Voicing the Sacrificial Scapegoat
Shaheen Akhtar is not a prolific writer. Her fiction does not hit the book fair every year. In her two-decade-long literary career, she has authored only three novels. But her first book was a short story collection, which came out in 1997 and was followed by three more volumes. Her short stories, which have all the complicated manoeuvring of plot construction coupled with her natural ability to write about various social incongruities in the most exquisite language, have said it all about the kind of literature she would produce. One could call it esoteric, or highly experimental for that matter. But no one would dare to call it popular, banking on traditionally accepted values. On the contrary, she has always had a penchant for laying bare gender, class and historical issues in an avant-garde style that offers recalcitrant interpretations of history, swerving sharply from the traditionally accepted ones. Yet, to understand the unthinkable range of her literary gifts, readers have had to wait till 2004, the year which saw the publication of her second novel Talash, a highly experimental work that draws heavily on how viciously women were raped and tortured during the liberation war and ostracised by people of their own society after the war. Told mainly from a woman's point of view, the novel invalidates the dominant trend of glorifying liberation war at the very outset, presenting readers with a totally different picture of the war.
Shaheen Akhtar, Photo: Palash Khan
Idealising the liberation war has been the most accepted literary convention in our literature. Literature with a backdrop of the liberation war has relied solely on the ideologies centring on nationalism, and capitalise thereby on the prowess and valour of the Bengali males as freedom fighters. The most celebrated stereotype that readers find in such fiction is that of the beerangana which, though literally means a heroic woman, is the supposedly compensatory identity bestowed on women who were tortured and raped in concentration camps by Pakistan army. However, it is true that authors such as Hasan Azizul Haq, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Mahmudul Haq and Shaheedul Zahir, among others, have written fiction defying this convention, and shown how immensely the promises of liberation war remain unfulfilled. They have also addressed the sufferings of women during war, especially Hasan in Bidhabader Katha; and Zahir in Indur Bilai Khela have also brought to the surface the plights of beeranganas after the war. But while idealisation of the liberation war is challenged by these writers, the stereotype of a beerangana remains almost unchanged, her identity fixed and her voice silenced and forgotten forever. Nationalism has accomplished its job both in society and literature. It has glorified the war, and found scapegoats in the female victims to justify the immeasurable cost at which independence had been gained.
Talash, however, defies all existing modes and norms of society as well as that of representation and brings out the buried and the long-forgotten female victims of war. Most of all, it endows them with a voice they had always been deprived of, and with a power enabling them to view and judge the war and the society as a whole. The same had been done by Nilima Ibrahim who recorded speeches of many war-repressed women in her book Ami Beerangana Bolchhi
“Nilima Ibrahim was the first person to bring their voice to our attention. She was also the first to show how the female victims were abandoned after the war by their families and society as a whole, and thus were forced to make the worst choice,” says Akhtar.
Although those records gave away the female victims' plight, they were just fragments of what they had really gone through both during and after the war, lacking an all-inclusive narrative tying up all the bits and pieces, and setting them in the right context in history. Seen from this perspective, Talash is not only fiction written on an epical scale, but also a research work that sheds light on all the overriding chapters of our history ranging from 1969 to 1999 with a special focus on the liberation war.
“Because all those minute historical details were inserted in the novel, the whole ambience assumes a reality not too different from 1971. That's why I had opted for encompassing those true events and merged them with the characters' lives to fictionalise,” explains Akhtar.
Perhaps we have often heard about an Amitabh Ghosh, the Indian-Bengali English author, doing extensive field work and library research before writing a novel; in our country as well, perhaps we have heard about an Akhtaruzzaman Elias collecting the mythical tales and folk songs in rural Bengal for his novel Khoabnama; but it was with Shaheen Akhtar that we first heard about an author combining extensive field work and library research. The process of writing the novel, Akhtar recollects, traces back to 1996.
“In fact, I had not thought of writing a novel like this. But in 1996 I started working for an oral history project conducted by Ain O Salish Kendra, to bring together the experiences of war-repressed women. There I found that the history of the war especially the tortured women's place in it, was much more horrendous than what we think it was. We just think that their sufferings ended with independence. But the unpleasant truth is their sufferings rather intensified after the war. At this time I also discovered that no government or non-government organisation has any record of our female victims,” says Akhtar. Such a revelation intrigued her to pen a novel about the war-repressed women. By 1999 when the project ended, she had already gathered hands-on experience about female victims. But as she started working on a novel, she felt she needed a lot more information.
