Dead Man Talking — Hassan Blasim’s short stories

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim
Penguin
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

 

What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?

A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even the 18114111-_uy475_ss475_ones living know death to be staring them in the face. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.

I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

Read the rest of the review here.

Nirmala Boudi and the Bureaucracy: By Amiya Sen

First published in Humanities Underground
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Nirman Bhavan–the foundation for which had been laid by the late Lal Bahadur Shastri–is now an imposing structure. As the older Shastri Bhavan became too cramped for space, many such buildings –each associated with a ministry –added to Delhi’s splendour.

I had some work with the director of Nirman Bhavan. Though not a government employee, I have to to rub shoulders with senior government officers from time to time for the sake of my business.

The sight of Nirmala boudi at the reception on the first floor shocked me. With a vigorous gesticulation of her hands, she argued with the reception officer in chaste Hindi.

“Listen now. You can’t stop me from coming here, whether I make ten visits or twenty. This office is for the public after all. We’ll come whenever we need to.”

The reception officer tried to reason with her with a resigned look.

“I’m not stopping you from coming here, Madam. All I’m saying is if you call us before coming, it will save you unnecessary trouble.”

“Necessary or unnecessary, that’s for me to decide. Now, will you please issue me a pass?”

Even as she said those words, Nirmala boudi almost grabbed the huge register opened before the reception officer, Mr. Bhandari. Turning the register towards her, she entered details like name: Mrs. Nirmala Roy, purpose of visit: allotment of house etc.

Mr. Bhandari had no option but to prepare a gate pass and hand it to the woman standing in front of him.

I needed a gate pass, too, but my destination was different from Nirmala boudi’s. I had to meet the director of the state office, whereas Nirmala boudi wanted to meet the additional director.

I watched the scene quietly, standing right behind boudi. As she turned back with the gate pass, I blurted, “What brings you here –haven’t you got your quarter yet?”

Clutching a huge file close to her chest, Nirmala boudi said with a busy look reflecting off her glasses, “Come outside –I’ll tell you.”

I didn’t want to get late, but Nirmla boudi could be hard to ignore. At one time, we were both residents of the same village in Bangladesh’s Bakharganj district. Nirmala boudi was the eldest daughter-in-law of the Roy family, and I, the youngest son of Hemanta Gupta of the Gupta family. Our houses were adjacent to each other –a bamboo bridge over on a small canal served as a shortcut to go from our house to theirs. This is a unique feature of Bakharganj or Barisal district, filled as it is with canals and streams. Villages, all surrounded by water, appear like islands, complete in themselves.

At the time of her marriage, Nirmala boudi was fourteen and I, a ten-year-old, studying in class five in the village school. As per village customs, Atin da, Nirmala boudi’s husband, was my brother. Based on his grandmother’s wishes, Atin da was married off to Nirmala boudi as soon as he earned his graduation degree at twenty-two.

Being next-door neighbours, it didn’t take the two of us too long to get acquainted with each other. The Roy family had big gardens flanking both sides of their house. I would gather whatever fruits were in season –mangoes, Java plums, berries, guavas, elephant apples, custard apples, velvet apples, grapefruit, jujubes, cranberries –and run to the Roy household. They were a joint family and the house would always be full of people. Luckily, the family elders and servants lived on the ground floor. The upper floor was almost entirely reserved for the family’s young brigade –married or not.

With a whole stash of ripe and unripe fruits, I would stealthily climb up the staircase to the first floor and sneak into the southern room, allotted to Atin da after his marriage. The moment she saw me, Nirmala boudi’s eyes would gleam with delight through her veil.

As I was friends with the boys of the Roy family who were closer to my age, it was easy to get introduced to Nirmala boudi. She happened to be the youngest — the same age as us –bride in the entire neighbourhood. We always kept a share of whatever we collected for Nirmala boudi. All this had to be clandestine, though, given how conservative the Roys were. A daughter-in-law was almost like a prisoner in that house, denied any contact with outside air or light. Naturally, the young Nirmala boudi took to our group.

