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From ‘Palabar Poth Nei’ to ‘Ashukhi Din’: My fiction

  • Published at 03:34 pm March 9th, 2019
Shaheen Akhtar

Essay

(Translated by Rifat Munim)

I started writing, in fact, as a reaction to gender inequality. After finishing my studies, I got a job that gave me an opportunity to make documentary films. So, I made two-three documentaries. But I was actually planning to take up writing. I wanted to write about the different experiences that I had gone through as a woman; I wanted to write fiction. One reason behind this, perhaps, was that I used to write as a child—in my family there was always some practice of writing. So, I took up writing from the beginning of the 1990s as a part-time writer. To make a living, though, I had to continue documentary filmmaking and also work as a journalist and editor. I am still working as an editor with a human rights organization. 

At the beginning, my personal experiences were reflected acutely in my stories in the form of a freedom-loving woman’s anger and frustration over a society which is extremely biased against women. My first novel, Palabar Poth Nei (There is No Way to Escape), is about two women who find it extremely difficult to rent a house to live by themselves despite being financially independent. When they find a place, they face sexual harassment in various forms. Even then, they do not go back to the socially accepted gender roles of taking care of husband and children. At one point they go abroad but they face unpleasant incidents there, too. One of them comes back to the homeland but the other vanishes from sight forever. It is indeed a very sad tale.

The central character of my second novel, Talash (The Search), is a woman whose name is Mariam. She was raped by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War in 1971. I had worked in an oral history project on the 1971 war. The goal of the project was to collect accounts of women who had been badly affected and scarred by the war. Thanks to my participation in this research project which began 25 years after the war, the days during and after 1971 came alive to me. I came to know about their tribulations and enormous suffering, their complaints about how they lost everything, and their tremendous struggles for survival. Some of them were uprooted altogether. In short, the brutality unleashed by Pakistani soldiers left them devastated. In a society like ours, suffering of a raped woman extends far beyond the war and continues overtly or covertly as long as she lives. Who would they go to and demand justice for the suffering they faced post-war? The very independence-loving people who fought or supported the war are actually against these women. So, the haplessness and anger of these women affected me so much so that I decided to write Talash, albeit twenty-seven years after the war.

Talash contains both war-time and post-war realities, with the latter being longer, covering 28 years till Mariam's disappearance. A lot of the women with whom she was imprisoned kill themselves later, or they leave the country forever with Pakistani soldiers, or they become prostitutes for a living. But Mariam chooses not to take any of those paths. Struggling boldly all her life, she rather disappears one day.

In my short stories homosexuality and the problems faced by transgender communities and religious minorities surface rather frequently. It’s not like I have written about them being propelled by a sense of duty. Nor did I ever expect that my writing would remove their problems. We live in a society riven by inequality and division; maybe that’s why inequality comes as a subject even when we are barely aware of it. It happens when I write about others but it also happens when I write about myself. But idealizing victimhood is not something I personally endorse because human beings do not only suffer persecution and discrimination, they also protest, either directly or silently, and they earn their place using their intelligence, and that’s how they find happiness, especially women. In Talash, when Mariam is locked up in a Pakistani army camp, she is being tortured and sexually abused routinely; death trails her every step of the way. At a time like this she develops a relationship with a Pakistani soldier. He was a bit sympathetic and less brutal toward her—this little bit of tenderness appears magnificent to her in the time of war. This may as well be a reflection on Mariam's desperation for staying alive. Against such a backdrop, Mariam never considers self-killing. 

In ancient times, women of besieged forts jumped into deep wells to embrace death so that they could protect their honor. Perhaps this image was present in the psyche of both the Pakistani soldiers and the freedom-loving people. Women imprisoned at Pakistani camps were not allowed to wear sari lest they should use it to hang themselves. On the other hand, in our post-war literature and films there was literally an abundance of suicide committed by women who were raped in 1971. Some incidents of women's suicide must have actually happened. While working on the oral history project, a woman told me that she had indeed wanted to live but the reproach she faced from her own kith and kin in the post-war period was too much to bear with. Even after such indescribable physical and mental affliction, she did not get any recognition and respect—this thought made her totally bitter toward life. 

Talash was published in February 2004. After that I worked for quite a long time on a three-volume anthology called Sati O Swatantara: Women in Bengali Literature. The time span that this book covers is indeed vast—from present time it goes all the way back to several hundred years, including the British colonial rule (1757-1947), and also medieval and ancient Bengali literature. There are numerous women characters in the literature spanning several hundred years. Comparatively, I took a liking toward the women of pre-British colonial era because they were free from the Victorian values. Women from that era were not only desirable but they could also be very powerful, capable as they were of devising myriad ways of challenging male authority and power. Despite being confined to their homes, those women were not merely submissive entities obeying orders issued by men. They turned the confined homes into a platform for creating such bonds between women that go beyond the mother-daughter duo and extend to women of different origins and ages. While living with other women, when one feels a pull toward other women and their woes, her sense of sisterhood and friendship becomes evident and this friendship sometimes even leads to homo-erotic desire.   

