Taxi Wallah and Other Stories
by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)
Numair Atif Choudhury
Taxi Wallah and Other Stories
Fourth Estate, 2021
Pages 111, Price INR 250A Reality with Ripples
After the posthumous publication of his novel Babu Bangladesh! in 2019 that was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, we get another gem from Numair Atif Choudhury – a compilation of his short stories in Taxi Wallah and Other Stories (2021). This talented Bangladeshi writer, whose voice is one of the most authentic and remarkable, clearly devoted himself to his art. After studying creative writing at Oberline College and the University of East Anglia, he had completed his PhD from the University of Texas, Dallas. Also, he had been working on his first novel for nearly 15 years. Unfortunately, he could not live to see the acclaim that it would garner, positioning him as an eminent South Asian writer whose pen characterized authenticity, poignancy and grace. Choudhury passed away in an accident in 2018, but not without giving the world his unflinching portrayal of contemporary Bangladesh, replete with its hopes, dreams, fears, trials and trouble.
For those who are wary of voluminous works and prefer slim copies of books, Taxi Wallah and Other Stories is a great choice. It comprises eleven stories that are lucid and easy to read. Each consists of a few pages only and leaves no room for the attention to flag. Indeed, the gripping way in which the author presents an insider’s point of view of modern Bangladesh as he knows it is laudable. As his friend and fellow writer, Nadeem Zaman says in the Introduction to the book, “Numair wove commentaries on everything from postcolonial theory to gender, religion, politics, class and socioeconomic status…he imbued every story, within its length and scope, with these elements without ever losing sight of the heart of the tale. That heart, of course, is Bangladesh.” Though Choudhury wrote with his native country in mind, many of the situations presented in the short stories are relatable to South Asia and the developing world at large.
The opening story “Taxi Wallah” trails the ruminations of the eponymous character as he picks up a foreign visitor to Dhaka and drives him to one of the well-known hotels. We get a glimpse of the city not as it is known on the map but the many glimmering facets that only a common man such as the taxi wallah is privy to. Dhaka encapsulates five-star hotels as much as hidden slums, gender discrimination and street violence. The narrator is resigned to his fate but not immune to change and growth, as recounted in his flashback of being a more cold and indifferent man earlier. Though a liar and swindler, the taxi wallah is confident in his line of business and how things must be conducted. But for all his smooth talk with the passenger, the narrator’s genuine concern for him at the end is endearing.
Another story that leaves an indelible mark in our mind is “Chokra” which unravels the extent to which poverty can push. It describes how the titular chokra or young lad fends for himself and his younger sister, Munmun. Living on the streets, the boy has a keen perception of things as they are and is quick to gauge the source from which kindness stems. Not only is there no gentleness in their world but it is conspicuously marked by people’s anger and disgust. The reason is their intense disturbance at the thought that, by a twist of fate, Chokra and Munmun could have been their own children. The flicker of joy that we experience when brother and sister happily share the dinner chapati
that an enraged man throws is nothing short of paradise, albeit a fleeting one. “Different Eyes” and “Crumble” explore similar themes.
In “Black”, the nameless narrator is a Bengali freedom fighter. Held captive along with his comrades in the Liberation War of 1971 by the army of West Pakistan, the narrator is put in the “black” category – doomed for execution. The other categories are “grey” for those who will undergo torture and exile and “white” for the ones who are seen as harmless and would be set free. The silent communion between the prisoners and the narrator’s feelings at having to donate blood for the wounded soldiers or captors are moving. Also, the speaker has the quiet satisfaction of knowing the immense role he played in the freedom movement: “But I would die with a smile, because I knew that the more of us they killed, the lower we would crouch among the river weeds, the faster we would tear through the rice fields, and the calmer we would wait on an empty stomach. We would strike just when they cut us. And we would take it until every single one of us was free.” (page 71)
Gender-based violence and discrimination surface in “Thief” and “Asking Why” while the unwritten rules of social class are explored in “Rabia”. In “The Truth”, Choudhury shows how different histories and the burden of the past can cloud an individual’s mind. In the story, Russel is unsettled at a Pakistani patron at their family restaurant who has nothing but respect for him. In fact, she claims that she had particularly sought out the restaurant after learning about it from word of mouth. Russel is a Bangladeshi and given the Liberation War not so long ago, he has been conditioned to view all Pakistanis as enemies. Here, we see the perfect depiction of the “other” which is ever-present among us, though constantly shifting in appearance. In this context, the truth too is a fractured reality, changing color with perspective, distance and memory.
Each story presents a slice of life that lingers in the mind. Inequities are jostled to present a stark reality tempered by moments of hopeful relief. The author does not shy from baring the light on the place that feeds his pen, even when it stumbles into dark corners and deep pits. The characters are round figures, defined by their positionality yet striving to move beyond towards the light. Essentially, they endure and in doing so endear themselves to us.
Choudhury seamlessly integrates native Bengali terms like “masala”, “mastan”, “muktijoddha” and “taxi wallah”, which serves to consolidate the authenticity of the context. The style is simple and coherent, making the words flow smoothly and contributing to easy readability.
Those looking to read something entertaining or eventful, however, can give Taxi Wallah and Other Stories a pass. It might also be disturbing for those going through a difficult time emotionally. The gravity of the situation in the stories can, at times, become a bit intense.
Overall, this short story collection is a great read and set to create a profound impact. And given the brevity of the stories, it will not take much of the reader’s time. As Zaman aptly opines about Numair Atif Choudhury: “Numair celebrated Bangladesh while simultaneously putting it on trial. He shone the light of hope while exposing the damned.” The author may have died early but he certainly did not miss the bus. Along with Babu Bangladesh! , the book Taxi Wallah and Other Stories is an invaluable addition to the corpus of twenty-first century South Asian literature.***
You can get your copy here at Amazon.