to the Fores
At first glance, Shonar Paramtala, Mizanur Khan's debuting novel, appears to be a piece of fiction dealing with the existential crises as well as the cultural metamorphosis of a Bangladeshi community living in Germany, a genre known as diaspora literature which has yet to flourish in Bengali fiction. However, as one goes deeper into the novel, a totally different story unfolds with two people having different cultural identities. Despite all their differences, the devastating aftermath of two wars with many parallels binds them together, especially when it comes to war criminals who had gone unpunished.
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Asif, the protagonist in the novel, lives with two other Bangladeshi migrants in Germany, and always suffers from a sense of insecurity that is not only financial but also political. On the one hand he can only get blue collar jobs requiring hard, manual labour that leave him with almost no money to send to his family in Bangladesh, and on the other hand he always fears arrest for being an illegal immigrant. However, to save some extra money, he begins to work overtime. Exhausted by overwork, one day while returning home from his job, he bumps into a woman named Rita and both of them get hurt. Although eccentricity mystifies Rita's character from the very beginning, the two gradually become involved. Meanwhile, Asif survives an attack by three German youths who stab him fiercely just for being a Bangladeshi.
Written in first person, the narrator draws on the context and the characters in it much in an autobiographical manner reflecting on things and matters which otherwise would not have found a place in a work of fiction. His reflections on the present are often interspersed by memories from the past giving readers a clear indication of how enormously his past shapes his present. Such a technique suits Khan's purpose best since the plot does not have many ramifications and relies heavily on Asif's affair. Khan is at his best in describing the gifts of nature. But he is no less meticulous in giving graphic details of Asif and Rita's physical relationship. When both are obsessed with nothing but intimate physical contact, Rita somewhat unwillingly marries Asif to save him from being deported. Ironically enough, Rita seems to take an ascetic vow after the marriage and begins to show an overrated interest in the history of Bangladesh's liberation war much to Asif's disappointment. Their relationship then takes on a new shape whereby many overriding historical events of 1971, especially those of atrocious mass killings, are brought to the attention of the reader. Knowing that Asif's father was a freedom fighter, and that his mother was brutally raped by leaders of Jamat-e-Islami and Pakistani occupation forces, Rita becomes very impatient and keeps asking if those perpetrators have been brought to book.
One day Asif incidentally comes to know from his brother-in-law that Rita's mother had met a similar fate during the Second World War (SWW) and saved many Jews at the expense of being raped. More alarmingly, Rita is a war child. Then Asif realises why Rita so passionately works for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an international organisation which aims at exposing and punishing the war criminals of the SWW. In fact, Asif himself had tried to do the same when he saw 'the detestable collaborators paw the country's national flag again' (Khan makes this allusion to one of Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah's famous poems). He began his fight with standing against a notorious collaborator who had been elected a chairman for several terms after independence. But the anti-liberation forces became so powerful that he had to end up fleeing from his country. The story, however, ends in tragedy.
The unity of the novel falls apart as it shifts focus from migrant workers' existential crises to eroticism, and then to the history of wars. Yet, it strikes readers by bringing the much neglected issues of war criminals' trial to the fore. In addition, the novel also highlights a number of now forgotten war heroes many of whom are women such as Taramon Bibi; it is this quality that makes it a special read.