Sunday, March 07, 2010



Name of the book: Killing the Water

Author: Mahmud Rahman

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Price: Rs. 250

ISBN: 978-0-143-06503-6

War, Migration and Displacement

From being a witness to a bloody war that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 to being a third world migrant in the United States, Mahmud Rahman has had first-hand experience of what is called “the effects of war, migration and displacement.” This is why he is successful in weaving credibly all those experiences together in the beautiful and illuminating set of stories for his debut collection.

Insightful Tales

‘Killing The Water’ starts off on an auspicious note. The opening story ‘City Shoes in the Village’, is set in the undivided India of the 1930s, and tells the story of a boy, Altaf, who returns to his impoverished village somewhere in the eastern part of Bengal to see his family after having lived in Calcutta for many years. Altaf is remorseful for shying away from his duties as an eldest son, and the author is able to portray with lucidity the guilt-stricken conscience and dilemma of the protagonist.

The best story in the book is the one titled ‘Kerosene’. Set against the backdrop of the 1971 war and told from a Bangladeshi nationalist’s point of view, it exposes the chilling horrors of war, and shows how even a society as non-violent and mild-mannered as Bangladesh (the erstwhile East Pakistan) can lose its sanity at a time of great socio-political upheaval. In the very first paragraph of this story, women and small children, all post-partition refugees from India, are burnt alive by a Bengali mob. This scene is a powerful reminder of the fact that says that the equations between two social groups can change drastically with change of time and circumstances.

Amid the post-partition euphoria of 1947, the Bengalis of East Pakistan had welcomed Urdu-speaking Muslim migrants from Bihar and UP as their co-religious brethren in the promised homeland for Muslims. But in the late sixties Bengali nationalism reared its head demanding a separate country for Bengalis, owing to wrong-headed political policies of West Pakistan. In those difficult times, non-Bengali Muslims were at the receiving end of the Bangla anger, as they were perceived to be culturally closer to West Pakistan than to Bengali Muslims, and hence were seen as a natural ally to the Western Pakistani establishment. In this changed scenario the binding factor was not the religion of Islam but Bengali language and culture.

Elsewhere in the book there are more stories that deserve to be mentioned here. ‘Orangeline’ is a subtle depiction of the scourge of racism in the United States. In ‘Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge’, a former soldier from Bangladesh tries to build a life in America while grappling with some disturbing memories from his past. In yet another story, titled ‘Yuralda,’ a beautiful love story unfolds in a Dominican Laundromat in Rhode Island as a Sri Lankan man woos a Dominican girl, the eponymous protagonist. In all these stories Rahman succeeds in fleshing out the characters from disparate backgrounds.

Missing Sense of History

The collection suffers on two counts. First, the author is not able to evoke a sense of history in some of the stories. The reader fails to see what is different about the different time periods in which the stories are set. For example, the opening story, though well told, is unable to take back the reader to the India of the 1930s. In addition, a couple of stories like ‘Smoke Signals’ and ‘Man in the Middle’ do not come out well, and are nothing to be written home about.

Despite these shortcomings, there is freshness in Rahman’s voice; and his stories leave an impact.

This is a collection well worth a reader’s time.

To read the edited version of this piece in THE HINDU click here...