Transnationalism and the Transformation of ‘Home’ by ‘Abroad’ in Sylhet, Bangladesh
Take the N1 Highway out of Dhaka. Drive for an hour or so through the peri-industrial ribbons of garment factories and brick fields until the landscape turns green with padi; cross the vast Meghna and, after another few hours, head through surprising clumps of forest and tea gardens for Sree Mongal, capital of the Bangladeshi tea industry. It's around here, as the highway returns you to the flat green landscape of the lowlands, that you may start to notice something unusual. You will have passed plenty of villages on the way: some of the houses will have tin roofs, but most will be thatch. Yet here, as you grow closer to Sylhet Town, you will start to see huge mansions, set back from the road and surrounded by walls and gates. Turn off the highway, perhaps towards Beani Bazaar, or Biswanath, and, amongst the more humble rural dwellings built with waddle and straw, will be houses like those found in the wealthiest areas of Dhaka: three storeys high, with smoked glass windows, Arabesque pillars and satellite dishes. Stone aeroplanes can sometimes be seen on top of these houses, testimony to their owner's status as a successful migrant. The fields surrounding them are noteworthy too, for unlike the usual Bangladeshi vista of patchwork green and gold, the landscape is cut across by boundary walls. These walls are a sure sign that you have arrived in a Londoni gao (village of people who come from London, or the UK), for they have been erected to ensure that no-one encroaches on the land of the non-resident owner. Without exception, the large brick houses, many of them empty, or inhabited by caretakers, are owned by families who have largely settled in the UK. The contrast with other villages, situated outside what we might think of as these clusters of transnationalism 1 in Sylhet and Habiganj districts could not be more striking.