FRAGMENTS OF RIVERSONG by Farah Ghuznavi. 2013. Daily Star Books. 140 pages. $10.
Bangladesh is well known for a riverine topography. Given this significance of rivers to the life of its people, the title of Farah Ghuznavi’s collection of short stories, Fragments of Riversong, seems ideal.  It creates an instant visual impression in the mind of the reader.

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The stories echo the simplicity of fellow Bangladeshi writer Mahmud Rahman’s style in his own collection, Killing the Water (2010) to some extent, but the writer’s emphatic feminist voice is audible from the beginning.

Ghuznavi’s characters are predominantly women struggling to cope with their world at various stages of their lives—childhood, adolescence, womanhood, and widowhood.

Relationships within the family, patriarchy and prejudices, encounters with sexual predators, oppression, violence, cruelty and malice, poverty and discrimination—familiar issues in all South Asian countries—play a crucial role in the plots.  Stories such as “Getting There,” “Big Mother,”Just One of the Gang,” “Escaping the Mirror” and “Waiting for the Storm” make the heaviest impact for different reasons.

“Getting There,” the first story, throws Laila and her two young nieces, Aliya and Yasmin (her sister’s daughters) together during a journey from Chittagong to Dhaka by car after her sister’s accident. On the way, Laila remembers random episodes from her childhood: the difference in personality between her sister and herself—the former as docile as the latter was rebellious; their father’s draconian laws and his expectations of his daughters; his conviction that girls, whatever their age, should not travel the dangerously seductive route of making their own decisions.

Now, years later, driving back home with the girls who are practically strangers to her, Laila makes a significant—and pleasant—discovery that might alter the course of her life yet again.

“Big Mother” might have done well as a full-length novel, given its scope and the range of issues it raises through a family saga—from the spitefulness of a domineering, childless woman, to a child’s exposure to sexual abuse and guilt, to the status of minorities in the country, to a secret marriage with someone from a different religion with an alien lifestyle, to coping with unexpected widowhood in secret, to hopes of liberation in a foreign land. The longer form would have provided the author greater space for manoeuvre.

At least two of the stories delve deep into the psyche of schoolgirls and the years that shape their later lives. Both “Just One of the Gang” and “The Silver Lining” might be altered versions of incidents from Ghuznavi’s own schooldays. The voice is too personal and potent—jelling well with her little anecdotes and experiences on Facebook—to suggest otherwise, even though the stories themselves establish their universality through their themes and character prototypes. Ideas of class consciousness are sometimes juxtaposed against instances of friendship across race and religion. The innocence and lack of affectation in the narrative endear the narrator to the reader.

“Escaping the Mirror” relates the story of the seven-year-old Dia from an affluent family, who falls victim to the unwelcome advances of Minhas, her parents’ trusted chauffeur, suffering the indignity quietly over several years. As in case of most families, her parents fail to detect the sinister happenings under their own roof:

“Gradually, her behaviour began to change […] She was more reserved with others around her as well, only ever relaxing in the company of her parents and close friends. The changes were so incremental that nobody noticed; the warning signs were missed by the adults around her.”

Many years later at home, instigated by a “chance remark” by her father about the “crazy” Westerners, she blurts out the truth about her life and the reality of their own country. This story also resonates with another significant story, “Two Four Six Eight” from the Indian author Lavanya Sankaran’s collection, The Red Carpet (2007), which unveils another ugly facet of child sexual abuse—that it is not only men who are always the culprits.

“Waiting for the Storm”—the account of a beleaguered wife reaching her saturation point in the company of her overbearing spouse—carries shades of Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. The reader craves for more.

The most surprising package is perhaps “The Assessment”—a futuristic sci-fi tale centred on the world of “artificial intelligents” or ‘AIs’ who come with a catch—an underlying possibility for evolutionary adaptation that was not foreseen in the original design. Pammie, the “humanoid robot” Jai buys against his wife’s wishes, apparently to assist her with childcare, eventually succeeds in turning her redundant in more ways than one. The dystopian view rings even more ominous considering possible scenarios in Time Future.

Perhaps the weakest link in this concatenation of tales is “The Mosquito Net Confessions”—a rather lengthy chronicle of a diffident Diya heading for a field trip “a month into her new job at the Grameen Bank” with three Francophone Africans and a Bangladeshi-American for company, and her experiences that mould her into a different woman capable of weathering all storms. This story fails to capture the reader’s interest as much as the others.

As an experienced development worker and social activist, Ghuznavi has been keenly involved in politics and social work, especially adult women’s right to education—operating in tandem with the British NGO Christian Aid, Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, and the United Nations. As she reveals on her website, her fiction was inspired by the various people she came across in the process—people ill-equipped to tell their own stories. Through this collection, therefore, she paints a vivid picture of present-day Bangladeshis and their most pressing concerns.

Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal.

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