- Reviewed by Eshadi Sharif (sourced by Bangladesh country editor Farah Ghuznavi)
Title: It’s all Relative
Publisher: Bengal Publications
In an era of shortening attention spans, a new and unique offering of short stories seems to be the ticket to allow us to squeeze in a little more reading into our hectic lives. It’s All Relative, an anthology from Bengal Publications, fits the bill with its diverse set of stories designed to capture the reader’s imagination.
The editorial reviews state that the book professes to shine “the spotlight on the best English-language writers… from our region”. The collection presents us with a range of narratives that represent life in Bangladesh, serving tempting fare from everyday existence. Some of the stories “take their readers into fictional zones, straddling the borderlands of the real and the unreal, making them trespass into surreal realms”.
The collection starts with “Daughter” by Syed Manzoorul Islam (translated by Arifa Ghani Rahman). Though the plot seems to start with deceptive simplicity, the story takes a twist, plunging into themes of gender inequality, poverty, the desire for a male first-born in poverty ridden households and the rise of feminism.
A woman is pressurised to give birth to a boy by her in-laws. The hardships she faces, including domestic violence, are depicted here. The plot is enhanced not only by the narrative technique, but also with some fantastical elements which emerge at the most unexpected junctures. The protagonist at first is very submissive and oppressed. However, through the course of the story, she is empowered to take a stand.
The character development in “Daughter” is excellent. For example, the wholeness of charactrisation of the antagonist is enhanced when the writer illustrates how she develops her negativity. While describing antagonist Lutfa Begum’s thought process towards protagonist Lipi’s unborn child, the narrator says: “In her mind, she knew a girl could never kick that hard. She herself had been kicked many times in her life. She had never been able to give any kicks in return, except to her daughter-in-law, Lipi Begum.”
That this anthology begins with a story written by a man to highlight the awakening of feminist thought is appealing. However, parts of the translation has been unable to capture the flavour in the retelling. The narration is disrupted by the lack of flow and lacks a consistent sequence of events. It is interjected by statements like: “We didn’t tell you before, but Dulal Miah also had a problem in his legs.” The inclusion of lines such as this seems redundant.
“Co-wife” by Rashid Askari is another intriguing story. While exploring the struggles of a childless marriage, it highlights the result of unfulfilled love. The protagonist encourages her husband to marry again in order to have a child because they both believe she is infertile, although the second marriage is painful to her. Eventually, she falls in love with her husband’s distant cousin. We see how her marriage falls to pieces as her husband gradually becomes more distant with her.
A story that I found outstanding was “Mistaken Identities” by Farah Ghuznavi. It tackles themes of identity crisis, westernisation, patriotism and generation gap. it is related through a series of flashbacks that arouse empathy in the modern reader.
The narrator changed his name from Manik Chowdhury to Mike, which to me hints at westernisation and the loss of culture that minorities face when ‘integrating’ into their new lives in foreign countries. As the plot develops, the son of the narrator, who is British by birth, is shown to be more patriotic than his Bengali father. This story with these two contrasting characters is crafted with care to highlight the issue of identity. The writing style is impeccable, featuring vivid and colorful imagery, and the narrative also provides a good balance of humor. For example, she writes:
“The true Bengali is easily identified by a number of factors, beginning with an inexplicable insistence on rejecting complex and flowery given names like “Neelanjan” and “Debapriya” in favour of their rather less elegant counterparts –usually nicknames like “Gobla or “Bhondu” — which invariably cast aspersions on the intelligence of the individual concerned. These are names with which no grown man, however optimistic, could hope to be taken seriously.”
“And Then, Add Vinegar” by Shehtaz Huq uses profound analogies in his telling. “Beyond the Blinds” by Mahejabeen Hossain explores the themes of identity crisis and poverty. The style of narration and the narrative of “In My End is My Beginning” is also noteworthy. The writer creates vivid imagery and does not shy away from experimenting with in her narrative.
One unique aspect of this anthology is that the stories do not target a single age group. It has a story for everyone, from light-hearted Young Adult tales to adult ones with complex themes and social commentary.
It is a collection that can be read and reread over time and new interpretations will surface as we go through different stages of our lives. The book exemplifies the iceberg theory with meanings and interpretations going far beyond the surface elements of their plots. This collection keeps on giving.
I would most highly recommend It’s All Relative.
Eshadi Sharif is a well-known book blogger in Bangladesh. She critically reviews books on WordPress, Instagram and Goodreads, and is a core member of several online literary communities, including Bookstagrambd.
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