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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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Excerpts: The book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction

dhaka-cover_hr-crop

 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.

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