Shamika Shabnam has just finished her degree in English at University of Leicester. Whilst studying she was working on an e-placement at The Asian Writer. I tell her about Lifelines, an anthology of short stories written and edited by Bangladeshi women. She shakes her head. She hasn’t heard of it. I promise to bring a copy at our next meeting, which is for some reason delayed. When we finally do meet it is clear Shabnam has done her research about the anthology. ‘Can I write something about Bangladeshi feminism and literature? And I’ll do the interview as a young Bangladeshi women and I can talk to one of the writers in the anthology about their work?’ ‘Yes of course,’ I say, thrilled by her enthusiasm.
I don’t hear anything from Shamika for several weeks, she’s had exams, it’s her final year. And then at last I have an email from her. She’s completed an interview with Shabnam Nadiya, who contributed the short story ‘Teacher Shortage’ for Lifelines (it’s a powerful story that explores the public and private faces of domestic abuse).
SS: ‘Teacher Shortage’ gives a powerful insight to physical violence and patriarchal dominance and its generational continuation. For instance, Mitul’s Dada ‘sometimes hits’ her Dadi; similarly her father does the same to her mother. In the midst of such a patriarchal domain, to what extent do you think Mrs. Sharif’s silence, in a ‘bhodro’ Bengali society, could be considered a form of strength?
SN: I’m not sure I would call silence itself strength; courage, perhaps, endurance, yes. But not strength. Her strength is evinced clearly when she leaves, and she takes her daughters with her. It takes an enormous amount of courage to do that, especially when there really weren’t that many resources or sources of support around her. What also, to me, denotes her courage (although perhaps in a more indirect way) is her willingness to look at things squarely; when she says about the children, “They know all there is to know. What is it that we can hide?” What she is unwilling to hide any longer are the denials, the kinds of fiction we build to allow our genteel lives continue.
I would, however, question if we can call her response ‘silence’. From the beginning of the story it’s clear that the abuse in that household is a ‘secret’ that is very public; everyone knows what’s going on. Although not explicitly mentioned, it seems likely that this public knowledge arises partially from Mrs. Sharif having told someone. But more to the point look at the moments where the reader engages directly with Mrs. Sharif. There are two such moments—when Mitul-Putul’s grandmother dies, and when she leaves her husband. In the first scene she not only grieves the loss of her mother-in-law, she alludes to the intolerable situation in her household; her mother-in-law had been her ally. Whatever else we witness there, it isn’t silence. In the second scene, she is clearly standing up to the abuse. In both scenes, she has agency: stronger and fiercer when she leaves, but not completely absent in the first scene either.
SS: The narrator’s mother is different from Mrs. Sharif in that she is not a victim of physical abuse. In fact, she opposes such an act. However, when it comes to helping Mrs. Sharif, the narrator’s mother hesitates. In your opinion, does her hesitation signify her weakness?
SN: Absolutely. It’s easy to oppose something when that opposition is merely paying lip service. It’s easy to say that domestic violence cannot be allowed to continue; it’s much harder to take active part in disassembling a social construction that allows such behaviour. Doing is always much harder than saying. People always say things like, Oh, why didn’t she leave. What they don’t take into consideration is what leaving entails, what kind of emotional and/or material support a person in such a situation needs and may or may not have, etc.
It’s not merely hesitation in offering shelter to Mrs. Sharif that is her weakness though. It is her unwillingness to look beyond the ‘bhodro’ blinders; the need of genteel society to maintain a facade of niceness and civility. A neighbour shows up with a bruised face, and her first instinct is to send the children away so they don’t overhear the conversation; she’s trying to shield the children’s ‘innocence.’ An innocence that must have been shattered a long time ago: Mitul and Putul have clearly witnessed violence (not to mention experienced it; remember Putul’s grandfather slapping her?); the narrator, through her intimacy with these girls, knows by now the mundane nature of such evil. The horrific nature of domestic violence doesn’t lie merely in the fact of the violence itself, but in the fact that this is violence taking place within the boundaries of intimacy and trust. Once that (false) notion of safety is violated, a child’s innocence is also lost. By denying the children their own experience, the narrator’s mother is also trying to deny her own knowledge of the world as she tries to preserve an illusory world for the kids. And, as I’ve noted, Mrs. Sharif’s stark rejection of that attempt is an act of courage and strength.
