Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Stories of "Killing the Water"

Killing the Water is a collection of twelve short stories by Mahmud Rahman published by Penguin Books. The author is a native of Bangladesh who has lived in the United States since the early 1970s. He has the rare quality of being versatile in both English and Bangla literature, having translated the stories of the late Mahmudul Huq into English and written a pioneering analysis of the transplant fiction of Kazi Anwar Hossein (of Masud Rana fame.)

The stories cover a lot of ground. They deal with themes ranging from the 1971 War of Liberation to racial violence experienced by a fresh immigrant in the United States. In between, we sample generous helpings of relationships and symbolism, unexpected multi-racial bondings, intimate details of Bangladeshi culture and affectionate remembrances of the way things were in that land in mid-20th century. And as you might expect, lots of water - ponds, rivers, rain, storms and cyclones.

Two things stand out about the collection. First is the depiction of details of rural Bangladesh in the mid-20th century. An example is the Tabij that Altaf, the protagonist of City Shoes in the Village, receives from his mother, and how he reacts to it. Some descriptions are almost photographic: eg, the way Moni scoops up the coconut flesh after drinking his Daab (Before the Monsoons Come), and the subtly class-conscious interaction between Reza the insurgent and the mango-seller (The Interrogation.)

The second is treatment of the migrant's experience of not quite belonging. In your heart of hearts, you don't really belong there because you are the perpetual newcomer. And since you have left home, you don't quite belong here, either. So you take refuge with other migrants of similar experiences (Yuralda, Neela) or people at the fringe (Carlotta.) This neurosis travels backward in time to afflict Moni (who should be a freedom fighter but cannot), and Altaf (who by throwing away the Tabij makes a valiant attempt to cut all ties to his own roots.)

Going back and forth through time is a common occurrence in these stories, as memories of the motherland dominate the psyche of many characters.

The writing style is varied and rich. There is epistolary narration, surreal rationalization of evil, bluesy loneliness and longing, and good old fast-moving storytelling.

The stories have momentum and keep the reader going. They are worth reading for their humane and insightful portrayal of people caught between worlds. The book was recently long-listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize. So go get yourself a copy and give it a whirl!


Sven C said...

Sounds good. But I can´t find it. Any suggestions? (I live in Sweden and Belgium.)

Wazi Chowdhury said...

I was told of this book and the author by Bashar- yesterday- and I was even more surprised that he apparently was here at Mills College- just a stone's throw from where I live.
I will try to get this book if available here- since it comes with high commendations from him too. Otherwise- I will have to wait a month to pick it up from Dhaka.

ulysses said...

Hi Sven, Have you tried the Penguin India website? Or, do you know anyone in Bd who might be able to get it for you here (from Jatra in Banani, eg)? The place with most availability at this point seems to be India.

Hi Saud, Yes, it is a funny story about him studying in Mills (an all-women's college). Apparently he had a staff job there and made good use of job perks. I got mine from Jatra in Dhaka, but I had to book a copy ahead and they called me when they got it.

Priya Shankar said...

Ihtisham. I just stumbled on your blog and loved the pictures you have up here. I've been living in India for the past year and it's amazing the beauty I've been able to capture on camera--even though I am just a novice. I'll definitely check out the book you mentioned. Also if you ever feel like, feel freeto check out my blog

ulysses said...

Hi Priya, Thanks very much. I will certainly visit your blog.

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