Writing has been a fabulous journey for me against all odds. I wrote my first story in late 2000. I had not received any institutional training on literature in general, and fiction writing in particular. Around that time, I would often suffer from bouts of acute depression. I wrote my first story in a somber evening to deal with depression. This was when I got posted in Gazipur. I did not know the merit of what I’d written. Interestingly, the story did act like an anti-depressant. After I’d revised it for a few days, it got published in the literature page of the daily Prothom Alo. I heard wonderful remarks about the story from many writers and circles that included the literary editor of Prothom Alo, some of my favorite poets and writers, and readers in general. After the story was published, I became friends with writers, poets, filmmakers over time and almost all of them inspired me to write more. The success of the story gave me a whole lot of confidence and I continued writing. Only three or four of my stories were published in the literature page of Prothom Alo from 2000 to 2005. As this paper was a leading Bangla daily in Bangladesh, I was able to reach my readers quickly. I started receiving encouraging remarks and applause from writers, intellectuals and the general readership. Before long, this made me give writing a serious thought. Back then I was a full-time mother as well as a full-time civil servant. I was, nevertheless, unable to pass a day without thinking of some character, plot, or the artistry involved in storytelling.
It seems quite amusing now that in my early life I’d never dreamed of becoming a writer, even though I was an avid reader of novels. In my childhood there was no internet, nor so many TV channels. We only had the government-owned Bangladesh Television (BTV), and that too would be closely (and often ruthlessly) censored by Mother in regard to what I could watch and for how long. Back in those days, in most families, adolescent girls were not allowed to play outside the home. Living with novels and short stories, therefore, became my sole preoccupation. I would keep novels, stories, Sheba Prokashoni's world classics in translation hidden inside my academic books and finish them on the trot. Ergo, my academic results were pretty ordinary. It now appears that in those days I lived two parallel lives. The pains and joys of the characters in fiction became mine own. Even after finishing a novel I would live with its characters, pronounce their dialogues and entertain the storyline in my head for days. Today, in hindsight, it seems that was a good beginning for a would-be writer.
As I’ve already said, primarily it was the appreciation I had received from readers was what had kept me going. However, I must add that my greatest inspiration has always come from poets, writers, intellectuals, artists and filmmakers of my time (most of whom had become my favorites even before I started scribbling myself). It is impossible to name them all but I’d nonetheless mention a few. They included Bratya Raisu, Shahidul Zahir, Salimullah Khan, Anisul Haque, Khademul Islam, Farhad Mazhar, Sajjad Sharif, Syed Mazoorul Islam, Ichok Duende (Shamsul Kabir), Kajal Shahnewaz, Subrata Augustine Gomes, Andalib Rushdie, Moinul Ahsan Saber, Imtiar Shamim, Manosh Choudhury, Sumon Rahman, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, Ebadur Rahman, Nurul Alam Atique, Zafar Ahmed Rashed, Matiar Raphael and Shakhawat Tipu.
It was not until Poralalnil, my third volume of short-stories, was published that I had experienced any male-chauvinistic challenge from Dhaka’s intellectual community. Upon its publication, well-recognized writers such as like Salimullah Khan, Sumon Rahman and Subrata Augustine Gomes wrote about my books, praising my stories. Reacting to such words of accolade, some of my fellow writers and friends started to belittle me. I, however, think that most of this was caused by plain and simple jealousy from a few writers, rather than the patriarchal mindset prevalent in our society, although the tools used were identical with those adopted usually by men. (Let us not forget that not all male chauvinists are necessarily males themselves).
The more appreciation and fame I started getting, the more attacks I was being subjected to. These bullies, luckily, left me even more determined. Now all I need to do to show my contempt for patriarchy is to continue writing, completely ignoring this hooting mob. I have come to realize that many South Asian women have received a somewhat similar (or worse) reception when they spoke critically of patriarchy and the status quo. But can someone be a writer if she doesn’t refuse to be browbeaten into bowing down to the status quo?
When I wrote stories portraying the human faces of killers, drug dealers, prostitutes, the hollowness of conjugality, the love and the affairs of men and women, the extra-judicial killings etc., I was just a young officer. I did so at the peril of being criticized and verbally attacked by my colleagues, relatives and friends. But I did not shy away from the responsibility I felt inside and remained honest and committed to my craft as well as humanity. A writer is like God. S/he creates angels, monsters, gods, rapists, drug dealers, professors and the everyday people with the same amount of sympathy, love and care.
And my efforts have received the greatest rewards from readers through their appreciation and love and sympathy. After writing the story “Bicharkando” (The Trial) on extra-judicial killing, some of my writer friends said, “Rashida, you might get killed for writing this story, you know?” I am lucky that that has not happened yet. So I still seem to have a bit of time to serve my literature and language, and, more importantly, to bring about some lasting changes in the minds of my compatriots so that they can work together to build a progressive, pluralistic and humane society.
I am not a full-time writer (there aren’t many who can survive just by writing in Bangladesh); I work in the United Nations and so I am unable to write at a stretch. Evenings and weekends are the times when I strive to make some literary use of my time. Nonetheless, there would be a novel here or a short story there always in my head, demanding to be born at some point. I would play with them like I would do with my children, even if there is a 10 minutes’ break. I’d make a quick note when at work, if an idea suddenly hit my neurons.
When I write, it is the story that chooses me (rather than the other way around) and keeps me enthralled until it has truly been written down. Of course, I don’t have the complete idea at the outset. It starts with just an outline (not a very clear one at that) and I live with it for days and months. I start jotting down notes and apparently unrelated passages here and there, and gradually the characters, form, structure, images—the whole story unravels itself, bit by bit, and till it so happens, I am constantly under stress. The subject of my stories, by the way, comes from my surroundings. Some events, news, pieces of memories, mine own or my friends’ experiences, and dreams would often spur me into transforming these bits into a story. I enjoy the whole process of fiction writing. At the editing stage, I write and re-write, read and re-read, stare at the characters, look at them from every possible angle—like a narcissist, I remain possessed by its fragrance till it’s finished.
I have tried to learn the craft of writing novels by reading my favorite authors. I have spent long days and nights on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to admire their art of telling stories. I admire Salman Rushdie’s way of unfolding multidimensional stories in a most transparent manner. I love the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Anton Chekhov, Juan Rulfo, Jagadish Gupta and many others. Their successful experimentation in short stories has influenced some of my own experimental pieces, and, interestingly, I have found appreciative readers for those too.
At this stage of my life, writing means the whole world to me. It’s like the air I breathe in and out, my existence. Writing influences the most important decisions in my life. The interaction with my colleagues and friends, the relationship with my loved ones (as well as my enemies), the childhood train journeys with my parents and siblings from Dhaka to Chittagong or from Dhaka to Brahmanbaria, or the lonely train rides from Niigata to Kyoto or from Athens to Thessaloniki, my memories, love, friendships, betrayals, my alienation—all of them lead me to write a novel or a story. The only mortal pain I feel is that I don’t have enough time to write as much as I would like to.
Rashida Sultana is a poet and fiction writer. She is the author of four short story collections, one novella and one poetry collection.