Shah Tazrian Ashrafi’s debut short-story collection is one of those collections – and I haven’t read too many of them – in which every story could have been a novel. Naiyer Masud used to write like that; criminally under-translated Marathi great GA Kulkarni used to write like that; Lydia Davis, certainly, writes like that – write, that is, in a way that almost every character in these writers’ large and expansive oeuvre seems to have actually lived. You read their stories and you understand that these are men and women who, as Benjamin Kunkel wrote about Roberto Bolano’s The Last Evenings on Earth, had a life instead of a story. “The life was just a mess, and then it ended.”

True of The Hippo Girl and Other Stories too. These are stories in which people, instead of characters, exist, and they lead messy lives, and then sometimes, as it happens to people, their lives end; but sometimes their lives also continue on, though that is often behind the scenes, once the page has been turned and the story has, conventionally speaking, ended. But that’s what I mean when I say that every story here could have been a novel: these stories resonate beyond the pages because the people in them seem to have had a life beyond these pages. Irrespective of whether the people are based on real-life or made-up, you get a sense while reading Ashrafi’s collection that these people existed; that these people had flesh and blood and thoughts and, especially, a history of their own, which is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off, as anybody who has ever tried to write can attest.

Stories that leave you reeling

But Ashrafi pulls it off well. There are stories here which left me thinking (and, in some cases, reeling) for quite some time after I finished reading them. The very best in the collection, I think, is “Bilal”, a terrific and terrifying story about the eponymous Bilal, “born blind in the left eye” but with the “saving grace” of not being a “dark boy like most of us.” It is narrated by a narrator who is both complicit in what happens to Bilal but also an outsider, someone who observes and then relates. His observations would come to mean something – a great deal – later, as the story goes on unfolding and the reader goes on discovering, until they are hit by the shock of the final horror.

This unfolding towards a violent finality is also etched well in another story – and another candidate, to me, for being the finest in the collection – titled “The Maid in Dhanmondi”, about Farah, a reporter based in the UK who returns to her homeland Bangladesh and strikes up a friendship with her maid, Naznin. The story starts along predictable lines: Naznin is hesitant with Farah while Farah encourages her to make herself at home, be comfortable, “loosen up a little”. Loosen up Naznin does, and the resultant bond between Farah and Naznin is depicted with insight and tenderness, without any forced conversations about class or how they are different and yet comfortable within each other’s company peeping out, which makes their friendship seem natural, almost a given. But, as the story goes on and discoveries are made, something else begins peeping out: history. And when history comes into the picture, as this collection underlines constantly, things get muddled up and relationships are threatened; often this threat goes beyond mere break-ups in friendships: it attains fanatical tendencies, the inevitable result of which, as we know very well, is mindless violence.

Violence, both as a by-product of history as well as something that is felt on a deeply personal level, is also one of the abiding themes of Hippo. Its hum is ever-present, like in “A Blazing History of Rage”, which on the surface is about an abusive father whose unfulfilled professional ambitions are typically burdened upon his two sons. But that burden is not just psychological but also – or rather mostly just – physical, felt by the sons in the brutal beatings that they receive at the hands of their father. “In every punch he lands on our arms, in every slap that jolts our cheeks, in every pull of the sideburns, we feel desperation coursing through his being. He really wants to send us away.”

Send them away where? To the cadet college. Because, as the father sometimes reminds his sons, “… it becomes very easy to get into the army, navy, or air force if you are a cadet college graduate…” but also because the father was once a cadet college student himself, and was expelled for cheating, which had angered their grandmother for life. The grandmother never forgives the father, and now, says a relative to the two brothers, the father “just wants to fix his past through you two.”

This is a short but extremely sharp collection of stories by a very young writer. It has a range of characters and perspectives and experiences all deftly observed and presented in stories that are not just character studies but also about something, that about being, more often than not, Bangladesh, its violent past and the past’s gripping hold over the country’s present. Ashrafi’s people are haunted by Bangladesh’s history, but it is not the only thing that defines them – the dialogues, though sometimes a little clunky, are refreshingly devoid of polemical declarations; these are just people talking to each other with things happening to them by the natural course of events. Its pages pulsate with grief and humour and tenderness and empathy and violence and destruction – but in depicting all of this, Ashrafi never forgets or lets us forget that his characters are ultimately just humans caught in the various pushes and pulls of that difficult process we call living. And this, I think, is the biggest strength of a collection that has many.

Atharva Pandit is a writer. His debut novel Hurda was published in 2023 by Bloomsbury India.

The Hippo Girl and Other Stories, Shah Tazrian Ashrafi, Hachette India.