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Dhaka Tribune

Reading in the time of Corona: English translations of Bangladeshi fiction and poetry

The visible growth of quality translations of Bangladeshi fiction and poetry warrants a look at this list

Update : 30 Jul 2020, 10:46 AM

During this pandemic, people are staying at home as much as possible adapting to the new normal. One positive outcome is that they are spending more time reading books. Reading can be an effective cure for the coronavirus blues faced by many. After the lockdown was eased in May, some bookstores have reopened recently, adopting proper safety procedures while some are delivering books to readers’ doorsteps, making it easier to grab the books of their choice.

The list below is a selection of commendable translations of fictional and poetic texts, both classic and modern, from Bangladesh that you can savour during your quarantine or save for later. A close look at this list reveals the growth Bangladeshi fiction has made in reaching out to readers in South Asia and beyond. This progress, though steady yet, provides a solid foundation to build on and hope for a bright future for Bangladeshi fiction and poetry in English translation. 

This is the first in a series of lists that Arts & Letters will publish to introduce Anglophone readers to the rich literary heritage of Bangladeshi literature. 

The books are presented here in a chronological order:

Contemporary Short Stories from Bangladesh

Edited by Niaz Zaman 

Published by The University Press Limited (UPL)

This collection puts together translations of selected short stories by Bangladeshi writers. Maintaining a balance between renowned and young writers, these stories offer glimpses into the lives of Bangladeshi people seen through lenses that range from the realistic to the comical to the surreal to the magical. Unlike many collections marked by an imbalance between male and female authors, this collection does full justice to the prominent female voices writing today in Bangladesh. Writers featured in the book include Hasan Azizul Huq, Rizia Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haq, Rahat Khan, Makbula Manzoor, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Purabi Basu, Jharna Das Purkayastha, Jahan Ara Siddiqui, Masuda Bhatti, Audity Falguni, Shaheedul Zahir, Al Mahmud, Selina Hossain and Ahmed Faruk.

Black Ice by Mahmudul Haque

Translated by Mahmud Rahman 

Published by HarperPerennial

 Abdul Khaleq teaches at a rural college nearing collapse in newly independent Bangladesh. When a writer friend asks him to chronicle his childhood, Abdul retreats to an enchanting world in the suburbs of Calcutta. He remembers the girl who spoke to fish and birds, the girl he first loved. He also recalls the stream of visitors who came to his parents' door in those days, some bearing want, some malice, and others, generosity and wisdom. He plummets into despondency when memories return him to a time when Hindu-Muslim tensions in undivided Bengal eclipsed his innocence. Abdul's nostalgia enrages his wife Rekha who resents his lack of ambition and aloofness. Prodded by the village physician Doctor Narhari, the couple embarks on a boat ride that forces them to confront their discord and desires, and plumb the roots of Abdul's alienation. This novel probes with utmost sensitivity the invisible scars bequeathed to the inheritors of the losses of Partition.

On the Side of the Enemy: Short Stories in Translation

Translated by Khademul Islam

Published by Bengal Lights Books

This collection of translated short stories from the Bengali is a brilliant portrayal of Bangladesh from the time of its bloody war of independence in 1971 to the present. Some of the tales depict a country that was wracked by conflict, both personal and political, during that war. Rashid Haider’s “At the Window”, for instance, portrays a soldier returning from the war only to be faced with the different horrors of peacetime; Dhrubo Esh, on the other hand, writes slyly about the farce that the book fair of Ekhushey February can descend to. The title story by Zakir Talukdar displays the effects of slow corruption of political ideals while Wasi Ahmed in his story, “Enchantment’s Deception” gently explores the face of modern Dhaka.

The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Bengali Classic)

Translated by Kaiser Haq 

Published by Harvard University Press 

The Triumph of the Snake Goddess is the first comprehensive retelling of the epic tale of the indigenous snake goddess Manasa in modern English. This translation offers a composite prose translation of Manasa’s story, based on five extant Bengali versions of the epic.

Following the tradition of Mangalkavyas, the tale opens with a creation myth and a synopsis of Indian mythology, zooming in on Manasa, the miraculous child of Shiva the god. Manasa easily wins the allegiance of everyone except the wealthy merchant Chand, who holds fast in his devotion to Shiva despite seeing his sons massacred. A celestial couple is incarnated on earth to fulfill Manasa’s design: Behula, wife to one of Chand’s slain sons, undertakes a harrowing odyssey to restore him to life with Manasa’s help, ultimately persuading Chand to bow to the snake goddess.

