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|Volume 11 |Issue 45| November 16, 2012 ||
A Hearty Meal for the Soul
Aasha Mehreen Amin
The list of illustrious names on the editorial advisory board, the stylish cover artwork by a renowned artist, the title and the simple but elegant formatting hint that the first edition of Bengal Lights will be anything but dull. Impeccably edited, this 240-page journal will not disappoint the eager audience that has awaited its arrival.
As expected, the prose is definitely more vibrant and engaging than the poetry. The non-fiction pieces especially, have a refreshingly bold, neatly crafted style that immediately grabs the reader's attention and holds it till the end. 'Karl Marx vs Nux Vomica 200', a non-fictional piece by Kaiser Haq is a witty, lucid discussion of the migration of homeopathy from the West to the East. The writer correlates it to a similar shift in perception of what is science and what is non-scientific--a movement that has Orientalist elements. With delightful anecdotes and amusing observations Haq approaches a seemingly heavy subject -the dwindling position of homeopathy in the scientific circles of the West and the rise in its popularity and credibility in the East - with enough wry humour and insightful inferences to keep the reader hooked.
'The Wrong Alfred', another non-fictional work by Khademul Islam (who is also the editor of this journal) is set against the backdrop of Karachi in pre-independence times and reads like a short story. A young Bengali college boy mired by the typical insecurities of youth gets an unexpected opportunity to work for a day at Radio Pakistan. A possibly dismal stint turns out to be surprisingly uplifting when differences in ethnicity, social standing and hierarchy dissolve through a shared love for poetry. Islam's brief blast from the past conjures up a time long forgotten, a fleeting encounter that becomes a life-changing moment.
A journal can never go wrong with fiction especially if it is carefully selected by an exacting editor. The collection of short stories in this journal display novelty, not only in terms of theme and plot but in the punchy, fluid, bold writing styles of most of the writers, some of whom have been perfecting this craft for decades.
Attia Hosain's 'Storm' begins with a scene that could come from any raunchy thriller: on a stormy night an attractive woman in a sari, walks in, soaked to the skin, shaking up the tranquillity of a typical socialite evening. The stranger, whose name remains anonymous throughout the story, becomes the latest subject of endless gossip. The men are fascinated by her and the women find in her a new object of hate and malice. Hosain convincingly portrays the double standards and politics of an outwardly prudish society that constricts any possibility of honest, spontaneous interaction.
'An Evening with Aziz Master' by Syed Manzoorul Islam translated from Bengali by Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman is a macabre tale with love, hate and retribution playing out in an almost horror-film like format. There are continuous allusions to sexual violence, manipulation and revenge. A simple romance between a simple village damsel in love with a village boy is turned into a terrifying nightmare at the hands of a village influential - a rapist who takes what he wants and rarely faces consequences for his diabolical acts. There are no heroes or heroines in this story, only victims and a villain, the latter ultimately paying the price for unleashing the monster within.
'Ramkamal's Gift' is a deliciously mysterious tale of a flamboyant, intellectually stimulating character–Ramkamal, who enters into the lives of a group of young men -thirsting to find the true meaning of life in a brutal, hectic city. The appeal of this character lies in the aura of mystery he is shrouded in, especially when he suddenly disappears without a trace. As with all good story tellers, Ahmed spins quite a fantastic tale that leaves the reader breathless with more questions than he started with. Is Ramkamal a con artist, a genius or a madman - this seems to be the conundrum that the narrator is haunted by but can never quite solve.
'Blood and Tears' by Ahmad Mostafa Kamal, translated from the Bengali by Ahmede Hussain, is an allegorical tale of a journalist who is constantly under threat from state-run agencies for speaking his mind. The brutal suppression of truth by a government that came to power through people's mandate puts a curse on the country: people all over the nation are crying tears of blood wreaking havoc on the controlled media that can no longer withhold the real story.
'Maybe it's Time We Got Back to the Basics of Love' by Neal Durando, is a difficult story to follow. Parallel stories are told in the same breath; it is a state of consciousness where the line between hallucination and reality become blurred - a predictable consequence of post-war trauma. The characters are physically and psychologically scarred; Poppy, a war veteran cannot let go of the flashbacks and his wife -infirm and insane go through the motions of being alive. The central character seems to be a grandson struggling hard to hold on to his own sanity through his profession as a fisherman.
An assortment of poetry embellishes the journal and include Keki Daruwalla's 'Of Forgetfulness', Kaiser Haq's Buriganga Blues', Menka Shivdasani's 'Waiting' and Tabish Khair's 'Two Monologues in very Different Spaces'.
A section on artist Hamiduzzaman's sketches is an interesting idea in terms of providing some eye relief, though the selection of art and quality of printing could have been better.
Bengal Lights with its minimalist look maximises on the quality of writing. It is a wholesome collection that gives a taste of the richness of literary craftsmanship, especially from our part of the world.
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