Manoranjan Byapari: “ Why did I even write?”

Book Review by Basudhara Roy

Title: How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit

Author: Manoranjan Byapari

Translator: Anurima Chanda

Publisher: SAGE Publications India and Samya under Samya SAGE Select imprint

The autobiography, as a literary genre, has a compound and far-reaching relevance. Among the many ways that it engages in a productive conversation with the world, is its staunch social impact. When and why does a person set out to write his or her life’s story? The answers to this could be numerous. Central, however, to each of them would be the perception of a threat to one’s experienced or imagined identity, the attempt to seize empowerment through the act of narration, and the identification of one’s individuality as having a widely referential social base that could encapsulate some meaning for humanity at large.

In the teeming, diverse and thoroughly spectacular life of writer, Manoranjan Byapari, an impulse towards all the three can be found. An unlettered rickshaw puller-turned indefatigable and award-winning fiction writer, and currently a member of the Legislative Assembly of West Bengal (Balagarh constituency) and the Chairperson of the Dalit Sahitya Akademi, West Bengal, Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit is the translation of the sequel to his Itibritte Chandal Jivan (Interrogating My Chandal Life) published in 2017 and winner of The Hindu Prize 2018 for non-fiction.

“I keenly believed that even though a life might be trivial, inferior or disgusting, there was something to learn from it which could come handy later. […] People who scavenged through dustbins would know that sometimes one might also find delicacies in the garbage,” writes the author (in the context of a particularly obnoxious character in the book), articulating a practical and philosophic doctrine that is hard to beat. If taken as a metaphor for his own life’s tireless trials, these words throw light on Byapari’s literary treatment of every little or mean episode in his life with sincerity, stubbornness and sagacity.

The sequel How I Became a Writer effectively takes off from where the first book ends – Byapari’s return to Calcutta from Dandakaranya and his taking up the job of a cook at the residential Helen Keller School for the Deaf and the Blind. Spanning a journey of around two decades, the book documents the arduous, painstaking, courageous and unrelinquishable labour of nurturing the ambition to write amidst the innumerable hazards-big and small-that threaten a Dalit’s dignified existence in India.

Comprising a series of thirty-four vignettes, the book is divided into two parts – ‘School Shenanigans’ and ‘The Right to Write’. The former section offers a close look at Byapari’s work-life – his workplace, duties, associates, and the systemic social inequities that are intended to steadily impoverish and dehumanize those who inhabit the lowest rungs of the class and caste hierarchies. The latter section focuses almost exclusively on his creative life, his intense literary and activist aspirations, and his relentless growth as a writer in the face of every obstacle to body, mind and spirit. The two sections, however, speak very intimately to one another with the result that they effectively build up one seamless narrative whole, animated, in each of its fibres, by “jijibisha” – the indomitable will to live that has characterised Byapari’s intellectual journey throughout.

In her ‘Foreword’ to the book, Sipra Mukherjee, the translator of Interrogating My Chandal Life, draws attention to the remarkable “non-marginality” of Byapari’s writing that, in the first part of his autobiography, exhibits and establishes itself in his choice of both language and geo-political space of creative exploration. In How I Became a Writer, Byapari’s marginal viewpoint on the history, narratives and psychology of the mainstream impresses further. His knowledge of the world is clearly staggering, his perception sharp, and his intuitive wisdom is matchless in its perspicacity. Alert, critical, and thoroughly versed in his Marxist epistemology, he understands the social dialogue of money and power and that of rights and denial, with deftness and insight. Most importantly, he is constantly aware of being not merely an individual but a representative of a social group – the proletariat who must attempt, by all means, to speak truth to power:

“Muttering furiously, she asked, ‘Royda asked you to make tea and you refused. Is that right?’

“I answered in the affirmative without an iota of tremor in my voice. I did what a representative of the working class would do had it been within the world of one of my own stories. The way Bordi, like one of the overlords, had called me forth to show off her positional power in front of her people, I too, was eager to show her that I was a knowledgeable and brave representative of my class of people.”

Throughout Byapari’s language, there is a quiet and determined authority intended to radically subvert the dense and intricate mainstream texts of injustice and victimization. One of his potent subversive tools is certainly his robust and well-toned satire, the other being his close reading of mythological material, folk tales, and indigenous wisdom located in anecdotes and proverbs. Bringing this local ontology and epistemology to bear on the mainstream knowledge involves a constant interrogation of the latter’s chosen socio-political and cultural texts, thus constituting a bottom-up view on social theory and praxis.

Glowing vividly in these pages is also Byapari’s unvanquished faith in literature as a means of social reform. He reiterates here, often, the necessity to take up the pen as a tool of protest, as a means of emancipation from indignity, and as the only method of scripting oneself into social discourse – “Somebody had said that a writer does not write with a pen, but with the spine.” But the act of writing which is often made to appear autonomous and independent of social interference, may not come as easily to everyone. To someone like himself, as Byapari insists, literacy itself has been a gift and the act of reading and writing, a liberation from his otherwise “insignificant, ugly and hateful life”.

In a society where writing has often been valorised as a private intellectual activity, Byapari strongly points out how privacy is, in itself, a privilege. Contrary to the fashionable notion of the writer as entitled to a ‘writing space’ both physically and temporally, Byapari’s autobiography projects him as accomplishing his writing in the oddest of spaces and hours, under the most threatening of conditions, and with the sole will to keep the fire in his soul alive. Both cathartic and revolutionary, his creative life becomes a valuable agency for him to wield his self-esteem against life’s diminishing forces.

But to be able to write and to, even, write well is not enough. To carve a niche for oneself in the writerly world, and to be heard and responded to is an enormous challenge in itself. There is, firstly, the significant handicap of financial investment in publishing a book; secondly, the apathy of prejudiced and non-discerning readers towards writers of the lower caste; and thirdly the entire nexus of publishers, marketing, reviewers and awards to negotiate with. To someone like Byapari, handicapped severely by both his caste and class, literary recognition has been very slow and unforthcoming.