Hasan Azizul Huq: Twelve Stories (Library of Bangladesh)

Translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

A man returns home in search of his wife and son after the war, only to find them in ways both unexpected and expected. A sorcerer dies without revealing his secrets to three brothers who wanted to know, and strange deaths follow. A young boy waits for his grandfather to die. These twelve stories by Hasan Azizul Huq make a substantial selection of his powerful, socially-conscious writing available to Anglophone readers. Highly regarded throughout the Bengali-speaking world, Huq is unique in his harrowing portrayal of the deprived echelons of Bengali society.

Also read:

Two Novellas by Syed Shamsul Haq (Library of Bangladesh)

Translated by Saugata Ghosh

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

Bangladesh 1971. Burnt and destroyed. Like a crematorium. Piles of corpses. Torture cells. The Pakistani army versus helpless Bengali common people. Syed Shamsul Haq’s two novellas are breathing, glaring bystanders of the war. In Blue Venom, a middle-aged employee of a private firm is arrested on the morning of 27th March and taken to a torture cell. There, he is tortured slowly to death – only for being a namesake of the rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. In Forbidden Incense, a woman returns to her paternal village after her journalist husband has been made to disappear on the night of the 25th of March. Here she meets a boy with a Muslim name – his entire family has been killed by the Pakistani army. Syed Shamsul Haq's flowing depiction of 1971 through the living language of these two novellas make readers who haven’t witnessed the war relive the terror and disgust of the sufferers.

Mrityukshudha (Love and Death in Krishnanagar) by Kazi Nazrul Islam 

Translated by Niaz Zaman 

Published by Nymphea Publications

Mrityukshuda (1930) is one of the three novels written by Kazi Nazrul Islam. It was inspired by his experience of living in Krishnanagar from 1926 to 1929. Set in the post-Great War era, it is perhaps his most detailed account of poverty in his prose writing. Ansar, the protagonist of this novel, is a Communist, a Bolshevik, whose mission is to make common people aware of their rights. It also focuses on a number of other significant themes: plights of a rebel who is a loner, relationship between different religions, religious conversion through allurement, women’s situation in a conservative society, importance of education, and the question of identity. 

Ocean of Sorrow (Bishad-Sindhu) by Mir Mosharraf Hossain 

Translated by Fakrul Alam 

Published by Bangla Academy

Bishad-Sindhu is one of the biggest literary achievements in the history of Bengali fiction not least because it was written by a Muslim author at a time when Muslims in modern Bengali fiction were few and far between. It is a historical novel revolving around the battle at Karbala that saw the deaths of Hassan and Hussein, Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) grandsons. It is a gripping retelling of the story that appeals not only to Muslims all over the world but also to Hindus interested in Bengali fiction. 

Letters of Blood by Rizia Rahman (Library of Bangladesh)

Translated by Arunava Sinha

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

Rizia Rahman portrays the harsh realities of prostitution in Bangladesh with great sensitivity and insight. The novel chronicles the lives of women trapped within this bleak world, constantly facing threats of physical abuse, drug addiction, pregnancy, abortion and disease. And while many dream of escaping through marriage or retirement, most find relief only in death.

The Mercenary by Moinul Ahsan Saber (Library of Bangladesh)

Translated by Shabnam Nadiya

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel tells the story of Kobej Lethel, a ruthless soldier of fortune in the employ of a corrupt village chief, who must confront his own conscience when his employer sides with the Pakistan army in carrying out unspeakable atrocities during Bangladesh’s War of Independence. His transformation is not permanent, however, and at the end of the war, Kobej finds himself slipping back into his old ways.

The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction

Edited by Arunava Sinha and Pushpita Alam 

Co-published by Comma Press, UK and Bengal Lights Books, Bangladesh 

Dhaka may be one of the most densely populated cities in the world—noisy, grid-locked, short on public amenities, and blighted by sprawling slums—but, as these stories show, it is also one of the most colourful and chaotically joyful places you could possibly call home. The streets of Dhaka are crammed with slum kids and film stars, day-dreaming rich boys, gangsters and former freedom fighters, often with Dhakai rickshaws ferrying them to and fro across cultural, economic and ethnic divides.

The book features stories by Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Wasi Ahmed, Shaheen Akhtar, Salma Bani, Bipradash Barua, Anwara Syed Haq, Parvez Hossain, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Moinul Ahsan Saber and Rashida Sultana.

