Family of feelings: Iffat Nawaz's 'Shurjo's Clan'
As an 'elder millennial', I was born a full decade after the Liberation War, coming of age around the time that a military dictatorship was giving way to a nascent form of democracy. A middle-class girl, attending an English Medium school in a time before the system had figured out its curriculum for Bangladesh studies, I always felt a little rootless in my own homeland. Less 'authentic' for not having witnessed firsthand the horrors of 1971, not quite as jaded as my Gen X cousins who bought into the 'bottomless basket' analogy and fled for fairer shores.
Iffat Nawaz explores those feelings of longing and unbelonging in her debut novel, Shurjo's Clan. Shurjomukhi is the daughter of a freedom fighter who lost both his brothers to the war. She lives in an 'asymmetrical' house in Gendaria with her family, spending her days in the 'Known World' of everyday life, and her nights in the 'Unknown World', where her dead uncles (and maternal grandmother, who drowned) come back to share their stories and reunite with the family. Every night is a repeat of the night before, literal ghosts telling the same stories and singing the same songs. Shurjo's maternal grandparents had fled from Calcutta during the Partition, a fact that earned the girl the racial slur of 'ghoti' from her school bullies.
Part memoir, part magical realism, this is a story about identity and the idea of home. "They had always been united by their unborn journey across the border", she writes, "but now they had developed separate identities. They looked at the blossoming cherry trees with different understandings of beauty, they interpreted the blue jay's spring songs in separate dialects. They stored and melted disappointments in their own ways." Using magical metaphors of ghosts and fireflies, Iffat explores the many ways in which grief and trauma impacted a whole generation, and the generations that followed. Shurjo feels the burden of a family legacy, struggling to understand her role in this narrative. The adults in her life are torn between wanting to shield her from the truth and enlightening her about things like national and familial pride. There is that desperate flight to foreign shores, the subsequent push-pull of homesickness and assimilation. Through it all, those unspoken questions: Who am I? Where is my place?
Despite the way it begins, the book is not another story about the Liberation War; rather, it talks about why we cannot stop talking about it. Halfway through the novel, you realise that this is probably the only way one can tell a story like this, the only way to relate to the complexities of the emotions. The prose is poetic and heavy with the kind of language that makes great Instagram posts. Writing on the emerging generational disparities after relocation, Iffat's narrator reflects, "They had always been united by their unborn journey across the border, but now they had developed separate identities. They looked at the blossoming cherry trees with different understandings of beauty, they interpreted the blue jay's spring songs in separate dialects. They stored and melted disappointments in their own ways."
Is it an entirely new story? Probably not; Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake explored some of these themes more than a decade ago. But is it a completely fresh take on the Bangladeshi diaspora? Absolutely. A wrenching, heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful story about new ways to be Bangladeshi, this is not an easy read, but this reviewer at least, is glad she read it.
Sabrina Fatma Ahmad is a writer, journalist, Deputy Editor of MW magazine, and the founder of Sehri Tales annual creativity challenge.