By Fayeza Hasanat
I do not write. I am not a writer. I am an active thought, willing to reveal through words the enigmas of human lives and the perplexities of women’s stories.
My grandmother’s life was my first storybook. I spent most of the summer vacations of my girlhood days with my paternal grandparents, who lived in a tiny village near the northern border of Bangladesh. Traveling to that remote village was like a globetrotting of its own kind. We had to start with a train journey from Dhaka, then cross a river by boat, and then hop on a bus that dropped us at a place from where we either had to get on a rickshaw or use our feet. The grownups always opted for the rickshaw, but I preferred running the rest of the way—a mile maybe—to a house where I was warmly received by a bunch of aunts and uncles and my grandparents. My grandfather smiled like an old wizard as he nodded his long white beard and hugged me, while my grandmother tried to snatch me away from him with utmost excitement. She had a lot of stories to tell and, as she would always say, a lot of things to learn from me.
Being a little girl, I had much to teach, and my grandmother was the only obedient student I had. I was always eager to share with her the stories of my fictional adventures, and in return, I wanted to know everything about her ghost friends who lived in the trees all around that house. While I sat mesmerized, listening to her tales of a big hand that followed her everywhere and advised her on the crucial things of life, my grandmother praised me for my storytelling skills. “You are such a good storyteller! One day, I will be like you,” my grandmother used to say as she braided my hair, listening to my nonsensical tales. Her compliments gave my self-esteem a pair of strong wings! When your grandmother wants to grow up to be like you, you must be some sort of a superwoman, no?
But my magical power did not last long. When I was thirteen, I spent my summer vacation with an estranged grandmother, who was indifferent to my stories and was almost absent from the world she was living in. The day we reached the village, I found my grandmother running—not toward me—but around the house, holding a knife in her hand and chasing some invisible enemy. When she saw me standing by the gate, she stopped and smiled at me, and then started running again, circling the house. For years, I was haunted by that image and could not figure out how someone could look so scary, so scared, and yet so happy at the same time.
Back then, I did not know that my grandmother was schizophrenic. I found her cruelty toward me quite unbearable. She stayed mad at me for no reason. Sometimes she called me a dumb girl, and sometimes she stole my books and threw them out the window. One day, she snatched a ripe mango from me and blamed me for taking what was rightfully hers. Because the mango was from her tree and the aunt who gave me the mango was her daughter, she should be the one eating that mango, she argued. Heartbroken, I took my pen and my notebook and sat under a big tamarind tree to write a story about a good grandmother who was turned into a witch by some magical power of a “ghost hand” that lived on top of that tamarind tree. It was the courageous granddaughter of that poor lady who eventually saved her grandmother by slaying the invisible body of that “ghost hand.”
My father was so impressed with my story that he shared it with all his siblings and they all had a good laugh at my expense. But my grandmother became sad and rebuked me for killing the only friend she had since her childhood. I promised to write a sequel and resuscitate the dead hand back to life. But my summer was over, and I had to postpone my creative adventures indefinitely. My grandmother’s ghosts stayed buried inside my head for several years, until one day I decided to resurrect them in one of my stories.
In the story, “Make Me Your Sitar,” I revisited my grandmother’s haunted past: a child bride in the early 1930s, who created an imaginary friend as her survival mechanism. I finally brought the dead hand back to life and granted it immortality through my writing. I took the title of that story from a song by Rabindranath Tagore. I also translated that song and made it a part of the story, in remembrance of my grandmother’s deep love for Tagore’s songs and poems.
Tagore plays a dominant role in the first story of this collection as well. “The Anomalous Wife” is in fact my take on Tagore’s “A Wife’s Letter.” In Tagore’s story, his protagonist Mrinalini wrote a powerful letter to her husband before leaving him for good. We—and by “we” I mean all the Bengali-speaking people from both Bangladesh and India—always saw Tagore’s Mrinalini as the Nora of the Eastern world. But then again, just like Ibsen’s Nora, Tagore’s Mrinalini (and her letter) was actually created by a man. It was a male narrative—from a woman’s perspective—written by a man and was being read by the husband—the alpha male in a household.