Imdadul Haq Milan: Two Novellas (Library of Bangladesh)

Translated by Saugata Ghosh 

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

In these two novellas, Imdadul Haq Milan reveals the trials and tribulations of the immigrant experience. He portrays, in vivid detail, the daily struggles of his two protagonists, Bangladeshi men who have travelled to Germany in search of a better life. Milan draws upon his own experiences to bring to life their feelings of helplessness and futility and their constant longing for the familiar.

Shaheed Quaderi - Selected poems

Translated by Kaiser Haq 

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

Shaheed Quaderi was a central figure in the development of literary modernism in Bangladesh. This selection presents Quaderi at his best. It opens with the first poem of his first book, ends with the last poem of his posthumously published collection, and includes one of the two poems with which he made his debut in 1953.:

Also read:

Beloved Rongomala by Shaheen Akhtar (Library of Bangladesh)

Translated by Shabnam Nadiya

Edited by Arunava Sinha

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

Based on an eighteenth-century legend from Bangladesh’s Noakhali region, Beloved Rongomala follows the fortune of Rongomala, the charismatic low-caste mistress of zamindar Raj Chandra Chowdhury. Chowdhury’s philandering allows his uncle to rob the kingdom of Babupur blind; between his obliviousness and his uncle’s avarice, Babupur becomes enmeshed in inevitable war. Between his obliviousness and his uncle’s avarice, Babupur becomes embroiled in inevitable war. Beloved Rongomala introduces readers to enduring characters: the autocratic queen-mother Sumitra; the young queen Phuleshwari with her bird menagerie; Heera, the queen’s chief maid and surrogate mother; feckless zamindar Raj Chandra; and Rongomala, whose rise to fame and fall from grace form the central arc of the story. Travelling from the feuding kingdoms of southern Bengal to holy sites in the east, and to the flamboyant matriarchal society of Burma, Beloved Rongomala is a story of identity and connection.

I Remember Abbu by Humayun Azad 

Translated by Arunava Sinha 

Published by Amazon Crossing

A touching story of war, family, innocence, and memory from one of the top Bengali writers of all time.

Bangladesh, 1971: the war of independence from Pakistan has torn apart peaceful villages and turned life upside down. In the midst of war, one young girl holds on as she discovers the world’s unpredictability. During her father’s prolonged absence, she reminisces about the essence of her abbu, an esteemed professor, loving community leader, and now unexpected warrior. 

As the story progresses, an unbroken bond between a father and his daughter unfolds, which makes this powerful and historically faithful portrayal of a family surviving the worst in the fight for independence all the more stirring.

Absurd Night by Syed Manzoorul Islam (Library of Bangladesh)

Translated by Pushpita Alam

Edited by Arunava Sinha

Published by Bengal Lights Books, ULAB

The discovery of a dismembered hand floating on the river incites uproar in a small coastal town, where a motley crew of outsiders, stranded at the local police station by an impending cyclone, becomes entangled in the mystery.

Cut off from the rest of the world, each of these interlopers is uniquely affected by the enigmatic object. Hidden emotions are shaken loose, secret skeletons and unfulfilled desires surface.

And all the while, in a village some distance away, the author spinning this tale and a blind young boy both witness the true story behind the severed hand unfold.

Shameless by Taslima Nasrin

Translated by Arunava Sinha 

Published by HarperCollins India 

Shameless, the explosive sequel to Lajja, is an uncompromising, heart-breaking look at ordinary people's lives in our troubled times. Lajja was Taslima Nasrin’s response to anti-Hindu riots that erupted in parts of Bangladesh, soon after the demolition of Babri Masjid in India in 1992. It revolves around the protagonist, Suranjan and his family, who moves to a city across the border. Shameless takes this story forward following their relocation. Is life for a Hindu family from an Islamic nation any better in a country where a majority of the population happen to be Hindu? Leading poor, unmoored lives, exploited and frustrated at every step, and always carrying with them the memories of a scarred communal history, Suranjan and so many others like him seem to lead incomplete lives in their so-called “safe haven”.  

NOTE: The Library of Bangladesh series has been conceived and created by Dhaka Translation Center (DTC) at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) to make works by leading Bangladeshi writers accessible to world audiences in high-quality translations. The series is being edited by award-winning translator Arunava Sinha and published by Bengal Lights Books.

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