Review by Professor Claes-Göran Holmberg

Dilruba Ara is rapidly on her way to becoming an important name in contemporary literature. Her novel A List of Offences (2006) is a tour de force in storytelling. The book is about a young girl from Bangladesh, Daria, and her painful struggle to escape the constraints of tradition and win her hard-earned freedom. The characterization is meticulous and psychologically accurate. The description of the social and geographical milieu is a wonder of detail and expressive depiction. The pace is more akin to the great novels of the nineteenth century than the movie-inspired fast cuts of contemporary prose.

The book now exists in English, Spanish and Greek but still awaits the great break through it deserves.

When Dilruba Ara now has written her first collection of short stories, /TITLE/ my expectations are high: can she live up to the great promises of the novel? I think it can. A short story can of course never paint as complete a picture as a novel but there are plenty of excellent miniature portraits. Besides some of the short stories are more plot oriented and tells a story fast and efficient.

The collection has two main parts, one where the stories  take place in Ara’s native country, Bangladesh, and one where her new country, Sweden, is the setting.

The short stories from Bangladesh are written with a sensual lustre where loss plays a big part. The reader is acquainted with nature, with people and with careful descriptions of dressing and eating habits. But behind the subtle powers of observation there is an equally powerful eye for the inner side of a person. Human destinies are sketched in a couple of pages and psychologically credible portraits are chiselled with a steady hand.

Some of the short stories are built in a more traditional way with an elegant finishing point. Others are more like lyrical pictures and lacks closure.

In “The Theft” Dilruba Ara builds, as in so many others of her stories, upon a state of conflict within a family – and “family” is to be taken as a much bigger institution than it usually is in Europe. It does not only comprise a great number of family members but also servants. The big events in the background: war, political upheavals etc. are only suggested.

The protagonists here are the female narrator, the daughter of the house, and the servant girl, Ambia, belonging to the Bihari people. With her ability to merely suggest the writer lets us know that an important reason for hiring the girl was an ugly gap in her upper row of teeth. It’s up to the reader to figure out that the positive thing with having an ugly female servant is that she is not that attractive for the men in the family.

The sister of the narrator is in hospital for a serious pregnancy illness. The narrator takes care of her sister’s little daughter at the same time as she is spying on her brother-in-law who she suspects has a love affair with Amibia. In a few pages Dilruba Ara manages to tell the story of a couple of lives who for a while touches each other and depict a series of events that leave both bitterness and happiness in it’s wake.

A suddenly appearing cow is the reason for a miniature drama in “Voice of a cow”. A young boy and a cattle dealer get into a collision course and a tragical misunderstanding hurt them both. This is a story   that at the same time shows local injustices and human inexorability.

“Affection” is the story of a young “coolie” and his desperate attempts to get some money for his poor family. He is failing until he finally thinks of a trick; a trick involving stealing flowers at the churchyard and selling them.

In “Meeting cancelled” Dilruba Ara gets a chance to demonstrate her ability also to handle a more traditional short story stile with a classical surprise ending. Rashid has been living in Dhaka with his mother for 35 years. When she feels her end is nearing she decides that the son has to get married in order to survive in the future. But it is not that easy to let go.

The protagonist in “Mosque-yard Imam” lives in Sweden but makes a trip to Bangladesh, her native country. Having lived in two very different cultures is not an entirely carefree position. It is easy to look upon yourself as an outsider in both societies. The female protagonist in this and many others of the short stories in this collection is easily recognizable. She is an observer and a soul searcher – she is probably reasonably close to the author herself. In this story she returns to her home to bury her father. Her venture to want to paint the bamboo fence around her father’s grave herself leads to a precarious situation where she and the persons around her (especially an imam who sees what she does) have to reflect upon what a woman is allowed to do.

The stories from the new country are in another key, at the same time lighter and darker. The Swedish fairness is pitted against the unequal native country. But the feelings of security are more often associated with the family in Bangladesh. In the new country blondness is for the narrator often associated with an inability for empathy and a feeling of superiority. Persons in authority are often blond.

If “Mosque – Yard Imam” has its focus in Bangladesh “Detached belonging” is centered in Sweden. A woman from another country is about to have her baby when it is discovered that the child has a serious defect that threatens the woman’s life. Her stay in hospital makes her reflect on how difficult it is to handle a situation like this far away from the caring people at home.

“War-child” tells the bitter story of a child of the war who can’t get rid of the past, not even in the new, peaceful country. The constant crying of the child is later succeeded by the embedded bitterness of the grown-up woman. The protagonist, who has no name, consults a blond female psychologist in the new country to get some easing of her pain but the past is constantly making itself felt. There is still a war going on in the native country. And a child that is born to emptiness can be filled with evil – at least that is what the woman feels. Her burning desire to be loved makes her commit a terrible crime already as a 5-year-old child. She then spends a lot of time trying to atone but now, as a grown-up, she is still oscillating between hatred and despair. Is she really a suitable mother? Is she going to lead her child onto a better way or prepare him for that life is war and destruction? Without pointers and without sentimentality the author draws a portrait of a broken soul.

A young man from Bangladesh and a Scandinavian girl are the protagonists in a love story in student circles, “The Less Trodden Path”. The boy has promised his parents not to fall in love during his period of studies and save himself for a girl from his own country. A common love for the poetry of Robert Frost is the start for the young man’s and the Scandinavian girl’s walk on “the Pass Less Taken”. A charming little story about an attempt to overcome the obstacles of love.

“Window” is a story set in a school environment. The main character, Abdullah Fakru, is a young Arabian born boy with social problems. He refuses to take part in schoolwork and goes over as a typhoon in the classroom. His English teacher is the one person who finally gets inside his armored soul. Dilruba Ara is not afraid to work with material that in the hands of a lesser writer easily could have been  moralistic or sentimental, but by refusing to make her characters stereotypes she always gets out the psychologically many-sidedness in them.

An annulled marriage between a foreign woman and a Swedish man becomes in “The Frame” a bitter description of the hardships of being an outsider. The woman now stands between the choice of either staying in the new country, with children but without husband, or return to the country of her parents. The feeling of emptiness and powerlessness gets symbolical expressions.

Another twist in the cultural clash between the woman from Asia and the European atmosphere is narrated in “Outsider”. A story about Swedish death in the shape of an elderly couple that took care of her as a daughter. The elderly woman dies from cancer, which leaves her “adopted father” alone to take care of all practical things. The protagonist can’t understand the indifference of the Swedish authorities and the coldness of the older woman’s son. When the main character looks at the Swedish ceremonials of death everything seems incomprehensible and the exoticism is on the Swedish side.

As a portrayal of a lonely soul,   when it comes to the choice of scene “Light” stands out. It takes place among Indian migrant workers in Bahrain. The main character, Pradip, is like all the other underprivileged men called “Rafiik” that simply means servant or buddy. With a clear eye for the individual destiny as well as for the whole social situation around the South-East Asian labor force in the Middle East the author portrays the slave workers of modern times, people who still retain their dignity.

Regardless of where her short stories take place you can be assured that Dilruba Ara in her writings combines an exquisite feeling for portraying individual  human beings with an ability to show the vulnerability and alienation of man and this without succumbing to sentimentality or becoming a moralizer. That is a sign of a great writer.


Claes-Göran Holmberg

Literary critic

Professor of Comparative Literature,

Lund, Sweden

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