SS: You have brilliantly captured the societal constraints of a Bengali woman. Though your story is fictional, how far do you think it relates to the present day bhodro Bengali society?
SN: That’s more a question for a reader than for the writer to answer. That I chose to write this story indicates that I do think the issues examined are relevant and crucial. Whether I’m right or wrong is for the reader to explore; does anything in the story resonate to the world they see around them?
Fiction tries to exemplify a larger view of life through the individual experience. The fear of public shame, the fear of what-will-people-say is a determining factor for us, especially for bhodro families, especially in questions of domestic life. This is a stricture that society imposes on both men and women, but given the nature of our society, the brunt of it is borne by women.
Look at our response to an incident of domestic violence that happened just a couple of years ago. Rumana Manzur, a professional woman whose accomplishments and parentage places her solidly in the bhodro class, became a cause celebre when her husband tried to gouge out her eyes. Now, if you followed the coverage of the case at all during that time, it’s clear that the abusive behavior had been going on for a while. But Ms. Manzur stayed in that marriage—because her parents wanted her to, because she had a child, because of all these reasons. Until her husband, in a fit of jealousy and rage, literally tried to claw her eyes out. Her vision has been compromised for the rest of her life; she’s lucky she wasn’t blinded. I cannot even begin to imagine how emotionally damaged is her child, who was apparently present during these attacks.
Yet massive public response came out blaming her for ‘provoking’ this violence. When I talked to people around me, read the hundreds of comments on blogs, newspaper websites and the like, most of the comments were in the tune of how-terrible-but-I-wonder-what-she-did-to-deserve-it. Or poor-woman-but-do-you-know-she-was-having-an-affair. The very public nature of it, and her family’s standing in society, at least ensured that the husband was arrested. But the victim-blaming grew worse after he killed himself in jail. Even now I see these posts or comments pop up in various Bangla blogs with ‘proof’ that Ms. Manzur had/is having a relationship with someone—the ‘proof’ being a single photograph of her with a male friend where he holds her in a side-hug, not even a particularly intimate gesture. But it signals to me how eager we are to place blame on the woman’s behavior. There were voices raised in her defense—voices that were lost in the cacophonous deluge of victim-blaming—but even some of those voices were problematic. Where people attest to what a good woman Ms. Manzur is, how devoted a mother, how even while abroad she prayed five times a day. Yet that defense somehow implies that if she hadn’t been that, if her ‘good woman’ qualities were compromised somehow, then the violence perpetrated on her would somehow be understandable. When the stand any just society should take is—this is unacceptable behavior, period. Yet if you talk to most of these people in more general terms, they’ll be against intimate partner violence, they’ll condemn sexual violence. But then there’ll be a rape reported and the first questions will be what was she wearing? Who was she with? Was she out late? This is all shorthand for women-bring-it-on-themselves-so-how-can-we-blame-her-for-it.
SS: Mrs. Sharif’s disappearance remains a mystery. None of characters know whether she has escaped with another male or if she has decided to raise Mitul and Putul on her own. What was your motive behind an open ending to the story? Was it something you had thought beforehand or was it a decision made as you progressed with the story?
SN: It was an ending that emerged from the story itself. What I wanted to do with this story was examine, among other things, how we as a society respond to domestic violence; how we respond to something that disturbs our notions of what is decent and civil. I wanted to look at questions of complicity, of denial, of action and inaction, which required me to step away from the violence itself. What I mean is while the violence visited upon Mrs. Sharif and her children remains a central part of the story, the story focuses more on is how the knowledge of this impacts people around them. This also determined the point of view I chose to render the story; instead of having Mrs. Sharif herself or Mitul or Putul telling the story, we get the story from someone who is a little removed from the actual act of domestic violence.
