Shaheen Akhtar is not a prolific writer. Her fiction does not hit the Ekushey Boi Mela every year. In her 25-year-long literary career, she has authored only four novels. Her first book was a collection of short stories, which came out in 1997 and was followed by three more. One might call her stories a bit esoteric, at times like Wasi Ahmed's, but no one would dare to call them popular. On the contrary, they offer recalcitrant interpretations of history, swerving sharply from the traditionally accepted ones.
To understand the sheer range of her literary gifts, readers had to wait till 2004, the year which saw the publication of her second novel Talash
(The Search). Unlike many novels written by avowedly feminist writers, Shaheen's novel barely has any idealised women characters: Women are seen as much objectively as men and not all the men are equally greedy. The story is told mainly from a woman's point of view, which, when shifts, is passed on to another or several women. All in all, the novel departs from the trend that glorifies the War, presenting readers with a different picture of it altogether.
Nationalism has accomplished its job both in society and literature. It has glorified the War and found scapegoats in the birangonas to justify the immeasurable cost at which independence was gained
Idealising the Liberation War has been the most accepted literary convention in Bangladesh. Literature against a backdrop of the War relies heavily on the ideology of nationalism, drawing thereby on the prowess and valour of the Bengali males as freedom fighters. Another celebrated stereotype is that of the birangona, which, though literally means a heroic woman, is actually a compensatory identity bestowed on women who were subjected to brutal torture and rape by Pakistan army during the War. Nationalism has accomplished its job both in society and literature. It has glorified the War and found scapegoats in the birangonas to justify the immeasurable cost at which independence was gained.
Male authors were the first ones to defy the tide and influence of the nationalistic discourse. Hasan Azizul Haq, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Mahmudul Haq and Shaheedul Zahir, among others, have written fiction challenging the nationalistic narrative. Some of them have addressed the sufferings of birangonas both during and after the War, especially Hasan in “Bidhabader Katha” (Tale of the widows) and Zahir in “Indur Bilai Khela” (The game of mouse and cat). Success of these stories lies insofar as the birangonas are transformed into allegories, stripped of agency and individual traits. What we see happening is that the voice of the birangonas is actually buried in the artistic process of constructing those allegories, the stereotype thus remaining almost unchanged and their identity fixed and voice silenced and forgotten forever.
, on the other hand, defies all existing modes and norms of representation and brings out the buried and long-forgotten female victims of the War. Most of all, it gives them a voice they were always denied; it gives them a power that enables them to view and judge the War and the society as a whole. The only literary instance of this kind is Nilima Ibrahim's book, Ami Birangona Bolchhi
(A Birangona speaking), which predates Shaheen's novel and in which Nilima documented speeches of quite a good number of birangonas. But that was a work of nonfiction.
Although Nilima's records brought to the fore the way birangonas were scapegoated, those were just fragments of what they had really gone through both during and after the War, lacking an all-inclusive narrative to tie up all the bits and pieces in an exciting story.
We have often heard about an Amitabh Ghosh, the Indian novelist, doing extensive field work and library research before writing a novel. In our country as well, we have heard about a Shawkat Ali doing research for his historical novel, Prodoshe Prakritojon
(Sons of the Soil in Twilight), or about an Elias who spent months and years collecting the mythical tales and folk songs in the rural areas of northern Bengal for his novel Khoabnama
(Dream Chronicles). But it was perhaps with Shaheen Akhtar that we first found an author who truly combined extensive field work and library research to write a novel on an epic scale.
Apart from journalistic and historical references, mythical and literary allusions have been used profusely 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 birangona or freedom fighter to another, and yet the unity of the whole has not been compromised at all.
The 256-page novel begins with Marium, a birangona, remembering the political unrest of March 1971, when it had all begun. Then the narrative shifts to Mukti, a social worker interviewing birangonas and freedom fighters almost three decades after the War. But the plot sticks to Mariam alias Mary and pivots around her life. Mukti, the interviewer, is not a full-fledged character but comes across as a mediator through whose presence one is able to piece together all the fragments of Mariam's and others' lives.
The novel explores the lives of birangonas whose past was devastated by all forms of physical torture by an occupation army and whose present is shattered as they were abandoned by their own people. This abandonment has forced many of them to become prostitutes because neither their family nor the society is ready to accept them for crimes in which they were victims and not the other way round. A non-linear narrative did serve the author well to work out the social incongruities woven into the miserable lives of the birangonas, caught as they are between present and past with many parallels and contrasts.
What seems an unorthodox feminist account of the War at first glance soon turns out to be a disenchanted representation of a war that failed not only the birangonas but also the religious and ethnic minorities and many spirited freedom fighters who, after the War, were left to rot in poverty because they did not have the right political affiliations.
, Shaheen edited a voluminous anthology of Bengali literature, Shwati O Shwatantara
. Earlier, she had edited Zenana Mehfil: Seleted Writings of Bengali Muslim Writers
. She published her third novel, Shakhi Rongomala
(Beloved Rongomala), in 2010, and her fourth novel, Mayur Singhashon
(The Mayur Throne),
Critical of being labelled as a “feminist writer,” feminist concerns have always been at the heart of Shaheen's fictional works. Her feminism, however, does not lead one away from the intersectionalities of race and class. As is evident in Talash
, it rather opens up newer horizons of interpretations through which it is possible to gain fresh insights into the human society.
Rifat Munim is Editor, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.