• Monday, Nov 18, 2019
  • Last Update : 02:14 pm

‘Charcoal Portrait’: a war-child’s search for identity

  • Published at 03:10 pm July 13th, 2019
Charcoal Portrait

Book review

Dulal lands in Bangladesh with two truths before him—death and identity. Adopted as a war child after Bangladesh’s Liberation War, the 25-year-old returns to his country of origin to find his biological mother in the tea gardens of Srimangal. 

Raised in Frankfurt, Dulal initially struggles to take this unfamiliar land as his own—a land that he finds to be “chaotic and messy like a disheveled man in clumsy clothes”.  But he eventually discovers the “inner rhyme in the life of this land, something that cannot be defined but has to be felt.” 

His life takes a new turn as he becomes friends with a murderer on the run— a fugitive who, like him, is in search of something: redemption. And by sheer luck, they trace Dulal’s identity back to a place where everyone has lost their identity long ago to bonded labor as a tea picker—a work that has reduced them to “anonymous puppets on an invisible string.”  

Selina Hossain explores in her novel many ideas that were way ahead of the time when the novel was published. She writes about gay romance as early as the 2000s, when the talk of LGBTQ rights was not a de rigueur as it is today. What has struck me the most is Hossain’s worldbuilding where homosexuality is not shunned and women are the strongest characters, aware of their rights. (One rural woman even asks for a salary for doing all the chores at home!)

In Srimangal where Chaitirani awaits her son’s return, the plight of the tea plantation workers shrouds the narrative in a haunting poignancy. Stripped of basic human rights, the workers are the “prisoners of the garden” who either die of starvation or are shot and killed by the garden managers if they try to escape. When shot or bitten by snake, no doctor treats them, no court serves them justice. The owners rape their women; their children cannot go to school. An all-pervasive sense of entrapment and longing for the ancestral land fills the narrative. Chaitirani rightly laments, “The day we came here we were like a brood of chickens, a flock of ducks, hutched onto a crowded train, not humans. Even after so many years, I don’t feel like being human again. I’m still just a nameless tea picker.” 

Yet Chaitirani dreams of leading her people to their homeland. Like most female characters in the novel, Chaitirani is a strong woman. Patriarchy or rape—nothing can hold her down. She is a free-spirit who chooses not to marry the man she loves. When questioned by others in her society, she responds, “Tell them I want the sky. How can I run away if I am tied down to another man? Don’t I have to get out of the garden?” 

In fiction, Hossain’s women enjoy a freedom they otherwise could not afford in reality. Around a century ago, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain had introduced a similar world in her Sultana’s Dream where women are empowered, while the men are secluded from society. A world where only the women fill the workforce and bring about scientific breakthroughs using solar energy. Hossain does a somewhat similar job in a much realistic setting. Women in the plantation are independent; they earn their own living (while their husbands take their money away to booze!). There the narrator introduces Lachhmati who “is a gutsy woman, unafraid to attack the troublemakers with a spear if need be. Budhu [her husband], on the other hand, prefers to hide behind.” 

An author of more than forty novels, Selina Hossain has often used literature as a means to voice the rights of the oppressed, especially women. Her works also have the War of Liberation as a recurring theme that affected her gravely as a young woman. As always, her female characters are strong-willed and independent. Her Hangor Nodi Grenade (1976) presents such a valiant mother who gave up her son to the Pakistani army with a view to saving thousands of lives from an impending attack by Pakistani occupation forces. 

Feminism finds a different expression in Charcoal Portrait. Here a rural wife, tortured for dowry, moves out of her in-law’s house with her daughter and decides to work. When the children of the village ask her about the type of work she would do, she gladly states she can take up any work—she can graze the cow, work in a grocer’s shop, or catch fish with the fishermen—anything! The scene serves as almost a polemic: a statement to those who believe in strict gender roles and professions. 

The novel’s strength and weakness lie in its simplicity at the same time. At times, the simple narrative justly magnifies the situation of the tea pickers. Their life is already too wretched to ornament it with complex poetic expressions. Here the narrator’s honesty and simplicity add to its beauty. However, too much simplicity sometimes might make the readers suspicious about the veracity of a few conversations between Ranjan and Dulal. Some of the questions by the latter may sound rather childish and redundant. For example, during their first encounter, Dulal exclaims with wonder and contempt, “Nonsense! How can there be a national bird? What’s so special about a bird? And what’s wrong with the other birds? I don’t accept this.” It seems as if having a national bird is something of a unique practice to Bangladesh! While clearly, most countries have national birds. In case of Germany, it’s the golden eagle. The translators, however, have done an excellent job keeping the cultural nuances intact. 

Almost all major characters have a past to share with the readers. Their character arcs offer the erudite reader a probe into the human psyche and relationships. On one hand, too much attention on the major characters has given them dimensions (everything revolves around them), and on the other, the rest have become just cardboard cutouts—fillers to complement the major characters! The case is more evident in Chaitirani’s narrative.   

With a little touch of history on the growth of tea plantations in Bangladesh and the struggles and contributions of its indigenous workers during the Liberation War, the novel becomes a riveting experience as it progresses. It’s a story of love, friendship, struggle, resilience and penitence. A book that immerses you in its simplicity, while unnerves you in its honest representation of the horrors faced by the plantation workers. A book worth a read to study a pluralistic society—to rediscover yourself, your land and your people! 

Shahroza Nahrin is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.