On an identity quest

Beloved Strangers
Maria Chaudhui
Bloomsbury2014,
pp 197
399


The memoir is perhaps the most challenging genre for an author. Working within the fixed framework of facts with little control over the story, one has to rely solely on their skills and technique to engage the reader. And the difficulty of the task is inversely proportional to the extraordinariness of the life in focus. Young Bangladeshi author  Maria Chaudhuri’s memoir-based debut novel, Beloved Strangers, is a good example of this challenge, where the author transforms the ordinary content of her story into an insightful work.

Maria’s childhood in the Bangladeshi city of Dhaka forms the first part of the book where she describes her early life as the second of the four children of a well-to-do couple. Her father derives his self-worth from his work more than his family, and her mother is a fiery, musically talented woman who craves for ‘stardom’ as a singer and would rather be happy in the mountains than shaping the lives of her four children.An emotionally distant father and a perpetually dissatisfied mother become etched as the male and female archetypes in Maria’s impressionable psyche.

With her hunger for love unsatisfied, her sense of self is built around the feelings of shame, guilt and a need to be forgiven — all these finding expression in her obsession with perfection and a desire to defy rules that her religious family swears by. The rest of Maria’s story is about how this early emotional and psychological imprints of family and the idea of ‘home’ carve her adult experiences until she is able to recognise and come home to the presence of love that always existed behind the turmoil in her life.

Moving in a non-linear fashion, the book leisurely meanders through the incidents which, though form interesting vignettes of the author’s life, try reader’s patience, as they seem like incohesive ramblings rather than elements that contribute to build the tempo of the book. Maria’s efforts to understand the concept of God as her father wants her to — a being that evokes guilt and fear — an exercise that turns out to be an utter failure, her blooming sexuality and the resulting clandestine adventures, her heartbreaks, her little traumas as she struggles to impress her father with her academic performance — all read like candid confessions from an ordinary life. 

While the events themselves do not capture the imagination of the reader, it is Maria’s writing that laces the otherwise ordinary details with a quality of significance. But as Maria says, “The story is never as simple as the plot. The plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. The story continues, spilling in all directions, drowning the plot in its tidal wrath.” It is in the second half of the book where Maria deals with the effects of her emotionally troubled childhood on her adult life, that it changes dimension and begins to touch a deeper chord in the reader. 

Seeing her idea of ‘home’, where she is understood and validated, never turning into reality, she pledges to be never rooted anywhere and be always on the move like a true global citizen. Love that had eluded her in childhood comes to her in many garbs in later life. She leaves Dhaka to join college in the US, has a relationship, gets married, falls in love, loses that love, ends her marriage, as life moves on. Her relationship with her first husband Yameen, her lover Alan, her friend Jeetu — all mark the process of her evolution, not by discarding, but surrendering to her deepest fears and frailties.

Chaudhuri’s writing shines in parts where she showcases her depth of understanding of pain and suffering. The instance, where after 9/11 attack on Twin Towers in New York a lady confronts Maria telling her to go back to where she comes from, brings across to the reader her sense of homelessness with an impact. “The woman’s castigation rips off my scabs and reveals fully the hollowness of my marriage, the concavity of my life, my attempt to be formless.” It is this insightful writing in the second part that gathers together all the loose ends from the first half to make the book relatable. 

When Maria has returned to Dhaka after experiencing her rootlessness in the outside world, she is finally able to see the ‘beloved strangers’ in her life in the light of forgiveness that emerges from a heart made mature from the travails of love. The book ends with this touching realisation by Maria who is now basking in the lucid understanding of her own heart and its strengths and failings. Though far from being flawless, Beloved Strangers is definitely a bold effort that shows a lot of promise and proves that Maria Chaudhuri is a writer to watch out for.

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