The Bengal Lights 2016 issue is a manifestation of a statement the publisher, K Anis Ahmed, talks about in his own piece: “[To] find sufficiency in moments that no official system would care to record.” Like the previous issues, it offers a rich collection of fiction, non-fiction, art, poetry and translations. The issue opens with a piece by William T Vollmann on the problems of overexposure. The Digital Age can be like a file cabinet collecting a surplus of information which it ultimately becomes paranoid about. From passports to visas, to have written a comment somewhere, the world of the net, or as Vollmann refers to it as The Spider Web, is laid with traps to seduce even the naïve to culpability. Writing, then, in its essence, is to stop existing as a statistic and to transform into incalculable life forms.
Broadly speaking, this issue speaks of the incalculable and the politics of the sentimental.
After Vollmann’s piece about “Freedom and Surveillance” comes a poem by A J Huffman about breaths we take, which are invisible, but seem to scale the importance of our existence in subtle ways that only a poem can seem to do it justice. The issue follows through this vein of surmising the importance of the incalculable with another poem by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, “I Saw It from The Window.” Mehrotra shows there is elegance in watching a wounded bird convalesce inaudibly in the thickets of a tree, who manages to become a caesura to what we know as the everyday. An excerpt from Saad Z Hossain’s novel, Djinns
, takes us to the fantastic hiding place in the midst of the present and the mundane. K Anis Ahmed challenges the very fabric of what we can read. Exploring two novels, he measures that the universal is rather a shadow that can imprint on the geographical and the individual in a similar way. By exploring two western novels, he shows that to incorporate them into his own life is not westernisation but an understanding that human strife, whether somewhere out there or in a South Asian context, holds empirically the same value or non-value when bureaucratic forces eschew them from the narrative of history.
There are five Burmese poets being translated in this issue by Ko Ko Thett, which adds to the overall theme of ordinariness and transformation. The translation, “What a Bummer” juxtaposes elements of casualness with the sense of societal upheaval in a way only elucidated further by Nausheen Eusuf’s poem on social media where sadness is “a glut of sad-faced smileys.” The managing editor, Pushpita Alam, did an engaging translation of treasured author Akteruzzaman Elias’s “The Raincoat.” Alam has kept the spatial and sensory alignments the characters have for the month of Monsoon, to the novelty and displacement brought by a Raincoat, with its hidden signifier of politics being operated by a veneer of rubber that keeps out the truth.
The issue ends with measuring seascapes as Neeman Sobhan becomes nostalgic of her childhood when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. Her voyages to West Pakistan by ship make her close to the incalculable vastness of the sea. The awe and fear she experiences even so many years later, provides a beautiful end to an issue devoted to the distinct within the familiar. Whether one wishes to read of the eccentricity of first dates to the difficulties of managing friendships post-independence, this issue is wonderful in showing the transformations in everydayness.
Zarin Rafiuddin reviews books for Arts & Letters.