February 2011. I had been working on a cover story for The Daily Star’s weekend magazine. It was about the genocide campaign launched by the Pakistan Occupation army that had started on the night of March 25, 1971. Although the campaign spread over many other areas and parts of Dhaka over the course of the night, and later on, over the whole country, my piece was focused on the brutalities unleashed on the Dhaka University premises, where it all had started. I was browsing through books and periodicals to collect information relevant to the piece. Struggling to keep myself afloat in a barrage of information, I was yet to decide on an angle.
Right then one of my mentors suggested I go through a book edited by Rashid Haider. Entitled 1971: Bhoyaboho Aubhigyata (1971: Dreadful Experiences), the book was published by Sahitya Prakash. I was familiar with Rashid’s writing. I had read his short stories and was quite moved by a few of them. He was also former director general of Bangla Academy and executive director of Nazrul Institute—reasons why his name was familiar to many in the literary arena. The deeper I went into the book, the more my interest grew in the editor. Divided into several sections, all the articles evinced Haider’s editorial acumen; they were accounts of the horrors of the war, of massacres, of sexual violence, of forced conversion—narrated as they were by survivors who had been put through those traumatic times of history.
If I had not read Kaliranjan Sheel’s article, with which the book begins, or the accounts shared by Kanon Sarkar about forced conversion, or say, those by fiction writers Humayun Ahmed and Selina Hossain, I believe my understanding of 1971 would have remained skewed forever.
With such raw and powerful accounts, my cover story did not appear to be difficult anymore. All I needed was a few quotes from family members of martyred DU teachers and officials. When I called Rashid to share my story, the humility with which he spoke and encouraged me constituted a memory that I'd always cherish.
I started collecting more of his books, both fiction and nonfiction. The range of the nonfiction materials he’s left us as a writer and editor are essential readings as much for researchers of our liberation war as for any student or curious reader of history. His magnum opus in editorial capacity is Smrity: 1971 (Memoirs: 1971), published in 13 volumes by Bangla Academy, in which he compiled hundreds of harrowing eye witness accounts of killings carried out by the Pakistan army and their Bangladeshi collaborators, shared by family members or friends of martyrs. The best books about our martyred intellectuals are edited by Rashid as well: Shaheed Buddhijeebee Koshgrontho (Martyred Intellectuals’ Book) and Shaheed Buddhijeebee Smarokgrontho (Book in Memory of Martyred Intellectuals).
While as an editor his nonfiction work was focused mostly on the subject of our liberation war, as a fiction writer he dealt with many themes and issues. I clearly remember having read one of his stories called “Idurer Sathe Sola” (Consulting with a Rat). As it happens with allegorical stories, the allegory is either subtle or conspicuous. The meaning or message Rashid’s allegory divulges at the last para is anything but subtle and you may not agree with it, depending on where you stand vis-à-vis the country’s Constitution, or the different amendments it has gone through over the years. I found the storytelling so masterful and engaging that I finished it in one sitting, and the stance it took on the Constitution instantly struck a chord with my secular leanings. But that’s not why I remember it. I read hundreds of stories that satisfied my ideological leanings but did they all strike me? No, they didn’t. Only the uniquely told ones did. This one is most definitely a uniquely told story.
The story is a conversation between the narrator and a rat who represents its species. The narrator is endowed with the gift of communicating with animals; so his family does not only consist of a spouse and children but also a cat, a dog, spiders, geckos, cockroaches, bedbugs, ants, and even mosquitoes. Of them, rat is the most elusive as it sometimes disappears to wreak havoc in many parts of South Asia with the plague. The rat in his house has a philosophically bent mind as it refers to how some humans realized the importance of rats. It goes on to explain why writers as big as Albert Camus, Gunter Grass, and Somen Chanda would write about them if they were not important. Soon it also explains why it ate up the pages of the oeuvre of Rabindranath Tagore in the narrator’s personal library. It did so because the state could not care less about Tagore and the ideals he upheld. The national anthem is not even sung properly fearing repercussions from religious extremists; it is rather played as an instrumental. Re-reading this story has struck me even more now than before as nothing could be more relevant today, given the rising Islamist extremism preaching militancy. Maybe we all should listen to Rashid’s rat before it is too late.
