By Mayeesha Azhar
Title: The Inheritance Powder
Author: Hilary Standing
Publisher: Red Door Publishing Limited (1st ed. 2015)
(Bangladesh: University Press Limited, 2016)
Price: £8.99 (Kindle 2.99)
Intrigue in the Development Sector
Professionals in the development sector often complain that putting together the notoriously impersonal, jargon-filled proposals and reports eats away at their ability to write evocatively. In her novel, The Inheritance Powder, Hilary Standing proves that it is possible to be otherwise. A long career in international development allows her to draw out a relatively refreshing story from this field.
Like her, one of the two main characters is Carl Simonovsky, an agricultural economist based in London. He specializes in East Africa but feels compelled to take on an assignment in Bangladesh so that he can add to the income generating portfolio of his employer, the fictional Institute of Poverty Alleviation. Carl is needed for a cost benefit analysis of solutions to Bangladesh’s arsenic problem on behalf of an aid agency. He is not convinced he should take on the task—he has not heard of the problem before and has no experience in South Asia. His faith is dwindling in the kind of economic models he has been asked to make. However, he reminds himself that ‘in the last year, considerations of ignorance, ethics and scepticism had not stopped him from providing policy advice’ on topics as far-flung as tourism and healthcare in other geopolitical regions outside of his expertise. Even after he arrives in Bangladesh, Carl muses about this ‘small, slippery compromise with integrity’.
In Carl, the author puts a more human face on the stereotype of the ‘male, pale and stale’ international consultant. His hesitation, confusion and regret are just some of the aspects of the development sector that the book portrays realistically. The harried director of the aid agency who hires Carl’s services is, perhaps regrettably, seen all too often. Ahmad, the national consultant who knows all the key contacts and local context of the arsenic problem, but is only paid a third of Carl’s fees, is also uncannily familiar.
The novel follows Carl as he tries to make sense of the tangled web of players in Bangladesh’s arsenic quandary. The complex dynamics between international aid agencies, local non-government organizations, grassroots activists and communities, and those looking to profit off these communities’ misfortunes show their potential for the beginnings of the type of intrigue classically only thought possible in spy novels.
It is courageous of the author to not shy away from the fact that there is often profit to be made from the business of trying to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Characteristic of large investments in infrastructure, the scale of a problem like arsenic adds up to significant chunks of money.
The more inspiring lead character is Zafirah, who has left her teaching job where she grew up in New York to start a small non-government organisation in her family’s village. Zafirah’s work encapsulates the joy of leveraging communities’ own strength in solving their problems. Epitomizing this is the play a group of women put on where one character personifies arsenic. Another example is training the local women to use the filters that render water taken from ponds safe for drinking. The figure of Nani, her grandmother – a community activist at the time of Partition – lingers like a ghost in the background. Zafirah knows little of what encouraged her grandmother or about the rumours of scandal that surround her. In her diary, Nani had written that being a mother was not enough. This feminist grain is reflected in Zafirah too as she takes a stance against the local verdict against a young woman accused of adultery.
This book is a perfect fit for readers who savour sensuous descriptions. The chaos of Dhaka traffic and a lush tropical vegetable garden are woven into the story in a way that can only be done by someone who has experienced these things more than just a couple of times.
This is not a novel for those looking for a cheap thrill. The two main characters travel along their parallel trajectories — alternative chapters are dedicated to each. They do not meet until halfway into the novel. In this the author shows restraint rare in the era of sparkling vampires. The ability to balance between intrigue and restraint is rarer still, almost as rare as the insights provided into intrigue in the development sector.
Mayeesha Azhar is an entry level development professional working in environmental sustainability, and has been the assistant editor for a Dhaka-based business bimonthly. She wades in stories by reading, listening to podcasts and performing as monologues for theatre.