On summer afternoons, when the older folks enjoyed their siesta or were busy doing something else, we would drag Nirmala boudi to the terrace balcony and reveal our loot. Out came from our pockets treats like raw mangoes, berries, grapefruit, green chillies, a knife, salt and the like. Some of us would even bring freshly cut banana leaves to use as plates. Five or six of us sat circling Nirmala boudi. She would peel the fruits, make a delicious mix with the available ingredients and pile them on the leaf plates. Our feasting would ensue.

These sessions continued even as we grew older. The menu had changed by then, though. On sleepy afternoons, escaping the elders’ glances, we would have tea parties inside the closed doors of the Roys’ kitchen, located outside the boundaries of the house. Although some of the adults drank tea, the beverage was strictly prohibited for children. Nirmala boudi made us not only this forbidden drink; she made for us something that was even more strictly off-limits –omelettes made from hen’s eggs, which she served us on banana leaf plates. She wouldn’t have it herself, though.

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Nirmala boudi had another talent –she was an accomplished card player. Some of the other boudis played cards, too, but their scope would be limited to the game of Twenty Nine. Nirmala boudi played Bridge with us. She came from a family where sports and arts and culture were highly valued.

It’s difficult to imagine that young bride of more than forty years ago by looking at this fifty-plus bespectacled, file-clutching, sari-draped woman.

A government servant, Atin da quickly descended to the lower middle class after losing all his land, property and wealth in East Pakistan. With his retirement, the family landed where it was expected to –in deep waters. But Nirmala boudi is a master in making the impossible possible. Back in the village, one hadn’t been able to read her that well. Once in Delhi, she zipped out of her old shell like a bullet. She sat beside her children and opened books and notebooks to study. From A, B, C, D, she went up to matriculation, then completed her B.A. Next, she rushed towards the job market. Atin da had retired by then. The feisty Nirmla boudi didn’t stop before finding herself a job at the Ministry of Rehabilitation. Her age posed a bit of an issue, but she got past that challenge by getting hold of Indira Gandhi or the president. With Atinda’s retirement, they had to vacate the government accommodation allotted to him and move to a rented accommodation. He had large payments to make –mostly to clear the debt he incurred for his daughter’s marriage a year ago.

Read the rest in Humanities Underground.

The Bulldozer (short story)

I was sleeping when suddenly it started banging inside my ears, and I jumped up on the bed. As I looked out of the window, I could see the egg-yolk sun in the sky. Just then, Ab came running up to me, grabbed my arm and took me outside. Everything was broken all around us—big chunks of stones and concrete. As I walked out with Ab, I saw Umm standing outside the door. She was crying. Then I saw the fat blue bulldozer walking away—the monster machine that always smashed the walls of our homes.
bulldozer-small
When I came inside, I couldn’t find Husna on the bed. I dug under the pillow and bed sheet to look for her, but she wasn’t there. When I looked around, I saw everything mixed up on the floor. The calendar, the wall clock, which was broken, my favourite flower vase with Umm’s beautiful flower painting, Ab’s books, his glasses—everything was on the floor. I looked for my doll, but couldn’t see Husna in the mess. The walls were cracked and pieces of them were lying in the mix too. 
Read the rest of the story in Warscapes magazine.

Snow and Coffee (Short story excerpt)

By Bhaswati Ghosh

An excerpt from a short story, published in the latest issue of Stealing Time (a literary magazine for parents), themed Relations. To read the full story, purchase the issue here.Snow CoffeeAs she hurried for her train, a blast of snow slapped her cheeks, reminding Aruna of when she had landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for the first time. The frigidity had made her question her decision to come to Canada. It was too late, she had reminded herself.

When she landed in this haven for immigrants nine years ago, Aruna had been nervous. At their parting, her husband Raghu assured her, “It’s only a matter of a few months, maximum a year, Aru. I will be there after that.”

But those few months had multiplied into as many as it took to make nine years. Years that taught Aruna that time was as slippery as her husband’s promise to join her in Canada. Between trying to make a living and raising twelve-year-old Vishnu, she had aged by two decades instead of one. Looking at the mirror one day, Aruna tried to make sense of how it turned out to be like this—three lives that were supposed to make a family now fragmented like left-over noodle strands on a diner’s plate. Those early years they had spent together contained no suggestion of the later distancing. Her husband had seemed caring and involved, if excessively guided by his quest for a “good life.”

