Book Review: Rashid Askari’s ‘Nineteen Seventy One and Other Stories’
By Bina Biswas
Title: Nineteen Seventy One and Other Stories
Author: Rashid Askari
Publisher: Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2011.
“This was female province. Ambia was full of pity for the cow. Strings of saliva were issuing from its mouth. It was with calf but not exempt from work. Ambia felt closer to the cow.” So writes Askari in his short fiction, ‘The Human Cow’. This is a tremendous attack on the inhuman, brutal injustice committed by the society on Kasem and, through him, on Ambia. He further writes: “The day when the loan officer took away Kasem’s cow at broad daylight, the sky over his head fell apart. They did not give him enough chance before the last straw. They even didn’t count the monga (a lack of food during a period of time in the northern region of Bangladesh, especially in Rangpur) crisis. Now Kasem realised that all these seemingly humanitarian campaigns were all wind. They were virtually crueller than the Borgi (the Maratha cavalry in the 18th century Bengal).”
The absence of joys, success, and optimism that strengthens a sense of extreme negation throughout the story is evidence of Askari’s deep anti-imperialistic standpoint. The reader can locate this story in the tradition of Premchand’s celebrated novel, Godaan. Askari’s dexterity in dealing with the issues of ‘micro credit’ and his stark realism make him one of the forerunners in today’s Bangladeshi writing in English. The artistry and tenderness with which he has created the characters in this story, particularly that of Ambia and Kasem, and his realism make them immortal and representational of the peasantry of his country. The author writes in his own taciturn way:
It was midday. The sun was blazing hot. Kasem and Ambia were still in the field. It had to be ploughed and harrowed by today. It was the turn to harrow. Ambia and the cow were dragging the harrow over the ploughed soil to break up the lumps of earth. Ambia was breathing short pants with a sway of her breasts. The bottom of her sari was lifted to her knees to allow longer footsteps. Its loose end was tightly wrapped around her waist. Her legs were covered in a thick layer of dust. Sweat was running off her body and soaking into the blouse. But she was taking no heed of this. She was pulling the yoke along with her animal pair. She was no longer feeling small. She accepted her place.
One does not find joys of life and accomplishments of men in the stories of Askari. The general mood in his stories is pessimistic, but far from condescending, and almost all his stories lay stress on human sufferings. Mystery of fate has a definitive role to play in his stories.
‘The Poet’ and ‘A Slice of Sky’ are important milestones as he probes the psyche of the victims. These stories explore violence, exploitation, deceit, incompetence, and hypocrisy. It seems the author is fully convinced of the disproportion between political rhetoric and the harsh reality of the suppressed existence. The author’s depiction of ‘loot’ of an unpublished manuscript of the poet in the first story and the waste and futility of Selina’s youth in the second deeply touches our conscience and places Askari firmly with some of the best writers in the world and their craft of story-telling.
‘Crossfire’ is the story of Tapan, the leader of an outlawed group, let off by the police from a fake encounter. He survives but the news of his death is published in the newspapers the next day. Askari writes:
It was a beautiful dawn; the most beautiful daybreak in Tapan’s life. He had been back directly from death’s door. It was a wonderful feeling. He seemed to float on air. Everything seemed new. Everything was alluring. Tapan was striding across the fields. He did not know where he was going. He only knew he had to go far away from here; farther away from his untimely end of life. There was bliss at every step off from it. How lovely the world is! Tapan was getting an eyeful of everything he came across.
As the story celebrates life and rebirth, the ordinary elements in life are imbued with an extraordinary sense of beauty and grandeur. This exuberance is symbolic of a new beginning for Tapan as well as for Bangladesh.
‘Jihad’ bears many of the literary markers that make Askari one of the most important Bangladeshi artists of this century. In this story, the author launches a virulent critique of religious radicals in Bangladesh. The following excerpt provides an example of Askari’s dark humour, which is achieved by delving deep into the incongruence between reality and appearance:
He (Mujahid) wished to devote himself wholeheartedly at the service of Islam. God Himself had sent a man in the person of the leader to guide him. Mujahid felt ashamed of stupidly having entertained some lurking doubt in his subconscious about the leader’s real motive. He should not have suspected one who was avowedly on Allah’s track. A tallish man in early middle age wearing a loose grey robe and having full chin of flowing beard beginning to be flecked with grey, and a turban of brilliant white wound round his head was looking every inch a saint.
His dark humour is also evident in the story, ‘The Longest Jam’, where he dwells on the problem of traffic jams, plaguing most metros of the world, more so a city like Dhaka. When a TV reporter asks a schoolboy about his opinion, the teenager replies sharply: ““Jams are of two kinds,” –– he proclaimed gravely, and then started explaining like a typical college teacher. “Traffic jam and traffic jelly. When the vehicles are completely stuck, it’s traffic jam, and when they’re nose to tail, that’s traffic jelly. Round the year, we’re faced either with jam or with jelly. Jam kills more time than jelly does. So our life in the capital is life with killers. Correction – silent killers.” However, in a typical Askariesque turn, the story suddenly takes on contemporary politics, when Anwar announces: “But we believe from the bottom of our heart … the trial of the war criminals of ’71 won’t be stuck in jam. It takes four decades only to make the attempt. The buck stops here. Down with jam on this.”
