I came across Anne Hamilton’s memoir A Blonde Bengali Wife a few months ago via an amazing Facebook group, Women Writers, Women’s Books. At the time, I was editing together Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand and recall being quite pleased to find another travel memoir writer in the group!
Reading her posts and the description of her novel, I was immediately struck by the similarities to the start of our first trips abroad, and in awe of her decision to found a charity based in Bangladesh.
Though I haven’t yet had the pleasure, I hope to read A Blonde Bengali Wife soon. Did you know all of the proceeds benefit her charity, Bhola’s Children?
A Blonde Bengali Wife and Me
By Anne Hamilton
I fell in love on the sixteenth of February 2002. It was unexpected, a strangeness growing familiar, breeding contentment, and settling with a knowing certainty like a warm blanket around my shoulders. Quietly simmering over days and weeks, it probably began in a makeshift kitchen in Rajoir, developed on a bus in Jessore, reached the point of acknowledgement in front of the television in Dhaka, and was cemented in Chittagong. The honeymoon led me through Cox’s Bazaar and finally into the Sunderbans.
(A Blonde Bengali Wife: Prologue)
Arriving back in Bangladesh is like going home. I’m a forty-something, independent woman, now with my own child but when I go to visit my own parents, there’s a part of me eternally fourteen. After a while the excitement fizzles into mild irritation. The familiarity allows comments about choice of activity, clothes, food and sleep patterns – they always know best – and I remember that this holiday is actually quite hard work. For everyone. Yet it doesn’t matter. There’s an underlying bond of belonging that ensures the smiles outweigh the frowns.
That’s me and Bangladesh, and it’s the reason why the country is so special to me. I love it dearly. It fascinates me, drives me to distraction, still unnerves me a little bit – and I don’t doubt the feeling is mutual!
‘Who is Bengali wife?’ Mr Hoque appears at the merest sniff of food, rubs his hands, eyes alert. Bely, claiming responsibility for my transformation, gestures at my outfit and the hot food. Mr Hoque roars with laughter. ‘A blonde Bengali wife. Very good. Very funny. I must taste her first meal.’ (Ch17)
The People’s Republic of Bangladesh isn’t India. Situated in the Bay of Bengal, it was, until the War of Liberation in 1971, East Pakistan. It doesn’t have the spectacular palaces and monuments or the tourist trail of India, or the international profile of Pakistan. What it does have is its people. I have never received a warmer welcome anywhere. I’ll always appreciate that, and I’ve mused on it again, in the wake of the international refugee crisis.
In Dhaka, Hasina and Mr Hoque (yes, he’s told me to call him Nozmul endless times, but he’s Mr Hoque, he always will be!) took me in without question, treated me like another daughter, and it was Hasina who made me the ‘blonde Bengali wife’.
In Khalia, the three brothers, Bachchu, Mannu and Munnu – I still only know them by their nicknames – tirelessly offer me shelter, food and companionship; Munnu accompanied me across half the country. It was they who offered the accolade, ‘Annie, you are just the same as a Bangladesh girl, but more pale.’
In Bhola, the community of Bhola’s Children is part of me. I’m a Trustee of this charity, which would not exist but for the writing of A Blonde Bengali Wife, and the insight and commitment of my then literary agent, Dinah Wiener. On our last-but-one visit, my little boy, who has – inexplicably – always wanted six big brothers, sighed with 4 year old satisfaction and said he’d found them. ‘Can we bring Bhola home for a visit?’ he asked, and then after a thought, ‘but not the girls, they’re too kissy.’
‘Ah ha! Dissention in the ranks! As I thought. Infiltrators,’ Mrs Begum accuses. ‘First you girls present yourselves as brides, albeit of the most feeble demeanour, and then you pretend to be ones of us. Where are you hiding them? Where are you hiding the marauding arsenic germs, you hussies?’ (Ch8)
I’ve never laughed as much as I do in Bangladesh. Some of it’s verging on the hysteria – the day I change buses four times because: a wheel falls off the first, the road runs out in front of the second and we need a ferry to cross a stretch of water fifty feet to reach the third bus, which doesn’t move because the driver can’t get the goats off the roof. The fourth bus is fine except there aren’t any seats – I don’t mean there isn’t any space to sit down, I mean there are no seats. Just springs sticking up where the seats used to be.
