Short and Sweet Stories Tinged with Melancholy
Reviewed by Namira Hossain
Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Nadia Kabir Barb
Publisher: Bengal Light Books
There are some books you read that you could probably start reading with your mid-afternoon tea and finish by the time it is sunset and only the last dregs are left in the cup. Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb is a bit like that. Barb is a British-Bangladeshi writer who lives in London. The cover is stark, a black and white negative of a construction site, giving you an insight into the nature of the book. But at a mere 120 pages, it does not feel like a daunting prospect. Her stories represent her multifaceted personality very well, showcasing little quirks of being part and parcel of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.
Each of the twelve stories packs a punch. In the first one, “Can You See Me?” a suicidal pseudo celebrity meets a roadside bum and they commiserate over the losses in their lives before a cliff-hanger ending. The next story dives into a domestic scene where a housewife is cutting onions in the kitchen while guarding a tragic secret from her abusive in-laws. Despite the dramatic nature of the stories, Barb spins realistic and believable characters, whose lives and losses evoke emotion in her readers. Short stories do not have the liberty to build great characters through their development; instead, it is the minute plot details, ’moments’ that make a character in a short story somebody that the reader cares about.
I think the book really picks up towards the middle, starting with the title story “Truth or Dare”, about two young boys who decide to play truth or dare. Starting from its very relatable experience of being in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic math teacher, the story takes the reader through different highs as it follows its protagonist Raju’s day of playing with his friend Tareq, who hides the darkness within.
The common themes of the next few stories are abuse, divorce and the great loneliness shared between families. In the story “Don’t Shoot the Messenger”, family members share a poignant moment in a coffee shop upon hearing some news that could potentially tear the family apart. My second favourite is “The Truth about Sam”, for two reasons – first, the beginning of the story reminded me of waking up at my house on holiday mornings when I was back from college. The familiar sounds of rickshaws and crows, and a friendly face at the door offering tea in bed made me feel nostalgic. The second reason was that I had guessed the plot twist by the end of the second page.
If I were going to pick a weakness in the book, I’d say some of her characters were almost parodies of themselves, too clichéd, like in “The Enlightenment of Rahim Baksh” in which, a middle aged man in an ailing marriage with a Hindi-serial obsessed wife, becomes enamoured with a member of his book club. Even then, there is a moment in the story where Baksh picks up his wife’s fraying nightgown which he has come to be repulsed by. ‘It felt safe and familiar’ – a reminder, that in moments of dejection, we actually realize that the things we hate the most are often real treasures.
The overarching feeling from the book is that Barb has probably lived some of these moments, because the characters do not feel contrived. They feel authentic, like the author has thoughtfully fleshed them out. “My Father’s Daughter” is yet another story which makes you cringe (in a good way) at the awkwardness experienced by Maliha, the main character, who travels back to her desh to attend a wedding where she hopes she will not run into a certain relative. Even though the stories do not have any common characters, they have similar experiences – mostly of love and loss, but not enough for them to leave you with a heavy feeling, just enough to leave you feeling wistful.
If you’re in the mood to read something that feels comfortable and familiar without committing too much, this is the book for you. Dive right into your cuppa and a nice blanket – you won’t be disappointed.
Namira Hossain is the CEO and co-founder of Cookups, a start-up that combines tech and food for the cause of empowering women. She is a member of Ampersand, Dhaka’s first Spoken Word Group. She studied in Denison University and has previously worked as a journalist, writing mainly on social issues that are considered taboo.