A parlour game that’s sometimes been played is to list the members of the cricket team the subcontinent would have had if there hadn’t been any Partition. When it comes to novels in English too, the roster would be impressive. Till some years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to include a name from Bangladesh in such a catalogue. That, however, may soon change.
Even if you exclude Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) on the grounds that it was based on an expatriate experience, there’s Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age (2007), set during the bloody days that led up to Bangladesh’s independence; Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky (2009); and now, asking for inclusion is Mahmud Rahman with Killing the Water , a debut collection of short stories.
Riverside: Many of Rahman’s characters live in modern Bangladesh. Munir uz Zaman/AFP
Competent and readable, this assortment of 12 tales was written over a period of 10 years, and it shows, both in terms of subjects and quality. Half of them are set in Bangladesh, and the rest in locations in America, ranging from Boston to San Francisco’s Bay Area.
The stories set in Rahman’s homeland range from the 1930s to the present day, and most deal with characters who have left or are about to leave for greener pastures. Haunted by an underprivileged past, they are more than slightly defensive about their actions, leading to sometimes unreasonable behaviour towards siblings and parents. There’s a well-known Philip Larkin poem that starts with the lines, “If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water”; in Rahman’s stories of Bangladesh, the devotion and travails of those who live on the water’s edge emerge time and again.
In the stories set in the US, the author loosens his collar, in a manner of speaking: Here, there is racism, attempts to integrate and relationships both fraying and coming into being. Most of these characters are loners in large cities, wanting acceptance and love but dragging behind them the weight of a past and of attitudes from a different land.
Again, perhaps because of the period of time over which the stories were composed, there are various devices and modes of narration on display, from the slow-motion present intercut with the past (Smoke Signals) to straight-up front-to-back narration (City Shoes in the Village), to well-observed character studies (the title story).
Killing the Water: Penguin India, 201 pages, Rs250
A story that clearly stands out is the sensitive Before the Monsoons Come, dealing with the plight of a teenage boy who, along with his mother, takes refuge on a tiny island just as his country is coming into being. Some, such as the dreamlike Runa’s Journey, concerning a cancer patient’s trip home and the parable-like Kerosene, are effective, while others are less impressive. Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge, dealing with the incipient relationship between a blues singer and an embittered immigrant, is let down by trite dialogue and a plot that pivots on coincidence.
Overall, the prose is efficient and unadorned, gently probing the mental states and actions of characters—though, at times, not above slipping into lazy metaphors such as “the view was stunning, like a photograph”.
So, if there was an English Literary XI from an unpartitioned subcontinent, would Rahman be in it? Well, yes, but only as a hard-working replacement all-rounder, not necessarily a match-winning one.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org