The Hippo Girl and Other Stories
By Shah Tazrian Ashrafi
Hachette
ISBN: 978-9357313841
192pp.

In his debut collection, The Hippo Girl and Other Stories, Shah Tazrian Ashrafi offers an exploration of the Bangladeshi experience, navigating through war, the stagnant life of modern Dhaka, and challenges of the global Bangladeshi diaspora.

Ashrafi’s narratives delve into the heart of displacement and communal strife, with characters such as Sami and Jhonaki confronting their altered realities and the ghosts of their pasts in profoundly personal ways. The tales are majorly focused on the themes of grief, isolation and the search for unlikely solace, such as Jhonaki’s bond with hippos after a tragedy, or Bilal’s struggle with societal rejection and bullying due to his physical appearance.

Ashrafi masterfully portrays the intricacies of human and societal connections, making The Hippo Girl and Other Stories a significant literary debut that offers both a mirror and a window into those navigating the peripheries of society. Through these stories, Ashrafi establishes himself as a new and vital voice, offering narratives rich with cultural nuance and universal truths about the human condition.

The opening story titled ‘Brother’, revolves around a group of young friends — Anwar, Rana, Hakim and Hamza — in Kamalpara, where life is drastically different from their previous home in Rahmatpur, where they once freely roamed around the vast fields. Now they are confined to a crowded space; they are limited to the mango orchard for recreation and are faced with a daily struggle for basic needs, such as lining up for bland meals, bathing, washing clothes and using a dilapidated toilet.

A debut collection of short stories from Bangladesh marks its author as a notable addition to the vibrant storytellers of the Global South

The story is a stark contrast between the harsh realities of their new life and the memories of a more peaceful time back home. It focuses on how, in pursuit of freedom, the young men have lost it instead. Violent conflict had forced them to leave Rahmatpur, where they were living in survival mode and were constantly disrupted by instances of communal violence and military threat.

The protagonist, Sami, reminisces about his brother Shafi, reflecting on their differences and memories and yearning for a reunion amidst the chaos and brutality that has consumed them. This dark tale emphasises the spirit of a community in the face of war and displacement, hoping to return to peace and normalcy.

Moving to the cover story, ‘The Hippo Girl’ is about Jhonaki who, after the death of her parents in a violent accident, develops an obsession with hippos as a means of coping with her loss. This obsession begins when she finds solace by falling asleep against a hippo on the same day her parents died. Her father, unable to sell his crops for seven months due to infertile land and blamed for his poor farming techniques, resorts to killing her mother and then himself.

This trauma, along with financial despair, leeds Jhonaki to withdraw from traditional village life and her peers, spending most of her time with the hippos, particularly a one-eared hippo, who the villagers regard with superstition and fear.

The hippos, thought to have been brought by white men from faraway lands, were like remnants of colonial oppression and treated with caution by the villagers. But Jhonaki finds comfort among them, all the while becoming increasingly isolated from human interaction. Her situation worsens when she becomes pregnant, intensifying the village’s curiosity and concern about her wellbeing.

Eventually, she is ostracised, feared and pitied by her community. The story explores themes of grief, isolation and the search for comfort in the most unexpected places. Jhonaki’s attachment to the hippos is a powerful metaphor for her disconnection from a community that struggles to understand or accept her way of coping with immense personal tragedy. The story brims with cultural context, but also maintains its depiction of human suffering and the ways all of us cling to any source of consolation, no matter how unconventional.

Another tale that left me pondering was ‘Bilal’. He is born blind in one eye and unusually pale. He becomes the target of relentless bullying from his classmates, who mock him by calling him names such as “white ghost” and “hijra”. The bullying intensifies over time, especially when he cries, which only provides his bullies with further fuel. The adults in his life, including teachers and even his peers’ parents, also mistreat him, showing disdain and using derogatory language towards him.

Bilal’s school life is fraught with humiliation, including harsh physical punishment from teachers. His mother, who faces her own battles within the community, can do little to help him. The only kindness he receives came from Hamid’s mother, who defends him against the community’s backbiting. As the story unfolds, the cruelty worsens, leading to his withdrawal from school. He begins a life of hard labour instead, alongside his mother, with a tragic end that leaves his classmates and community guilty and reeling.

Systemic bullying is a very common problem in Pakistani schools and communities as well, and one can easily resonate with this heart-wrenching depiction of how societal disdain can escalate into severe abuse and tragedy. This story also goes to show how our society mistreats those who are different and the repercussions one may face when people witness abuse but fail to intervene.

‘Bilal’ is a blunt reminder of the importance of empathy, kindness and the responsibility of communities to protect and uplift its vulnerable members.

‘The Maid in Dhanmondi’ explores themes of cultural identity, social class and personal redemption, through the interactions of Farah and her maid, Naznin. The narrative style is introspective and descriptive, delving into the complexities of both characters’ emotions and backgrounds. The characters are developed well, particularly in how Farah navigates her honouring the legacy of her husband Zafar, who was slain in the liberation war of Bangladesh two years prior, connecting with her roots and gaining professional development in Bangladesh, juxtaposed against Naznin’s spontaneous and grounded life experiences. The story’s themes reveal deep societal critiques and personal transformations.

‘Crescent Boat’ is filled with nostalgia, regret and the complexities of familial relationships, as seen through the eyes of Sarfaraz and his granddaughter Shamsie. One can say that Shah Tazrian Ashrafi’s writing style is evocative, using detailed descriptions to paint a vivid picture of the setting and the characters’ emotions.

The development of Sarfaraz, in particular, is compelling, as he confronts his past mistakes and the consequences of his decisions on his daughter and granddaughter. The themes of reconciliation, memory and legacy are explored in a nuanced way, inviting readers to reflect on the impact of family dynamics and personal history on one’s identity.

Ashrafi’s collection of short stories takes readers on a journey through various aspects of life in Bangladesh, from times of conflict, migration and identity, to what can now be called contemporary Dhaka, and the diverse challenges faced by Bangladeshis living abroad.

The Hippo Girl and Other Stories can safely be categorised as a new voice from Bangladesh, marking the author as a notable addition to the vibrant storytelling of the Global South.

The reviewer is a content lead at an agency.

She can be reached at sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 19th, 2024

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