Henrik’s Journey

By Farah Ghuznavi

It was time to give up the fight.

Shifting from the uncomfortable position on her side, Chhaya sat up. There was no way she was getting a nap on this flight.

For her surrender, she was rewarded with a beaming smile from one of her fellow passengers. The man, who had earlier introduced himself as Henrik Something-or-the-other, had not stopped talking – or so it seemed to her – for the past five hours. She was grateful that they had less than two hours of flight time remaining before they landed in Copenhagen.

Reaching the departure gate in Dubai, Chhaya had noticed Henrik almost immediately. Tall and lean, his well-groomed silver hair seemed a little at odds with his flamboyant clothing: a zipper-festooned biker jacket, red tie, white shirt and navy jeans, with a black cowboy hat jauntily perched on the extended handle of his cabin baggage, for good measure.

A short time later, she located her aisle seat, only to find him comfortably ensconced between her and the young Indian man sitting by the window. Curtly acknowledging his introduction, she ignored the twinkle in his eye and dived into a report on refugee relief activities, indicating, she hoped, a total lack of interest in further conversation.

A man dressed like that had to be working his way through some form of midlife crisis, Chhaya figured, albeit one that had arrived late. She had no idea how accurate her assessment actually was. But she was determined not to be a spectator at Henrik Whatnot’s travelling circus. Besides, she was determined to be well-prepared for the donor meeting in Copenhagen.

By the time their meal had been served, Henrik was on first-name terms with all the cabin crew members. He had started by sharing the holiday photos on his phone with Giselle. A tall blonde from Munich, she seemed unaccountably interested in his safari experiences at Kruger National Park. And even Chhaya had to admit that the picture of him bottle-feeding a lion cub was rather cute.

“Was this your first trip to South Africa, sir?” Giselle asked.

“Call me Henrik! Yes, it was, and I am thinking of buying a third home there. Now that I’m retired, my wife and I have more freedom to travel. A doctor’s life isn’t really designed for leisure, but for the last couple of years, we’ve been spending our summers in Denmark and our winters in Thailand, where my wife is from. I’m making up for lost time, so to speak – though my wife’s convinced I travel too much!”

Chhaya concealed an inward shudder at this instance of yet another older white man picking up some young Thai woman on a beach holiday, and taking his submissive Asian flower home to keep him warm in the frozen north. The stewardess, who was probably thinking the same thing, did an even better job of hiding her distaste.

“So you met your wife on your travels, sir – I mean, Henrik?”

“Yes, but perhaps not in the way that you are thinking,” said Henrik, smiling. “I was hiking through northern Thailand, when I stumbled across a village tucked away in the hills. There were no hotels, so I rented a room for the night in someone’s home. The family had a son who was visiting from Bangkok. He was the only one who spoke good English, so he translated our conversation for the others, while we ate the delicious food his mother had cooked for us.

“In the middle of the night, there was a knock on the door, and the young man came in to say that his neighbour’s child was very ill. He asked if I could help. I did what I could, but it was touch and go for a while, because the boy was burning up. I spent the next few days looking after him. He lived with his mother and aunt, who had the unenviable job of plucking and cleaning slaughtered chickens at a nearby poultry farm.

“I ended up staying in that village for three months. That’s how long it took me to persuade the boy’s aunt that I would make a good husband. Even today, my wife Su doesn’t like spending time in Bangkok, so we decided to build a house in her village. You never can tell what fate has in store. My marriage to the world’s kindest woman was built on a foundation of chicken guts, late nights with a sick child, and her determined resistance to the advances of a strange foreigner!”

By the end of his story, they were all smiling, even Chhaya.

She was less impressed when Henrik decided to buy gifts for his beloved wife from the duty-free trolley after dinner. Examining a platinum bracelet stud with diamonds, he asked the steward Jeffery, what he thought of it.

“It’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?” the man said. And then, perhaps remembering that his job was to actually sell things – the more expensive the better – the steward made a quick recovery, adding “Though I suppose it depends on your wife’s preferences. It is a very beautiful bracelet!”

“Yes, but I think you may be right. My wife is a woman of simple tastes. I think she would prefer this one.” He selected a slim gold bracelet cunningly crafted into three interwoven strands, before moving on to the perfumes. “Which of these fragrances do you think she’d prefer?” he asked Jeffery.

