Detailed and Familiar: Review of Farah Ghuznavi’s Fragments of Riversong by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Fragments of RiversongWhen I read the stories in Fragments of Riversong, a collection of 12 short stories by Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi, I was very happy to see lively descriptions of old properties and sprawling houses. Having grown up in two sprawling bungalows in my hometown, Ghatsila, in the state of Jharkhand in India, a description—or even a mere mention—of old bungalows fills me with a certain thrill. I begin to connect with the setting and I have this feeling that the author is speaking/writing of something that I have known and experienced. Reading Fragments of Riversong was a bonus, for there were not only old properties and sprawling bungalows, but also a lot of village life in its stories. A part of my family still lives in our ancestral village that I visit regularly, and, at present, I am working in a rural setting. The stories in Fragments of Riversong were more familiar than I had expected them to be. Also, another remarkable thing I noticed in these stories were children. There are children—young girls, young boys—in nearly all the stories. Most stories are either about children or have—despite the third person narrative—a child guiding the reader through the narrative.

In “Escaping the Mirror”, her parents’ big house becomes a sort of a jail for seven-year-old Dia as she tries to escape the advances made by their driver, Minhas. The feeling of frustration of the little child upon realising that her parents trust that abusive man more than they trust their own daughter has been brought out in harrowing detail.

In “Guava Tree Rebellion”, the sprawling house of her Nanu (maternal grandmother) becomes the site for little Nawara to start a “rebellion” against Nanu for she feels that Nanu does not trust her enough. Hilarity ensues before the grandmother and granddaughter call a truce.

I found “Waiting”—a story about class difference in Dhaka—to be more nuanced than the other stories in this collection. Eleven-year-old Hashem and his five-year-old sister Raya belong to the “remaining 90%” of Dhaka’s population—the have-nots who do not even have enough to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr in a decent way.

I read “Getting There”, the first story in this collection, in Lifelines: New Writing from Bangladesh, an anthology that the author had edited, published by the New Delhi-based publishing house Zubaan. Laila, a successful architect, chooses to stay away from marriage and a traditional life with kids and family because of a disagreement she had with her father in her teenage years. However, a few hours spent in the company of her nieces, Yasmin and Alia, reminds Laila that all is not lost and everything is just a matter of “getting there”.

Farah Ghuznavi
Farah Ghuznavi

One story I could really identify with was “The Mosquito Net Confessions”. Reading about Diya, an urban Bangladeshi who speaks Bangla and English, travelling through rural Bangladesh for the first time because of her job “at the Grameen Bank”, made me remember my own situation three years ago when I left home to work in a rural setting. I could connect with all the challenges Diya faced, but one challenge that stayed in my mind was the journey on the “van-gari”—“a three-wheeled vehicle with a driver cycling in front, and a flat platform to transport goods and people attached to the back.” This “van-gari” is a major mode of transportation in Pakur, the place where I work and live. Here, it is called bhutbhutiya.

My favourite story in this collection is “Big Mother”. A coming-of-age story of a village girl named Lali, Big Mother beautifully narrates the prejudices that a girl-child has to face, and also the situation of women working in the garment factories of Bangladesh.

What makes the stories in Fragments of Riversong special are the details that each one carries. Every character has a background, every event has a reason. The stories are fiction, but each premise, each character seems to have been taken from real life—so much so that I didn’t feel like I was reading works of fiction! Stories like “Big Mother”, “The Mosquito Net Confessions” and “Waiting” felt as good as real, and the author seems to have lived with her stories and characters for a long time. For the attention paid to details and for giving us a glimpse of life in Bangladesh, I recommend Farah Ghuznavi’s Fragments of Riversong.