Friday, January 19, 2018

The Book of Dhaka: book review

The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction: Edited by Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha

--reviewed by Divya Dubey

Comma Press
Rs 698

[Published in India Today mag, Jan 15, 2017:]

The Book of Dhaka is the result of a collaborative creative writing project between Comma Press and several writers/translators, publishers and institutions from Bangladesh, India and the UK (The British Centre for Literary Translation,  Bengal Lights Books, Commonwealth Writers, British PEN, ULAB, etc) , working towards a common goal: to broaden the reader base for literature that was once meant for a specific target
audience in a regional language (in this case Bengali or Bangla) in order to help ‘unify experiences’.

This collection of ten short stories in translation by various writers, put together by Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha, combine classic, modern and contemporary literature, exploring themes such as love, longing, misfortune, heartbreak, fear, failure, corruption of the soul, loneliness, violence, class divide and even lunacy (ultimate isolation).  Most of the stories are open-ended.

K Anis Anhmed’s Introduction mentions, ‘In 1952, East Pakistani Bengalis fought against the West Pakistani imposition of Urdu above their own beloved Bangla language. Every February, Dhaka rolls out the largest of its cultural events, the month-long Ekushey Book Fair, honouring the Language Movement that eventually spurred the country’s liberation.’ Military action and violence move unapologetically, and at times unexpectedly, from background to foreground in some of these stories (‘The Raincoat’, ‘The Weapon’, ‘Mother’). For those familiar with narratives of Partition, however, it is still familiar ground; there is nothing new in these tales per se. Their uniqueness lies in the human element, in personal accounts of loss and sorrow. Not all losses are physical or tangible.

Some of these stories capture, like a camera, the precise moment when one finds oneself staring into the eyes of defeat; when the very effort to fight back a greater force becomes a travesty. Some of the finest examples of this are ‘The Raincoat’, ‘The Weapon’, ‘The Circle’, ‘Home’, ‘Helal was on his Way to Meet Reshma’, ‘The Path of Poribibi’ (with its mythical quality) and ‘The Widening Gyre’.

‘The Weapon’ is the only story told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, who is also supposedly a character in the story. His intrusive voice insists upon the authenticity of the story and of the tribe of storytellers. This one traces the life of its protagonist, Ponir Ali, as a book-loving child to the time when he becomes a young, formidable man in the neighbourhood. It certainly strikes a chord with a sensitive reader.

‘The Circle’ shows a couple’s effort at romance. Though on the surface it is very simple, even an amusing one to some, it has a strong fundamental message. Fine nuances and sheer pathos make it one of the most memorable pieces in the book.

‘The Widening Gyre’ celebrates and satirizes Dhaka’s ‘great tradition of political protest’ similar to India and quite relevant to current-day scenarios. It is a realistic portrayal of what happens at an organized protest rally when a student leader dies. The banner the three protestors carry reads: ‘We shall not let our anti-authoritarian, democracy-loving leader Swapan Bhai’s blood be shed in vain. Justice for the murder of Swapan, etc…’ Towards the end the slogans become symbolic of something else – complex but false ideals, the pinnacle of apathy; the words acquire consequence because of their insignificance.

Characters belong to different strata of the society and are tied together by the essential human condition. Though the stories are centred on Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, they could have happened anywhere, any-when. In fact, very often Dhaka seems to be built upon the same social, political and cultural blueprint as Delhi. Like Delhi, two very different worlds coexist: posh glass-and-chrome offices of multinationals or wealthy indigenous set ups overlook shanties and jhuggi-jhopdi colonies; the same kind of hustle-bustle, vigour and vitality can be felt in the atmosphere which brings together ‘slum kids, film stars, day-dreaming rich boys, gangsters and former freedom fighters’ amongst others. And it is for this unity in diversity that these stories ought to be read.


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