Sunday, August 23, 2015

Caged in Paradise and Other Stories by Rizia Rahman, edited by Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam

Caged in Paradise and Other Stories
Edited by Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam
Translated from Bengali
215 pages, short stories, drama, realism, satire

Thank you to UPL for providing a review copy of this book. 

Full Disclosure: I am currently doing an internship with the publisher which includes marketing products including this one. However, the views presented here are my own. 

When I brought up the idea of promoting some literature for Women in Translation Month, my boss's face lit up. "I know the perfect one!" she said, and recommended this short story collection. While paging through the collection to find quotes that we could use for marketing, I found myself being mesmerized by the stories; after skimming the first fifty pages or so, I immediately asked for a review copy. And I was not disappointed - this book, it turns out, is one of my absolute favorite story collections.

Rizia Rahman is a renowned Bangladeshi author. She has been writing short stories and novels since the late 1960s, and received the Bangla Academy Award, the top literary award in the country, in 1978. Before picking up this book, I had never heard of her. Now I'm thinking about buying one of her novels in the original Bengali before I leave the country next month.

The stories in this collection span the length of her career. They deal with personal challenges, community grief, village politics, changing social mores, women's and human rights discussions. Whereas her earlier stories are more straightforward, demonstrating realistic and relatively linear storytelling, her newer ones move toward magical realism and impressionism. All are handled with marvelous skill, providing glimpses of everyday (and not-so-everyday) life in Bangladesh.

The Stories

  • "The Lure of the Sea" translated by Sophia Ahmad and Shirin Hasanat Islam

Benu, the wife of a low-paid clerk in Dhaka, has a dream: to someday travel and see the ocean. Despite their constant scramble to support their daily existence, she and her husband try to save money to do just that. 

  • "Come Back to Earth" translated by Rebecca Janson

Mr. Sabir is a world-renowned expert on the moon. But on the night of his greatest triumph - a job opportunity in the US researching moon rocks - a face from his past appears to make him question the point of everything he has worked for. 

  • "What Price Honour?" translated by Niaz Zaman

Halimun, a girl orphaned during the Bangladeshi Liberation War, is caught in her collapsing house in the middle of a flood, starving and with nothing to her name except her old, torn sari. 

  • "For My Darling" translated by Sabreena Ahmed and Shirin Hasanat Islam

To win the girl he loves, the narrator psychologically destroys his former best friend, who he thinks is competing for her affections. 

  • "The Hilsa Net" translated by Niaz Zaman

Alem Ali is a Hilsa fisherman. But in these days of a dried-up river and no rain, how will he catch fish? And where will he get the money to buy a boat and a special Hilsa net? 

  • "The Past is a Faded Rose" translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam

The passengers on a short flight between Dhaka and Chittagong find themselves on a turbulent journey. Binu, one of the passengers, receives reassurance from an unexpected place. 

  • "Blue Hawaii" translated by Niaz Zaman and Musharrat Hossain

Sufia, a telephone maintenance person, and her boyfriend Aziz dream about traveling abroad while spending all their money on a short rickshaw ride. 

  • "Benu's Old Sari" translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam

After an unexpected windfall dramatically increases his income, a poor man and his family rejoice about being able to afford things they never could before. 

  • "Fugitive Moonlight" translated by Shahruk Rahman

The famous writer Ashraf Habib is troubled by repeated phone calls from an anonymous female fan. 

  • "A Hartal Story" translated by Sophia Ahmad

During a hartal, or general strike, when Dhaka city is shut down for political reasons, the hungry street people bemoan their fate of having no way to make money for two whole days. 

  • "The Return of the Fisherman" translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam

Paban Das has returned to the village after spending time in prison for a robbery that he was falsely accused of. Now he wants revenge on the men who sent him there. 

  • "Mother Fatema Weeps" translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam

Taleb Munshi, a local Muslim religious leader and teacher at the madrasah, issues a fatwa against one of the poor village women after seeing her pumping water. 

  • "Man that is Made of Earth" translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam

A man who has focused solely on buying land to expand his property suddenly finds his priorities shifted by a catastrophic flood. 