SS: The remarkable way in which you have portrayed an issue such as physical violence through a child narrator’s point-of-view is worth praising. How differently would this issue have been carried out if it were narrated from a female adult’s viewpoint, for instance, Mrs. Sharif or the narrator’s mother?
SN: That’s an interesting question; not one I’ve thought of at all, I have to say. Of course, this would be a very different story in that case. It’s hard to imagine, now that I’m done with this story so to speak, the other ways I could potentially have approached it.
With Mrs. Sharif, perhaps, it would’ve been a fairly straightforward story. It would, however, place the violence itself centre stage, which I hadn’t wanted. The narrator’s mother would have been an interesting choice; there would have to have been a sense of self-righteousness at her awareness of social wrongs and then the rationalization of her unwillingness to act upon that awareness. She knew that she hadn’t done a very good thing by turning Mrs. Sharif and her daughters away and her guilt over this was made worse because it happened in front of her own daughter. The attempt at explaining away her actions to herself—for who wants to think of themselves as lacking in courage or uprightness?—or to others, neighbors or friends, the relinquishing of any moral culpability for the fates of Mrs. Sharif-Mitul-Putul would have been an interesting angle to tackle.
SS: While writing ‘Teacher Shortage’, did you have a particular target audience in mind? If so, what was the reason behind it?
SN: No, I didn’t. I don’t really think of a specific readership when I’m writing. I’ve found that if I do start thinking of a particular readership, it becomes more a hindrance than anything because I begin worrying about the kind of response I might (or might not) evoke.
SS: Before your story was published, what kind of response were you expecting from Bangladeshi female readers? Did you anticipate the young generation of Bengali female readers to have a different reaction from slightly older female readers?
SN: I hadn’t really thought of the response in terms of a specific readership. What I had hoped for, what I always hope for, is that it can start or complement or contribute to a discussion. That it can get someone thinking, hopefully in a new or a different way, of values or ideas they had accepted unconditionally. That it can show a reader the complex and sometimes subtle stories that people have.
I imagine that the response will probably vary generationally. Younger women respond differently to expectations that society places on them as well as to the expectations to which they hold others. However, that might be an incorrect assumption on my part and I would be curious to see whether and exactly how those responses would differ.
SS: As a writer, do you prefer isolation while you’re in the middle of working on a story or a poem? Do you think writers in general need a certain form of isolation to connect with their work?
SN: Do I prefer it? Yes, absolutely. Do I get it? Not often. As single parent to a young child, a large part of my writing life has been trying to balance my writing hours with the demands of school, meals, laundry, playtime—the mundane demands of everyday living. But I’m also grateful for those demands placed on me. I feel that is exactly the sort of thing that keeps me grounded in the real world. Writers have different processes and what works for me, or rather what I make work for me, may not work for another writer. But for me, I do think what works best is this balancing act; it’s my earthing wire. It’s good to be reminded that no matter how ensconced I may be in the rarefied air of writing at a given moment, I need to get up and make dinner or my child doesn’t get fed. I think that’s the kind of thing that can keep a writer from feeling too self-important, from forgetting that even though writing is important, it’s not the only or the most important thing in the world, and sometimes the act of crafting khichuri can be as fraught and as vital as that of crafting a story.
SS: In a recent article, British Bangladeshi Human Rights activist Irene Khan stated that, the Bangladeshi government ‘announces a gender equality policy but leaves discriminatory laws intact’. As a Bangladeshi writer yourself, focusing on gender issues and power dynamics, to what extent do you consider Khan’s statement as justified?
SN: I don’t know what exactly prompted this comment on Ms. Khan’s part, but she’s probably right. Laws very rarely keep up with the tenor of the times. There are many laws that were formulated in a past reality that was markedly different than how we live today.
It’s no use formulating a gender policy espousing equal rights for women when discrimination is codified in spheres such as family law, personal laws. When inheritance laws grant women lesser rights in property inherited from parents as well as from husbands. When women do not have the same powers of divorce that men do: limited under the Muslim Code, none under the Hindu Code (I should note, that as far as I know, under Hindu family law in Bangladesh, men lack the power of divorce as well; however, it is legal for them to enter polygamous marriages, so the issue of lesser rights still stands). These are not abstract notions or academic issues of justice; these are the very flesh and bone of our everyday living. And these are just a couple of examples. What we see, then, is the state apparatus itself legitimizing discrimination against women; the lip service of policy-making won’t take us much further without dismantling of these structures.
