Friday, May 14, 2010

Delta Force

This appeared in last week's Mint Lounge


A parlour game that’s sometimes been played is to list the members of the cricket team the subcontinent would have had if it had not been partitioned. When it comes to novels in English, too, the roster would be impressive. Till some years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to include a name from Bangladesh in such a catalogue. That, however, may soon change. Even if you exclude Monica Ali’s 2003 Brick Lane on the grounds that it was based on an expatriate experience, there’s Tahmima Anam’s 2007 The Golden Age, set during the bloody days that led up to Bangladeshi independence; Shazia Omar’s 2009 Like a Diamond in the Sky; and now, asking for inclusion is Mahmud Rahman with Killing the Water, a debut collection of short stories.

Competent and readable, this assortment of twelve tales was written over a period of ten years, and it shows, both in terms of subjects and quality. Half of them are set in Bangladesh, and the rest in locations in America, ranging from Boston to San Francisco’s Bay Area.

The stories set in Rahman’s homeland range from the 1930s to the present-day, and most deal with characters that have left or are about to leave for greener pastures. Haunted by an underprivileged past, they are more than slightly defensive about their actions, leading to sometimes unreasonable behaviour towards siblings and parents. There’s a well-known Philip Larkin poem that starts with the lines, “If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water”; in Rahman’s stories of Bangladesh, the devotions and travails of those who live on the water’s edge emerge time and again.

In the stories set in the US, the author loosens his collar in a manner of speaking: here, there is racism, attempts to integrate and relationships both fraying and coming into being. Most of these characters are loners in large cities, wanting acceptance and love but dragging behind them the weight of a past and of attitudes from a different land.

Again, perhaps because of the period of time over which the stories were composed, there are various devices and modes of narration on display, from the slow-motion present intercut with the past (‘Smoke Signals’) to straight-up front-to-back narration (‘City Shoes in the Village’), to well-observed character studies (the title story).

A story that clearly stands out is the sensitive ‘Before the Monsoons Come’, dealing with the plight of a teenage boy who, along with his mother, takes refuge on a tiny island just as his country is coming into being. Some, such as the dreamlike ‘Runa’s Journey’, concerning a cancer patient’s trip home and the parable-like ‘Kerosene’ are effective, while others are less impressive, such as such as ‘Postcards from a Stranger’, which comes across as a tricked-out travelogue. ‘Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge’, dealing with the incipient relationship between a blues singer and an embittered immigrant, has scope and ambition, yet is let down by trite dialogue and a plot that pivots on coincidence.

Overall, the prose is efficient and unadorned, gently probing characters’ mental states and actions – though, at times, not above slipping into lazy metaphors such as, “the view was stunning, like a photograph”.

So, if there was an English Literary XI from an unpartitioned subcontinent, would Mahmud Rahman be on it? Well, yes, but only as a hard-working replacement all-rounder, not necessarily a match-winning one.

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