» Book Review
The Voices That Listen Behind Closed Doors
Up in the Main House & Other Stories by Nadeem Zaman
Unnamed Press, 2019
Paperback, 176 pages, $17
In many books that follow the struggles of the servant / lower class, the characters are so defined by their relations to those above them that their existences seem dependent upon and subservient to their masters and mistresses. Nadeem Zaman, however, circumvents this in his new and riveting short-story collection, Up in the Main House. By moving the master / upper class to the periphery, Zaman zooms in on the lives and humanity of those often oppressed in his birthplace of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The result is a collection of seven connected stories in which the protagonists contend with personal conflicts amidst social, religious, and political disparity and distress. In the titular story, Kabir must decide whether to stop his wife—Anwara—from playing mistress while the home’s owners are away, yield to her newfound power, or join her. Meanwhile, “The Caretaker’s Dilemma” explores Abdul Hamid’s struggle to negotiate a suitable marriage for his daughter before he dies while negotiating manipulative dowry shenanigans. In contrast, “The Happy Widow” follows Rosie Moyeen, a woman blamed for her husband’s death, as she tries to reconcile memories of her marriage with her bitter neighbor’s stories of ex-husbands.
Kabir’s description of his mistress as a “high-strung hag” at the beginning of his story starts the collection with one of the many unapologetic voices that populate it. When his wife puts on such a persona, the class-based conflicts of identity and power siege Kabir in more intimate ways than any master or mistress could. Ramzan—the old nightguard that winks with “both eyes”—advises Kabir to join his wife but also threatens a failed thief with death and imprisonment. The resulting dynamic is simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. Zaman entertains readers while keeping them constantly aware of the characters’ potential fates. The deft handling of character, voice, and tone are a joy to read.
While “The Caretaker’s Dilemma” possesses the same elements of craft as “Up in the Main House,” it employs them to subtler effect while weaving in interiority, dagger-like dialogue, and social masks. Hamid is repulsed by his friend Sobhan’s greed but still agrees to negotiate a dowry since he desires to protect his daughter from the “shame” that is “always the burden of the girl’s side.” Zaman simultaneously humanizes Dhaka’s upper class and increases the story’s sense of dread when Harun Qureshi, Hamid’s master, tells him that he will pay for the dowry and warns him: “Whatever your friend asks you for, don’t say no.” Sobhan, on the other hand, reveals his true nature when he says, “In money matters even family comes second.” His smiles, underhanded insults, speeches about “honest … men,” and objectification of people make him a character the reader loves to hate. Even his servants are tainted, as can be seen in how they “help with the luggage” the first time Hamid arrives but are unwilling to do so when they think the deal is done. In all of this, Zaman shows that none are free of this society’s expectations—and consequences when they are not met.
“The Happy Widow” synthesizes parts of the other stories’ styles. Mrs. Zaheer, Rosie’s neighbor, possesses a blunt voice. She describes her ex-husbands as “a bastard of the highest order” and “a gambling, philandering louse,” respectively. In contrast, Rosie exhibits a complex interiority like Hamid’s. The story examines a female perspective not often addressed. Rosie admits that “the way [Mr. Moyeen] loved her scared her,” and the story explores her reconciling with what she did and thought about doing to test whether he was human, fallible. Because of her thoughts and actions, it is easy to dismiss Rosie as a near-sociopathic woman if one forgets the cultural grounding established in “The Caretaker’s Dilemma” and at the beginning of Rosie’s own tale. However, “The Happy Widow” is an amazingly subtle and complex tale about a woman coming to terms with her story in a culture that says she has none. Through small, precisely crafted actions—such as worrying if she had washed the dishes wrong and, in an act of rebellion, “[leaving a picture] slightly out of place”—Zaman allows Rosie and his readers to acknowledge and break away from enforced stories.
Though links to the Qureshi family are what primarily connect the stories, they are also united by how the protagonists’ actions are motivated by pride. In a moment of clarity, Kabir realizes,
His damn foolish pride; that had done it. Just like it had done it countless times over the years, … doing no more in the end than undoing his grit to push it away, leaving him as he was now, too far gone to turn back, give in.
The collection begs the reader to consider if the preservation of pride always leads to self-destruction and when pride is worth the damage it can cause.
Amidst this conflict and complexity, Zaman weaves fresh, compelling, figurative language. Songs are as “out of joint” as their singers. “Laughter rattle[s]” around and within characters “like marbles in a tin can.” Stories are repeated like the songs in a “precious record collection.” Life is askew in slight, beautifully unsettling ways.
The collection is not perfect: long stretches of dialogue dilute intense moments and pull the reader out of the stories’ world at times. Nor is it for everyone. The stories often do not end cleanly as many Western stories do and, therefore, ask the reader to imagine the future fallout or triumph. While I find Zaman’s choice to end his stories on moments of change wise, other readers might feel cheated of a final scene. As a whole, though, the book is an engaging collection of stories that entertain and discomfort as great stories do. When I finished, I found that I—not the characters—was the one with my ear against a closed door, hoping to hear another word.