Published: Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review

Charm, cross-cultures and the human struggle

Rummana Chowdhury reads a tale straddling East and West

Charm, cross-cultures and the human struggleDr. Nashid Kamal, scholar, musician, educator and writer, has produced her first novel, The Glass Bangles. The setting of the book meanders around Sylhet, Bangladesh and London, England. The protagonist, a young, naïve woman named Sheila has an arranged marriage to a Bangladeshi man who is visiting from the UK. Familial pressures put Sheila in a situation where she has no choice in the matter. Her initial fears about marrying a stranger are put to rest after her first few nights are spent with Manna as a newlywed in which she finds him to be handsome, charming and worldly. Soon after their first week together as a couple, she falls in love with Manna and he leaves for London, promising to write to her regularly and sponsor her as his spouse as soon as possible so that they may continue their life together abroad.
Sheila waits for this endlessly. After days, weeks and months have passed, Sheila finds herself pregnant. Almost a year later, she gives birth to her daughter Ayesha, and is hopelessly in love with Manna. But Sheila is certain that something terrible must have happened to her husband, as there has been no communication from him since his departure to the UK. Young, in love and committed to building a life for her now growing family, she bravely sets off for London, determined to find him and ensure his safety. Upon arrival in London, Sheila is shocked to find that Manna is married to another woman, living an entirely alternate life, with no interest in continuing his relationship with Sheila, not an unknown reality for many women who pursue arranged marriages in the villages and cities of Bangladesh. Shocked, dismayed, saddened but full of resilience and pride, Sheila courageously decides she must start a life of her own with her young daughter. So begins the story of living the life of a new immigrant in London. The protagonist, with all of her musical talents, cultural pride and with the knowledge of what it takes to make something out of nothing, builds a beautiful life for herself and her child, facing many hardships along the way. The author chronologically shows the lanes and bi-lanes of the social step ladders that new residents, immigrants, and Bangladeshi citizens have to face living in a strange European country. Credit must be given to Sheila, who is able to carve out an illustrious role for herself, without the traditional support of a male figure.
Nashid’s writing style is spontaneous, warm, clear and enchanting. Because she was born in England, has pursued her PhD there, and has herself resided there for many years of her life, she has an in-depth understanding of the barriers and struggles that South Asian immigrants face abroad, which is clearly demonstrated in her writing. Her intricate and genuine understanding of patriarchy, class culture, racism and other related issues that immigrants face are clearly reflected in the many subplots and sub-characters that evolve interestingly throughout the novel. Some are typical Bangladeshis, while others are British. In addition, Nashid’s in-depth knowledge of music is seamlessly intertwined within the development of the story where she effortlessly inserts Urdu, Hindi and Bengali songs as well as relevant Bengali poetry from her personal musical journey and life.
Sheila struggles her way through day-to-day living and ultimately climbs the socio-cultural ladder of the South Asian artistic scene. As a surprise to even herself, she eventually falls in love again with a Pakistani classical singer named Jamal. Her love affair with Jamal and the ensuing community reactions to it are representative of the bitterness against Pakistan, understandably an offshoot of the 1971 war.  Their ultimate separation brings the required pathos and melancholy that the storyline requires. In retrospect, the relationship between Sheila and Jamal seems a little too idealistic. Boundless transcending love is often heavenly, and this is somehow missing here.
At a turning point in the story, Sheila and her daughter Ayesha return to a new and changed Sylhet, and for that matter, an entire Bangladesh, for a two-week visit. The book manages to take the reader from the quiet scenery of a Sylhet village, to the ghettos of the immigrant communities of London, to the hustle and bustle of London city, and then to Dhaka city, where her daughter is once again exposed to the cross cultural climate of a country where the sociology, developments and dynamics of that country and its culture have undergone radical and progressive change. Like so many immigrants who are part of a vibrant diaspora, Sheila ultimately decides, after many years, that London is her home and takes her daughter back with her to continue building what is left of their exploratory life abroad, presumably for good.
Some of the language fluency in the book could have been more grammatically enhanced, and a few of the themes and choice of wording could be further explored. This is especially in context to the understanding of readers outside Bangladesh. Nevertheless, Nashid’s expansive knowledge of Bangladeshi and Westernized culture intrigues the reader, who has an avid appreciation of poetry, prose and culture from the beginning. The novel starts off with Sheila having her long beautiful hair, a representation of femininity and grace in Bangladeshi culture, chopped off. Reminds us of Jibonananda Das’ “Chuul taar kobe kar ondhokar Bidishar Nisha.” Her hair was chopped off in a hair salon in London to a short and bold boy-cut, which is a reflection of modernity in the West. These moments allow the reader to travel into the inner most thoughts of the protagonist, someone who is constantly internally re-inventing herself to adapt to her changing surroundings. This is a great book for readers from the east, the west and those who have travelled back and forth in-between.

Rummana Chowdhury has authored 16 books  of poetry, short stories, columns and analytical articles. She resides in Toronto, Canada.