There is an obvious dissonance in prefacing a review of Mashiul Alam’s The Meat Market – translated from the original Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya – with a line from Shakespeare’s works. And yet. “Wilt thou be gone?” cried the bard’s lovelorn (if underage) Juliet, lamenting the departure of her new husband. “It is not yet near day / It was the nightingale, and not the lark, / That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear,” she tells him, exhorting him to stay back just a little bit longer, assuring him the lark had not yet announced daybreak.

An ice-cold plunge

Some four hundred years later, in a subtle nod to, and signalling a violent departure, from the settledness and certainties of Shakespeare, Alam’s Modina, a young bride in the village of Modhupur in Bangladesh, begs her husband, Modhu, to stay home for just one more day, as the cuckoo trills from the branches of the korai tree on a spring dawn. Modhu is a rickshaw driver in Dhaka. Exiled from home by the threat of starvation – no water in the fields he worked in as agricultural labour, no clouds in the sky to shelter him from a hostile summer, no wages to be brought back home – he exchanges one form of hard labour for another, one exploitative space for another, one potential tragedy for another. Alam’s universe in “The Cuckoo Keeps Calling” as well as in the other stories in this collection is an ice-cold plunge into the realities of marginalised lives in modern-day Bangladesh, casting an inverted light on the dynamics of power, politics, and human relationships.

There is no ease in these stories, no promises of redemption, no twists of plot that make for unexpected moments of joy or righteous comeuppance. Their protagonists are drawn largely from the lowest rungs of the class hierarchy. Hunger, squalor, deprivation, and violence run like leitmotifs through the prose. In “Milk”, an undernourished mother, working as a farmhand, is unable to feed her newborn since her breastmilk has dried up. In the same village, a dog gives birth to a litter and heavy with milk, has her pups brutally taken away by a pack of hungry dogs.

The eponymous protagonist in “Akalu’s Journey to the Land of the Red Earth” is perpetually hungry and dreams of fields of paddy and eating his fill of rice, even as he makes a long journey to find work as a field labourer. “Jamila” tells of the complex chain of events that unfold when a cow, unfed for days by her owner and desperate to feed her calf, breaks out of captivity to graze on grass in the Prime Minister’s official residence.

Claustrophobia permeates the city in “The Underpass”, “The Meat Market”, and “Field Report from Roop Nagar”, putting on display the savagery of human behaviour. The stories are marked by hyperrealism that causes excruciating discomfort, often relying on the grotesque, using the alienation inherent in disgust to deny the reader the luxury of immersion, forcing them, instead, to witness a hostile world, unstinting in its cruelty, uncaring of niceties like fairness and justice.

The apathy of structures

The Meat Market pulsates with political critique. In the eleven pieces it puts together, it tells the story of a nation that has struggled with communal strife, political unrest, the horrors of Partition, and ongoing economic challenges. In “An Indian Citizen Came to Our Town”, 73-year-old Nabin Chandra Chowdhury returns from India to Bangladesh to live out his last days in what he thinks of as his homeland, only to be told that “homeland” and “land of birth” were not the same thing; that having left Bangladesh once, he could no longer claim it as his own. The communal question and interrelated concerns of identity – who has the right to belong to a land, its history, its literature, and its culture – will perhaps find resonance with the Indian reader, caught in similar political discourses.

The apathy of structures of power is evident in “The Underpass” where a constable on duty at a highway, awaiting the Prime Minister’s motorcade, shoots a bystander just because he can. A streetside vendor’s sales pitch for pocket-sized copies of the constitution in the same story is perfect commentary on the state of the State: “Special discount due to the upcoming sacred elections: ten takas, ten takas, ten takas. Inside this constitution, you will find information on how many months before a baby’s teeth begin to grow. Which colour, if chosen for carpets by the wife of the chief adviser of the interim government, leads to disasters for the nation. Whether MPs should or shouldn’t spend nights with females at the MP Hostel. The devil does not enter any of the parliament chambers. What punishment should be meted out to the speaker of the parliament should he allow opposition MPs to speak.”

“The Vendor’s Constitution” is a document of the lapses of a failed state. The same sharp, satirical gaze is directed at politicians, state machinery, activists, the media, and an intermittently responsive citizenry in “Jamila” where a cow is first labelled as the perpetrator of a crime, then hailed as a victim for whom justice must be sought, and subsequently ends up as yet another story the public loses interest in.

“Pony Masud”, the novella in the anthology, is, as the subtitle indicates, “an account of the tangled stories and gossip about him as narrated by the people of Roop Nagar”. A story of one man’s rise and fall, “Pony Masud” is a dextrously plotted narrative that is as much about its protagonist as it is about the force of public opinion that turns him into a legend. Masud’s ascent into infamy is a typical tale of toxic masculinity validated by patriarchal structures. Roop Nagar holds his mother responsible for his villainy, largely absolving Masud of any responsibility for his crimes. The town is, in multiple iterations, a microcosm of Bangladesh (mirroring its South Asian siblings).

Its relationship with political leaders, with past Presidents and their policies, is Bangladesh’s complex relationship with Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad. The corruption in its educational system is the corruption in the country’s systems. Consequently, damningly, its validation of violence, and its antipathy towards Masud’s victims, is also the antipathy of a nation towards those whose lives are assigned lesser value than others. In “Pony Masud” Alam pulls his reader into complete complicity. The circuitous stories of the people of Roop Nagar are our stories, their prejudices are our prejudices, and their inaction is our inaction. The same town and its peculiar ability to demand accountability of the reader also features in “Field Report from Roop Nagar”, where a macabre drama of violence and collective responsibility plays out, as part fairytale, part nightmare.

Mashiul Alam writes the macabre particularly well, digging into reserves of the literally grotesque as well as the metaphorically ugly, using violence as a lens to focus the reader’s attention on inequities and imbalances. “The Meat Market”, an excellent exemplar of the author’s style, is a shiver-inducing piece about consumption and self-preservation, laced with dark humour. Each of the stories in the anthology is an insight into the clammy depths of human behaviour in a posthuman world that is only just learning to edge away from its anthropocentric axis. The writing is stringently economical, avoiding all excess, staying determinedly incisive.

It is also a triumph of Shabnam Nadiya’s translation that complexity is rendered with such coherence and fluidity. In a story that confronts that eternal question of reality and appearance, Alam’s narrator quotes Plato: “In an ideal state, there will be no space for poets and artists.” Alam’s readers (as much as his characters) live in a state far from ideal and must give abundant thanks that consequent on our multifarious imperfections, poets and artists like Mashiul Alam continue to shape narratives that are sharp-edged and too real to turn away from.

The Meat Market: Ten Stories and a Novella, Mashiul Alam, translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, Eka/Westland.