by Karen Engelmann
Memoir can be a dangerous choice for a writer; they reveal a slice of themselves that must cut deep in the extraction, but in the best examples, the genre is healing for both author and reader. Maria Chaudhuri's “Beloved Strangers” (Bloomsbury, 2014) is one such healing memoir. The story creates a circle from birth to rebirth, with Miss Chaudhuri's long and arduous journey into adulthood detailed in elegant and, at times, dreamlike prose.
Born to devout Muslin parents in Bangladesh — a newly formed nation still in turmoil from its own difficult birth — Miss Chaudhuri's prologue begins, literally, in the womb. In three brief, powerful passages set in different stages of her young life, the author introduces the theme of separation — a condition that is her greatest challenge and serves as the book's central query. The first passage is a poetic exploration of her own birth in Dhaka, the initial departure from the safety of the mother. The second examines a child's wish to run away, fueled by the wishes of the mother to be alone and free of the burdens of children. The third is a self-imposed displacement to a foreign land — the northeastern U.S and ultimately New York — the author describes as “rancid.” And yet a return to what was home in Bangladesh literally causes a kind of asphyxiation; the prodigal daughter cannot breath the air of her native city. In these first six pages, we enter a world where the author feels estranged from all that she is supposed to hold dear. Chaudhuri addresses this estrangement fearlessly, tackling topics like religion, familial dysfunction, gender roles, sex, depression and obsession with painful candor and surprising lyricism.
The author's questions regarding belonging begin with the family's strong religious traditions. Chaudhuri's innocent inquiries about God are rebuked and punished. She is taught to pray in Arabic — a foreign language that was only memorized and never learned or even translated. The pir sahib, a holy man who makes an annual visit to the family, tells the young Maria that he named her after a beautiful Christian slave that was a gift to the Prophet from the Byzantine Emperor. The pir's explanation is accompanied by a lecherous sexual tension that hints of intended pedophilia, arrested only by the arrival of her parents. Beauty, promiscuity, danger and desire are often connected in the work, a source of confusion and shame. When crowds of the devout arrive at the house to pray with the pir in the evening, the young Chaudhuri runs to the roof of the house to stare at the sky:
My grandmother said it was in the moment between twilight and darkness that all heavenly creatures left their earthly sojourns to fly back up to the heavens. The pink streaks in the sky were Heaven's doorway, flung open for the return of its inhabitants. I was always hunted down before the multi-colored easel of a sky had coagulated into a deep charcoal. (pg. 15)
Escape as a solution to life's problems is a method Chaudhuri dreams about often, inspired (and simultaneously terrified) by her mother's clearly expressed desire to escape the drudgery of home and family to pursue her own thwarted artistic dreams as a singer.