By Syeda Samara Mortada
Title: Yours Etcetera
Author: Ikhtisad Ahmed
Publisher: Bengal Lights Books
Yours Etcetera, Ikhtisad Ahmed’s debut short story collection, shifts the setting of the stories dramatically from rural Bangladesh to urban London in a jiffy, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle finding their precedent space. Although a book of short stories, the flow of the stories and character build-up at many intervals gives it a novel-ish feel.
As an example, let’s take “A Half Life”, the very last story that steals the show with its apt resemblance to incidents that might have happened right after a Rana Plaza collapse: a well-to-do family, and its demise; or maybe the unaffected rhapsody that suffers the brunt of time, only to pick up and go on undeterred. What was interesting to me in the story was the stark difference in attitude of the two sons, Naeem and Fahim — how one gets shaken up, while the other is in complete control of his emotions even while realizing the impact of the havoc caused by his father’s (lack of) judgement, something that leads to the factory collapse — and how it speaks of their future grown-up selves. One might see clear links between the apparent semblance of the family and its later fall, to the in-control exterior of Shahim, the head of the family, referred as the “dictat” and the patriarch in many incidents, who ultimately cannot hold things together.
Contradictory to the last story of this collection is the very first, “Guilty by Association”, but the similarity is in their conclusions — a story of demise and a society that fails. This particular one is about a man, called Jalil, who is seen visiting a hotel in urban Gulshan that is used as a lover’s abode by many. Jalil, our central character is introduced to us at the very beginning. However, we do not know much about his lover, except a sexually enunciated message he receives after he leaves the vicinity of the hotel. Things change for Jalil in a matter of hours, after which we learn that Jalil is a reporter and there has been a murder, presumably of a woman, in Hotel America, the very place he was in. The scene shifts reflexively to the police station, and it is Jalil’s lover, Shaheen who is being accused of the crime. Shaheen’s line “I won’t tell them about us. I want to remain a man, not become an abomination”, rings true of societal opinions when it comes to homosexual relationships, and how some choose death over “coming out” and speaking the truth. Because there was presumably no one else present at the hotel apart from the two of them, the police consequentially assumes one of them is responsible for the murder. Jalil, at the end of the story accepts that he killed the girl, to save his lover and (himself) from the wrath of communal disdain.
Through these and other stories, Ikhtisad brings to light deeply-held prejudices, public hypocrisy and race as an epiphany unravelling within itself. As a reader, although the stories failed to excite me or keep me glued to the book from beginning to end, they very clearly depict issues of modern global predicaments and how corruption becomes a way of life for many because of their continuous misfortune and inability to access mainstream routines of existence.
This is demonstrated best through “Penetralia”. Hassan, the central character of this story is probably an immigrant, residing in London. At the very beginning, we see the police interrogating him regarding his whereabouts, his lifestyle, his expenditures — possibly because of his (Muslim) name, a name that his religion has etched onto him. Later, we see Hassan carry on in the middle of the streets of London, while carrying hidden explosives, and ultimately reaching his destination and blowing up the space in the middle of the city. His last lines: “All I wanted was my privacy. To do my business. This mad world can’t take that from me”, sums up the harassment and the constant bereavement he has had to face as a presumption of what his religion entails and how ultimately, his choice of wrongdoing, and harming oneself while harming others, seems to be the only choice left.
The same sense of loss, loneliness and utter despair holds true in the story “Bested So Far”. The story is of Kashem and Jashim — the former attempting many failed suicides and the latter a religious preacher, an imam and a true believer in God — and their constant juxtaposition to each other. All through the story, we see Kashem trying to get killed but to no avail. Because he is unable to pay for the hospital bills and while Kashem is meeting a microcredit business representative while having tea at the border, he witnesses the dead body of a girl trapped upon the fences. It is here that he finally finds his calling — his last attempt at restoring his fate. Through his collection, Ikhtisad uses satire to highlight all that is currently wrong with the world, of the hierarchies of power and imbalance that have failed so many, while it condones others, and continues to result in individual suffering and adversity.
The reviewer is a communications professional working in the development sector and a strong advocate of gender rights. She is the coordinator of Bonhishikha, an organization that works towards gender equality using arts as its main form and a regular contributor of Bangladeshi national dailies. Samara completed her MA in Women’s Studies from University of York, UK and BA in English from East West University, Dhaka.