Updated: August 4, 2012 17:58 IST

Like a caged angry bird

Rakhshanda Jalil
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The Woman Who Flew, Nasreen Jahan, Penguin, Rs.399.
The Woman Who Flew, Nasreen Jahan, Penguin, Rs.399.

A reflexive novel that explores the tedious inner life of its chief protagonist.Rakhshanda Jalil

A male chauvinist would read this book as a cautionary tale of the perils that befall a woman who is educated and one who thinks too much. A feminist would see it as a brave story bravely told with no holds barred of a woman’s struggle in an oppressively patriarchal society. A socialist would see it as an indictment of the fundamental social and economic disparity that lies at the root of all human misery. I, however, being merely an earnest reviewer, plodded through this dense sometimes-dreamy, sometimes-dreary novel hoping to glean something for my labours. I cannot in all honesty say I was fully, or even adequately, recompensed.

While it is a good thing that a burst of new writing from Bangladesh is now reaching the Indian readers through English, unfortunately much of it is marred by indifferent or patchy translations. I would like to believe that a good translation, while retaining the sights, sounds and feel of the original, should nevertheless not read like a translation. Possibly what blighted my reading of Nasreen Jahan’s rambling, reflexive novel, was the constant feeling that I was, in actual fact, reading a translation. Possibly this award-winning novel that created a stir in Bangla literary circles when it was first published in 1993 could have been better served in translation. Possibly there was more meat on the bones of this story when it was originally conceived in Bangla.

The Woman Who Flew (Urukkoo in the original Bangla) is an edgy, intense, angry novel, its storyline dashing hither and thither like a trapped bird. The story of a young woman, Nina, who has moved to Dhaka from a mofussil town, is told through long-winded interior monologues in some places and a sharply penetrating social commentary in others.

Part stream of consciousness, part coming-of-age novel, it radiates a restless, fretful, impatience despite the coils of wordiness and the tedious inner life of its chief protagonist.

Picture of life

In the sprawling, chaotic metropolis, Nina must find a roof over her head, eke a living and also send some money to her impoverished family back home. Newly divorced from a sexually ambivalent husband, she struggles with her own anger and frustrations as she meets new people and makes new friends, one being Irfan Chacha, her mother’s ex-lover.

What unspools from this self-indulgently wordy catharsis is a vivid picture of life and manners in contemporary Bangladesh.

The radical feminist movement of the 1960s that shaped the career of women like Nasreen Jahan; the bitter struggle for survival among the lower and the middle class and the squabbling over a few takas; urban crime, especially crimes against women, in a city teetering on the brink of perpetual chaos; and men and women finding and coming to terms with their sexuality — form the sub-text of one woman’s meandering journey.

Amid the desultory plot and erratic storyline, some evocative descriptions stand out: Adda sessions debating the elusive democracy over endless cups of tea; Bush’s War on Terror and the lurking sympathy for Saddam; the chaos of every-day life as the country teeters on a downward spiral of debt and aid; campus politics and the pointless dying of the young for a cause that they seldom understand; the desultoriness of drab offices and their petty politics; as well as the incredibly green and beautifully lush countryside.

Amid the debris of Nina’s life and her many failed and faulty relationships, the vignettes of her world stand out in sharp relief. Nasreen Jahan’s depiction of the small everyday harassments and humiliations faced by women without men in traditional societies is the novel’s greatest strength. Pungent observations leaven the narrative, leaving a sharp, almost bitter after-taste, such as: “A divorcee is like a cow let loose; once it gets a taste of the greenery outside, will it…?”

Hostile, envious, even inimical social forces attempt to snare Nina and bog her into a mire of hopelessness and apathy but like the urukkoo, she too soars untrammelled. Unfortunately, her flight is not away but inwards; she finds release through her mind which opens a door to a calming, inner landscape.

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