It has, however, happened over the years, for as Byapari believes, in the world of literature, the way upward lies only through dedication, toil, perseverance, and the presence of an empathetic and like-minded literary community. But though the writer remains inordinately grateful for where he has arrived, there is also, at times in the book, a serious questioning of the practical outcome of meaningful literature in the world. Does it make a difference? Does it help transform the conscience of society? Does it lead to material improvement in a poor writer’s life circumstances? Byapari remains distinctly conscious of having been transformed from a writing person to a literary subject under the harsh glare of literary festivals, media and academics but his greatest fear of failure revolves around the possibility that his writing may have failed to make a dent on the world’s harsh indifference:

“Why did I even write? Would I be able to change this bloodsucking societal system standing atop the rotting thousand-year-old foundation with my pen alone? Would I be able to stop the inhumane religious brutality of the priestly class in the name of caste? The child lying on the footpath, who had curled up in the bitter cold, could I bring him a blanket? That child crying in his mother’s arms in hunger, would I be able to make him sit in front of a plate full of warm freshly made rice?

“I could not! I could not!”

However, as in the case of every true artist, Manoranjan Byapari’s love for writing triumphs over all misgivings. How I Became a Writer is a glowing celebration of his tribulations, grit, antagonisms, friendships and the generous support of many noble souls that helped pave his way to artistic maturity and fame.

For those who cannot read the book in Bengali, this translation by Anurima Chanda, an academic and translator,  arrives as a coveted gift. Organic, fluid, and maintaining the right balance between linguistic and semantic authenticity, this animated rendering of Byapari’s life introduces readers of English to a writer who remains etched in memory as much for his lyricism and humour as for his sheer honesty and brilliantly satirical social criticism.


Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.


Click here to read the book excerpt from How I Became a Writer


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Reconstructing a Broken World with Sufism

Book Review by Basudhara Roy

Title: Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems

Poet: Afsar Mohammad

Translator: Afsar Mohammad and Shamala Gallagher

Publisher: Red River

I’m sorry, my Lord. 

My poem is not your slave,
it’s a sickle with its head to the sky. 

My poem is not a damsel timid in your moonlight,
it’s a tiger prowling in a shadowed forest. 

My poem won’t be your grand constitution, 
devoted to your happiness 
at all costs.

-	‘Outcast’s Grief’ from Evening with a Sufi

Not all poetry can be read with the same eye or ear. Certain poems demand to be seen and heard on their own terms, offering to the reader their own canons of understanding and appreciation in imaging an idea that, through them, has just been born into thought. Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi sets out to be one such thought-provoking book of poems.

A slim collection of twenty-six verses selected and translated from Afsar Mohammad’s extensive oeuvre in Telugu by Shamala Gallagher and the poet himself, these are existential political poems that are as theoretically perspicacious as they are urgent and astounding in their overwhelming sincerity. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land, Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi aesthetically documents a difficult world, especially one criss-crossed with systemic hegemony, and bereft of equality. An engagement with these poems is a direct invitation to the reader to embark on an epistemological tour into a sharp symbolic landscape that encapsulates visceral records of social meaning.

The title, to begin with, itself upholds a strong symbolism. Its ‘evening’ bespeaks the twilight of civilisation, the personal-social moment of the unleashing of despair, and a decadent global landscape thriving on inequity and deprivation. And yet, evening, in these poems, is also the transitional period of awareness, self-reflection, evaluation, and the collective envisioning of an egalitarian dawn. These poems, therefore, become investigations and articulations of both fatigue and rest, of falling apart and re-gathering, and of old failures and new beginnings, leading us to look at the idea of the Sufi or Sufism anew.

“For me, Sufism is nothing but a tool of resistance,” avers the poet, indicating how Sufism, as a philosophy, offers a vigorous counternarrative to transnational policies and practices of discrimination, marginalisation, disempowerment and exclusion. “In my village Sufism, I see how people of diverse colours and castes share food, rituals and stories. As a village person, it’s not a far-fetched utopia for me — but an everyday reality. My writings are nothing but reminders of that shared realm of life.”

In Afsar’s poems, Sufism becomes a political as well as existential search for a vision of oneness. This vision is, at the same time, philosophical and social, local and global, integrating and intimidating in the way that most revolutions are – “The drop that can swallow a desert” (‘Another Word’) or “Where walls are knocked down,/ we won’t need the splendour of curtains” (‘The Spectator is Dead’) or “I always speak the language of war.” (‘A Green Bird and the Nest of Light’)

Identity surfaces as a significant theme in this book. Most of the twenty-six poems in Evening with a Sufi embark on a complex exploration of identity on geographical, cultural, social, historical or linguistic terrains. However, the book’s conceptualisation of identity is far from monolithic. Germane to the vision of these poems is the essentially dialogic space of identity and its characterization as an ever-contingent work-in-progress.

Mark the first poem in the collection, for instance. Titled ‘Name Calling’, an ambiguous phrase that poignantly addresses the phenomenon of naming as an act of use and abuse, the poem captures the essential seamlessness of names and identities. The protagonist of the piece is a boyhood contemporary called Usman who is visibly an ‘other’ to the speaker of the poem, the difference between them marked out distinctly in class terms and perhaps also (less evidently) in terms of physical ability – “You scared all the children/ away from the river./ A body like a wound/ peeks from your torn shirt.” It is, however, to this social pariah – “the one street dog doggedly haunted by a ball” that the speaker feels affiliated in his later life:

Now I don’t see much difference between you and me. 
We are the same.[…]
Usman, times never change 
only the roles change.

