Review of Paromita Heem’s ‘Nargis’
Paromita Heem’s debut novel, Nargis, a coming of age story set in the author’s hometown of Chattagram, and later in Dhaka, is a caustic account of heartbreaks and friendships, a story that appears to enlighten as much as entertain her audience of what it means to be a woman in this country.
Nargis, far from the campiness prevalent in the novels we’re constantly fed, is a healthy dose of realism, its anti-romanticism a fresh respite from the monotony of, dare I say, the very male preoccupations of the novel. No girl here attempts any “muchki hashi”, there’s hardly any regard for that tact with which females are portrayed, and, best of all, the language used is one that mimics near perfectly how Bangla is really spoken, not the artifice constructed by authors that reduces speech, specifically how women are seen using it, into a sterilized display of innocence and piety. Paromita Heem allows her characters to launch into a vulgarity quite natural in human exchange.
We follow the narrator Roksana and her friend Nargis, who dutifully plays the role of the eccentric best friend, as they journey through their teen years: meandering in street corners to alleviate heartbreak or romancing guys in order to get booze off them or sneaking into upper-class households to peek at their drawing rooms. Already aware of the part they are forced to play in society, they struggle to work against it, forgetting in the course that they’re still children—merely kids, still vulnerable to the life they’d been gifted by their parents.
Nargis, who lives with her mother and her Army officer lover, is unpredictable in her actions, impulsive in the ideologies she’s willing to profess her loyalty to. Heem provides her with a charm that manages to undercut many of her erraticism. Her lifestyle annoys and impresses Roksana, who, having been brought up with the middle class mediocrities of the average Bengali household, willingly plays second fiddle to many of Nargis’s escapades.
Roksana’s inability to stand her own ground leads her down various embarrassing and discomforting situations. For one, she gets hauled into a shady restaurant with a downright lecherous man, an ex of Nargis, so that he can molest her there. And if that is not enough, the police decide to raid the establishment that very day and purify the sinners there by calling their parents and manically planning to “marry them off”. It is only with the help of Nargis’s mother, who Roksana calls in a panicky fit, that she gets off, only for the man to call Nargis’s mother a whore under his breath as she rescu Roksana. The scene leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth, mostly because of how real and commonly witnessed an exchange it is.
Roksana’s idolization of her friend’s mother however doesn’t stop her from being shamed by her, who makes good use of the situation to humiliate Roksana about her bad taste and supposed characterlessness, telling her to stay away from her daughter Nargis for the time being.
Roksana’s frustrations with her own mother, who she considers to be not as smart and glamorous and thoughtful as her friend Nargis’s, are perhaps some of the highlights of the book. The portrayal of her mother in all her negativity is soaked in comic aplomb and genuine teenage angst.
Nova, a medical student they befriend while out in unfamiliar neighborhoods visiting strangers’ drawing r joins their lives one-third into the novel, impressing them with her lifestyle at the dormitory. She jokes very much like Nargis, though retaining some sobriety unlike the other two. Nonetheless, tensions break in pretty early among them, and soon we find Nargis trying and succeeding in stealing Nova’s boyfriend.
Nargis’s boy-chasing, by turns hilarious and relatable, sees them joining a book club, where Roksana ends up reading not only her own books but also Nargis’s. Roksana, too, ends up liking a guy named Sazzad, a neighbor of his aunt’s, who coaxes her into reading Hemingway.
Heem’s novel, even though it suffers from the thin layer of college campus socialism-lite she tries to couch the story in, succeeds in large part because the frustrations we encounter, the jagged, catch-22 of a woman’s experience that we are made to go through is moving, sincere, and unforgettable—one that is readily recommendable.
After Nargis gets married off and Roksana is seen starting her university life in Dhaka, the novel loses most of its muster. Rupa, a senior and roommate, is less interesting in almost all the ways Nargis isn’t. Her exploits read almost tedious when compared with Nargis’s. It made me wonder why Heem felt the need to always relegate Roksana as lackey to some supposed unconventionality to get on with the story. Roksana’s naiveté, as she texts a boy on the internet thinking it is Sazzad, when it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that the likelihood of it being him is pretty close to zero, is off-putting; more so when she asks this random stranger, who she does not even know the name of, to take her abroad.
Nargis, however, is a wholly believable, raw ordeal, one that invests in its reader the urgency to think about the condition of our other half of humanity. For all its blips, Nargis is testament to the fact that even though society may have evolved in giving women a room of their own, men, sadly, still get away with owning the entire apartment block.
Rafee Shaams is an essayist and short story writer. He is author of Who Even Cares Who Cares?