Those haunting lyrics of the British band Eurythmics, "Sweet dreams are made of this…", followed intermittently by "…everybody is looking for something…", and "…some of them want to use you…" fairly accurately encapsulate the theme of the dozen short stories that make up Rummana Chowdhury's slim volume, Boulevard of Broken Dreams & Other Stories. Chowdhury is, as her profile states, a poet, columnist, critic, and fiction writer, having written forty two books in both English and Bangla. She has other achievements to her credit, including having been multiple national badminton singles champion and once a triple crown winner, a champion debater, host of a variety of TV, radio, and stage shows, and a recipient of a plethora of awards from Canada, India, and Bangladesh. She is a Bangladeshi by birth, but has been a Canadian resident for close to forty years. Her dual experience in the lands of her birth and of adoption forms the thematic bedrock of her book.
The dozen offerings are simple stories simply told of the Bangladeshi diaspora in (not surprisingly, given the author's lengthy residence there) Canada and a smattering of other countries, and of the confusing identity that the new emigrants struggle with that is almost a reflection of them being caught up in the adage of being neither here nor there. Let Rummana Chowdhury articulate in her Preface:"…it's no wonder why living in two places has only caused me to feel more and more confused about what home actually means. Can a person's home exist in a new country if all their best memories continue to exist in a whole other place? I have spent years and years trying to answer this question…. I have met more and more souls that seem to feel the same disorientation around concepts of home. I was inspired to write Boulevard of Broken Dreams on the backs of these stories. People who migrate, who leave home, who create new homes. People who will never quite have a home. People who want to know what home ever was." Given these circumstances, little wonder then that broken dreams result from nostalgia, heightened expectations, and self-doubt.
The opening story, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", is about a married couple, Atif (born in Bangladesh) and Rima (born in Canada), who had bought a condo in downtown Toronto (in Canada) against their parents' wishes (who lived in the Canadian town of Mississauga), and who "wanted their children to live with them even after marriage, as is the Bangladeshi custom." The conflict of culture and tradition in a new and alien setting is highlighted here. All the other stories, in greater or lesser degrees, carry this theme within them. In "Vermillion on the Diamonds", the author observes, "Dreams are made with ethereal ingredients." This point is amply illustrated in the opening story where, to get away for a while from the grind of their existence in Toronto, Atif and Rima take a trip to Florence, Italy. There they discover that the Italians consider sculpture to be the highest form of art, and superior to painting.
But they also discover Bangladeshi expatriate Shabuj by happenstance while the young man was engaged in selling water bottles on the streets of Venice. He related another aspect of the Bangladeshi diaspora, that of reaching for the stars in the Middle East and Europe, courtesy of predatory manpower exporters, and then having their dreams shattered on reaching foreign shores. "There are so many boys like me spread all over Mecca, Medina, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Sharzeh, Muscat etc.," Shabuj enlightens them, "whose dreams have been shattered a thousand times, day in and day out." The poignant part of his own story is that he had to take recourse to a fake marriage (by dishing out quite a hefty sum) to a local woman to gain permanent resident status in Italy, while thinking of his betrothed whom he had left behind in Bangladesh with the hope that he would be able to marry her once he had settled down in the alien country.
Chowdhury is introspective on the subject of dreams in "Lazy Afternoon," "…dreams were plentiful in numbers when you are an adult yet not an adult.There was a very thin margin in…visions between imagination and reality." This story contains the author's views and information on the distinctive features of the district of her origin, Chattogram: "The Chittagonians are very proud and passionate about this part of their distinct culture (mejbaan), their language, social rituals and cultural expressions, which are hugely different from other parts of Bangladesh." It is apparent that Rummana Chowdhury pines for her birthplace, but her faintly disguised diasporic alter ego, through the character Aarya, also comes through: "She had immense allegiance to and love for this beautiful country of multiculturalism where various people with different backgrounds and origins have come and transferred it into a vibrant society. This multicultural mosaic of Canada has given this country a new, distinctive identity."
Chowdhury made these observations in the context of Robert Ford, once a reviled Mayor of Toronto, the city of the author's diasporic residence. She brought him back in "The Melody of Youth", and evinced her distaste for him by thus characterizing him: "He had earned quite a lot of negative local and international publicity for his alcoholism, drug abuse and language profanity." That the people had elected him has seemingly galled Chowdhury, as she is obviously smitten with her adopted country. Nonetheless, she is cognizant of the diasporic divides too. In "By the Caribbean Sea: Island in the Molten Sun", she observes: "Then there were the cultural, religious, social and psychological conflicts between the East and the West. The values, traditions and heritage between Bangladesh and Canada were often conflicting."
"The Kohl of Her Eyes" takes the reader through some of the unsavory activities carried out by certain people in Bangladesh, like videotaping pornographic relations between ten and twelve year old boys, and then making money out of exhibiting them. This story centers on Bangladesh and also discusses its microcredit programs like that of Grameen Bank. It also contains this pessimistic observation that is not far off from the truth: "…there was no winning in this game of living." Japan is seen in "Golden Lotus" through the eyes of a Bangladeshi expatriate in that country. He is married to a Japanese woman and they have a son and a daughter. The son looks like him and, in a tangential reference to the matter of race, his father laments: "He cannot adjust with boys of his age here and he does not want to go and live in Bangladesh without the family." He himself "could not release himself from his roots and be blessed with the enlightenment of the miracles of a new country, be it good or bad." And, therein lies the predicament of the diasporic person, the Bangladeshi in particular, but, one suspects, for most other nationalities as well, although some will adjust much better than others.
Rummana Chowdhury takes the reader through a number of countries via the diasporic route, and, obviously, being a keen social observer, makes some astute observations on the societies, customs, traditions, and the life of the diasporic Bangladeshi in these places. She dwells at length on the subject of food, and the interested reader will relish the details given on primarily Bangladeshi food items as well as those of several other countries. The twelve stories portray a vivid picture of diasporic life, although some by employing a greater stretch of imagination than the others. They are eminently readable, and Boulevard of Broken Dreams does manage to convey the overall impression that broken dreams usually result from heightened expectations.
Shahid Alam is thespian and Professor, Department of Media and Communication, IUB.