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Saturday, June 18, 2011
Literature

Essay

Syed Manzoorul Islam: Tales of the post-modern

Successful post-modern Bengali writers of short stories in Bangladesh are few in number. And surely Syed Manzoorul Islam, professor of English at Dhaka University, is among those few who have embellished the genre of short story in many ways. In contemporary Bengali literature Syed Manzoorul Islam is one of the remarkable pioneers of postmodernism and is equally well-versed in writing on a number of genres, namely short story, essay, novel, literary and art criticism. However, he disagrees with the notion of himself as an author of multifarious genres. He simply considers himself to be a storyteller. The way he relates stories is similar to the way Gabriel García Márquez tells his stories. Both move from one point of view to another.

Let me mention a relevant line to point to the similarity between Márquez and Islam. If one goes through Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Islam's Shukhdukher Golpo, he/she will surely find some elements of similarity in those books, particularly magic realism, surrealism and meta-fiction. However, Syed Islam and Márquez have dealt with these matters through maintaining their distinctive styles. Syed Manzoorul Islam's style of storytelling is very frank and incisive. He says he always feels much more comfortable writing short stories than anything else. All his brilliant postmodern short stories have been written in the last two decades. One is tempted to think that these stories will give him a permanent niche in the history of modern Bengali literature.

Islam has obviously come by a unique readership following in the Bengali-speaking world. Every episode or incident in his stories is underlined by an intense symbolism; and yet readers are not segregated from the stories amidst these continuous symbolizations. On the contrary, readers unknowingly become part of his stories as they go reading them. The storyteller himself becomes an inseparable part of his stories. Every story told by Syed Islam has a transparent resemblance to some practical incidents he has experienced. The subtle theme of the stories is that real incidents are continuously happening around us. He writes about what has happened in his world and of what he has heard from others. This message flows to readers again and again. He seems to be inviting readers to be part of his discourse. Syed Islam has a special fascination for unusual happenings. For instance, in the story Kathal Konya, Absar, a major character, informs the writer that he has seen a girl emerging from inside a large jackfruit. It does not seem strange to Syed Islam, for he has grown used to writing stories based on such surrealistic content.

The language employed in the stories distinguishes Syed Manzoorul Islam from other contemporary short story writers, which is why we consider his language to be postmodern. It is fat-free, artistic and facile. The unique power of using words appropriately in his stories gives him a special ability to discover the inner strength of the words. He never tries to lengthen his sentences unnecessarily. Indeed, the lyrical quality of his sentences depicts a consistency of theme. Every story centres on some individuals and their problems. Contemporary society's political unrest, individual psychological issues, economic dilemmas faced by people et al find a place in his tales. Islam never hesitates to focus on the true picture of the society he is part of. In a word, he captures the real essence of his society. In characterization he has used some extraordinary techniques.

Islam dwells on the mystique that is humanity. He approaches realism from the perspective of postmodernism, juxtaposing present and past. He is also capable of exposing the conscious as well as subconscious aspects of the human mind. The predicament of urban life is predominant in his narrative, with his continuous conversation with the characters giving life to the stories. Students immersed in the crisis of existence, a wayward terrorist, a robber-turned-billionaire, an honest worker of meagre means, middle-aged pleaders, idealistic young men's shattered dreams, an aristocratic housewife of Sylhet, a lady owner of a ferry ghat hotel, Ferguson Dinnerwallah, a passionate housewife --- such are the characters peopling Syed Manzoorul Islam's short stories. Elements of realism and surrealism prevail in the stories. Islam attempts to discover the reason behind the reasons of an incident.

To the question of why we regard Islam as a post-modern literary figure, be it noted that his language in the stories is plain but playful. To be more specific, in his diction he proves that he is a minimalist. He has gone through deep experimentation on the form of the stories. When he shifts from one character to another, he gives readers the details of the characters, proof that he is a maximalist in character developing. He dislikes developing traditional characters and gives his characters enough freedom to express themselves. He has an interest in metafiction indicating that his fiction is about the nature of fiction. What makes Islam a post-modernist is the interplay of various literary genres in his narrative --- thriller, detective, realist psychological story. At times Syed Islam has used the stream of consciousness technique in his stories. It is difficult to find a real protagonist or hero or villain in many of his stories, implying another substantial feature of post-modernism. In addition, a blend of high and low culture is visible in some of his stories. Surely this feature has helped readers to differentiate post-modern stories from those of other ages. Our cultural elements and some moral implications have added a new dimension to his post-modern short stories.

For a glimpse of the features mentioned above, one needs to peer into some stories from the collections of the author. In Daedelus-er Ghuri, a story from Prem O Prarthonar Golpo, Enam Miah, a worker in Hossain Miah's garage, flies kites without informing his master, though he knows his father died flying kites. Hossain Miah himself dislikes flying kites because his brother also died while flying kites. Journalist Abdul Mueed Talukdar gives his Vespa to Hossain Miah to restore its disordered parts. Despite being on holiday Hossain Miah puts Mueed Bhai's Vespa back in order because the journalist had saved this garage from the furious clutches of the mayor's henchmen. And thus the story moves on. Setu Miah, commonly known as an expert in making kites, is compared with Daedelus of Greek mythology by the writer. Islam portrays the vacuum prevailing in the present political arena through this story. Daedelus-er Ghuri indicates that the general masses are completely hostage to political degeneration. A very substantial feature of post-modernism, modern man's segregated and lonely life, is revealed in the story.

Again in Tara Vabhe Tara Saph Ashole Tara Rozzu Syed Islam develops the character Wakilur Rahman as a moral man struggling against the immorality prevailing in contemporary politics. To view the gradual degradation of morality as well as political philosophy, the writer feels the need for philosophy. The writer has expressed his philosophical thoughts through Wakilur Rahman. The story informs us that Wakilur Rahman's brother-in-law, a politician, flees once Operation Clean Heart gets underway countrywide. It is transparent that he does not possess any strong ethics. Why else should he flee? Islam holds forth on the thought that if people had accepted philosophy not merely as a subject but as a totality of life-defining principles, then Operation Clean Heart might not have been promulgated to net the wicked.

As a critic and essayist, Syed Manzoorul Islam has written extensively on world literature, art and culture. He has captured the vast arena of human life on a tiny canvas, demonstrating the truth that life consists of a fullness of variety. His fiction speaks against social hypocrisy and thuggery, the heart-rending repression of women and the dishonesty of those who trade in religion. He depicts the great sorrows of small people. At the same time he gives us hope and helps us dream of the noble and the beautiful. To me, his sense of proportion regarding the use of words and the diction he develops in his works are magnificent manifestations of his literary imagination.

Tusar Talukder, a freelance contributor, studies English literature at Dhaka University

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