“I don’t really know, sir…” he said, hesitating.

“But you must have some preference!” Henrik said. “What would you buy for a woman – for your wife or girlfriend?”

Since Jeffery looked decidedly ill at ease, Chhaya intervened. “Why don’t you ask one of the women Henrik? I’m sure they would be happy to give you some advice.”

The look of relief on Jeffery’s face made Chhaya wonder if perhaps giving away aftershaves was more his style than perfumes. Summoning his co-worker, a petite brunette, to the trolley, Jeffery said, “Marta, this gentleman would like some suggestions about which perfume to get his wife for a special occasion.”

Rolling her eyes at Jeffery, Marta nevertheless obliged. With her more savvy assistance, Henrik finally selected a crystal Baccarat bottle of Guerlain Idylle, spending the tidy sum of nearly 1500 euros on the two items. “I’ve been away a long time, so I have some making up to do where she’s concerned!” he joked.

Appalled at his extravagance, Chhaya couldn’t help thinking about how much better that money could have been spent in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where she and her team found themselves working under increasingly frustrating conditions.

There was no point in making such comparisons, she knew, but it was infuriating when people threw away money like that in a world where others were desperate. And with money to burn, why was this guy travelling economy anyway?

Deciding she had had enough of the strange man and his stories, Chhaya turned on her side, jamming in the earplugs that she had cadged off Jeffery, and willed herself to sleep.

Meanwhile, Henrik turned to speak to the young man on his right, who reluctantly surrendered his headphones and his plans for in-flight entertainment. As Chhaya persisted with her abortive attempt at napping, Henrik proceeded to chat with Sunil, a nerdy youth with well-oiled hair, who was on his way to the US to study Engineering.

“So you’re going on a full scholarship? How wonderful! Your family must be very proud,” Henrik said.

“Yes, they are. I would never have got the scholarship without the sacrifices my parents made for my education,” Sunil said. “But now I am facing some difficulties.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Henrik said.

“Well, it was my mother’s fervent wish that I get engaged before leaving for America, but I just could not find a suitable girl. My parents tried everything. They matched horoscopes, discussed nice girls with my uncles and aunties, and identified a number of prospective brides.”

“But do you want to get married so soon?” Henrik said.

“Oh yes, I have no problem with having the engagement now and getting married after I return from the US,” Sunil assured him. “It is just that none of the girls was right for me. What I mean is, several of them were beautiful, but there was always something I didn’t like about them. And also, too many of them wore glasses!”

“Ah, but you mustn’t be so finicky, young man! You can’t pick a bride simply for her beauty, and think that’ll be enough to keep you happy. Beauty is all very well, but after a while, its effects wear off. The important things in a marriage are humour, and companionship – a wife who is smart enough to understand what you need, and to tell you what she needs. And the girls who wear glasses are probably the smarter ones!”

“But my wife must be beautiful! You see, I am intelligent, but I am not very good-looking. So when we have children…”

“You want them to have her looks and your intelligence?”


“But Sunil, as George Bernard Shaw famously pointed out, you must realise that it could also work out the other way around! And if they were to have your looks and her intellect, surely you would want her to be intelligent too?” Henrik laughed. “Not that there’s anything wrong with your looks, of course!” he added cheerfully.

With Sunil as his captive audience, Henrik continued to expound on his theories regarding marriage. Trying to sleep, Chhaya ground her teeth as the sub-standard airline earplugs forced her to listen in; though she had to admit that the older man did make a number of good points.

In the end, Sunil reached the same conclusion, saying “Yes, Mr Henrik, I think you are right. I will take another look at the bio-datas of some of the girls with spectacles.”

In the end, Chhaya gave up all hope of sleeping and sat up once again. Marvelling at Henrik’s powers of persuasion, she decided to try for an attitude adjustment. It helped when the object of her ire turned to ask Chhaya what line of business she was in.

“I’m a development worker, actually,” she said.

“Oh?” Henrik’s eyes lit up. ”What’s your area of specialisation? And if you don’t mind my asking, where are you from?”

Some imp of mischief made Chhaya reply, “Well, where do you think I am from?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m having a hard time figuring it out. I want to say Thailand, because you remind me a bit of my wife, but your name doesn’t sound Thai. Are you Malaysian? Or Nepali?” Henrik said.

