The publishing concern writers.ink set up by Niaz Zaman is to be commended for bringing out translations of Syed Waliullah and attempting to make his work available to a broader audience. Last year writers.ink published Tree Without Roots (the translation of Waliullah's famous novel Lal Shalu) and this time around it is Night of No Moon, the English version of his Chander Amabasya. Syed Waliullah, as Professor K. S. Murshid, observes, "is our first truly modern writer of fiction... (who writes of) a world where deception, silence, suffering and loneliness are the dominant realities." This characteristic world is readily apparent in Night of No Moon, whose good-hearted anti-hero Arif Ali stumbles, metaphorically as well as literally, far into a night of deep terror from where there is no return. Syed Waliullah was also observant of mofussil life in Bengal, as in this still life from a backwater college:
"The teachers' lounge was adjoining the headmaster's office. There was an ordinary table in the middle of an uneven floor. Around the table there were a few chairs of different sizes and shapes. Everybody, however, had his eye on one particular chair. There were innumerable fat, well-fed bugs in every hole of the woven lattice, but it was made of cane and so was comfortable. Its back had a slight angle. It also had two arms. Nobody really minded giving a little blood to the hungry bugs in exchange for the comfort of this chair. Today, Mr. Alfazuddin, the Arabic teacher, was seated there with one knee up. He had a look of comfort on his face."
There are some hiccups in the translation by Afia Dil, such as the repetitive "half" in the very second sentence of the book: "In that half-light, half darkness, the young teacher had seen the half-naked dead body of the young woman." Also, modesty should have decreed that the translator not be given equal billing with the author, with a full-page bio, repeated with photo on the inside back cover. Afia Dil should be aware that in Bangladesh, the quality of a book usually is in obverse relation to the length of author/translator bio. Happily such is not the case here. As Professor Kabir Chowdhury writes in his Foreword, the translator has stayed "as close as possible to... Waliullah's Bengali text and its unique literary flavour."
This volume is, as per the author's preface, a "polished and abridged version" of a Phd thesis submitted to, and degree granted by, the Bengali department at Dhaka University. As such, it is admittedly a specialist work unlikely to be read by general readers. Nonetheless, it is an interesting book, and in an academic system generally castigated for its non-academic interests and pursuits, indicative of some serious research work.
'Mangalkabya' has to be one of the most aptly named genre of poetry anywhere, since the term 'mangal' in Bengali means 'good,' or 'well-being,' and these epic verse works of the Bengali Middle Ages about deity/ies were meant to promote the spiritual and material well-being of their listeners. As Dr. Rai writes, in Bengal during the Middle Ages there were famines, widespread poverty, destitution, fear of tigers and snakes, as well as the urgent need to ensure the continuity of Hindu religion and culture in the aftermath of the Turkish conquest. Out of such varied motives, out of a fusion of pre-Aryan gods/goddesses, Puranic Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism, came the folkloric, populist and mythic poems called mangalkabya. The first such work written was Manasamangal, and two later variants were Chandimangal and Annodamangal. Dr. Rai's resolute research is in the area of Hindu iconography of these two latter epics.
In Annodamangal deities lose their centrality in favour of humans, and consequently there is a detailed contemporary record of the life in those times, as can be seen from this quote on p. 229 of Dr. Rai's book, which reveals not only that age's practice of giving young girls in marriage to old men, but the young bride's timeless lament:
It may not be out of place here to observe that the author perhaps uses the term 'moddhojug' a little too uncritically, thereby accepting the periodization of Bengali literature into ancient, medieval and modern ages. Some scholars (Edwin Gerow, for instance), have pointed out that such periodization can reflect superimposed Imperial/Western analytic categories, which may obscure the underlying continuity in Indian literature. Mangalkabya is descended in some measure from the hymns of the Rig Veda, which yoked the lyric mode to Hindu religious practice, while Behula of Manasamangal is not a character as much as a type, and one that continues to be invoked in modern Bengali literature.***
Kali O Kolom, now in its third year and under the stewardship of Abul Hasnat, has emerged as the major mainstream literary journal of Bangladesh. The September issue begins with an important revisionary article on folklorist Chandra De by Shahaduzzaman Khan. It argues for a greater recognition of the efforts of the legendary collector/archivist of the folk songs known as Mymensingh Geetikar. Abu Hena Mustafa Enam discusses, with broad brush strokes, two novels by Bangladeshi writer Mahmudul Huq in terms of new directions in Bengali fiction. Bismillah Khan, the noted musician who died recently, is remembered in two articles, while poet Ruby Rahman, wistfully, in the context of university life immediately after independence, recalls Suraiya Khanum, who died in the USA. Suraiya wrote poems of alienation--some fairly severe--in Bengali while teaching English at Dhaka University. Notable among the short stories in the issue is Manobendra Pal's Khor Khori, with its memorable opening line. From New York Hasan Ferdous has penned illuminating portraits of three probashi writers: Ferdous Sajedin, Mahfuza Shilu and Purobi Basu, though comparing the latter's novels with Isaac Baashevis Singer's Hassidic tales in terms of excavating memories of homeland might be stretching it a bit too far. One of the welcome features of Kali O Kolom are its fairly regular pieces on Bangladeshi film, and here Tariq Rahman's article on Bangladeshi documentary films is no exception. Among the reviews of books, art and theater, the discussion of Chittagong theater group Nandimukh's staging in Dhaka of their play Belashesher Golpo in terms of regional theater groups and aesthetic belief (that content is superior to form) is a worthwhile read.
The October issue is a special one devoted to poet Shamsur Rahman, who has recently departed from us. It is a welcome one, especially in light of the Bangladesh government's disgraceful conduct in neglecting to give him a ceremonial state funeral. This neglect is especially ironic, as diverse op-ed commentaries have pointed out, in light of the fact that Bangladesh was founded by a liberation war whose beginnings can be traced back to Shamsur Rahman's poems in the '60s. This latest Kali O Kolom issue is thus deservedly a thick one, a dense 184 pages featuring 38 articles by prominent literary figures,14 of his more famous poems (Asad'er Shirt, Swadhinata Tumi, et cetera) as well as a short bio and exhaustive list of publications. To his myriad fans, this volume should be a collector's item. The articles can very roughly be divided into personal recollections (of which the beginning piece Kichu Sriti Olpo Kotha by Abul Hosain is the leading example) and the more analytic-critical (Abid Anwar's Shamsur Rahman'er Kobitar Chondo is exemplary of the other approach). While not all of the pieces can be said to be uniform in terms of readability, the tone of the whole volume is lightened by some wonderful photos of the poet at various times with various literary and cultural figures. Kali O Kolom is to be congratulated for having published this tribute to our iconic poet.
Khademul Islam is literary editor, The Daily Star.
1. Night of No Moon by Syed Waliullah (translated by Afia Dil); Dhaka: writersink; 2006; pp. 144; Tk. 350.00
2. Chandimangal O Annodamangal Kabyay Deb-Debi'r Swarup by Dr. Basudev Rai; Dhaka: Utsha Prokashon; June 2005; pp. 544; Tk. 425
3.Kali O Kolom, Ashwin 1413/September 2006, and Kartik 1413/October 2006; editor Abul Hasnat; publisher Abul Khair