Bangladesh, You Little Battler: Mark Swivel’s “How Deep Is Your Love?”

By Soheil Ahmed -

Category: Reviews

Mark Swivel’s “How Deep is Your Love?” is essentially a travel slide show, organized around his recent experiences in Bangladesh.

Mark’s title, from the Bee Gee’s song, is however, not out of deference to the band but out of deference, if ironic, to a rural Bangladeshi man, who inspite of his limited English is besotted with the song.

Using only the barest of theatrical resources at his command (voice, gesture) Mark performs his travel tales, as opposed to merely narrating them.

The main props are the slides. A few bound volumes lie on the table in front of him, as if to establish a recognizable setting for us. This sparseness, this lack of clutter combined with Mark’s tendency to come around to the front of the table, rather than sitting behind it, makes him alive as a performer. He is available to his audience.

Inspite of being scripted, Mark leaves sufficient room for spontaneity. The show seems to develop organically at times through Mark’s immediate reactions to his own story, as much as through his engagement with the audience. As a performer, Mark lives in the present. No easy task that one, considering that a narrative entails a necessary retrospectiveness, an intrinsic pastness that can make for dull story telling.

The show draws eclectically on a number of different performance genres — theatre, vaudeville, cabaret, stand up comedy — all neatly tied into Mark’s performance.

On a particularly humid evening in Brisbane’s Valley (Friday 29 Jan 2016) Mark steps into a circle of light and brings the disorganized knot of humanity, his would be audience, to attention with a theatrical flourish of the hands. He has a somewhat metallic voice that cuts through the air. Like a mob of unruly schoolchildren fussing over their seats, we are brought to heel.

The venue is the Judy, one of its smaller auditoriums. I, like the others, feel thankful to be made to feel like beer cans being chilled in the fridge on a hot Brisbane day.

The main impact of Mark’s show is to pose an overarching question. What is Bangladesh? — and, by implication, what must we be, those of us who visit this place?

So what is Bangladesh?

Here let us hasten to add that the aim is not to bludgeon anyone with figures of population density, per capita income, income distribution, literacy and such like. The curious can always find their way to those well-publicized numbers. Suffice it to say that Bangladesh is one of the most populated countries in the world: some 156.6 million people live within some 130,170 square kilometers of its territory. Although indicative, numbers are not all that a country is. Thus the question — what is Bangladesh?

Caught precariously between India (also an immediate, geographically contiguous neighbor — like Myanmar) and Pakistan, Bangladesh struggles even now to define itself as culturally distinct from both. It was in 1971 after a brutal bloodletting that Bangladesh (it was then called East Pakistan) created itself by cutting adrift from Pakistan. Since then, Bangladesh has overcome a host of catastrophes, compounded as much by natural disasters as by human folly.

No less catastrophic for Bangladesh has been the dismissiveness of the international community, inaugurated as many suggest by Henry Kissinger’s now infamous “bottomless basket” remark (some dispute Kissinger’s authorship, attributing the remark, instead, to a much lesser American functionary, Ural Alexis Johnson). Kissinger’s “bottomless basket” remark, issued allegedly as an aside during a desultory tour of Bangladesh in 1974, unfortunately stuck. It became the international community’s preferred reading of Bangladesh.

How ridiculous Kissinger’s remark (rightly or wrongly attributed to him) sounds some 42 years later when the US itself has been making friendly overtures. Bangladesh, the country everyone had written off implicitly, has risen from its ashes to prove its detractors wrong — many times now. The obituary of the phoenix may have been premature.

It is to the credit of the common folk in that country that Bangladesh still persists. They are the ones who keep the country in foreign exchange through their remittances from overseas. They are the ones who turn its rich sod to feed the nation. They are the ones who toil in its clothing factories to make Bangladesh one of the largest clothing exporters in the world.

Bangladesh is no heaven, though. Its appalling industrial safety standards, to name only one of its multitudes of ills, have caused the deaths of thousands of clothing workers.

