Acclaimed for his short stories, Wasi Ahmed equally shines on larger canvas. His novel Tolkuthurir Gaan
(Songs from the Abyss), was published by Prothoma Prokashan in the Ekushey Book Fair last year. In the foreword, Ahmed briefly informs his readers that although the storyline owes to historical events spanning over fifty-plus years in the early twentieth century, centring around the notorious Nankar System in the eastern region of undivided India (now part of Bangladesh), the novel is not a historical one in the conventional sense of the term. He has taken bits and pieces of factual events from what was available from records, but the scheming of the book is entirely a work of imagination.
The term Nankar sounds a bit obtuse. Simply put, it means land slaves – not the kind one encounters in Alex Halley’s novel Roots
. It may seem strange to many these days that land slavery had been in practice in parts of eastern India, now the greater district of Sylhet in Bangldesh and Karimganj in India (then part of Sylhet), even before the Mughals came to rule India. A nankar was a person who gave his service and that of his family members, to zamindars (feudal landlords) in exchange of bread -- though in course of time bread became illusory. The nankar was a wretched person who had no land of his own for cultivation or for construction of hearth and home. The person was a saleable commodity along with landed property. The land revenue system which prevailed in medieval Sylhet had given a shape to the nankar system, which continued throughout the British period until the partition of India in 1947.
These groups of people, aided by left-leaning activists, mustered enough courage to rise against their masters, eventually leading to long, unrelenting uprisings. It was purely one of the subaltern uprisings, succeeding one after another over a period of some twenty years. These historical details are only obliquely referred to in the novel. Wasi makes these references in course of the well over 250-page book, while building and reinforcing his storyline about a nankar family in a chronicle of loss, defeat, fury, empathy and love across three generations. This is a deftly done job handled with care, caution and precision. History, despite its presence, merrily makes way for the storyline to fork out into various dimensions involving a large number of characters.
Wasi tells the story through too many characters. A good deal, however, is recounted by Sharif, the third generation member of the family, who remembers bits and pieces of what he heard from his father as a child. More than anything, he remembers the scrappy tune of a song – barely audible and difficult to make sense – which his father used to hum in his frail voice. As a grown up man, educated and nurtured in corporate culture, Sharif at one point finds it difficult to get along with his urban middle-class lifestyle, haunted by the ordeals his parents, grandparents and his sister had gone through. He feels stuck, uninspired to further his career, and even becomes indifferent to his wife and children. In his lingering obsession, he feels drawn to the workers’ unrest in his workplace, and in his fancy, he sees it as a modern parallel to his forefathers’ ordeal, more than hundred years ago.
In his narration Wasi Ahmed often makes use of wit and humour — tools that essentially characterise his fiction in general. There are occasional reliefs in descriptions, especially in chapters where he creates the atmosphere in details. There are fascinating episodes beautifully told. One such striking episode is a ten mile-long road march of village women with blazing kerosene lanterns held aloft in broad daylight seeking an audience with the British district administrator. The blazing lanterns, held over their heads, under the mid-day sun is symbolic in that it is intended to tell the district administrator that he doesn’t have eyes to see the sufferings of the nankars. The description that occupies a whole long chapter is captivating, to say the least. It is in this road march that one of the powerful female characters of the novel, Ambia, emerges with a power and blast of energy that best suits the occasion. In a way, Ambia is one of the key figures Wasi has chosen to tell a major part of the story. Prominent among others with key roles to carry the story forward are Sharif, his father Sukurchand and mother Motijan. Sharif’s wife Munira occupies a significant space in a different setting that allows the readers to delve into the obsessive, at times sickening and wild temperament of her husband caught between urban modernity and primitive slavery—between feudal slavery and capitalistic slavery.
The most curious aspect of the book is that there are stories within stories, heart rending and masterfully crafted. They don’t stray, being well planted into the heart of the long tale of three generations. Although the storyline begins in the early twentieth century, it closes with a scathing modern parallel from our contemporary times.