I visited Dhaka by accident. Twice. Back in the days when there were no affordable direct flights from London to Kathmandu I travelled with Bangladesh Biman via Dhaka. On the way out the first time, I don’t even remember changing planes at the airport. On the way back, after a month in Nepal and three and a bit in India, it occurred to me I could visit some Bangladeshi friends I’d made on a work camp in Gujarat and fly home via Dhaka.
I moved on to Dhaka by bus and ferry with the manager of the NGO supporting the village and his family. Although generous hosts, I felt uncomfortable in a middle-class household with young boys as servants, in an affluent area with more 4x4’s from foreign NGOs on the roads than rickshaws, although I awarded myself some street cred for staying with a local family. (Yeah, my 20s were rife with that smugness or snobbery, and I can’t be sure it’s been completely eradicated from my character.) Despite the threat of damage to his reputation by our being let loose unchaperoned, my host recruited his younger brother to show me around the capital.
I’d just reached my teens when East Pakistan became Bangladesh, so at least I’d heard of the independence war. But I hadn’t known about the campaign against the imposition of Urdu as the national language (in a part of the world where everyone spoke Bangla) that preceded independence by twenty years. The assassination of six students in a 1952 demonstration is commemorated on 21 February every year on what is now known as International Mother Language Day. Being in the capital on the actual anniversary, and visiting the Ekushey Book Fair, I saw how fundamental this is to the national identity (although there’s a note of cynicism in an entry in my diary about how ramping up the outrage at external repression served as a distraction from the atrocities of the contemporary dictatorship).
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I can’t listen to the commemorative song without getting teary. (Do persevere beyond the traffic noise at the beginning – it’s an excellent modern recording, far superior to the cassette tape I bought in the country all those years ago.)
What’s that? Did you say you don’t visit my blog for my memoirs? Not even if, with references to wheeled transport, I can blame Irene Waters’ nobbling about times past? Then let’s move on quickly; I wanted to give you a taste of the nostalgia from which I approached this short story collection, but I seem to have got lost in nostalgia for my travelling youth.
Of the ten stories, two feature the liberation war, one is set against the backdrop of the book fair and a few address the challenges of subsistence living, but the predominant theme is the universal one of relationship tension. My favourite, “The Weapon” by Syed Manzoorul Islam and translated by Arunava Sinha, was about the battle between good and evil in a character named after a foodstuff he’d never tasted (although I quibbled with the translation of Ponir as cottage cheese, when it’s more like feta). I loved the voice, with a playfully meddling anonymous narrator, a post-modern touch which, in less skilled hands, I might have found irritating. It also had a surprising, but perfectly foreshadowed, ambiguous ending. I also enjoyed “Helal Was on His Way to Meet Reshma” by Anwara Syed Haq and translated by Marzia Rahman about a man crossing the city for a rendezvous with a woman he considers his lover, although there are hints he’s really her stalker.