His technical skill and sheer ability as a storyteller stem from his reading of, as the author clarifies in the beginning of Nineteen Seventy One and Other Stories, the “first-known Greek story collection––Aesop’s Fables … and the dark and violent stories of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In my university days while I was studying English literature, I discovered a new world of stories. Boccaccio’s bawdy tales of love in Decameron and Chaucer’s ironical stories in The Canterbury Tales opened up whole new vistas for me. Great masters of modern short stories like Maupassant, Chekov, O. Henry, Jack London, Joyce, Kafka, and Hemingway exerted a tremendous influence on me.”
Askari’s reading of the classical, Renaissance, and the modern masters, his use of different literary tools and his use of different themes that are employed in short fiction – love and betrayal, intrigue, unexpected turns of plots, the use of the hunt and chase, danger and violence and, at times, the twist at the tail – make him stand out. His passion for storytelling is undergirded by his search for a secular, humane society in the twenty-first century.
Askari’s story, ‘Co-wife’, depicts a traditional household, where the wife is blamed for her barrenness and inability to procreate, and no one even bothers to find out about the man. His reading of Tagore, Saratchandra, Chekov, et al is evident in his setting of the story. With lyrical prose, the story describes a stormy night, when Bilqis tiptoes across to her husband’s room and eavesdrops on a conversation between her husband and the other woman, the co-wife. The drama is heightened when Bilqis plots and sleeps with Bablu since she knows that she can be impregnated by him and not by her husband. Askari description of their lovemaking almost verges on the erotica: “The room was plunged into complete darkness. Two blind bodies frantically started groping around each other. In less than no time, they found what they were searching for.”
Askari’s characters comprise of ordinary people, instead of the spectacular domain of politics. A brother, a father, a husband, a lover, an outlawed leader, a jihadist, and a prostitute are entangled in mundane life, which becomes the source of drama in his stories. The women in his stories don’t defy norms and don’t go against the social conventions, and yet they emerge strong; stronger than their men counterpart at times.
‘Lottery’ explores the crisis of modern life, driven by greed and money. The protagonist, Mamun, falls prey to an online lottery scheme, in which he raises one lakh Bangladeshi taka by selling his wife’s jewellery with the hope of winning of 900,000 GBP. Despite his defeat, the story ends on a positive note as Mamun buys some clay and wooden jewellery for his wife from a crafts market: “Makeshift shops were arranged along both the sides of the approaches for the sale of a wide variety of handicrafts. He caught sight of some beautiful jewellery––necklaces, rings, bangles made of clay and wood. He bought a full set of ornaments; Kalpana was sure going to love them. Mamun started hurrying along the pavement. He would have to reach home early.”
The story, ‘Virus’, allegorically represents the current political instability in Bangladesh. When the happy-go-lucky Aftab Sahib falls ill and is diagnosed with Liver Metastasis, the author turns a supposedly personal crisis into one facing the country, that of militancy. As Aftab Sahib’s disease is incurable, so is the inability of the Bangladesh government to deal with militancy: “The Militancy Virus! It was deadlier than Hepatitis C. It would eat up all the sublime achievements of our Liberation War. Hepatitis C kills a man, but Militancy Virus would kill a nation. Hepatitis C could be curbed by Interferon, but the Militancy Virus would be uncontrollable. It is like the mythological monster every drop of whose spilled blood breeds its young. Aftab sahib was afraid of this Militancy Virus. His beloved motherland was sicklier than him!!”
However, Askari’s sensitivity lies in the way he expresses his empathy and enormous compassion even for the malevolent figures such as the outlawed leader and the Jihadist. He leaves doors open for the ultimate liberation of his ‘erring’ characters through their defeat. Askari sustains a fine dramatic balance between man’s free will and responsibility on the one hand and the societal forces at work in human affairs, on the other.
The title story in this book, ‘Nineteen Seventy One’ begins with the description of a train, packed with passengers, “crawling like a long centipede”, moving away from Kamalpur Station. The story then narrates with stark language the brutality of occupation and war by Pakistan: “The sex-starved hounds did not want to mortify the flesh for an indefinite spell of time. They deemed that they were at ‘holy war’. So the women of the occupied country could easily be their goods and chattels. Their lustful eyes fell on the women of the bawdy house. The sitting ducks are very easy to hunt.” As we find in the recorded history of 1971, a fatwa in Pakistan declared that the Bengali freedom fighters were ‘Hindus’ and that their women could be taken as the ‘booty of war’. Askari recounts an incident from one of the worst ever genocides in the world. In an attempt to flee, Bashanti boards this train only to get caught in the end by the Pakistani military. As she undertakes the journey, her life is narrated in flashback and the reader learns how she is forced into flesh trade after being ditched by Nibaron. To save herself from the clutches of these leeches, she jumps into the Jamuna River:
The ferry started up with Bashanti hemmed in by the wolves ogling at her with salivating tongues lolling in lust. They were dancing around her. The gap between them was narrowing unhurriedly. Bashanti stepped backwards with faltering steps. Both her arms were pinioned behind her back. She propped herself up against the iron-railing which was only waist high. She gazed into the murky depths of the water. The muddy stream of Jamuna seemed to be calling her…Bashanti bent her body over the railing and threw herself into the water.