“That’s what most people think,” Chhaya said. “But actually, I’m from Bangladesh.”

“Well, that’s a country facing some challenges right now!” said Henrik. “I was surprised when your government decided to let the Rohingyas in a couple of years ago. So many of them too. I just wish European governments were half as generous when it came to refugees!”

“Yes, if only!” Chhaya laughed. “But coping with the influx has presented enormous logistical challenges for those in my line of work. As well as for Bangladesh as a country, of course.

“Actually, that’s why I’m going to Copenhagen right now, to address the donor consortium that funds my organisation.” She gestured at the report she was holding, “So I need to sound informed and authoritative.”

“Have you actually been to the camps yourself?”

“Yes, several times. I was there very recently, just a couple of days ago. Things are a mess right now, but we have to deal with the realities on the ground. And there’s also some talk about this new disease, COVID 19, that’s popped up out of nowhere. It could be disastrous if it makes its way to Bangladesh, given our population density. And people are living cheek by jowl in the refugee camps already!

“To make matters worse, China’s pretty close by for us, so the threat is very real. Unless, of course, it miraculously disappears the way MERS or SARS did. Still, I’m actually quite proud of Bangladesh for opening the borders to the refugees from Myanmar despite what it’s costing us.”

Chhaya smiled briefly before continuing, “As for Aung San Suu Kyi — I can’t understand how, after benefiting from the international human rights movement’s support for decades, she could turn her back on the Rohingya refugees like this!”

“I guess her hands are tied, to some extent,” Henrik said. “The military are still in charge in Myanmar, after all.”

“That’s true, but I don’t understand how she can possibly deny what’s happening there. And it infuriates me when she draws a false equivalence between the elements carrying out this ethnic cleansing, and whatever supposed disruption the Rohingyas have caused in Myanmar!” Chhaya said.

“I can’t argue with you there. But unlike her fellow Peace Prize-winner Mandela, Suu Kyi is ultimately a politician. And to politicians, the most important thing is power – regardless of how they get it.”

“I wish the Nobel Committee had never given her that Peace Prize. She certainly doesn’t deserve it!”

“I suspect the Norwegians are thinking the very same thing!” Henrik said.

Looking into those shrewd blue eyes, Chhaya realised that she had underestimated the older man. He was no buffoon, whatever the reason for his gregariousness. Or indeed, what some might call his garrulousness.

His interest in the challenges posed by the Rohingya presence in Bangladesh, and his awareness of Suu Kyi’s fall from grace indicated a surprising knowledge of global events, something she would not necessarily have associated with the average Dane, given the sheltered lives they led.

Though of course, Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize had originated in Henrik’s part of the world, in neighbouring Norway. And she had met enough Scandinavian activists and development workers to know that most of them cared passionately about sharing resources to help create a better world.  

“Unfortunately, there is no precedent for stripping someone of the award. So I think we’d have been better off giving her the Ig-Nobel Prize rather than the Nobel!”

“Is there such a thing?” Chhaya asked in disbelief.

 “Oh yes, very much so. They identify recipients for it every year. Not that anyone is eager to be an award winner for that one! But, on a different note, does your organisation accept private donations?” Henrik asked.

“Yes, we do, actually!” Chhaya replied, surprised. “We have a special PayPal account for this campaign, because it’s a humanitarian emergency.”

Henrik took down the details, before taking out his mobile phone. Even as she gave them to him, a cynical part of Chhaya’s mind wondered if this was more of the man’s posturing, or whether a donation would ever materialise. She did not have to wait long to find out.

Jeffery appeared in response to Henrik pressing the call button. “I wonder if you could help me get online for a few minutes?” Henrik said.

Chhaya knew that it was expensive to use the Internet while the flight was airborne, but it didn’t seem to deter Henrik. Jeffery, happier with this request than he had been with the previous one, helped him navigate the process. As Chhaya watched, Henrik entered the staggering amount of five thousand euro, and sent off his contribution.

The remaining flight time passed quickly, as they discussed the situation. And after she had collected her baggage upon landing, Chhaya looked around to say goodbye to her strange companion, and to thank him one last time.  But by then, Henrik was nowhere to be seen.

