A Woman’s View: A Review of Dilruba Z Ara’s A List of Offences
A List of Offences (novel)
By Dilruba Z. Ara
The University Press Limited
Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2006
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, several novelists who originate from the Muslim world have made in-roads into the American reading public. Prominently among these is Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, the author of the novels Snow and The Black Book, among others, which explore characters struggling with Turkish identity, especially the perceived conflict between Muslim and secular outlooks. Pamuk’s novels have been strong selling in the United States, especially after he was granted the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy. Khaled Hosseini, too, has been a strong selling author, with the publication last year of his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the same year that the movie version of his best selling first novel, The Kite Runner, debuted. Hosseini, who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan as a teenager, focuses on class and friendship set in Kabul before and during the Russian invasion and Taliban rule. Most recently, Tahmima Anam, born and raised in Bangladesh, has debuted her first novel, A Golden Age, a story of a widow and her children set during the Pakistani civil war that gave birth to Bangladesh. In these three examples, we have novels that are being promoted to American audiences that not only tell of the struggles of characters in their daily lives, but which are purported to give insight into various political situations in Muslim cultures.
Just now, and slowly, making its way to American audiences is Dilruba Z. Ara’s A List of Offences, a novel of such literary qualities as to rank easily with the best of the above. Like Anam, Ara was born and raised in Bangladesh and her novel explores with great precision the inner workings of that Muslim culture. But unlike the above, Ara sets aside the backdrop of strident politics and warfare, to focus on the politics of the household, especially as they relate to marriage and the limitations that marriage puts on women.
Though Ara was raised in the capitol city of Dhaka, her story is set in rural Bangladesh, in the fishing village of Gulab Ganga and in a former British enclave called Firingi Para. In these settings it is easy to see a contrast between traditional Muslim ways and the ways of Westernized Bengalis, and though the novel touches on these differences, this is much less an expose of colonialism, as it is a look at the traditional ways, asking questions about arranged marriages, the duties of wives, the oppression of women, and what constitutes good Muslim behavior from women.
Ara’s story is simple, a classic story of a young woman who follows her passions to an unhappy marriage. Daria Chaudhury is a miracle child, born to older parents, members of a prominent rural family. Her conception is assisted by magic, so at birth, Daria is such a startling sight that the women attending the birth temporarily lose speech. When they regain their tongues, they “recite Quranic verses with such gravity that an outsider would easily have mistaken the room to have been designed for mourning.” Though the child has chubby cheeks as smooth as any, her “hair was silvery white. Ever so white. White like the tops of the Himalayas.” In spite of her fairy-like appearance and her ability to attract snails and butterflies to her cradle, Daria is a beloved child and her parents, served by a faithful housekeeper, Gulabi, ensure that she has a proper and protected childhood.
Fantasy plays an integral part in the first section of the story, giving the novel a tone that suggests magical realism. But as we enter the core of the story, this technique loses favor to realistic description and tensions around social issues. The Chaudhurys have also adopted an orphan boy, Mizan, and as the parents ponder a suitable marriage for the odd Daria, they decide that Mizan, who secretly loves her, will make a safe match. But Mizan, himself, unwittingly undoes the arrangement, when he introduces Daria to his college roommate, the dashing Ali Baba. Reluctantly, the parents give in to Daria’s wishes to marry Ali Baba, and as she prepares to leave for her new home at “Baba Lodge,” in the urban enclave of Firingi Para, Daria’s mother reminds her of her duties as a wife, emphasizing that as a married woman she would now become a guest in her parents’ house. Essentially, now, she belongs to her husband’s family.
