In The Meat Market, Mashiul Alam keeps things relentlessly real

This collection, best described as surrealist political horror, sees human motivations being neither applauded nor rebuked.

Published : Jun 12, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Alam’s stories are immediate, happening on the stage of the here-and-now.

Alam’s stories are immediate, happening on the stage of the here-and-now. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock 

Contemporary fiction in English has been increasingly leaning inward, almost to the point of collapsing upon itself. Mashiul Alam’s collection The Meat Market firmly says “no” to this trend. Alam is a seasoned journalist from Bangladesh, and it shows. In this collection, best described as surrealist political horror, human motivations are observed objectively, neither rebuked nor applauded, and that is the point. There is no self-indulgent navel-gazing in this book.

The Meat Market: Ten Stories and a Novella
By Mashiul Alam, translated by Shabnam Nadiya
Pages: 260
Price: Rs.499

Alam deals in a certain poetics of violence: for example, the victim narrates the mechanics of his own murder in the titular story; in the novella, Pony Masud, as bamboos on a bullock cart impale a man, the approach of that contraption is compared to the arrival of Azrael, the angel of death. Nothing is beyond or below description in Alam’s world: the way the victim’s intestines get entangled after the impalement, the quality of a man’s urine in “The Underpass”, or how a young woman’s dead body is carved up and eaten, in “Field Report from Roop Nagar”. These descriptions are not recorded to titillate; they are conveyed with an austere casualness that shocks you into acuter perception, bursting open the boundaries of what you consider experience-able.

Class commentary

There is a running commentary on class, not just within the social order but also within the natural order. For example, the opening story—“Milk”, the only one out of the lot with a predictable ending—evokes the story of Romulus-Remus to underline both these divisions. Most of the stories are replete with similar imagery from the world of animals and nature that intrudes in and shapes the world of humans. God (contextually Allah but not meant to be specific to a particular religion) is rendered as a kind of divine usurer. Surreal elements are inserted so deftly that they feel real: when three ghosts appear out of the blue in “The Cuckoo Keeps Calling”, you do not question their presence, as you do not question the presence of the witches in Macbeth. In any case, the ghosts are not there to turn up the horror quotient: that job is done by human beings.

Cover of The Meat Market: Ten Stories and a Novella

Cover of The Meat Market: Ten Stories and a Novella | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In Pony Masud, Alam abandons all literary artifice to describe life in its ghastly details. He does not care to make you comfortable, he will not cajole you into caring. So much so, that the description of the days of the Bangladesh Liberation War seems burdensome at times, especially to a reader who may not be familiar with its finer and specific political nuances. Alam’s aim is to convey the chaos of a country on the cusp of liberation (and, thereafter, in the throes of reinvention), and he does it with journalistic gusto, bombarding you with information and developments and introducing new characters in every other page. The narrative structure does not help: “later stories [are told] first, and earlier stories later”. Alam is self-aware in making that comment; the narrative voice here is that of an entire village.

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The novella is about the life and times of a mass-murdering goonda, the titular Pony Masud. Alam offers no moral guidance. Pony Masud is developed as a kind of anti-conscience of the village, Roop Nagar, with his psychescape mirroring the villagers’ fallacies. He is elevated and felled through gossip and hearsay, reflecting the village’s collective consciousness. Alam’s objective here, as in the rest of the stories, is to trouble the imagination. He certainly does not underestimate the reader’s intelligence.

Bengali lilts

Shabnam Nadiya’s translation is faithful to a fault to the Bengali original. A Bengali-speaker would instantly recognise the Bengali colloquialisms and even the Bengali lilts and rhythms breathing underneath the surface of the English text. One “does a scene create”, and the Bengali “tui” (you) is cleverly explained as the “overly familiar pronoun”. Onomatopoeic words like thipish thipish thopash thopash (conveying the sound of the beating of paddy sheaves) and fotash fotash (of bullets) are retained wherever possible.

The collection is a welcome respite from contemporary English literature’s overabundant interiority. Alam does not live inside his head. His stories are immediate, happening on the stage of the here and now. He demonstrates the power of good old storytelling and, in doing so, forces his readers to inhabit an uninsulated world: a perpetual Roz Kiyamat, or doomsday, as described in “The Underpass”.

Shaoni Sarkar is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.

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