By Indu Muralidharan
Title: The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction
Edited by: Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Comma Press
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 Aminah Sheikh
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.
Written by Syed Manzoorul Islam & Translated by Arunava Sinha
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.