Of human nature and a dose of the supernatural | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 15, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 15, 2016

Of human nature and a dose of the supernatural

Author: Nasreen Jahan

A Temporary Sojourn and Other Stories, Nasreen Jahan, University Press Limited. Nasreen Jahan asserts, rather grandly, in her Foreword, “In A Temporary Sojourn and Other Stories, readers will find that my flair as a storyteller and strength as a writer reside primarily in the imaginative recreation of the borderland between the margins of the known and the preternatural world.” Well, the readers will have to judge for themselves the quality of the stories she tells, but there are elements in some of them that support her claim of exploring the overlap between the real and the supernatural worlds. But there are other elements. A Temporary Sojourn and Other Stories is a collection of fifteen stories, originally written in Bangla by Nasreen Jahan, translated into English by eleven translators, and edited by one of them, Niaz Zaman.

The translations themselves, as might be reasonably expected when considering that they have come from a diverse group, have been a mixed bag, ranging from the very good to the insipid, with a few puzzling words, phrases, and sentences encountered in some of them.  For instance, to someone unfamiliar with Bengali expressions, this might be perplexing, and even some Bengalis might have to ponder a bit before getting it:  “Who would hold the umbrella above the heads of her daughters?  Didn't she have to marry them off?” (“My Birth”)  The stories themselves, for the most part, should hold the reader's attention.  Almost all are set in rural or semi-urban Bangladesh, and they are usually about the poor, the distressed, and the oppressed and oppressors.  They include men and women, young girls and boys, and, more often than not, display deformities of the physical self and/or the mind.  Disturbing vignettes, often laced with symbolism, portray raw human emotions that are all too real as are the contexts and places they play out in.

“Manhood” is a story, like some others in the book, about the dregs of humanity, but, nonetheless, about human beings and their foibles, sensibilities and cruelties towards one another.  It also includes an example of the myths and symbols pertaining to the Bangladeshi culture and traditions that the author often weaves into her stories:  in this case a kite (the bird).  She also uses the vulture in other stories, as will be shortly recounted.  Bulu is a deformed young man who is the scorn of his family members, including his half-sister Shelly (being usually ignored, he cries out, “Am I a human being or a dog?”), while his mother is torn with anguish that she had given birth to a cripple and yet could not suppress her instinctive maternal love for him. Matters come to a head when, one night, to prove his manhood, he raped his half-sister.

The physical deformity theme, often accompanied by psychological scars, continues in “A Sigh in Moonlit Mist”.  An old man declares, “I was born ugly and deformed.”  He deliberately assumed a clownish and self-debasing persona in an effort to lessen other peoples' scornful attention.  By a quirk of fate he got married to a beautiful woman who loathed him, but was drawn to his money and stayed with him.  He even managed to get her pregnant, but their offspring was also formed deformed.  However, which is also a testament to a mother's unequivocal love for her child, he once “watched the wife who had rejected my body in disgust nurse my son in her lap with deep maternal love, oblivious to his ugliness.”  This story has an element of the supernatural in it, and contains this piece of observation (delivered by the old man) that may, or may not, be agreed upon by all:  “…in the presence of his wife and friends, a man pretends to be a saint.”    The motif of a mother's undying love for her child can also be found in “My Birth” where the narrator begins by informing us that, “Immediately after the birth of my fourth sister, my father picked up the new born and flung her into the dark courtyard and disappeared.”  He was a habitual drifter, an occasional jailbird on charges of embezzlement, and who did not want any more children after the first issue.  He beat up his wife terribly on being informed by her that she was pregnant with their third child, an act that contributed to her premature birth and death.  Her mother did all she could to save her fourth child (incidentally all were girls), which the narrator attributes to her mother's steely resolve:  “…behind my mother's quiet façade, lay hidden a terribly obstinate animal instinct, a brazen will power.  My father believed that her attempt to save a child, who was an eye-sore for him, was an act of extreme audacity.”  And, yet, this same man helped with the household expenses and worried about the marriages of his daughters.  Perhaps they were all victims of the world they lived in, which, to the narrator, was one “where birth brings no joy, where death awakens no sorrow.”  Ironically, she became the fifth child, born out of lovemaking when her father returned after having disappeared for seven months.

“Envy” also focuses on a mother's enduring love for her offspring.  The author portrays this aspect thus:  “…where their children are concerned, women are like tigresses.”  And adds another perspective relating to women:  “…like other women in the world, his wife too wanted to see him behave like a man.”  The story of “Envy” revolves around a mother who has been impregnated by her husband some time before his death, and their daughter, Hiru, who was also pregnant at the same time, but her husband, Chand, was very much in the world of the living.  This situation eventually comes to a climax with the mother crying out in anguish, “You have a husband by your side.  But what is going to happen to me, Hiru?”

“The Flute Player” is a tale of Bangladesh's liberation war, and contains an interesting twist.  “A Temporary Sojourn” is a story where the superstition associated with the vulture in this part of the world is featured.  The story, though, revolves around a fleeing murderer, Kader Ali, who has killed his son because he thought that his wife, who was a Hindu but had converted to Islam upon marriage, had not shed her original religion's rituals and was influencing their son towards Hinduism.  While he was fleeing from the crime scene, he encountered an enormous vulture chasing him.  The superstitious link may be figured out from Ali's thought process:  “…has the vulture begun to take me for a walking corpse?” “Vultures” also deals with the bird and its superstitious connotation.  Here, too, the association is with a criminal, a cattle rustler, Kutubuddi, and his helplessness before the concerted attack on him by a flock of the big birds.  The symbolism of nature's scavengers, who clean up dead cattle's corpses, venting their wrath on the rustler, would likely fascinate the reader.  It is a good story.

“Different” is a story about a woman with deformed legs and a licentious young daughter who tells her lover that, “Mother is jealous of me.”  This is a thoughtful story that contains these interesting viewpoints on female writers:  “The few female writers that I know here are pretty conservative.  Their writings are pretty restricted.  They describe tyrannical mothers-in-law, adulterous husbands, unfilial children --- these are issues that matter to them…. The other day, a writer friend of mine said to me she had written a story about a woman's adultery.  Before sending it for publication, she gave it to her husband to read --- and the husband was furious.  Since then, the husband has suspected his wife of the same immorality.”

“The Evening Mask” and “The Black Cat” are liberally laced with the supernatural and superstition, although it might be a stretch of imagination to validate the author's claim that, “in “The Black Cat,” readers will easily see Edgar Allan Poe's influence.”  The opening story, “Girl Becomes Woman” is about a young prostitute, a daughter of one, who has long been used to the life they have been leading.  When she is thirteen, she first menstruates, and thus becomes a woman.  Technically, yes, but that mere technicality does not tell the story of how she was transformed into one long ago, when she did not experience much of a childhood.  A poignant story, one that is in sync with the quite good quality of several of the stories making up A Temporary Sojourn and Other Stories. Those who have not read them in the Bangla, and even those who have, will, I suspect, agree that it would not be a waste of one's time to go through them.   

The reviewer is an Actor and Professor and Head, Media and Communication Department, IUB.

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