Syed Mujtaba Ali knows how to perform magic through his writing! One moment his humor and wit will make you break out in roaring laughter and the next you find yourself buried in deep thought being touched by the poignance in his satire.
When Shibram Chakraborty became well-known for his mastery over puns, Mujtaba Ali became a household name for shaping up an entire genre called Ramya Rachana—amusing anecdotes charged with inimitable wit and scholarship. Strangely enough, the two contemporaries have a lot in common to draw parallels between their lives. Putting aside their obvious natural aptitude for humor, both of them picked up writing to eke out a living. On a letter written in the 1960s, Mujtaba Ali’s frustrations became clear as he lamented how he could easily dedicate three long years writing an entire book on Rabindranath Tagore if only he didn’t have to write potboilers to make ends meet.
During his lifetime, Mujtaba Ali could not publish a book on Tagore of whom he was a direct student and a great admirer, although he tried to squeeze in a couple of short notes on the poet sometimes. The notes remained unpublished, and his wish unfulfilled. Until recently, Razu Alauddin took the lead to publish four such notes on Tagore and Bangladesh compiled in a small coffee-table book titled Ogronthito Syed Mujtaba Ali: Prasanga Bangladesh o Rabindranath.
Published by Journeyman Books, it’s an interesting collection of short notes, critiques, brief book reviews and transcriptions of two audio recordings by Mujtaba Ali, now available online. Razu’s contribution in planning the book is evident in the way each note begins with large photographs or illustrations covering an entire page.
The eclectic selection on one hand provides a scathing review against two of the earliest Bangla novels and on the other, pays a befitting homage to Tagore and Winternitz, an eminent Sanskrit scholar based in Prague.
Unlike his humorous writings, these notes are written in a somewhat serious vein. “Abhidhan Paath” (Reading the Dictionary) brings in Alaler Gharer Dulal by Pyarichand Mitra and Hutom Pyanchar Naksha by Kaliprasanna Singha—the forerunners of Bangla fiction written in a colloquial tongue. With his unique power of wit, Mujtaba Ali criticizes their excessive use of Arabic and Persian words into the novels as he finds them somewhat unpleasant and superfluous.
Later, to his dismay, he points out that readers from erstwhile East Pakistan in the 1950s had started to stray away from reading classics, which would take a toll on Bengali lexicon. Previously, many Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words had enriched our vocabulary because of our association with those literatures.
Mujtaba Ali was a hafiz when it came to reciting or interpreting Tagore. He could explain almost every backdrop or the complex poetic expressions that may scare even the scholars away! You will find it no exaggeration when you read “Shokgrosto Rabindranath” (Grieving Rabindranath), one of the transcribed audio recordings initially broadcast on Bangladesh Betar. To explain a line brimming with metaphor and allusion, he draws connection between poetry and astronomy, proving his vast knowledge in diverse fields!
The same recording explores how Tagore’s life had been impacted by the premature deaths of his near and dear ones. The radio broadcast was aired on Tagore’s death anniversary. What better occasion could one think of to view a poet’s life from a different angle? It seems, as though, the life of Tagore as a human being was indeed a tragic one, given the untimely deaths of three of his children, a grandson, his wife and his notun bouthan—his sister-in-law and confidante.
The book begins and ends with two notes that discuss the state of erstwhile East Bengal during the pre-liberation era from different angles. The book presents Syed Mujtaba Ali in a different light, not just as a humorist but also as an erudite critic.