Dhaka in Short Takes

Ten short sto­ries that en­cap­su­late the spirit of the Bangladeshi cap­i­tal, by ty­ing a va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences in a uni­fy­ing thread

India Today - - LEISURE BOOKS - By Divya Dubey Divya Dubey is the pub­lisher of Earthen Lamp Jour­nal, ed­i­tor/in­struc­tor at Authorz Co­r­a­cle and au­thor of Tur­tle Dove: A Col­lec­tion of Bizarre Tales

The Book of Dhaka is the re­sult of a col­lab­o­ra­tive cre­ative writ­ing project be­tween Comma Press and sev­eral writ­ers/trans­la­tors, pub­lish­ers and in­sti­tu­tions from Bangladesh, In­dia and the UK, work­ing to­ward a com­mon goal: to broaden the reader base for lit­er­a­ture that was once meant for a spe­cific tar­get au­di­ence in a re­gional lan­guage (in this case Ben­gali or Bangla) in or­der to help ‘unify ex­pe­ri­ences’.

This col­lec­tion of 10 short sto­ries in trans­la­tion by var­i­ous writ­ers com­bine clas­sic, mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture, ex­plor­ing themes such as love, long­ing, mis­for­tune, heart­break, fear, fail­ure, cor­rup­tion of the soul, lone­li­ness, vi­o­lence, class di­vide and lu­nacy. Most of the sto­ries are open­ended.

K. Anis Ahmed’s In­tro­duc­tion men­tions, “In 1952, East Pak­istani Ben­galis fought against the West Pak­istani im­po­si­tion of Urdu above their own beloved Bangla lan­guage. Ev­ery Fe­bru­ary, Dhaka rolls out the largest of its cul­tural events, the month­long Ekushey Book Fair, hon­our­ing the Lan­guage Move­ment that even­tu­ally spurred the coun­try’s lib­er­a­tion.” Mil­i­tary ac­tion and vi­o­lence move un­apolo­get­i­cally, and at times un­ex­pect­edly, from back­ground to fore­ground in some of these sto­ries (The Rain­coat, The Weapon, Mother). For those fa­mil­iar with nar­ra­tives of Par­ti­tion, how­ever, it is still fa­mil­iar ground; there is noth­ing new in these tales per se. Their unique­ness lies in the hu­man el­e­ment, in per­sonal ac­counts of loss and sor­row. Not all losses are phys­i­cal or tan­gi­ble. Some of these sto­ries cap­ture, like a cam­era, the pre­cise mo­ment when one finds one­self star­ing into the eyes of de­feat; when the very ef­fort to fight back a greater force be­comes a trav­esty.

The Weapon is the only story told in the voice of an om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor, sup­pos­edly also a char­ac­ter in the story. His in­tru­sive voice in­sists upon the au­then­tic­ity of the story and of the tribe of sto­ry­tellers. This one traces the life of its pro­tag­o­nist, Ponir Ali, as a book­lov­ing child to the time he be­comes a young, for­mi­da­ble man in the neigh­bour­hood. The Cir­cle shows a couple’s ef­fort at ro­mance. Though on the sur­face it is very sim­ple, even amus­ing to some, fine nu­ances and sheer pathos make it among the most mem­o­rable pieces in the book.

The Widen­ing Gyre cel­e­brates and satirises Dhaka’s ‘great tra­di­tion of po­lit­i­cal protest’ sim­i­lar to In­dia and quite rel­e­vant to cur­rent­day sce­nar­ios. It is a re­al­is­tic por­trayal of what hap­pens at an or­gan­ised protest rally when a stu­dent leader dies. The ban­ner the three pro­test­ers carry reads: ‘We shall not let our anti­au­thor­i­tar­ian, democ­racy­lov­ing leader Swa­pan Bhai’s blood be shed in vain. Jus­tice for the mur­der of Swa­pan, etc…’. To­wards the end the slo­gans be­come sym­bolic of some­thing else—com­plex but false ideals, the pin­na­cle of ap­a­thy; the words ac­quire con­se­quence be­cause of their in­signif­i­cance.

Char­ac­ters be­long to dif­fer­ent strata of so­ci­ety and are tied to­gether by the es­sen­tial hu­man con­di­tion. Though the sto­ries are cen­tred on Dhaka, they could have hap­pened any­where, any­when. In fact, very of­ten, Dhaka seems to be built upon the same so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural blue­print as Delhi. Like Delhi, two very dif­fer­ent worlds co­ex­ist: posh glass­and­chrome of­fices of MNCs or wealthy in­dige­nous set­ups over­look shanties and jhuggi-jhopdi colonies; the hus­tle­bus­tle, vigour and vi­tal­ity which bring to­gether “slum kids, film stars, day­dream­ing rich boys, gang­sters and for­mer free­dom fight­ers”. And it is for this unity in di­ver­sity that these sto­ries ought to be read.

Pho­tographs by ALAMY

The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fic­tion Eds. Push­pita Alam and Arunava Sinha Comma Press Pages: 164 Price: Rs 698

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