From the first, in spite of her efforts, Daria is a poor fit into the Baba household. She is seen as rural and unsophisticated, but at the same time, her in-laws treat her as a maid. Worst of all, Ali Baba will not protect her. This section of the novel becomes predictable as Ara describes offence after offence piled upon Daria by the Babas, the greatest of which is that they threaten to take away her child, Jhinuk. But Ara’s writing sustains the reader’s interest in three important ways. One is her extraordinarily rich description. She describes the household, the food ways and customs, in such daring concreteness that the reader is engulfed in the world of smells, tastes and chatter around the dinner table; or, the sticky languidness and vegetative smells of a tropical afternoon under mango trees. Here she describes the preparation for a family dinner at the pompous Baba Lodge. “A giant ruhu fish was being barbequed in the garden on a bed of live coal. There was also an assortment of bread, rice, champagne, wine, juice and palmyra cakes baked in green banana leaves.” Later, “a number of gas lanterns were lighted up in the yard around the body of the fish that lay horizontally about three feet above the ground. Fat oozed from it into the red-hot coal, producing sizzling sounds. The hired cook that attended to the fish was an old man attired in a pair of greyish white trousers and a coat. He stood by the heat, sweating profusely in his uncomfortable outfit.” Such descriptions not only invite the reader into the sensuous world of this household, but subtly introduce the tensions and awkwardness that attend the social climbing Babas.
Second is her deft and subtle humorous characterizations. As the various residents of Firingi Para come into the story, the reader is introduced to a panoply of Dickensian characters. Many are minor types who make brief appearances, but none are more comic than the Babas themselves with all of their pretentions and self-satisfaction. In fact, “Baba”, a respected Muslim family name, is not the family’s name at all, but one stolen by the father Kasim to make himself important. Once a man of “elegant masculine features and beautiful, large hands” Kasim has become an old man with “big protruding ears and nose…” who washes himself methodically for “exactly forty-five minutes—due to his morbid fear of food resting between his graying teeth, or of breadcrumbs under his fingernails.” In their Anglicized arrogance, the Babas are portrayed as comic and shallow, making their control over Daria all the more frustrating for her.
Thirdly, the character of Daria is an intense study. On one hand, she puts all her effort into become a dutiful and pleasing wife, and yet, as her efforts meet with little success from her husband and mean-spirited in-laws, she becomes taunted and shamed remembering the admonishments of her mother and the other village woman that she must
“Be a sweet little girl now.
To win your in-laws you must obey them.
To complicate matters, she feels a need to complete her education, started while she was in the village. Her request to study is met with ridicule from her in-laws, and she looks for a model in Bina Biswas, a free-spirited, educated widow who lives in Firingi Para. Though Bina encourages Daria, it is made clear that there is a price to pay for independence. Though Firingi Para’s Western demeanor gives Bina protection from traditional expectations, even here she is isolated. Her isolation, though, is more than just social, Ara implies, it is also spiritual—as she has changed her name from “Bina Islam” to “Bina Biswas”, meaning “without faith.”
The tension between the need for self-realization and her hope for the success of her oppressive marriage come to a crisis for Daria, as she must decide whether or not to divorce Ali Baba in the face of her disapproving family and society. On one hand, Ara’s novel raises feminist questions, but these questions for her characters are deeply embedded in both culture and religion.
Published in Dhaka by University Press Limited in 2006, A List of Offences has been well-received in Bangladesh and in Europe, where Ara has lived in Sweden for two decades. Although the book has found European readers, it is yet to be distributed in the United States. This is unfortunate for American readers for Ara not only brings a wealth of talent as a fiction writer but also as a translator. She is the daughter of one of Bangladesh’s foremost writers, Shahed Ali, and she has translated a collection of his stories from Bengali into English. In Sweden, she is becoming known as a writer of immigrant women’s experiences. She is presently at work on a collection of short stories.
American readers that enjoy Pamuk, will enjoy Ara. Like Pamuk, Ara’s is a highly literary style, though less philosophical. Both authors give precise insights into, albeit different, Muslim cultures, but Ara sees the culture through the lens of the household and through the eyes of women.
Anthony Grooms is the author of Trouble No More, a story collection, and Bombingham, a novel. The winner of two Lillian Smith Awards for fiction, he is professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.