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Book Review: The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction

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.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Wasi Ahmed

By Aminah Sheikh

wasi-ahmedLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

For the most part, I write to see myself in a state of self-questioning. Reality, for me, is important in as much as it stokes the sparks that hurl me into writing. But reality often remains a narrative on the surface only. This surface reality has its limitations, in that it can at times be a misrepresentation of the inner, true essence—a simplification, so to say. I sometimes tend to see it as the reality of the unreal, for surface reality can be deceptive, unable to lend a critical understanding of the inner content. How much does a visual object tell us about what it’s actually about? You don’t get to know the dancer from her dance.

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

I’ve almost finished working on a collection of my stories in English translation. I myself did a few; others were done by competent translators. A different version of the stories in a different language may be a curious experience, interesting too.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Ever since I started writing, I tried to remain reticent, and never lose sight of the unbecoming and the skeptical aspects (not necessarily in conveying a message or in questioning – self-questioning to be precise).

Who are your favorite authors?

Many. Not all favorites come in the same order, and over time I tend to shift my fancy. Naming celebrated authors not in my list would have been easy. Serbian author Millorad Pavic, for strange reasons, is a long-lasting favorite. So is Milan Kundera. In my country, the author I revere most and hardly find a parallel elsewhere is Akhtaruzzman Elias. His stories are extraordinarily unique in craft and content. Proper translation of his works, an extremely difficult task, would have earned him a rare feat in global literature. It’s our collective guilt that an author of his stature remained confined by the limits of geography and language in the so-called globalized world. An archeological dig might retrieve him some day!

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

It was a novel of more than 80,000 words. The theme had been with me, though largely shrouded, for more than 10 years; but I hardly ever thought of writing it. When finally, I was kind of charged to write it down, I found out that there were elements of history that I must take along. The subject was land slavery that prevailed in the eastern part of Bangladesh – which was part of Assam in pre-partition India — for centuries. When I got into the task, I told myself I’ll have to build my own storyline skirting around the historical elements in a way that history should not at all interfere with the flow of the story. This, I think, was quite a challenge. The name of the novel is Tolkuthurir Gaan (Songs from the Abyss).

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Shaheen Akhtar

By Aminah Sheikh

shaheen-profile

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

I write because not writing feels uncomfortable and hollow to me, like hovering in a void. I feel alive when I write. Writing a novel makes me feel as if I’m discovering the world anew. I derive enormous pleasure in engaging myself in this process. Writing is truly my most significant method in understanding things. This encounter is primarily with my own self: with the known and unknown worlds, as well as with times that I have not witnessed or lived through. Although my writing self is fairly vulnerable, still I adore that persona.

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

At the moment I’m writing on the 1940s and the 1950s. This was a very important period for South Asia. The fates of millions of people were determined without their knowledge; I’m talking about the 1947 Partition. In the twinkling of an eye, people were turned into minorities; they lost their homesteads, their known worlds. There seems to be no end to it—a process that is still ongoing. At the center of my new novel is undivided Bengal, a province of pre-Partition India. A time when the Hindu elite had grown afraid and embittered at the gradual empowerment of the majority but backward Muslims; when this region was beset by the second world war, the Bengal famine, Hindu-Muslim communal riots, the Partition and its immediate fallout. The deeper I explore these questions, the more the Partition appears as inevitable as fate. There was no way for this to not happen. I’ve forgotten what I set out to write in the novel; now I have to wait and see what this novel makes me say.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

What I can say about aesthetics? Rather let me talk about my writing style. I write at a slow pace. I enjoy experimenting with forms. These days I’m increasingly attracted to words, phrases, and idioms that I heard in childhood, or expressions which aren’t used much anymore. I can tell that this attraction is gradually turning into an obsession. I always strive not to write two novels in the same structure or style.

Who are your favorite authors?

That changes. Presently, Orhan Pamuk. Also, I adore Alice Munro’s stories. Reading her is like listening to a favorite piece music at low volume, which you can listen to all day. You never lose focus when you’re reading her stories, you never feel monotony. As if she has a divine gift.

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