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.
The 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.
Rosey, formerly Jameel, lived in Dhaka, a city which fumed like a truck in trouble and grew out of an old patch of fertile land. When the first rods seeded its soil, buildings bloomed like concrete flowers and native tigers ran away for dear life, their footprints erased by the tires of metallic animals. The new city with its poor infrastructure, claimed its victims on a regular basis — rivers, animals, earth, air, people. Rosey walked the streets dressed like a paste jewellery store, a shiny horse with a rose in her hair and high heeled hooves. Her hair was an undulating ocean of embers when lit by the sun’s fiery rays. She trotted on the busy roads like a cautious horse as her high heels rang in the pedestrians’ ears — thak, thak, thak.
Some children would run away when they noticed her, some would hide behind their mothers as their mothers would say, “Bhoy er ki ache? Kicchu hobena. (What is there to fear? Nothing will happen.)” She was aware of their dread when they saw her emerge from a crowd of ordinary and ‘acceptable’ people. She knew they thought she would abduct them and turn them into her kind. She also knew how stereotypical the human mind was — how unwholesome, how hostile it was towards anything different. As opposed to the children who feared her kind and those grown-ups who abhorred them, there were still some she knew who wore the garb of humanity, who did not fling the term “Hijra (eunuchs)” as a slur — people like Saleem bhai (brother), Ruma chachi (aunty), the vegetable vendor, Kakoli, and Rubel, the postman.
On that day, the air in the market was thick with flies and the unholy stench of meat, sacrificial animal gut and excrement; the ground was tinged with blood and boric acid. Beggars, Hijras and Bedes (nomadic tribals) populated the streets; some in their usual clothes, some in their best; and some with all of their limbs in proper places, some amputated. It was as though Qurbani Eid ( where animal sacrifices are made to God on a particular date by a particular person) had given them a secret clarion call — a call only those living in the cages of poverty and in the margins of society could decipher — as if it was their turn to sacrifice the meat.
I enjoy playing god with my characters. I like building worlds that are not quite real, but reflect parts of reality for different people. There are a lot of hypothetical situations you can explore when you’re writing fiction, and even more when you’re writing fantasy and sci-fi. But mostly, I like telling a good story, I like making up characters, I enjoy the idea that I’m creating something that other people might appreciate.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I’m editing my second novel, which is tentatively called Djinn City. It’s about djinns living in Dhaka, causing mayhem, and the subset of humans who interact with them. I’m not taking the folk tale approach to djinns, but I’m building up their culture, their history, their character from the ground up.
This is a Bengal centric novel. In genre fiction, the centre of the world, the kind of focal point of history and the future is always some place like London, or New York, white places with Eurocentric cultures. This is normal, since almost all genre writers in English are of European descent. In my novel, Bengal is the centre of history and magic and the future, everywhere else exists in peripheral darkness.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I got nothing. Writing aesthetic is for prize winners. I’m a genre guy. The most I can hope for is to rip off George RR Martin twenty years from now and get on HBO. If HBO still exists in 2036.
Even now, after all these years have passed, rivers, all rivers, hold a certain fascination and dread for her. Back then before rivers of blood had been shed, when there was not even a ruby blood drop, not even the tiniest nipple dot to prick the endless flow of a day, it was Nubia herself who was the river.
Theirs was the last house at the phallic tip of the cantonment cul-de-sac, lined with rows of colonial era brick and limestone bungalows. Beyond their back garden lay the great glimmering eye of the lake, Moti Jheel, where Nubia was forbidden to go by herself. Under Ayah’s watchful eye, she would play for hours with Anmol in their garden full of banana trees, where the siblings would go goose-stepping round and round the lawn, “Left right! Left right! Pajama dheela, topi tight! Aagey husband peechay wife!” until they collapsed in dizzy heaps of giggles on the grass. When she got up, Nubia was thirsty. She stuck her tongue out and caught the drip of recent rain from the glistening elephant ear banana leaves in whose lap sat fat yellow fingers of fruit plush with beckoning. Ayah mashing up the bananas, putting salt, pepper and sugar in them. The butter-yellow disks sweating until they swam in their own spiced up juice. Banana chaat was yet another one of Ayah’s delicious creations. There is nothing, however, that Ayah could do to milk to make it palatable to Nubia’s six-year-old tongue.
“Every morning she throws the milk down the sink when I’m not looking! Begum Sahib I strained this milk with muslin twice and she still didn’t drink! Ayyo! My bones are too old for this. Look at Anmol Baba. Every day he drinks down two glasses of milk. Gut gut gut. Drinks it down. See how fair he is? You will be as black as coal if you don’t drink milk and then no one will marry you!”
Dhaka Translation Centre (DTC), in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, Commonwealth Writers and English Pen, is delighted to announce a call for applications for a workshop on Bangla-English translation, to be held in Dhaka from 15-20 November 2014.
It is more than one year since a major industrial devastation rocked Dhaka. Jeremy Seabrook examines in The Song of The Shirt why the horror can happen again, writes Pradyot Lal in Tehelka
When the Rana Plaza catastrophe happened and killed more than 1,300 garment workers in Dhaka last year, all that it merited was a sense of outrage, which never went beyond telling us how bad and horrible the whole thing was. There was hardly any attempt to go beyond the mundane obvious, to tell us why it happened and why it could happen again. For those seeking such basic answers, this volume does singular service. The admirable Jeremy Seabrook has come up with this necessarily grim volume detailing the sheer tragedy of those who create such wonderful and fashionable garments for the elite, but who themselves live a life bereft of even the most basic of comforts.