Chhaya gave a mental shrug. Henrik had asked for her email address, but she doubted she would hear from him again. He had already made his donation, and a generous one at that. It was surely enough to allow him to wash his hands and his conscience clean of the matter.


Evelina Morales was having a bad day. After an exhausting flight from the Philippines, she had landed in Copenhagen to discover that her employer was going to be late picking her up. Not that she cared. Despite being tired, she was in no hurry to be reunited with Mrs. Solgaard. Because though her employer liked to insist that Evelina address her as Anne-Karin, the young woman was under no illusion that it made their relationship any less formal.

Anne-Karin Solgaard’s soaring career trajectory meant that Evelina’s services as an au pair made up a key element of her support system. With two young children, Anne-Karin could not have sustained her meteoric rise as a right-wing politician without Evelina’s help at home.

Nevertheless, Evelina could not shake the sense that her employer viewed her as more of a robotic nanny service than a human being. And although Anne-Karin often touted Denmark as an ideal society where everyone, including workers, had good lives and proper weekends off, Evelina noticed that this did not stop her employer from asking her to work on a Saturday or Sunday if Anne-Karin needed her services, as she all too often seemed to.

Nor was Evelina’s job an easy one. The children, both boys under the age of five, displayed a boisterousness that verged on being hyperactive. Danish permissiveness with respect to child rearing made things even harder. So while Anne-Karin fondly referred to her boys as “chaos pilots”, Evelina could not help thinking that she might have been less indulgent if she herself had to deal singlehandedly with the chaos that they created.

But if Evelina could not quite be sure how her employer viewed her, she was left in no doubt of Anne-Karin’s general dislike of immigrants, particularly those who came to Denmark from Somalia and other hotspots. “If only the Muslims would make an effort to integrate!” she was often heard saying to her admirers. “You’d think they would be grateful to have a new life here, but it’s unbelievable how resistant some of these people are to adopting Danish values.”

Evelina made it a point never to react when Anne-Karin made remarks like that, but she drew the line when her employer suggested she read the autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “She’s a remarkable woman, you know, Evelina. She identified the threat that Muslims pose to Europe long before most of us were aware of the danger. And she knows what she’s talking about — she grew up in Somalia!”

Aware of Ali’s incendiary views on religion from her conversations with a Somali friend, Evelina could not remain silent. “Thank you, but I find some of her ideas too extreme. I mean, according to her, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik felt that censorship of his writings on Christian superiority left him “no choice” but to commit murder! Breivik massacred dozens of children on Utøya. And this vile man actually expressed admiration for her in his manifesto!”

“I haven’t heard her views on Breivik,” Anne-Karin replied, unruffled. “But she is right to talk about the need to combat Islamic terrorism.”

Despite her own worries about the Muslim separatist struggle in the Philippines, Evelina despised people like her boss, whose populist rhetoric recycled tired stereotypes to score cheap political points. So, though she allowed the statuesque redhead to have the last word, the young Filipina left the book untouched where it lay.

To make matters worse, Evelina knew that quite apart from her hostility to immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, Anne-Karin’s identity as part of a tiny minority of Danes attending evangelical churches meant that she often viewed other Christians – especially Catholics like Evelina – with a degree of suspicion. And as a Christian herself, Evelina could not help thinking that Anne-Karin and her Pentecostal friends held views that would not pass the litmus test that they were so fond of applying to key life questions: namely asking, “What would Jesus do?”

That this group’s political opinions reflected the general hardening of Danish attitudes towards foreigners did not make her employer’s racist comments any easier for Evelina to swallow. No matter how much she worked, Evelina was regularly subjected to Anne-Karin’s assertion that Denmark was too soft in letting in the migrants “flood in” to exploit its admittedly-generous welfare system.

Evelina’s friend Aaden, a young Somali man who had fled the brutal civil war, certainly had little time for people like her employer. “How’s Ol’ Sunshine today?” Aaden would ask, smiling. It was a long-standing joke that her sourpuss employer’s surname included the word for sun, “sol” — even if it was because she had taken her husband’s name. Such merriment at her expense was probably not the outcome Anne-Karin had in mind when she packed her nanny off to the introductory language course where Evelina had met Aaden.

