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My life as a girl in Dhaka was lonely; no community park to play in, just an all-encompassing pressure from parents to excel academically. Back then, our parents kept a cage for dolls and toys to collect dust, which they called a showcase.

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When I look back to find the definitive moment where my writing habits took root, I can’t find it. It’s a distant vanishing point from which everything radiated, or maybe there wasn’t a single point or node from which it all began. Perhaps it was Amma who started this by telling us about her aunts – the proverbial seven sisters who wept over trivial things to bring the rain into the monsoon; teaching me the name of the muslin fine rain called ‘Eelshe-guri’, the rain that enabled fishermen to catch eel/hilsha fish. We didn’t have any gadgets back then, just a cackling radio and a black-and-white TV buried in a wooden box with shutters. So we had stories. Why was there a purple layer of fat from flesh under the Hilsha fish’s skin? Oh, it’s because the stag lost a race with the fish and had to offer the fish a pound of meat, venison. The golden oriole was supposed to marry the moon, also had the ritual turmeric shower before the wedding, but the wedding didn’t happen, so she roamed around with a yellow turmeric-smeared body. Those tears of seven sisters, those races between animals, and those unfinished marriage rituals merged like little rivulets of streams in my bloodstream. With so many fictional explanations as to why – anyone could become a writer! The radio broadcast Madankumar-Madhumala’s songs as their royal beds were exchanged one night. BTV showed shows such as “Hiramon” (Queen’s Talking Birds) depicting folk tales. When our TV went color, it brought us Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater, a fantasy anthology. It rained stories! So not only did the subterranean streams connect and join forces, they were rainwater seeping through the crevices of my mind.

My life as a girl in Dhaka was lonely; no community park to play in, just an all-encompassing pressure from parents to excel academically. Back then, our parents kept a cage for dolls and toys to collect dust, which they called a showcase. However, books quickly became my toys and my eloquent playmates. Our porches were big and wide; I remember in my leisurely hours there devouring Anandamela, my favorite children’s magazine, and sometimes staring for hours at the simulacra created by algae-lichen efflorescence in the walls and cornices. Books were my time machines, my allies, my guides. As books began to speak, I began to respond. At first, I just colored the illustrations of people I loved (Alexander Beliaev’s amphibian was frog green) and pinched the names of people I hated until they punctured the pages. Nobody could ever say that I was free of passion. Soon painting and pinching were no longer enough, I had to disagree. So I started writing.

My first elementary school stories had too many characters with rhyming names; well, Radio Bangladesh played endless sessions of requested songs and the requesters’ names always rhymed, so – I’ll leave my case there. These stories also had no recognizable goals, nothing fruitful ever really happened in them. But it made me dizzy with pride when I came up with a memorable simile or metaphor. At school I was inattentive, my habit of drawing and reading storybooks during class was insatiable. Here I should mention my Nana, Amma’s father, who indulged in both habits. With a smile he recited:

“Father, father, have mercy,

And I will make no more verses.”

It was from Isaac Watts trying to stop his father from using corporal punishment for writing things in verse. Someone who should do something will do it anyway, Grandma commented. Others weren’t as friendly as he was. Nana and I had so much in common, our boundless love of words, classics and synonyms.

For years I kept my stories hidden from everyone. It was fun hiding a whole world of my own… I knew full well how Josephine March (Little Women) looked disdainfully at the rest of the noisy crowd. At the end of high school I started sending them for publication. Some editors wanted to see me face to face, and when they saw a girl who had just taken her first public exam, they asked, “Who wrote it for you?” I was used to this question since year 08 when I started reading my stories on Radio Bangladesh. As soon as I finished reading, esteemed writer Selina Hossain spoke about the story. Like Nana, she had a warm, all-understanding smile and it was a tremendous boost to be checked over by her. After those shows, people came to see who the girl was that read the story and asked in no uncertain terms, “Who wrote it for you?” Well, they didn’t know me, I thought to myself, they didn’t know that I was too proud to let anyone change anything in my drawing or writing.

When I was studying architecture, I was naturally drawn to words and language; My head was a wasteland, a haven for wild words – this ground was full of runners that multiplied and spread widely. Somehow, words began to define who I was to a greater extent than any architectural drawings.

At 28, I landed on the silver bells and cockles of Britain. A change of environment always means danger in the animal kingdom, and so it was in my case. I was suddenly no mediocre architect and no aspiring writer (the move amounts to a devastating act of betrayal in the Bengali literary world); Rather, I was just another Social Security number starting a part-time job, a student graduating while surviving on a subsistence level, a spectator chasing red buses advertising Frida’s exhibitions at the Tate (knowing that the ticket price would be the same for a week’s grocery shopping), another tenant in one of the mouse-infested attics of north London, a hyperopic immigrant who saw the distant country more vividly than his new-found home.

However, because this tenant was an avid reader, he lived very close to a public library. This library was an unfathomable treasure trove of old movies and books, and a sanctuary for a mind already infested with words and images. I finished my unfinished stories, edited them thoroughly and started publishing stories in Bengali again. Completing a full manuscript in English was still an unfulfilled dream.

I received the Arts Council grant to translate and co-translate my Bengali stories, plucked up some courage to submit a self-translated work to the BBC NSSA. My story made it to the longlist! A stay at the NCW (National Center for Writing) also helped me with my studies. The next year I submitted a self-translated article to the Commonwealth Short Stories Competition and was shortlisted. These incidents not only made me happy, but also boosted my confidence in my writing and translation skills. As a writer, I believe that God is in the details, and I try to write in a way that gives the reader a visual, olfactory, and tactile experience of the words and story. My stories tell how our own life can become a constant monologue – which nobody listens to.

Born in Bangladesh and initially trained as an architect, Shagufta Sharmeen Tania has authored nine books. Her work has appeared in Wasafiri, Asia Literary Review, City Press and Speaking Volumes Anthology. Her short story Sincerely Yours was long listed for the 2021 BBC Short Story Award. This year, another of her short stories, What Men Live By, was nominated for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

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