March 31, 2020
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On Vermillion Skies

Half a century’s storms buffet lives in south Asia in this simply told, sweeping narrative

On Vermillion Skies
The Storm
By Arif Anwar
Aleph | Pages: 368 | Rs. 599

Boats and boatmen, green eyes that are actually grey, lost children, gunfire—Arif Anwar’s The Storm is a jigsaw of fragments spanning pre-Partition India and 1970’s America. Each chapter of the book follows a different family and in all of them, some kind of storm is imminent. The most obvious are the terrifying storms that rack Bangladesh, blowing out of the Bay of Bengal and sweeping everything with it. Then there is the storm caused by Partition—the communal destruction spread by the division of a country—and allied to that the problems posed by the Japanese attacks on India and Burma during World War II. Last but not least, is a modern kind of storm, the kind that afflicts someone trying to get his green card in America while becoming increasingly aware that time is running out, a father fighting to stay with his half-American daughter.  

Anwar’s story expects the reader to wait before all the fragments fall into place—though some answers can be guessed at, like Sharyar’s true identity, for example.  There is a remarkable similarity between the women characters who, in one way or another, are divided from their menfolk—Honufa by the sea, Claire by war and Val through choice. Additionally, Honufa and Claire are linked by a common event—the crash-landing of a Jap­anese fighter, though Honufa is then a child and, as we learn later, originally a Hindu.

The story is inspird by the 1970 cyclone which destroyed half a million lives in Bangladesh. Anwar is most poetic when describing the beauty of his native land.

Claire’s fascination for Ishiro is inexplicable, except that she appears to link to ‘natives’ and her best friend was her Burmese maid whom she was forced to leave behind when the British evacuated to Chittagong. We never learn what eventually happens to them or to Claire’s marriage—Claire enters the main story through her initials engraved on a silver flask. Anwar is normally deft at linking, but this particular story is left dangling in mid-air.

Sharyar’s visa issues and his involvement with a shady immigration lawyer fall into the situations that most readers have come to expect from a world of migrant populations heightened by Trump’s recent fulminations. However, Sharyar’s end game proves to be slightly different from the usual Paki/India/Bangladeshi would-be immigrant—despite his love for Anna, he chooses not to succumb to the fury of the storm. Of all the characters in the story, he is the true survivor.

Behind it is the backdrop of nature, the bleeding red lines in the sky like sindoor and the “nothing colour of pure sunshine”. The story is in fact inspired by the Bhola Cyclone, which swept Bangladesh in 1970 and des­troyed half a million lives overnight. Anwar is understandably at his most convincing and poetic when describing Bangladesh in all its contradictions of beauty and poverty. Towards the end, the story flags somewhat, but the simplicity of the language and the sweep of narrative are enough to carry the reader through.

While Chittagong and Washington are impeccably edited, 1940’s Calcutta suffers from some oddly named roads, and Sri Ramakrishna becomes ‘Pramhansa’ instead of Paramhansa.

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