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Book Review

Rediscovering Nazrul

Tamanna Khan

Kazi Narul Islam the national poet of Bangladesh has always been the rebel bard for me till now. I grew up learning his songs, reciting his poems but his novels ---I kept a safe distance from them. The blame goes to 'Bethar Daan', one of his novels which I accidentally read at an age when my favourite fictional character was 'Dalimkumar', a fairy tale prince. I blindly labelled Nazrul's prose as gloomy and kept away, until 'Badhon Hara' (Unfettered) came to me in a foreign language, English. Today when I know the depths of depression and constantly fight my conscience to understand the world within and around me, Nazrul Islam's prose makes sense; it gives voice to the silent screams inside my head.

Badhon Hara
Author: Kazi Nazrul Islam
Translated by: The Reading Circle
Published by: Nymphea Publication

For those who like me are not familiar to Nazrul's prose, it can be mentioned that 'Badhon Hara' is the first epistolary novella in Bengali Literature. It appeared in the 'Moslem Bharat' magazine as a serialised publication from mid-April 1920. In 1927, the series of letters were complied in the book 'Badhon Hara'. Almost a century later, in 2011, The Reading Circle, a book reading group that mainly focuses on English Literature, came up with the idea of translating 'Badhon Hara' on occasion of the centennial of Nazrul's famous poem 'Bidrohi' (The Rebel). Published this year in November, Unfettered, the English translation of 'Badhon Hara' brings Nazrul's thoughts about himself, the Hindu-Muslim strife, religion, women's liberation and much more to the world.

For me 'Unfettered' has been a rediscovery of Kazi Nazrul Islam and a probable answer to many questions I have regarding this favourite poet of mine. Questions such as what created the whirlpool of words inside him --- words so powerful that it strikes a hard blow to your numb senses, reminds you of your beating heart. Then there has always been the mystery surrounding the sudden silence of the fiery poet that I could never comprehend or accept. However all these answers are hidden in the romantic and angry letters of Nurul Huda and in the analyses of this character by his friend Monuwar and Shahoshika. It is not a boastful account where the writer praises himself rather it is an attempt to judge and understand his behaviour which has always baffled people who knew him.

'Unfettered' rekindles the joy of writing letters; pouring your heart out in pages, which are not limited to the number of characters you can text your friend and are not accompanied by soaring phone bills. The joy of receiving a piece of paper with words from your loved one has been pushed into oblivion in this age of technology when everyone is just a click away. The richness of letters lies in the difficulty of delivering it; as in the case of the young female character, of the novella, Mahbuba, who has to cut through the strict conservative rules of her Muslim maternal home to deliver letters to her friends.

The book also has a chronological biography of Kazi Nazrul Islam with pictures of his family and publications.

Other than planning the delivery, the characters in fact look forward to a leisure time when they can put down their unbinding emotions into paper. Thus Mahbuba is seen writing a letter to her childhood friend Sophia, in the wee hours of the night till the first light of dawn. Another character Robiul, searches for the appropriate time amidst his household duties to sit down and give shape to his thoughts peacefully. The joy of receiving a letter and the importance it carries in the life of the individual characters is equally portrayed in the novella. While Robiul uses humour by saying that he insulted his tea by giving importance to Nurul Huda's letter; Shahoshika, the spinster female principal of a school in Kolkata, describes the effect of her friend Rabeya's letter as 'It was like a thin stream that begins flowing from the heart of a very hard, rocky mountain'.

It is interesting how the author helps to build images of the characters and their surroundings in my mind without actually giving their detailed descriptions. I could clearly see Shahoshika lazily opening her eyes to the rays of the summer sun filtering through her room's Roman windows or Rokeya, Sophia's mother, a serene elderly woman taking time to choose words and maintain propriety while writing letters in her shaky old hand. Even the incidents that make up the story of the novella have to be pictured as what actually happened is not presented in any sequential manner in the correspondences. Each character is giving his/her view of that one event to which all the correspondences refer to. In fact, my first hunch of what actually preceded the series of correspondences had to be altered after I finished reading all the letters. However, I could not fully solve the mystery of the love triangle because unlike our times, it appears that the hero heroines of past era preferred keeping their feelings to themselves.

Another interesting thing to note is how different the letters are in the moods and wordings, depending on the gender of the character writing it. The female characters analyse their surroundings and society's treatment of their status. Through their words they point out the patriarchal society's weakness; each character within her own sphere becoming a feminist. Even Mahbuba's mother Ayesha, a supposedly close-minded, traditionalist character, admits that she could not protest in her husband presence but takes the opportunity to speak her mind after his demise.

The emotional bond between the male characters comes as a surprise to me. In fact, other than Nurul Huda's letter where he describes his duty as a soldier, the male role in the bigger sphere of the society does not occupy the pages. The male characters in some cases, for example, Robiul, doubt female judgement but he nevertheless openly admits his own emotional weakness. Moreover, the male characters appear to have more a poetic inclination than the females but unlike many other male characters of other novels, they do not try to show off their intellect by ranting about everything and anything they know.

One thing I really missed out by reading the novel in English is Nazrul's use of jocular Bengali words, which we find so often in his poems. Though the translators in some cases left the Bengali words as it is for instance in the song “Dada gayi dekse, goru tar ki dekhbo….” the humour in the nonsensical song is amiss, perhaps because I am not familiar with such amusements. Also as a Bengali, I miss out the tunes of the songs mentioned in the letters. Yet, Unfettered for me is a beginning, a motivation to find out more about my favourite poet and song composer, whose taal-ferta (mixing of different beats in a single song) has enraptured me to date. Now I know, I can release the free-spirit within me by delving into Nazrul's prose too, which will tell me in Shahohika's words, “The rebel pushes away all the darkness shrouding religion and forges a new path…………..Just because he doesn't follow the path of the others, does that mean that his path is wrong?”



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