“Up in the Main House” Illuminates the Everyday Lives of Working-Class Bangladeshis

Nadeem Zaman on leaving America and finding literary success in Dhaka

Dhaka high-rises
Photo of Dhaka by Ahmed Hasan on Unsplash

To write his latest novel, Nadeem Zaman had to steal away from his day job teaching at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, escaping from his peaceful surroundings to the quiet rebellion of struggles and survival that is life in his chaotic city of birth, Dhaka. In Up in the Main House and Other Stories, he tracks contemporary Bangladesh through vignettes of everyday life in its capital. These seven empathetic stories amount to an insightful introduction by an urgent voice to a city, a country, and a people that are largely absent in global literary discourse.

I spoke to this Bangladeshi American writer (Zaman stresses, “I am a Bangladeshi by birth and by heritage, a Bengali by culture, and an American by nationality and the place I call home now”) via Skype about the sabbatical in Dhaka that birthed his debut short story collection.

Ikhtisad Ahmed: Writers often take the scenic route in pursuit of their careers. You were on the supposedly traditional track of reading literature and creative writing at university, culminating in a doctorate, but traveled halfway across the world, in order to break through as a writer before returning to the U.S. What made you leave the U.S.?

Nadeem Zaman: What made me leave the U.S. was 1) I was completely and utterly tired of making the rounds of agents here that said they didn’t see the books selling to an “American” readership, whatever that means, and 2) because I wanted to be in Dhaka, where my novel takes place, to do the final revision. I needed to get back in touch after being away over two decades, as well as to authenticate my sense of the places and locations by visiting them. After Kanishka Gupta at Writer’s Side offered to represent the novel and Picador picked it up in India, it finally saw the light of day.

The short story collection had a separate journey. It was first published by Bengal Lights Books in Bangladesh, then discovered by Unnamed Press in the U.S. Indie presses take the risks big publishing never will, which is why they’ve grown so rapidly and promoted so many voices that we would otherwise not encounter. If there is such a thing as a unique journey in publishing, this, so far, has been mine.

IA: Quite a journey too! Did you feel like an American expatriate in Bangladesh, or a Bangladeshi returning home for a year, only to then resume your life as a Bangladeshi expatriate (or should that be immigrant?) in the U.S.? 

NZ: Makes one reel just to get the designations straight, right? It’s along the same lines of white Europeans and Americans being expats when they relocate outside Europe and the U.S., but people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, in other words, brown and black and other people of color are immigrants. Nowadays, not even that. Refugees, displaced and unwanted, is the terrible truth. American is something I continue to struggle with attaching to my identity. Perhaps it’s because of the post-9/11 traumas inflicted on people like me, and the continuing legacy of that keeps this disconnect alive by the powers that be of what “American” is and should be instead of what it has, in reality, been continually redefined as throughout the history of the Republic.

I was a Bangladeshi returning to my birthplace after a long separation. That sums it up. Only this time I was there with a U.S. passport that required a Bangladeshi visa. Go figure. I do think there’s a marked difference between a writer of non-Bangladeshi heritage writing about Bangladesh and one of Bangladeshi heritage. The best part about the year I spent in Bangladesh, all of it in Dhaka, was getting to know the city in a way unlike I had ever known it when we still lived there. Of course, I was young, and my life contained within a set number of places and ruled over by parental dictates, but still there were places I’d only heard of and never seen. Going back as an adult, with all my time to explore as much as I wished, it was glorious. It changed the way I looked at my novel, for one, as well as reconcile images stuck in memory with where reality had gone. Yes, Dhaka is a “different city” from the one of my childhood, but it’s also not. I will say that by the end of the trip, I was happy to return to the U.S., not as an expat or immigrant necessarily but as the place I’ve known as home longer than where I was born. I don’t know how to live day-to-day in Dhaka because I became an adult in the U.S., and so my routines have to do with life lived and known here. 

