ISBN 13: 9781905583805
Co-published by Comma Press, UK and Bengal Lights Books, Bangladesh, 2016
Translated from Bengali by Pushpita Alam, Arunava Sinha, Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat, Arifa Ghani Rahman, Mohammad Shafiqul Islam,
Marzia Rahman, Mohammad Mahmudul Haque, and Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman.
The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction, Edited by: Arunava Sinha and Pushpita Alam, BLB, 2016, ISBN 13: 9781905583805
You can judge a book by its cover, banal stereotypes notwithstanding. The red lines on the slightly green graph paper, featuring on The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction, give an inkling of various city structures: the mausoleum of three leaders located at Doyel Chattar, Lalbagh Fort, Shahid Minar, Dhakeswari Temple, a rickshaw, and even a bailey bridge at Hatirjheel. The architectural grid on the cover has captured the essential Dhaka that one expects to find on the pecking order of the Tripadvisors site. However, the collection of short stories about Dhaka, the capital of the green country that had its first red dawn purchased in blood, aims to arrest a different crowd—an Anglophone audience who has little resources to learn about the aesthetic life of contemporary Dhaka that exists outside the close circuit of few literary doyens who have been sporadically translated. Most of the stories included in the collection were published in different literary supplements of Bengali dailies. Their authors have hardly ever made any significant noise to reach the ears of an international audience. Thanks to the “Reading the City” project of Comma Press, Manchester, this collection of ten short stories from Bangladesh in superb translation can now represent Bangladesh well.
The red and green cover illustration sets the tone for the first story that renders a fitting tribute to the liberation war that led to the emergence of the country. Akhteruzzaman Elias's “The Raincoat” was first published in 1995 and was recently made into a film titled Meghmallar. It is about a simple man caught in the grand scheme of things during the turbulent days of 1971. A college professor Nurul, wearing the raincoat of his freedom fighter brother, was captured by the Pakistani army for his alleged link with 'miscreants'. The water repellent was far from a protective gear in a metaphorical rain in which the local boys mused over having home advantages over the Pakistani invaders in a guerrilla war. “The bastards don't know the rains of Bengal. Russia had General Winter, we have General Monsoon” (17). The narrator became privy to such insidious comments made by some workers fixing a cabinet in his office, and was later captured and tortured in custody for information about an explosion that took place near his college. Like rain showers, the whip lashed out on Nurul's body stripped of the raincoat. However, instead of suffering pain, the story ends with Nurul focusing on the excited possibility of collaborating with working class laborers who were putting up the resistance.
One could wonder, however, what this highly symbolic story of class and social struggles has to do in a book that is supposedly about Dhaka. The answer lies in the existential crisis that subsumes our socio-political identity not only as city dwellers but also as citizens of an emerging nation trying to find its cultural basis. I am sure the people behind the book are deeply cognizant of such urgent seeking. Focusing on Elias's style will help us frame the issue further. By employing the free indirect style, Elias allows reader access to the consciousness of the central character without suppressing the individuality of the character's voice. The result is a strange matrix of relationships between author, character and reader that can be interpreted in terms of the 'sense of place' of each. Our relationship with Elias, and by extension with Nurul, defines our national, political and cultural identity. After all, the perspective of the narrative viewpoint in relation to place can tell us much about the social and aesthetic values of the author as well as of the values of characters in fiction in general.
However, it is not possible to reduce Dhaka to a site of singular identity that has its originary moment in 1971. The ten stories of this collection, the earliest one being Mainul Ahsan Saber's “Britto” (The Circle, 1978) and the latest one Pervez Hossain's “Shiddhanto” (The Decision, 2009), make sure that we come across more nuanced identities of Dhakaites.
In Syed Manzoorul Islam's story “Ostro” (The Weapon, 1997), Dhaka is recognizably Dhaka, but recognizably many other places too. The rise (and fall) of Ponir, a slum boy named after cottage cheese, is detectable in any Third World locality where the reality of survival itself is fantastically magical. A boy struggling to stick to the 'unchangeable nature of truth' ultimately has to resort to violence fracturing the very foundation of humanism and enlightenment dicta. The grand narrative, symbolized by Ponir's all-time companion Memorable Sayings of Venerable People, finds itself fractured as the protagonist decides to pick up his gun to encounter his nemesis.
