How Rizia Rahman’s Letters of Blood shows rather than tells stories
Book review by Shah Tazrian Ashrafi
Title: Letters of Blood
Author: Rizia Rahman
Translator: Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Bengal Lights Books (2016)
Rizia Rahman was one of the most eminent authors of Bangla Literature. Among others, she received the Bangla Academy Literary Award, Ekushey Padak, and Arannya Literature Award for her outstanding contributions to literature. An author of more than 50 novels, she passed away on 16 August 2019.
Presented by Library of Bangladesh and translated by Arunava Sinha, Letters of Blood —Rokter Okkhor (1978) — is a novel by the late Rizia Rahman that explores the lives of the women who have been (directly and indirectly) forced into prostitution, and examines how the intricacies of their lives hold them captive in a physically and mentally hostile ecosystem. It is a window into a system that lives on the fringes of the society constantly bobbing on fickle grounds.
The novel is populated by characters from as young as twelve to as old as being on the brink of death — a feat that reflects the reality seen in the brothels.
Kusum is a fourteen-year-old, often starving and sick, whose “undernourished body hasn’t amassed enough capital”. Because she hasn’t received any customer for two days, she hasn’t been able to eat. For many women in the brothel, who are still under the control of their pimps, life is like that — the more the customers, the further the shadow of starvation. When she steals a little food, out of desperation, Kalu, her pimp, beats her black and blue as everyone else goes on about their business. No one bats an eye. The pimps are free to kill the women in their clutches without anyone sparing a glance.
Piru is younger than Kusum, only twelve. She is also beaten up by her pimp whenever she refuses to spend time with a customer, since she finds the interaction very painful. On the contrary, Shanti is a free sex-worker. Her earnings are independent. She can pay her own rent, buy her own food, bathe with clean water and soap — privileges many women in the brothel envy. Very much similar to her is Jahanara. Her popularity amongst the customers has gained her a decent financial health. She orders food from restaurants every day, even gets her room cleaned by maid servants.
Yasmin is the only character who can be deemed a misfit. She is an educated woman living in a shabby brothel where survival is uncertain, and violence is regular. She reads the newspaper and second-hand English novels every day. Even though others find her conceited and snobbish because of her being from a well-bred, educated family from the capital, their hearts are mellow towards her, and she’s treated differently. The circumstances that have driven her to the brothel are unravelled through the progression of the novel (as everyone else’s), but it is basic knowledge that she is one of those many women who were violated by the Pakistani Army, a Birangona*.
These are not the only significant characters in the novel, though. In its heart are many characters with stories of their own — a breathing patchwork making the novel pulsate with life.
The brothel bustles with activities. Quite often, fights break out — over men, over food, over reluctance. Slurs are sloshed about freely, deranged women reminisce about their glory days, sales are sanctioned with rich people, gutters, drains overflow with waste, the stench seamlessly blends with the hot, smoky scent emanating from sheekh kebabs, flies buzz around an old lady passed out by the drain, crows rage “a civil war” over discarded materials, lines are formed for fetching water from the draw-well, the toilet sees a long, snake-like queue before it like “at the ration shop”.
The brothel is devoid of space — the queue before the washroom is a significant testament. The rooms get filled up quickly, and the women wait with their customers keeping them tied to the prospect of waiting by cracking lewd jokes outside the rooms till the ones in the rooms are done with their business. The infrastructure is susceptible to risks; like the crumbling down of walls, clogging of drains, flooding of rooms by water, the falling of slabs off the roof frequently. And when the heavens open, hell breaks loose in the brothel.
The men who frequent the brothel are beastly and violent with their lust. At times, they, much like the pimps, and sometimes even in a worse manner, beat up the women, wounding them badly. After the episodes, the women accept the fact that some men get aroused by violence and move on. After all, they have “the blood of a whore” and violence means “no harm done”.
The world of the women living here is anything but simple. Some balance two worlds — a normal world and this world — one for living in a usual society, another for earning money. Some have been kidnapped and thrown into this risky world which doesn’t have an iota of innocence in it. In this world, little girls tug at the men’s shirts to “rent their bodies” so they can eat. In this world, buying birth control pills is more important than having food. The urgency of not becoming pregnant looms over everyone. Here, it is a “crime” to be the mother of a child. Here, generations (grandmother, daughters, grand-daughter) have lived as if it’s their actual home. The grandmother attends to her granddaughters on one side of the partitioned room, while “her daughters sell their bodies on the other side”.
The women here worry about contracting sexually transmitted diseases as they can drive them out of business and towards financial instability; they don’t want to die miserable deaths, yet they encounter with them on a regular basis. For the women, every night is valuable; since customers can keep starvation at bay. They barter violence for satiating their hunger. Their beauty is important to them; it can get them lofty popularity and rich customers, and heavy their pockets.
The historical references drawn in the novel are worth mentioning. Aside from Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971, it brings up casteism, Partition-era riots, notable natural disasters of the period like cyclones and famines. These references are the factors that have driven some of the women to brothels. The historical events gain a common ground in the assembly of all the women blemished by them.
Thanks to Arunava Sinha’s translation, a global audience can now breathe in this masterful work by Rizia Rahman. As much as the poetic novel itself is a work of admirable art, the translation deserves its equal share of credits. In the contiguous merging of two languages, because of the adroit translation, there is no jammed door that can trouble a reader.
In the introduction to the translation, we are given an anecdote that highlights the realism and the truth in the novel. After the novel’s success, a reader from an actual brothel wondered “which brothel the writer was from”. The late Rahman realised then that her novel had become successful in correctly echoing the lives of those women in every ear. The vivid, casual details of everyday life in the brothel delivered the conviction to that reader —that the writer must be a sex-worker, too.
Rahman’s compelling, poetic telling evokes an atmosphere true to life and makes for a powerful read. The issues she deals with make it an indispensable read. As James Baldwin says, “Don’t describe a purple sunset. Make me see that it’s a purple sunset.” Rizia Rahman does just that. And the translation acts as the feature’s smooth conveyer. A reader doesn’t only read about a garbage strewn atmosphere or the dark night of 25th March**, they can walk through it, smell the stench, hear the boots and the revving of the jeeps.
It is advisable to pick this novel up for a quick read— to navigate a complicated world born out of complicated history. Although it can be completed in one sitting, the essence is set to linger for a long while.
*Birangona means heroic woman. To integrate them back into normal life, the title was given to the women who had been raped by the Pakistani Army during the Liberation War of 1971.
**25th March refers to a dark chapter of Bangladesh’s history. On that night in 1971, the Pakistani Army unleashed their wrath on innocent Bengali civilians.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a writer from Dhaka. He writes for The Daily Star, Bangladesh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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