Muslim, Telugu and Third-world migrant, the poet reads the theory and experience of otherness on a number of sociological axes and through a variety of cultural lenses. In ‘The Accented Word’, he uses the idea of accent to explore the complex genealogies of language on the intersections of purism and cultural hegemony, contemplating variously, through the three sections of the poem, on linguistic integrity, capitalist subordination, and postcolonial erasure:

are stillborn babies. 

Their blood has gone bad with white poison, 
their words have gone bad from the accent. 

I’ve been poured, shared, and bathed in white poison 
since I was little 
and now I want to speak out for myself. 

But my voice is in chains 
and my language is poisoned, 

and the language of my time is poisoned. 

We live on the brackish water of life.

While Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest felt that the colonizer’s language profited him by teaching him “how to curse”, Afsar’s poems approach language with utmost caution, forever mindful of the possibility of trampling and obscuring buried histories of domination and betrayal. Many of the poems, here, are metapoetic in their thrust, assiduously exploring the value of meaningful postcolonial poetic creation from the inescapable inequities and ideological loopholes of language: “a market piles up words sounding like poetry” (‘The Accented Word’) or “How long this slavery to white poems?” (‘Outcast’s Grief’) or again as in “Poetry: / just one dried leaf.” (‘Walking’)

In ‘A Piece of Bread, a Country, and a Shehnai’, bread, music, war and pain – all come together to avow our subcontinent’s shared heritage of poverty and cultural intimacy brutally shredded by politico-religious separation. In ‘No Birthplace’, the speaker of the poem is as much the Indian subcontinent as its hapless postcolonial citizen faced with the inability to reconcile its historical legacy of cultural plurality with the blind spots in its mythological and ideological machinery:

Come, divide me by myself, I say. 
Not by forty-seven. 

My laughs, screams, harangues, deaths, and rapes — 
They’re all yours too! 

It is interesting to note how Afsar’s poems consistently invigorate and socially translate the idea of spirituality through sinewy sociological imagery with the result that spirituality is transformed from a closeted and socially-indifferent personal practice to a welfare-oriented everyday social ritual. In ‘Iftar Siren’, the idea of fasting as self-purification is ironically brought to bear on the understanding of the hunger-stricken socially dispossessed as perpetually cleansed while the overfed victimisers walk about unconcerned:

What a great life. 
In the holy month, 

do you see how you are all becoming pure? 
I’ve been like this for years 

burning in the divine fire. 
Unable to turn into ashes. 

I’m a fire-pit you try 
and try to stamp out. 

Yes, the fire-pit 
is tired too.

The haunting and incendiary metaphor of hunger as fire and the stomach/body as the fire-pit, tired of being stamped out or dispossessed, makes these poems powerful bandages for social injustices as well as flaming flags of protest. In ‘Qibla’, the posture of prayer, again, pivots on the stomach – “a belly turned deep/ into itself/ in which I obscure my body,/ feet, hands and everything/ for a long time” – suggesting the omnipotence of hunger as surpassing all acts of asocial faith. The poem concludes with considerable uncertainty of the efficacy of prayer and with an ideological pun on “arms” (arm/armament) as a means of erasing human hatred.

The stupendous yet composed energy of the book needs no forestatement. Every single word here is deftly chosen, well-placed, and tersely poised to make emotional leaps on command. The images are taut, the sentiments thoroughly grilled in the fire of creative originality, and everywhere, there is a sense of potential unruliness held firmly in check by a balanced and farsighted imagination.

In considering these poems, one must not forget, also, their complex linguistic history. Though translated from the original Telugu, the Telugu language itself includes, for the poet, “the entangled history of Urdu, Hindi and English — the languages that indeed shaped my emotional realm.” Arriving into English via such multi-layered linguistic travails and travels, these exceptionally well-translated poems infuse postcolonial English with a visceral depth, a spiritual profundity and a razor-sharp urgency that would be difficult to come by in the original English.

Accompanied by a very relevant author interview and insightful essays by the translator and  valuable first readers of this collection, Evening with a Sufi arrives, in its essential philosophy and call for humanitarian action, with a new theory and praxis for the world, determined to reconstruct rather than redeem it.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.


Click here to read the book excerpt from Evening With a Sufi



Of Ghosts and Tantriks

Book review by Basudhara Roy

Title: Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural

Author: Bibhutibhushan

Translator: Devalina Mookerjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

The book decides to arrive on a crisp Friday morning, its sunshine so keen and abundant that any thoughts of the supernatural can only be merrily chuckled over. The cover, however, is strangely disconcerting. It takes me time to mark that the brilliant art on it actually depicts skulls. Not ordinary enough to be dismissed as mere biological specimens, the skulls seem to represent, in their complexity, vibrancy and the silhouette of birds that haunt them on every side, a text that is both hauntingly familiar and eerily not so. Bibhutibhushon’s short stories exploring the supernatural and tantra, a practice associated with dark forces and the Goddess Kali, translated by Devalina Mookerjee from Bengali — could not, perhaps, have been showcased better.

Bibhutibhushan (1894-1950) was an eminent Bengali writer whose best known works are his novels, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) and Aparajito – both immortalised into films by Satyajit Ray,  Chander Pahar (Moon Mountain) Aranyak (Of the Forest). Some of these books can be found in translation.To one even remotely acquainted with Bibhutibhushan’s oeuvre, his stories offer a definite assurance of being in good company. In reading , Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, however, what the reader might fail to bargain for is the almost complete obliteration of the physical world by the world of the book, and by the time the journey through the nine translated stories therein has been made, one is no longer sure where one world ends and the other begins.