In almost all wars driven by ethnic or religious hatred and fear, it is women and girls who are always meted out humiliating treatment – molestation, rape, mutilation, abduction, forcible conversion, marriage, and death – at the hands of men of the rival community. The splurges of violence, abduction and rape, the mutilation and disfigurement of women rip apart the very foundation of societies all over the world. The forced migration of people on foot, by bus, train, and bullock carts left women, children, the aged and infirm, the disabled particularly vulnerable. Askari’s Bashanti represents one of those millions of women, who is a victim of ‘ancestral sin’.
The story that I take up last is the first story of this collection. In ‘The Olive-green Jeep’, the author, while dealing with a terrifying historical event such as the partition, provides a blend of human emotions, sorrows, and hopes. Instead of focusing on the larger historical event, the author focuses on its impact on ordinary human beings, something that we witness in partition literature from other countries as well.
Most of the stories in the collection are set in Bangladesh and deal with the lives of ordinary people, with whom the author claims kinship. Through his omniscient narration and a deep analysis of human behavior, Rashid Askari leaves the reader with a sense of an overwhelming mystery. The discovery of self in the last paragraphs in almost all his stories becomes unswerving with the dramatic logic of his stories. He is also distressed by what he sees as a deep hypocrisy in Bengali social life and in particular those that have resulted from class and economic distinctions. His roots and social position reveal to him that the rigid priggish morality of Bengaliness is a socially enforced construct that has less or almost nothing to do with religion, choice and judgment, but more to do with upbringing, social acceptance, and intergenerational transference of values. His love of humanity and his wish for equality and justice for all become evident in his stories. His stories consistently engage with the political and social questions of his motherland, a welcome departure from the sentimental diasporic stories with living-room propriety. Askari does not create a hypothetical world for his readers; his realism draws a believable panoramic world. As an avowed socialist and nonconformist, his stories decry the iniquities of capitalism and imagines an equitable world. On reaching out to him, he tells the reviewer, “I am not a socialist in the strictest sense of the term. As a matter of fact, I’m no staunch believer of any ‘ism’. I am a free thinker … a free thinking man.” He further adds, “I like to deal with the primordial impulses of the humans and I deal with these impulses in my stories.”
No critique is complete if the style, language, and diction of the author is not discussed. Dr. Rashid Askari adopts both the first and third-person omniscient, contemplative point-of-view, depending upon the story. Each story is told from a past event, situation or a social issue and his acquaintance with it. In an age of aggressive intellectualism in the world and in the subcontinent, Askari has gone back to the older, subtler narrative style of twentieth century storytellers and has established himself as one of the trailblazers on the scene. His stories demonstrate the instability of post-war Bangladesh that has survived the trauma of partitions and is deeply changed by it. Social dynamics in his country is undergoing change, and it seems that the youth no longer feels connected to the past, as the previous generations did. Askari tries to integrate these paradoxes in his stories to articulate an atmosphere of uncertainty, conflict, and hope. Language plays an important role in the post-war literature in Bangladeshi English writing. Askari has used it as a tool to contest the ideological differences between classes and generations in the contemporary society. Like most postcolonial writers, his choice of English makes him at once an insider and an outsider – a member of the social elite, who writes about the subaltern. In Askari, this productive tension reflects the larger fissures in Bangladeshi society, where class prejudice and abuse of the poor by the rich still exists.
In Nineteen Seventy One and Other Stories, Askari’s fictional aesthetic focuses on the exploration of characters, their motive, and psychology. His privileging of psychology over plot, characters’ interiority over external action frees his stories from the generic conventions of popular fiction. In the true modernist vein, the stories bring together psychological realism and physicality.
Nineteen Seventy One and Other Stories is available here.
Dr. Bina Biswas is a former professor, translator, poet, critic, editor, and author of fiction and the CEO of India’s first literary agency of international quality that provides a one-stop publishing service for all the needs of a writer. She is one of the exciting ‘Romantic’ presences in today’s Indian Writing in English. Recently, one of her translated works ‘Meghanādabadha Kābya’, was unveiled by the Honorable President of India, Pranab Mukherjee in Delhi. She has authored 9 books, 4 major translations, and around 20 research papers.
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