An Assorted Box
Aasha Mehreen Amin
A collection of short stories is very much like a box of assorted chocolates there's a certain thrill in the sheer variety and also in the unravelling and sampling the unknown delicacy inside each wrapping. This is how one may feel when reading 'From the Delta', beautifully edited by Dr. Niaz Zaman. What is impressive about this book is the richness of the language and thematic diversity in this interesting collection. You get a certain flavour, of not only the complexities of relationships between men and women, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, but also of the culture and history that is exclusive to this land. There is a feel of changing lifestyles, for instance the encroachment of modern life upon individuals who are now past their prime. While many of the stories are set in a contemporary urban Bangladesh, some of them give a rare glimpse of the richness and mystery of the past.
The stories deal with introspection, personal conflicts, inner struggles of human beings and human follies elements that have universal appeal. Gender issues recur from time to time, issues that apply to contemporary society just as much as they did when Begum Rokeya wrote Sultana's Dream which happens to be the first story in the book. Every time one reads this story one cannot but marvel at Rokeya's vision and modern mindset, which makes Sultana's Dream perfectly congruous with the rest of the collection, most of them written by contemporary writers. Niaz Zaman, the editor, has tried include stories written within the last hundred years which is why the first one is written in 1905 by Rokeya Begum and the last one by Farah Guznavi, in 2005. Syed Waliullah's 'No Enemy' an allegorical tale, was written several years after 'Sultana's Dream'.
The theme of women suffering under a parochial society and then mustering the nerve and strength to come out victorious in their own way, fighting their inner weaknesses, are concurrent in many of the stories such as Niaz Zaman's 'Marium and the Miser', Razia Sultana Khan's 'Sunset', Shabnam Nadya's 'Story of a Night's Journey' Maithilee Mitra's 'Wet Sandals', Rubaiyat Khan's 'The Wait, Tulip Chowdhury's 'The Other Side of the Mirror'.
Nuzhat Amin Mannan's 'Branded and Dilruba Z. Ara's 'Detached Belonging' include a not so talked about problem of women who are forced to live abroad because of marriage and who are often stereotyped as backward and ignorant since they come from a third world country.
Bangladeshi immigrants' living in foreign lands, in fact, is a common backdrop for a group of these stories. Racism, problems of assimilation, double standards and hypocrisies that characterise immigrant mentality, are elements that have dominated. Here one may mention Syed Manzurul Islam's delightful story 'The Mapmakers of Spitalfields'. It is a gripping taleof a mysterious character called Brothero-Man, flamboyantly attired and vaguely Bangladeshi, he is a mystical fellow who walks the streets of Bangladeshi immigrant-dominated-East London. He is constantly chased by two white-coated, Caucaseans who want to put him away into an institution. While the authorities view him as a lunatic, a misfit, to the members of the Bangladeshi community, he is a wise
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nutcase, eccentric but someone they must protect. The writer recreates the warmth and colour of a culture replicated thousands of miles awy from its origins and replete with its contradictions, which Brothero-Man's job seems to be to point out.
The relationship between fathers and daughters have also been focused on. Neeman Sobhan's 'The Last Letter' captures the yearnings of a daughter to win over her father's cold heart. The language is lucid, lyrical and moving typical of the writer's style. 'In Grandmother's Wardrobe by Aali A. Rehman,the warm yet sometimes strained relationship of a father and daughter is explored. Now this is a story to be savoured. The language rolls on smoothly from beginning to end and skilfully weaves in the themes of aging, nostalgia and the discovery of the unexpected. Razia Khan's 'The Return' also refers to changing times, the changes in Dhaka's landscape from a serene verdant neighbourhood to a heartless concrete jungle. The story is about a writer's determination to survive on her own terms.
Men, Women and Lovers by Syed Badrul Ahsan deals with an unconventional theme. A well-to-do Bangladeshi immigrant in London married to a well-educated Bangladeshi woman, is an icorrigible womaniser. One of his affairs is with a Somali woman, attractive with 'jet black' skin an unusual choice for a Bangladeshi. She is a victimn and refugee of war in her own country but a survivor nevertheless. The characters are all interesting and complex and have their own stories to tell.
The anomalies of our present times violence, terrorism and the widening gaps between the rich and poor, are found in Munize M. Khasru's Tick Tock and Farah Guznavi's 'A Small Sacrifice' which recreates the horrors faced by child domestic workers. 'Revelation' on the other hand is an endearing story about the bond shared by a child and her nanny.
Two stories in the collection briefly brush with the Liberation War. In Khademul Islam's 'An Ilish Story' a grandmother relates to her grandchild, the violent tales of 1947 and 1971; all this while skilfully cutting a hilsa fish. The story reveals the cruelty of humans on animals and fellow humans alike. 'It's the Heart that Matters' by Towheed Feroze deals with the issue of collaborators and deals with the notion that appearances can be deceptive, sometimes for the right reasons.
'Forty Steps' by Kazi Anis Ahmed, is another intriguing story that takes the reader back in time. A man is being buried alive in a bustling town called Jamshedpur and it is while he struggles in his grave that the tale unfolds. It is a story about passion, greed for power and wealth and betrayal in a post-colonial setting. The vivid descriptions of a long lost era in a language that is both rich and simple, makes our own time seem rather dull and drab.
Humour is always a welcome treat for a reader and the crisp, witty style of writing in the otherwise uninspiring title 'To Marry or Not to' by Shahid Alam does not disappoint. This tongue-in-cheek story parodies male egocentrism and gives a very accurate assessment of Bangladeshi society.
It is hard to make general assessments of a collection that is so varied in terms of the quality of writing. Some of the writing is of international standard while others need some toning up. But one has to acknowledge that this book is a strong indication of the wealth of writers in English emerging from this country. In this respect UPL must be given kudos for continuing to promote English fiction from this country and also Professor Niaz Zaman for selecting and editing the collection. Words 'n Pages, Gulshan's trendy bookstore should be appreciated for the smooth, informal launching programme for the book on December 15 on the terrace. 'From the Delta' as mentioned before, is an assorted box some of them are better than the others bordering on being favourites, but every one of them is worth an initial sampling.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005