Bengal Feminist: My review in Cha

My review of Mohammad A. Quayum’s The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain has just been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

Here is an extract:

Born in 1880 in what is now Bangladesh, and having died in Calcutta in what was still undivided British India in 1932, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (whose name can be spelt in a variety of ways) has come to be known as one of Bengal’s first feminists. She is particularly known as one of its first Muslim feminists, especially for writing Sultana’s Dream, a “utopian” novella in which women rule and men are kept in purdah. With The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, editor and translator Mohammad A. Quayyum adds to the body of scholarship on this interesting figure, with some previously-untranslated essays, articles, letters and extracts in translation from Bangla as well as some that were originally written in English. Quayyum describes the inclusions as some of Hossain’s best works.

Lascar by Shahida Rahman (2012)

'Lascar' by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.
Lascar by Shahida Rahman, Leicester: Indigo Dreams Books, 2012. Provided with a review copy from the author.

Cambridge author Shahida Rahman’s Lascar is an ambitious historical novel about a character from a specific section of the colonial-era underclass, Lascars. As Rahman explains in the brief introduction:

“Borne out of a rich and unique aspect of world history, the word ‘Lascar’ originally referred to a sailor from South Asia, East Africa, Arabia, South Asia [sic], Malaysia or China. Over time, the term has evolved to mean any servile non-European who toiled aboard British sea vessels.” (p. 11)

I found this very educational, because despite my background in South Asian history and literature, I had never come across this term before. Seafaring life of the past has a tendency to be Romanticised, unjustifiably, and Rahman, through the protagonist Ayan–a young Muslim Bengali man–demonstrates how Lascars were little more than slaves.

I had trouble, however, with how this novel had been edited. The numerous typos and incorrect word usage were one thing–I recognise that not all readers are bothered by such things as I am–but I felt that the plot progression, character development and nuances really needed more work throughout, and would have benefited from a couple more rounds of thorough editing. Time jumps forward rapidly at several points in the novel, leaving the reader quite confused about what happened in the intervening years. The characters–including Ayan, who does learn and develop somewhat as the novel progresses–are very one-dimensional, being either entirely good or entirely bad, morally. The language with which Ayan and his Bengali friends referring to white British people–and the way that the white British refer to him in turn–is overtly racist, as might be expected of the day, but is again very stark in its brutality, with little room for nuance. I recognise that the author was attempting to reflect the attitudes of the time, but there was something crude in the lack of grey areas. I also found it completely implausible that Ayan and his friends encounter a young, female Italian beggar in London who is fluent in Bengali. She serves a function in the plot–initiating them into British life at a time when they spoke no English–but she did not strike me as a historically plausible character.

Rahman clearly has a knack for plot, with so many events shaping the life of her protagonist, who has little choice but to be the object of fate. It is a shame that these were not edited into a more convincing whole, as there was the beginnings of something interesting in Lascar.

An extract from the novel can be found on Shahida Rahman’s website.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).

I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, flew threw it like I have all of her books, but was ultimately not very impressed. She creates real, empathetic though not always likable characters, yet everything within the novel is so intensely banal. Even the beautiful is banal–the renditions of little things that make certain relationships important or painful are rendered exactly, identifiably, but so much so that although one might admire Lahiri’s ability to identify such minuteness, one also wonders whether it was worth identifying at all. Romantic love, disappointment, parental care and abandonment are such universal acts and emotions that perhaps any attempt to identify their essence becomes redundant. We know those feelings already, we don’t always need to read them on paper. There seems never to be any shock or excitement of the new in Lahiri’s work.

Readers of Lahiri’s past novels and short stories will already know much of the plot and themes of The Lowland: middle-class, professional Bengalis migrate to the north-eastern US and settle in university towns; cultural dislocation, and eventually acceptance, ensues. Where The Lowland departs from this predictable narrative is that a large portion of it is set in Calcutta. Two brothers grow up in Tollygunge during the 1960s and ’70s, a politically troubled time in West Bengal with Naxalite politics on the rise. One brother leaves for university in the US; the other becomes embroiled in radical politics. Disasters occur, and one brother ends up taking responsibility for parts of the other’s life.

I have visited Calcutta several times, but some commentators more intimately knowledgeable about its middle-class colonies than I have stated that Lahiri’s descriptions of Tollygunge are spot on, that she perfectly recounts its environment and mood. There is no doubt that much of Lahiri’s writing is beautiful in its sparseness, it propels the reader onwards because there is little to get mired down in. Yet a dissatisfying aspect of her writing is that much character development is telescoped. Only details necessary for plot development are retained, which could be a strength in short stories but in a novel the practice makes some characters seem one-dimensional, even harsh at times. I am reminded of a review I read of Lahiri’s work, in which the reviewer called her a “competent writer–nothing more, nothing less”. I feel that much more care and effort has gone into her writing than the label ‘competent’ suggests, but this adjective is illustrative of the accumulative effect of her efforts.

Undoubtedly the politics that appear in The Lowland are important and have rarely been discussed in English-language Indian writing (Mahasweta Devi covers much of the same ground in her large corpus, as does a memoir I reviewed a couple of years ago, Joya Mitra’s Killing Days). I feel that the communist politics have been used as a marketing tool for this novel, in both India and the west, ‘Lahiri is breaking out of the world of professional America’. But the Naxalite movement only serves as a backdrop in The Lowland; it may be interesting to those coming to the topic afresh, but to readers who know a bit about post-colonial Indian history there is nothing new here. The main focus is the interiority of the characters, the successes, failures and nuances of inter-personal relationships. The ‘lowland’ of the title is a patch of ground near the brothers’ home in Tollygunge that floods during the rains. It is used as a metaphor for everything in this novel, but by the end becomes a tired motif burdened by the weight of its own symbolism.

I wish Jhumpa Lahiri would do something different. Yet whatever she comes up with next I will likely devour, as will so many other readers.