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Book Review

Ghora Masud and His Lore

Shibly Azad

Contemporary Bangla literature has reached a new height, as it evinces sign of post-modernity. The post-colonial approach to Bangla fiction writing, which sprouted earlier by a new generation of writers in Bangladesh and for whom writing tantamount to reading, has began to bear its fruit. As opposed to grand narration of the Enlightenment era, or use of linear structure prevalent in mainstream Bangla fiction, similar to their contemporary European counterparts, a handful of recent Bangladeshi writers approach to fiction writing as a form of discourse, evident in their dealing of theme, content, and structure.

Such is the case for our novella in question: Ghora Masud by Mashiul Alam. The novelist offers an amazing experience to readers, as one leafs through the pages of this unorthodox fiction, which fairly can be described as a textual presentation of collective ethos of contemporary Bangladeshi people, structurally rendered in parables and fantasies, but set in a microscopic scope. The piece, as mentioned earlier, is an example of post-modern literature for two inherent reasons. First, content-wise, as opposed to linear narration that predominates mainstream Bangla fiction and which mostly deals with pathos of middle class Bengali folks, "Ghora Masud" deals with two dominant features of our social reality: political hooliganism and its nemesis, The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Thus, the fiction presents us a dialectic nature of two opposing forces in collision and its consequences, the synthesis: impact on mass psychology, crystallized in urban folklore.

In other words, on one hand, Mashiul Alam weaves the narration of discrete events in a spiraling manner of a staircase, similar to that of a Double Helix, as to show how events interact through narration, resulting in fiction; on the other, like a consummate maestro who employs counter point with precision, in the fiction, he takes the readers along with him to a dip dive into minds of the Rupnagar people who see, foresee, and interprets events: past, present, and future. Mashiul Alam thus, provides the reader a rare glimpse of show as to illuminate how mingled with imagination and fantasies, discreet events become stories of mythical proportion; and how the absent mute millions, in response to modernity, to answer Gayatri Spivak's seminal question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” represent themselves non-textually. In other words, Mashiul Alam has written a docu-fantasy to refute the postulation made by Spivak that the subalterns cannot present themselves; therefore, they require to be presented. Mashiul Alam answers back, illustrating that the subalterns do speak, but in their own way; they do so in forms of parables. To make his case, Mashiul Alam juggles with social dichotomy in our society: prevalence of modernity in forms of multi-layered power to effect citizenry and the oral tradition of discourse about power, a sign of pre-modernity in contemporary Bangladesh. In relation, he shows how their interaction shapes mass psychology. In this respect, one can say, Mashiul Alam has initiated subaltern studies in fiction.

The story of "Ghora Masud" is set in a mythic semi-urban town: Rupnagar. The name of the town suggests an analogical intention of the author. The protagonists, the hero of the fiction, in reality, who fits the trait of a counter-hero, appears to become larger than life, as to reincarnate as a Hero of Our Time, to use title of Lermontov. For, the protagonist Masud, who is identified, vilified, and lionized with the prefix ghora, a metaphor for mobility in an industrial world with its relation to agrarian social setting because of its equine reference, in essence, embodies both ethos and pathos of Rupnagar. Thus, the character of Masud represents dichotomy of non-dual dualism simultaneously. For, on the one hand, he is the villain of the locality; on the other, his very existence and exploits, whether actual or fictional, succeed to receive positive nod, as the locals secretly admire him. That is, paradoxically, Masud represents microcosm of the macrocosm, of the society as a whole. For, without the subconscious desire for an apocalyptic figure such as Masud, his existence could not have been sustained, whether in reality or in fantasy.

That is to say, Masud is a subliminal alter ego of the Rupnagar people, an extended analogy for contemporary Bangladesh, as being a backwater society, similar to millions Bangladeshis, these town folk desperately searches for an agency, to manifest collective fantasies, in their anticipation of a Hero, who can command both admiration and fear, the source of his receiving public admiration, in spite of hooliganism. In order to understand my point better, one has to just remind oneself what kind of youth leaders in real world in Bangladesh get social recognition. This being the case, a sub-textual reading of the fiction also suggests that the people in Rupnagar is waiting for something to happen, to be relieved from their perpetual boredom of repetitive life cycle.

Masud becomes their alter(ed) Godot, an ironic manifestation of collective anticipation of a hero. For, Masud provides them soul food, source of gossip to create metamorphosis and transport them into a world of fantasy. This interplay of individuality of Masud and collectivity of Rupnagar people in the backdrop of the co-existence of semi-modernity and agrarian primitiveness has supplied the dialectic nature of the fiction. People in Rupnagar town are loosely related to actions of Masud either as spectators, participants, or victims. But they are connected with each other through the vines of gossips in which Masud is the connector. Thus, Masud as a figurehead becomes the centerpiece of a wheel that holds individual spoke.

The book is a collection of hearsay about Masud. People hear stories and vine of gossip spreads like bonfire, as people remain eager to hear about adventures of Masud, resulting in their belief in fantastic heroism of Masud. But Rupnagar people appear to hear stories, though they are unsure about their authenticity such as whether Masud really was caught by RAB, or he really owns a residence in Dhaka, as much as, people are unsure about other stories: relation between biological and foster fathers of Masud; reason for his mother leaving the first husband; what motivated Masud to get angry, resulting in apparent bank robbery; or who actually had raped the indigenous girl. In simple, these so-called actions resulted in becoming stories that revolve around Masud are more of a creation of fantastic minds of Rupnagar people than reality, as they are imagined in collective fertile minds, based on discreet pieces of information.