As a gender-conscious writer-critic, I interpreted that letter as a symbolic suppression of the wife’s voice and wanted to write a wife’s letter from a woman’s perspective. I replaced the 19th century Bengali wife with a highly educated immigrant wife and kept thinking of her predicament in a contemporary context: how would this wife write or explain her life to her husband, or to the world? Are there words enough to hold her thoughts? Are words ever enough to explain our truest emotions? What would happen when such a woman, who is aware of all limitations—society’s, her husband’s, her own—and who is aware of her immense strength and yet chooses to play dumb for the sake of social balance, decides to leave the doll’s house? Which house will she leave? The one that houses her, or the one that houses all the doll keepers as the masters of the world? And how will that world define her? Will she be seen as a rebel or as an anomaly? “The Anomalous Wife” thus rewrites Tagore’s “A Wife’s Letter.”
I am a woman and what I write is a woman’s writing—lived and learnt and earned and at times overwhelmed and at times exuberant—but a woman’s writing nonetheless. Sometimes my words are fierce, sometimes they are soaked with a wry sense of humor, sometimes they are loaded with references, and sometimes they blur the lines between the real and the metaphysical and wander around with phenomenological queries. The title story, for example, examines myths and tales about human aspirations, and intentionally moves around the same circular logic regarding time, love, death, or freedom. Through its geographic references, “The Bird Catcher” touches the whole world and its people, nature, music, myth, philosophy, the conflict between need and desire, the seeker and the sought, and the very essence of human existence as a singular and free spirit, while allowing all these various elements to be intermingled in the triangle tale of a bird catcher, a recluse, and a bird.
Each of the eight stories in The Bird Catcher deals with specific issues regarding women and gender—be it familial relationships, misogyny, sexual identities and discrimination, prejudice about one’s skin color, mental health, the cultural isolation of elderly immigrants, the existential quest for a woman’s identity, or a woman’s mode of writing. The world depicted in these stories is not our usual world where everyone seems to have every right to dream or live freely. Women in this world are Daedalus’ daughters, desperately trying to fly toward the sun, wearing a pair of waxen wings prepared for them by their benevolent patriarch.
For a woman like me, writing is a surge, a whim that sparks through the hidden layers of darkness. Writing is a voice, my voice—a marginal woman’s voice. Writing is not what I do or produce; it is a yearning, a yearning so intense that when it tries to write itself in words, each word explodes into a million pieces and hits like meteors and rattles the core of every thought. For me, writing is breathing—on my own accord. I don’t know how to write or even “un-write” because I don’t write. I get written, and what writes me is a labyrinth of my dreams and awakenings and my consciousness of the cultures and histories that I carry in the brown bag of my body.
Born and raised in Bangladesh, Fayeza Hasanat completed her MA at Dhaka University, Bangladesh and taught there for a few years. A Fulbright scholar, she earned an MA and a PhD in English from the University of Florida. She is the translator of Rupjalal (1876), the first known creative piece by a Bengali Muslim woman from colonial India. It was published in 2009 by Brill Publishers. Her translation of reportage on the raped women of the liberation war of Bangladesh, titled A War Heroine, I Speak, was recently published in Bangladesh. She is working on her third academic book, Wounded Memories: The Written World of the War Heroines, scheduled to be published by Brill.
The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, her debut story collection, will be published by Jaded Ibis Press on November 27. She recently completed her second story collection, Aches and Auras, and is currently at work on a novel.
Hasanat lives with her husband and two children in Orlando, Florida, where she teaches English at the University of Central Florida.
This was such an interesting post. Thank you for sharing it.
I had a grandparent who was mentally ill, too. He didn’t have the same diagnosis as your grandmother, but your story about being confused and deeply hurt about her behaviour resonated with me. It’s hard for children to understand these things. (Honestly, it’s hard for us adults to understand it, too!)
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