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!

Friday, May 07, 2010

Mother's Day Tribute

Today is Mother's Day: a day to celebrate and honor all mothers, often the unsung heroes of the day.

Here are some photos of mothers in Bangladesh.

I remember my mother on this day. She left us way too soon.

Conversation before school.

Spiffying up the school uniform.

At the bus stand before Eid.

A helping hand or two.

At the Boi Mela (book fair.)

An unexpected storm.

The favorite bottle.

Quick snack before hitting the Boi Mela (book fair).

Helping down the stairs in Lalbagh.

Serving up the drinking water in small gulps.

Why doesn't this train move?

We are off!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Bicycling in Cambodia

In March I went on a trip I had wanted to do for a long time - a 7-day, 360km, bicycle ride from Bangkok to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Here are my impressions of Cambodia published in the Daily Star.