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A modern epic for Bengal

  • Published at 03:46 pm March 12th, 2018
  • Last updated at 03:44 pm March 13th, 2018
A modern epic for Bengal
“We have got over the noise of the Mohurrum,” Michael Madhusudan Dutt wrote his friend Raj Narain in 1861, and added enthusiastically, “I tell you what: If a great poet were to rise among the Mussulmans of India, he could write a magnificent Epic on the death of Hossen and his brother. He could enlist the feelings of the whole race on his behalf.” Within three decades, Mir Mosharraf Hossain established himself as the first major Muslim Bengali writer in British India with his three-tiered monument to the tragedy of Karbala, the prose epic Bishad-Sindhu. The first volume appeared in 1885, the last in 1891, and the work as a whole was to enjoy a critical as well as a popular success. It is a sad reflection on our custodianship of our literary heritage that readers have had to wait a century and a quarter for the first English translation of an undoubted classic. Fakrul Alam avows greater interest in translating poetry, but as luck would have it he has achieved greater renown – and well-deserved too, needless to add – as a translator of prose. His English version of Bangabandhu’s Unfinished Memoirs has been co-published in three countries: Bangladesh, India and Pakistan; and his translation of Bangabandhu’s prison diary awaits publication. He rightly draws attention to the rigorous discipline that is a sine qua non in translating prose, and the mental toll it exacts: “translating a prose narrative requires the kind of stamina one imagines a long-distance runner to have, miles after miles (sic) of text to be traversed, all by oneself – exhausting and mind-numbing.” He took on the task with some misgivings but warmed to it as he engaged with the linguistic complexity and cultural density of the text. His ample introduction provides a vivid portrait of the author and a comprehensive account of the work’s historical and literary background. Mir Mosharraf Hossain (1847-1911) was born into a zamindar family in Kushtia. His father was a typical product of his class, of spendthrift habits and sybaritic tendencies, which left Mosharraf with a reduced patrimony and forced him to supplement his inherited income through writing and working as estate manager for other zamindars. He seems to have shared his father’s proclivities in youth, to the detriment of his formal education. The writer in him, as is often the case, was self-taught.
Alam has proved his stamina as a translator by leaving nothing out of the massive original. His prose moves at a stately pace, as befits the somber subject; the idiom is suitably formal but not stilted.
Lured to Calcutta by a family friend with a bevy of daughters, he fell for the oldest trick in the traditional marriage stakes; betrothed to one whom he was attracted to, he found himself hitched to another. The substitution couldn’t be undone and he fathered three children before he found a second wife who was more to his taste; with her he fathered eleven children. It would appear, even from the brief biographical sketch presented by Alam, Mosharraf Hossain would make a worthy subject for a modern biographical novel. The author’s Prelude frames the entire narrative, presenting it as a chronicle of deaths foretold. After a visitation from the Archangel the Holy Prophet, visibly distressed, tells his disciples, “One of your sons will one day become the bitter enemy of my dearest ones, Hasan and Huseyn. He will poison Hasan and slay Huseyn.” The reader might be reminded of another scene of a Prophet – Jesus, in this case – telling his disciples that one of them will betray him. Alam usefully parses the narrative into its varied components: historical, epic, novelistic, supernatural. Mosharraf Hossain did not restrict the narrative to historical facts, and took novelistic liberties, adding the psychological drama around Zaynab for instance, which contributes to the characterization of the vindictive Yazid, or the supernatural manifestations after the battle at Karbala. The result is salutary. Generations have been enthralled by the story. They include readers and listeners of all age groups, Muslim and non-Muslim. I recall Professor Perween Hasan talking about an old family servant who would never miss listening to an episode read out from the Bishad-Sindhu, and dolefully shaking her head would murmur, “So sad!” Many former students of Bangla at Dhaka University will remember the late lamented Dr Naren Biswas declaiming sections of the book from memory. The book transcends sectarian divisions in a manner characteristic of Islam in the subcontinent: I have always seen my mother, a steadfast Hanafi, fasting on Ashura. Mosharraf Hossain created an engaging blend of Bankim-derived high literary Bangla and the popular emotional appeal of the punthi literature of his time, which included many retellings of the Karbala tragedy. Alam has proved his stamina as a translator by leaving nothing out of the massive original. His prose moves at a stately pace, as befits the somber subject; the idiom is suitably formal but not stilted. The infelicities one stumbles upon are due to the lack of sound editorial practices in our publishing industry, and may be easily remedied. Ocean of Sorrow (Bishad-Sindhu) by Mir Mosharraf Hossain. Translated by Fakrul Alam. Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2016. TK 950 (US $ 100)
Kaiser Haq is Bangladesh’s biggest English language poet. His poetry collections include Pariah and Other Poems (Bengal Lights Books 2013), Starting Lines (Dhaka 1978), A Little Ado (Dhaka 1978) and A Happy Farewell (Dhaka: UPL 1994). His translations include a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, Quartet (Heinemann Asian Writers Series, 1993); a novel by Nasreen Jahan, The Woman Who Flew (Penguin India); the poetry collections: Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems (UPL, Dhaka); Combien de Bouddhas, a bilingual poetry selection with French translators by Olivier Litvine (Editions Caracteres, Paris) and the retold Bengali epic: The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Harvard University Press).