Friday, 7 February 2014

Book Review: Mirror City, by Chitrita Banerji

A tall, dark girl with a square jaw, a Bengali from Calcutta, studying in the US, marries a fellow Bengali. Nothing extra-ordinary about such a marriage, except that the bridegroom happens to be a Muslim from East Pakistan. Matters get even more interesting when the couple, Uma Basu and Iqbal Mansoor, decide to return to the bridegroom’s hometown, Dakha, now the capital of a newly liberated Bangladesh.

The most interesting aspect which strikes the reader immediately about the country in which Mirror City is set is that Bangladesh doesn’t seem to have much love for India, though India has just played a crucial role in the creation of Bangladesh, an aspect I have examined in some of my previous posts, such as this and this and this. Iqbal’s friends have only sarcasm for India and Indian bureaucrats posted at the Indian High Commission in Dakha. When Uma asks the cook to get her a dozen clay lamps from the market for Diwali, Iqbal warns Uma to not advertise her ‘Hindu’ origins, though when they lived in the US, he used to say that living with subterfuge and pretence is worse than death.

Banerji tells us that Dakha had a 'suppressed seething' as the town’s 'quiet charm was transformed into the rude clamour of a capital city'. There is subterfuge and tension in the air, even though the Prime Minister is popular, since he is surrounded by a coterie, which is resented by many, including some in the military. There is extreme poverty as hunger stalks the land. Everyone speaks Bengali, the women wear sarees and the weather is the same as in West Bengal, but Uma keeps noticing the differences between Bangladesh and West Bengal. When the monsoon breaks out, she makes plans to celebrate with khichuri and Hilsa with its roe, but Iqbal and his best friend Shaukat call out for beef bhuna instead of Hilsa, to go with the Khichuri. Much later, on a different occasion, Uma recoils to see chicken cooked with a coating of spiced poppy seed paste, though she admits that the chicken was delicious. On the whole, Uma’s feelings towards Bangladesh are ambivalent and this uncertainty and even puzzlement continue till the end.

Uma finds a job with an international agency and she enjoys the work and the freedom it gives her. Iqbal has a circle of friends who drop into their house without invitations and stay on for tasty meals cooked by Uma, with assistance from efficient household helpers. Iqbal’s friends come in all sizes, shapes and ideologies. There’s Shaukat, Iqbal’s closest friend, a confirmed bachelor who works as a bureaucrat. Shaukat has a good imported Japanese car and access to diplomatic dos. Shaukat does his best to make Uma feel at home. Fayezur Rahman, an architect, the son of wealthy parents, is equally likeable and later in the novel, marries one Lily, who is just as affable. Maqbul Ahmad is at the other end of the spectrum, with his menacing bulk, swarthy skin, job as a cop and close ties to the Prime Minister’s cousin. Uma hates Maqbul from the beginning. Jamal, with his war-time wound, elicits some sympathy from the reader at first, but Uma doesn’t help him sustain it, as he makes a fool of himself over the petite and attractive Nasreen, who is married to an activist named Iftikar. I found Nasreen’s character to be the most interesting, especially because Iqbal despises her. Towards the end of the novel, we see Uma become friends with Nasreen, without being judgmental, but the friendship doesn’t last very long.

Warning - Spoilers ahead

The blurb says that when in Dakha, Uma finds herself unexpectedly falling in love. After the first dozen pages, I assumed that Uma would be having an affair with Shaukat, since he seemed to be the most considerate of the people around her. However, when Banerji unwraps the tall, rich and handsome Alim Choudhury, with grey-blue eyes inherited from a Portuguese pirate, it seems to be a case of instant mutual attraction. One doesn’t see Uma show much resistance as she is swept away.

At first Iqbal and Uma stay in a handsome, well-appointed flat in a nice neighbourhood, one belonging to one of Zaman’s bachelor friends who is in Abu Dhabi. But when the friend announces his plan to return earlier than expected, Uma’s marriage runs into trouble. Since Iqbal is an academic, their joint income doesn’t go too far and the best rented accommodation they can afford is quite miserable. Uma and Iqbal are forced to stay with Maqbul in his luxurious, government allotted flat for a while. Iqbal resents the fact that he can’t give Uma the house she wants. Iqbals contempt for foreign diplomats posted in Bangladesh, allegedly on account of their contempt for all things native, makes things worse. They stop talking to each other, except when required. By this time, Uma is having a roaring affair with Alim Choudhury.

The political atmosphere keeps getting worse. There is talk of a coup. Things come to a head when Iftikar is arrested all of a sudden. Iqbal and Uma are forced to shelter Nasreen for a night, an act which could get them into serious trouble, if detected by the authorities or if it comes to the ears of their friend Maqbul. This happens before they move into Maqbul’s flat. From the time Iftikar is arrested, Iqbal, Uma and all the friends are involved in a game of cat and mouse with Maqbul, who is firmly on the side of the authorities. Nasreen never elicited much sympathy from Iqbal and his friends and when Uma finds out that Nasreen has been sleeping with Maqbul, they detest her even more.

When the coup finally takes place (Zia-ur-Rahman is never mentioned by name and neither is Bangabandhu Mujib), there is a big change in the power equation and Maqbul disappears. His friends and former classmates assume, without much sorrow or sympathy, he has been imprisoned, if not executed. By that time Iqbal and Uma’s marriage has irretrievably broken down and Uma decides to leave for India.

Banerji’s handling of the ending is a master act and reminded me that nothing is as it appears and no human being is entirely black or white. I had almost written Alim Choudhury off as a womanizer who had absolutely no desire to ever get a divorce from his fair-skinned and petite wife Najma, with whom he claimed to have nothing in common, and marry Uma. I also did not expect Uma to part from Iqbal on a friendly note. However, Banerji achieves all of that. Please read this excellent novel to find out how.

Banerji writes very well, her English simple, but beautiful, just like the sarees Uma wears in this novel. I understand that Banerji had earlier in her life, much like her heroine Uma, married a Bangladeshi and lived in Dakha, before getting a divorce and leaving Bangladesh. And not for this reason alone, Mirror City has a touch of truth which only adds to the fantastic fiction woven by Banerji, who until now has only written cookery books. Banerji currently lives in Boston.

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