henna Tree is a novel that should cause most readers to pause and think about diasporic life, and Rummana Chowdhury should be commended for having written it.
The reviewer is an Actor, and Professor and Head, Department of Media and Communication, IUB.