Imdadul Haq Milan’s Two Novellas recounts the grim experiences of Bangladeshi workers in Germany. Published by Bengal Lights Books, the book is part of Library of Bangladesh, a series featuring Bangladeshi fiction writers in English translation. Conceived and created by Dhaka Translation Centre (DTC) at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), the project aims at making prominent Bangladeshi writers accessible to an international readership. It was translated by Saugata Ghosh and edited by award-winning translator Arunava Sinha.
The two novellas (Bondage and Exile) are the products of Milan’s own experience in Germany where he travelled in 1979 after completing his graduation. The first novella, Bondage, revolves around the story of a young man, Lalan, who, too, after completing his master's degree in Bangladesh, pushes himself from pillar to post in search of a job, and finally travels to Germany, hoping to earn a decent income that would change the lives of his family members back in the country. But the first hypocrisy he resorts to in the dream continent is that he seeks “political asylum,” which allows him to stay in Germany and work in factories, hotels and restaurants. In Exile, the second novella, the protagonist Abdullah also faces the same existential crisis as a migrant worker.
Protagonists in both novellas are the quintessentially Kafkaesque anti-hero. They both work to the point of utter exhaustion to make their family in Bangladesh happy and prosperous, but their soul-crushing jobs in a foreign country change their own identity, metamorphosing them into different beings. In Bondage, the protagonist has only himself to share his untold agony with: “Money was nothing but a trap for enslavement that each day was turning me a stranger to myself. I’d no idea when, if at all, I’d be able to earn my release back from the trap.” In Exile, the protagonist Abdullah confesses: “At least my family has not had to suffer the ignominy of seeing a man who once taught at a college trudging miles in the snow to look for a labourer’s or cleaner’s work, being thrown out of his job every now and then, and living furtively like an animal that scarcely dared to breath.”
Milan is flawless in character construction. He makes impressive contrast by throwing his characters in worrying dilemmas, coupled with problems of cultural alienation. In Bondage, for example, Lalan wants to quit drinking as it would help save some money he’s planning to send to his family for buying a piece of land in Mirpur. But gradually when he cuts his drinking habit, he feels more and more alien to himself. It is this complex contrast that makes Milan’s protagonists seem more human to readers, and thus carries us into a slippery reality that confuses as much as illuminates.
Both novellas are also darkly comic. They narrate how Bangladeshis move like cats in German houses lest they should “disturb their landlords”; how they muffle their voices in restaurants and other public places so the first class citizens are not peeved at them; how even in toilets they have to be very mindful of German norms of cleanliness.
Saugata Ghosh’s translation does not evade the nuances found in the original Bengali. He has translated distinctively cultural idioms like “Magher sheet Bagher gaye laage” to “Like the cold of Magh on a tiger’s back,” with an explanation in the next sentence that “it refers to the intensity of the cold in the month of Magh, which is enough to leave even a beast as powerful as a tiger shivering.” The explanation doesn’t seem to disrupt the flow of the story; rather, it enriches the Anglophone readers’ experience by introducing such cultural aspects of idiomatic expression.
The distinct addressing convention of Bangladeshis, such as “dost,” “bhaishaheb,” “bouma,” “miyanbhai,” and “bhaijaan” are kept in Bengali, which could be a new experience for readers from a different culture. In these translations, Ghosh reaches a milestone with an impeccable linguistic proficiency that smoothly allows readers to journey through a bleak tale of human suffering as found in Kafka and other absurdist writers.
Now we can positively hope to get translations of Milan’s longer works of fiction – some of which are critically acclaimed and some very popular among readers, such as Jabojjibon, Nodi Upakhyan, Bhumiputro and Noorjahan, a long novel in three episodes. Translation of these works into English and other languages will broaden the horizon of Bengali literature.
As migrant workers frequently experience hazardous and pathetic working conditions in many countries, reading Milan’s Two Novellas is an illuminating experience. The book is grim and ripe with shocking questions, provocative ideas and dark epiphanies. In it Milan challenges the myth about migrant workers living a “tension-free life” and shows how their welfare inevitably falls through the cracks. This is one subject that has only recently become a part of civil society and media discourses.
Milan must be credited for masterfully dealing with a new subject and Ghosh for his commendable translation.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.