Published: Monday, September 23, 2013

Symbolic wasteland images

Muhammad Alamgir Toimoor hears the sounds of crickets and frogs

bk02In past four decades, topics relating to 1952 and 1971 have become so much spent up that people run away from them. Honestly speaking, these two have become the biggest turn-offs of the century, lemons squeezed to death at the hands of politically or so-called aesthetically motivated copy-cat writers, columnists and blunt TV show producers. But quite interestingly, in his book Nineteen seventy one and other stories, Dr. Rashid Askari has picked up the cliché, and treated the in-betweens of the washed-out issues (pre and post 1971) from a new cone, which is substantially original and intensely rewarding. His motivation is like Byron’s: “I want a hero: an uncommon want,/When every year and month sends forth a new one,/Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,/The age discovers he is not the true one” (Don Juan.1-4. I.). While most writers hitting the 1971 issue would embark upon writing something of epical magnitude filled with self-emulating individuals of synthesized ideals, Dr. Askari’s characters are ordinary men: a cowardly country teacher or an insignificant English Road whore or a wide-butt big-bust illiterate village wife torn apart by libido and jealousy at the same time or a suburban procrastinating self-delusional semi-fakir Jihadi, who seriously lacks guts and just wants to live and reproduce. The writer has been able to release the Independence from Independence imprisoned in the domain of fine-tuned middle class (kind of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”) that tons of third class writers and self-proclaimed intellectuals who want to enjoy liquor and lady at someone else’s expense have orchestrated for years.
Dr. Askari’s stories are brilliant beyond any doubt, yet they suffer from some technical flaws. The introductory lines are often short, brisk, lacking in contribution to the whole. I would like to judge the first line of Nineteen Seventy One against that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children.” The first sentence in Marquez reads: “On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench.” These lines set the mood of the story and draw the attention right away what is known as immediacy, whereas the first line of NSO reads: “The tiny train compartment was crammed full.” This line in conjunction with the following ones has less to do with ambience and issue of the tale. The hero is introduced in the second and most brilliant (the depiction of passing show of almost surrealistic wasteland images symbolically representing the meaningless and done in the life of Bashanti) paragraph of the text from where the story really takes off. The first line of “The Proud Possessor” is no exception either: “It is a sweltering hot night in a sleepy remote village called Madhupur”; and what comes up later has little to do with this hot night matter. The first paragraphs of many stories are replete with redundancy, except that of “The Human Cow.” Only in this tale the author has been able to achieve what he wanted to: short sentences integrally linked up with one another, throwing in a big image.
Apart from this, his stories seem to run into trouble with representing reality itself. For example, the Mashi or the female whore-keeper is “scantily clad” with a “see through blouse” that houses big breasts which she intentionally shakes while talking. The Mashis are retired sex workers who are in fact senior citizens with no charm left to magnetize a John. They no longer require putting their worn out and invalid machinery on display. Even her dialogues are fictitious: Mashi says: “Ho, ho! What a number one thing you’ve brought dear” in reply to Nibaron’s introduction:  “Mashi, this is Bashanti, from my village. She’s come to be a film heroine.” Trade in whorehouses is done in clandestine manner—a guy who sells a woman never introduces her to any Mashi in such fashion because it is not required and no Mashi is likely to put up with this drama nor is she going to remark as above. After all, a long time ago Mashi herself was an innocent rural girl who had to go through the same initiation process. “Co-wife” starts in a pouring stormy pitch dark summer night, with crickets chirping, frogs croaking! During heavy rainfall the crickets and frogs keep quiet and in the dark shadows are not cast.
In Nineteen Seventy One the endings of the tales are good, no doubt about it. In fact, the good endings have sort of balanced the bad beginnings, which means the idea that a good beginning is half done is not necessarily true in all cases. Askari’s language is straight as “I” and messages clear as an “O.” In all counts, the collection has more good stories than bad. “The Human Cow” is a quintessence of a great short story, though “The Lottery” is somewhat flat. But the most important thing is that Dr. Askari has demonstrated enough artistic talent to come up with fiction in English, which must be a source of inspiration for many of us. Nineteen Seventy One and Other Stories is a prized inclusion in what we now call Bangladeshi writing in English.

 

Muhammad Alamgir Toimoor teaches English
at Shahjalal University of Science and
Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh.