Shahidul Zahir, a story-teller who could weave a spell over his audience with the ease of ST Coleridge’s ancient mariner, died of a massive heart attack on March 23, 2008 in his prime. For his readers and friends, his exit was too sudden and untimely to seem real, and it could have appeared to them as part of a sequence of events in a new tale that he was probably about to spin. Those who were familiar with his narrative style could well have been under an illusion for some time that he had moved house like Abdul Majid, a character he so deftly crafted in his first novel Jiban O Rajnaitik Bastobota
, and would reappear after a certain time much in the same way as Subodh Chandra, another of his memorable characters, comes back from the well in which he was thrown by the residents of Bhuter Goli. But the harsh reality is that he has not yet come back and never will.
Born in 1953, Shahidul Zahir had his early education in Dhaka and was deeply familiar with the way of life in what is now the older part of the city. Then he was schooled in some rural and semi-urban areas where his father worked as a government employee, and had considerable exposure to life in the countryside of Bangladesh. He came back to Dhaka to finish his college and university education and then settled here. He too was a government employee and inherited his love for literature from his father who had a deep interest in literature. Shahidul started writing short stories in his student days but had little interest in making it known and very few people around him knew that he was a writer.
On the surface, Shahidul’s life was quite calm and orderly. Despite the spark of creativity always ablaze within him, he somehow threw in his lot with the government bureaucracy and rose high in the pecking order. But in his apparently regulated, routine life, he managed to nurture a kind of chaos—living as he did in a scantily furnished, dusty and sooty house with the help of a cook—as if to protest against the career choice he had made and to protect his inner beauty and creativity from the drab bureaucratic routine. He had a unique lifestyle that set him apart. To be more precise, he was noticeably original both in his life and art. Like Robert Frost’s famous protagonist, he preferred to take the “road less travelled by” and subordinated his whole existence to his art.
How can a reader afford to miss the harrowing description of a butcher of a war criminal, Badu Mawlana, and his ruthless sons throwing around pieces of murdered women’s flesh to feed ravens?
, a collection of short stories, was the first book by Shahidul Zahir and it was published in 1985. The book went largely unnoticed. His second book, Jiban O Rajnaitik Bastobota
, which is a short novel of 61 pages, came out in 1988. It was after quite some time that one of his friends picked up a soiled copy of the book from a heap of rubbish in his bedroom and discovered with much excitement that Shahidul was a powerful writer. He reviewed the book and desperately tried to take it to as many readers as possible. Gradually, a good number of readers went through this thin book and were spellbound by its innovative language, captivating narrative, deft portrayal of characters and the immense political relevance of the subject. The only concern of his friends then was if the book would be able to reach the larger readership, given the perfunctory way it was published and the miserable way it was stacked up instead of being marketed. Surprisingly, their fears and misgivings gave way to great joy soon and a huge number of fiction-lovers could see the writer in this reclusive man. Once the book reached the fiction-lovers, it was almost impossible for them not to sit up and take notice. After all, a good reader cannot help being gripped by a story depicting a gloomy afternoon when Abul Khair, a hitherto-absconding war criminal, triumphantly returns to his neighborhood under a dim sky filled with the croaks of ravens wildly preying on swarms of termites. They cannot afford not to notice the muted pangs of Abdul Majid who saw his sister being raped and killed in 1971 and has now to helplessly see the war criminals’ arrogant reappearance that breaks his heart and, at the same time, makes his slipper-strap break with a loud pop. How can a reader afford to miss the harrowing description of a butcher of a war criminal, Badu Mawlana, and his ruthless sons throwing around pieces of murdered women’s flesh to feed ravens? Such piercing moments woven into Shahidul Zahir’s narrative were enough to touch a chord with readers, particularly with those who had lived through the war of liberation.
Then it was only a short time before he won his spurs as a writer. One by one came out books like Se Raate Purnima Chhilo
(1995), Dumurkheko Manush O Anyanya Galpa
(2000), Dolu Nadir Hawa O Anyanya Galpa
(2004) and Mukher Dike Dekhi
(2006). The novel Abu Ibrahimer Mrityu
was posthumously published in 2009. Familiar places like Bhuter Goli, Narinda, Dakkhin Maishundi and Agargaon in Dhaka city figured in his writings as strange new worlds inhabited by fascinating people. Villages like Suahisini and Baikunthapur, with all their drama and mystery, continued to stir his readers’ imagination. Very ordinary poor people sketched by him became larger than life. While dealing with stark social and political realities, he looked deep into the human existence and tried to unravel the stories within stories that human beings always live out.
In his language and narrative style, Shahidul Zahir tried to go off the beaten track and tread a new path. Certainly, he was not unaware of his literary predecessors and one can trace a few traits of Syed Walliullah, Syed Shamsul Haque and Akhtaruzzaman Elias in some of Shahidul’s pieces. Nonetheless, he could creatively assimilate whatever he inherited from his predecessors in terms of language and style and work that into a form of art that was distinctively his own.
As we are now nurtured considerably on a diet of literatures from the different continents, we tend to latch onto European and American critical perspectives while evaluating our fiction. Judging from such perspectives, it is possible to find traces of existentialism, magic realism and even postmodernism in Shahidul Zahir’s works. In a couple of interviews, he made his admiration for Central and South American fiction known, and that lent color to the argument that he was heavily influenced by the Hispanic masters. But one wonders if Shahidul Zahir could become the writer that he was unless he had a deep understanding of the characteristic features of our society that is still largely agrarian and could go into the deeper levels of our culture. A cursory look at his works is enough to see that he could freely dig into the legends, myths and rumors circulating in a peasant milieu and draw on those with wonderful effects. He has brilliantly captured some attitudes and ideas germane to the collective life people live in our villages or even when they migrate to towns in groups. He has recounted in his inimitable way the same kind of stories that people here have been telling for ages while shooting the breeze under the banyan trees, in the bazaars and at the nearby tea-stalls—stories that spread like wildfire and sway a whole neighborhood as soon as they are told. Though grounded in concrete realities, his narratives freely move in all the temporal spaces and embrace the bizarre and the fantastic side by side with what is manifestly solemn and tragic. His style has much in common with the narrative mode characteristic of our oral tradition. The indigenous mode of story-telling that was superseded by the new European form of novel writing after Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had modeled his Durgeshnandini
(1865) on the English novel, particularly on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe
, and thus brought a paradigm shift, might have found an outlet in Shahidul Zahir’s works.
Shahidul Zahir was constantly honing his craft and searching for ever new language of fiction, but his ceaseless search was cut short when he was poised for greater undertakings. The works he has left behind, however, are of immense value and are likely to have an enduring appeal.
Golam Faruque Khan is a writer and literary critic.