A profoundly ignorant chorus of denunciation has descended upon Aung Sang Suu Kyi over the treatment of the Rohingyas — while ignoring the historical baggage of colonial policies that created this tragic conundrum. And critics ignore the role of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which mounted coordinated attacks on police stations, army posts and civilian targets in November 2016 and August 2017. Here are some facts for your to consider:

1. It all goes back to the 1932 election in Burma (then part of British India); the Brits wanted to separate Burmese from India, and propped up the Separatist League, but the Anti-Separatists (led by Ba Maw) won. They wanted to remain loosely federated with India. Nonetheless Burma was separated from India in 1935. When Ba Maw won the next election too in 1937, the British policies of Divide and Rule were stepped up — and led to anti-Indian rioting in 1938 in Rangoon (after the Brits imprisoned Ba Maw for seeking Japanese support for his campaign of full independence from the Brits).

2. When Japan liberated Burma in March 1942, Ba Maw was restored to power (formally becoming Prime Minister or Adipati in August 1943), with Aung San as his DPM and Defence minister. The British had ensured that the British Burma Army contained no Burmese (instead comprising Karen, Kachins, Shans and Chins) while the bureaucracy contained mainly Anglo-Burmans and Indians. The majority Bamars only got opportunities in the military and bureaucracy in alliance with the Japanese. 

By Indu Muralidharan

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Title: The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction
Edited by: Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Comma Press
Pages: 167
Price: Rs 843

Collections of place-themed fiction can be powerfully evocative with descriptions of indigenous sights and sounds, unique references to the geographical landscape, and above all, glimpses into the minds of local characters, who, with their attitudes, mindset, dialogues, dreams and desires represent the collective ethos of the place in the given time setting. Examples include Dubliners and The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran which transport the readers to early twentieth century Dublin and Bangalore in the late nineties respectively. The Book of Dhaka aspires to add to this worthy genre. As K. Anis Ahmed mentions in the introduction, this collection of stories by various writers tries to capture the present-day ethos of the “world’s most densely populated city” of rice fields, lakes that overflow during the monsoon and “concrete structures, among roads far too narrow for anything to thrive but despair”. This intrinsic sense of despair hangs over the book, manifesting itself in the steam-of-consciousness monologue of a timid Chemistry lecturer who gets captured and tortured by the military in “The Raincoat” (written by Akhteruzzaman Elias and translated by Pushpita Alam), the story of a promising student whose poverty forces him to leave school and eventually become a gangster in “The Weapon” (written by Syed Manzoorul Islam and translated by Arunava Sinha) and that of a housemaid who resorts to peddling drugs in order to give her son a better future in “Mother” (written by Rashida Sultana and translated by Syeda Nur-E-Royhan).

The sense of gloom creeps like fog into the stories of the middle-class characters too. “The Decision” (written by Parvez Hossain and translated by Pushpita Alam) portrays the apathy of a young woman towards her ex-husband on coming across him at a book fair, as she rather indifferently contemplates on what went wrong in the relationship. “The Widening Gyre” (written by Wasi Ahmed and translated by Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman) is a chilling glimpse into the dangers lurking in the city roads where citizens are alleged to be shot dead in broad daylight.

By Syeda Samara Mortada

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“Love is the funeral pyre where the heart must lay its body.”

~ Dark Diamond

From the beginning of the novel, I could picture every page like it was a scene from a historic movie from the Mughal era — vibrant and mystical, yet with clouds of darkness settling in. The colorful and multi-layered characters seemed to fit right in with the grandeur of the palace, as well as the hidden truths and loves lost. There are certain themes that recur throughout, greed and love being two of them; but that does not go to say that they go hand in hand, or do they?

