My book of stories Killing the Water was released in January 2010 by Penguin Books India.
The book includes twelve stories. Each of these stories says something revealing and memorable about the effects of war, migration and displacement, as new lives play out against altered worlds ‘back home.’
The book opens in a remote Bengal village in the 1930s when George VI was King Emperor of India. It moves on to stories set in the years of insurrection and war in Bangladesh. The second batch of stories begins with new migrants in the U.S., the war fresh in their memories. We stop in Boston in the 1970s where a graduate student from Bangladesh finds himself in the midst of a different sort of war. On to Detroit in the 1980s where a Bangladeshi ex-soldier tussles with his ghosts while flirting with the singer in a Blues club. The book closes with stories involving second-generation immigrants who discover that residues from their migrant history show up to influence their attempts to love, connect, and make life.
Killing the Water at Penguin India
The Penguin India book has rights to the Indian subcontinent and Singapore. All other rights available.
(Cover design by Mugdha Sadhwani, photo by Asif M K Bashar Khan)
- City Shoes in the Village,
There would be no familiar faces to greet him when he arrived. But Altaf could expect the children to hear his call.
The dub-dub rhythms of the engine spread out and beckoned every boy and girl within earshot. Their short brown legs kicking up a cloud of dust, they flocked to the riverbank. They jumped up and down, their shrill voices piercing the air.
From the back of the boat, Shiraj chuckled, ‘They think you are an Englishman.’
- Killing the Water,
When I fly into Dhaka–if I’m lucky enough to arrive during the day–I see beneath me the delta landscape of Bangladesh, familiar patches of green fields crisscrossed by a maze of grey-blue rivers. More water than land.
On this visit, the last one I will make in the twentieth century just about to depart, I leave the airport and make my way to a neighbourhood in the centre of the city. Two major roads intersect here, both clogged with cars, buses and at least three kinds of auto rickshaws. Noxious fumes from petrol and diesel engines choke the air.
- Before the Monsoons Come,
In the heat of the summer afternoon, even the pie dogs have slunk away to find shade. Sweating inside his thin shirt and lungi, Moni feels that if people, like dogs, had as little care in the world, they too would rather be napping. But Golachipa, though little more than a village, is a river port that must buzz into life whenever the motor launches arrive or depart, and within minutes the two vessels moored at the ghat will switch on their engines and cast off. Moni will be a passenger on one of them.
Back on Naodubi island, Moni’s mother would have wrapped up her class by now. On any other day she would be eating lunch, but today she goes without.
The boys are processed through my station here on the banks of the Jamuna.
They think they are so smart. They try to rob a bank. To raise money for the struggle, they say. Or they attempt to snatch a policeman’s rifle. To collect weapons for their people’s army, they say. The adaptable ones–those with the rural equivalent of what might be called `street smarts’ elsewhere–don’t get caught easily. But I would estimate that as many as eight out of ten of the others do. With few exceptions, they are from what we call ‘good families’. Children who grew up in privilege in the city. Why they think they can survive in the villages–swimming like fish in the sea, they quote Mao–I will never know. To me, they look like fish out of water.
They waited for me to light the torch that would set the warehouse on fire. Inside we had packed thirteen women, twenty-three children and the corpse of one man. We did not choose to put the dead man in there. A small woman, her lean brown arms holding him tight, refused to let go of his body. So we shoved them both inside. The women wailed and cried out for their god, the children shrieked and whimpered. One by one, we silenced them by taping their mouths shut. Afterwards, all we could hear from inside the walls were muffled cries that came and went in despondent rhythms.
‘What are you waiting for?’ snarled a stocky man I recognized as the owner of the spice store who lived around the corner from me.
- Orange Line,
He was one of the last few people on the streets. As he walked with hurried steps towards the subway station, the young man heard the crashing noise of an iron grate being yanked across a storefront. Otherwise the night was still. Even the Salvation Army bell ringers had gone home.
He was uneasy being alone on the streets. It reminded him of another time, in a place far from where he now lived. Late on that other night, he had left home heading for the riverboat terminal where he hoped to catch the midnight motor launch to the south of the country. But the streets had been deserted in a way that suggested everyone else knew something he did not.
- Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge,
The man tossed Carlotta Jones the Monday night gig and acted like he was doing her a big favour.
The Gearshift Lounge on Conant Avenue booked blues bands every night of the week. On weekends they charged cover and the musicians made a percentage. Other evenings they’d get a share of the drinks proceeds. Most nights they could pick up some pocket change.
But Monday night was the pits.
When Anand returns from the kitchen, he can sense a change in the rhythms of conversation swirling around his ears. He’d become used to what sounded like a band playing strings and flutes, but now it seems a lone percussionist has joined in. Until now, the revellers at the party have been speaking in Creole, all melody and soft consonants. Now he hears a voice in English, a woman’s voice, snappy and accented. But it is not the sound of a Haitian woman speaking in English. He guesses that the woman’s natural language is Spanish, and once his eyes focus on her, he is certain she is Dominican.
And in that instant, he becomes her captive.
- Postcards from a Stranger,
One minute we were chatting away in the waiting room of the Firestone service station, the next you were gone! You forgot to take your book that you’d let me look at. It had your name and address in it.
Left town the next day, so I hope you don’t mind me borrowing your book. A thick road novel should take care of some dead moments on this journey.
Quid pro quo, let me send you postcards along the way. So okay, Buffalo’s not a tourist mecca. You’ve probably seen a picture of a trolley car before. Promise to do better next time. Regards, Nadeem
- Smoke Signals,
The only light in the apartment is coming from the bedroom. The only sound in the apartment, besides the faint ticking of the wall clock in the kitchen, is the tinkling of bangles, suggesting some kind of motion in the bedroom. The only smell in the apartment, other than the aroma, already turning stale, of last night’s meal of basmati rice and leftover chicken curry, is the fragrance of menthol cigarettes.
The door to the bedroom is half open and a sliver of light has illuminated the beige carpet outside. A single white sock, shockingly bright, sits in that triangle of light.
I pick up the sock and take the half-open door as a sign that I can enter without knocking.
- Runa’s Journey,
I am here only because Ma insisted. Under no other circumstances would I have come back to this god-forsaken place. But it has been twenty years since I last saw her, and I cannot put into words how much I have missed her. When she called me on the telephone–I was shocked to hear her voice–she said she wanted to see me. ‘Deshe firey ai,’ she pleaded. I asked her to come to California but she said it was a long way and she didn’t have the strength to travel so far. Why couldn’t Ibrahim bring her to Singapore? I could meet her there. But no, she would not yield. I begged her. I pleaded with her. I cursed her. No, it would have to be her way.
- Man in the Middle,
When Zakaria Brown neared the bend at Grand and Harrison, he noticed three people walking towards him. Closest to him, a dark-skinned woman with her hair locks splashed in purple fabric, a man in the middle and another woman, the tallest of the three, flashing a dancer’s leg through a slit in her denim skirt. They were laughing about something. He stepped off the pavement to let them pass, and the dark-skinned one turned her head and said, ‘She thinks you’re cute.’
Caught off-guard, he only managed to reply, ‘Thank you.’ Then he tossed into the air behind him, ‘So are you.’ His feet should have paused, but they kept on moving.