It takes time to step out of the frame and to express admiration for the conduit that has led to this extraordinary experience in fiction – the translator. To transcend spatiality and temporality and conjure these tales again for an entirely different readership in an entirely different language is likely to have been a project fraught with its own pointed challenges. Mookerjee, however, seems to have successfully met them all, so much so that in the context of the English language, these spooky, unsettling tales offer not the slightest semblance of foreignness, even when they deal thematically with something as acutely local and specialised as tantra. The language is sparklingly contemporary and in its inflections, energy and dreaminess to allow these nine narratives to carve their own particular niches. The pace of the collection stays heady throughout and the atmosphere is completely overpowering.

Of special significance is Mookerjee’s nuanced and insightful twenty-seven paged ‘Introduction’ to the collection that calls upon the reader to visualise concrete connections between social justice and the genre of the supernatural. Mookerjee writes: “Seen against the background of what people are capable of doing to each other, stories of ghost may be seen as corrective mechanisms in the scales of justice. A person who has been wronged returns to tell their story, perhaps to wreak havoc on their tormentors. A disbeliever sits in a séance for which the medium is clearly not prepared, and chaos ensues. We have a word for this already. We call it karma.”

The ‘Introduction’ serves, also, as a brave attempt to place Bibhutibhushan’s writing in current socio-cultural perspective, and to bridge the disparate worlds of rural Bengal that birthed these stories and that of the contemporary English reader of these tales who could belong to almost any geographical space on the global map.

The first two stories of the collection are centred around the protagonist after who the book has been named, a dabbler in the dark arts, Taranath Tantrik. The remaining seven stories are each unique in their own ways as they chart their individual journeys into the terrain of the invisible and the occult with remarkable skill and clarity. “Human beings have historically shown very little need of support from the otherworld to behave in perfectly horrible ways with other people. This is the point at which the darkness of the uncanny and the darkness of people converge,” avers Mookerjee, pointing out how the surreal is often only another dimension of the real revealed in a disjointed spatial-temporality.

Not all of the nine stories strike with equal power. If ‘The Ghosts of Spices’ appears quite facile and juvenile in its description of a march-past of spice sacks on the deserted nocturnal streets, ‘A Small Statue’ appears rather simplistically cinematic in its  dream presentation of the tableau of the monk, Dipankar’s life. In the most evocative stories of the collection like ‘Maya’, ‘The House of His Foremothers’, ‘Arrack’ and ‘The Curse’, however, the quiet, intricate weaving of setting, psychology and idea dazzles in its brilliance, leaving behind a sense of both fracture and healing.

Bibhutibhushan’s poignancy is at its unsurpassable best in his delineation of place and in his exploration of links between physical place and human placed-ness. His most unforgettable stories are those in which people and places interact with each other organically and without inhibitions, creating a documented identity of both being-in-place and place-in-being. In ‘Maya’ for instance, the house acquires an identity of its own as its past inhabitants gently draw its present dweller/s into the folds of its mystery and inexplicable self-sufficiency. In ‘The House of His Foremothers’ similarly, the ghost-girl Lokkhi mourns for the bereft house more than her lost family and consistently haunts its silences in the hope of resurrection for the house which, unlike her, still lives across the family’s generational lifetimes.

To allow one’s imagination to be overpowered by these stories is to experience a strange welding of the probable and the improbable into the arc of the possible — to be awakened to a new dimension of being in which while vision remains at par, the other senses experience a heightened participation with what is positively undefinable but utterly undeniable.

Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, by thus placing the reality in the larger context of a world that still evades the cartography of reason, becomes a portal to a widened, heightened and more enlightened worldview. It helps remind of the intersections between our own human finitude and the infinite world with its geo-historical consciousness incapable of forgetting and thoroughly unable to forgive.


Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.


Click here to read the book excerpt from Taranath Tantrik



Driving with Murad

By Sohana Manzoor

“Go, go, go, go, go! What are you waiting for?” yelled the man sitting in the passenger’s seat. I was at the wheel wondering if it was my turn, or if I should allow the car coming from my left to go forward. At his urging, I plunged forward and turned left. Murad shook his head in frustration and spoke with his thick Russian accent, “You are thoo afraid. Why are you so afraid? What dho you think will happen, huh? If you dhrive like that, you will never go anywhere.”

Murad was my driving instructor. He was a great fellow, full of fun and humour. He was quite motivating and without a doubt, an excellent driver too. Unfortunately, I am an awful learner and possibly also the worst pupil he had ever had to teach driving. I busted one of the front tires of my best friend’s car the very first day I dared to be out in the streets. I sat behind the wheel for the first time in my life in August 2015. I was as nervous and frisky as a kitten and the instructor from the Driving School in Newton made me drive around a parking lot. He suggested that I practice at the parking lot with a friend, and preferably in some streets with less traffic before signing up for my next session.

I did as he had suggested, but only in the parking lot. My best friend and housemate, Nausheen, was terrified of my driving skills, and naturally, did not dare to accompany me in the streets!

My second session was with Murad. He was a little late, and came cursing under his breath. Apparently, he got the wrong address from the driving school, and realised the mistake only after calling me. I still remember him not only as a great instructor, but a great entertainer as well. He was in his mid-fifties, good looking and in very good shape. He also talked incessantly. Every time I made some blunder, he yelled in a good-natured way.

“Next time, I will bring my shoth gun,” he told me once, after I made a frantic turn ignoring all other drivers on the road amidst a jumble of hooting and honking. “I can shoot all those people down, and you won’t have to worry about running them down, you know,” he said grinning.

“You have a shot gun!” I gasped. “What do you do with a shot gun?”

He was nonchalant. “I’m a licensed fire arms instructor.”

“Fire arms instructor?” I blanched and stepped on the gas paddle instead of the brake. Murad quickly pressed on his safety brake and tsked, “Don’t do that. Take it easy. You have to learn to converse while driving.”

He guided me to a rather quiet area in West Newton. I was driving very slowly, and cautiously. Murad suddenly coughed and asked, “What’s the speed limit?”