To compound the problems of poverty generally, the official banking system has largely failed the poor, who have fallen victim to the dubious logic of capitalism: no collateral, no credit. The poor by definition have no collateral.

Grameen Bank (rural bank in Bangla, the language of the country) — the source of Mark’s deep love — fills this conspicuous and insidious gap, extending very small credit, to the (shall we say?) uber impoverished. Thus microcredit.

A country beset with all the classic problems of a developing nation can present a comic such as Mark with a rich, if sometimes, for him, a bewildering source of material for his gig. There is a sense that he went there, ostensibly to understand what is called microcredit — the brainchild of the Bangladeshi Nobel Laureate, Dr. Mohammed Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank — but has come back the wiser having learned something about his own middle class white complacence, which was challenged by the experience.

That may be a sincere emotion, no doubt. And yet we cannot but feel that Mark may have missed as much as he may have gathered. It is a complex reality, after all, Bangladesh, never amenable to easy analysis.

One of the things he may have missed is that phenomena called postcolonialism in which the colonized appropriate the cultural gestures of the colonizers to forge newer, unexpected meanings.

One such missed encounters occurs when Mark narrates the experience of a Bangladeshi man reciting Eliot’s “Prufrock” in the unlikely setting of an obscure village well beyond the metropolis of Dhaka.

While Mark is able to recognize the incongruity (he milks the situation for its comic potential with his vaudeville performance), he is unable to recognize the postcolonial implications of the scene. Also, he may not have realized that other than his small, largely sympathetic audience (some were sodden even before nicking off to the pub around the corner), few in the Valley outside would have been chuffed if he had recited “Prufrock.”

So, in the end, “Prufrock,” inspite of its iconic status as a modernist work, could be less appreciated in Brisbane’s art district, even on a good day, than in a mud bespattered hamlet in Bangladesh.

Mark fails to register that irony.

Telling another nation’s story from the perspective of an outsider (male white middle class, in this case) can be a fraught enterprise. The narrator can cop it either way. There are no easy maneuvers in this game, unfortunately. Still, we live in hope.

Our willingness as Aussies to take the piss out of everyone, including ourselves, could be enlisted here to greater effect. We can take it on the chin and laugh at ourselves. We have the distinction of being able to laugh, gracefully, at our own follies, at our own cultural cringe. Think Barry Humphries’ own shtick, Sir Les Patterson — being interviewed by Parky.

I cannot say that Mark has not done this — taking the piss out of himself. But it often becomes a muddled act. Which message are we to take with us? That we are laughing at him? Or, with him? If we are laughing with him, who are we laughing at? Them? Or, are we laughing with them — at him, and he does not even know it?

Mark’s show offers us insights into a sympathetic mind. And yet, a critical viewer can come away feeling somewhat dissatisfied even in the generous spirit of comedy. Something is missing here, something vital. Where is the rest of Bangladesh here? Where is its culture?

The show has a lopsided focus. It runs the grave risk of giving the, unintended, impression that it is a freak roadshow for easy Western consumption. Only when the Other is portrayed in those terms can they be understood by the West — or so the show can make us feel sometimes.

But that is not Mark’s intention. Bangladesh has a good friend in him. He is definitely not one of those people who hop on a plane to go somewhere because they are stuck for fun Downunder. That is not Mark. Much less is he a Borat interviewing unsuspecting locals for a supposed doco, one which turns out to be a mischievous fabrication about a country that can never live down the inflicted grotesqueries.

Choosing to engage almost exclusively with the marginalized in Bangladesh — the target audience of the Grameen Bank and its microcredit — is a noble act. However, to take that reality as representative of Bangladesh, is to remain, sadly, perhaps willfully uninformed about it. Sorry, that smacks of stereotyping, however unconscious.

Let us not forget, though, that this is comedy not tragedy, and so we must laugh. Onya, mate.

Perhaps, another trip to Bangladesh is in order. This time, please find someone in Dhaka who actually knows where the good coffee is, Mark. You may be pleasantly surprised.