Category Archives: Bangladesh’s English literature

How Sharbari Zohra Ahmed brings history to life in Dust Under Her Feet

Reviewed by Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee

(Sourced by Bangladesh country editor, Farah Ghuznavi)

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Title: Dust Under Her Feet

Author: Sharbari Zohra Ahmed

 Publisher: Tranquebar/ Westland, 2019

 

The particularly enchanting quality about Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is her ability to make under-discussed historical eras come to life while still holding potent resonance in the present era. Dust Under Her Feet, Ahmed’s debut novel, measures how much and how little we’ve changed both in South Asia and on a global scale, by drawing us into a rather cinematic setting.

The novel subverts our collective imagination of the 40s in India, a decade that was largely defined by the lead-up to Independence and the death of the British Raj. Our protagonist, Yasmine Khan, shows us a micro-culture of the second World War from her point of view. She has us compellingly engaged with the U.S army presence in Calcutta. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Chinese-Burman-Indian Theatre that evolved when the United States went in support of the Chinese against Japan.

Calcutta, because of geographical proximity, was critical to facilitate resource trade. The Allied forces built the Ledo Road that connected India to China, to deliver supplies, and a significant portion of the workforce was American. In fact, the road also came to be known as the Man-a-Mile road because of the number of American casualties during its construction. The Ledo road played a large role in facilitating the movement of US troops from India through Burma and into China during the early 40s. Read more

Short Story: Shards of Moonlight

By Sohana Manzoor

From her fifth-floor apartment window Neera could see the roof-top of the three-storied building that stood at some distance. She looked at the sun-drenched houses in the winter noon and wondered listlessly if people still used such gigantic mosquito-curtains like the one drying on the roof of the next-door. It looked like some green magic net big enough to catch a genie. And what were in those jars? Pickles, perhaps? Or maybe guava jelly? The child in her heart gave a shout of glee and, for a moment, she thought she had a whiff of her grandmother’s guava jelly emanating from the kitchen. But her grandmother had died years ago, and the house where she had lived was gone too.

IMG_0786The large pre-Pakistan era house that was her Nanabari, her maternal grandfather’s home, had been given to developers some years ago. While Neera could understand the practical reasons, her heart cried incessantly at the loss. The cluster of coconut trees standing at the bedroom-window of Neera’s apartment often made her sadder than ever even though she also considered herself luckier than most people of Dhaka where it was difficult indeed to get a breath of fresh air. But at her Nanabari, there were four such coconut trees. Images from her childhood when her uncles and aunts had made watches and spectacles for her with the tough and shiny dark green coconut leaves stood out fresh in her mind. Read more

Short Story: A New Dawn for Reba

By Sohana Manzoor

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“Did you hear about the arbitration?”

“No… what’s that?”

“So, you know nothing? Everybody’s talking about it.”

Reba raised her eyes from pages of her book and looked at the eager face staring at her. “Well, it takes place at least three times every month,” she observed complacently. “I don’t see why I should be interested in this particular one. Only last week there was a dispute between Keramot Chacha (Uncle) and his nephew on land.”

“This isn’t just any arbitration!” said an irritated Amina. “You’re so much into those precious books of yours that these days you barely notice the people around you.”

Closing the fat volume of test-papers in her hand with a thud, Reba looked at the young woman in front of her. She said as politely as she could, “Look, I’ve the HSC (Higher Secondary School Certificate) exam coming up. I’ve no time for gossip right now.”

“And then you’ll probably go to town to study at a big college and won’t remember any of us. You’ll be a hoity-toity miss and forget all about your friends in the village!”