SS: Your story has given budding writers such as myself the inspiration to focus on the issue of gender politics within Bangladesh. What advice or guidance would you like to provide to emerging writers who want to bring forth this issue within their writing?
SN: I’m not really comfortable giving advice to anyone, especially on writing. It’s a process that is evolving for me; I hope toward a better and more nuanced understanding of the world I inhabit. In terms of process, every writer needs to figure out for themselves what works for them—and that figuring out can be hard. You think you’ve got it pinned down, and then you realise the landscape has changed and so you need to readjust everything. Which makes for a fairly frustrating creative life, but I have to admit, it’s also (on good days) terribly fun.
The issue of gender discrimination is something that has been part of my central concerns for a long time. When I was a teenager, I wrote a story about a young woman named Phulki (literally, a spark) who was oppressed because she was a girl but she is aware and has a conscience and she fights the good fight and emerges victorious. It was a terrible, terrible story, and was full of cliches and stereotypes and generalizations of every stripe and I really wish I could find, among all the junk I have floating here and there, a copy of this story. I don’t have it anymore; I looked. It would, I feel, be a wonderful touchstone for friendship: anyone who could hear me read it aloud and not hit me on the head repeatedly with a pool-noodle, would prove themselves to be, indeed, a true friend. Anyway, the story ends something like this: Phulki, the heroine, the spark, exits her family house, the site of her oppression, in triumph. And it begins to rain. The story was so bad, and so twee, that the last line went, Phulki/the Spark isn’t extinguished by a little rain.* So here’s the thing about that story: apart from the fact that I was very young, what I had set out to write was not really a story. I told myself I wanted a story, but what I had really opted to write was a treatise on gender discrimination dressed up as a narrative. And a fairly un-nuanced treatise, at that.
I think if I tried to write that story now, I would take an approach that was absolutely opposite to what I had done then: make the politics of it work in service of the story, of the characters, and not the other way around. The characters should not be the vehicle for some ideology, some principle. That is a sure-fire way of writing a wooden, lifeless story, and one-dimensional characters. So here is what I tell myself everyday: look within and look without but above all look beyond the obvious.
We are complex and complicated creatures. A man named Charles Ramsey recently shot to fame in the American media recently after he helped in the rescue of three young women who had been abducted and imprisoned by a man for over a decade. Ramsey was first hailed as a hero and then vilified because they uncovered in his past charges of repeat domestic abuse. But that’s what people are; neither of Ramsey’s acts cancels out the other and these contradictions and contrariness’s within us is one of the things that make us human. Reading about Ramsey reminded me of Shaheen Akhter’s Talaash, where the protagonist, a Birangona, finds kindness from a man who acts as a hired hand for a razakar. In life I’ve seen a woman otherwise soft and gentle in speech and action, whose life was paean to the value of submission for women, rouse an iron will when her right to independence was challenged; I’ve seen a man who seemed unable to refer to our Hindu neighbours without using the M-word dedicate his life to disabled children regardless of their identity. As a writer this is what I hope for: to be able to explore and depict the world in all it’s human glory and messiness and courage and malice and generosity and spirit. Perhaps one day I shall.
*Here Nadia writes in Bengali, but sadly we are unable to reproduce the language using WordPress.
Read a review of Teacher Shortage and Bangladeshi feminism by Shamika Shabnam here.
Shabnam Nadiya (http://shabnamnadiya.com/) is a writer and translator. She grew in Jahangirnagar, a small college campus in Bangladesh. She holds an MA Degree in English Literature from Dhaka University and an MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is currently working on a collection of stories called Pariah Dog and Other Stories.
Shamika Shabnam Born in Bangladesh and a graduate of BA English at the University of Leicester. Interested in pursuing a career in the publishing industry and currently looking to read a Master’s Degree in Modern/Post colonial Literature.