Inheritance of war

This remarkable debut collection takes an unflinching look at mental traumas that are both the reason and the consequence of violence.

Published : May 16, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Rickshaws on the streets of Sadarghat on the banks of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Rickshaws on the streets of Sadarghat on the banks of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Some of the finest literary works were born of conflict and war (which is to say that the human proclivity for violence ensures a steady supply of good literature). Fiction fuelled by the World Wars that have captured the imagination for generations is proof enough, while closer home, the haunting Partition stories of Manto remain unparalleled. And it is unsurprising that excellent new voices continue to emerge from the restive political landscape of the past decades.

But what happens when domestic violence meets political violence? When schoolboy bullying meets economic exploitation? When mental ill health is both the cause and effect of violence? And vice versa, when violence is the cause and effect of mental illness? What of those who escape a war-torn country but can never really flee from its realities? What happens when a war ends, or does it really end?

The Hippo Girl and Other Stories
By Shah Tazrian Ashrafi
Hachette India
Pages: 192
Price: Rs.399

In The Hippo Girl and Other Stories, we find sensitive portrayals of these situations and more, as the young debutant author Shah Tazrian Ashrafi profiles the pieces of the broken, post-Liberation War society of Bangladesh. This beautifully written collection is a disturbing kaleidoscope of lives, characters, and circumstances encased in the country’s bloody struggle against Pakistan.

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“In the afternoons, you played football with the other kids. Upon hearing their stories, you realized they had suffered much worse…. But you still found your suffering to be the heaviest in human history.” At the heart of Ashrafi’s stories are simple truths, and in this slim volume, we find a rare depth of empathy and insight into the human condition. Interestingly, as Ashrafi wades neck deep into the complexities of post-war Bangladeshi society, the embedded traumas of the entire South Asian psyche are laid bare. With war as the backdrop, the stories depict the normalisation of violence—both physical and emotional—directed against weaker sections of society, particularly children, coupled with the hypocrisy of unrelenting adults.

Parental prejudices

In the titular story, “The Hippo Girl”, the indifference of neighbours to an economically disadvantaged young girl’s personal tragedy leads to a displacement of emotions in her. She begins to identify more with hippos—beasts that are “an embodiment of evil left by the British all those years ago”—than with humans. If the beast of poverty, like the hippos, is a colonial remnant in this story, then in “Bilal”, the boy protagonist himself is a product of war. Bilal is bullied by his peers for a disability, but bullying, as the story demonstrates, is learnt behaviour, with children merely mimicking adults whose prejudices they inherit: “We could pluck the teachers’ disdain for him from the way their eyes rolled, their nostrils flared, the long sighs they exhaled….”

Cover of The Hippo Girl and Other Stories

Cover of The Hippo Girl and Other Stories | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Violence begets violence, and the characters in these stories are stuck in its never-ending cycle. Adults exhibit less than exemplary behaviour, raising another generation of flawed, broken human beings. In the stories “A Blazing History of Rage” and “Queen Victoria”, the unreasonable academic pressures exerted on children by South Asian parents and the ensuing physical abuse for not meeting expectations collide with the violence of war; eventually, in these stories, as in others, parents must face the consequences of their actions.

Fractured families and broken relationships are a recurring theme even as mental illness and tragedy hover over the characters in this collection. In “Indira Road”, the personal merges with the political when a young man returns to the apartment he had left behind as a teenager during the violent days of the Liberation War and confronts the demons of domestic violence that continue to haunt him. Religion makes its appearance in the stories as both solace and a coping mechanism, while fear is the biggest wedge in the adult-child relationship. The book is an unflinching look at the mental malaise that is both the reason and the consequence of violence.

Issues of identity and belonging

Ashrafi’s stories also extend to the Bangladeshi diaspora scattered across the globe, including in its sweep characters who struggle with issues of identity and belonging, with what it means to be Bangladeshi in an alien environment. “The Maid in Dhanmondi” explores the nuances of war and relationships through an employer-domestic help “friendship” as a Bangladeshi-origin British journalist takes on a project in Dhaka to feel closer to her husband, a doctor martyred in the war.

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In other stories, violence seeps in in unexpected ways, in the life of a single mother struggling to do the right thing in her role as caregiver, of a young girl trying to break the ice with her estranged grandfather. Meanwhile, in “Panda” we see a departure from the norm; it is a story rife with symbolism about the lengths that immigrants will go to in their quest for belonging, turning a blind eye to the exploitation of their own people.

Poignant, nuanced, rooted in reality but heavy with metaphor, some stories in the collection are better than others, as in most anthologies. But they are mostly on an even keel, making this a remarkable debut.

Janhavi Acharekar is an author, a curator, and creative consultant.

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