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Category: memoir (Page 1 of 2)

Crossing Borders, Mapping Tongues – essay at Papercuts

Born in East Bengal not long after the British left, my first words were in our Bangal dialect of Bangla. Starting there, how did I end up where I am today, writing prose in English, and more recently, translating Bangla fiction into English? That story, involving multiple borders and influences and triggers, became a new essay Crossing Borders, Mapping Tongues published at the end of 2018 in the latest issue of Papercuts from Desi Writers Lounge.

Read the article at http://desiwriterslounge.net/articles/papercuts-nomad-mahmud-rahman/


Ten years ago, Dhaka effectively became my home when I moved there to work on a novel and other writing. I resided in a flat in Nakhalpara adjacent to the Tejgaon industrial area. One afternoon, I walked over to my neighbourhood laundry and handed them some soiled clothes. The man who usually wrote down my order wasn’t there. Another employee took my clothes and totalling up the charge — 84 takas — he asked me to write the receipt myself. I started but then the pen froze in my hand. Noticing my hesitation, he finally said, “Ingreji tei lekhen”—go ahead, write it in English. And so, I did.
As I walked off in embarrassment, I realised the source of my momentary confusion: 4 in Bangla (৪) looks like 8 in English, 84 confused me. This little incident highlighted that while I was living in Dhaka, two languages were constantly swirling around in my head and occasionally, signals crossed. The truth was, most times I welcomed the crossing of signals. It could be asserted that I had come to Dhaka to let those signals cross.
I was generally proud of my code-switching abilities. During this time, my everyday language—while shopping or travelling on bus or rickshaw—was Bangla. When I visited family, we spoke mostly in Bangla. With friends, I sometimes turned to English when my Bangla failed me, especially while discussing complex topics. On a computer, whether writing fiction or essays or sending off emails, I used English alone.
During this time, I was also making a deliberate effort to reclaim more Bangla in my life. In my reading life, I had mostly immersed myself in Bangla. Within months of my arrival, I also took up translating Bangla fiction into English, a task that required reading Bangla prose, word by word, sentence by sentence, reaching for a dictionary only when I stumbled. With time I stumbled less.

The essay was reprinted at Scroll.In on February 26, 2019 — https://scroll.in/article/914574/of-borders-and-tongues-a-writers-lifelong-journey-of-losing-and-finding-his-mother-language

A mythical place called Bangla Motors – revised version

The April 6, 2017 issue of Dhaka Tribune‘s Arts & Letters magazine carries an expanded and revised version of my non-fiction piece on Bangla Motors in Dhaka. Bangla Motors is a neighborhood in Dhaka; it’s where I was born and grew up and the essay offers a decade-long meditation on the place, on colonial histories, both the British and Pakistani periods, and how we might want to think of that history. The essay began in 2005 as a blog post here and was then revised and published in 2006 in a New Age Eid Supplement in November 2006. As I re-engaged with Dhaka during the time I lived there 2006-9, I added further considerations into the mix and the latest version is a substantial rewrite. You can find it here.

In the very heart of today’s Dhaka there is a place called Bangla Motors—more commonly known as Bangla Motor. It is to be found midway between the Sonargaon and InterContinental hotels, where New Eskaton Road bursts into Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue. Bus passengers know it well as a stop along routes that ply between Karwan Bazaar and Shahbagh, and others that veer off towards Moghbazar.

No one comes here seeking a major landmark. There is no big hotel here. No hospital. No large mall or bazaar. Some people interested in books and reading might come for Bishwa Shahitya Kendra, approachable through a narrow lane off the main road. Others with a purpose might be searching for brakes, alternators, or car batteries; turning east towards Moghbazar they would immediately encounter a cluster of motor parts shops. But if they come looking for a business that gave the Bangla Motor intersection its name, they would be disappointed.

There isn’t one—and there never was.

Bangla Motors is a myth. More precisely, it is the ghost of something that existed once, though that enterprise bore a different name.

Letter from America: FICTION FACTORIES

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on November 3, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
hardy-drew
I took a journey back in time.

At the local library, I wandered to the children’s section and spotted a neatly stacked row of hardcovers with familiar blue spines: The Hardy Boys. I was transported back to the library on the second story of the old St Joseph High School building in Narinda, Dhaka. I was again eleven, beginning to devour the juvenile books the Brothers had stocked there.

That year the school moved to its current Mohammadpur location, and I continued my frenzied reading of the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Tom Corbett. My classmates and I soon consumed the entire stock. Then we came to grips with puberty and moved on from the chaste world of these boys to sexier material: James Bond and our own Bangladeshi superspy, Masud Rana.

