Conflicting ideals

Conflicting ideals

Lead review

Conflicting ideals

Chitrita Banerji's 'Mirror City' is a tale of corrupt love in the time of political upheavals in Bangladesh. Prema Nandakumar reviews the book centered around the life of a woman caught between love & identity...

Among the several permutations and combinations tried by Indian novelists in English to record Hindu-Muslim marriages, Mirror City scores by its controlled intellectuality, avoiding emotional embarrassments for the two communities.

The ingredients of contemporary fiction are used judiciously as we desperately try to sympathise with Uma who had married Iqbal in America and is now living in tension-ridden East Bengal. Love marriages are always a gamble for you do not even have the comfort of blaming somebody else (your parents, for instance) when things go sour. The blame game is just a flip away.

“Have you any idea what it’s like to be weighed down by obligation? To know every waking minute that you’re living with someone who gave up her family, gave up the option of a good life in America for a husband who can’t even provide her with a roof over her head? Can you imagine how impotent it makes me feel? It’s absolutely stifling.”

Though Iqbal allows her to remain a Hindu, things do get sour gradually. Western education and new ways of living have drawn Uma far away from her roots and we are not surprised when the friendship of Uma and Alim becomes an adulterous union.

Meanwhile, Mujibur Rahman is assassinated and his whole family decimated, which tingles every pore of the Bangladeshi with shame and horror. For Uma, it is a public terror enveloping her private tragedy. Does this country have a future? Does she have a future as a Hindu wife in an Islamic land? Should she convert to Islam? Does the NGO guarantee her safety?

The scene gets murkier with Uma’s adultery that could attract punishment from the government. If she is found out by Iqbal, he would divorce her. After all, had she not betrayed the trust of her parents? Fortunately, the marriage ends in an amicable manner.

This raises a major question. Is Chitrita trying to convey a definite message in a rather oblique manner? Uma was an only daughter of loving parents. They had been proud of her and wanted her to get the very best in education.

Uma goes to the US. Apparently, there is regular correspondence between the mother and the daughter. Was the educated Uma fair towards her parents? How could she simply lob a grenade at their placid existence and destroy it forever? Did she not realise that her message was too sudden and abrupt?

Could she not have dropped hints and made the path easy for her mother through correspondence? Would it mean that it was the physical attraction that won the day and she had no faith in her parents to come to terms with a Muslim son-in-law? They suddenly get a letter that she has married a Muslim.

The deed had been done, so what could the parents do? The father had written that the natal home of Uma had shut her out for ever. How can one blame him?

And obviously she had not felt too unhappy. Not till the emergence of Bangladesh in 1973. Now a son-of-the-soil like Iqbal had a good future in the University of Dhaka, so he made up his mind to get back to his country.

Uma had come too (after all, her roots go back to the Sati ideal) and was caught in the pressures of an emerging nation. It is suggestive that a comfortable bed becomes a symbol of her aspirations, desires, consummation and rejection.

With her private life a mess, and governmental persecution not far off, Uma goes back to India on an assignment helpfully provided by an international aid agency. Will she be received by her parents? “And the room of the gods — would she be allowed in it?” Though Chitrita tries to romanticise the ending with the esraj sent to her aboard the plane by Alim, Mirror City remains a sour tale.

Corrupted love, sleazy politics, widespread unemployment, intolerant religious beliefs and the trigger-happy oppressor. Dead men tell no tales, do they? The best part of the novel belongs to the aftermath of the assassination of Mujibur Rahman.

A Prime Minister and his entire family wiped out in a matter of minutes! Then the chaos for a few days: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes” (Rajiv Gandhi’s explanation). Certainly, Iqbal’s hunch is no imagination: “My guess is that the people who have taken power are the pro-Pakistani Islamist types.

To them, you’re the worst kind of foreigner, a Hindu from India, married to a Muslim from Bangladesh, living in this country yet refusing to convert or conform.” Words, words, words. Wisdom lies in keeping the fridge well-stocked all the time!

Mirror City
Chitrita Banerji
Penguin
2014, pp 398
Rs. 499
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