Now, snow and coffee — once alien to her– had become second nature to Aruna. And her good life had little to do with what her husband had imagined. She reflected on how time changes a person’s inner landscape in accordance with the outer one.

The train sped past white houses, streets, trees. Aruna planted her cheek, covered with the woolen scarf she’d wrapped around her neck, to the window. The thickly snow-decked walls that vanished and re-appeared on the horizon were home. She rubbed her glove-clad hands and sipped coffee from the paper cup that danced slightly to the train’s motion on a tray table in front of her.

Arriving in the province, she had felt confident of getting a job. Her many years as a lifestyle journalist in India couldn’t have been for nothing. So she consumed herself with the other variables—managing her son’s education, getting a health card made, securing a driver’s licence, and all the other minutia of moving to a new place.

But she rented a damp basement apartment and managed the other details with ease. Only the job eluded her.

In three weeks, the city had turned from an indifferent host into an unforgiving master. The city demanded labour from Aruna in order to grant her an extended stay. A conversation with her widowed landlady made the prospects look bleaker than the foggy winter mornings…

Reader’s reviews:

The story very well opens the eyes of ‘outsiders’ in India etc., who look longingly towards the West as a utopia, to its sordid reality. The life of the immigrant, the brutal self reliance it has to fall back on in an unknown land, is nicely stated. In a way the story shows how non self reliant we are in India with all our relatives ready to absorb the shocks of our life and to make it more tolerable; in this sense, it is to the essentially relations-bound Indian mind to which the story speaks. 
~ Prathap Kamath
Your story brings out both the struggle and the elation after a successful struggle very beautifully. At first, it is quite unbelievable why Aruna was putting up with Raghu. Couldn’t she just pack up and start life afresh? And then it dawned upon me that life wasn’t so easy. Breaking all ties isn’t easy at all. And this difficult life is what you have described so well in this story.
…Just the feeling that Canada is so far away from home – and Raghu, in India – and is so, so cold makes this entire struggle so sublime and so worth it. Congrats to you for making some kind of a comparative study between the bleakness of Canada’s climate and the bleakness within Aruna to more beautifully sketch her struggle.Another good thing about the story is its length. You haven’t wasted words and sentences.
~ Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Dashrath’s Dinner Party by Amiya Sen (Short Story)

Translated from the Bengali by Bhaswati Ghosh

As she pulled the curtains off the doors and windows and dumped them on the floor, Shakuntala hollered, “Munga, come here, fast!”

Dashrath was at the dining table, shaving. Casting a glance towards Shakuntala, he said, “Why are you taking those off yourself? Have Munga do that…if you fell down—”

“That worthless servant of yours. You brought home a rascal from the orphanage. It’s eight in the morning, and he is yet to finish his work in the kitchen. A heap of clothes remains to be washed. I must load them into the washer myself and wait until the cycle is completed. If left to him, he will ruin the clothes like he did last time. Sigh, your new safari suit and Gudiya’s expensive zari-bordered lehnga-choli.”

“Let it be. Where will you get a servant for 30 rupees in today’s market? We are managing just fine. Hey, Munga, get up on the stool, take down the curtains and pile them in the backyard. Then bring a duster. Clean everything in all the rooms. Khabardar, nothing should break, or else I will beat you to a pulp, you understand?”

Read the rest at Humanities Underground

The Kitchen, another story by the same author.

Titti

Amiya Sen (1916-1990) is a Bengali novelist and short story writer. Her writing has been published in various Bengali journals, including Desh, Jugantar, and Basumati.Aranyalipi and New Delhi-r Nepathye are her non-fiction books. She also wrote a children’s book called Shonai Shono Rupkatha.

Of Martyrs, Marigolds and Mayhem (Book Review)

Of Martyrs and Marigolds

Aquila Ismail

Create Space

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Martyrs-And-Marigolds-Aquila-Ismail/dp/1463694822

Sixty-five years ago, India was freed of two centuries of British rule. The freedom, however, came with massive human tragedy. The country was divided into what is present-day India and Pakistan, on the basis of religion. The Partition of India resulted in some of the heaviest bloodshed witnessed in the history of the subcontinent. More than 12 million people were displaced as a result of the division. Sadly, the bloodletting that started at the time of Partition did not die down with the passage of time. In the years and decades to follow, the monster of communal tension assumed numerous sinister faces across the subcontinent and continues to rear its head to this day.