IA: The day-to-day life in Dhaka is, in many ways, what the stories in Up in the Main House are about. Yet, you wrote them while becoming an adult in the U.S. Did you revisit them in Dhaka? Did the year you spent there change how you viewed them, or change them?

NZ: That’s right. They were all written in the U.S. over two years. I didn’t revisit them in Dhaka, because by then the novel was the center of all my writing energies and focus. Also, I had put the book of stories together and felt good about where they stood, and figured I’d revisit them if and when they got published as a collection. As for the substance and the content of the book, no, the year I spent there didn’t so much change my view as reinforce what I tried to do in the book, that is, to show this upstairs-downstairs existence of Dhaka, which is more or less unchanged from when I lived there. I was very much part of the upstairs, and the people that were downstairs existed only in their capacity as servants and drivers and peons and caretakers. I never knew them to have a life otherwise. Writing these stories was a way to imagine it. They formed out of the bits and pieces I carried from childhood, snatches of conversations, interactions between them when they were not “on duty,” and filling in huge gaps with made up, but probable, trials and joys and ups and downs. 

Indie presses take the risks big publishing never will, which is why they’ve grown so rapidly and promoted so many diverse voices.

As it happens, in the moneyed circles, in the realm of the rich and the elite, that upstairs-downstairs narrative not only is alive but is kept alive—the same mentalities of master and servant, privilege of birth, family pedigree, old money and old ways that refuse to let go or see the end of that era, you know, your usual set up of systemic privilege and inequities that’s the norm in the world we live in. Just in its own, specific Bangladeshi garb. I would even say South Asian. This is a similarity with India and Pakistan as we all come out of the same history and can trace back the lineage of these systems to the same roots.

IA: How much of that is a hangover from the colonial era, do you think? Where does this South Asian mentality fit in its postcolonial literature? 

NZ: I think it’s all a hangover from the colonial era, along with a host of other qualities, and no small amount of status quo maintenance by the emergent social elites of the country. How about the obsession with “fair” skin? I’m a case in point. No one takes me for a Bengali when I’m there. Strangers will address me in English and have also called me a “foreigner,” in the sense that the word is used in Bangla to mean, usually, white Europeans or Americans. I think this is one of the foundations that drive postcolonial literature, so much of which is invested in reclaiming identity, rewriting misrepresentations and false representations, and turning the gaze on the colonial past by examining its follies for what they are and also to take stock of where things are because of them. Whether it’s “chutnified” fiction, or whitewashed stories about “assimilated” South Asians in the U.S. and U.K., the lineage is one and the same—the colonial era. In the case of Bangladesh, there was a second period of colonization under the military regimes of Pakistan, which reinstated those colonial-era worldviews of pedigree, bloodlines, and inherited privilege. 

IA: That is difficult to disagree with. I would add that, at least as far as English writing from Bangladeshis goes, the focus is very much on the upstairs people, those with pedigree and inherited privilege. The downstairs people are as invisible or neglected in literature as in real life, but they are the subjects of the stories in your collection. Aside from the snippets from childhood you have carried with you, what made you write against the grain?

NZ: The mystery. I had no idea of these people’s inner lives, and as a writer that’s what we do, right? We write to discover, and my curiosity had to do with the downstairs life I didn’t see, I couldn’t know, and would never live. Upstairs was my life. That’s not to say there aren’t stories to tell about it that can’t be as engaging, full of humanity and conflict and trials and revelations, and everything else stories bring us; but at the time I was writing these stories, I was definitely specifically interested in the downstairs lives. Who knows? Perhaps an upstairs counterpart sometime in the future? It’s not in the works, I assure you. Not yet.

But you know, if John Updike can make rich white suburban American life the stuff of literature and create people that one can care about even if nominally at best—and by care I don’t mean human kinship but care about as characters experiencing life as they are—then Dhaka upstairs life is really not too far off in its ways and means. The parties, the drinking, the marriages that have one face in public and a crumbling reality in private, the illusions, the delusions, and the moments that can come out of all these complexities and find refuge and transformation in and through fiction. That’s where they become the writer’s domain.

