A review of Syed Manzoorul Islam’s ‘Absurd Night’
Syed Manzoorul Islam’s novel Absurd Night is a unique work of fiction, masterfully narrated in a magic realist narrative. Bangladeshi culture is rich with myths, legends, fables, parables and folktales—elements that can inspire and enrich magic realist literature. Our political reality also calls for an alternative way of expression in our literature. Syed Manzoorul Islam is one of those few writers who have realised the huge potential of a home-grown magic realism.
Absurd Night is an English translation of Ajgubi Raat, the original Bengali novel published in 2010. The novel employs supernatural happenings in real world setting, presents the strange and absurd as normal, integrating them into a fictional world.
This novel tells the story of a severed hand that unsettles and transforms the lives of the characters who come across it. Gradually it unveils the tragic story of its beautiful owner. Two narratives, set in different times, run in parallel, though they converge in the end. One of them is set in the small town of Pathorghata, a coastal upazila of southern Bangladesh, investigates the mystery of a dismembered hand when a strong cyclone is about to hit Pathorghata anytime. A severed hand found floating on the Boleshwar River is taken to the police station. Surprisingly, it does not bloat, or decompose or smell unpleasantly. A motley group of outsiders stuck there due to the impending cyclone find themselves involved with the mystery of the hand. Their disconnection with the rest of the world lets the mystery thicken.
Another narrative is set in Kakchira, a remote village in Pathorghata. This is the story of an exceptionally beautiful woman, Noor Banu, whose captivating beauty turns out to be a curse for her. People desire her. Unable to fulfil their lust, they resort to gossip and taint her character with spurious stories. Then comes the accidental death of her only baby boy, which marks the beginning of her tragic life. The readers see this story mostly through the gaze of a one-eyed boy named Raisu who died long ago when he had fallen from a hog-plum tree. Aged 10 at the time of his death, his understanding of the world is filled with innocence.
In the other narrative, people hold, touch and sniff the severed hand with such normality as if it were a living person’s hand. The OC of Pathorghata Police station casually keeps it in the drawer which is for storing documents and stationeries. These apparently absurd and strange actions are convincingly presented as normal occurrences. Heartthrob film star Lucky Khan, TV journalists Sabrina and Aslam, Secretary of Disaster Management Department Gourango, a watch shop owner Tosharaf Ali, boatman’s son Robiul and the OC of Pathorghata Police station—whoever touches the hand is possessed by it. Nostalgia envelops them. They identify the severed hand with that of their loved ones and the readers get glimpses of their stories of guilt and grief. In the process, they each undergo radical transformations. The severed hand opens their eyes and minds. Love replaces the corruption of hearts. The conformist turns rebellious. The lonely guy finds company while the most sought-after person feels terribly lonely. The heart filled with hatred turns compassionate.
Telling Noor Banu’s story from the viewpoint of a compassionate ghost achieves the unreliability of the narrator, a characteristic of Islam’s fiction. It should be mentioned in this connection that Islam is known in Bangladesh as an acclaimed postmodern fiction writer whose narrators are often unreliable. The innocent views and reflections on the surroundings shared by one-eyed Raisu, the ghost narrator, provide readers with a certain degree of comic relief.
The catastrophic cyclone can also be interpreted as nature’s wrath towards the entire community for the sin of pushing a kind and beautiful woman to death. As if Noor Banu’s pet snakes were bringing justice in the form of a storm: “a gigantic snake that was as high as the sky, whose hood loomed over the station”. When alive, Noor Banu could communicate with two snakes called “Raja-Rani” and always found some supernatural power which punished those who tried to harm her. However, as a person she is not vengeful and the supernatural came to her rescue on its own accord. Even in death her severed hand seems to leave a trace of motherly affection amid extreme weather condition.
As in his other works, Islam’s feminist inclinations are evident in this novel, too. Not only does it show how women are seen as mere objects of desire and how wife-beating is viewed as a valid exercise of a husband’s authority over his wife, but it also depicts how patriarchal ideology has been internalised in women. Apparently Noor Banu is a helpless village woman, but her lack of agency is counterbalanced by her supernatural powers. At one point, she becomes the sole controller of her fate and chooses the mode of her own death herself. Her miraculous power in a magic realist setting stands as a subversive move to assign agency to an uneducated village woman. Portrayal of a strong independent and courageous urban woman Sabrina is another case in point.
At the social level, the novel depicts and subtlety critiques the red tape and corruption ingrained in bureaucracy, the unlawful practices of police and the unethical activities of some journalists.
The English translation aptly captures the spontaneity, sense of play and lyrical tone of the original. It reflects Islam’s signature style and voice. The language in the translation is so fluid that it feels to be originally written in English. Great literary works of Bangla literature cannot reach global readers due to lack of quality translation. This one by Pushpita Alam, which is edited by Arunava Sinha, certainly meets professional standard that warrants its circulation in the literary markets beyond Bangladesh.
The ambiguous ending leaves one pondering over more possibilities than just one. The prose, though apparently lucid, is actually full of clues and metaphors. It’s a must read for anyone interested in contemporary Bangladesh or Bangladeshi literature.
Absurd Night by Syed Manzoorul Islam
Translated by Pushpita Alam
Edited by Arunava Sinha
Published by Bengal Lights Books (Library of Bangladesh Series)
Length: 156 pages
Price: BDT 500
Rifat Anjum Pia is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.