Shayistha Khan, Subedar of Bengal is our central character, aptly portraying the traits of Mughal warriors, and could well be inspired by a real one. His innermost characteristics, some of them being his Robinhood-ish philosophies, the messiah to the poor, avid reader and believer of God are almost in stark contrast to his hard exterior, further hardened by war and its lasting effects on a nation. He is presented in strong juxtaposition to Pir Baba, who is also the grandfather of Champa (the female lead of the novel). Pir Baba’s one and only aim in life is to get the Kalinoor, which is rumored to be in the possession of Shayista. The Pir’s deeply rooted superstitious values as well as physical prowess at times feels like a stretch too far but overall works well to give the character its profile and once again feels like a true calibration of Pirs in our part of the world.

However, whilst analyzing the female leads of the novel, they tend to fall a little short of one’s expectations simple because “women empowerment” is specifically mentioned in various instances of the novel. Of course, one may argue that this representation, Champa’s, for instance, is revolutionary in the context of the timeframe of the novel. Champa without a doubt is a strong character especially if we get a sense of her age, surroundings and growing up years. However, there is some confusion about her stance in life. While she is hell-bent on saving the madrassah (which houses many girl children) from the wrath of the Mullahs who feel that music and books will lead young women away from the ways of God, she is also a dancer who appeases Shayistha and others like him, probably as a result of instructions from her Dada. Champa cannot stand the Mullahs and everything they represent; however, she tries to stop Shayistha from killing her father, who is also a Mullah even when he is on the verge of taking her own life. Again, if she is the ultimate symbol of goodness and kindness, then why does she not stop her Dada from his evil-doing and practice of black magic, even when she is very aware of its effects on those around her? Her love-hate relationship with Shayistha is also one that is hard to decipher.

By Apala Bhowmick

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The Temple Road by Fazlur Rahman is a memoir that cracks you up as often as it teaches you something. Rahman writes in a candid, conversational voice that has the ability to immediately establish a relationship of trust between the narrator and the reader. The book is divided into two parts – the first, tracing the author’s life from his village, Porabari in Bangladesh to his medical training at Dhaka, and the second, dealing with his journey to the United States of America as a medical intern, and his eventual career in the country as one of the best oncologists of his time. Rahman writes of spending an idyllic childhood among the pastoral greens of Bangladesh, where he inhabited a distant world heavily tainted by nostalgia and thickly populated with coincidences. He has a non-dogmatic, almost secular upbringing in an old aristocratic Muslim family, and is exposed in equal share to the rituals and festivals observed by both the Hindus and the Muslims of Porabari. He paints his life in rich, careful detail embedded onto a framework of compelling storytelling. One has no difficulty at all picturing the lush, verdure fields of East Pakistan, the cerulean lakes and skies, and its people – simple but stoic, wise and thoughtful, flintily standing by neighbour and friend alike in times of distress. As a precocious, sensitive child, he has to deal with the grief of his mother’s untimely death, his own painful kala-azar, and competition and hostility from various quarters in his school. He does have many friends though, and remains close to his older brother whom he refers to as Mia bhai throughout his childhood and adolescence. “Myth and history came together to affect my boyhood”, writes Rahman, and indeed, the division between the two are richly blurred in the folklore, traditions, and political history that forms the backdrop of his life in Bangladesh.

The author’s childhood is not, however, all schoolwork and domestic affairs. In one instance, he encounters a tiger in flesh and blood albeit in a flash, but it is an incident which terrifies and fascinates him at the same time. His first taste of communal violence arrives in the garb of a street fight his two school friends pick up with a vagrant Muslim over his consuming a Hindu offering distributed freely to the poor at the local Durga Puja. The incident leaves a lasting scar on the young boy, and allows him a deeper insight into the darkness and the violence inherent in human nature, particularly with regards to matters of religion and caste. One of the most difficult choices he has to make growing up, he tells us, is the one between literature and the sciences and settling for a career in one discipline or the other. Throughout his formative years, he remains a voracious reader, translating poems from English to his mother tongue Bangla, devouring novels, and scoring more in the liberal arts subjects in his final exams than in science or mathematics. Perhaps it was practical concerns that prompted him to make the choice he finally did, or else the memory of the mute suffering he went through time and again while witnessing other people’s and his own torment in death and disease. He also constantly reminds us throughout the book that his mother wished him to become a doctor so that lives like hers and her brother’s, who died of malaria, would not have to be lost in vain.