“What’s your speed?”

“Twenty,” I replied sheepishly.

“It’s like riding a donkey, you know,” he held out both his hands in front of him as if he held the reins of a donkey. Something told me that he had ridden on donkeys too.


After two successive sessions with Murad, I found myself with Arthur, a veteran from the Vietnam War. Retired and in his early sixties, he had the airs of a consummate playboy. He was not bad, I suppose. I would probably have fallen for him if I was a teenager. Arthur would flirt and praise how pretty I was. So, at one point I said a little too sweetly, “But I’m an awful driver, don’t you think?”

Poor Arthur looked flabbergasted. He belched, and then admitted that I was not the best driver in the world. Satisfied, I switched the topic to Murad, saying that I really liked his techniques. As you can probably guess, Arthur immediately turned around in his seat. “Yeah?” he peered over his sunglasses and asked, “And why is that? What’s so great about Murad? He’s shell shocked; I hope you knew that?”

“Is that so?” I glanced sideways, as I was driving through an intricate intersection. The drivers of Massachusetts are awful; little wonder that the people of the neighboring states were terrified of them. Perhaps, just because of that reason I would get my driving license in the long run, I tried to convince myself.

“Murad had worked with the Talibans at one point of his career,” said Arthur.

 I gulped and exclaimed, “Talibans! You are not serious, are you?”

“I wouldn’t joke about something like that,” replied Arthur very casually. “He used to work as a spy for the American Government. He is originally from Turkmenistan, you know. And he is fluent in six languages. So, yes, he was the perfect man to be recruited.” He paused dramatically and added, “I guess at some point they suspected his secret and hence tried to cut his throat and left him for dead.”

I gulped again.


When I told Nausheen and the rest of our housemates about Murad, they were all shaking uncontrollably. Nausheen was noncommittal, “No! This is unheard of! He was really with the Taliban? I have to see this guy!”

So, there she was standing with me the next day as I waited for Murad to show up. He looked at Nausheen carefully and he asked, “Have you seen her drive? Do you trust her with your life?”

Nausheen laughed, “I don’t trust her. But I trust you! Surely you won’t let her do anything so drastic?”

Nausheen can be absolutely adorable, and Murad melted. “Hop in,” he yelled. “It will be fun.”

After passing through the busy traffic of Newton I asked him, “Hey, I heard that you worked with the Taliban. Is it true?”

He turned his bright eyes on me and lifted his left hand drawing my attention to his middle finger.

“You see this moonstone?” he asked, displaying a ring with a yellowish stone. “The Taliban gave it to me. I stayed and prayed with them for three entire years. Crazy fanatics. I almost died.”

“It’s true then, that they tried to slit your throat?” I asked horrified.

Murad shrugged. “Nah, I was not referring to that. I almost died because there was no woman.” And then he shouted, “Look where you’re going. Eeks, you’re something out of this world! But yes, if I have you driving with me, I won’t need to go for parachute jumping any more. I have already given up my morning coffee!”

“You go for parachute jumping?” I asked wide-eyed. What an interesting fellow indeed! Nausheen exclaimed “Wow!” And we both asked at once, “Why do you go for parachute jumping?”

He nodded. “Life has become so boring! I need adrenaline rush. But yes, with you, it almost seems like I am in the middle of a battle field. God knows when and where you’ll turn next. . .  Look where you’re going! That’s a grandmamma! She will kill you if you scratch her car.”

I blushed. And at the back seat I could hear Nausheen laughing her head off. He was so blunt, and yet he was great company. He kept on shaking his head, “Please don’t make that kind of a turn. I’m not so young any more. I might break my neck. My wife is 25 years younger than me. Do you know what will happen, if I break my neck?”

I just stared at him. Why in the world would he have a wife who is 25 years younger than him?

“I will have to divorce her,” Murad confided. I wondered why. Then I hit the brakes again. Hell, this man was outrageous!


In the evening, Elizabeth, our favorite housemate asked, “So, this Murad—is he as amazing as Sohana made him sound?”

We were all in the kitchen and I had tilapia and asparagus baking in the oven. Nausheen said gleefully, “One hundred percent and more. I think I will go with them on the next session too. I have never met anyone like him. My driving instructor was great, but this guy is just CRAZY! All Sohana’s karma,” she winked at me. “I don’t know how she comes to meet all the crazy and entertaining people.”

Elizabeth shook her head and smiled, “So what did Murad do today?”

I listened half-smiling as Nausheen went on regaling our friends with Murad and his outrageous comments.

“You know, now I know why Gary never listens to us,” she said laughing. Gary was another housemate, loud and raucous. During our house meetings his behavior was irritating and sometimes disruptive.

“And why is that?” Asked Lizzy.

“Because he is an arborist. He works with those noisy instruments, and has lost his hearing. His ear-pipes are jammed and he can’t hear anybody else.”

By now my tilapia fillets were ready. I pulled the baked fish and veggies out and announced, “Dinner is ready. And yes, that’s what Murad said: ‘keep away from those guys with big machines in hand. They never listen to your honking because they are making too much noise themselves.’” I paused and added with a mischievous wink, “He also advised to keep away from grandmamas. Apparently, they are the worst drivers.”

Donna, another sweet lady who lived on the second floor, was chopping her root vegetables on a table at one corner of the kitchen. Both Elizabeth and Donna were in their mid to late sixties. Both replied hastily, “well, we are not grandmas yet.”

Nausheen and I grinned. It seemed everybody wanted to be in Murad’s good books.


The day of the road-test was approaching. I was nervous. To make things worse, Murad was gone. He had left for home in Turkmenistan to visit his elderly mother and children from a previous marriage. I was working with another instructor. To be honest, he was not bad at all; did the usual drilling and practices. But as I got down from the car one day, I felt sad and down. I realized that I missed Murad. Being away from home and country was taking its toll. He was supposed to be back two days before the test. But he wasn’t.

