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An ode to survival

June 13, 2010

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 KILLING the Water is an intelligent and evocative compilation of 12 stories by Mahmud Rahman. The author, who is Bengali and experienced much of his country's bloody struggle for independence, delves deep into his own experiences as a youth in East Pakistan/Bangladesh and his life among the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States.

His primary focal point, therefore, stems from East Pakistan of the 1970s, where the battle for the creation of Bangladesh took on its most brutal form.

'Each of these stories says something revealing and memorable about the effects of war, migration and displacement, as new lives play out against altered worlds “back home”,' says the author.

Each story reveals the horror and brutality of the times, the sheer hopelessness of those who lost loved ones, and the uncertainty about what the future held.

The book covers three distinct phases the pre-partition period when the British held sway, the bloody aftermath of the war for Bangladeshi independence in 1971 and lastly, the experience of Bangladeshi immigrants in the West whose sense of identity still remains entangled in the past.

Rahman brings authenticity and raw emotions to the table, and writes with intelligible flow. He has the capacity to overwhelm in some cases, but keeps his grandstanding to a minimum which adds value to his writing.

'City Shoes in the Village' tells the story of an errant son, Altaf, who after running away from his ancestral home in pre-partition Modhupur finds some measure of success in the hustle and bustle of Kolkata. He triumphantly returns after years spent making his 'fortune'; a stable government job and a self-built motorboat cobbled together from random pieces.

Altaf is ridden with guilt for leaving behind his family, in particular his younger brother who was left to bear the responsibility of being head of the family.

Altaf does not realise that the skills that he acquired during his village upbringing have shaped his personality, for example his selfreliance, making do with the most basic resources, and the ability to make something out of scrap. His pride and joy is his motorboat; yet as much as he loves his crowning achievement, he craves for something more respect. Respect from the Angrezi sahib, from his coworkers, from the village people and, most of all, his family.

'Kerosene' is a powerful tale set in 1971 in which women and children, refugees from post-partition days, are burnt alive by a Bengali mob. The story chronicles the transformation of an ordinary, peaceful town into a band of ardent and violent nationalists who suddenly develop the capacity to commit heinous crimes.

The story is revealing in that it shows the utter chaos of the times. The sheer power of sentiment overriding basic human morality is a theme thoroughly explored throughout the story, and it makes for powerful reading.

Another theme explored by the author is that of the basic denominators in a society. Rahman questions whether religion is really an all-binding force, or if culture and language override the religious solidarity that created a nation in the first place.

'Orange Line' recounts the experiences of a Bangladeshi immigrant in the United States. The story highlights how racism has still not been fully extinguished from American society. Shaheen, the protagonist, is attacked by a gang of thugs and only manages to escape from further attacks due to protection by America's other racial minorities, who continue to live as second class citizens.

What makes the stories especially powerful is the fact that they are all inspired by the author's personal experiences. From being a witness to the Bangladeshi conflict to living as a US immigrant, Rahman has stories that need to be told.

His narratives give the impression that the real victims of conflict are not those who died, but rather the survivors who are left to carry the burden of the sacrifices made during its bloodiest moments.