IA: From In The Time of The Others to Up In The Main House, Dhaka has been your canvas. In the former, it was Dhaka before you were born, and in the latter, it was the city long after you had left it. What draws you to Dhaka? In writing about two periods separated by almost fifty years, what stood out to you about it?

NZ: You’re right to point out that in my novel In the Time of the Others, it is a Dhaka that existed before I was born. It’s the Dhaka of my parents’ youth and experiences, and it’s a Dhaka I know only through their stories and countless other stories of the Liberation War. In that regard, in the case of the novel, it was because of the subject matter that I revisited Dhaka. Of course, there are hundreds of stories of the war once it spread out to the countryside, but I was focused on what unfolded in the city because that was ultimately the center. 

Dhaka is a metropolis, unmanageable for the faint of heart, exciting, dangerous, old and new, and bursting at the seams

In the case of Up in the Main House, again, you make the important point that I was writing about Dhaka after I’d left it and been away. Now it was my memory of the city that I was recalling. The first attraction to writing Dhaka in my stories came from the same place of realizing after reading Midnight’s Children that this can happen in fiction with people like me and my experiences; that is, I had this moment where I thought, writers like Rushdie and Vikram Chandra and Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Suketu Mehta had been writing Mumbai for decades, and so (I’m sure you see where this is headed) the same not only could be but needed to be done with Dhaka.

For me, it was a new realization in the sense that I’d never written at length about Dhaka in any way. And suddenly, there it was. The catch was, I only had memories, having not been back at that point in more than two decades. Which served me very well, because I could concentrate on the stories and the people in them first, and have Dhaka be the canvas, their refuge, and the common factor in their survival. The difference? I don’t imagine much. Especially in the context of the stories. As we’ve already discussed, this class and socioeconomic hierarchy has long been part of the Subcontinent’s DNA. What stood out, to answer your question, was how unchanged it is. Really, that’s the heart of it. And then, when I finally went back in 2017 and lived there for a year, I saw more how that class structure is still alive and well. And Dhaka, the physical city, is the quintessential 21st-century postcolonial space—colonized by extreme capitalism and under assault of corporate and financial venality, foreign and local. Modernity is in a clash with barebones existence round the clock. 

IA: If this Dhaka that you have discovered—or perhaps rediscovered?—had to be placed in the U.S., in your mind, where does it fit? How does today’s America react to this metropolis that is bursting at the seams? 

NZ: Dhaka is indeed a metropolis, overcrowded, unmanageable for the faint of heart, exciting, dangerous, old and new, and, as you rightly say, bursting at the seams. Outside of the predictable U.S. cities like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, Dhaka is absorbing within its city limits what the U.S. as a country has no choice but to accept: the influx and movement of people because they can no longer live in their homes, countries, cities because of war and climate change.

Bangladesh’s countryside is under direct assault by climate change, and so people are moving in huge numbers to the city. Bangladesh doesn’t have multiple city centers like the U.S. There’s Dhaka, the capital, and that’s it. America today—depending on the perspective, and order of importance—would likely have ideas about Dhaka that are either badly informed, inadequately informed, or not at all informed. Just as climate change deniers here, there will be uninformed views that will point to poverty in Dhaka but not accept all the reasons for it. They’ll see the inequities but not see the corporate colonialism (Suketu Mehta’s very apt term) that is a huge contributor. They’ll point to corruption, and rightly so, among the rich and the powerful, but not include the huge multinational corporate greed that adds to that corruption on a global scale. 

There’s definitely need for better and more representation in world literature. I hope these stories contribute in ways that make for more complex conversations, raise questions out of more questions, and keep the space open not for answers but for ongoing exploration.

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