There is so much genuine humour too, and if much of it is based on my bumbling inability to survive unaided in this confusing country, that’s fine by me. I’m giving something back… even if it is entertainment by default. When I read A Blonde Bengali Wife now, I still laugh out loud. Is it shameless admitting that? I’m not laughing because I’m a great, humorous author, but because I was there, it really happened, and I’m reliving it.
In seconds the table is covered by great glass dishes of desserts: a sticky vermicelli pudding, wet and dry halva, coconut rice balls, and two large bottles of RC cola. We all cram into the small dining room which doubles as a bedroom, and shovel, slurp and munch such that any passing alien would assume we have ten minutes to consume enough to see us through hibernation. (Ch25)
I fail dismally in the eating stakes in Bangladesh. I love food, I love cooking, I love sweets; my original diary on which A Blonde Bengali Wife is based, reads a bit like a Famous Five story. When we’re not out adventuring, we’re eating. Or doing both at the same time. I can’t keep up.
In the poorest rural villages, people have little to offer visitors, yet Bangladeshi hospitality is innate. When your guest doesn’t drink well-water because it will (no being fussy here, it will) make her sick, you borrow a dusty bottle of warm Coke from the market and you crack an egg or kill the chicken. I’m not a vegetarian but at home I choose not to eat much meat – in Bangladesh, now, I eat what I’m given (drawing the line at fish larvae, and cockerel crowns). Except if I don’t finish what’s on my plate, I obviously don’t like it so I’m brought something else. If I do finish, I automatically get another serving… And rice? I come home dreaming of being trapped in a rice mountain.
It is only fitting that I give Munnu the last words.
He thinks carefully: ‘Say: I said goodbye, I got in the airplane, and went home. The End,’ he advises.
And this is what I do. (Ch30)
That end was just the beginning. I’ve been to Bangladesh about a dozen times now, and last year saw me and my little boy on our third visit together. When I first wrote A Blonde Bengali Wife, I never knew it would have such far-reaching effects. It has changed my life. It made me realise I could write a whole book. It gave me firm connections with a country the polar opposite to the one in which I happen to have been born. It helped me see that people are the same everywhere. That Bhola’s Children is supported by the book is the ultimate link. I’m on a journey into writing and a journey into Bangladesh and I plan that both will continue for a very long time.
About the Author
Anne Hamilton wrote A Blonde Bengali Wife after she fell in love with Bangladesh on her first (of many) visits there. The travelogue inspired the charity, Bhola’s Children, and continues to support it.
Before she became a full time writer, editor and tutor, Anne’s career was in social work and community health – which led to many of her earlier international travels. Anne can never quite decide if she comes from the East of England or the West of Ireland, so she compromises by living in Scotland, with her small son; they still travel when they can.
A Blonde Bengali Wife
They all said that Bangladesh would be an experience…
For Anne Hamilton, a three-month winter programme of travel and “cultural exchange” in a country where the English language, fair hair, and a rice allergy are all extremely rare was always going to be interesting, challenging, and frustrating. What they didn’t tell Anne was that it would also be sunny, funny, and the start of a love affair with this unexplored area of Southeast Asia.
A Blonde Bengali Wife shows the lives beyond the poverty, monsoons, and diarrhoea of Bangladesh and charts a vibrant and fascinating place where one minute Anne is levelling a school playing field “fit for the national cricket team,” and then cobbling together a sparkly outfit for a formal wedding the next. Along with Anne are the essential ingredients for survival: a travel-savvy Australian sidekick, a heaven-sent adopted family, and a short, dark, and handsome boy-next-door.
During her adventures zipping among the dusty clamour of the capital Dhaka, the longest sea beach in the world at Cox’s Bazaar, the verdant Sylhet tea gardens, and the voluntary health projects of distant villages, Anne amasses a lot of friends, stories…and even a husband.
A Blonde Bengali Wife is the “unexpected travelogue” that reads like a comedy of manners to tell the other side of the story of Bangladesh.
All money earned from A Blonde Bengali Wife goes direct to the charity, Bhola’s Children, of which the author and her literary agent are active participants. A Blonde Bengali Wife isn’t about Bhola but it is a tribute to Anne’s journeys into Bangladesh and all the friends she has made.
Enjoy reading this post? Check back here next Monday to read my contribution to this month long celebration of Fiction and Memoirs written by Expats and Travelers, ‘Staying ‘In The Moment’: One Author’s Adventure in Travel Writing’.