You can touch, said she
This much? said he
Not that way, said she
Whatever you say, said he
That’s enough, said she
It’s tough, said he
I can’t, said she
Ok, shan’t, said he
(Just a bit then, said she
As you wish, said he)
Feels too good, said she
Don’t think we should, said he
— Excerpt from ‘From Underneath the Jackfruit Tree’, Sari Reams by Sadaf Saaz
I have such love for books, for all they promise and deliver, that my agonising decisions come down to whether I re-read a favourite or start a new one. The to-read pile predictably never shrinks, only grows.
Reading a great book is like falling in love – I want to spend as much time with the object of my affection as possible. I’ve left parties early to return home to my reading. My favourite places in the world are secondhand bookshops, where finding a half-hidden paperback can result in a transformative experience. What I miss most about living in London are the libraries where I would spend hours browsing, borrowing and chatting to the librarians about what we’d recently read.
Given my rather complicated relationship with Bangladesh – where I’d never been sure about the ground beneath my feet – I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to realise that connecting to the place required devouring its stories – something I otherwise do naturally wherever I am. Perhaps I feared that reading Bangladesh-based narratives would alienate me further, in case I was then able to measure the chasm between my culture and me. Gloriously, this was not the case.
Soon after I moved back to Dhaka last year, I went to the TEDxDhaka talks and fell madly in love with all that Bangladeshis are accomplishing (climbing Everest, starting cycling movements, saving animals). The stories were some of the most inspiring I have ever heard. I then attended Hay Festival Dhaka in November and my immense pride for Bangladeshi writers and thinkers grew hundredfold.
Browsing the book stalls at Hay, I discovered a wealth of local storytellers – those writing in English. This was good news for me because – and let me not be coy about this – my facility for reading Bengali is entirely appalling and I’m grateful to have access to these accounts in English.
How stories are told – in translation, in what context, how the global literary world is shifting – was also discussed at the first Bengal Lights Conclave last weekend. While the writer in me needs distance between these intellectual analyses and the process of sitting down to write, the reader in me was hungry to hear the panelists debate the bigger ideas, as well as be captivated by the readings from writers based in Bangladesh, Britain, India, Hong Kong and others.
A recurring theme from this past week’s Conclave as well as the Hay Festival last year was how books coming from our part of the world can pander or not to the expectations of publishers elsewhere. There was little-disguised disdain from the panel members for any sort of exoticisation of the East.
I too am allergic to this often quaint, manipulative method of writing that relies on sentimentality while offering little new insight into who we are. A book that became a film some years ago was one I couldn’t even read past the first chapter, so filled as it was with lazy clichés and even lazier lapses into Bengali words (perhaps to lend it some flavour of Other-ness) when English ones – and this was a book written in English after all – would do just as well.
Historically, many of our powerful stories in literature, art and music were set in rural landscapes, but to continue to pedal these stories now as being the only ‘authentic’ theme is to discount our dramatically changing, rapidly urbanised world. I’m always eager to read about anyone living anywhere, as long as it feels true.
I didn’t know most of these writers when I started reading their books, but as Dhaka is spectacular this way, I’ve since been fortunate to meet most of them. It is really rather remarkable to buy a book because it looks intriguing and then be able to ask the author questions after finishing it.
I group these Bangladeshi English writers together here for the sake of my convenience, though they are otherwise a wide-ranging bunch. Toni Morrison once said, ‘I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.’ And that’s really what these writers have in common: they’re telling our stories. Without them, rich moments would disappear into the white noise of the world. How moving it is to read tales told from an insider’s perspective. How fascinating to still discover new worlds within my own.
In no particular order, here are the books I’ve read recently and recommend highly. There are still plenty more to open, of course, and I can’t wait to dive into them. The to-read pile continues to grow.
Good Night, Mr Kissinger and Other Stories by K Anis Ahmed (University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2012)
With a patient, skilful look at characters who may seem familiar, Ahmed tells us their stories with sensitive detail so they feel new. My favourite of the nine shorts are about two brothers, and their changing dynamics and dreams as they come of age, with an impeccable scene where a learned great-uncle comes to assess poetry. A beautifully curated collection, all the stories push past the point where a writer of lesser imagination would stop.
Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri (Bloomsbury India, New Delhi/London, 2014)
This memoir is the only non-fiction on the list. I found it heartbreaking and at times devastating – its wry wit notwithstanding – though it’s written with such exquisite prose and deftness that it’s a page turner: growing up in a strict family, moving abroad, finding love, leaving love, seeking herself and the ties that bind. As with all the best writing, it educated me about the human condition.
Sari Reams by Sadaf Saaz (University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013)
The excerpt at the top of this post indicates Saaz’s multi-layered talent, especially when you see where she takes this seemingly simple exchange. She excels in her territory of the political (general, gender and socio-economic), using these 34 poems to explore everything from Rana Plaza to women’s rights. A powerful, moving collection that comes with a CD of Saaz’s reading over music.
The Ocean of Mrs Nagai by Sharbari Z Ahmed (Daily Star Books, Dhaka, 2013)
These short stories appear light with their razor-sharp wit, skipping effortlessly in her stylish prose, but they are grounded in haunting history and political backdrops, the settings ranging from the US, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Japan. Just as you align yourself with each of the protagonists you realise their hold is becoming slippery – and you slide with them. It’s a powerful trick Ahmed pulls off seamlessly, especially in her title story.
The Merman’s Prayer and Other Stories by Syed Manzoorul Islam (Daily Star Books, Dhaka, 2013)
The only contemporary writer skilled enough to translate his own Bengali stories into English. One of my favourites is the daughter- and mother-in-law who set off on a trip to visit the husband/son, each plotting to first get rid of and then save the other. Islam (incidentally my gracious mentor from nearly two decades ago) writes about those not grand enough to make headlines, nor those so downtrodden as to be highlighted for other purposes, but the often overlooked segments of our society.
The Devil’s Thumbprint by Ahsan Akbar (Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka, 2013)
Akbar’s incisive wit finds a perfect home in this collection of 34 lively and well-honed poems, which are at times dark, often delightful, and always impeccable. Those about work should be read on the way to the office. Those about longing and desire should be read as the sun dips down and the shadows grow tall. And the irreverent ones – like the one excerpted below – should be read over and again at every opportunity.
Like a Diamond in the Sky by Shazia Omar (Zubaan & Penguin, New Delhi, 2009)
From the tense and exciting opening chapter of a mugging through a maze of Dhaka’s underbelly of drug lords, arms smugglers, dancing girls and corrupt detectives to the slums on the city’s outskirts, Omar writes with unrelenting speed and lyrical prose about love, desire and redemption. It’s an astonishing, impressive ride with no false or forced note.
Voices by Munize Manzur (Bengal Publications, Dhaka, 2013)
These 27 stories range in length, style and setting, displaying Manzur’s fine grasp of storytelling. In one favourite, a young woman wishes men came with instructions, the way one could learn to wear a sari via Google. She excels in stories of the everyday, of longing and hope, wound around a centre of expectations, both internal and external.
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam (John Murray, London, 2007)
The most internationally recognised and applauded on this list (this title won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book), and justifiably so. From the mesmerising first line, Anam – on the lists of Granta and the Guardian of best young writers – draws you into a story about a family during Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971. The Good Muslim (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2011) follows this novel, with the third in the trilogy expected soon.
Bengal Lights edited by Khademul Islam (Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka, 2012–current)
This biannual literary journal was birthed in Bangladesh but embraces writing in all forms as well as art from around the world. Despite its wide scope and range it feels uniquely cohesive as an anthology. Reading these journals introduced me to many of the writers I subsequently went on to read on this list.
[Links to local Amazon sites are provided where available for international readers. In Dhaka, all titles can be purchased from The Bookworm.]
I hail from zamindar family.
Very honorable and nicely.
Trust me, my friends are also.
Why you make no friendship with me?
I belongs to A1 elites of Dhaka city!
I celebrating Valentines, also Halloween,
Of course New Years Party,
so nice the countdown to midnight,
“Taquila in Sonargaon pool
and many sexy ladies in eyesight!”
Thank you please the PM and past leaders,
Who built many monuments, roads and flyovers,
And named them after their father, husband, lover
We are today golden Bengal and also sober!
And I busy establishing textile spinning,
dyeing, also printing
With my CIP passport, I always business class flying!
I participating in show tenders
for Boeings and F28 planes,
Constantly giving speed money
for contracts – DC10s, AK47s,
Don’t be thundered to hear MiG29s, frigates,
But first I must make please the minister
with various baits
— Excerpt from ‘A1 Elites’, The Devil’s Thumbprint by Ahsan Akbar