On the morning of the driving test, I suddenly realised that even if I failed the test, it did not matter. Murad had taught me something vital, much more important than driving a car. He has actually shown me how to go on with life, to enjoy it to the fullest, regardless of all that is negative. Driving an automobile is only one little particle in this vast line called life.

I looked at the mirror, at the surprised face staring back at me. I smiled. Finally, I was ready.


Sohana Manzoor teaches English in the Department of English, ULAB. She is also the literary editor at The Daily Star. This is a revised version of another publication in the Dhaka Tribune in 2017.




Parul and the Potato Prince

By Sohana Manzoor


Parul sat on the narrow bench of the veranda looking at the two potatoes in her hand. They were small, brownish, and round — very ordinary potatoes. But Parul looked at them endearingly. One bore her name, while the other was inscribed with a heart-shaped hole. Parul’s body and soul were enraptured with feelings she had never known. She felt like singing and dancing. Saleha was busy in the kitchen and there was nobody else at home. That meant there was no one to obstruct her from enjoying a little respite from her daily chore of sweeping the floors of the sprawling fourth-floor apartment that had been her home for the past two years.

She looked intently at a particular window of the building behind theirs. The young man whom she had often seen looking at her was not there. But Parul’s heart whispered to her that it was he who had sent her the tuberous missive. “My Potato Prince,” she said softly. She remembered the story of the Frog Prince that Dadi Amma often told her two younger grandchildren. And here was her Potato Prince. She giggled. She felt like Cinderella, a cartoon she had watched along with Rumee and Rehan. Of course, Parul considered the girl somewhat foolish for not revealing her identity sooner. But that was a fairytale, and Parul was more bold and intelligent than her. But Cinderella also swept floors and washed dishes like Parul, and now she too has secured a prince for herself!

Parul got up from the bench and strutted to the edge of the veranda. There were several crimson roses blooming in the flower pots. She plucked one and inhaled its fragrance. She was tired of sweeping and scrubbing floors. She had learned to read and write; not because she loved it, but because it was necessary to be somewhat educated to become a lady. She would be a housewife, so learning to read and write was good enough. She inhaled the fragrance once more. Where was her prince? She wanted him to see her with the rose. She wanted him to know that she might dress as a servant, but she was beautiful and charming enough to don the attire of a princess, and become his. Parul coyly twirled the flower between her fingers, unconsciously imitating an actress she had seen in an old Hindi movie.

A shrill voice from inside the house rudely interrupted her reverie. “Pa-rul! How long does it take to sweep the verandah? Hurry up and come back to the kitchen!”

Parul refrained from making a face. She continued looking earnestly at that other fourth floor window. Hearing a second summon, however, she picked up the broom and reluctantly went back inside.


Parul found Saleha  standing with arms akimbo in the middle of the dining room. She glared at Parul. “What the hell is wrong with you, girl? It’s already 11:00. You still aren’t done with the sweeping? Never mind the sweeping for now. Chop up the onions and garlic. I have to finish cooking. Taleb bhai is going to be here at 12:30 to pick up Dadi Amma’s lunch. Hurry up!”

Saleha turned around and cursed the cat who was nuzzling at her feet. Parul laughed and said, “You’ve grown a temper, Salu bu.”

“Of course, because I have to work with a knucklehead like you,” Saleha snapped back.

“Take it easy,” said Parul, sauntering after Saleha into the kitchen. “What’s the hurry? Nobody in this household ever yells at us.”

“Don’t take it for granted,” Saleha grumbled. “I try to work by the clock. Dadi Amma is really ill, and her food needs to reach the hospital on time. Khalamma is very even-tempered, but if we disappoint her, she might get angry. Since Khalujan is away, everyone is tensed about things going wrong.”

“Relax,” Parul purred, “we won’t be late.” Saleha looked at her suspiciously, but said no more. “It’s okay, we have time,” she again said confidently, taking out the blender from the cupboard.

Saleha turned back towards the pots on the burner. She had lately started worrying about Parul. After all, it was Saleha who had brought her from the village. She hoped the girl would not fall into any mischief. Parul was only 15, but she looked 18, and Saleha had noticed that men had started looking at her differently in the last couple of years. Saleha always hovered protectively near Parul whenever the driver Taleb Miah was around. Not that either Parul or Taleb had shown any real interest in each other, but men and women are like fire and ghee, as her mother used to say. And Saleha had seen too many unpleasant things in her thirty years. Lately she had noticed Parul daydreaming a lot.

Suddenly she whirled around and asked, “Parul, have you been talking to that guy on the roof?”

“What guy?” Parul was startled out of her thoughts.

“That bloke with the beard.”

Parul stared blankly. Saleha twisted her face as she said, “Remember that young construction worker I told you about? He asked me about you once. Don’t talk to any of them, okay?”

A look of disdain crossed Parul’s delicate features. “Construction worker? What would I want with a common laborer?”

“That’s good.” Saleha concentrated on her cooking. “Just don’t pay any attention to them. These guys talk sweetly, but I’m sure they all have wives and kids in the village. Don’t be fooled, and don’t linger in the veranda.”

Parul laughed. “Don’t worry, bubu. I have no interest in any construction worker whatsoever.” She started humming to herself. Saleha was too relieved to notice.


Sharmin stared at the single raw potato under the small jasmine shrub in the veranda. What was a potato doing there? Her mother had a green thumb and liked having flowers and small shrubs in their veranda. But certainly not sickly-looking potatoes. She picked it up gingerly. It was greenish, and wrinkled on one side. It must have lain there for some days. She didn’t like to yell at the servants from the veranda. Besides, her mother was probably taking a nap, being tired from staying with Dadi all night at the hospital. She turned the potato around and almost tripped on the threshold. “I LOVE YOU” it proclaimed in bold capital letters. Sharmin looked around at the neighboring apartment complex and the adjacent construction site where another apartment complex was being built. There was nobody in the vicinity. The construction workers were probably off to lunch. And no one was out on the verandas in the blazing midday heat. She decided to have a word with Saleha.

