Postcards from the Soul
For over three decades, Indian writers have been at the forefront of English literature, and in the past decade a new crop of young Pakistani writers has attracted critical acclaim and attention.
Now, finally, it seems as though a new generation of Bangladeshi writers is beginning to emerge, and Mahmud Rahman's debut collection of short stories, Killing the Water (Penguin India), strongly suggests that he is a talent worth keeping an eye on.
The voice that emerges from this collection is a quiet yet arresting and thought-provoking one. Rahman's writing style is spare and elegant, and his calm, understated approach fits well with his poignant, bittersweet stories that will stay with you a long time after you finish reading them.
It is this note struck by the stories that holds the reader's attention and lends the volume its force. It is rare for a debut author's voice to be so assured and for him to be able to establish such a consistent and complex mood and tone, but Rahman, who has in fact been writing for decades, shows a surprisingly deft narrative touch and the atmospheric unity of his writing is no less noteworthy.
The stories seem to be arranged in more or less chronological order, and this unusual organisational choice makes for an interesting reading experience as we travel with the author from Bangladesh in British times to San Francisco in the first decade of the 21st century.
The first five stories take place in Bangladesh, the last one (chronologically) set in the early seventies. Rahman does an excellent job of evoking the tensions that complicate his characters' emotional lives and of compellingly depicting the moments in time where each story is located.
Each Bangladeshi story reminded me of a postcard, the brief (but complete) unsettling vignettes of the time and place evoked as crucial to the narrative as the complexities of his characters' rich and troubled emotional lives that are laid bare on the page.
These are stories of loss and dislocation, about the resentments and tensions that are unleashed when a man returns to the village that he had fled as a child, of the frustrations of a petty bureaucrat in the disillusionment of post-independence Bangladesh, of the unwitting decimation of the environment caused by the simple act of living.
There are two fine stories set in 1971. "Before the Monsoons Come" focuses on the frustrations of a teenage boy who longs to break free from his mother's apron strings, with the story's power lying in the author's foregrounding of the psychological study of the boy and his complex, contradictory relationship with his mother against a muted, barely sketched-out backdrop of the war.
"Kerosene" is a brutal and unforgiving tale of atrocity that is striking in its raw honesty, lack of sentimentality, and in its disturbing depiction of the ugliness of how the war that we consider our proudest moment corroded and corrupted all who fought it, even those we typically consider heroes.
As Rahman moves ahead in time, the locus of the stories switches to the United States (perhaps mirroring the perambulations of the author's own chronology). While the characters here have more agency and vitality than before, and are not as trapped or as despairing as those who inhabit the earlier stories, the tone of the American stories remains disquieting, with the author returning time and again to the themes of dislocation and displacement.
I found the American stories superb, both in their sharply drawn characters and in Rahman's moody atmospherics. But most rewarding was the fact that the sub-continental experience he writes about is so very different from any that I have read elsewhere.
Notably, Rahman's characters reside at the margins of American society, as community activists or itinerant students, when they have a job at all, nary a doctor or engineer among the lot of them, and their America is the America of minorities and the underclass. The hard-hitting "Orange Line" is a perfect distillation of Rahman's point about where brown-skinned immigrants belong in America.
Rahman's American characters (as deftly and believably sketched as all the others) are mostly African-American, or, in one memorable instance ("Yuralda"), Dominican, and his depictions of sub-continental immigrants navigating this world are fresh and captivating.
"Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge," is the story of a displaced Bangladeshi army officer battling his demons in early 1980s Detroit, told through the watchful eyes of a blues singer he befriends. As always in this volume, the past, both spoken and unspoken, is as real as the present in the lives of the characters, and the world-weary, unsentimental conclusion packs a surprising emotional punch.
Killing the Water is a remarkable debut. Few writers can pack such emotional complexity and such full and complete evocations of both character and place into such short narratives.
Rahman's writing is cool and understated, yet there is an emotional and narrative depth to it that quietly compels the reader's attention and makes for a rich and worthwhile reading experience.
Rahman is a writer of genuine eloquence and originality, and there is no question in my mind that this collection of stories heralds the arrival of a major new talent on the literary stage, someone whose name can be mentioned in the same breath as the more celebrated writers from the sub-continent.
Zafar Sobhan is Editor, Editorial & Op-Ed, The Daily Star.
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