Kazi Nazrul Islam, well known as the Rebel Poet, the revolutionary who fought the British with his pen, was also the writer of some of the finest love songs in Bangla. His songs and poems are replete with images of female beauty. Thus, he describes a woman’s hair, made into a khopa, tied up with silver ribbons or lying loose and disheveled, the shape of her brows, her adornments whether made of flowers or the stars in the sky. Which Bengali who has heard the song “Mor priya hobe esho rani” (Come my beloved and be my queen) can forget it? The speaker tells his beloved that he will adorn her hair with stars of the sky instead of flowers, make earrings of the crescent moon for her ears, paint her feet with alta drawn from the red of the rainbow, and mix sandalwood with moonlight for her body.
However, Nazrul could also use a woman’s jewelry and garments as metaphors. Thus, in the song “Na holo ma zewar libas ei eide amar”—which also has an alternative beginning in some editions, “Na holo ma basan bhusan ei eid e amar”—(It doesn’t matter, mother, that this Eid I got no clothes or ornaments), there are details of clothes and adornment. The song is about a young Muslim woman saying that she does not need new clothes and adornment for Eid. According to her, Allah and His Prophet, the Prophet’s daughter and his grandsons, his four caliphs, the Islamic rituals and the Islamic profession of faith are raiment and adornment enough for her. Allah is the crown on my head, she says, the Prophet the necklace round my throat, prayers and fasting are my sari and orna. On my forehead, instead of a teep I have the kalma—the Muslim profession of faith in Allah and His Prophet; instead of bangles on my wrists, I have Ma Fatema, the Prophet’s daughter, and her sons, Hasan and Hussain.
(Of course, in what was then a fairly conservative Muslim society, Muslim women did not wear teeps on their forehead. The devout Muslim woman in the song would have been flouting the norms restricting Muslim women from wearing the “Hindu” teep.)
In other songs and poems as well, Nazrul describes the beauty of women and their adornment—often obliquely. Surprisingly, even in “Bidrohi” (The Rebel), which is full of sound and fury, where the speaker threatens to destroy all that is evil or discriminatory, there are tender moments. Thus, there is a reference to a sixteen-year-old girl in the first flush of romance and “the tinkle of her glass bangles.” The image of glass bangles recurs in a number of Nazrul’s songs as well as in his fiction. (Devout Muslims who read the Quran would remember the strictures on modesty enjoined on men and women in Surah An-Nur. In verse 31, women are advised not to allow their hidden ornaments to make sounds to attract men.)
The imagery of clothes is developed at greater length in Nazrul’s novel Mrityukshudha. In 1926, Kazi Nazrul Islam moved to Krishnanagar, where he was struck both by the poverty he witnessed there as well as by the coexistence of people from different religions. Thus, Muslims, Hindus and Christians all gather to collect water. Most of the focus in the early chapters is on the women of the poor Muslim community, particularly on the family of Gojale’s mother. Three of her sons are dead; only one son, Pyankale, is left to take care of his brothers’ widows—Boro Bou, Mejo Bou, Shejo Bou—and their children. Mejo Bou, beautiful and outspoken, has accepted her difficult, lonely existence. However, the plight of the ailing Shejo Bou and her child attracts the attention of two Christian missionaries, who visit them and give the woman and her child medicine.
Miss Jones, the female missionary, recognizes the intelligence of Mejo Bou and offers to teach her. Initially, Mejo Bou hesitates to accept her offer but, despite her earlier reservations, converts to Christianity and accepts the code of dress imposed upon her. However, the significance of clothes is stressed earlier in the story when Mejo Bou goes to visit her mother’s place. Her sister’s husband, Ghiyasuddin, is also visiting the place. Despite the prohibition on a Muslim man marrying his wife’s sister while his wife is still alive, Ghiyasuddin tries to seduce Mejo Bou.
On this occasion he has brought the gift of a Dhakai sari for her. Before the term jamdani became popular, the phrase Dhakai sari was common. Could the sari that Ghiyasuddin proffers as a gift possibly be what we refer to as Tangail saris? Or bhiti saris? However, the Tangail or bhiti sari is an ordinary sari. It was the fine cotton that we know as muslin, plain or embroidered on the loom, that was much sought after by the Mughals and the Bengali elite. The Bangladesh National Museum, for example, has in its collection a fine jamdani belonging to the household of the Maharaja of Dinajpur. These fine saris were much sought after in a hot and humid climate. Cotton though it was, the Dhakai sari was a luxury item. However, Mejo Bou is not tempted by the fine sari. She is a widow. What does a widow have to do with fine saris? She tells her brother-in-law “… this Dhakai sari, Dula Bhai, is much too transparent. It will not hide the wound of my widowhood.”
To show her lack of interest, she leaves the room but then comes back for the sari. It is not, however, for herself, but for her brother’s wife. Her brother is still alive, so his wife can wear fine saris. One could very well ask, why doesn’t Mejo Bou tell her brother-in-law to give it to her sister, his wife? We are not told the reason, and Mejo Bou’s sister never appears in the story, but possibly it is to teach Ghiyasuddin a lesson that Mejo Bou does so.
In “Chand-Sarake Nazrul,” an essay on Nazrul when he lived on Chand Sarak in Krishnanagar, Akbaruddin, who became the Vice Chairman of Krishnanagar Municipality, mentions that the character of Mejo Bou was based on a young widow who often visited Akbaruddin’s house as well as Nazrul’s. According to Akbaruddin, he had sensed some attraction between the married Nazrul and this young widow and had dissuaded Nazrul from prolonging this friendship. Nazrul had been silent for a few moments. Then he had said, “I will make her immortal.” Through the character of Mejo Bou, he kept his promise.
