Sunday, 3 March 2019

Book review: Sultana’s Dream, Roquia Sakhawar Hussain (1905)

This little short story evidences the kind of abrupt machinery of one of those Medieval accounts that involve a dream about angels that a man (the writer) has after he has fallen asleep during the day. First he goes to sleep then he opens his eyes and he sees an angel and a conversation ensures. It is almost without adornment and artifice it is so simple and bald, like a freshly-boiled egg that you just have to peel in order to get the goodness out. The story is a standalone in the volume that contains it, and is not part of a collection of short stories.

In this story, a woman named Sultana falls asleep in her room and when she awakes she looks up at the stars. Then a woman who resembles a friend, named Sister Sara, appears to her and the two go out into the garden, where it is suddenly morning. Sister Sara takes her into a town, which she calls “Ladyland”, where there are no men in the streets. Sultana asks where they have gone.

Sister Sara tells Sultana that the men have all been sent to the zenana (the inner apartments of the houses, which in the subcontinent are where the women of the household traditionally spend their time). The two continue talking and Sultana learns that in Ladyland water is harvested from the atmosphere and power is provided by the sun. The men had been enticed into the zenana after a neighbouring nation tried to invade. The queen of Ladyland had deployed her scientists with their war devices, which deployed the power of the sun, and her enemies had been defeated. The men were then told that they should retire from the world, and they complied.

In the end, Sultana is awakened and returns to her routine life when the story suddenly ends. As in the beginning, where there is little narrative material to build up to the appearance of Sister Sara, material that might have given some context that might tell the reader about Sultana and her life, at the end of the story Sultana simply stops dreaming and the story closes. There are no subsequent episodes that might help the reader to understand the nature of Ladyland or the reason for the writer dreaming it up.

Nevertheless, this is a sweet tale that for the casual observer of Bangladesh (where Hussain lived, in the years before independence or partition) evokes a range of feelings linked to the status of women in that country and, indeed, in India as well. Feminists and nerds will get especial enjoyment from this strange item. The flying vehicle that Sister Sara assembles and then uses to transport Sultana and herself to an audience with the queen is characteristic of the kinds of ideas this short story retails in. The device reminded me of nothing quite so much as the winged personal transports that people use in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’.

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