“Wait a minute– what’s the matter with you? Why are you acting like this?” Read more

Book Review: It’s all Relative

  • Reviewed by Eshadi Sharif (sourced by Bangladesh country editor Farah Ghuznavi)

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Title: It’s all Relative

Pages: 192

Publisher: Bengal Publications

( http://www.bengalpublications.com/its-all-relative/)

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”Read more

Book review: Not Elegy, But Eros by Nausheen Eusuf

Reviewed by Dr Faustina Pereira

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Title: Not Elegy, But Eros
Author: Nausheen Eusuf
Publisher: NYQ Books (US) and Bengal Lights Books (Bangladesh)
Pages: 88 (NYQ); 94 (BLB)

It has been at least two decades since my university days that I made time to go through a poetry collection as mindfully as I have recently. It is no accident that it is the newly published collected works of Nausheen Eusuf, Not Elegy, But Eros, that helped me emerge out of my doldrums on the poetry front. The title certainly played its part in drawing me to this new work. It was not long before I delved into it properly, that the full spectrum of what was on offer became apparent. Here was a fresh new voice of a global citizen who stirs up emotions against a universal backdrop which nevertheless reverberate at an individualised, atomic and primal level. Who would not be able to identify, in their own way, with, for example, the language of the trees that ‘held court with the birds, and drowsed at noon with the dragonfly’ or marking the passage of time through a thousand moons that ‘fattened and fell’?

Let me clarify at the outset that when I learned that the poet was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was intent on picking up deshi points of attachments from the get go. Part I, which barely contained the reference points I was looking for, initially almost disappointed. Then, of course, I came to “Ubi Sunt”, which chants an ode to the ‘ordinary sacraments’ of everyday life that are at once deeply personal and yet inherently universal. A poem woven intricately through shiny red seeds of sandalwood and garlands of jasmine freshly fallen after a night of rain, assures us of a continuity with all those who have gone before us and reminds us that sometimes the answer we are ‘hoping to find, if not what I seek, at least something that might suffice.’ “Ubi Sunt” is quickly followed by other gifts of homely indulgences – from the dining room and its many flourishes in “Musee Des Beaux Morts” to the almost delicious smell of Kiwi shoe polish and the rich feel of stiff-bristled horsehair brushes in “Shining Shoes”. What I found interesting in this particular clutch of poems is a quiet elusiveness of the poet herself. If it is by design, then it is pulled off cleverly – to invite the reader to such an intimate sanctum, yet remaining just beyond the line of visibility.

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Life and Times of Literary Magazines

 Bangladesh’s English language literature over the years

Ironically, it was the 1947 Partition and the carving out of East Pakistan that had brought a measure of English to Bengali Muslims. Partition meant Hindus departed en masse for India, and in its place emerged, blinking and hesitant, a native Muslim elite. As the-then head of the English department of Dhaka University, Professor A G Stock, wrote in her memoir of those times, “severance from West Bengal… conscious of its differences with West Pakistan,” made East Pakistan “vividly conscious of its identity and of the need to find an outlet to explain itself.” One such outlet was an English literary journal called New Values (NV) brought out by K S Murshid – then “in his twenties” and later a hugely respected academic. NV, Stock wrote:

kept a high standard of writing; kept it, in matters literary and artistic, above the mutual admiration level which would have made it a ‘little magazine’… [tempering] its Bengali preoccupations with good articles from overseas and translations and critical discussions of modern writing from other Islamic countries.

This, historically, is where it began for us.

Other developments accelerated this encounter between English and Bengalis. Oxford University Press (OUP), based in Bombay and Calcutta during colonial times, now came to Pakistan. In a symbolically powerful move that ‘severed’ Calcutta’s control of East Bengal’s publication market, it opened a branch office in Dhaka. In 1958, strongman Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan, and enacted new educational policies: English now was to be a compulsory subject in schools. OUP prepared the necessary English course books, and later also published university textbooks. It also published specifically for the East Pakistan market, and gave English translations a boost by bringing out works such as that of revered folk poet Jasimuddin – The Field of the Embroidered Quilt: A Tale of Two Pakistani Villages.

By the mid-1960s, the Dhaka office was humming. East Bengali Muslims were now doing things they had scarcely done before – run an administration, teach at colleges and universities, travel abroad, play cricket. And aspire to write in English – Syed Waliullah’s short stories appeared in Miscellany, the publication of Pakistan PEN, in the 1950s. Razia Amin, of Dhaka University, also wrote fiction in English. Academics wrote essays and literary criticism. Newspapers and magazines opened up their platform to poems and other writing.

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