The stories he wrote about love and other aspects of life are equally charming and all of them have an element of surprise. But the stories he wrote about the theme of the liberation war have left their most indelible marks on me. Either they have an element of surprise or they flow like a river taking you towards a sea that stuns you with its vastness.
Dealing with the subject of liberation war comes with quite a few challenges. Every writer who had lived through the 1970s wrote several stories about the war. Even those who were born after the war are writing about it now. On the one hand, it has been extensively written about and on the other, a large portion of fictional writing about it is sugarcoated with sentimentality. There is writing in which we get a dispassionate depiction of the war, but the biggest portion is steeped in sentimentality. In my view, Rashid chose neither and developed his own storytelling technique in which the boundaries of reality as we know them are never clear. He shrinks them, or broadens them at will. The outcome is always an engagement with the reader that even great writers struggle at times to achieve.
He starts with impeccable literary description, as in “Mortyoloke” (The world of the mortals) and “Janalay” (At the Window); or with an informal conversational style, as in “E Kon Thikana” (What Address is This?); or with the quintessential third person narrator, as in “Uttaradhikar” (Patrimony). When you reach the end of “Mortyoloke” or “Janalay”, you fail to fathom whether the woman who suddenly appears on a launch or who is speaking from inside a room, is real or a figment of the narrator’s imagination. But what you confront in “Mortyoloke” is as shocking as the ending of Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “The Shape of the Sword”. The narrator in the story is surprised to meet an old flame on a launch, whom he last met nearly two decades ago. Her name is Anamika. After they start sharing bits of their lives, the narrator talks about the present while Anamika insists they talk about the past, about their last ride together, which was also on a launch just like this, when the liberation war had started. As their launch cruised through the water, the people on board soon found themselves surrounded by five army gunboats. The boats closed in on them while spraying their launch with bullets. Reacting instinctively to the situation, the narrator dived into the water and swam ashore, leaving Anamika to fend for herself. So what happened afterwards? That’s the question Anamika asks now. That’s why she’s returned after almost two decades. Anamika disappears as suddenly as she appeared while the narrator finds himself surrounded by army gunboats again.
Consider “E Kon Thikana”. Starting with an informal tone, Baset, younger brother of a martyred freedom fighter, invites Nantu, a friend of his brother’s, over to their place for dinner. The whole story is constituted by a conversation during which Baset explains the exact location of their home. Around the middle of the story, Nantu interrupts Baset to press the point that he almost betrayed his own country to save Baset’s brother, still he couldn’t. This statement reveals that Nantu stands on the other end of the political spectrum, with the “razakars” (collaborators), and that one of the parties he’s associated with is part of the ruling coalition in the context of the story. Then Baset resumes his description of an area where every street is paved with the skin and flesh and bones and skulls of martyrs. In an emotionally charged irony, the reader realizes that the narrator actually asks a razakar if he is aware of the magnanimity of sacrifices upon which the foundation of independent Bangladesh is laid.
No matter how Rashid starts his story and how he progresses, whether with surreal character and setting or crude reality or irony or allegory, you always get the shock, the ultimate element of surprise, a numbing sensation that stays with you. That’s the sensation you get after you finish Hasan Azizul Haq’s “Atmoja O Ekti Korobi Gachh” (Daughter and an Oleander Tree) or “Naamheen Gotroheen” (Nameless Tribeless), though Rashid’s techniques are entirely different than Hasan’s.
Rashid wrote novels, plays, essays, and memoirs; he translated plays, too. After exploring his work through the years, I am indeed surprised to discover that he was a brilliant storyteller who dedicated his life not to fiction writing but to editing and compiling memoirs of 1971 written by others. Perhaps he had realized early in his life that in a society turning ever increasingly towards narcissism and selfishness, no one would bother about preserving the sacrifices and memories of 1971. Perhaps that’s why in a glowing tribute published in the Prothom Alo, young writer Pias Majid aptly called him the writer who spent his life digging through his own and others’ memories.
(Rashid Haider died on October 13).
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.