If you love someone, let them go. The title of Bangladeshi author Abeer Hoque’s collection of linked stories hints at the many departures intrinsic to love. If she did not return, true, she was never yours — but heck, at least you got one story to tell. In The Lovers and The Leavers, we dip into the lives of a small group of characters at different moments in their life, sometimes on the brink of hopeful love, or, hardened by disillusionment and time. This lovingly produced book contains not just stories, it interleaves photographs with text, and the prose is broken by jagged lines of verse. Taken together, it produces an effect of a blinding swirl, of love glimpsed — but never quite found — through the eddies of time.
The opening story, ‘Before You Eat’ develops languorously, creating a day in the life of Komola, a maid in an upper-class Dhaka home. She cleans and cooks, nostalgic of the time when the house was full of the laughter of children. Years ago, she left behind her family in the village for the city. She found work and then abuse at her first workplace. She has replenished this household with her labour for years — and still found space in her heart to fall in love. Hoque has a winner in this story that wonders, with hope, at the persistence of love. “Well, before you eat, there is love. It comes even before your hunger,” says Komola. We meet her again in ‘After the Love’, a story where the epigraph is a poem with the ominous line: ‘After all the love…../there are many ways to fall’. Fall Komola does on the hard tarmac of betrayal, as another man takes her for a ride.
In other stories, too, Hoque explores how love exists at the intersection of many kinds of inequalities. ‘Alo’ is a memorable portrait of a fey child, who has made friends with Kismish the goat, just a few days before Bakr-Id. He loves his Amma and fears his Abba, who wants to make a man out of him. “His voice is like the river, but different every day. Some days, I am like a boat and can follow it, seeing everything. Other times, I can’t even come close because the water is too fast. Today, I am a fish underwater in Abba’s river, not understanding what is happening above the water.” As this metaphor of a child’s incomprehension and anxiety about the adults who control his
life shows, Hoque’s language can make you see anew.
Various kinds of attachments are the subject of her stories, from adolescent hormonal encounters to extramarital liaisons to the state of affairs Facebook would call: It’s Complicated — and what Ross and Rachel could debate for many episodes of Friends. If there is anything that one misses in this occasionally lush collection of stories is humour. In stories like ‘Now Go’ and ‘The Beauty of Belonging’ — the former marred by several lines of awkward free verse — the characters seem trapped into a joyless daze by their own intense emotions. They belong to a Dhaka elite, adrift for no particular reason. In the latter, an artist sinks into a drug-hazed hole, in a country which he sees as a “black Goya world”. If that’s an overdone image, here he is trying hard to explain it away: “What the bleeding edgers don’t understand is that we create those standard overdone images even when there’s something pure driving us.”
There is nothing contrived about Ila in ‘Wax Doll’, a character which Hoque ought to stay with and watch her grow. She is a daughter of parents, who were once held up as the ideal example of a love marriage. They are now bitterly divorced. Their daughter carries with her the knowledge that nothing lasts forever, especially love. “She knew how hard it was, even when you loved someone to pieces. She was going to be prepared.” And so, she readies herself to dive into an arranged marriage, determined to create “love out of nothing”. “Could it be deep enough, wide enough to contain her ridiculous, hopeful heart?”