by Karen Engelmann
Memoir can be a dangerous choice for a writer; they reveal a slice of themselves that must cut deep in the extraction, but in the best examples, the genre is healing for both author and reader. Maria Chaudhuri's “Beloved Strangers” (Bloomsbury, 2014) is one such healing memoir. The story creates a circle from birth to rebirth, with Miss Chaudhuri's long and arduous journey into adulthood detailed in elegant and, at times, dreamlike prose.
Born to devout Muslin parents in Bangladesh — a newly formed nation still in turmoil from its own difficult birth — Miss Chaudhuri's prologue begins, literally, in the womb. In three brief, powerful passages set in different stages of her young life, the author introduces the theme of separation — a condition that is her greatest challenge and serves as the book's central query. The first passage is a poetic exploration of her own birth in Dhaka, the initial departure from the safety of the mother. The second examines a child's wish to run away, fueled by the wishes of the mother to be alone and free of the burdens of children. The third is a self-imposed displacement to a foreign land — the northeastern U.S and ultimately New York — the author describes as “rancid.” And yet a return to what was home in Bangladesh literally causes a kind of asphyxiation; the prodigal daughter cannot breath the air of her native city. In these first six pages, we enter a world where the author feels estranged from all that she is supposed to hold dear. Chaudhuri addresses this estrangement fearlessly, tackling topics like religion, familial dysfunction, gender roles, sex, depression and obsession with painful candor and surprising lyricism.
The author's questions regarding belonging begin with the family's strong religious traditions. Chaudhuri's innocent inquiries about God are rebuked and punished. She is taught to pray in Arabic — a foreign language that was only memorized and never learned or even translated. The pir sahib, a holy man who makes an annual visit to the family, tells the young Maria that he named her after a beautiful Christian slave that was a gift to the Prophet from the Byzantine Emperor. The pir's explanation is accompanied by a lecherous sexual tension that hints of intended pedophilia, arrested only by the arrival of her parents. Beauty, promiscuity, danger and desire are often connected in the work, a source of confusion and shame. When crowds of the devout arrive at the house to pray with the pir in the evening, the young Chaudhuri runs to the roof of the house to stare at the sky:
My grandmother said it was in the moment between twilight and darkness that all heavenly creatures left their earthly sojourns to fly back up to the heavens. The pink streaks in the sky were Heaven's doorway, flung open for the return of its inhabitants. I was always hunted down before the multi-colored easel of a sky had coagulated into a deep charcoal. (pg. 15)
Escape as a solution to life's problems is a method Chaudhuri dreams about often, inspired (and simultaneously terrified) by her mother's clearly expressed desire to escape the drudgery of home and family to pursue her own thwarted artistic dreams as a singer.
Mother never escapes, but Maria does — with disastrous results and an ever-mounting anxiety over identity. She travels to the United States for college, isolating herself socially and losing herself in the study of Indian classical dance, a discipline she knows is not her calling. She reignites a childhood desire to become a singer herself, a dream that had been crushed by a teacher's harsh critique and her mother's silence and perhaps envy. Both of these artistic pursuits lead nowhere. What follows is a dark period of depression and romantic obsession that leads to a loveless, alcohol drenched wreck of a marriage. Separated from family, home, ambition, direction, dreams and love, Chaudhuri has become a stranger to herself.
Throughout the book, the author employs a subtly shifting chronology that allows her to gracefully intertwine the experiences of her childhood in Dhaka, her college days in New England and young adulthood in New York with the lives of her parents, especially that of her mother. The reader time-travels with her, wondering at the roles of nature versus nurture, fate or free will, and the innate need for self-expression and fulfillment that at times has all humans chasing down blind alleys and into despair.
Redemption for Chaudhuri begins with a racist comment, hurled at her by a stranger in the aftermath of 9/11:
Go back to where you came from, you filthy foreigner. You don't belong here. (pg. 157.)
This unlikely catalyst sets life in motion toward healing and home, with love and gratitude for every aspect of the journey.
My skin, dry and neglected, tingles under the midday sun. I inhale deeply the stale, forgotten odor of Jersey City. That woman, that crazy, angry, God-sent woman was so very right. I didn't belong there, on a dirty sidewalk in front of a Shop Rite in Jersey City, holding Yameen's hand. I didn't belong there at all. (pg. 158)
The entire work is suffused with a wonderful, sensual quality and descriptive writing that firmly places the reader in the author's world; the enticing flavors of Bangladeshi home cooking, the heady fragrance of exotic flowers, the cold and depressed urban landscape of the northeastern United States, and the silky tenderness of a lover are beautifully drawn. The depth of emotion revealed is fearless, and the compassion, forgiveness and love that result from Chaudhuri's self-imposed exile and ultimate discovery of self are genuine and convincing.
The book's epigram is a quote from the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran, another writer who straddled two worlds. It is a clue to the reader that within the dark passages they traverse with Miss Chaudhuri, they will ultimately find delight.
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Karen Engelmann was raised in Iowa, then pursued a career in illustration and graphics in Sweden and New York City. She authored and designed four books between 1997 and 2000, and received an MFA|CW from Goddard College in 2009. Her thesis project, The Stockholm Octavo, was published by Ecco Press in 2012 and has been translated to 14 languages. Karen’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Powell’s, Broad Street and other online sites.
Her webiste is karenengelmann.com.