Apart from tiny city-states, Bangladesh is the most densely populated nation on earth and has the fourth largest Muslim population in the world. Bangladesh is a rapidly growing economic powerhouse, second only to China in exporting ready-made garments to the West. It ranks among the worst nations on earth for corruption and lack of transparency in government. It is perhaps best known to most people in the developed world as the poster case of vulnerability to global warming and sea-level rise. Robert Kaplan has described Bangladesh as a crucial strategic nation in the struggle among great powers for control of the Indian Ocean.
Yet this fascinating country, so important economically and strategically, is poorly understood in the US and Europe and people wishing to acquaint themselves with its history, politics, economics, and environment have long been frustrated by the lack of a good book that describes contemporary Bangladesh. David Lewis has relieved this frustration with an outstanding and much-needed book suitable both for academics studying Bangladesh and for members of the general public who want to understand this nation. Lewis's book makes an excellent companion to Willem van Schendel's excellent "A History of Bangladesh" Van Schendel masterfully covers the Bengal Delta and Bangladesh from the dawn of history through Bangladesh's independence in 1971 and the first decade or so of independence. But from the early 1980s on, van Schendel speeds through the last three decades of Bangladesh's history in a way that leaves the reader wanting a clearer and more focused account of the remarkable transformations the nation has seen in the last three decades.
This is where Lewis steps in. Building on van Schendel's framework of describing the Bengal delta as "a region of multiple frontiers" comprising land-water, linguistic, agrarian, political, and religious boundaries, Lewis weaves together the interactions between linguistic, religious, political, economic, demographic, and environmental aspects of the recent history of Bangladesh. Lewis does a masterful job of weaving these threads together while keeping the reader clear on the chronology of events and lucidly explaining difficult technical concepts.
This book is very readable, clear, well organized, insightful, and well documented with citations to other literature. Following up on Lewis's excellent bibliography has been one of the many great pleasures of reading this book. The book works both as a narrative history, to be read from beginning to end, and as a concise reference for facts and figures about the changing economy and demographics of Bangladesh.
When I first read this book, I got so excited that I opened an email to several friends and ended up staying up hours past my bedtime typing in excerpts and synopses. Each time I thought I would put the book aside and go to sleep, I found one more thing I had to tell someone about before I went to sleep.
I recommend this book enthusiastically to anyone who wants a clear, thoughtful, well-researched introduction to the history of Bangladesh since its liberation, and especially the dramatic economic and political transformation of the last 20 years.