• 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”

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It was not always easy for John to understand Zoe’s English, but this time all he had to do was to look where she was pointing.

In the middle of the track was a large otter, standing on its hind legs. It was looking in their direction. John and Zoe, unable to move lest they disturb the creature, kept quiet. After some minutes, another large otter bounded from a pool to the right of the track, slowly passed across the track and into another pool on the other side. It was quickly followed by a troop of much smaller otters hastening across the track. When all the others had vanished into the pool, the guarding otter followed suit.

“Well, it’s the first time I’ve seen an otter traffic warden,” said John, as they both fell about laughing.

The sandy track became more defined as a road and, as the jeep climbed to the top of yet another hillock, before them lay a series of three huge, interconnected dredge holes. They had become filled with water; around them were trees and bushes. The expanse of water seemed to stretch for at least a couple of kilometres. Green islets, dotted here and there, added yet more mystery to that already intriguing expanse of water.

 

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

For some time, I tried to find my way towards the centre of the station. I encountered dead-ends and paths blocked by fire, metal, and machines. I had to backtrack several times and wondered if I would be killed by a whirring gear out of nowhere, or impaled on an inopportune girder. After the longest hour of my life, I saw my destination: a massive metal ball in the middle of the station, supported by several pylons. With the propulsion rig, I roved over the ball’s surface to find a hatchway into the control centre. Steadying myself against the wall near a hatch, I keyed opened the door and pulled myself into the structure.

The inside of the control centre had a similar appearance to the command centre in the habitat section: a wide, 360-degree view of the whole interior of the station, two chairs instead of one, and a wide array of consoles and banks of monitors. Though it was dark inside the chamber, the viewing glass allowed the industrial lights around the centre to paint the whole chamber a stark white.

 

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By some existential quirk of fate it seemed I owed him money. Owed Kasim that is. Yes, deep down within I always felt I owed him money. I did not remember from when, or even how. Did I run up some losses for him in business? Did I take something precious from him that had to be paid for? I did not know then. I do not know now. But I felt then as I feel now, I owed him.

Kasim was generous. He never insisted that I pay. Not that he did mind when I did. In fact, he had a shrewd mind. He knew I would pay. When you owe someone money, and you are the decent sort, you do pay, don’t you? Kasim knew that. So he made it seem like he never really had his mind on the money. Why bring in money matters when you don’t need to? Well, in any case I paid him regularly. Somehow, the debt never seemed to get repaid. There was no cut-off date in our contract, it seemed.

Everyone in the family thought my uncle, David, would never enlist. Some even thought he might never come back from India. But, true to his word, he came back, half his original weight and with twice the amount of hair on his head, talking about tulips sticking out of guns and civil disobedience and flying elephants (he experimented) and never, ever serving beyond the Green Line.

I imagined the bus coming to pick him up. He must have been sitting cross-legged on the hot concrete, reading a book. I liked to think it was Indian poetry. They must have called for everyone to board the bus. He would have looked over the pages of his book, some people he would have recognised from a previous line.

“The army is filled with lines and waiting,” he tells me, “and hot, dusty days.”

“You too, let’s go. Get on that bus,” the officer would say.

Sitesh Sen tried and failed one more time to fully understand what the muzzy indistinct female voice was describing about the timing of his train. It’s just the way the announcements were made at Howrah Station, with a shrill but unclear human voice trying to climb a sea of sounds across a creaking microphone. It didn’t suit his ears, ended up being just a gurgle of words that didn’t mean much. “And what was the need to have that funny jingle-sound at the end of each announcement?” Sen thought, “Like a dull doorbell taking off from the final incomplete word.”

Frustrated and flustered, Sen asked a man standing nearby about the announcement giving his train’s departure details. It didn’t help to know that it was four hours late. He was at the right place though, platform eight.

Reviewed by Pia Ghosh-Roy

 

Table Manners

Title: Table Manners
Author: Susmita Bhattacharya
Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Year of Publication: 2018
No. of pages: 159
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True to its title, the stories in Table Manners seem to be seated around a long dinner-table having a conversation over the course of an engrossing evening. With each story, I was invited into homes and lives that had their own unique rhythms. The stories wear different personalities, inhabit different parts of the world — India, Singapore, Italy and the UK — but sit beautifully in each other’s company and make for a meal to remember.

Many of the stories took me into the heart of traditional marriages and relationships, with their set dynamics, power imbalance, the dominant male and the ‘good wife’. Yet, within that, there are hidden moments, quietly captured and gently exposed, that reveal more. You will meet women, who while living the life that is expected of them — adjusting their hopes, and lowering their expectations — keep aside a bit of themselves that belong to no-one and answer to no-one. I found these private selves opening themselves up to me in these pages, where they share their concerns, their contemplations, and their inner chaos, where they show their bruises both visible and invisible.

In the first story, a wife nurses a childhood love for her male cousin, and is torn between this reckless and doomed emotion, and “The Right Thing To Do” by her staid marriage. It is told by the female house-help, whose thoughts are consumed by two things: her mistress’s irresponsible heart, and a neighbour, Mrs Dalal, who is regularly beaten by her husband and ‘turns up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times’.

In one of my favourite stories in the collection, Li, a young woman, plans a quiet evening with a bowl of “Comfort Food”, but gives it up when she has to accompany her husband to a business dinner with a potential client – a potential male client, who subjects her to an evening of unwelcome attention and lecherous stares.

Reviewed by Michelle D’costa

Sunita DeSouza Goes to Sydney

Title: Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney
Author: Roanna Gonsalves
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Pages: 227

Sunita DeSouza Goes to Sydney is the Indian version of The Permanent Resident published in Australia in 2016, published by Speaking Tiger Books in India in 2018.  A collection of 16 stories, it is refreshing like a splash of cold water in Bahrain’s heat.

Roanna’s characters have something at stake; their stories keep you on the edge of your seat, you root for them as she explores the depths of her characters with themes like child loss, divorce, writing, maternal love, ambition and more. I think some of the writer’s strengths show in the stories in her exploration of the dark hidden corners of a relationship, the domestic setting, work-life balance and more; however, these are not the only things she addresses in the collection.

Roanna’s craft is brilliant. Her prose is poetic and the sentences make you pause and savour them, reminding me of poets I have read. There are no superfluous lines but the restraint doesn’t affect the stories – they feel full and complete.

Most metaphors and similes are Catholic. Here’s an example of a character struggling with Catholic guilt – ‘Fuck off, I said to them, pretending to be filled with the fearlessness of someone who has nothing to lose – I, who once told my best friend she should wash her mouth with Holy Water when she called a bus conductor stupid behind his back.’ Another one – ‘I will, I said, like Judas.’