On a bone-chilling winter night almost 18 years ago, when everyone in the house, having snuggled up into the warmth of thick blankets, were deep into their slumber and when my nocturnal companions (crickets and toads) literally took over the small world of Bagerhat with their tireless, deafening shrills, I too got out of bed to perform my ritual as I did on most nights back then. Having enrolled at Khulna University, I was waiting for my first session to begin.
Only this was a different night with fog enveloping the whole town and a ruthless wind as sharp as a sword was coming in through every chink and opening. Ours was a wooden house roofed with earthen tiles and walled with corrugated iron sheets; the floor, too, was earthen and there were plenty of openings between the floor and walls, or between wooden window panels. This was “the front room,” as we called it, used also as a guest room at times – five feet wide and about 15 feet long. On one side of it was my bed while there was a pale five-seater (one three-seater and two chairs) sofa on the other side. I found myself ill-equipped against the chill which was swooping down on me from every side.
My spirit was doused and I was about to call it a night before performing my ritual, which was basically to read poems by Shamsur Rahman, Al Mahmud, Syed Shamsul Haq, Abul Hasan, Nirmalendu Goon, Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah and Taslima Nasreen, and try emulating their styles in my own poetic endeavours: The objective of this apparently useless exercise was to comprehend how Haq was different from Goon or how Rahman influenced Hasan, if at all. It was then that my eyes got stuck to a pallid red cover of a book placed on top of a stack on the table. Walking closer to the table, I got an eyeful of the title: In bold black letters was written Samudrer Swapno, Shiter Aranya
. I remembered having borrowed it along with some other books from a library but was yet to browse through it. My mind conjured up an image almost reflexively: A thick forest in the dead of night with clouds of fog hovering above. Maybe it was the eerie chill in my surrounding that made some connection with the title on some level. I was not sure what it exactly was but I picked it up and settled myself comfortably on the three-seater, not yet sure if I'd be able to fight off the chill and the disgustingly whirring mosquitoes with a book written by one of our foremost storytellers, Hasan Azizul Huq. I had not read any of his stories before.
First I read the story called “Shakun” (Vulture), then one by one I finished the rest, including “Trishna” (Thirst), “Uttar Basante” (Post-spring), “Bimarsha Ratri, Prothom Prahar” (Dejected night, early hours) and “Ekti Attorakkhar Kahini” (A tale of self-protection). Halfway through my reading, I opened the front door and stepped out on the front courtyard. I lit a cigarette and walked about to feel the chill and the fog, to feel the world that was so intimately painted in these stories. To me it seemed that half the stories were set in the northern part of Bangladesh (only later did I know that they were set in the Rarh region of West Bengal, India, the geography of which is much similar to northern Bangladesh) while the other half appeared somewhat familiar as they portrayed the southern part of Bangladesh. But Hasan barely makes any reference to the name of the village or the district in which a particular story is set, even though his portrayal is formidably accurate. Anyone with ties to a typical village knows pretty well how accurate he is. But it is never about the depiction of our villages when it comes to Hasan. It is rather about conjuring up an image of a village for each story and then discovering the men and women living in it and ultimately finding out that nature is so integrated into the lives of his characters that you cannot separate nature from them. The people in it (for example, Bashed in “Trishna”) emanate from nature in ways that they cannot be imagined without a description of the rice fields before, during and after the harvest, or for that matter, without a description of the numerous shoals of koi and magur fish that swim out of the ponds and lakes during the first showers of rain. But is that all? Are his stories only about placing the characters in context? I walked back in my room and resumed reading and my thoughts and emotions were being shaken in ways that I had not experienced before.
No, that is not all. There is more, a lot more indeed. The men and women in his stories – their desires, their instincts, their hunger, their revolts, their crimes get mixed up with the all-devouring darkness of the night and the ubiquitous clouds of fog and bites of cold. Their actions are narrated with a modern consciousness that shuns stating the obvious and that hints at their emotions very tersely. Nor are they allowed to impart moral lessons or reveal the interiority of their minds. But the way they confront the inevitable not only keeps you glued to the story till you reach the last line, it also leaves you with powerful images, some of which have immense symbolic or allegorical potential while some others are classic representation of historical crises and how people faced them. So, “Shakun” is not just a story about an aborted embryo with vultures gathering around, the way it builds up to that point jolts our senses and forces us to think about the story all over again. “Uttar Basante,” on the other hand, is a touching portrayal of a family – set amid numerous trees and bushy undergrowth and sweeping darkness – that migrated to this part of Bengal following the bloodied partition.
My life has changed its course so significantly that I don't spend the winter in the towns or villages of Bagerhat anymore and it is unlikely that I ever will. I nonetheless am reminded of that night every winter and every time I relive that reading experience, a freezing cold inches towards the core of my being. I feel an icy gust of wind pierce through my flesh and settle on my bones. I love this feeling, I mus say, though I hate the shivers that come inevitably with it.
Rifat Munim is Editor, Arts & Letters.