One manifestation of this simmering tension was the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, triggered by the Liberation War–a conflict between the Pakistani army and East Pakistanis. The actual war lasted only 13 days, making it one of the shortest wars in history. But the events leading up to it had started long before, culminating in the formation of a new country called Bangladesh. These events and their consequences–tragic and irreversible–are at the core of Aquila Ismail’s debut novel, “Of Martyrs and Marigolds.”

The novel narrates the story of a young girl, Suri, and her family–Urdu-speaking Muslims who had moved to East Pakistan from India at the time of Partition. It is estimated that between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 civilians were killed in Bangladesh, and as many as 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani armed forces. The conflict led a further eight to ten million people from the erstwhile East Pakistan seek refuge in neighbouring India.

The story of Bangladesh is mired in geographical, ethnic and linguistic complexities. In the division of India and Pakistan, the latter got parts of Punjab and Bengal, separated from each other by more than a thousand miles. Language emerged as a major bone of contention, with the majority East Pakistani population demanding Bengali to be made an official language. The language resistance that saw students becoming martyrs forms the backdrop of “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” as the story of Suri’s love affair with Rumi, a Bengali Muslim boy, unfolds.

The narrative, through rich detailing, reveals the liberal outlook of Suri’s father, a civil servant in the Pakistani administration. All through, Suri’s family remains supportive of the legitimate democratic movements in East Pakistan and critical of the high-handed and arbitrary ways of the West Pakistan leadership, which eventually unleashes military action upon its own people in East Pakistan. Numerous novels and short stories have brought to light the horrors of the atrocities committed by the Pak army on Bengalis.

In March of 1971, the tables turned with the same army conceding defeat to the Indian army. Along with freedom to Bengalis in the form of the new country of Bangladesh, this also brought reprisals against non-Bengalis, many of whom were believed to have colluded with the Pakistani military. However, as is the sad fallout in any conflict involving two communities, a lot of innocent civilians bore the brunt of the backlash too. Suri’s family represents one of many such Urdu-speaking units that got caught in the crossfire and were rendered helpless and homeless overnight.

“Of Martyrs and Marigold” impresses with its flourish of imagery–the verdant landscape of East Bengal, its folk songs, and cuisines happily share the pages with the Western influences–English literature, baseball, the Beatles to name a few–in Suri’s life. Remarkable too is the sensitivity with which a delicate subject that continues to generate strong reactions among people within the Indian subcontinent and outside it has been handled. The author’s sincere narrative stays away from vitriol or any suggestion of hate mongering, relying instead on a helpless victim’s heartfelt questioning of her fate.

The descriptions of reprisals against Urdu-speaking East Pakistanis are vivid to almost a disturbing effect. As in most conflicts, women are the worst sufferers, as they face both ends of the sword–the wrath inflicted upon those being targeted and a further sexual violence in the form of rape and physical torture. Ismail depicts instances of such violence with chilling workmanship. A few chapters towards the end present these horrors with excruciating details that continue to haunt the reader long after the book has been put down.

Some of the dialogues in the novel sound stilted and the pace of action slows down in the middle. The multiplicity of characters sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow the storyline, but this gets easily overlooked by the overall force of the story. “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” definitely instills hope in the reader for more such moving tales from Aquila Ismail’s pen.

The Crater Doesn’t Move: Flash Fiction

I’ve stopped sleeping in our bedroom. Without the blare of heavy metal booming out of Shankar’s room, slumber eludes me. I lie on the blue-green cot on the terrace, staring at the sky. Sleep is still absent.

I sit up and light a cigarette—my nemesis and redemption.

Fluffy mounds of cloud shroud the moon. As the cloud masses drift along the darkening horizon, the moon ambles with them. But this isn’t supposed to happen. Doesn’t the moon stay in one place while clouds sweep over it? If this is some strange celestial phenomenon, I will take it. Anything that defies reality.

My smoky mind joins the floating clouds.

Read/listen to the rest in Issue 3 of Open Road Review.