Review of Arif Anwar’s ‘The Storm’
Characters living continents apart battle to make sense of their troubled past and present in Arif Anwar's debut novel, The Storm, published simultaneously by reputed publishers in Canada, the US, and India. It’s a complex yet spellbinding narrative with a disparate set of people coming from diverse cultures whose lives are threaded together through war, partition, communal riot, and the immigration experience. Sturdy and idiosyncratic, Anwar’s characters throb with passion and humanity, and contemplate on the confused notions of divine influence, nationalism, colonialism, and migration.
From the very beginning Anwar resists the temptation to tell his story in a linear fashion, keeping readers' curiosity fairly intense till the end. The novel begins and ends at the onset of a storm, one of the deadliest natural disasters recorded till date: 1970 Bhola Cyclone, which hit an island in the southern region of erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and “killed a half million people overnight because no one was warned.” The following pages leapfrog into post-9/11 America—exploring the life of Shahryar, a Bangladeshi immigrant who has a complicated relationship both with his adopted country and his nine-year-old daughter, Anna—and back into some of the biggest watersheds in the Indian subcontinent’s history: the Second World War, the partition, and the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh.
In the opening chapter, we are presented with a few, seemingly random details of Honufa, a mother and converted Muslim woman. As she traverses a murky land riddled with an oncoming storm, the narrative soon becomes dense and poetic. The storm upends her faith, as she enters a temple, knowing “who really waits inside.” And in a place “unmoored from time,” she “kneels before Kail—the Black One ... [and] places before the dark goddess the offering of flowers she has brought. She prays to her, ignoring the voice inside that reminds her that her new God is a jealous one.” To know why she follows her inner voice and makes votive offerings to a Hindu goddess, one has to read the final chapter, where Anwar provides a panoptic view not only of Honufa’s life but also of those who are/were associated with it.
Not aware of their actions, each character makes decisions that have repercussions on others. We discover this as soon as we meet Shahriyar; his struggle to extend his visa to stay with his American daughter reminds us of his mother’s attempt to save her son on a gusty evening in 1970. It seems, though, that Shahryar’s PhD, research work, and later attempts to settle in Bangladesh and his relentless efforts to improve people’s lives in the coastal region are primarily drawn from Anwar’s own experiences, who was also born in Chittagong, has a PhD, and worked for BRAC and UNICEF Myanmar, on issues of poverty alleviation and public health. However, these similarities provide his character a more intensive background to explore various dimensions of migration crisis in the US, a dreamland for immigrants around the world.
To limn diverse experiences of his characters, Anwar deftly applies his poetic sensibility. He writes some chapters/parts of the book so gracefully that reading becomes almost a physical experience. One such chapter, “Ichiro,” describes a distant night during the Second World War when two Japanese soldiers—Ichiro and Tadashi—visit a Burmese temple whose interior is “vast and oblong, dominated by a giant reclining Buddha breathtaking in size, painted a shimmering gold.” There they meet “a lone monk sweep[ing] the floor with a long-handled broom, the first living creature they have encountered in this desolate valley.” Such painterly quality of Anwar’s narrative—followed by a soul-searching discussion with Julian (the lone monk from Austria), amidst a raging war—makes for a great reading experience. At some point Ichiro expresses his deceptive ideas on war and confesses to Julian that he “could hear a thousand tales of heaven, of the afterlife, but deep down the fear of the black void pervades.” That Ichiro fears death despite being a solider (the Japanese hold martyrs in high regard) is evident from his confession. But his straightforward confession makes him more humane to us.
Like a great fireside story, Anwar slowly unfolds more and more of his characters’ distant pasts than of their looming futures. In the following chapters we meet a new batch of characters: Claire, a British doctor posted in Burma; Rahim and Zahira, a wealthy couple in Calcutta who leave everything behind to move to East Pakistan following the Partition of India; Valerie, a staff at International Students’ Office in Washington DC; Jamir, a fisherman who has left for the sea without bidding a goodbye to his wife. Segmented like three parts of a cyclone: Gathering, Eye, and Surging, the novel explores lives of such different kinds of people who become a part of each other’s lives through a great natural calamity, when laws of a known world no longer apply. And Anwar speaks of every incident, every character like a poet, as if they were in part a great destiny or a prophetic vision.
The evocation of bomb attacks, dying soldiers, doctors, and nurses—all reminds readers of Ondaatje's masterpiece, The English Patient, whose influence on the author can be subtly recognized throughout the book. However, Anwar is truly original; he fills his pages and sentences with an infinite love for people living in a time and space that is to seal their fates. This is why his description doesn’t sound ear-bending. Ideas about gender, race, war, and colonialism do rub off on the characters, but their voices never seem didactic as they are transformed through the specifics of different situations.
There's a sense of things gathering in the dark and looming out at readers, which makes the events unfolding in the book more thrilling. Anwar achieves this effect using motifs and symbols. On many occasions we see a black crow with “curving bill” and “onyx eyes” portending an ominous storm; a heron—with “feathers like chrysanthemum petals”—embossed on a war prisoner’s journal revealing the owner’s sensitive mind; or hear the cosmic sound aum, “the beginning and end of the universe,” whose enigmatic power has a great influence on the reader who knows how to listen to it.
Written with a lyrical narrative, The Storm is an impressive and courageous beginning for the author’s journey into an ever-expanding literary world. It’s a beautiful book of imagination and profound feeling, intersecting cultures and ideas that are fully relevant to our times. Hopefully, Anwar will row on in his creative endeavor and gift us such impressive works in the days to come.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.