“After making up my mind, I began to read whatever I got written about the war, memoirs by Pakistani army, numerous books and recollections by Bangladeshi writers and freedom fighters, thousands of national as well as international newspaper reports from 1971, 1972 and 1973, and many more documents. But as my protagonist was a beerangana, I needed more of their experiences. So I went to many places to interview more female victims. But then I wanted to incorporate multiple angles to make the tale more plausible. So I also ran to many places and interviewed freedom fighters and local village people who had witnessed the war. Finally, I started writing in 2002 and finished in 2004, six years after my first novel was published,” she sums up.
Apart from journalistic and historical references, mythical and literary allusions have been used every now and then to draw parallels between myths and reality, and past and present. In matters of narration, no chronology has been maintained and the narrative oscillates between past and present, shifts from one beerangana or freedom fighter to another, and yet the unity of the whole has not been jeopardised at all. The 256-page-long novel begins with a social worker named Mukti interviewing beeranganas and freedom fighters, but the plot pivots heavily around the life of Mariam alias Mary. The interviewer herself is not a full-fledged character but is just a mediator through whose presence one is easily able to piece together all the fragments of Mariam's and others' lives. The novel explores the lives of some beeranganas whose past is devastated by all forms of physical torture by an occupation force, and whose present is shattered by mistreatment by their own people forcing them to become prostitutes because neither their family nor the society is ready to accept them since their chastity has been destroyed. To work out such miserable lives, caught between present and past with many parallels and contrasts, such a non-linear narrative appears to be the most suitable mode for Akhtar.
“I think the author's overall personality and the way his/her thoughts are shaped determine the kind of style s/he would go for. But I also believe that sometimes the subject-matter also necessitates a certain style. In my case, I just cannot put up with the chronological organisation of narratives,” says Akhtar.
What seems an unorthodox feminist account of a war at first glance soon turns out to be a disenchanted representation of a war that incited an 'ethnic cleansing' styled mass killing and triggered mayhem that benefited numerous fake politicians and freedom fighters and left the real ones impoverished.
After its publication, the author was invited in India to attend a South Asian women writers' conference where in one writers' session, she like all other attending authors, handed over her book to the publishers. In two months, Zuban, an Indian publishing house, called her and asked for her permission to get the book translated. Although she consented thankfully, she asked them to assign somebody who would be very familiar with the whole context.
“I must say that I'm grateful to Zuban for selecting my book. But I asked them to consider the local context and the sheer variety of the novel's diction comprising Bengali, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, even many local words. But they did not agree and after seven long years, the translation titled The Search got published in January 2011 in India,” says Akhtar. The book was translated by Ella Dutta.
“A writer is hardly satisfied with the translation of his/her work. Yet, I think Zuban and Ella Dutta did a great job together especially because foreign readers now have an access to the work,” adds Akhtar.
After Talash, she ventured into editing a voluminous anthology of Bengali literature titled Shwati O Shwatantara. Earlier she had edited Zenana Mehfil: Seleted Writings of Bengali Muslim Writers. In 2010, she published another novel titled Shakhi Rangamala. Based on a folk tale known as Chawdhuri'r Lorai (Fight of Chowdhury) that originated in Noakhali, the story of her latest novel is about a romance between a feudal lord and a beautiful woman from a Hindu lower caste family.
“I had to do a lot of research for this novel too. The time I wrote about dates back to the 18th century. So I had to be very careful in keeping myself away from using any English word because the novel was set before the advent of English colonial rule,” reveals Akhtar.
Although her first novel Palabar Poth Nei deals with specific women's issues such as women's right to stay single; in her last two novels, she seems to have explored more general subjects. Always embarrassed to be categorised as a feminist, she says of herself and her future literary ventures,
“Well, explicit feminist concerns are to be found in my first novel. But from then on, while my feminist concerns are still very much at work, I tried to go beyond myself and write about people's life generally. I look forward to exploring new themes and new lives in my future work.”