However trite it may seem at first glance to call a book “It’s All Relative,” more layers are revealed on further examination of this collection of stories published by Bengal Publicationss. The title is perhaps an allusion to how stories bounce off each other, morphing into something different with each changed perspective. As each badminton player needs to move in space with each encounter with the shuttlecock, so too do stories discombobulate around each other in the universe.
In Farah Ghuznavi’s “Mistaken Identities” we get the sense that it is the author’s intention to portray the first-person narrator as a bit conceited. His disdain for Bengali rice pudding is telling, but also a preference that this reviewer shares. The story finds a uniquely apt metaphor for navigating dual diasporic identities that capture the unease, the discomfort, the conundrum of opposing influences. The father’s own memories of his childhood in Calcutta colour his reaction when his college-age son announces that he would like to actively reconnect with his South Asian deshi roots.
The subtle humor in the father’s sense of foreboding is delicious. It throws into relief the absurdity that can sometimes emerge when those we consider our very own get caught up in the performance of a culture that we have always taken for granted. The writer’s voice observes, narrates and describes without judgement—it remains appropriately indiscernible how the author feels about all this. As the immigrant experience is turned on its head, we empathize with the father’s ordeal as he explains that he never imposed the influences of his own heritage on the boy.
“Sessions with a Telepath” betrays the comic book nerd its author identifies as. The narration is fluid and, like the best work in that genre, the ending leaves the reader with a satisfied chill. His guilty subconscious drives the protagonist to seek justice himself. Adding to the chill factor, “Mr. Magic” by Khadija Rouf is this anthology’s nod to magical realism - or more simplistically put, a ghost story. Not only is the middle-aged conjurer losing his glamour and his lover, but returning specters from the past compel him to make further amends.“In the End Is My Beginning” shows the altered reality of a schizophrenic, without shying away from the full scope of its horror.
Sohana Manzoor introduces the dusky and spirited protagonist Ratri. The story that follows is poignant in portraying the all too human regret that comes from neglecting an elderly loved one in the process of navigating a difficult life. Seeing the possibility of the hurtful lessons from that time materialize into another young woman’s painful reality. Learning that all too often, when we try to escape the pain in our past, we sacrifice the only people who made it possible to survive.
Nabina Das chronicles the faceoff between the dung collector Chitro, at the bottom end of the social food chain and the temple priest, who embodies the authority of the deity himself. Yet for an exhilarating moment, Chitro has the upper hand in this chase, demanding justice for herself. She is this close to a proper reckoning with him. The status quo of power seems poised to be overturned for one glorious moment in the sun.
Like this one, at least two other stories speak of those who do not have the privilege to shield themselves from the worst, this time in what is allegedly the second most unlivable city in the world. That of Fatema, a 10-year-old household help who suffers abuse is all too common. As is how easily she is forgotten, and how little her dreams count for. The grief of two young children losing their mother in the Korail slum—she slips and falls when getting water for them from the communal tap, and of course the ambulance they cannot afford arrives only too late—is piquant. The mother poured her first round of savings into a mobile phone so she could call home, only to find that her husband has started another family. “Beyond the Blinds” portrays in only three odd pages the alienation on Dhaka streets, too rough for any vulnerability, be it a kitten or childhood innocence. Her closing paragraph, is perhaps the most insightful and revealing of the cosmopolitan selfie generation “enjoying the beauty that lies in being able to filter in the happy things.”
Readers looking for women stepping into their strength will not be disappointed. With quiet dignity, a classical musician leaves the man who for years has not done right by her. Trapped in an uninspiring marriage, it is only when her hand is forced that a young mother leaves behind the values of her upbringing that are holding her back.
Bilquis in Rashid Askari’s “Co-wife” is the picture-perfect Bengali village wife. Trouble brews in her paradise when the couple is unable to have a child and the husband inevitably remarries. Bilquis, however, launches a secret ploy to prove that it is not she but her husband who is infertile. She chooses to bestow her favors on her husband’s distant cousin, who brings her betel leaves to chew any time she requests. The moment when she makes this ruminating decision is a tantalizing one. While this trope is not uncommon in Bangla literature, Askari’s storytelling brings a smile to the face at the thought that anglophone readers too can now savor it.
Shehtaz Huq’s story is hauntingly beautiful, capturing all the nostalgia enclosed in a jar of pickles, and cravings intense like an expecting mother’s, that almost makes the skin crawl. As the narrator takes a taste of the sweet, salty and sour mélange we can almost catch a waft the oil and vinegar odor. The concocting process is laid out oozing with lost love. It is as if the pieces of the mother’s life are embalmed in the tantalizing morsels.
This collection also includes two stories in translation. The more contemporary one by Syed Manzoorul Islam is another nod to magical realism. The mother is terrified that her child will be a girl, butis filled with pride when the foetus begins to fight her battles for her, taking a stand against her in-laws.
This brief anthology pulls together a diversity of imaginations, coming mostly out of Bangladesh. If the simplest yardstick for a book is whether it brings delight to ordinary readers, then this one clears it with ease. It will introduce the country in unexpected ways to readers unfamiliar with it, and the fact that it is chock full of familiar pieces from their lives will be an additional thrill for South Asians, especially Bangladeshi readers.
Mayeesha Azhar works with environmental management, and has been the assistant editor for a Dhaka-based business bi-monthly. She wades in stories by reading, listening to podcasts and performing monologues for theatre.