Review by Professor Nigel Wood

Published in Bangla Mirror, London, UK March 16, 07

A List of Offences – Dilruba Z. Ara
Professor Nigel Wood

(Read on the International Mother Language Day in London and published in Bangla Mirror, London, UK )
I first met Dilruba at a Post-Colonialism conference in Stockholm; the proceedings were part academic and part creative, and the hope was that there would be dialogue between the two. As might have been predicted, this was only a partial success. One of the few instances where this proved possible was in Dilruba’s case. And yet, her work is not an obvious candidate for academic approval: it is remarkably lucid: the symbols are poetic, yet woven into the narrative unobtrusively, and it alludes sparely yet tellingly. Perhaps it still proves possible to simplify the style and gain the heart…
What impresses me about A List is its capacity to draw renewed and distinctive imaginative energy from myth and belief; it would be fruitless to call it a devotional or even a regional book, for, although it has its roots in instincts such as these, it requires no special or partial perspective to understand or experience, for example, the wonder of Daria’s birth or the magic of Ali Baba’s Lodge. These are events and places pared down to primal elements and responses. In Daria, Dilruba has depicted a heroine that accepts displacement and even self-imposed exile whilst retaining her own sense of self – a legacy passed onto her child, Jhinuk. The two departures from her home, Gulab Ganga, promise a new future, but the second, concluding, gesture seems more precarious and yet more exciting than the first, less shored up by expectation and tradition.
Henry James once said that he did not favour novelistic conclusions where he felt that he was witnessing a prize-giving, the sinners duly punished, the selected saints rewarded. He felt that, in these cases, the author had too clear a design upon him as a reader. Dilruba is content to explore issues where a set morality has no place: whose rights, and why ? what is one’s birthright ? should all women aspire to be as self-sufficient as Bina ? what might happen to families based on duty and filial affection if the self sees itself as distinct and separate, determined by no inherited creeds ? I suspect that the core of the narrative is Daria’s refusal to see the Babas’ social mores and expectations as an advance in cultivation or knowledge. The protection and education of Jhinuk causes Daria to re-examine basic priorities, and make potentially tragic decisions. That the worst does not quite arise (although we appreciate the possibility of Fate) does not entail fully reassuring sentiments; just as rivers indicate the ebb and flow of life, the pervasiveness of water imagery in the book takes on a magical immediacy: it transports (in every sense) and can be magical, surmounting the mundane needs of everyday life. Yet at the conclusion, the journey into the future is one curiously poised between the mythic and the real, an “endless flow” that knows no destination. There is, however, “new water” and the rain that dissolves as it replenishes. Both Abbu and Daria realise that it was “not only things that could change in a day, but also dreams and hopes”. In this, A List quietly tackles a central focus of recent times on the death of colonialist ideologies and myths of progress (I speak here in academic accents), for Daria and her family confront change that is not quite liberation and yet not quite resignation, either. As Daria walks to the banks near her home for the last time, she becomes conscious of the colour of her legs, identical to her native hues: “brown with a dash of bright ochre”:

“Daria was aware of the things around her, but felt no connection to them. They were all comfortingly familiar but no longer of any value. It was like coming across an old sari she once had blindly preferred to other dresses, but could no longer understand why”.

This escape from one sort of blindness might, of course, produce another, but the real advance is in understanding.
I would like to think that that would have been the aim of that conference back in April, 2006: that, even if for a time, we might escape that once necessary “blindness” that formed us and our perspective on Otherness. I doubt whether that really happened – unless delegates had taken seriously and perceptively narratives such as Dilruba’s. I am afraid that I have not been able to extricate myself from University affairs in time to attend in person; this means that these words will not be heard in my own voice; this is a pity (although this does not cast aspersions on my substitute !) as I cannot in person, at this moment, support this novel as it makes its way in the wider world. I am very pleased that A List will now be more available to British readers, for it comes over to me as a work that connects with very contemporary concerns in this nation – and not just to our own British Asian sensibilities and experiences, but to equivalent paths to the future that we all face taking in ways that have more to do with a shared culture than the more publicised differences. I trust that this book and author will have a propitious evening and a festive one, too. For all the talk of respecting diversity, the hallmark of peaceful mutual recognition, it is sometimes forgotten that there are many occasions when our needs and impulses are not diverse: in recognition of a work that can captivate and entertain many hearts and minds, we should not ignore that fact.

Professor Nigel Wood
Loughborough University

Nigel Wood is Professor of Literature. His specialist areas of research are eighteenth-century literature and the staging of dramatic texts, especially Shakespeare. In addition, he has an interest in the application of literary and cultural theories to texts.
Current work is on an edition of Four Eighteenth-Century Comedies (Fielding’s The Modern Husband, Garrick and Colman’s The Clandestine Marriage, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and O’Keeffe’s Wild Oats) for Oxford University Press and of The Beggar’s Opera for Broadview Press. He is also co-editing the first volume (of four) of the Longman Annotated Poets Alexander Pope, dealing with the early poems, translations and imitations. The third edition of the Modern Criticism and Theory reader (edited with David Lodge)

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