(Translated by Arts & Letters Desk)
Rizia Rahman (1939-2019), one of contemporary Bangla literature’s most prominent fiction writers, recently passed away. She left as silently as she lived. I had the opportunity to occasionally enjoy her company and bask in her affection. In terms of age, I was like her grandson. But she never seemed to have considered age as an overriding factor for assessing authors, whether young or old. Although she kept a low profile, she posted herself updated about contemporary literature and regularly read fictional works written by young authors, which I realized when I first met her. The first time I paid her a visit at her home, she said referring to many of my stories and articles that she was familiar with my writing. I’m aware that such personal details should not be included here, but the reason I mention these is that the writer who was regarded by some as an alienated creative soul was, in truth, more involved with the literary scene than most writers of her generation.
Seeing her up close I have learned that a writer is an artist who is supposed to focus on her artistic self; so it is not her job to present herself at every social function or event. A true artist should not compromise his/her art or resort to flattery so that she can receive accolades or awards. S/he should not put in any effort to win favor with any media outlets or organizations for that matter; if anything, she must know how to avoid them. In these times we have seen but a very few writers to write with such courage and integrity. This is why she was deprived of her due recognition on many occasions.
Rizia Rahman was born and brought up in Kolkata. Her mother was an educated and accomplished woman while her father was a doctor. She grew up in a family that genuinely encouraged various cultural practices as well as lessons in literature and history. Unlike many families back in those days that scolded their children for an early interest in poetry, her family celebrated the occasion when she wrote an excellent poem as a student of class five. She moved to Dhaka along with her family after the partition of India. She witnessed how society, the state and even her own identity changed drastically. Her father was a government doctor. After moving to erstwhile East Pakistan, he was posted to Faridpur. Rizia finished her primary and secondary education there. Then she enrolled as an honors student in the department of economics at Dhaka University. During this time, she wrote a short story and submitted it to the departmental head for publication. But the head raised objection with the use of the word “whisky”. He said he’d publish it only if this word was removed. Rizia refused to do so and requested the head not to publish her story. It was much later that her story was published without any change in a magazine brought out by students at her dormitory. While in the twilight of her life, a publisher from Kolkata approached her for brining out a collection of her novels. After composing them, she shared with me, they sent her printouts to take a look. She did take a look and noticed that the publisher edited out a lot of words, such as “aju” (ablution), so that readers in Kolkata could find them easily accessible. Rizia dropped a line to them right away, telling them to forgo publication. A lot of writers try very hard to gain popularity in Kolkata but she chose not to build a bridge with readers there at the expense of her style and literary choices. That’s why she, despite being one of our biggest writers, remains unknown to most readers and writers in Kolkata.
Rizia was equally uncompromising when it came to the subjects of her writing. She never bothered much about what readers in Bangladesh would like to read. That’s how she wrote Rokter Akkhar (Letters of Blood), a highly courageous novel, in 1978, which has since gone into ten editions. One has to go into a trance after reading this 80-page book. We do notice when people are killed during a war but do we ever care about how hundreds of thousands of women are literally perishing in the country’s brothels? When Rizia wrote this novel in the late 1970s, it was almost impossible for women to visit the brothels for fieldwork. But she didn’t relent. She sent people to the brothels to collect information. She also asked reporters for elaborate descriptions of such places. After hearing about her initiative, many writers had discouraged her and many male writers had said that it was impossible for a woman to write such a novel. After she finished writing it, the book was given a warm reception and critics termed it a tremendous addition to the tradition of Bengali fiction.
In addition to short stories, children’s literature, memoirs, poetry and translation, she wrote more than 30 novels. The diversity of her novels in terms of subject matter is remarkable: from a tribe in ancient Bengal to the birth pangs of Bangladesh in 1971 to the realities of post-independence Bangladesh to the struggles of slum-dwellers, prostitutes, tea plantation workers and the Santals to diasporic crises of Bangladeshi immigrants.
Rizia Rahman never confined herself to any one subject or context. She kept pushing the boundaries in search of new stories. If necessary, she delved into extensive fieldwork. It is true that she left us but she did leave behind her tremendous body of work, which will stay with us forever and guide us through our darkest hours.
Mojaffor Hossain is a young short story writer, essayist and literary critic.