‘The interior is ten paces on each side. At the far end, dimly lit by the hole-ridden roof, is a fiercely beautiful woman. Tall, with midnight skin, she wears a garland of severed heads, a skirt of limbs. Her rolling tongue reaches beyond her chin to point to the vanquished demon she tramples underfoot.
Honufa kneels before Kali–the Black One. The One Beyond Time. The One Who Destroys.
She places before the dark goddess the offering of flowers she has brought, she prays to her, ignoring the voice inside that reminds her that new God is a jealous one, that this act is “shirk”, one of the most unforgivable that a Muslim can commit—that of placing another on equal status with God Most High. But as a child burning with fever seeks her mother, Honufa cannot help herself.’
Arif Anwar’s debut novel, The Storm, is a work of poetic prose. There are some who believe that the genre of poetry and prose are completely different and should not be clubbed, but there are many who differ. The lines quoted above are just a tiny example of the lyrical quality of the book.
History, with some bits of religion and economics, is woven into the fabric of the plot in a manner that at times gives the impression of intertextuality within the different stories. There are diverse stories about diverse people, from diverse backgrounds and continents, at different points of time (all being landmark years in history) which, by the end of the novel, ultimately fit with each other, like a jigsaw puzzle. The historical events that have influenced the characters of this novel are World War II, the Partition of India in 1947, the cyclonic storm in East Pakistan in 1970, the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 and the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. This spreads the expanse of the novel over decades, blending and merging borders and boundaries. At the outset, it may seem that the spectrum of the novel is too wide—cutting across decades and continents, but in actuality, it doesn’t seem so because of the manner in which Anwar has tied up the characters and their lives with a single strand. If the author is being commended on his craftsmanship and the characterization, it also makes the novel a not-so-easy read as one has to go back and forth, to pick up earlier threads. The symbols, used as minute references at a certain point in the novel, later turn out to be of significance as the story enfolds. Still, it cannot be denied that keeping pace with the storyline, as it is perpetually traversing time, can leave one dizzy.
Honufa, Jamir, Rahim and Zahira, with Shahryar at the central point, are characters in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), who were caught in the cyclone in a manner that changed their lives forever. It is interesting how Anwar manages to construct different points in history in a manner that the characters are not only relevant to each other, but also add an important link to the plot of the narrative. The British doctor Claire stationed in Burma meets Ichiro, a captured Japanese soldier and is instrumental in his escape, again connecting dots with the characters from the coast at the Bay of Bengal (the then pre-Partition India). Shahryar grows up to be a Bangladeshi analyst in the US, struggling to get a visa to stay in the country, made difficult by the increasing distrust of Muslims post 9/11. As he struggles to stay back in the US, he keeps coming to Bangladesh in search of his roots.
The title of the novel is of consequence at two levels. At one level, it starts with the 1970 Bhola Cyclone that hit East Pakistan on 12 November 1970, and on the other, it was this storm that eventually led to the drastic changes in the lives of the characters. The novel is divided into three sections, all being a part of the storm—‘Gathering’, ‘Eye’ and ‘Surging’, again a conscious effort by the author to choose storm as a metaphor which crisscrosses the lives of the characters and the plot.
There is a certain rhythm to the words, but the description of Bangladesh is more poetic than of the other places. Towards the end of the novel, when the storm finally subsides, Anwar writes, ‘The wind stills. The sun, cowering in the west, billows out a cloak of wan orange, its component rays tenderly exploring the devastation.’
The novel is full of examples like this sentence, resulting in a prose of sheer lyrical quality.
Saba Mahmood Bashir is a poet, author and a translator. Her writings include a collection of poems, Memory Past (Writers’ Workshop), I Swallowed the Moon: The Poetry of Gulzar (HarperCollins), translation of Gulzar’s screenplays of Premchand’s Godaan and Nirmala and Other Stories (Roli Books).