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Reading Khademul Islam over the years

  • Published at 06:55 pm November 5th, 2018
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

I had never read anything as powerful as this one coming from a Bangladeshi author

Sometime in 2004 I came across an issue of Six Seasons Review when it was published by University Press Limited. While browsing through the list of fiction, my eyes caught the title of an English translation of selected excerpts from Pratibha Basu’s Jiboner Jolchhobi. It was and still is my most favourite autobiography written in Bengali. So I sat down to get a sense of the translation. It was impressively impeccable. Part way along the translation, I went back to steal a look at the translator: Khademul Islam.

Those were the days of cultural studies and literary theories. Whether or not you could make any sense of Foucault, Derrida, and Bakhtin, they were the real stars and Fukuyama’s The End of History had dislodged modernism (with its vestiges living in Kristeva, Spivak and their likes) from the literature departments in favour of post-structuralism. So, leaving Marx and Freud far behind on the dusty shelves, the lot  aiming for good grades were cramming in the university’s central library to photocopy pages from Grammatology, the Archaeology of Knowledge, and Can the Subaltern Speak?

I was not much different except that my previous reading experience drew me to the shelf that housed other old or recent issues of SSR. I opened at the contents page and was ecstatic to find out the name which was my new obsession. This time it was an original short story: “An ilish story”. I read it and went out for a smoke. I came back and read it again. I had never read anything as powerful as this one coming from a Bangladeshi author. The narrator casually talks with her grandmother about 1971 and she, while scaling and sawing a hilsha fish, says, “It was 1947 all over again.” 

Then I came to know this writer was looking after the literature page of The Daily Star where I read his review of VS Naipaul’s Among the Believers. I became a total fan. It comes as a shock, however, that he’s always spent more time as a literary editor than a fiction writer and translator. Which explains why he has only a few books to his credit. The Daily Star Book of Fiction, which he edited, remains the best anthology from Bangladesh. His translated books include On the Side of the Enemy (BLB, 2014), a collection of Bengali short stories, and On my Birthday and Other Poems in Translation (BLB, 2016). Editor of Bengal Lights, a literary magazine from Bangladesh, currently he’s working on his book, Shooting at Sharks, to be published from Bloomsbury UK.

Many generations of fiction writers and translators working in English owe their growth solely to Khademul Islam who’s the best translator, best fiction writer, and best essayist and reviewer at the same time.

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