Book Review: 'Dhaka Dust' by Dilruba Ahmed

September 14, 2011


Home is both everywhere and nowhere in Dilruba Ahmed’s debut collection of poems, Dhaka Dust. Spread over continents and set in places as far flung as Ohio, Venice, and Dhaka, Ahmed’s poetry captures people caught between their numerous sites of belonging. It’s a motif announced early in the collection’s epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop: “Continent, city, country, society: / the choice is never wide and never free. / And here, or there ... No. Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” The diverse characters in Ahmed’s poems -- from the anxious passenger boarding an airplane to the daughter listening to her mother’s translations of Tagore -- are all, in some ways both “here, or there,” but never quite at home.

A worldly, cosmopolitan vision is at work in Ahmed’s collection, often reminiscent of Agha Shahid Ali (whose name appears in an epigraph and a dedication) but at times also the recent writing of Khaled Mattawa, whose polyglot and sprawling collection Tocqueville captures the economic unevenness that marks our new multinational-dominated world. In Dhaka Dust, the image of a boy asking for change in a Mississippi parking lot quickly gives way to the bustle of merchants and hawkers in a Dhaka Bazaar. Surplus scarves from The Gap hang around the necks of Bangladesh’s auto-wallas who shuttle the speaker around town. These poems may very well cover the author’s own personal geography, but nevertheless their sequence and quick transitions also force us to make sense of the juxtapositions.

What’s important here is that Ahmed never presents these interspersed settings as cute cause for celebration. Over and over, the women and men who inhabit these poems appear as dislocated subjects, thinking through their lived spaces with equal parts familiarity and anxiety. A woman in the title poem rides in a Dhaka rickshaw, hiding under her orna -- her scarf -- the “laminated map and digital camera” that out her as an outsider. And while she takes in her surroundings, finding connection through “bits of children’s songs,” she is also confronted with “other words [that] surface: / sweatshop and abject poverty.” Elsewhere, while buying bangles from the bazaar, a sister underscores her difference, reminding the speaker, “they know / by your walk you aren’t / from here.”

                         Photo of the author by Mike Drzal

Yet, her characters are not so easily located in America either. In “Southeastern Ohio,” Ahmed paints a scene familiar to so many of us first- and second-generation Desis, who found ourselves in ad hoc places of worship and community, growing up decades ago. Ahmed writes, “In stuffy gyms that passed / for mosques, my sisters and I / parroted words without grace.” In one of the most compelling poems in the collection, Ahmed describes a Muslim man obsessing over an unpaid jaywalking ticket while he anxiously waits to board a plane. Here we see Ahmed’s subtle metaphors at play. If the crime of jaywalking signals the policing of street crossings, it also faintly echoes the policed, national crossings the speaker tensely negotiates. Arriving at the gate, he wonders, “Which swallowed Arabic vowel / will trap him this time?” These are important, even political, poems, and yet Ahmed never compromises the nuance of her language for easily digestible polemics.

What’s so promising about Dhaka Dust is precisely that Ahmed never evades our contemporary moment, taking on a globalizing, anxiety-stricken world while always focusing on the contradictory ways that her speakers live through them. Over the course of these poems, Ahmed subtly crafts the emotionally complex terrain that captures the sprawl and dislocation that shape our early 21st century psychology.

Manan Desai recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, and currently serves on the board of directors for the South Asian American Digital Archive.