Mirror City, By Chitrita Banerji [Book Review]

Mirror City is Chitrita Banerji’s story of an inter-religious marriage and its aftermath, set in that ‘other’ Bengali city, Dhaka.

Mirror City is Chitrita Banerji’s story of an inter-religious marriage and its aftermath, set in that ‘other’ Bengali city, Dhaka.

Mirror City is the story of an uneasy marriage between a girl from this side of the river and a boy from that side; the this and that depending on which side of the river you are on. Uma is a Bengali Hindu and her husband Iqbal is a Bangladeshi Muslim. They meet in the neutral terrain of America, fell in love and married. As a result of that marriage, Uma has been disowned by her family in Calcutta. Iqbal however has brought his wife back to post 1971 Dhaka where he takes up a university posting and for some inexplicable reason, the marriage gradually begins to fall apart.

The story is told through Uma’s eyes, the growing discomfort of a woman who begins to realise that in Calcutta’s ‘mirror city’ of Dhaka, situations can be quite easily reversed. The book’s title comes from the song poems of the mystic Lalon Phokir, a Hindu Brahmin who became a Muslim due to circumstance and expressed his faith through a variety of folk songs. The problem, he sings in the poem, is that in mirror cities lovers can never meet. Though India has helped liberate Dhaka from the Pakistanis, there is no fondness for Indians. Even the Bengali food she is used to tastes different – in Dhaka when it rains, instead of rushing to eat the beloved hilsa and khichri, the men around her demand beef with their khichri.

It is in talking about food and textiles that Banerji is most at home and where her story comes to life. Otherwise there is a strange sense of removal from everyday reality. The reader wonders why Uma and her husband have suddenly fallen out and why they cannot find each other again. Yes, Uma is enchanted by the grey eyes of industrialist Alim Chowdhury – though again one is mystified at the hostility he seems to arouse in Iqbal and his friends. She finds a job in a government aid organisation and observes famine stricken women and children in the villages but discovers that her job only involves reporting and not aiding.

Uma’s hot head is at odds with her warm heart and she takes everything that happens whether in career or romance very personally.  Lack of love forces her to look for love in other places, but inflicts on her the stress of hiding her affair from her husband, not to mention the stress of being spied on by a government agent.

The novel rushes to a climax which, given the circumstances is hardly unexpected. Banerji however manages to lend it an element of unexpected grace under pressure.

At the centre of Mirror City is the assassination of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister – given the time, Mujibur Rahman, even though his name is not mentioned. However barring the curfews and further reports of executions, the lives of Uma and her husband are not really affected.  Maqbul who promised a frisson of political terror, unceremoniously vanishes from the novel when he has played his part in complicating Uma’s life.

One can understand that Banerji is building on her own life experience to portray the uncertainties in a newly liberated Bangladesh where corruption is slowly sapping the society as a lack of passion saps Uma’s marriage. The three section headings in the book reflect this. However one would have asked for a little more engagement with the incidents, certainly a little more passion.

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