Saleha’s eyes went round as she saw the potato in Sharmin’s hand. She had been with this family for over six years, and had never seen such a thing. Sharmin spoke calmly: “Please ask Parul if she knows anything about this. It might be one of those laborers.”

“Apamoni, it might just be a random potato.”

Sharmin looked at Saleha with irritation and amusement. “Are you saying that the potato grew out of our flower pots bearing this inscription? Saleha! Are you dumb? Obviously it was intended for someone. And I think it’s for Parul. In case you haven’t noticed, that girl is getting out of hand.”

Saleha remained silent. She felt warm with embarrassment. She suspected the same, but didn’t want to say so in front of Sharmin. “I’ll ask her, Apa.”


To Saleha infinite annoyance, Parul refused to utter a single word about the potato. She grew scarlet with rage, and Saleha surmised that this was not the first such messenger to have alighted on their veranda. Raising her voice she said, “I don’t know what you are up to, you wretched girl, but at least tell me that you are not sending out potatoes too.” Still no reply from Parul. Saleha grew exasperated. “Parul, try to understand. They will send you back home to the village if this continues.”

This time Parul raised her eyes and looked defiantly at Saleha. “Why should they send me back? I haven’t done anything.”

Saleha heaved a sigh of relief. “Do you know who it is from? Have you talked to the person?”

Parul looked outside the window. “I have not talked to anyone.”

Saleha started cursing the construction workers. “Those scoundrels, those scheming lowlife ruffians. Why do they disturb decent girls? They are universally immoral, those good-for-nothing laborers.” Then she stopped and looked at Parul again. “You are not to go to the back veranda anymore, okay? From now on, I will sweep that veranda myself.”

“On whose orders?” Parul shot back angrily.

“On my orders, and you shall obey.” Saleha’s voice was dangerously calm. “Or I will tell Sharmin Apa that you have been talking to the guy.”

Parul knew she had crossed the boundary, so she withdrew sullenly into the servants’ quarters without another word.


That afternoon Saleha gathered two more potatoes with inscriptions. On one she saw the name of Parul. There was no longer any doubt about whom the potato missives were directed towards. When Saleha went back to the kitchen, the intended recipient of the messages was busy chopping cauliflowers, green beans and carrots for dinner. She was about to open her mouth when the door bell rang. Saleha went to answer the door. On opening the door she saw their next door neighbour, Rokeya Khalamma. “Is anybody home? How is Khalamma doing?”

“Nobody is home except the children,” replied Saleha courteously. “Both Sharmin Apa and Khalamma are at the hospital. They are going to be bring Dadi Amma home tomorrow.”

The visitor’s face brightened. “Excellent,” she said, nodding. “We have good news too. Our Nipa got engaged yesterday. The gaye holud is in two weeks’ time.” Saleha now noticed that Shipa, Rokeya Khalamma’s second daughter, was standing behind her mother, and held a large box wrapped in golden paper. Rokeya Khalamma handed the box to Saleha. “I will come again,” she said. “Just don’t forget to tell them, okay?” She turned to her daughter. “Come, Shipa. We have to visit the Ramzanis.”

Saleha noticed that Shipa had another box, but it was smaller than the one she just received. Khalu held a high position with an international organization, and therefore, Rokeya Khalamma was always extra courteous to them. After they left, she put the box of sweets in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, Parul had come out of the kitchen. “Was that the fat Rokeya Khalamma from next door?” she asked.

“Yes,” Saleha said, hiding her irritation. “Nipa Apa is getting married.”

Parul peered at her. “Bubu, that girl is younger than you. Why do you call her Apa?” She giggled as she added, “Have you noticed the way she simpers? I suppose she will simper all the more now that she is getting married.”

Saleha looked at her sternly. “That’s the custom, Parul. Don’t forget your place. It’s high time that you learn some things.” Saleha paused. “I’ve noticed the way you answer back to Apamoni. She is older than you and the daughter of your mistress. Take care, girl.”

Parul shrugged. “I think you are too subservient,” she said and then gave a little cry of surprise as she felt her left cheek burning with a sharp pain. “You slapped me, Salu bu?” her eyes went wide with shock. Saleha had a look in her eyes that Parul had never seen before.

“Yes,” replied Saleha. “But I should have slapped you way earlier, when you first started to show these signs of disrespect. Sharmin is right. You’ve gone out of hand.”

Even in acute pain and shock, Parul noticed that Saleha, the epitome of propriety, had dropped “Apa” from Sharmin’s name. Saleha shook her head, “I don’t know what you’re up to, girl, but I can sense that it’s no good. Probably the best thing would be to send you home.”


The atmosphere of the house felt very different after Dadi Amma came back from the hospital. She was still very weak from the ordeal she has been through, but everyone was relieved as the immediate danger was over. Saleha was off to visit Reba, a girl who worked downstairs, in the household of the famous actress Chandrima. Surely she will bring back some savory tale, thought Parul. Reba came not from their village, but from the same district. Parul did not like her much. She was always smiling and everybody liked her, which irked Parul.

