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Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers follows a life more or less ordinary

Following her own rites of passage from a childhood in Dhaka to adult years in the US, then back to the Bangladeshi capital, Maria Chaudhuri’s memoir-based first work is lacking a certain something, writes Erika Banerji.
The Bangladeshi rickshaw artist R K Das paints a house in Dhaka, which is one of the settings for Maria Chaudhuri’s book Beloved Strangers. While there are some splashes of creative colour in Chaudhuri’s debut offering, it ultimately falls short, but does suggest future potential for the writer. AFP / Munir Uz Zaman
The Bangladeshi rickshaw artist R K Das paints a house in Dhaka, which is one of the settings for Maria Chaudhuri’s book Beloved Strangers. While there are some splashes of creative colour in Chaudhuri’s debut offering, it ultimately falls short, but does suggest future potential for the writer. AFP / Munir Uz Zaman

Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers is a memoir. This immediately places the reader in a slightly awkward position of voyeur, because a memoir, unlike fiction, does not pretend to dress the truth. What we have before us is not a character but a person; the story is not a plot but a life, an experience. Writing a memoir can be a tricky genre to master and certainly a challenge for any ­debut.

Beloved Strangers is a narrative of the author’s own rites of passage, from her childhood in Dhaka to her time as an adult in New England and then New York and then back to Dhaka again. As the memoir opens in Dhaka, the author describes how both her parents suffered from an enduring spirit of discontent. While the author’s mother agonised over her thwarted dreams as a singer, her father struggled with his “incapacity to adapt to the world” and the resulting emotional distance that he felt towards his wife and children. The author admits: “Like my mother, I too dream of unstitching the seam of my story. Just like mother, I keep staring at life, wondering when it will gratify me.” Chaudhuri’s descriptions of the house that her parents built to a grand scale but were never able to move into properly is a poignant section, reminiscent of many middle class unattainable dreams. The burden of this disquiet, this seeming absence of a loving home, is ingrained in the young Maria’s subconscious, which she realises later on in life. “And without even fully understanding it I had smeared myself with their restlessness, assigned myself the same thankless task of finding and creating a home that would hide the clutter of my life in its gracefully organised rooms.”

Maria plans to escape at an early age with her friend Nadia. She encounters sexual awakenings while poring over pornographic sketches with Bablu, a neighbourhood boy, and like most adolescents is haunted by thoughts of “shame”. “It was the nature of shame: it never left me because I never allowed it to.” She finally leaves for America at 18, desperate to be rid of the claustrophobic space that her parents have unknowingly created for her. It was because of this that she found herself unable to settle down anywhere or find the true meaning of home. “I vowed not to let myself get attached to the idea of a home. I sought a kind of homelessness.”

At this point, in the second half of the memoir, Chaudhuri does begin to tighten what has been so far a rather insipid and themeless narrative. The idea of the author’s sense of drifting, of her lack of emotional allegiance to any one place, begins to strike a sympathetic chord with the reader. We feel her angst at being in a relationship with the rather detestable Yameen, whom she later marries. “Being with Yameen makes me feel heavy, as if I am wading through water.” A really inspired moment in the book is just after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York, when a lady approaches Maria in the street and yells at her to go back where she came from. Here, the author shows a glimmer of exquisite insight as she affords us the most telling glimpses into the heart of her rootlessness. “By pointing her finger at me to banish me from her world, she shows me how I have been executing my own ­exile.”

Beloved Strangers does, at times, aspire to a duality of texture and meaning, the gentle unravelling of a not-unusual childhood in Dhaka with the later intensity of her adult experience, but it falls flat when it comes to technique and artistry. What Chaudhuri struggles to do is to establish a sympathetic connection between the prose and the reader. The result is a confusing rites of passage tale that leaves the reader with the uneasiness of being a reluctant voyeur into an ordinary life.

For a novel that navigates two continents and has a huge potential for an emotional exploration of families and their foibles, Beloved Strangers lacks an essential element: intensity. Chaudhuri seems afraid to play with her characters, and while this is a result of drawing on too much personal experience, the book does need a shaking and ruffling around the neatly created edges. Chaudhuri’s debut fails to live up to the heralding of a new voice from Bangladesh, but beneath this hype there is the spark of a writer with future potential.

Erika Banerji is a regular contributor to The National.

Updated: January 9, 2014 04:00 AM

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