Itinerant stories of yearning

But expatriate writer Mahmud Rahman gives one the delight of having to discover that beneath the foam and fizz of an exuberant debut there’s a dark, strong drink.

Rahman’s collection of stories makes for a heady cocktail which despite the disparity of themes in their alternately itinerant order — war, violence, displacement, migration, flow and movement — coalesce into something far greater than the sum of its parts.

What’s more, Rahman is keenly observant — as is evident from his detail-heavy method with sparse metaphors — what the narrator of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement(2001) calls “the pointillist approach to verisimilitude.”

But Bangladesh, where Rahman was born, was born in a welter of chaos and genocide in the making of which about three million people were massacred by the Pakistani military and local collaborators while thousands of women were raped.

 If his stories on Bangladesh (‘City Shoes in the Village’, the title-story ‘Killing the Water’, ‘Before the Monsoon Came’, ‘Interrogation’ and ‘Kerosene’) are informed by memories of a deep social churn-out, the rest of the stories (notably ‘Orange Line’, ‘Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge’, ‘Runa’s Journey’ and ‘Man in the Middle’) deal with dislocation and disorientation of the diaspora experience and the yearning of identity. The stories score not for thematic novelty but for their freshness.

Moni in ‘Before the Monsoons Come’ is unsure if joining the liberation army who were fighting to carve a separate nation would prove that he was man enough or if teaching the islanders would be more worthwhile. The story, set in 1971, tickles the reader to prize military prowess over education in a military situation.

‘Kerosene’, aptly tiled, is a story of incendiary passion when apparently peaceable people who make love with patience and who raise their children with “cuddles and praise instead of wrath and punishment” set fire on women and small children, all post-Partition refugees from India. The two stories set on return — ‘City Shoes in the Village’ and ‘Runa’s Journey’ — appear to be a discourse on the idea of home and homelessness.

Rahman’s shift of language in his expatriate stories is surprisingly credible. ‘Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge’ is a psychological thriller in which a Bangladeshi ex-soldier contemplates murder and seeks revenge while flirting with a singer in a blues club in Detroit.

Rahman was a refugee in Kolkata during the 1971 war, and later moved to US. His stories are a fair representation of the violence and desperation of the times, and in stories which Rahman sets in America, like in Boston during the racial violence of the 70s, in Detroit during the collapse of the auto industry in the 80s, and in the San Francisco Bay Area during the high tech boom and bust of the 90s, one gets the impression of a protagonist running away or being chased away from a scene of violence.

“You may feel the pain... but without that memory common to your people, you’ll still miss something of the essence,” writes Rahman, stirring up our memories.

Killing the water
Mahmud Rahman
Penguin, 2010,
pp 201, Rs 250

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