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The Inheritance Powder, a tender tale of love and death

The Inheritance Powder, a tender tale of love and death

HILARY Standing’s debut novel, The Inheritance Powder, was originally published in the UK in October 2015, and short-listed for the Yeovil Literary Prize in the same year. We in Bangladesh, however, were unaware of this fine novel’s existence, until UPL took the laudable decision to print the Bangladeshi edition and launch it at the Dhaka Literary Festival in November 2016.

The Inheritance Powder tells the tale of the world’s worst mass chemical poisoning, a terrible story of 50-80 million people poisoned by arsenic released from under layers of sediment in deltaic regions of India and Bangladesh by the action of constructing deep bore wells.

Hilary puts some harsh questions in her blog titled Fiction and Development, “Where does accountability for this disaster lie? Could it have been foreseen? Which actors and agencies should take responsibility for resolving it?” She goes on to explain the narrative design of her novel: “I wanted to … explore these troubling questions through the prism of individual lives, to imagine how characters caught up in this situation in different ways might respond …The novel is told from the alternating viewpoints of a visiting British consultant working for a European development agency that wants a grand plan for dealing with arsenic, and a Bangladeshi woman leader of a grass-roots organisation that is working to develop local solutions.”

Hilary is an emeritus fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. She has a doctorate in social anthropology, specialising in health systems development and reproductive health. She has lived and worked for long periods in India and Bangladesh, and has worked on issues of gender and health sector reform in many other countries.

After I finished reading the novel, I phoned the director of the Institute of Disaster Management, University of Dhaka, and quizzed her about local solutions. She explained that, given the magnitude of the problem of arsenic poisoning, and despite funding from the World Bank and The Netherlands, and despite good faith and intervention by NGOs and civil society leaders, the cost and complexity of testing for arsenic contamination made amelioration and resolution of the crisis very difficult. The work is hard, but progress is slow. Funds are provided for the construction of the three-pitcher water distillation units, but this is an expensive alternative and our poor, ill-educated villagers are not really equipped to utilise this technology efficiently to gather enough drinking water.

There are other, less expensive, local solutions which are in operation. For example, dug-wells in North Bengal and rainwater harvesting, as in the remote areas of Satkhira. The director pointed out that foreign aid is also being used to provide medication, and for available treatment of those affected by arsenic poisoning.

Soon after this conversation, serendipitously, my eyes caught the following news item which was squished into a small space in The Daily Star (Jan 25, 2017), bearing the headline, “12 pc face arsenic risk: LGRD minister tells parliament”. The staff correspondent reported, “Replying to lawmakers’ queries, the minister said in 29 per cent of tube-wells of the country, arsenic concentration was found to be exceeding the acceptable level. Arsenic test was conducted in 50 lakh tube-wells in 271 upazillas in 2003. Of these, 14.5 lakh tube-wells were extremely affected, he added. A project titled “Arsenic Risk Reduction Project for Water Supply” involving some 1,865crore takas is now awaiting approval.”

Aye, there’s the rub — a report from 2003, delivered thirteen years later, and financial support “awaiting approval”. As the managing director of UPL pointed out earlier this month on Feb 12, 2017: “The discourse about the silent killer arsenic has lost its focus in the development priorities even though there are 19 million people still at risk in Bangladesh.”

How does one respond to this level of disinterest? How many more years will it take for red-taped files to move from one bureaucratic office to another? How much of the disempowered rural populace will be decimated before the coffers are full? This is the crux of the dilemma faced by the economist/ consultant Carl Simonovsky, the protagonist of The Inheritance Powder. Carl, who has made his name in agro-economics in Africa, finds himself in an absurd tragicomedy, shuttling back and forth between the five-star hotel in Kawran Bazar and the posh British Club in Gulshan, trying to understand the official doublespeak and see the true face behind the hypocritical geniality of public decorum.

Woven into the narrative fabric of The Inheritance Powder is a love story. Subtly, without obtrusive detailed description, Hilary makes us see Zafirah (divorced, educated in America, now a grass-roots leader, fated to inherit the legacy of her grandmother) as tall and elegant and ready to fall in love with the sensitive, good-looking Carl, divorced, and now estranged from his girlfriend in England. It might seem a touch clichétic — the white man and the exotic Bengali woman sexually attracted at first sight, and it might even seem a tad too neat a plot-closure to have Carl and Zafirah flying towards a ‘happily- ever-after’, but , I have to admit openly that such stories do really exist in the Bangladeshi context for me to vouchsafe the plot’s authentic tone. Moreover, the texture of the narrative is made richer by the inclusion of a submerged plot, a silenced narrative of the grandmother’s past illicit relationship. This enables Hilary to comment peripherally on the cultural taboos and sectarian discriminations which still bind many in our country to medieval practices of oppression.

Her prose flows effortlessly, creating living, palpitating, noisy, grubby scenes of the Dhaka I know and love and hate in equal portions. There is as much quick wit and humour as there is hard acerbic satire in her keen, perspicacious sketches of the various parts of this city.

The narrative of The Inheritance Powder moves from the city to the small towns and villages, carefully noting the flaws in the economic and social infrastructure, but also brimming with feeling for the beautiful women of Bengal along with poignant portraits of rural women often shackled by poverty and patriarchy.

In the prologue, Hilary explains the title’s oblique reference to the fatal chemical: “Arsenic is versatile. It has many forms. It kills quickly. It kills slowly. … Until the advent of forensic testing it was a fast and foolproof way to secure an early inheritance.”

The Daily Star / Bangladesh

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2017

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