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Recreating diasporic lives in fiction

  • Published at 04:41 pm June 10th, 2018
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A review of 'Truth or Dare'

Nadia Kabir Barb’s column in The Daily Star had a large following over the several years that she contributed to its weekend magazine. Readers would enjoy her narration, commentaries, ideas and reflections on life. They loved reading about her varied experiences with her family and friends and they loved her London.

In Truth or Dare, which is a collection of twelve short stories, she creates a wide range of characters: From famous TV personalities to abused wives and children to broken homes and relationships to loving and fulfilling experiences filled with hope and contentment. The stories are deceptively short. In just a few pages the author unfolds entire lives before us and manages to narrate their stories in full as well as give a clear glimpse into their thought processes. Written in easy, mellifluent prose, the depth of the stories makes characters memorable and representative of people readers may encounter in their own lives. 

Her first story “Can you See Me?” is about an unusual encounter between a homeless boy of nineteen and a lady who contemplates suicide by the Thames river. Their conversation about each other’s lives is a deep study of the fragility of relationships, their  unpredictability and how they can be fractured and destroyed only to bring about the realization that an emotional emptiness gradually but certainly replaces the wholeness of one’s being. 

No collection of short stories is complete without a mean mother-in-law in at least one of them. “Inside the Birdcage” explores Shahana’s sense of being caged in her marriage. She is busy with mundane household chores every day only to be mocked and taunted by her. Her husband, father-in-law, the landlord and his wife make life bearable for her, but one wonders if her daily dose of mistreatment will ever come to an end and, more importantly, if her husband will grow a backbone. ”In Case I Die” is a meticulous account of how it feels to be paralyzed as a result of a stroke. The experience of the first few hours, the confusion, the response of the paramedics and doctors give us a glimpse of what it must be like to be in a similar situation.

The lives of Raju and Tarek in ”Truth or Dare”, the title story, are typical of those  street children who attend the kind of school where the teacher hits you on the head for not knowing your lessons, where you run and play on the chaotic streets of Dhaka among speeding cars or traffic jams or jostling crowds, where you share a rosogolla bought with ten takas you found on the road and where you prove how brave you are by accepting a dare. But behind the carefree existence is not just poverty. There is physical and mental abuse either experienced or witnessed nearly every day of their lives till one day one of them snaps. 

Rahim in “The Enlightenment of Rahim Baksh” is not happy to have a “desi” wife who prefers halwa and kheer to cookies and cakes. His wife calls him “Jaan” and not “darling.” Her “desiness” along with her faded yellow dressing gown is symbolic of all he finds repulsive about her after many years of their marriage. At his book club he meets Karen, who is enlightened, romantic and as sophisticated as he would like his wife to be. Faced with a typical mid-life crisis, he wonders and wanders. Most readers may know of at least one Rahim with similar predilections (especially if there is an improvement in economic and social standing). His “enlightenment” is entertaining but forces readers to think about the values underlying it.

Imagine being on a flight and realizing that the little girl whose doll you helped to pick up from the aisle is someone connected to you very closely, a blood relation. “My Father’s Daughter” deals with some of the complex emotions of families extended by second marriages. The intense tone of the story is set in the second paragraph: “Open heart surgery sans general anesthetic would have been preferable to an encounter with her father. At least the cuts would have been surgical and clean, unlike the wounds he infected—deep and messy.” The story is told from Maliha’s point of view and, through her eyes, we come to understand how she views each of her relations: The closeness she shares with her mother, the antipathy for her father, the loathing she has for his second family, and the coldness with which she views her relatives’ habit of gossiping about her.

Some stories leave readers with hope, others with shock but satisfied nonetheless. The book delves into these complex human connections in each story. The stories that Nadia tell do not flow only toward a fulfilling ending that we call “happy ending” but they stray and deviate more often than not and make us confront issues that we prefer not to bring up in conversations. Truth or Dare is a good read that should enjoy a wide readership. 


Nusrat Huq reviews books.