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Upon rereading ‘Forty Steps’

  • Published at 03:29 pm March 12th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:46 pm March 12th, 2018
Upon rereading ‘Forty Steps’
Rereading Forty Steps by K Anis Ahmed, a long story made into a book by Bengal Light Books (BLB) along with a Bengali translation by Manabendra Bandyopadhyay, has two clear messages for readers curious about English fiction by Bangladeshis. First, one can’t miss Ahmed’s gifted storytelling – consummate and compelling; secondly, his creative talent to carry the cultural nuances defining the lives of people in rural Bangladesh into a language where they have no space. It is here that K Anis Ahmed makes himself unique as a writer compared to most Bangladeshis writing in English, who – sadly or otherwise – are often too acutely stuck into the cultural strapping of the language. So, it isn’t unusual that the reader is left uncomfortable in trying to build a communion between the content and the language in which the story is told. Ahmed is well aware of how to tell his story, and as he progresses he is not just traversing a known territory but taking the reader along with great ease to any nook and cranny he wants. There is something so convincing in the way he does this that the reader, even one not at all familiar with the socio-cultural ambience of the story and its people, does not feel lost in the unfamiliar terrain. The story opens with the death of a village doctor, Shikdar (who had been to medical school for a while). Although he is found dead in the open paddy field from what might be a heart failure, Shikdar is not sure if he is really dead. He is intrigued by what follows his “death” – the reality or the unreality of the reality. His compatriots meticulously perform the post-death rituals. They dig out a fairly deep rectangular hole in the traditional Muslim-Bengali burial style, lower his body with care into the grave wrapped properly in a piece of shroud, place a protective roof-like barrier made out of bamboo branches to fit the width of the rectangle over his “dead body.” When the burial is over, Shikdar is still in a fix, not sure if it's a dream he has been tricked into – a bad dream about the proceedings of his own death. However, given the circumstances, he is left with one last chance to check the veracity of his “death”: Counting the steps of the mourners moving away from his grave. Due to his religious background, he believes that as soon as the last of the mourners moves forty steps away from the grave, two interrogating angels Munkar and Nukir will arrive. Shut in his grave, nauseated by the stench of damp earth, Shikdar pricks his ears to the steps, counting them from the sound of the mourners' receding feet. He is particularly attentive to the sound produced by a pair of khoram-wearing feet as the sound is louder and distinct from those of the others. Shikdar keeps counting the dwindling sound of the steps: Nine, ten, eleven …
The point that he keeps questioning his death – tinged with a feeling of skepticism, if not with utter disbelief in what he gathers from his socio-religious background – explains a good deal of the untold mystery that he carries with him to his grave.
What a wonderful beginning for a story to unfold! But the beginning is also the end. And in between lies the treasure trove – not so much in terms of startling revelations as in recounting the rather mundane and bizarre life lived by the protagonist. The point that he keeps questioning his death – tinged with a feeling of skepticism, if not with utter disbelief in what he gathers from his socio-religious background – explains a good deal of the untold mystery that he carries with him to his grave. There is more to the tale. Is it the death that he has imagined for himself as against the death he is experiencing? The writer has no intention to indulge more on the issue, leaving it to the readers to interpret the way they see fit. Nor is he interested in celebrating a fantasy of sort. Still, there is the interplay of fantasy and reality, more importantly, of the perceived unreal threatening to be real. In the preface, Syed Manzoorul Islam has aptly mentioned, "That Shikdar is both dead and alive at the end shows the power of the narrative to assert as well as deny the inevitable …" Difficult though this may seem, Ahmed's communicative skills make things easier for him to strike the right chord in perfect unison with the reader's expectations. Forty Steps, reportedly Ahmed's first published story, appeared in the Minnesota Review in 2001 to wide acclaim. A brilliant beginning for a young Bangladeshi writer setting out for the English speaking world – that too with a story so remotely distant – but told with supreme ease and masterly craftsmanship. Over the years, Ahmed hasn't written much. His latest collection of stories Goodnight Mr. Kissinger and Other Stories is different in tone and tune laced with irony and laconic humor on social and personal realities. Here, too, he never lets the thread loose to communicate with his readers as he takes them along. Forty Steps is undeniably a milestone in Bangladeshi English writing, and a winning post for K Anis Ahmed to keep going.
Wasi Ahmed is a bilingual fiction writer and essayist. His works in original and in translation have been anthologized in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and UK. He has eight short story collections and four novels to his credit. He received Gemcon Literary Award 2010 for his book Trishimana.  
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