The year 1970 was a packed one in the politics of the subcontinent. I would like to presume that the year was bloated with anticipation, with hope and despair—depending on what side of the borders you were on. There must have been, undoubtedly, a sense of foreboding for all that came with 1971 and in the years thereafter—war and its ugly aftermaths, the way people, their languages and their belief systems would go on to change. Arif Anwar channelises this foreboding to begin his debut novel The Storm.
Going back and forth in time and spanning generations, the narrative is befitting of the title. From the page go, one gets a sense that this sentiment of longing is going to be a leitmotif throughout the novel. Like the life of a storm, the novel and the characters that inhabit it go through a Gathering, then the Eye and finally, a Surging—the three sections that the novel is divided into.
Like the overhanging of a deep grey cloud and the still air just before the downpour and its violence begins, there is an undertone of anticipation upon every other page. One gets the sense that the collective story, and all its players are heading inevitably toward a precipice, hurtling at times toward events that are predetermined and inescapable.
Shahryar is a recent PhD graduate in the US, desperately trying to find a way to stay back in the country after his visa expires. In the last few weeks he has left, he tells his nine-year-old daughter Anna bits and pieces of his story that begins in the 1970s in what is now Bangladesh. Back in time, Jamir, a poor fisherman and his wife, Honufa, are gearing up to face the storm that will hit any time now. Further away in history, it is World War II and Ichiro, a Japanese fighter pilot, grapples with questions of spirituality, friendship and the morality of war. When his story plays out, it intersects with that of Claire, a British doctor stationed in Burma, who has her own doubts and expectations regarding her role in history. Across the border, it is the eve of India’s Independence and there are changes afoot. While career prospects look attractive enough to stay, circumstances force Rahim and Zahira, a privileged couple, to move to East Pakistan to start life as landlords.
These stories find themselves being lived in the thick of historical, and often devastating, changes. Quite literally, the eye of the storm. Unwittingly, the strange ways of life interweave these five stories and it all does come to a head in the end. Once the clouds gather, they have to swirl, build up momentum and surge, leaving behind land and people to pick up the ruins from.
The Storm is inspired by the devastating 1970 Bhola cyclone, one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded, its fatalities numbering half a million in Bangladesh. Keeping with the foreboding of a storm, Anwar peppers the book with evocative imagery and like the long sobs of the violin on a lonely night, one cannot help but feel melancholy in its pages. While the novel doesn’t present any great surprises, The Storm is a gently told story that is grounded in history and narrated with a respect for place and what
it means to the people that inhabit it.