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       Volume 11 |Issue 44| November 09, 2012 |


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Voices Worth Listening To

There is always a mixture of excitement and dread when one is confronted with an anthology of short stories written by different writers of different backgrounds and life experiences. Excitement at the thrill of discovering refreshing styles and themes and dread of possible disappointment at having to go through hackneyed interpretations of the human condition. 'Lifelines' –New Writing from Bangladesh, an anthology edited by Farah Ghuznavi, a writer, activist and columnist of the Star, thankfully gives a fair dose of excitement to the reader in being able to retell the oft repeated situations of women. The subjects are nothing new – domestic violence, rape, abandonment, abortion, widowhood, child abuse, gender discrimination and social hypocrisy. But they are situations that have not magically disappeared despite the breakthroughs in women's struggle to be treated like human beings. These all too familiar evils that plague women, especially those in our part of the world, are told in 15 unusual stories written by a group of women writers including the book's editor, each of whom display a distinctive voice. As expected from any anthology of writers of varying calibre, some voices are more extraordinary than others. There is however, a common thread of boldness in each of these stories, an urge to break out from speaking out subjects that are taboo in our society still too timid to call a spade a spade. Published by Zubaan, an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi, 'Lifelines' is in fact the 'zubaan' (which means tongue, voice or language in Hindustani) of women's experiences in the South Asian region.

The trickle down effects of globalisation and an urban bias as pointed out by Ghuznavi in the introduction, have weaved themselves into many of the stories hinting at the gradual changes in even rural society and conflicts that are created by persistent, unyielding cultural mindsets.

The title 'Lifelines' has been explained by its editor: “the characters in these pages are making journeys of their own – physical or psychological –to reach resolutions that are often unexpected, if not always unwelcome.”

'Teacher Shortage' by Shabnam Nadya certainly stands out for its unusual plot and for its setting – an otherwise uneventful college campus town where everyone knows everyone has disturbing secrets that very few want to unravel. The writer dispassionately tells this rather uncomfortable story of domestic violence, through the eyes of children who have suddenly been exposed to the ugliness of the world of grown ups.

The voices of children, girl children in particular, are heard in some of the other stories too. 'Pepsi' by Sharbari Ahmed is a riveting account of a ten-year old American Bangladeshi who must learn to survive in a world where the rules of acceptance are strange and often, elusive. Though from a privileged background 'this spoilt little rich girl' constantly craves parental attention and finally finds solace in friendships in the unlikeliest places, though her moments of stability are cruelly snatched away.

'Daydreams' by Sadaf Saaz Siddiqui, explores the difficult journey of an adolescent girl and the stages she goes through – being at the mercy of relatives, falling in love, being thwarted by a lover, becoming an unwed mother and facing the brutal consequences and finally finding the courage to survive.

Lifelines New Writing from Bangladesh Edited by Farah Ghuznavi, Published by Zubaan

Shazia Omar's 'Table for Three' is a cleverly woven story of a woman and her relationship with her mother-in-law – a seemingly conventional theme but a tale that has unexpected conclusions.

'Yellow Cab' by Srabonti Ali is a shock of cold ice on the face – unapologetic, fast-paced, ruthless and testosterone filled – much like the streets of New York where it is set. Unlike most of the other stories, 'Yellow Cab' is from a man's perspective. A young Bangladeshi reflects on the dramatic turns of his life after 9/11 when his yuppy lifestyle as a successful Harvard–educated investment banker crumbles along with the twin towers, forcing him to experience a cultural alienation that is part and parcel of being a poor immigrant with a Muslim name in the US.

'Touch Me Not' by S Bari takes a different kind of journey – a young American woman comes to a village as a volunteer and becomes attached to her host family including a little boy. The story juxtaposes the present, set in the US and the past in Bangladesh, a terrible secret is revealed and the little boy, now a grown up, reconnects with his long lost, foreign sister.

Munize Manzur's 'Bookends' is a series of e-mail exchanges between a man and a woman. In a simple, believable style these letters floating through cyberspace dissects a relationship that blooms then breaks and then has the possibility of revival through the mysterious world of the internet.

Farah Ghuznavi's story, 'Getting There' is another journey filled with twists and turns as a young woman breaks free from the claustrophobia of societal expectations reinforced by an uncompromising father only to revisit her past in tragic circumstances.

'Rida' by Rubaiyat Khan is a strange tale of a young woman, growing up in an environment where her existence is peripheral, being married off and sent to a foreign country where she must endure the brutality of her husband and then having to face a bigger trauma when she comes home.

In 'Gandaria' by Iffat Nawaz an adolescent girl is forced to face the ugly truths of an ugly house and the ordeals of growing up.

'Something Fishy' is an easier read and relies on a much explored theme-ayoung Bangladeshi woman escapes to the West to free herself from the constant pressure to marry and be acceptable to her native society. But it is the writer's sharp, insightful narrative that sets this story apart and gets the reader hooked. In her witty, engaging way, the writer provokes the reader into wanting to know more about this feisty Bangladeshi woman who flees convention yet knows how to perfectly cook fish.

The stories in this recently launched anthology provide the constantly changing backdrop of Bangladeshi culture – the inevitable, at times, uncomfortable convergence of rural, urban and Diasporic sensibilities. The complexities of generational gaps and conflicts with dominant cultural biases are also generously dissected.

The depth and fluidity of the writing styles of each of the writers and the undoubtedly arduous attention to editing makes reading this anthology a rare and pleasurable journey.


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