The third story of the collection, Pervez Hossain's “The Decision,” locates violence in the domestic sphere as an estranged couple broods over their failed marriage at the famous Book Fair for which Dhaka is known. Rashida Sultana's “Mother” humanizes a drug peddler in a slum. The cry of a son whose mother has been arrested with heroin in his possession converges with the city shower. Moinul Ahsan Saber's “The Circle” offers a glimpse of a typical middle class urban family who plans to go out of the city and its mundane routine just for one day. Yet the family's only ride, the husband's motorcycle refuses to get out of the city despite his repeated attempts. Alam cries out to his wife: “I am trying, Feroza. I am trying”(72).
There is no escape from the 'Camusesque' Dhaka. The masseur in Shaheen Akhtar's “Astaan” (Home, 2005), Bindu, darts from one spot to another to provide body massages to clients whom she calls 'Madams.' As her name suggests, she is the centre that reassesses different city perimeters. Her phone gives 'missed calls' to announce her availability as she shores up in different houses to become a witness to different stories that make up contemporary Dhaka. She comes from the line of a family that has lost its way while migrating from India. Now she assures her sister who is afraid of Dhaka: “I won't go to Dhaka, Bindu. I'll lose my way.” “What rubbish, Didi. I know Dhaka like the back of my hand. I know every road, every backstreet. I'll show you everything”(84). And indeed, the clients are there at the back of her hand. Centering on Bindu's narrative we walk through the gallery of portraits that Dhaka has in store for its viewers.
Bipradash Barua's story “The Princess and the Father” recounts the story of its teenage protagonist Bokul who goes skating to impress some 'dream princesses' but ends up attending an injured freedom fighter who reminds him of his own dead father. His good deed is rewarded by a surprise visit by one of the 'princesses' who wants to partner with him for a forthcoming skating competition in the upscale north western part of the town.
The yearning of the obsessive lover Helal can be translated as the hidden desires of the city in Anwara Syed Haq's “Helal was on his way to meet Reshma.” The story that follows, Salma Bani's “The Path of Poribibi”, has a similar theme in which a love-struck Salim identifies a nightly woman Munni with the legendary daughter of Subedar Shaista Khan, Pori Bibi. History here is his story; it is a story of disappearance as he pursues the dark tunnel to accompany his mysterious lover mistaken as Pori/fairy. The mysterious aura of Bani's story reminds us that Dhaka is not only a physical location but also a state of mind. Both Haq and Bani transport the readers to a Dhaka that is the locus of memory that expresses the condensed, if not exhausted, capital of collective memory. The last story titled “The Widening Gyre” (Chakrabriddhi, 1998) captures the action/reaction, justice/revenge diatribe of political protest. The death of a protester adds to the compound interest of policing on which dictatorial system banks on. The chronology of the selected stories points at an editorial choice of framing Dhaka between two landmark events: the first Dhaka is the one that broke free from the military regime of Pakistan to emerge as the Capital of Bangladesh in 1971, and the last one presents Dhaka as the heated site of political agitation that paved the way for democracy in the early 1990s, bringing to an end to homegrown military dictatorship.
The book, as the Director of Dhaka Translation Center Professor Kaiser Haq tells us in his foreword, is an outcome of a workshop conducted by the editor/translator Arunava Sinha. Both the book and the workshop were sponsored by Bengal Lights Books. The great thing about this collection is its bold attempt of bringing together, if I may suborn, mainstream and non-mainstream writers. Thanks to the rich introduction provided by Kazi Anis Ahmed, the book becomes what he calls a 'creative entrepreneurship'—a true representative of Dhaka in fiction.
Full credit goes to the translators for making these stories available in lucid prose. The added footnotes make sure that cultural roadblocks are traversed without any major bump. Nothing is lost in translation, but gained. This is a highly recommended volume for anyone who is interested in South Asian literature.
The writer is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is the Head of the Department of English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB)