For the Love of Writing
Photo: Naeem Mohaiemen
A voracious reader and passionate writer, Mahmud Rahman's short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and recently his first collection of short stories Killing The Water was published by Penguin. Of the 12 stories five are set in the backdrop of Bangladesh and the Liberation War. Growing up in Bangladesh and later living in the US for many years Mahmud's writing covers a varied landscape. On his recent visit to Dhaka he talks to JACKIE KABIR about his writing and the reasons behind the subjects he chooses to write on.
What inspires you to write? Did the urge to write begin early in life?
Sitting down at a keyboard feels like something I have done forever. When I was about twelve, my sister gave me a Royal typewriter with a broken carriage return. With a string and a stone, I made it work and put out a wall newspaper at my school, St Joseph's, then in Narinda.
For a long time, I would do other kinds of writing. Then, seventeen years ago, I tried my hand at narrative prose and found myself hooked.
I love stories. When I meet someone new, I crave their stories. And I enjoy sharing from my own life. I read voraciously. I read anything and everything. When the women in borkhas toss little flyers into Dhaka buses, my fellow passengers might let those scraps of paper fall to the floor. Not I. What words I learn from there! What ailments they describe, what miracles they promise, what fantasies of strength rejuvenated.
When I write, I prefer the same: make believe. Fiction.
In my teens, my other love was gadgets. I enjoyed using a soldering gun to build things from circuit diagrams. If the joints were good and the parts worked, I had a working radio or amplifier. I never knew enough to design anything, but I envied those who could. I enrolled in engineering, but it wasn't for me.
Perhaps my yearning to create something from scratch found an outlet in fiction. Here I could put together puzzles, conjure up characters from the thinnest of wisps, build fictional worlds.
As for the sources of my stories, inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes a striking image stays in my head. Then there are events from my own experiences or fragments of stories I hear from people. At other times, it can be an emotional response to a newspaper report or a book. They all go into this mysterious place in my head where stories take shape.
When did you first publish?
At the end of 1993, I sat next to a woman on a long distance bus in the U.S. and we had a four-hour conversation about our lives. Right after I got home I wrote a rough draft about our encounter. It wasn't very good. Later when I learned more about crafting fiction, I revised it. It got better. Three years later it was published in the anthology Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America.
The readers are enthused with your first book Killing the Water in Bangladesh. How do you feel about that? Do tell us how it was received outside Bangladesh.
I am very happy. How could I feel anything else?
Outside Bangladesh, I've heard from a few readers in India and there have been reviews in The Hindu, The Telegraph, Open Magazine, and The Book Review. They have all been positive.
Only five of your 12 stories are set in Bangladesh. Are you more inclined to write about themes based in the west where you have lived for long periods of time?
Actually half the stories are set here or imagined places based on the landscape of Bangladesh. I feel at home both here and the U.S. but one doesn't necessarily have to feel rooted to a place to choose it for a story setting. My sensibilities have been shaped by place for sure, but also by many other influences: people, philosophies, music, movements.
In one of the stories, Kerosene, you talked about the Biharis' role in the Bengali people's lives both before and during the War of independence. What is your view regarding their situation in today's post-independent Bangladesh?
The story Kerosene is written in an allegorical fashion, in an imagined country. It is partly based on the situation with the Biharis in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, but it also draws from the fate of similar communities elsewhere who are caught between larger forces in conflict. As for the situation with the Biharis today, I can't say I have close knowledge. I know many of them still live in squalid, overcrowded camps. That's tragic. With property prices high as they are in Dhaka, no doubt there are greedy people eying those camps. The residents might face new challenges. On the other hand, I am pleased that the courts in Bangladesh have decided to grant citizenship rights. But how long it will take them to get a semblance of equality I don't know. We as a people have not been very generous when it comes to the rights of minorities: whether it is Hindu Bengalis, Biharis, pahari people or other adibasis.
Are there autobiographical elements in these stories?
When I began writing fiction, I drew heavily from autobiography. But I was not satisfied with merely chronicling stories from my own life. It was inevitable that I would use elements from my life, but I wanted to see what my imagination could let loose. There are two stories, “Killing the Water” and “Before the Monsoons Come” where the main character is somewhat patterned after aspects of the child that I was. “Killing the Water” isn't so much about the narrator, though; it uses events, people, and settings from my childhood and weaves a myth from them. On the other hand, “Before the Monsoons Come” involves a boy who shares some aspects of the personality I had in childhood. I used to be easily frightened and wondered about strength and courage. I painted Moni, the boy in the story, with those features. However, in the wartime sequences, he evolves into a person quite different than me. 1971 changed me too, but in other ways.
What are you working on now?
I am currently revising a novel set in contemporary Bangladesh. All my stories set here have been drawn from the country of my memory. This one is different. It is set very much in today's Bangladesh. The protagonist is taken from one of the stories in the book, but in the novel he is thirty years older. He has been thwarted in his life's dreams but now believes he could have a second chance. Little does he know what he's letting loose. There's satire in the book, and there's also a bit of mystery. I'm about a third done, but still there's much more to be finished.
More about the author at his website www.mahmudrahman.com
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