Review of Anisul Hoque’s ‘The Ballad of Ayesha’
In an interview with his translator, Anisul Hoque talked about how a woman and her son once visited the Bhorer Kagoj office, where he worked back in the late nineties, in order to find some information about her missing husband. The incident, he said, had “left a deep scar on [his] mind.”
The event had found its way into Anisul Hoque’s The Ballad of Ayesha, playing the crescendo in his dramatic novel of loss, offering a tragic completion of the eponymous Ayesha’s search for her husband.
It is set in the late seventies, concerning a failed coup that results in the illegal arrest and detention of several officers from the Air Force. Of those arrested is Joynal Abedin, Ayesha’s husband, who leaves for work one day, leaving his wife who’s heavily pregnant with their second child, and never shows up again. The frustration of a young wife and her desperate attempts at locating her husband are deftly and sincerely portrayed. Ayesha’s pain in losing her husband, along with the picturesque middle-class life both of them has so relentlessly built with their romance and warmth, is one that stays heated inside one’s mind as unexpected and unwelcome as the sealed envelope bearing bad news that keeps haunting every wife and mother afterward.
Ayesha, in her struggles to feed her children, support her family, and yet still keep her dignity intact, represents the many women like her who had to overcome immense hardship after the coups, which left them at a loss, in no shape or form to run their own lives and their families’.
Anisul Hoque compares Ayesha to Behula, the popular heroine of the folk tale Manashamangal, whose refusal to accept her husband’s death, going to great lengths to accompany him “till she reached the courts of the gods in heaven” on a raft, mirrors Ayesha’s persistence in finding what happened to her husband. Years go by but Ayesha’s determination never loses any momentum. Her search continues till the end of the novel.
The translator Inam Ahmed, a prominent journalist at The Daily Star, has no doubt faced quite a challenge to render a novel so entwined in the vernacular into a competent novel decipherable to a wider South Asian as well as western audience. This has led to some uncanny transitions with regard to Anisul Hoque’s humor, especially through the character of Joynal Abedin. In the original Bengali, Anisul Hoque’s trademark humor is the equivalent of an old friend’s visit. One is happy to find that he is the same way he has always been: lucid, heartfelt, even relatable. In the English, however, Joynal’s jokes, which he levels at his young, unsuspecting wife quite a substantial number of times throughout the early portions of the novel, read awkward and embarrassing. The jokes are still there but there’s a supplementary level of discomfort, which adds an extra dimension to Joynal’s character. He doesn’t merely stay the young Air Force officer mucking about with his newlywed beloved, but acquires, in the process, a depth that only failures and our ceaseless need to still carry on can provide.
Inam Ahmed’s translation, nevertheless, comes at a promising time when translations of Bengali literature are seeing a resurgence. Dhaka Translation Center’s Library of Bangladesh series has successfully translated Hasan Azizul Haque, Imdadul Haq Milon, Humayun Ahmed, among others, and managed to display them to a wider, international audience to some critical acclaim. It is only wonderful that Anisul Hoque, whose novels and essays have enthralled so many in our country for so long, can finally boast of acquiring an international voice he undeniably deserves.
The Ballad of Ayesha is remarkable in how it lays bare the relationship between its English avatar and the strong Bengali prose it has originated in. Even the pacing of the book manages to follow its original quick, lucid flow even after transition to this foreign tongue. This shows the strength of both the translator and the author, and the sincerity of the story they are telling.
It would be disingenuous, however, if one fails to note that certain phrases and turns of language do end up as cliché. The events depicting the character Nindalu as he goes to Ayesha’s village to check her out and ends up being beaten by local villagers, only to be treated laudibly when he reveals his true identity is not so much hilarious as it is cringeworthy.
These few kinks aside, Anisul Hoque’s The Ballad of Ayesha is a valuable addition to the cannon of Bengali literature. Anisul Hoque has entertained and informed Bangladeshis for decades with his novels and essays; in his heartrending stories he has grabbed the attention of an entire generation. It is only commendable now that with this novel, his account of a brave woman fighting all odds, he has taken his work to new heights.
Rabeya Romani is a fiction writer and translator. She has been reviewing books since 1990.