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Book Reviews

Contemporary writings in English from Bangladesh

LIFELINES
New writing from Bangladesh

Edited by Farah Ghuznavi and published by Zubaan Books

New Delhi: 2012
208 pp Paperback
INR 325

Lifelines is an anthology of writings from a newer generation of Bangladeshi women writers, in their forties or younger. The UK launch was on 03 November, 2012 at the South Asian Literature Festival in London.

Let me start by admitting that I am an absolute sucker for short stories. It may have something to do with my ‘short-span of attention’ or ADHD as some may like to call it. Reading short stories can be both, exciting and challenging. With a 300 page novel, at the end of a few 50 pages, one is likely to establish whether or not it is worth reading to the last word. And with short stories, even if the odd story turns out worse than the previous, there is always a tiny hope that the next one may more than make up. I have read and reread several collections of short stories and coincidentally, one of my favourite collections ‘The Intrusion and Other Stories’ is also by a woman writer: Shashi Deshpande.  To the uninitiated, Shashi Deshpande is an award-winning Indian writer. (Yes – I know that a ‘collection’ is not quite the same as an ‘anthology’. Alan Ryker puts it well when he says: like all squares are parallelograms but not all parallelograms are squares, all anthologies are collections, but not all collections are anthologies.)

I do not necessarily read everything that is out on the shelves, but have not seen popular writings in English from Bangladesh on Indian bookshelves (had not heard of Tahmima Anam, until a friend mentioned). I assume it tricky to edit an anthology, especially one that promises to bring forth the contemporary (and presumably the recent best) from a nation to the rest of the world. With Lifelines, the editor provides the reader with a considerable range of stories from women writers of Bangladesh, and delivers a few charming hits and some misses. ‘Gothna (tattoo) on Venus’, 2007, a woman (thankfully, not a size-zero) covered in beautiful tattoos, by Tayeba Begum Lipi, makes for the eye-catching cover image.  The fifteen stories (including one from the editor) include a mix of characters: some enchanting and amusing, a few standard and generic. Three of the fifteen, have significant male protagonists while the others revolve around women of all ages, their girlfriends and sisters; mothers and mother-in-law; husband and lovers. Starting with the familiar throes of domestic violence, the stories take you to modern Dhaka; the far Kenya and Ethiopia; and sometimes to the proverbial village belle.

Obvious winners:
Of the fifteen, five stood out for me. Ten-year old Zara, in Pepsi (the longest ‘short’ story in this anthology) is both, sensitive and funny.It made me guffaw as I imagined a bunch of seven-to-fourteen year olds wrapping, not a sock, but instead the enticing lingerie (read black and lacy) around an old ball to keep it from ripping apart.  In Getting There, I had to stifle a tear or two when fourteen-year old Yasmin decides that she may even want to be an architect like her aunt Laila; despite Laila having had so little to do with Yasmin in the past (also had me revisiting the architect in me).
Although the theme of sexual abuse in Over and Over Again is familiar, I had to read the story twice, to make sure I got the end (twisted) right. Table for Three, could have well been the standard tussle between a dutiful daughter-in-law and her seemingly monstrous mother-in-law, but is not.
Be, the shortest story, echoes what every woman wants: to just BE!

In-betweens and the losers:
Something feels amiss in Something Fishy, Rida, and The Wax Doll sets a rather confusing tone as Ila, who in the beginning, seems to across as a young adult is actually of marriageable age (between 22 – 25 may be). These and the others: Yellow Cab; Teacher Shortage; Touch Me Not and Gandaria, with the familiar post 9/11, domestic violence, rape and puberty, fall in between.
Mehendi Dreams; Bookends; and Daydreams offer nothing fresh: stereotypical characters in the ‘same old story’, I thought. By virtue of being just a little over two pages, one could read Mehendi Dreams and move on to the next. Bookends was predictable as was Daydreams, but the latter (ambitiously dreamt over 22 pages) was particularly tedious.

The verdict:
Delightful for most part, the stories in the first half of this anthology raise the bar too high for the ones in the second. I definitely look forward to and will watch out for more in angrezi (English) from Bangladeshi writers.

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About Sarita

My 10,000th day on Planet Earth was June 28, 2010

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