Review of Srabonti Narmeen Ali's novel 'Broken Voices'
Srabonti Narmeen Ali’s second novel, Broken Voices, begins in a cosy setting—one that belies the turbulence the story actually holds.
The protagonist, Amola, is a young socialite, who struggles to maintain a necessary evil—fakeness—to uphold her place in a society laced with wealth. Amola’s incisive lens lays bare the hollowness that underlies the glitz, glamor and pomp of an upper-class society in Dhaka. She gazes at the invisible yet tangible tentacles of power and renders visible how it works: how the law is evaded, people are bought and truth is suppressed.
“... everyone was for sale, in some capacity or another. Everyone could be bought, especially in Dhaka, if the price was right.”
Although the story is a bit too trite in terms of subject matter, it is partly lifted from the trap of mediocrity by the way it navigates the issues of power and class in a city bustling with new money and haughty braggarts.
Amola is married to the only son of a wealthy and shady business tycoon who owns a shipbreaking yard in Chittagong. It is through her narration we perceive that it is not easy being someone in her society—inside the bubble of wealth. After all, “you had to have the right amount of money, the right house in the right location, the right cars, send your kids to the right school and of course have the right clothes and purses and jewellery.”
The mechanism of saving one’s skin is starkly correlated to one’s net worth. Money and connection course like veins through the upper tiers of society. Phone calls can defuse bombs and cancel or postpone an impending doom. Truth can be bought with cash and a few glasses of whisky. Workers lose their limbs and lives while the rich send their children to fancy schools and drive fancy cars in a city where these contrasts co-exist as in a surreal painting.
After a tragic accident, Amola cannot but step out of her gilded realm, through a jarring transition, into a grim world that is strongly tied to the wealth she (and people like her) enjoys. She feels like a fish out of water when she finds herself embroiled in the goings-on of a profitable yet unethical industry.
Aside from the wealthy exterior of an elite society, the author brilliantly navigates the issues which shape domestic lives, such as history, hostility, competition, loss of identity, laws of love, acquisition of wealth, separation, cancer, death, domestic violence, hypocrisy, extramarital affairs, and so on.
The domestic issues are best presented through the constant tension existing between Amola’s mother and dadima (paternal grandmother), among other significant characters. Her mother and dadima barely agree on any aspect of life. One is there to constantly taunt the other. It is Amola who is caught in the cross hairs of her mother and dadima’s unrelenting cold war, especially since their war always revolves around her. She grows up seeing the two battle over every choice she makes in life, each telling her to tread joltingly different, sometimes conflicting paths. In the end, in spite of herself, she finds herself moored to this ceaseless tug of war—which methodically unnerves her otherwise bold, confident mother but elevates her dadima in her conviction to be a powerful, dominating woman.
This tug of war, which is a recurring theme in the novel, is portrayed so vividly that the reader finds the emotions and sentiments raw and absolutely plausible.
One of its weaknesses lies in the predictability of its narrative, which persists almost through every episode. It is, by and large, a novel that is framed in a very run-of-the-mill fashion; it revolves around a woman born into privilege, who criticizes the system she feels trapped in but falls short of initiating actions to challenge it in any meaningful way.
Be that as it may, Srabonti’s characters stand on their own; they also represent various social, historical traits. For example, Amola’s husband Rishal and his departed father represent the murky world of shipbreaking industry while her dadima’s conscience and actions speak of the history of Bangladesh’s Liberation War. Although the first few pages give the impression that it is a novel about rich people attending parties and getting drunk, the story’s progression states otherwise. The characters are multifaceted and adequately fleshed out.
Not only because it is a novel about discovering oneself going against the tide, Broken Voices is also remarkable because it vividly encapsulates human emotions, and often times, delivers sharp truths about many facets of our life.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a writer.