Poignant, brutal and honest, the characters in ‘71 – A collection of short stories’ by Bangladeshi author and scholar Rashid Askari and published by Rubric Publishing, evokes emotions that tug a string in your hearts.
The Liberation War in Bangladesh that saw mass blood bath, plunder and unthinkable human suffering in 1971, has been effectively captured in two of his stories in this collection – ‘Circumcision’ and ‘Virgin Whore’. When fiction is built over facts and real-time massacres, there is little space for imagination. With the author being a fellow Bangladeshi, the readers are aware that these characters might have just been real people of blood and flesh!
The author effectively paints vivid accounts of the horrific fate that innocent victims had to meet at the hands of the Occupation army, lending the story an emotional quotient that almost becomes palpable.
When the Muslim army man asks a petrified Haripada to recite Islamic Kalema to prove his religious identity, as readers our hearts skip a beat. When Haripada (despite being a Hindu) recites the kalema perfectly, we are relieved for a second and earnestly pray that he escapes this dreadful situation and escape death at the hands of these beasts. But then the horrific ‘final’ test doesn’t allow him that. As the ‘wolves’ pulled down his pants to ascertain his religion, death stared at him starkly.
Even though each tale in this collection of 12 short stories is placed within different socio-political framework of Bangladesh, the emotions ingrained in them are ‘Universal’. Their joys would make anyone happy, their doom would create a vacuum in the hearts of many.
In the story ‘Human Cow’, when the poor wife of a debt-ridden farmer is ultimately forced to plough the field herself to pay off the debts of her much older husband, as readers our hearts ache at the thought of this docile woman of rural Bengal who (in her struggle with utter poverty) had to pull the yoke along with her animal partner and become a ‘cow’ herself.
In the story ‘Co-wife’, a different form of narrative comes to the fore. Askari through his deft storyline makes a strong point against male patriarchy and how! When Protagonist Bilqis after years of marriage couldn’t yield a child to her husband, the quick fix was him going for another marriage. Though guilt-ridden, her husband Nuruzzaman slowly shifts his attention and gears his emotional and physical needs towards the much younger ‘new wife’. Bilqis is left deprived, dejected and shattered. The biggest blow came to her when she realised that though her husband was dutifully sleeping with her at intervals, he wasn’t so keen on ‘wasting his seeds in barren soil’, he was ‘reserving it for a piece of fertile land’.
Bilqis, who had a strong belief within her of not being infertile in the first place, avenged her years of anguish in her own way and ‘gave out the good news’ soon.
Rashid Askari, apart from taking issues from day to day life and its various aspects, has also touched base with a rather sensitive area that is more often than not, barred from exploring in mainstream literature – male impotency. In the story ‘A Slice of Life’, protagonist Selina, a very meritorious student receives her ‘Grade A+’ prize in school from chief guest Alamgir, young, handsome and influential politician. She gets overwhelmed and awed by his persona and when she learns that his wife left him even before a year of marriage, her heart goes out to this him. Alamgir too shows much interest in her and eventually proposes marriage her, which to an innocent and tender Selima seems like a ‘dream’.
She didn’t realise anything on her wedding night, but gradually the reality of his ‘barrenness’ started raising its ugly head. Even with a luxurious life, a flat in Dhaka city and servants all around her, Selina’s life becomes unbearable.
The realistic approach towards the entire issue and the treatment of both these characters, makes this story one of its kind. The insecurities of the man, his ways of dealing with it and Selina’s subsequent behavior is deftly dealt with. This story has to be one of the most unique ones, given the topic and it’s sensitive handling.
One thing that is very evident in all the stories in this collection is the righteousness that each of its protagonist showcase. Whether it is the neglected wife, the trained Jihadi, the Hindu man who dreams to see Bangladesh as a republic country for all and live there forever, or the prostitute, each character lives on certain principles and ideals that guide them to their actions.
In the story ‘Virgin Whore’, when the prostitute Bhasanti realised that the Occupation army (at the time of Liberation war, 1971) is attacking whore houses, she resolved to herself that she might sell her body to earn her living, but she wouldn’t lie with occupation squaddies for love or money.
When she was finally caught by the raiders in the steamer in her bid to escape the atrocity, and found herself gheraoed by 30 army men, Bashanti took the call. She threw herself into the deep waters. “She knew she was nearing the end of her life, but she felt happy to think that she was still a virgin.. She had not been defiled by alien beasts”.
A wonderful collection of touching tales and a runaway Bestseller in Bangladesh, gift yourself the amazing experience of reading this book. My rating 4.5*/5. Here’s the Amazon link to his book: https://amzn.to/2xp3QtI
About the Author:
Rashid Askari is a Bengali-English writer, fictionist, columnist, media personality and an academic in Bangladesh. Born on 1st June, 1965 in a sleepy little town of Rangpur, Bangladesh, he took an Honours and a Master’s in English from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and a PhD in Indian English literature from the University of Pune, India. He is currently the vice chancellor of Islamic University, Kushtia, Bangladesh. Askari emerged as a writer in the mid-1990s and has by now written half a dozen books and quite a large number of articles, essays, and newspaper columns in Bengali and English published at home and abroad. His two Bengali books: Indo-English Literature and Others (Dhaka-1996) and Postmodern Literary and Critical Theory (Dhaka-2002) and one English book The Wounded Land deserve special mention. He is one of the major present generation Bangladeshi writers in English with his own very personal style.