In other words, the novella is about wondering, about relentless search of what has happened and the search makes these loose stories relevant, as they become connected through Masud as protagonist. For, without him as the central figure, these stories lose their connecting cord as well as meaning. But the act of circulation and weaving intricately in multi-layered form, these stories become integral part of a larger plot in which Masud becomes the Don Quixote-like hero. But neither Masud himself is aware of ongoing lore about him, nor people are sure about authenticity of his action. In other words, in a sense, Masud is a fictive personality, a creation of Rupnagar people; Masud is what psychoanalysts refer to as collective self-projection. That is, Masud, in reality, is the self-image of the collective mind, an expression of embedded fantasies, a means to cope with boredom of small town people, in the middle of nowhere and mired in chaos, corruption, and depravation. This is why Masud remains a mystery and his actions elusive, as he is a symbol of Godot in a pre-industrial society, signified by his appellation. For, he is the horseback apocalyptic man.

In sum, Mashiul Alam wrote a political commentary as dark comedy about contemporary Bangladesh. He renders a psychoanalytical report of a paralyzed society that has lost its vigour, due to lack of political and social direction. To present his report as fiction, Mashiul Alam weaves oral tradition like an embroidered kantha. His unfolding of episodic events of Masud is analogous to indigenous ballad tradition, in which stories about heroic deeds are repeated; Mashiul Alam creates a modern version of Khawbnama of Rupnagar people.

Shibly Azad is a scholar working at Columbia University, New York.

Existence, Imagination and Reality

Elita Karim

At first glance, the volume covered in blue would not say much to an average anybody, shuffling through the racks of books. If one does pick it up and decide to flip through its pages, the equally lacklustre interior would probably be disappointing as well, as Alice had exclaimed, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. However, as every avid reader and student of literature knows not to judge a book by its cover, one would definitely read on and be fairly amused at the opinions and theories put forward.

In Essays: Of Studies, Francis Bacon mentions that there are some books that are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and few to be chewed and digested. A Sheaf of Literary Essays would definitely belong to the third category. Written by Zakeria Shirazi, the book has been published by Lekhony. Born in 1941, Shirazi's forefathers hailed from a city called Shirazi in Iran and settled in this part of the world about 150 years ago. Growing up in Dhaka, Shirazi graduated from Dhaka University as a History Major. As a young man back in his university days, Shirazi was a part of a group of students with similar interests in literature and poetry. In fact, this striving group of young poets and writers later on came to be known as the 'sixties generation'.

The flame that had ignited within him to rebel against society and put the country on the map as a young man back in the sixties is reflected in his book of essays. His essays don't only speak of the universal transitions that take place in literature and the physical nature of the various sections of literature, but Shirazi's opinions in his essays represent him and the poets and writers of his generation.

According to Shirazi, the famous Modernists like TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and many more were “pessimists: in their despondency they found no positive ideals before mankind.” He talks of alienation as yet another element of Modernism along with incoherence and absurdity as the dominant themes. It is clear that Shirazi's generation related passionately to Sisyphus, explained by Shirazi as “the condemned Corinthian of Greek mythology who will roll a stone up the hill from which it will always roll down again, and repeat his futile exercise eternally, signifying that man is condemned to eternal servitude, that all man's labours are futile.”

In yet another essay in the book titled 'Bangladesh Poetry of the Sixties', Shirazi writes of the poets then, whose poetry reflected “the modern man's pain and dilemma, his confusion, rebellion against authority and the immitigable solitude”. That was when yet another transition was taking place where the poets then pointed out to the fact that poetry was a laborious intellectual discovery, a spiritual torment, “often crafted with meticulous care as to form and technique” and not only mere outpouring of emotions.

Shirazi quoted Abdullah Abu Sayeed, the spokesperson of the sixties generation of poets who said that they had witnessed “sin and holiness, genius and wastage yoked together” in that particular decade.

The book also reflects on Postmodernism, its elements and postmodernism in Bangla. Speaking of Bangladesh in this context, he says that Post-modern poetry is not entirely fluid and it does not lack coherence and standard. “Of Bangladeshi poets this will not be true.” He further speaks of the traits which can be noted as “a swing back from the negativist philosophy of Modernism, renewed interest in the nature, history and tradition of one's native land, celebration of the neglected sections and responsiveness to contemporary global issues like environment, feminism.”

Reading this book of essays and entering into Shirazi's' world of expressions, one thinks of Samuel Backett and his famous play Waiting for Godot. The play speaks of existentialism and how man goes on waiting for an entity called Godot to come and rescue them from the pain that they feel. However, nobody knows if Godot exists at all and the pain of mankind simply cannot be defined in mere words. Shirazi is clearly drawn towards this absurdity of human life. A critic and a personal friend of Shirazi's says that Shirazi is a “brooding and lonely man”. He definitely is a “believer in the Sisyphean futility of life” but at the same time can draw a clear path between existence, imagination and reality.



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