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Asian Anthologies, Part II: The Lotus Singers, Short Stories from Contemporary South Asia

The Lotus Eaters: Short Stories from Contemporary South Asia
Edited by Trevor Carolan
Foreword by Urvashi Butalia

To escape from poverty a woman sells of her body in order to get by.

You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you? Actually, you haven’t.

Niaz Zaman of Bangladesh’s story “The Daily Woman” is part of one of the new Asian anthologies out by Cheng and Tsui Company and edited, like Another Kind of Paradise, by Trevor Carolan. This anthology primarily features short stories from the countries of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but also Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives.

Playing on the region’s rich literary culture and history, old forms take new life. In Zaman’s story a house worker, a daily woman, reflects back on a choice she made before she was able to find her job. Her husband was sick and the babies came early. What is the price of surviving in Bangladesh? “How hungry she had been, and the two babies crying together were enough to make her go mad.”

And then the Amrikans came, pinkish-white people who were willing to solve her problem and take it away, a man and a woman. “White hair and wrinkles near her eyes. And thin. No breasts. No behind. Flat as a dried fish.” The narrator is not impressed, but it would be easier if there were less mouths to feed. So she made the deal and the Amrikans drove away.

“She sighed and drank the last of her tea. So that was what a Bangladeshi girl child was worth. Two brass bangles. She picked up the boy. Would he have been worth four brass bangles?”

Usha Yadav, an Indian writer, also takes a new twist on an old problem. In “Libations,” when the widow Saptadal dies during the festival of Holi, her fellow widows travel from door to door to seek men willing to arrange the burial rites for her funeral. When no one can be found three young women, going outside tradition, help the widows perform the burial themselves.

In a subtle (in terms of the story) and less than subtle (in verbatim) commentary on social customs and class divisions, Yadav writes “Not an ordinary funeral procession, this was also at once a protest march by women against a selfish and insensitive patriarchy which shadowed the lives of women from the beginning to the end: destroying the female embryo after the ultrasound report and forbidding women to perform the last rites of the dead. At least that is how it seemed to this small group.”

The Lotus Singers is an interesting and powerful collection and for those looking for a varied choice of reading and contemporary topics, the anthology has a lot to offer. While on the whole the stories are not as uplifting and positive as Carolan’s other anthology Another Kind of Paradise, their gritty darkness and at times black introspection give a telling look into South Asian life.



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