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‘Surya Dighal Bari’: Abu Ishaque’s magnum opus translated

  • Published at 02:03 pm May 11th, 2019
Surya Dighal Bari

Book note

When Jaigun returned to the village, all she had was a meager plot of land which was said to be cursed. In a typical Bengali village laden with superstitious beliefs, social stigma and a flawed judicial system, Jaigun dared to be a divorcee and a single mother. However, being one of the strongest, most vocal heroines of Bangladeshi literature, Abu Ishaque’s Jaigun remained resilient in the face of all such hurdles. Surya Dighal Bari is a novel that not only traces the heroine’s journey in overcoming her adversities, it also paints a vivid picture of Bengali rural life, perfectly capturing the turbulent times during the famine of 1943 and the Partition of India. The novel is monumental to the lovers of Bengali literature, as it is one of the most vocal books on the lives of a people overburdened with the curse of bigotry. After more than sixty years of publication, Surya Dighal Bari was translated into English by Bangla Academy Award winning translator Abdus Selim.

Abu Ishaque could in no way be called a prolific writer. In his literary career, he had only authored three novels, Surya Dighal Bari (1955), Padmar Palidwip (1963) and Jaal (1989). Except Jaal, which can be categorized as detective fiction, the other two are about the lives of the poverty-stricken etched in realism.  However, Abu Ishaque remains one of Bangladesh’s most prominent authors as he had written less, but expressed more through his work.

The novel is set in a typical village of undivided Bengal, just after the historic famine of 1943. It also incorporates the aftermath of the Second World War, the riots of 1946 and the Partition of 1947. The novel paints a vivid picture of how these incidents affected the lives of the villagers.

Abdus Selim’s translation of Surya Dighal Bari captures the disillusionment of a defeated people. He translates the famous first lines as, “They had lost their battle for even a morsel of rice in the city.” Later on in the novel when Jaigun’s daughter is about to get married, her mother is forced to accept the decree of the society that she should not go out for work, breaking the restriction of purdah. In spite of these obstacles and constant humiliation of the society, Jaigun’s indomitable spirit continues to put up a fight.

The novel remains faithful to the trials and tribulations of the village folk whose customs, language and culture define who they are as people. When it comes to the use of language, in particular, Abdus Selim has translated with flair even the little riddles and rhymes used by the villagers. Jaigun’s daughter Maimun asks her Shafi bhai to riddle her this—

“A tiny ‘jheel’ (lake) full with shiny fish

Test one to see, if all are ready for dish.”

Shafi successfully solves the mystery of those “tiny fish” in the lake, “The jheel happens to be the rice pot and the fish are rice grains…Now will you please press one fish to see if it’s cooked?” The simple act of checking whether rice grains have been cooked comes alive through this exchange between the two characters.

With Abdus Selim’s skillful translation, the literary legacy of Abu Ishaque moves forward as Surya Dighal Bari becomes available to international readers.