However, there is considerable fiction in Mrityukshudha. The real-life counterpart of Mejo Bou had indeed married her dead husband’s younger brother—though she doesn’t in the novel. Instead, in the novel, Nazrul uses the character of Mejo Bou to reflect on the position of poor Muslim widows in society. It is so long since anyone has used her name that Mejo Bou has forgotten it. It is only after she converts that she has a name, Helen.
Was Mejo Bou forcibly converted? Ansar, a young Bolshevik, who appears in Chapter 15 of the novel, is asked by his cousin to find out the truth. In the course of his conversation with Mejo Bou, he realizes that she accepted Christianity because of the greater freedom it offers. He tells her, “I understand. The oppression of our conservative society has forced even a woman like you to become a Christian.” He goes on to say that he sympathizes with her. “I am not in the least unhappy at your conversion. Our society, which believes in the seclusion of women, cannot give a rightful place to a woman like you.”
The padre is not happy at the friendship of Mejo Bou and Ansar. He suggests to Miss Jones that Mejo Bou be sent away. The day that Ansar is arrested and sent to jail is coincidentally the same day that Mejo Bou is sent to Barisal. And it is in Barisal that the clothes a woman wears and what they mean are discussed.
Here, along with other women converts, Mejo Bou learns to dress differently. (Earlier too, we are told that she refused to dress the way the other women in the household did. And, despite being a widow, she often wore glass bangles, though the next day she would shatter them.) However, though in Barisal, she has learned to part her hair on the side—presumably to avoid ever wearing a teep though this is not mentioned in the novel—drape her sari differently, wear shoes with heels, she does not quite fit in with the rest of her companions. She tells her companions that she has learned to dress like them now but she is different from them. “I have not yet become used to mixing freely with you all. You showed me how to wear a sari fashionably like you. You made me part my hair on the side. I have also been lucky to get shoes. But with all that have you been able to make me one of you? Let the mem sahebs keep their shoes. I would be happy to dress in white the way I used to.”
“Why did you come here then?” one of the girls asks.
In other words, why had she converted, become a Christian? Mejo Bou had not spoken at length when Ansar had asked her about her conversion. Now she does. “I did not come here to become a mem saheb. I came to become a human being. Our society keeps us in seclusion. We are deprived of light and air. That is why I escaped like a caged bird which bites through the ribs of its cage. I will not say I have not benefited. Whatever I have learned here will enable me to stand on my feet, support myself. But what can I do? I am not used to wearing shoes. When I wear them, I feel that these are a new form of shackles.”
Very well then, another of her companions retorts. Give up your shoes. Wear a lungi.
Through this brief conversation about dress, Nazrul shows the impact of the British on Bengali women. Even Bengali bhadra mahilas who had not converted were wearing blouses, brooches and closed shoes. In the one full-length picture that we have of Roquiah Sakhawat Hussain, she is shown wearing a simple sari with high-heeled shoes.
Dress does not make the man—or the woman—but the way we dress reveals a lot of our attitude to life, of the image we wish to present to the world, the person we wish to be. From the example of Nazrul himself, we know the different persons he was: he made it a point to take studio portraits in Kolkata dressed in his havildar’s uniform. But there were occasions when he wore the dhoti, and other occasions when he wore “respectable” Muslim dress, a chadar across his shoulders and a cap.
In the two incidents related to clothes in Mrityukshudha, Nazrul shows us their different meanings, as well as the different sides of Mejo Bou. Ghiyasuddin’s fine dhakai sari is a form of entrapment just as the white, black-bordered saris of the Christian converts are a form of imprisonment. Mejo Bou easily resists the first, but not as easily the latter. While Mejo Bou does acquire education and also learns to stand upon her own feet by accepting Christianity as a way of life and dress, she has had to pay a price for this freedom: leave her children behind. It is only when she learns that her abandonment of her children has led to the death of her son that she leaves Barisal. But it is not enough to leave Barisal. When she wishes to arrange the forty-day repast for her dead son, she is told that the children of her neighbourhood will not come. She has to renounce Christianity if she wishes to feed the children.
Nevertheless, the education she had received as a Christian helps her. She does not wear a lungi, but she has gained a new-found independence. Though she has lost her beloved son, she will set up a school to teach poor children. Kazi Nazrul Islam had a chequered schooling, never staying too long in one school, and, after sitting for the test examination before his matriculation, going off to join the army. (Surprisingly he was well-read as his essay “Bartaman Bishwa Sahitya,” Contemporary World Literature, reveals.) Nevertheless, he understood the necessity of education. In his earlier novel Bandhon Hara, the women write letters to Nuru – the protagonist, a soldier posted to Karachi much as Nazrul Islam was – and to each other. They read magazines, but the Muslim women have not yet started to teach. In Mrityukshudha, thanks to the Christian missionaries, Mejo Bou has not just gained an identity but also learned enough to teach others. Thus it is not just the Brahmo Shahoshika in Bandhon Hara who can become a school teacher, but also the Muslim Mejo Bou.
Always conscious of beauty—of sound, of woman, of nature—Nazrul Islam was also a social reformer. In many of his poems and his songs, he spoke of destroying all that prevented human beings from achieving their potential. There were many moods, many strains in which he wrote and sang. Though his writings are occasionally marked by unevenness—his contemporaries spoke of the spontaneity with which he wrote—it is not enough to merely sing his songs or recite his poetry. His work, including his fiction, deserves closer study.
Niaz Zaman is at present Advisor, Department of English, Independent University, Bangladesh. The quotations from Mrityukshudha are from her English translation of the novel, Love and Death in Krishnanagar, published by Nymphea Publication