By Farah Ghuznavi

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Writing is my favourite form of self-torture.  Playing with words is pleasurable, fantasizing plotlines from foreplay to climax is enjoyable, but then… getting the words to convey the plot, now there’s the hair-yanking, teeth-grinding, eye-gouging challenge.  Still, the creative process is exhilarating, and in the end it allows me to share thoughts and ideas with others.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I have published two books this summer with Bloomsbury India. Dark Diamond is a historical fantasy set in 1685 about the Mughal Viceroy of Bengal, Subedar Shayista Khan, who built the Lal Bagh Fort.  I was looking for a time in history that Bengalis could be proud of and a hero who could inspire our youth.  I wanted to look beyond 1971, to remind our youth of our rich, secular, pluralistic past. On another note, I wanted to portray the outer, inner and secret meanings of Islam that come under threat when radical power structures are in place.

Intentional Smile: A Girl’s Guide to Positive Living is a mind, body, spirit book about staying happy and healthy.  It is based on my experience as a yoga instructor and a social psychologist, and a working mother who has struggled with chronic depression.  My co-author, Merrill Khan, is a school counsellor and a life coach.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

In my first novel, Like a Diamond in the Sky, my protagonist was a young junkie who loved rock ‘n roll. Inspired by the Beatniks and folk musicians of America, I tried to simplify and pare down my sentences and paragraphs as much as possible.

The protagonist of Dark Diamond, on the other hand, is a Sufi warrior and swashbuckling hero.  I allowed my writing to be inspired by Sufi poets, but also kept characters like Indiana Jones in mind.

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 The Weapon

Written by Syed Manzoorul Islam & Translated by Arunava Sinha

1

ponIr alI  haD  always been troubled by his name. He had no idea why his father had named him after cottage cheese. He hadn’t had the chance to ask him, either. His father, who used to work in a shop in Islampur selling cut-price fabric, had died suddenly after a three-day fever. Ponir was 10 or 11 at the time, a student of Class Five at the Suritola Primary School. What had Ponir’s father been ill with? A malignant form of pneumonia, apparently, but neither Ponir, nor his mother, nor the local doctor had had any inkling. The doctor had treated him for flu.But then,why blame the neighbourhood doctor, when the diagnoses of well-known physicians are wide off the mark. They’ve managed to send gastric patients to their graves, before, by giving them bypass surgeries, confusing gas-induced chest pains with heart-attacks. Haven’t you heard of such cases?

How  did  we  find  out  the  truth  about  Ponir’s  father, then? Why, that’s just what we do.As storytellers it’s one of our responsibilities to know these things. How else are we supposed to tell our stories?

Ponir Ali didn’t know whether his father was fond of cheese. The fact was that he had never seen a slice of cheese in his life, for they couldn’t afford any. Perhaps his father had in fact loved cheese – who could tell? But Ponir had a grievance against the dead man – why did he of all people have to be named after cheese? Why not his younger brother, the one who had died at the age of three months? He too had remained as elusive as cheese, beyond their reach.

Asking his mother hadn’t helped. She never answered such questions. Probably she didn’t know either. Earlier, when the family was still somehow managing to get by – back when Ponir’s father was alive – his mother could occasionally spare a few moments for a conversation. But after his father’s death, all responsibilities fell on her. Ponir barely got to see his mother from one day to the next, let alone ask her a question. They had to sell her last pieces of jewellery, a set of gold bangles, to pay for his father’s funeral. It takes a lot of money to give someone a decent burial in this country, you see. Graveyard spaces are shrinking – even in a small district town, it costs between five and seven thousand taka. Ponir’s mother was insistent on giving her husband a respectable burial. He was a respectable man, after all. Besides, many respectable men also name their children Ponir. From that point of view, there should have been no obstacle to a respectable man like Ponir’s father getting a decent burial.