I decided to loiter in my childhood by borrowing two Hardy Boys novels. I added a Nancy Drew, familiar to my young self through my sister who studied at Holy Cross. What would it feel like to read these books again, so many decades later?

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Letter from America: LIBRARY LOVE

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on September 1, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
library
I work at a college. One morning talking books with a friend, I realize that although I read a lot of crime fiction – set everywhere from Laos to Iceland – I have yet to read Dashiell Hammett, the master of American noir. At lunch, I stop by the library and pick up Hammett’s Complete Novels. Within a week I devour three, including The Maltese Falcon. When the next reading whim arrives, satisfying it might be just as simple.

I appreciate my access to libraries. It’s easy to take for granted. Life reminds otherwise.

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Flâneuring around Calcutta

On a recent visit to Calcutta, I learned a new word to describe what I sometimes engage in: flânerie.
     I heard it at the Oxford Bookstore where they launched Memory’s Gold, a new anthology on Calcutta. Amit Chaudhuri, the editor, highlighted a section of the book titled ‘Flânerie’. It includes pieces on adda and the cityscape of puja pandals. Looking up the word later, I discovered that it has no precise English equivalent but suggests aimless strolling through city streets. Balzac insisted, “To stroll is to vegetate, to flâneur is to live.”
     Just the day before the book launch, I had taken another long walk through Calcutta. I had no great purpose in mind as I tramped from Hastings to Howrah, then over to Sealdah. But once I approached Sealdah, my loitering took on a goal: the search for an address from the past.

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Looking backwards: 1947 and after

When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada — really my Nana, my mother's father — lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
    Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
    For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
    There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.

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Remembering Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

Forget inspiration, forget talent, don’t worry about imagination: her advice for a new fiction writer was simple.
     "Persist," she said.
     Around the time I discovered Octavia Butler’s writing advice, I was still new to writing fiction. I was anxious about both inspiration and talent. I worried about imagination, since in my rather complicated life I had picked up a thousand or more ‘real life’ stories, enough to write many, many pages of narrative. I remember telling my first fiction workshop teacher, Elena Rivera, that I wanted to learn how to break out of the grip of real-life experience.
     Twelve years after I typed out my first ‘story,’ I have to say, Octavia was on point. Persistence rewards.

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Make believe

While speaking to a few dozen friends recently, I tried out a confession.  I said that I was not really who I claimed to be; I was not as old as they knew me and that I had stolen the identity of someone older, someone who had gone through a much richer vein of experiences than I.
     It was a joke, and it fell completely flat.  Only a few people knew the references.  None seemed to care.
     I was making fun of two figures from the writing world who had just been in the news.  James Frey had been exposed by The Smoking Gun for having exaggerated many chapters in his life for his memoir A Million Little Pieces.  And J.T. Leroy had been exposed as not the bad boy male writer he claimed to be, but a woman who had apparently done none of what the author had claimed.
     Perhaps we writers get more excited by what other writers do than most people.
     But I understand the impulse to make believe.

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A mythical place called Bangla Motors

Below is the original post on Bangla Motors that I wrote in November 2005. Since then I revised it twice, the first version appearing in an Eid special of Dhaka’s New Age newspaper in 2006 and the more substantial revision published in the Arts and Letters magazine of the Dhaka Tribune on April 6, 2017. The latest version can be found here.

If you go to Dhaka, Bangladesh, you may come across a place called "Bangla Motors." Buses stop there, and rickshaws, CNG’s, and taxis can get you there. It stands at the intersection of Mymensingh and Moghbazaar roads, roughly halfway between the Shonargaon and Sheraton hotels. Do not, however, look for a business by the name of "Bangla Motors." There isn’t one.
    There never was. The name is testimony to the determined way Bangladeshis were eager to wipe out the legacy of Pakistani rule after the country became independent.

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Writing in a ‘foreign’ tongue

Laila Lalami was in San Francisco last week to promote her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. She, of moorishgirl.com fame, was born in Morocco and came to the U.S. for grad school. In the Q&A, an Indian man questioned her on her choice of writing in English. He said he was grappling with the challenge of writing in a language that is not one’s first language. Laila replied that while her native tongue is Arabic, her first literary language, learned in school, was French, but later as a result of coming to America, English has become her writing language. She mentioned some of the difficulties that come up, e.g. how to reproduce dialogue that in real life is taking place in Arabic, and how some idioms are simply untranslatable.
    This got me thinking — again — of the relationship between one’s writing language and mother tongue. This is a huge subject, but let me jot down a few thoughts here.

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