In a conversation with a very experienced journalist the other day, I was told, “I can’t imagine why publishers should be so wary of publishing short stories. They’re so much more difficult to write.” The implication being that if a short story is well-written, it speaks volumes for the skill of its creator. Our conversation meandered on to other things—on how short stories, while difficult to write, can be very easy to read; how short stories grow in one’s head and can be virtually completed in the author’s mind before being typed; and how a short story can stay with one, for years after.
It’s not been years, but it’s been months since I read Lifelines, a collection of short stories by Bangladeshi women writers.
Edited by Farah Ghuznavi, Lifelines was for me one of the finest anthologies I’ve ever read—and Ghuznavi’s own story in that, Getting There, was among my favourites. A story of a rebel, a woman who breaks away from an autocratic and controlling father in Chittagong to make her own life in Dhaka—and finds, years later, on an unplanned journey, that there is still hope, still a destination to get to.
Getting There left enough of an impression on me to want to read more of Farah Ghuznavi’s writing. Therefore, when Ghuznavi’s collection of short stories, Fragments of Riversong (Daily Star Books, 2013; ISBN: 978-984-90271-9-5; US$10/BDT300) was released late last year, I pounced at the opportunity to read it. This is a slim book—just 139 pages, with 12 stories (some of which are flash fiction), easily and quickly read, but not easily or quickly forgotten.
Fragments of Riversong begins with the story I’d already read in Lifelines, Getting There (and it says a lot for Ghuznavi’s writing that I re-read the story, even though it was still fairly fresh in my mind). The stories that follow vary in theme and length, the shortest ones being at times the most unexpected ones: The Assessment, for instance, which is set in a future world, where technology has made huge advances—but society, it seems, is still bound by its old ideas of what is done and what isn’t. Or Waiting for the Storm, in which an embittered woman, repressed by a much older husband, finally decides to do something about her situation.
This particular aspect—of a situation not to a protagonist’s liking, whether it’s a state of being abused or repressed, neglected or just in limbo—is a recurring theme in a lot of Ghuznavi’s stories in this book. Sometimes, it is a condition that is carefully spelled out. In The Homecoming, for example, which is set against the turmoil of Bangladesh in 1971. Or in Escaping the Mirror, which recounts the slow, insidious, over-the-years sexual harassment of a wealthy little girl at the hands of the family chauffeur.
Then there are the stories where the cause of the repression is more subtle, less clearly defined. In Old Delhi, New Tricks, are Shilpa and her friend—foreign tourists in Delhi, doing all the things one would expect a tourist to do—actually the victims of an attempt to take them (literally) for a ride? Or is this a case of a simple misunderstanding? In The Mosquito Net Confessions (another story of travelling, this time through the Bangladesh countryside), Diya is designated to act as interpreter and escort to a trio of three visiting African women and their Bangladeshi-American interpreter. What Diya lacks—self-confidence, a sense of self-worth—emerges only slowly through her interactions with the people around her.
Sad stories, stories of despair? Yes, and no. Because, in almost every story, Ghuznavi shows the emergence of a champion. The blonde-haired blue-eyed feisty little Belinda, leaping to the defence of the immigrant classmate who’s being ostracised. A well-educated, much-pampered older brother who realises how unfairly his sister has been treated throughout her life. A stranger, buying ice cream for two poor children.
And, when there is no external champion, an individual’s own strength, drawn from those deep reservoirs we carry within us, often unknown, untapped.
These are extremely readable stories, each one of them. There’s humour in places, anger and angst, tears and anguish, all carefully etched and with a deep understanding of human emotion. What stayed with me, in particular, is the haunting way in which the author describes her characters, their joys and woes, their flaws and strengths, their rebellions, all that makes them human. There is empathy here, and compassion. A sense, not of drama, but of concern.
I admired all the stories in Fragments of Riversong, but three (besides Getting There, which was what had convinced me in the first place that I wanted to read more of Farah Ghuznavi’s writing) in particular stood out for me. Stood out resoundingly, haunting me and making me go back to them. Among these were Escaping the Mirror, Waiting, and Big Mother, all brilliantly told, all unforgettable.
Do I recommend Fragments of Riversong? Most decidedly yes. If you are at all fond of stories (long or short), give this collection a try.