Long ago, I read somewhere that writing short stories is more difficult than writing a novel. While writing about Fragments of Riversong, I suddenly recalled the comment because writing a review for a collection of short stories is proving to be quite difficult as well! It certainly is more difficult than writing the review of a novel. When we look at a novel, we can quite easily decide if it is a good novel, or a bad one after considering its characters, language, themes and structure. We can get into a heated discussion with a friend over what worked in it or didn't or what made it a classic tale or a stale one. But what does one do with a collection of short stories where each tale requires individual attention and analysis? Fragments of Riversong proved to be a bit of a problem too because while some of the stories are mind-blowing, some worth remembering, there are also a few that seem pretty mediocre and repetitive.
“A critical and creative culmination of Farah Ghuznavi's journalistic passage for over a decade,” is how Shilpa Kameswaran in World Literature Today describes the author's collection of short stories. The cover page with its shards of glasses in a background of indigo and black makes one curious about the pieces inside. On close inspection, I detected further that there were also tiny human figures that glued the shards together. The title of the book has a sing-song quality that promises stories of different tastes, and taken in tandem with the picture at the top, the collection indeed offers ballads for our time.
The opening piece, “Getting There” will cause a reader to pause and ponder over a family drama where relationships turn sterile because of the father's obsession with power and desire to keep everything under his thumb. So typical of a traditional Bangladeshi family where children, especially girls, must follow the paths set by their elders! The rites of passage, as many would call the process, can be excruciatingly painful for those going through it, as it is with Laila, the younger daughter. As Laila reminisces about events of the past, a sense of resentment and a feeling of guilt as an estranged daughter become focal points of the story. In spite of all her professional successes, she is a loner who has paid the price of accomplishment through her loneliness and mistrust of others, especially her family members and men. The anger felt by Laila is mirrored in the silent suffering of her elder sister, Shaheen, and yet they have been unable to bridge the gap between themselves. So, while the beginning of the story is just about reaching a destination, the ending, one realizes, is about the promise of a fulfilling relationship through a younger member of Laila's family. Laila's teenage niece makes her recognize the “kindred soul” that wants to follow the same path her aunt took years ago. The context of “Getting There” is thus very familiar, and clearly events of everyday life can turn into a poignant story in the skillful hands of a storyteller like Ghuznavi.
“The Mosquito Net Confessions” is another striking piece that might remind us about our human frailties when we just tend to presume things about others. The reader might smile wryly at the ludicrous incident with the big bug, or the bumpy van rides in rural Bangladesh that bring two apparently dissimilar young women into close proximity only to make them realize with a jolt that they are not too unlike each other.
Another story which that will make readers hold their breath while reading it is “Escaping the Mirror.” I gasped at the familiarly uncanny turn of events in it. “Do you think that they will believe you?” is a trite question all child abusers pose. But while this could have very well turned into one of those horror stories one hears, the author strikes the right balance in presenting it as a story of a traumatic experience and the sense of release felt by a daughter when is finally able to tell her father what had happened to her years ago.
“Big Mother” has a similar theme in that it deals with a child abuser; it narrates how a family fails to protect the abused one. But the suffering projected here is more complicated because it also throws light on other grave issues of society such as polygamy and the prioritizing of the male child and the vulnerability and oppression of women.
One of the shorter stories in the collection, “Waiting for the Storm,” was published in The Daily Star Lit page a couple of years earlier. It portrays the bleak picture of a younger housewife trying to get rid of her elderly husband. The narration might sound like something of the confession of a psycho, but the reader is bound to feel compassion for the wife who has always been made to feel like a burden and who was married off to a widower because she had little prospect of catching an eligible bachelor. Ghuznavi indeed writes with empathy and compassion, but certainly not sensationalism, which makes her work enjoyable. There are been loads of NGO fiction around these days; and while some of the stories like “Big Mother” and “The Mosquito Net Confessions” could have turn to that direction, they certainly do not. Human minds having to deal with external and internal conflicts are expertly explored and craftily drawn out in these stories. Even “Waiting,” the story that portrays a grotesque encounter between the crudely rich and the extreme poor, pushes sentimentality into the backseat. Asha, the girl who provides the dream ice-cream for the two street-urchins, runs away from them in self-reproach and embarrassment rather than self-gratification.
However, there are also several stories that made me question their inclusion in the volume, stories such as “Just One of the Gang,” “The Homecoming” and “The Silver Lining.” While the first and the third one appear out of place in this collection, the second one seems to be more of a fragment than a complete story. In some ways “The Silver Lining” seems like a retelling of “Just One of the Gang,” with its coming of age kind of theme. Nevertheless, even these stories point to a noteworthy problem in modern life-- bullying by the peers. The theme of the other story is something central to our consciousness—the 1971 Liberation War and its aftermath. It is difficult to incorporate such devastation, and hence it begins and ends in medias res. Yet, I feel dissatisfied with the closure of “The Homecoming,” and wonder if a little more work could have given it a more satisfactory ending and if a little more introspection and description could have tightened the storyline effectively.
What makes a story a good story? Craft, compassion, precision and control over one's emotion, and skill with language and expression, I would say. Ghuznavi's style of writing indeed covers all that. Fragments of Riversong is a good read. But a reader may not be able to read it in one sitting as there are issues to ponder and reflect on. One hopes Ghaznavi will hone her craft of storytelling further and give us even more satisfying stories in the years to come.
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Deputy Editor of The Daily Star Literature and Reviews Pages.