Review of 'Days and Nights in the City'
In Days and Nights in the City, Nadeem Zaman has put together a collection of stories that shows an unflattering portrait of contemporary Dhaka. The stories are outstanding; they deal with corruption, greed, ego, dilemma, longing and loss, among a myriad of other aspects found in the complicated fabric of city life. Published by Bengal Lights Books in 2018, Zaman’s debut collection is dedicated to his friend, Numair Choudhury, a brilliant fiction writer from Bangladesh, whose untimely death has undoubtedly been a huge loss to Bangladesh.
The eight stories of the collection are set in Dhaka; they explore lives of people whose voices we don’t often hear in contemporary fiction: caretaker, servant, cook, night guard, gardener, driver. Some of these stories portray lives of women living on the margins—often mired in unhappy and unforeseen situations—and reveal deeper truths of Bangladeshi society and its gender norms. What really is significant in their stories is, how they deal with their lot in life and struggle to rise—however insignificant it may seem to the patriarchs in their families.
In the first story, "The Caretaker’s Dowry", we meet Abdul Hamid, a caretaker who has been serving the wealthy Harun Qureshi for thirty-five years and who now wants to marry his only daughter off to the son of his childhood friend, Helal Sobhan. His daughter Shiuli, whose every act of coming of age is lambasted by her mother Kulsum, asks him on several occasions if her groom is a real prince. Prince or pauper, Hamid doesn’t reveal much about his predicament, though he discovers an apparently complicated aspect of his would-be son-in-law’s sexual orientation. Rather Hamid seems to give in to his greedy, power-obsessed friend Sobhan, who is running in the district election since, he believes, he has the “respect and the ear of the people” of his village in Chapai Nawabganj. Sobhan, waiting for the dowry his friend Hamid was to pay for the marriage, even tries to indoctrinate Hamid: “Everything is connected...Life is a series of connection”. So, however gruesome the marriage may turn out to be for his daughter, Hamid is determined to provide everything his friend needs as the marriage finally becomes “a matter of [his] name” and hence his ego and prestige.
The unbridled ego of another man is explored in the second story, “Dual Income” (first published in The East Bay Review), whose protagonist Salma is to apply for a job in a top firm in Dhaka, since her husband Maruf has recently gone through a “pay cut” in his job as the bank he works for is taken over by an American investment firm. He almost reluctantly prepares a CV for his wife, reprimanding her time and again for not knowing anything about computer and multinational companies. However, Salma realizes what gnaws away at her husband, inside his “bald patch at the top of his head”: his frustration of not earning enough for the family. As she heads for an interview at the firm, she finds her, unfortunately enough, among a concourse of marching students demonstrating for the punishment of war criminals.
The book, thus, brilliantly highlights how individuals find themselves with history in the making, often facing serious dilemmas. Such dilemmas reach a pinnacle in "Adulteress" (first published in Roaneke Review), where we meet a middle-aged man, coming from a village in Sylhet, who tries to convince a judge to provide him with "family protection". His daughter, Shamela, is accused of adultery—the basis for which was village gossip since she could not bear any child for her husband, though "a visit to a doctor…proved it was not Shamela’s inability to conceive". However, the judge, apparently having more pressing issues at hand—as he is to conduct tribunals of Mullah Khoda Baksh, a collaborator of the Pakistani Army in the War of Independence of Bangladesh in 1971—cannot easily expel the man from the village due to "traditional obligations". What turns out at the end of the story may leave readers thinking about a judge’s role in ensuring justice, as his decision may also provoke questions regarding his position about the war criminals in Bangladesh. Zaman's proclivity for testing the predicaments of his characters, placing them in complicated situations, is fascinating.
The women characters in “The Happy Widow” and “Up in the Main House” are distinct for their thoughts and desires. In the former story the protagonist Rosie Moyeen was never in love with her deceased husband simply because “the way he loved her scared her”; and in the latter story Anwara, a servant in a rich house eventually gets a chance to wear the clothes of her mistress when the house owners leave the house for a week. Left with her husband Kabir (also a servant) and an old night guard Ramzan, Anwara imagines her to be “a privileged, pampered ingénue whose graces were the envy of a thousand of her peers” and wants to make romance with her husband in a preferred style. In both stories Zaman subtly examines spaces between man and woman, the high and the low, the old and the young, the spiritual and the corporeal.
Days and Nights in the City examines the aspirations and longings of a clutch of characters coming from different classes, sexes and ages—each one is essential to understanding transitions, and private and public spaces of urban Dhaka. With so many clean lines and sharp edges, he writes about the Dhaka we see around us every day so pictorially that it's easy to see how well-wrought the narrative is. Blending a multitude of voices into this brilliant narrative, Zaman has been successful to make Dhaka come to life through well-constructed stories.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters.