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  • Published 12.03.10

Killing the water: Stories By Mahmud Rahman, Penguin, Rs 250

In Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Zadie Smith has a piece in which she talks of the craft of writing. In “The Crafty Feeling”, Smith says that it is when the writer reaches a point called the ‘middle’ that the novel and the experience of writing it begin to totally consume her. A reader encounters something similar too, as it happened to this particular reader while reading Mahmud Rahman’s fine collection of stories that move between Bangladesh and the United States of America.

The ‘middle’ perhaps comes towards the very end of the story, ‘Kerosene’, when a boy with the face of an older, suffering man asks the narrator — who has just committed a grievous crime — if he could have stopped it. The narrator is unable to reply, but wants to smash the smug face of his listener-turned-inquisitor.

The imagery most of Rahman’s stories evoke is that of movement. Movement, which, in almost every case, is irreversible but necessary, when meanings are lost as people are forced to leave, or when there is a search for a chance to make a new life in a new land. Then there are also the unaccountable, strange ways in which movement changes people. The stories appear in a linear, chronological fashion. The first few evoke a certain period in Bangladesh while those that follow are set in the US and are stories about migrants.

A long gone son returns in a motor boat he has designed himself with the knowledge that he has moved too far way. Runa, too, returns home in her story towards the end, a return symbolic in many ways of the time when past mingles with present. But ‘movement’ could also be about rivers that are ever-changing. Rivers and water assume a sacrosanct dimension in the title story, as the narrator’s mother collects holy water from the sacred shrines she visits. Yet it isn’t enough to purify the streamlet that abounds their house.

Stories set in the Americas depict those ubiquitous places where strangers meet, newcomers come to seek comfort and where friendships develop suddenly, only to fall apart quickly. There are stories where relationships happen, are sustained but perhaps don’t really exist, such as the one in which Nadeem writes a series of letters to Hyacinth, only to have them all come back to him one day.

Rahman tells his stories employing a fluid and evocative style. But there are sentences that seem to jump out of nowhere. For instance, in “Smoke Signals”, a jealous Neela tells the narrator — her husband — that she doesn’t “want sloppy seconds of any kind”. There is unexpected humour as well: in the same story, the narrator decides not to visit an old girlfriend to avoid introducing complexities in the relationship. This was also the time the US president was himself “equivocating over the definition of sex”. The deft humour is also evident in a story titled “Yuralda” — two strangers from different places find love in a laundromat; she wants a “guayaba” (guava) and he goes crazy looking for one, and attempts to prevaricate by bringing her different stuff each time, guava jelly, a picture of a guava and so on.

Movement is accompanied by hope, by a promise of finding something different. The stories in the second-half share the themes of violence and loss, pain and unshed tears, like those that make up the first-half of this collection. The narrators of the later stories clasp at the promises offering a new love and life but realize that happiness comes at a price.