“If I knew what would make her happy, Aaden, I would do it just to get that look of disdain off her face. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, but nothing you can do is likely to change anything! Let’s face it, she just hates foreigners. What’s worrying is that someone like her is doing so well in Danish politics!”

“I guess she represents all the people who think like her. Such nasty people shouldn’t be the ones making decisions that impact other people’s lives…”

“Well, she certainly seems to have no problem having foreigners around when they’re changing diapers and ‘airing’ the dog!” Aaden said, referring to the literal meaning of the Danish term used for dog-walking.

“That’s because she can’t afford to hire a Dane to do the work that I do!” Evelina retorted.

“Don’t forget, most of them think they’re too good to be doing this kind of work. I’ve never seen so many people who want all the crappy jobs done for them, but don’t want to let in the workers who’re willing to do those jobs,” Aaden replied.

Now, nursing the overpriced cup of coffee she had bought in order to occupy a table at the airport snack bar, Evelina reflected on how unhappy she felt being back in Denmark.

Nobody at home understood. For them, it was a great opportunity to travel and earn good money for what was, after all, a relatively simple job. Too simple, Evelina thought. Was this all that being a straight “A” student throughout school and college was worth?

To add insult to injury, Aunty Nancy kept telling her, “You might even meet some nice Danish man. And then you could stay on there!” Evelina did not have the heart to tell her that marriage was probably the last thing on the average Danish man’s mind. But letting her family down by quitting her job was just not an option. And it did at least allow her to save some money towards a university degree.

Her despondent musings were interrupted by a smiling stranger. As the silver-haired gentleman standing in front of her enquired if he could share her table, Evelina looked around at the lack of available spaces and assented with whatever grace she could muster.

“Are you okay?” the man asked her, after a moment. “You look a little tired.”

The concern in his eyes prevented her from taking offence. “I’m all right. It’s just been a long flight…” And before she knew it, Evelina found herself telling a stranger what she had been unable to share with her family.

He listened patiently, before saying, “I’m so sorry you’re having such a difficult time. This is certainly not the best time to be an outsider in Denmark. But you know, there are many Danes who feel exactly the same way that you do. Especially people working in the development sector, like me, who’ve seen more of the world.”

“Oh, do you travel a lot for work?” Evelina asked.

“Yes, or at least, I have done more of that recently. I’m a doctor, you see. Once I retired, I wanted to do something useful. So now I volunteer to work in countries that are experiencing humanitarian crises – though I’ll admit that I wasn’t brave enough to help with the Ebola outbreak.”

“So where have you been?” Evelina asked.

“All over the place, really,” her companion replied. “In fact, it’s caused a lot of trouble in my personal life. My wife is, understandably enough, fed up with my absences! Still, I didn’t expect…” he paused.

“Is something wrong?” It was Evelina’s turn to ask.

“Yes, well… I was expecting my wife to pick me up, you see. But I just received the text message she wrote last night. She says she’s leaving me. So there won’t be anyone to meet me at the house now – and I was so excited about coming home.”

“I’m really sorry!” Evelina didn’t know what to say. He seemed like a nice man, but she could understand that his wife might get tired of waiting for a husband who was always travelling to faraway, and potentially dangerous, places.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I’ll manage. It’s not entirely unexpected, but I did hope that things wouldn’t come to this. I’ll just go on to my next assignment straightaway. I’m volunteering at the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they’ve been dealing with the Rohingya people, who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar. ”

“Of course, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Evelina said, feeling awkward. She didn’t even know the man, but it made her oddly sad to think of him returning to an empty house with a broken heart. Still, it was good to be reminded that not all Danes were as unfeeling or self-absorbed as Anne-Karin.

“This would never happen in your country, would it?” her companion said, making an attempt at humour. “I suppose people aren’t often lonely in cultures like yours – not unless they want to be alone, of course”.

“You’d be hard put to find yourself alone in the Philippines, even if you wanted to be!” Evelina said.

They smiled at each other briefly, before the man continued, “I should head home now. But before I go, could I ask you for a favour?”

Evelina nodded, a little wary. He didn’t look like a creep, but you could never tell.

She waited.

“I bought a present for my wife, you see – and I just can’t bear to carry it around. You’d be doing me a great favour by taking it off my hands…” he said, looking at her hopefully.

