Good Night Mr. Kissinger and Other Stories
by K. Anis Ahmed; 2012
Dhaka: University Press Ltd
This is a wonderful first collection of nine short stories by K Anis Ahmed. Although several of the stories appeared in the The Daily Star literature page many moons ago, packed into this ensemble they have a different punch.
Two things are striking about these stories. The first is that, despite the variety of characters, the central character is one, truly one, running like a maddened ghost throughout Dhaka city. Our town, our city, our habitat is captured here in many locales, from Uttara to Mohammadpur to Elephant Road to Banani; its smells and moods spark off and give a multi-layered life to all the tales. In the two coming-of-age stories, walls and rooftops and leafy streets encode a way of life. Later, it's the poor lighting and drab curtains of a seedy hotel, or the gleam of a new corporate office. Even in the title story, the main character – a Bangladeshi now planted far away from Bangladesh – has a hatred for Kissinger that could only have been nursed by a Dhaka-ite. The city and our country are refracted through the lens of his bitter history and a grudging redemption.
The other striking feature is the very language itself: no longer must we readers wade through, and reviewers overlook, the at-times hilarious muck of misplaced syntax, bilious phrases and overripe kedgerees of "Banglish" and British English that comprise much English writing in Bangladesh. The language here is clean yet sinewy, but written with a flair that gives a fillip to, and even evokes a chortle in, the reader. The stories here are blessedly written by somebody who is entirely at home in the language, America-infused. One suspects the bar has now been raised, and very high.
Even a plain line can delight: “But a regular paycheck was a hard habit to kick.” Indeed, speaking not only for the Dhaka salaryman, but salarymen everywhere. Or the eye that sees the “languid, long-stemmed ceiling fan” – languid is old, but long-stemmed is new and between the two is perched our thirsty, bedraggled, dizzying city. Or this riff by a wealthy and successful businessman in Dhaka, and not just for its sharp social observation, but for the amused cadence of the thought:
“He had noticed, not without a whit of mirth, that the wife or daughter of every rich man in town fancied herself to be a designer of clothes, spaces, or furniture. They opened up boutiques of strange, flowing, hybrid garments; shops for bags and jewellery studded with large and uncommon stones; outlets for shoes spangled with metal gewgaws or fabric swatches. To say nothing of the posh galleries for bad art. If these vendors of redundancy could have a game in town, why not Sonya?”
The crucial word here may well be “town” – in its hint that our parvenus are too provincial to quite make it a "city"?
Some of other stories dig for deeper truths. One especially, titled "Ramkamal's Gift", where the enigmatic Ramkamal is mystically entangled with the entrails of the city, with its lanes and twists and past, with its history, this knotted thing that he wants to map and set on paper, but the impossibility of the task turns out to be yet one more tale of Dhaka…but perhaps I get ahead of myself.
Read the book for yourself and find out.