Collections of place-themed fiction can be powerfully evocative with descriptions of indigenous sights and sounds, unique references to the geographical landscape and above all, glimpses into the minds of local characters who with their attitudes, mindset, dialogues, dreams and desires represent the collective ethos of the place in the given time setting. Examples include Dubliners and The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran which transport the readers to early twentieth century Dublin and Bangalore in the late nineties respectively. The Book of Dhaka edited by Arunava Sinha & Pushpita Alam aspires to add to this worthy genre. As K. Anis Ahmed mentions in the introduction, the collection tries to capture the present-day ethos of the ‘world’s most densely populated city’ of rice fields, lakes that overflow during the monsoon and ‘concrete structures, among roads far too narrow for anything to thrive but despair’. This intrinsic sense of despair hangs over the book, manifesting itself in the steam-of-consciousness monologue of a timid Chemistry lecturer who gets captured and tortured by the military in The Raincoat, the story of a promising student whose poverty forces him to leave school and eventually become a gangster in The Weapon and that of a housemaid who resorts to peddling drugs in order to give her son a better future in Mother.
The sense of gloom creeps like fog into the stories of each of the characters, irrespective of their social backgrounds. Decision portrays the apathy of a young woman towards her ex-husband on coming across him at a book fair, as she rather indifferently contemplates on what went wrong in the relationship. The Widening Gyre is a chilling glimpse into the dangers lurking in the city roads where citizens are alleged to be shot dead in broad daylight. Among the most memorable of the lot is The Circle, about an overworked office man who is caught in the vicious cycle of a dull daily job, limited means and never-ending responsibilities, his love for his family curdling into a frustrated rage at his helplessness to do anything about the situation. Unlike him, the masseuse in Home braves her way through life, shrewdly and silently judging her clients even as she pursues her dream of buying a plot of land to make a home for herself and her young son. The surrealism in Helal was on his Way to Meet Reshma, a story that begins brightly with a young man on his way to meet a potential girlfriend is likewise coloured not only by the blood of a suicide that he witnesses on the way but also with the frustration and disillusionment that seeps through from the other characters. The fairy-tale-like denouement of a young lad’s good deed getting rewarded comes across as a welcome positive note in The Princess and the Father, albeit darkened by the premise of the war and the pain of the members left behind in broken families. So too, does The Path of Poribibi, another story which hovers on the edge of the surreal and the supernatural, and is another of the better stories in the collection.
The reader is left with a set of unrelated, mostly dark images from the city, wondering whether the idea behind the collection was to indeed convey this very sense of bleakness.