Maria Chaudhuri grew up in Dhaka, in what is now Bangladesh. Her father was a successful businessman, her mother a professional singer. They lived in a nice house, had servants, avoided most of the violence and poverty that we think of when we think of that unhappy country. Maria's older sister Naveen goes off to Yale, and she herself studies at (and graduates from) Mount Holyoak College, with a degree in Philosophy and Religion.
Sounds like a pretty good life to me, and yet her memoir is filled with misery, guilt, shame, loneliness, and isolation from her mother and father, and rotten, hag-ridden boyfriends.
Her father never complimented her on the good grades she got at school in Dhaka, only her failures. He never held her nor told her that he loved her. When she wins a dictionary, third prize in a school writing contest, he says "Not bad ... but this means you can do even better. If you can be in the top three, you can be at the very top."
He handed the dictionary back to me and went back to his reading.
Dad travels on business around the world, and Maria's mother suggests that they all go along on his next trip to Bangkok, "with its huge malls, crowded beaches and spicy, mouth-watering food." As they get closer and closer to the day they are to depart, she and her sister "were giddy with excitement." They packed their clothing days ahead of time, only to realize --- when they are to leave with their mother for the airport --- that the promise had been forgotten. They were left behind.
I don't remember my father ever realizing how he disappointed us that time or many a time after, when he simply refused to understand what we wanted.
"Father's job was his soul's sustenance," she observes later, "the small, square space of his office his only real home."
Her mother? She always, Maria writes, "saw the four of us in terms of all the work that needed to be done rather than all the work she had already accomplished." What did Maria, her dutiful daughter, miss the most when she was young? The sound of her mother's laughter, for those rare laughs were "a sweet rumbling sound" that filled the room.
Like her mother, Maria decides that she will be a professional musician, so she is given lesson by her mother's teacher, Azim Khan. His main task, it appears, is to tell daughter (like mother) that she will never be very good as a singer. "Do you know what kids like you remind me of?" he asks her.
You remind me of young green grass, crushed under a rock. You have no hope of sunlight and no place to grow. Your attempts are in vain.
"I learned to anticipate the first gleam of attack in his beady eyes, just before he was about to make a vicious remark."
I memorized how he swayed his balding head from side to side when he disapproved of something, which was often.
§ § §
Those of us who were fans of the comic strip L'il Abner may recall a character named Joe Btfsplk. Joe meandered through the panels with a dark cloud forever floating over his head. Anytime he appears, everything goes wrong with him and any others on hand. At one point I was looking through Beloved Strangers trying to find a couple of examples of some jolly memories Maria might have had of growing up, going to school, getting married ... but all I got was Joe Btfsplk.
After a few years of schooling in America, and finding a terrible job in a brokerage firm, Maria discovers Yameen. A boyfriend. At last! Maybe he can help her to get out from under that dark Btfsplkian cloud. But wouldn't you know: Yameen "makes me feel heavy, as if I am wading through water with stones tied to my ankles." Now, we realize, grimly, that the two of them are going to conjoin their separate funks into one big towering black thunderhead. Yameen is a boozer, thinks longingly of his days back at Columbia where he could get stoned and sleep around.
Two-and-a-half years with this guy and, to double down on her bad luck and misery, Maria thinks it's time to get married. Why not? She takes to the bottle too, which finally brings her to her senses:
The decision is made after a long bout of squabbling and bickering with each other. Every single time we fight we buy a cheap bottle of vodka, drink ourselves silly and broach the subject of marriage.
She's lived a frightful life, exquisitely drawn out for the reader on the pages here, so (naturally) she decides to marry this dopester drunk who lives in a seedy, dark basement apartment in Jersey City ... where they'll be able to be miserable together, forever and ever after. Let us pray. No, let me out!
§ § §
It must be the fault of my dotage because, more and more lately, I find that I have trouble hanging out with people who insist on badmouthing themselves at the same time they are driving themselves (and me) nuts. I could, instead, be watching people clawing at each other on Reality TV, or maybe have a chance to visit with The Blue Pumpkins on MTV, or --- at worst --- see a good head-on blood mangle pile-up there at the Indie 500. It must be Bangladesh, no?
No. The last book I read about that city was Scenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher. It is a story of a family from the very same place, perhaps the same neighborhood, at the very same time. It had some terrible scenes of the destruction of families and people during the partition, but along with these we get some exquisite scenes of family life. In our review, we wrote,
War, and family. That's what Scenes from Early Life is all about. And it is laid down, the entire story, so gently and wisely that we cannot help but be moved. The family frailties, the loves, the pride, the hurts, the jokes.
It's a story --- as all our lives are stories --- about the good and the bad, neither allowed to overwhelm the other. Ms. Chaudhuri might learn something by spending some time with it. She might learn about writing a united narrative --- not just a solipsistic scenario of woe. Or, hell, since they live in the same city, why doesn't she just ring up Hensher, ask him to give her some pointers for the next time, when she sets out to write Part II of her autobiography.
§ § §
At the very end of Beloved Strangers, we hope she might include some fun details of her second marriage to Asif Ahmed, which takes up the last few pages. All we are asking, puhleeeese, are a couple of boffs, a funny or two, perhaps during their honeymoon, when, around midnight, they are going to consummate their great new love ... someone knocks on their bedroom door. A giggle, like that, OK?
Fahgettaboudit. All we get is one last story about Mum that speaks volumes of a family system that went off tracks years ago, perhaps never to return.
After the wedding, after Maria sends poor old Mum back to Bangladesh.
Maria's in her kitchen. She opens the coffee jar and finds something that could have been offered, in person, direct: a gift from mother to daughter, offered in such a way that they could both could appreciate it, maybe even, once, something tangible, that could have brought a reward --- perhaps a big warm tender forgiving hug.
But that's not their way, not that family.
The transaction as they say in the family psych biz, remains incomplete.
Maria "found a blue sticky note pasted on the inside of the cabinet door."
You are the best of all
Always remember that.
--- Leslie Winters