When Shurjomukhi was young, her family lived in an asymmetrical house that held two parallel worlds.” Thus begins Bangladeshi-American writer Iffat Nawaz’s debut novel Shurjo’s Clan, a poignant chronicle of the Bangladesh Liberation War and its aftermath, relayed through the eyes of a young girl: Shurjomukhi aka “Shurjo”.
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In that asymmetrical house, built during the British era in an old part of Dhaka, Shurjo lives a seemingly normal life with her parents and grandparents—at least during the day. At night, however, “when everyone was back home, and the century-old wooden front gate had been locked, they switched to the other side”, or the Unknown, as Shurjo’s family calls it. The horror of the past dissolves in this other side as additional members who had died in the “day side of the world”, including Shurjomukhi’s uncles, martyred in the liberation war, and her grandmother, who died by suicide soon after Partition, come back. At first, it is an idyllic life filled with warmth, reminiscences and shared experiences. But then something happens, forcing Shurjo’s parents to think of migrating. They do ultimately, moving to Virginia, US.
Like other writers who chronicle the immigrant experience in the US—think Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni—some aspects of Shurjo’s Clan contain all the tropes of diasporic fiction: the unnerving sense of displacement, a widening generation gap, nostalgia and complex identity, which Salman Rushdie, in his essay Imaginary Homelands, describes as “at once plural and partial”. While the book overdoes the inevitable cliches about this experience—the smelliness of South Asian food (no mangoes, thank goodness), endless conversations about green cards and incidents of microaggression, the prose, characterisation and vividity of the narrative make it easy to look past this.
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Clearly, Nawaz’s experiences as an immigrant in the US have influenced the narrative, as has the fact that her uncles were freedom fighters martyred in the Bangladesh Liberation War. She admits as much in a press release issued by her publisher, Penguin Random House India. “The stories of Shurjo’s Clan were passed down to me as inheritance from both my family and motherland. I carried them for decades,” she said, adding that being an inheritor of these second-hand experiences had influenced the way she told the story.
However, the book goes way beyond autobiography, employing the puissance of magic realism to decode war, history, nationhood and politics—Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is clearly an influence. The novel constantly segues between the fantastic and the factual, telling the story of a nation born in sorrow, escaping from it, and the constant longing for a return.
While certainly centred on the wars that have shaped Bangladesh’s history, Shurjo’s Clan is also a story about the human condition: lives shaped not just by big events but by love, longing, family, stories, and, most of all, hope and healing. Nawaz says as much in a November interview with The Telegraph: “I believe we can honour our history better by healing from its pain, with compassion leaping into something lighter and brighter.”