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Book Review

Bangladeshi Hometruths

Anika Hossain

Translations of contemporary Bengali fiction are difficult to come by, which makes the compilation of "Contemporary Short Stories of Bangladesh," edited by Niaz Zaman a unique find in the book market. The volume includes writings from fairly new and young prize winning writers such as Audity Falguni and Ahmad Mostofa Kamal and veteran writers such as Al Mahmud and Hasan Azizul Haque. The translators range from professors and students of literature to computer engineers, journalists and financial analysts. The book consists of 25 short stories, which offer the readers a glimpse into the lives of people from all over Bangladesh, the elite and the poor, urban and rural residents and Bangladeshi immigrants, who have made their homes in foreign countries.

While the authors have accurately portrayed the social and psychological dilemmas faced by Bangladeshis in their everyday lives, the translators have done a great job in retelling the stories articulately in English, while keeping the sentiments of the original plots intact. A variety of stories make up the book, with seemingly no common theme. There are stories about the liberation war, about the injustices toward women and minorities, stories about desire and lust and stories about marital troubles.

Most of the stories by the female writers are about women's' rights issues, such as acid violence, rape, dowry, adultery in unequal marital relationships etc. One of the stories which stands out among these is "Saleha's Desire" by Purabi Basu, which has been translated by Sanjukta Das Gupta. This is a story about a woman who is punished brutally by a Shalish (village arbitration) for defending herself against her rapist who is also her long-term lover. What is striking about this story is that the protagonist, being an uneducated village woman, chooses her independence over marriage to her lover, and is brave enough to defend herself in front of the entire village, and stand up for her right to protect herself from being raped by the same man. The story deals with the concepts of women's empowerment and advancement, which are rapidly becoming popular all over the country in every class of society.

Another interesting and unconventional story was "The Cormorant's Blood" by Al Mahmud, translated by Ahmede Hussein. The author draws parallels between the act of hunting a beautiful Cormorant and the protagonist's connubial relationship with his new bride, which makes the story bold and sensuous and at the same time oddly moving. The author compares the hunt to the unconsummated marriage of the protagonist. As they get drawn into the story, the reader will feel the longing of the protagonist to make the Cormorant his prey, but at the same time understand and sympathise with his hesitation to do so because of its uncanny resemblance to his beloved new wife.

"The Model on the Billboard" by Ahmad Mostofa Kamal, translated by Sabreena Ahmed is an intriguing story about jealously in a marital relationship. The story is about a man who works hard to achieve excellence in academia as well as the job front with a single goal in mind. To gain the hand in marriage of the most beautiful woman who will accept him. When he finally achieves this goal, he is jealous of his wife's beauty and popularity and this drives him to eventually lose his mind. The story has a dramatic ending which makes it an extremely entertaining read.

A bizarre yet humorous addition to the collection is “ A Stopwatch and 400 Calories,” by Saleha Chowdhury, also translated by Sabreena Ahmed, which tells the story of a young Bangladeshi immigrant, living in the US, who is having difficulty finding himself a suitable job. This young man gets an opportunity to work for an actress who is long believed to be dead, but has managed to use modern day miracles of plastic surgery and other anti-aging techniques to keep herself young and attractive. The young man's job would be to perform sexual favours for this woman, to help her lose calories without having to go through the ordeal of daily exercise. Hearing the job description however, the impoverished young man chooses to preserve his self-respect and dignity over the promise of riches and returns to his life of hardship and struggle without any regrets. This story is not only amusing, but is also a reminder of how difficult it is for immigrants to build a life in a foreign country and the white lies they sometimes have to tell their families, just help them worry a little less about their loved ones.

Among other interesting stories are the ones about the '71 War of Independence, which is probably the most popular theme seen in Bangladeshi short stories and it has been covered in this book by Hasan Azizul Huq's “Nobody Came to See Him” and “Address Uncertain” by Rashid Haider, which narrate events which take place after the war. Present day social and political issues are covered by Rizia Rahman and Audity Falguni in their stories “A Poet, a Crow and the War-Horse of Chengiz Khan” and “Crossfire.”

Although there are several noticeable editing errors in the book, the work done by the translators is commendable. The collection of stories is unique, attention grabbing and thought provoking and the themes of human desires and ardour are ageless and universal. The book acts as a window into the current social, political and psychological realities of Bangladeshis today.

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