‘In the perpetual tug of loss and renewal reside a million stories’ – Book of Dhaka ed by Akhteruzzaman Elias and Anwara Syed Haq

bodDespite what politicians the other side of the Atlantic may imagine these days, the fact is that climate change is a reality we are going to have to deal with sooner or later. In this collection of short stories based on particular cities, published by Comma Press, there is a new addition to the urban family, which showcases what can happen when the water levels rise – and it’s not always pretty. The city of Dhaka, situated on the Ganga delta (the Ganges to us) is an environment constantly threatened by flooding. The city is described as a vibrant canvas of water and rice fields – green and silver with the concrete of the city as a backdrop. But it’s the delta with its network of rivers that defines the place; as one author Anwar Syed Haq writes, ‘who could tell the mysteries that lay on the opposite bank’.

In his introduction to the collection, K. Anis Ahmed, a Bangladeshi writer and publisher of the Dhaka Tribune, writes about the ‘vagaries of massive rivers’, and that ‘in the perpetual tug of loss and renewal reside a million stories’. This sense of loss and the search for something else is the quiet hum to the background of this collection. But only occasionally does the search end in something real. Mostly the outcome is in itself a trap, as the delta is a trap. Bangladesh’s biggest problem is flooding, and particularly in the delta regions, where the Padma river’s ‘crumbling banks’ threaten to sweep away all hopes of love and life.

A report by the US National Institute of Health says that living in a flood zone has profound effects on the mental health of the individual, bringing on depression, anxiety disorders and even substance abuse. The flooding brings poverty too, since there is no escape from the economic consequences of crops that are ruined and land that plummets in value. Such dangers, reports say, can often be alleviated by family and close friends, but the fact is that in these stories it is the relationships that suffer, whether from the trauma of natural calamity or the trauma of man-made ones. Which brings me to the other invasive element of Bangladesh’s past: the partition of India in 1947. The event ushered in years of turmoil as Dhaka became part of Pakistan, and eventually, after much loss of life, it became the capital of Bangladesh, fighting tooth, nail and fist to keep its language and identity. The fact that all this was preceded by a cyclone, and severe flood in 1970, when millions were made homeless, did not help. For the inhabitants of Dhaka the trauma of those years has never gone away. It has traced itself into the lives of the people like the pattern of the delta on the land.

In the first story of the collection, ‘The Raincoat’ by Akhterruzaman Elias, we see that it takes only an item of clothing, a raincoat, to spark off a memory. Traumatised, and yet bound to put on the ‘coat of memory’ because the weather drives him to it, the man goes out into the city expecting a reaction that in the end he does not get, because it’s mostly in his head.

As in many of the troubled cities of this collection, crime is omnipresent. Here it stalks the collection as a direct outcome of poverty. In the second story, ‘The Weapon’ by Syed Manzoorul Islam, for the protagonist, a young boy, poverty means no more school and no more school means no more pride. The only way he can salvage any after that, is by threading into the corrupt weave of violence that runs through the city. In the end, fate intervenes to throw the boy a line, but we don’t know if he takes it. Still, the message could not be clearer. Education is the path that leads away from crime; only the delta town of Dhaka will not always let you take it.

Other things can be taken by Dhaka too; family solidarity falls victim to the city’s intransigence. In ‘Mother’, the protagonist is once again a boy, a child from the slums who lives off the smallest measure of maternal affection. But still his attachment to his mother transcends the misery of the rest of his existence. When she is removed from his life, his reaction is reflected by the weather: ‘it rained torrentially all over the city for a week’. In Dhaka, if you manage to survive childhood reasonably intact, it doesn’t mean you’re saved. Romantic relationships are also put through their paces by the harsh conditions of life. In ‘The Circle’ by Moinul Ashan Saber, a couple tries to escape the humdrum of routine on their day off by taking a ride on a motorcycle. But the route they end up following only serves to deepen the chasm.

The most optimistic of the stories is perhaps ‘The Princess and the Father’, which again addresses the threat to relationships created by Dhaka’s past, except that in this story parental relationships cross paths with romantic ones; hope is offered as the metaphor of the delta goes to work behind the scenes and dregs up something unexpected. What is lost, may be yet reclaimed. In the brackish waters of the ‘dead river’ of Buriganga, love can still be found; resurrection is possible if, as the floodwaters recede, you search hard enough for what is left upon the banks, and somehow make it work.

Any Cop?: No shortage of talent in this short story collection. It should be read as a tribute to writers who do not always have the freedoms that we take for granted

Lucille Turner


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