The Bird Catcher and Other Stories is a remarkable debut collection of short fiction by Fayeza Hasanat, a Bangladeshi writer and academic now residing in Florida. I have known Hasanat for some time now as a student, a colleague, a diasporic migrant ex-student who visits Dhaka every now and then, a regular contributor to literary pages that I edited/edit, but how wonderful to view her moving, lively and beautifully composed fictional outpourings assembled in this vibrant selection!
A few of Hasanat’s themes are not unpredictable ones for an expatriate writer—the mindscapes of Bangladeshi women abroad, immigrant lives, either lived in contentment or in aloofness—but there are works in The Bird Catcher and Other Stories that are quite distinctive and not at all predictable for someone living overseas for a long time now. Indeed, what strikes me when I view the book as a whole is the variety of themes treated in it and the amazing tonal range of the stories on display. Clearly, these are works by a writer not only possessing a mature perspective on human relationships and yearnings and the quest of expatriate women to live full and meaningful lives, but also fictional forays by a writer willing to experiment stylistically and deploy diverse narrative perspectives in her fiction.
The first story of Hasanat’s collection is presented from the point of view of an expatriate woman encountering her therapist. She is the wife of a Bangladeshi physician whose imagination has been nurtured by her reading of literature where female protagonists try to opt out of life abound. She too would like to “walk right into the ocean” and embrace death by drowning like some of the literary women she admires (Virginia Woolf is an example) to seek release from the quagmire of marriage to a “successful Bangladeshi man, who has lived the American dream to the fullest” and who “must have in his possession few perfectly designed children and a content wife”!
“When Our Fathers Die” is another story of expatriation, but here the point of view is that of a Bangladeshi woman teaching literary theory in the English department of an American university. She is all too conscious that a few of her students perceive her accent to be quite other than what they are accustomed to hearing—anywhere in a range that spreads from “exotic” to “funny”. On the defensive mentally because of such students, she comes to realize eventually that deeper ties transcend surface differences created by accents and enable empathy between them—such as in the overwhelming experience of the death of a student’s parent that triggers memory of her own father’s demise.
Hasanat’s stories are memorable because they are able to capture such epiphanic moments of expatriate lives effectively. Another such story is “Mother Immigrant”, where she creates an unforgettable character in Noorjahan, who had embraced immigrant life in the United States wholeheartedly, ignoring difficulties created by language, and training herself to read “expressions and emotions” of the men and women she would meet. “An accidental Shearzad” who strews stories amidst everyone she comes across—and who relished being in the “home” she had made in America, peopled for her with children and grandchildren as well as admiring listeners, and prone to “state hopping” to visit them—she is suddenly so shaken by the treatment of a cruel daughter-in-law that she is left adrift mentally in the surroundings she had once so delighted in.
However, Hasanat by no means restricts herself to stories of expatriation in North American settings. She also seems to be able to embed narratives effortlessly in the country she left behind a few decades ago and represent men and women marginalized or victimized by callous people or their prejudices that all too often create havoc in lives. “Bride of the Vanishing Sun” is, for example, a tale of the predicament of “dark-skinned” girls in a society that puts a premium on fair-skinned women. This is a society full of desperate parents considering marrying off such daughters to even loonies, or of giving their daughters “the raw turmeric treatment”, or by enticing the groom’s family by an offer of dowry money that could not be denied. The premise of this particular tale may strike one as a predictable one, but “The Hyacinth Boy” is a narrative that will not only take readers by surprise but also make them appreciate Hasanat’s ability to take us beyond the familiar and into territories that border on the grotesque. This story begins innocuously by focusing on Shojol, a seventeen year old boy considering running away and traversing borders without the right papers or money. However, readers soon discover that his is a case of desperation caused by a murky family situation as well as his sexuality which made him vulnerable to preying men and which will lead to tragedy.
Hasanat’s literary orientation and predilection for women in stressful situations, whether abroad or in Bangladesh, is everywhere evident in the stories. “Darkling, I Listen” is the story of a woman “half in love with easeful death”, for whom “winter comes, but spring never arrives”, someone for whom “every month is the cruelest April”, impaling her fully, although she resorts in her fantasy to moments when she would be as admired as Banalata Sen. Hasanat’s protagonist in this story is introduced to literature by her father but she finds herself in a “freak show ... playing the role of a good wife” till suicidal impulses overwhelm her. She imagines herself then to be “a blazing phoenix, burning, burning, burning”!
“Make me Your Sitar” is the tale of Motijan, who after being widowed finds herself stuck with hostile daughters-in-law, irresponsible sons, and a situation where she is being forced to clean “up everybody’s messes”. One such mess is created by an ageing son when he remarries a very young girl. But this narrative takes an altogether new course when this girl gives birth amidst a monsoon storm, stirring “as if with a violent urge to destroy and revive everything anew”.
Hasanat ends The Bird Catcher and Other Stories as if determined to show yet again in her debut collection that she is a storyteller of great variety, stylistically as well as thematically, with her titular and quite sui generis tale, “The Bird Catcher”. This story begins with an epigraph from Mirza Ghalib and is laced with quotations from mystical verse and mythical narratives from diverse cultures. A “Once upon a time” tale, written in prose that aspires to the condition of poetry, it allegorizes the professional tyranny of the bird catcher and the bird’s desire to elude him and be free from his clutches, forever. In the end, it is the bird catcher that is trapped and left in agony by his own obsessive desire to dominate and made to realize that the bird’s freedom was not something that was up to him to take away, for the spirit cannot be bound and the flow of time terminated by anyone anywhere.
From tales of the quotidian lives of Bangladeshis—mostly Bangladeshi women—at home or abroad, to a tale that resorts to symbolism and is laden with allusions to myths and mystical verse—the trajectory of Fayeza Hasanat’s first collection of short fiction, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, is amazing. The range and expressiveness of a writer who dares to take her stories from familiar worlds to fantastic ones and from everyday situations to the realm of the mythical effortlessly is an achievement worth applauding. I, for one, await her next work and feel that the collection is yet another example of how Bangladeshi writing in English is now poised to earn its rightful place in any survey of the richness and readability of South Asian writing in English.
Fakrul Alam is a Senator of the University of Dhaka, from whose English department he has retired, and is now Pro-Vice Chancellor of East West University. His numerous publications include Daniel Defoe: Colonial Propagandist (Dhaka University, 1989) and Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English (Writers.ink, 2007). He has also translated Jibananada Das’s Selected Poems (UPL, 1999) and Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s Ocean of Sorrow (Bangla Academy, 2016)