During this research for the three-volume compilation of representations of women in Bengali literature, a pala gaan (dramatic performance rendered in musical narrative) called Chowdhury’s Lorai (Chowdhury’s Battle) attracted my attention. My third novel, Sokhi Rangamala (Beloved Rangamala), is based on this narrative performance. Chowdhury’s Battle is not just a poet’s imagination; it’s also a legend rooted in the southern region of Bangladesh. The ruins of the mansion of Zamindar Chowdhury are still there. So are the ruins of Rangamala’s dwelling; there is even a big lake named after Rangamala. Rangamala, who comes from a lower caste Hindu family, is the mistress of Rajchandra, son of the zamindar. The central theme of the novel revolves around the killing of Rangamala, which unfolds issues like class, caste, and gender. In the novel there are a few other women who, despite their confinement, prove themselves to be quite brave. Sumitra, a powerful woman, is Rajchandra’s mother. Phuleswari, who loves to rear birds, is Rajchandra's wife, and Heera, another strong woman, is Phuleswari's chief female servant. It is noteworthy that Heera's maternal grandmother was raped by a Portuguese pirate.

My interest was piqued by Rangamala’s misfortune. A petty mistress for whom even the poets did not have any sympathy. This is where the past has a lot in common with the present. She is nonetheless remembered, though differently, by people. Those who now live in Rangamala’s home think that she was a noble woman. After I wrote the scene in which Rangamala was killed, I sat motionless for a long time. It was so graceful and dignified! She was walking toward the scaffold proudly, her head held high. Maybe this is how I imagined her. Such a trait was also passed on to Phuleswari. I did not want Rangamala to be pitted against Phuleswari on account of a man. In a cottage standing on stilts in the middle of water, Rangamala lies in Rajchandra's embrace—after seeing this, Phuleswari's anger or curiosity takes an intriguing turn. Phuleswari begins to imagine Rangamala as one of her own selves. Thus, it turns out to be a unique relationship that does not end with Rangamala's death. In the dead of night when Phuleswari lies awake, Rangamala, assuming the shape of a shadow, comes back to her time and again, and gives her company when she is lonely. This sisterhood with Rangamala inspires Phuleswari to live through the most difficult times in life.

My fourth novel, Moyur Shinghashon (The Peacock Throne), is based on the historical journey of Mughal prince and Subehdar of undivided Bengal, Shah Shuja, who flees after losing the throne of India to his younger brother. He finds shelter in Arakan (in present-day Burma), where he is assassinated alongside his family. Behind the veil of warfare, The Peacock Throne is actually a story about the women living in the female quarters of a palace, known as harem. People's curiosity about harem knows no bounds. Thanks to British colonial rule, we have become accustomed to a distorted image of harems as it came down to us as a place for satisfying the lust of the adulterous Mughal kings. I had to challenge the distortion of Mughal harems in this novel. Maybe a response to many propagandist campaigns against the Mughals and their culture was already there in the subconscious terrains of my mind. This response is reflected in all the nooks and crannies of this novel, even though the incidents depicted here took place three-four hundred years ago. However, it does not mean that the novel was a defensive response against such colonial legacies. In fact, the incomparable richness of Mughal culture—its sheer beauty and exquisiteness—has helped me immensely to overcome any such issues.

Unlike The Peacock Throne and my other novels, my latest novel, Ashukhi Din (Unhappy Days), does not have as its central theme issues relating to gender inequality. The time it describes takes us back to the 1940s—the decade of World War II, famine, riots and partition of India. This decade also marked the end of the two hundred years long British colonial rule. Thus, through these tumultuous times, maps of new countries were being drawn and our future was being determined. India was partitioned arbitrarily on the basis of religious identities and the legacy of that division is still on, which becomes obvious through continued persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

One of the most burning issues of our current time is the forced eviction of the Rohingya people from Myanmar. Their arrival on boats seems almost unreal to me, as if, this is the same Biblical exodus. They are coming in droves getting soaked in rain, wading through neck-deep water. At the confluence of the sea, many of their boats capsized killing numerous children, old people, and young men and women. To say that they faced discrimination is merely an understatement. The very right to live was taken away from them. They lost their homes, near and dear ones, and assets and properties. Many of the men were brutally tortured and rendered disabled while many women were raped and traumatized forever. Now they are living like insects at the mercy of the people of a neighboring country. It is indeed hard to bear with such degradation of humanity!

This article was presented at the Gwanju Lit Fest in South Korea in 2018. 

Shaheen Akhtar is one of Bangladesh’s leading fiction writers.