When Saleha came back, Parul was busy filing her nails. She tried to keep them as she has seen Sharmin do them. Rather than using the cheap nail polish that other girls like Reba or Romela used, she glossed coconut oil over her nails. It was something she learned from watching beauty tips on TV. They used olive oil, but coconut oil would have to do for now. When she married the prince of her dreams, she would use better things than olive oil. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t have a drop of olive oil from Dadi Amma’s bottle now and then. She still remembered the one time she pinched some from Khalamma’s bathroom. Sharmin had almost caught her red-handed. The bottle of oil was an innocuous thing though, because she had permission to take it to rub on Dadi Amma’s feet. And the bottle in Dadi Amma’s room had run out that day. However, Parul had not only taken the olive oil, but also a bar of soap hidden in her shalwar, a fragrant bar that Khalujan had brought the last time he came home. Both Parul and Saleha received some trinkets when he returned, but not any of those fancy soaps. There were many of them tucked away in the cabinet in Khalamma’s bathroom. The fragrance was simply otherworldly. Even though Sharmin eyed her all over, she didn’t say anything. Parul pretended she didn’t notice. She still had the soap in her box as she did not dare to use it. If Saleha found out, she would kill her. Parul made a face. She still couldn’t understand why these little things were so important to Saleha. But then she had the soul of a servant. What would she say when she found out about the guy next door? Parul giggled to herself when she heard Saleha’s voice in the hall:

“Nipa Apa is getting married to a boy next door. Have you heard, Apamoni?”

“I heard he’s an engineer,” came Khalamma’s voice. “Who told you? And which next door?”

“Reba told me the whole story. Apparently, they used to communicate through the windows. He lives in the building behind ours.”

“That’s horrendous,” Sharmin exclaimed. “I thought Nipa had better sense than that.” She added something else in a lower tone that Parul could not hear clearly. But she heard Saleha’s voice protesting, “That’s not true, Apamoni. Parul never talked to any of those guys.”

“Sure,” came Sharmin’s jeering voice. “That girl is not just insolent, but a damn liar as well.”

When Saleha entered their small room, her face was flushed. She glowered at Parul, but did not say anything. Parul put away the things and asked in a pleasant voice, “So, Nipa’s is a love match? I am sure that Sharmin will never make one. She is pretty, and considers herself clever. But men don’t like her type,” she concluded.

“What do you know about men’s likes and dislikes?” Saleha was more surprised than annoyed.

“I know what I need to know,” said Parul with confidence. “I intend to marry well, bubu. I want to be a lady.”

Saleha gaped at her. Parul went on, “So tell me, who is this guy?”

“What guy?”

“Ugh, bubu! The guy Nipa is marrying, of course.”

“He lives in the apartment complex behind ours. You might have seen him. Shamim Bhai—a cute looking guy.”

Parul stared at her. “What?” she whispered.

Saleha spoke wearily, “I don’t know what has gotten into you, Paru. These days you talk and act so strange! Anyway, according to Reba, he is extremely nice, even though he has a squint. So sometimes when he looks at you, it seems as if he’s looking at somebody else. I hope she will be happy. She is very unlike her mother—always very nice to helping hands. Roshida is always full of her praise….” Saleha rattled on, but Parul sat staring at the wall. He lives in the apartment behind ours. He has a squint.

Was there any other guy in that house? And Parul knew his name too—Shamim. She had often whispered that name in her reveries. But how could this be? Shamim was her Potato Prince!


Parul sat on the veranda looking forlorn. She had an English magazine in her hands. She only knew some basic English, which Khalamma had taught her despite the misgivings of Sharmin and Dadi Amma. Parul had often carried it to the veranda to impress her Prince. Now it seemed that he had never looked at her, but at that simpering Nipa. Who sent the potato missives then?

Right then another potato fell at her feet. Parul turned her head swiftly and saw the young construction worker. He was looking at her adoringly. “Parul,” he called softly. Parul just stared at him. He was a youngish man with soft beard, and a gamchha around his neck. He looked at the magazine in her hand and smiled. “You know how to read English?” Parul was lost for words. “I studied up to class six,” the man said again. “Then my father died. I had a step-mother, and I had to leave home.” Parul got up very slowly and walked over to the side facing the construction site. “Did you throw the potatoes?” Her voice was so hoarse that she barely recognized it herself. The man nodded.

“How did you know my name?” she asked.

“I heard them calling you. I’ve been watching you for quite some time now. I asked the other girl about you.” He grinned. “But she probably thinks I’m a lout.”

Parul kept on staring.

That’s how Sharmin found her standing on the veranda: as she later on described it, “lost in each other’s eyes.”


Her boxes were packed. Khalamma was very liberal. She had to dismiss her, but she still gave her three months’ salary. “We can’t take on such a responsibility, Saleha. Especially since the master of the house lives abroad. She is a teenage girl. What if some untoward incident takes place?” She shook her head. “She also looks more developed than a 15-year-old should. I think her parents should try to get her married.”

Saleha just nodded. Considering everything she also thought that it was a good piece of advice.

“If they can arrange a marriage, we will contribute. And please, when you come back, see if you can find another girl. Someone more manageable.”

Nobody said anything to Parul. This was her last night in Dhaka. She had not uttered one syllable since Sharmin had discovered her talking to the construction worker three days earlier.

Now suddenly Saleha found the girl lying beside her shaking convulsively. Parul was crying at last. Saleha tried to comfort her, “Hey, it’s not so bad. You are good looking, you know. I’m sure your parents will be able to find a good husband for you. Come on, surely you don’t like that ‘mistiri’ guy so much?”

Parul kept on sobbing as though her heart was broken. But she did not speak. How could she tell Saleha that she was not crying for the construction worker? Her vanity was terribly, terribly hurt. While Saleha blabbered on, Parul wept bitterly. She felt her heart would break for the Potato Prince that never was.  

(Published first in Bengal Lights and republished with permission of the author.)

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She has a PhD from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her area of experties is nineteenth-century British fiction. Her short stories, non-fictions and translations have been published in Kitaab, Asiatic, The New Age, The Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, Bengal Lights and Six Seasons Review. Currently, she is also the Editor of The Daily Star Literature and Review pages.