Evelina was in a quandary. She did not want to accept a gift from a stranger, but she could understand why the poor man might find the poignant reminder of his changed circumstances too painful.

“Please!” he said, “I would be very grateful.”

Reluctantly, Evelina agreed. Straightening to his full height, the stranger handed her a small duty-free bag. Then he turned and walked away, disappearing into the excited crowds that had gathered to greet their friends and families.


Well, that took care of one thing, Henrik thought. He had observed the sad-looking young woman for a while before deciding that she would be the recipient of his duty-free purchases.  Hopefully Evelina would enjoy the bracelet and perfume.

Poor girl, what a nightmare her employer was! But what could you expect from a member of the Danish right-wing? The rising tide of hostility to immigrants in Denmark was part of a wider global picture that Henrik struggled to understand, though he was familiar with the othering rhetoric of “us” versus “them”.

Muslims in particular were often demonised, and when you got down to it, were about as welcome to most Europeans as the Rohingyas were to the Buddhists in Myanmar. It bothered Henrik that his fellow Danes’ commitment to the egalitarian values underpinning their society did not seem to extend beyond their borders.

On the other hand, human beings were complicated creatures, full of contradictions. You just had to look at him to see that, after all.

He had gone from being shy Henrik Ahlberg, to a globetrotting sophisticate capable of talking to complete strangers at great length – even when he wasn’t speaking a word of truth!

Actually, that was not entirely fair: it was true that he was a doctor. And the life story he told was, after all, the life he could have had. If only he had been brave enough to go in search of it before…

As for his imaginary Thai wife, Henrik gave himself points for coming up with such a highly believable detail. His countrymen’s weakness for Thai women was well-known, though Henrik himself would have been happy with a woman from any country, if she had only loved him in the way that he had longed for his entire life.

He had waited patiently for years to meet the woman of his dreams. Preoccupied by his work, and distracted by fantasies about the future, it was too late by the time Henrik realised that the love of his life had stood him up. Unlike him, perhaps she had got tired of waiting. Which meant that now, the woman who should have been his wife was probably having a great life with someone else.

There was nothing Henrik could do about those lost opportunities. But when the unexpected remission from his illness materialised, he decided to use whatever time he had left – and nobody seemed to know exactly how long this could be, since estimates ranged from ten months to as many years – to make up for all the time he had wasted. The South African safari was just the first step in that process.

It was a pity, he thought, that he had never lived up to his dream of working for Doctors Without Borders. Helping people survive disasters in the darker corners of the globe would have been a worthwhile use of a life, and probably far better than what he had used his life for, at least to date.

He had felt a pang when he was describing his dream retirement career to Evelina. But to his younger self, viewed from the safety of Scandinavia, that kind of work had seemed too dangerous. It took his diagnosis to show him just how close to home danger could lurk.

It was inspiring to see people who cared so much about their work, like that girl on the plane, Chhaya. She had been so offended by the extravagance of his duty-free purchases! It was written all over her expressive face, reflected in the furious knitting of those dark brows set over her long-lashed brown eyes.

She had no way of knowing that he was “in character” at the time. Or that money was the one thing that he did have, since both love and time were in short supply.

She was a feisty little thing, that one, Henrik thought, chuckling inwardly. Not that she would thank him for describing her as “little”, he suspected. Even if he did tower over her five foot frame. The encounter with her reminded him of something that his Indian friend Jayesh had said, about a proverb to the effect that small chillies often pack the biggest punch.

And meeting people like her also validated his choice to travel economy, which he preferred because of the diversity it offered, in comparison to the comfortable predictability of business class.

Remembering that he still had Chhaya’s card tucked away in his wallet, Henrik had the sudden thought that medical volunteering might not be such a far-fetched idea, even now. After all, he suspected they needed all the help they could get in those refugee camps.

And if he followed through with his plan, then perhaps on some future flight he would even get to tell his fellow travellers a true story or two.


Farah Ghuznavi is a Bangladeshi writer, whose work has been published in Germany, France, Austria, UK, USA, Canada, Singapore, Nigeria, Nepal and India. Her story, ‘Judgement Day’, was awarded in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010. She was also the writer in residence with the Commonwealth Writers website in 2014.




At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)