  • "Irina's Picture" translated by Radha Chakravarty

A poet reflects on his close relationship with his mother while his siblings try to convince him that he is insane and should give up the deed to the house. 

  • "Caged in Paradise" translated by Niaz Zaman

As soon as she was old enough, the orphaned Rahela was married off to an abusive man, who now keeps her chained up on the verandah beside the cages of his pet birds. 

  • "Train Through the Dark Night" translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam

The poor of Dhaka climb aboard the "Beggar Woman Train," a rusting, decrepit heap of metal on which no one is (usually) asked for tickets. 

  • "The Realist" translated by Shahruk Rahman

A man who did menial office work for a famous writer writes his former employer a letter. 

  • "On a Star-Spangled Night" translated by Shakil Rabbi and Farida Shaikh

Late at night, a writer hears a sound that he can't place, a sound that bothers him and does not let him relax. 

  • "A Poet, a Crow, and the War-Horse of Chengiz Khan" translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam

A crow appears at the window of a poet's study and begins to talk to him about the legend of Chengiz Khan and man's inhumanity towards man. 

My favorites

Two of these stories struck me as the most powerful. The first is "Mother Fatema Weeps," which depicts the motivations behind the fatwa issued by a local religious leader. Unfortunately, the issuing of fatwas by local leaders has become extremely common in Bangladesh over the last 20 years or so, mainly as a way to punish poor women. In the case of this story, Taleb Munshi is bothered by the presence of an NGO, which has recently been providing opportunities to the villagers that weren't available before. Because there are real medical facilities available, Taleb Munshi's snake oils are no longer needed and he's quickly losing clients. The NGO has also encouraged women to start small businesses of their own, such as the puffed rice business that allows the woman, Hajera, to provide for her family. As a widow, she has to take care of her two small children and her disabled mother by herself; before the NGO came, she scraped enough money together through begging. In Taleb Munshi's opinion, the NGO has given Hajera and the other village women far too much independence, including the freedom to move about in public. When he finds himself sexually attracted to the still youthful Hajera, Taleb Munshi decides to punish her unless she gives herself to him.

The other men in the village do not go along with this. In fact, the imam preaches against such ideas. According to his teachings, women are very important members of the community and should be treated the same as men - in fact, they are better than men because they are born with part of Allah's love within them. That is why they are so caring towards others. Because of this opposition, Taleb Munshi can only work behind the back of the imam, hiring thugs to do the dirty work while he is out of town.  Despite this accurate portrayal of an evil muslim leader, other examples of compassionate, reasonable religious leaders are also presented. I found this particularly refreshing in the current world political climate. 

The second story that really struck me was the title story, "Caged in Paradise." This story describes a situation of terrible domestic abuse in as poetic and horrifying a way as possible. Rahela is literally chained up like an animal, with cuffs around her ankles. The neighbors think that she is treated this way because she is crazy; that is the rumor spread by her husband. But actually she is just psychologically, emotionally, and physically tortured. And she is, quite reasonably, terrified. Married to this man so that, as an orphan, she would no longer be a burden on her uncle's family, she has no source of outside support. When she wrote to her uncle to come save her, he responded that she needed to listen to her husband: a wife's paradise is found in her husband. But is that still true when one's husband is so abusive? Rahela doesn't know what to believe, and she doesn't know what to do or how to save herself.  

I have two small critiques. The first is that the book needed better proofreading; I found many small typos and punctuation errors. Sometimes this distracted from the writing itself. The second is that the vast majority of the main characters in these stories were men. While I have nothing against women writing about men, I am curious about whether this is representative of her stories as a whole or just about the ones chosen for this collection. If it is the latter, I would have liked to see some more stories about women by this fantastic female author. 

These short stories are beautiful depictions of the diversities of life in Bangladesh. With a sharp eye and a focused pen, Rizia Rahman has created masterpieces. This collection is recommended for everyone with an eye for literature, whether they are interested in Bangladesh or not. 

Caged in Paradise can be purchased from the publisher's website

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